King Louie is dead, long live the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center

Catherine Kirkland felt elated Saturday to walk into the lobby of the new Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center.

“I bowled, I played pool, I skated here,” said the Lenexa artist whose work was also being displayed. “My son bowled here. Now he’s 41.”

Some six years after what was long known as the King Louie building shut the doors that thousands upon thousands of patrons once poured through to bowl and ice skate, the beleaguered space-age 1960s structure on Metcalf Avenue officially reopened Saturday as the long-awaited art center.

The grand opening ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with free tours and entertainment. U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder and the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners cut the ribbon.

For many, the last time they stepped beneath the building’s distinctive accordion roof at 8788 Metcalf, they were met with the sound of clashing bowling pins and electronic video games. The scent of alley wax mixed with that of ice from the rink at King Louie’s northern end. The King Louie’s lanes and ice rink served as a hotspot for suburbanites for decades.

Now, inside the 76,000-square-foot building:

▪ New home for a newly realized Johnson County Museum, telling the story of Johnson County as representative of the expansion of suburbia.

▪ The All-Electric House, picked up from the museum’s former location in Shawnee, has been replanted inside the new arts center.

▪ The White Haven Motor Lodge sign that lit up Metcalf Avenue for years is there, as is a replica of the Sunflower Ammunition Plant’s white towers.

▪ Theatre in the Park, which only used to offer, as its name says, theater in the park, gets a new indoor space for theater, music and dance that will allow performances throughout the year rather than just in the summer. The Johnson County Parks & Recreation District will use the space to expand programs for art and other classes. A performance of the musical “Grease” opened in the center’s black box theatre Friday.

▪ A community gathering space available for rental and also for the Johnson County Election Office to conduct election worker training and advance voting.

Johnson County purchased the King Louie building for $2 million in 2011. It’s renovation over many years is estimated to cost more than $22 million.

On Saturday, an orchestra played in a large white, multi-use room with windows overlooking a new garden. Dozens of children played inside a Kidscape area created to look like a small town, with playland hospital, bank, market, school, theater, barn and post office.

“When I was a teenager, I mainly came here to play pool,” said Lisa Elsas, 38, who brought her daughter, Gwen, age 6, and for whom the building will have an entirely different meaning.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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