Problem: How to find a new home for a county museum, and expand county parks and recreation activities?
Solution: Purchase and renovate a dormant, historic building for multiple community uses.
A former bowling alley and ice rink that had seen better days sat dormant for years in Johnson County, Kan. The spot had previously served as the hub of a once-vibrant neighborhood. At the same time, the county was looking for a new home for the county museum that had outgrown its space and was hoping to also expand arts and recreational activities for county residents.
It took a few years, and now this spring, Johnson County will celebrate the opening of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in the iconic 1960s-era bowling alley that the county purchased in 2011 and renovated. A grand opening is slated for June 10, with tours of the building, free admission to the museum, a chance to sample dance and art classes and more.
The new center will bring a new life to the former King Louie West Lanes and Ice Chateau ice skating rink, that was popular in the ’60s but closed in 2009.
“Johnson County has never had a facility like Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center,” said Jill Geller, executive director of Johnson County Park and Recreation District, which will provide all the programming in the new center. Previously, arts programs were conducted at facilities throughout the county including community centers, churches and park buildings and “wherever we could find space,” Geller noted.
The 79,300 square-foot renovated building, funded by a $20.7 million bond issue, will feature a 12,500 square-foot exhibition space for the Johnson County Museum. The county’s Triple-A credit rating helped achieve a better-than-market interest rate on the bonds issued to fund the new center. The Public Building Commission issued a series of lease purchase revenue bonds.
It didn’t hurt that the building would be used for not only a museum, but also for arts and recreational classes, a theater and even election training. “It’s important to give a lot of thought to the intended use of the building,” said Ed Eilert, Johnson County board chair, when asked what advice he would give other county officials contemplating a similar challenge.
Ongoing programs at the center will be paid for with fees and space rental as well as fundraisers for the museum. Other funding came (and will continue to come) from donations, in-kind service donations, the sale of the former museum and the county general fund.
The idea for the new center started when the original museum outgrew its space in a former 1927 schoolhouse in nearby Shawnee. “Some additions had been made through the years, but the basement was flooding,” said Eilert.
The first museum exhibition slated to make its debut in June at the new center is called “Becoming Johnson County.” Inside the museum, you’ll find the 1950s All-Electric House, built by the local power company in 1953, that was moved nine miles from Shawnee to the new center.
The new center will also feature offices for the County Parks and Recreation District, a 3,500 square-foot space for a children’s “history experience,” a 350-seat black box theater, space for art classes for children and adults and a program for emerging artists. The county’s Theater in the Park program, in existence since 1970, is now able to hold year-round productions in the theater and will kick off with a production of Grease on June 9.
The interesting architectural style of the building was preserved in the reimagined space. Dubbed “Googie,” the architectural design was made popular mainly from the 1940s to 1960s, especially in California, and was often used in the design of diners and coffee shops. It got its name from a coffee shop in West Hollywood called Googies, designed by architect John Lautner.
The former bowling alley, King Louie West Lanes, opened with much fanfare on Feb. 28, 1959. The Johnson County Herald called it “one of the largest and most elaborate in the Greater Kansas City area.” The King Louise Show TV program aired live from the bowling alley every Saturday night. The Ice Chateau ice rink opened as an addition to the bowling alley in 1966.
Eilert, a former mayor of Overland Park, said he and a fellow mayor used to roll the first ball at pro tournaments at the bowling alley before it closed its doors. The county purchased it in 2011 and is now preparing for the grand opening.
“We had some criticism, but I would say with everything we went through, it’s been worth it, and we were able to save some interesting architecture,” said Eilert, referring to some critics who said the county spent too much money on the project.
The repurposed historic building will once again become a gathering place for Overland Park when it opens this spring. County leaders also hope it will serve as a catalyst to revitalize the surrounding community.
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