Inside the empty edifice at 8788 Metcalf Ave., everything is as gray as the iconic building’s future.
A concrete floor is striped with ruts a foot deep. They once carried bowling balls returning from the pins to patrons of the King Louie West family fun center.
Down a broad and colorless ramp, an oval expanse of dirt marks the site where ice-skaters once twirled.
The place closed five years ago. Johnson County taxpayers now own it.
Some are fuming about that, noting that the $3.6 million the county spent to purchase and stabilize the facility over the last 30 months could have been used to address other public needs.
The sprawling structure faces a fate uncertain though arguably suitable for the old King Louie, where bowling and billiards shared space with figure skating and hockey: The county’s plans are on ice.
“People are saying, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t have a compelling reason to be owning this,’
” said county Commissioner Steve Klika.
In November, Klika joined a 4-3 majority of commissioners in voting against the issuance of $10.3 million in bonds to remodel the building so it could house the Johnson County Museum and other county projects.
County officials — still voicing support for relocating the museum but split over how to pay for it — now preside over highly visible property that could stand idle for many more months.
Motorists on busy Metcalf can’t miss it. Blending 1960s-era flair with the rugged sweep of a Colorado ski lodge, the former King Louie West is considered by many a shrine to the halcyon days of suburban expansion.
County officials hurried to acquire the building in late 2011 when owner Western Development Co. dropped its asking price by almost half, to just under $2 million. The county commission at that time approved the purchase by a 6-1 vote.
And with the local history museum in Shawnee desperately needing new space, exultations of “win-win” flew about.
But commission members who were later elected, including Klika, say they heard a different sentiment from constituents angered by the county’s rush to buy the 74,000-square-foot building when budgets for libraries and road improvements were being cut.
“One of the options we need to explore,” said Klika, “is what we can do to put it up for sale and get back as much investment as we can get.”
Officials recently let The Kansas City Star tour the vacated site, swept clean of debris, stripped of its bowling lanes and concessions, removed of its accordion-style ceiling and awaiting a decision on further funding.
Joe Waters, director of county facilities, stood on a concrete landing overlooking the former ice rink. He said an appraisal was underway. But thinking that a buyer might raze it, he winced at the idea of selling the place.
“We do consider this building to be an icon,” he said. “We’ve done everything we can to maintain its historic character.
“Structurally, it’s quite sound … And with column-free spaces and high bays, it’s perfectly suited” for the county’s history museum, Waters said.
Despite the commission’s narrow refusal to issue bonds, supporters of the King Louie purchase still express hope for someday using it.
That dirt floor once covered by ice and refrigerated piping, Waters said, could be the ideal canvas for relocating the 1950s-style All-Electric House, which stands adjacent to the cramped and low-visibility museum on Lackman Road.
The county planned to fill other space — and there’s plenty of it — with a site for early voting and by relocating the subsidized Enterprise Center, a business incubator now renting commercial space at a cost to taxpayers of a quarter-million dollars annually.
No longer part of the county’s vision: A “National Museum of Suburbia,” an ill-fated concept rolled out by the museum’s foundation board that would have required heavy private funding.
“Everybody scratched their heads to that,” said commission Chairman Ed Eilert, who championed the purchase of the King Louie building and continues to support renovating it for county use. Providing space for a national museum and suburban policy think tank, however, “is completely off the table,” he said.
“Our original quest was to find a new location for the Johnson County Museum,” Eilert said. “The commission has never lost focus of that need.”
Still, the verdict remains split on whether or not the county needs an abandoned bowling alley and ice chalet.Family fun
King Louie West’s opening in the late 1950s made a bold architectural and social statement.
Bowling alleys before World War II were squeezed into dives that appealed only to men who liked to drink and gamble. Rough-hewn “pin boys” performed the work that soon would be done by mechanized pin-setters and ball returns.
By erecting modern bowling centers around the metro area, King Louie International joined a nationwide movement to make strikes and spares a family affair.
The company’s core business was clothing, mostly uniforms and shirts. Its leap into bowling helped King Louie sell bowling shirts.
The Metcalf Avenue facility cost $900,000 to build. Designed by architect Manuel Morris, it included meeting rooms, a pro shop, a snack bar, a lounge and a supervised children’s area. An expansion in the mid-1960s brought the ice rink.
Overland Park was booming.
In the Nall Hills neighborhood, “we had a barbed wire fence in our back yard with cows on the other side,” recalled Scott Lane, a real estate broker and advocate of suburban preservation. He said King Louie West and a subsequent development, the Glenwood Theatre, brought a luster to Metcalf that has since faded.
Today, he said, “I drive down Metcalf and just get depressed.”
A peek inside the old King Louie wouldn’t lift many spirits.
Near a cold fireplace, a painted mural of skaters on a pond is sullied by graffiti. At least the entryways have been fortified with new doors to keep intruders out, part of the county’s effort to prevent further deterioration.
All bowling equipment had been ripped out by the previous tenant, AMF Bowling Worldwide Inc.
The county tore down the scoreboards and bleachers near the ice rink, replaced outdated wiring, installed a temporary heating system and made structural and roof repairs.
But a lot more needs to be done to prepare the place for occupancy, said facilities director Waters. It lacks an elevator and a stairwell; the only access to the sublevel, where patrons skated, is by way of the ramp.
Commissioner Ed Peterson, who favored issuing the bonds, said a $15 million infusion was estimated for relocating the museum. And even if the county were to sell the Metcalf site, the museum’s space issues would need to be addressed.
The cost of building anew, he said, could be double that of moving the museum into a renovated King Louie.
“This is history that we need to preserve,” Peterson said. “But a lot of people just want basic services.”
The building’s fate might be settled after the next commission elections in November, some officials said.Tight labyrinth
Starting in the confines of a 1927 schoolhouse, the 19,000 square-foot Johnson County Museum has gone through eight expansions since opening in 1967.
Visitors wind through a labyrinth of corridors too tight for large-group tours. The basement flooded in 2009, sending the staff into quickly erected offices in all corners of the building. Mold problems arose.
There are no overhead doors for hauling in large items. A vintage BelAir on display is trapped by walls erected in one of the expansions. “We built around it,” said museum director Mindi Love. Much of the county’s collection is hidden in storage miles away.
Like many museum supporters, Love’s enthusiasm for the cavernous environs of the old ice rink is buoyed by childhood memories of “playing itsy-bitsy spider” in the King Louie nursery while her mother bowled in a league.
Fond memories, however, have no place in governance, said Darrel Dougan, a critic of county politics who owns an insurance company in the Stilwell area.
“Sure, I liked going up there for dances when I was at Stilwell High School” in the 1960s, Dougan said. “But I was a kid. Now I’m an adult paying taxes.”
Even Mike Lerner, whose family managed King Louie until selling the business in 1982, is puzzled by the county’s investment.
After AMF moved into the facility, “they pretty much trashed it,” said Lerner, a managing member of King Louie’s clothing plant in Baxter Springs, Kan.
“I can’t begin to fathom what political entities do,” he added. “You’ve got to move on. You can’t be nostalgic about that.”