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King Louie hands over the reins: Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center to open

Tour the cultural heart of Johnson County at the new Arts & Heritage Center

Take a tour of the new Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, which is located in the former the King Louie building. For years, a bowling alley and ice skating rink, it has been transformed into a museum, live performance theater, dance studio
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Take a tour of the new Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, which is located in the former the King Louie building. For years, a bowling alley and ice skating rink, it has been transformed into a museum, live performance theater, dance studio

The dark days are over for the once noble King Louie building. For about six years, the iconic structure — once a suburban hotspot — sat vacant, its bowling lanes silent, its iconic accordion roof leaking.

That all changes June 10, when the former ice rink and bowling alley opens its doors to visitors for the first time since 2009. The lanes and rink will be gone. In their place: a big open lobby area with furniture that recalls the building’s 1960 heyday, a state-of-the-art space for local theater and dance performances, and a redesigned museum telling the story of Johnson County from its earliest days.

The grand opening of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 10, with a free day of tours and entertainment. A Theatre in the Park performance will start before that, with the musical “Grease” opening June 9 in the center’s Black Box Theatre.

The museum and theater are the two biggest permanent presences at the center, but there are others. The Overland Park Historical Society will have a space, and the Emerging Artist program of Johnson County Developmental Supports has already moved in. Advance voting will be located there, and the space will be available for rent to other community groups for meetings and events.

It’s clear that the users are excited about the new space. Cary Odell, coordinator of the Emerging Artist program, has already experienced the bigger and better-equipped space after working in developmental support at the Mark D. Elmore Center in Lenexa.

“I worked out there for 16 years and when I was leaving, I was crying,” she said. “Once I got out to the new space, I never shed another tear.”

It’s been a long journey for the county and people interested in preserving the building at 8788 Metcalf Ave., which was considered a prime local example of the space-age Googie architecture.

The rehabilitation of the King Louie owes much to the failing health of the Johnson County Museum building in Shawnee. In 2009, the future of both buildings looked grim. That was the year the Johnson County Commission decided to start looking for a new home for the museum.

The museum building had recently flooded, and water damage was a continuing problem. But even without the water, the museum’s space was problematic. The original building at 6305 Lackman Road was the former Greenwood School, built in 1927 and added onto several times. Those additions resulted in less-than-optimal exhibit space that was a warren of hallways. Parking also was inadequate.

Meanwhile, the bowling alley was dealing with problems of its own. Opened at the height of post-war suburban expansion in 1959, business had fallen off as competition arose from other modern lanes. The owners closed the ice rink in 2007 and shuttered the entire building in 2009.

By 2011, the $2 million asking price for the 76,000-square-foot building seemed like a deal. The county commission decided to buy it, with plans for an ambitious National Museum of Suburbia to go inside.

That plan quickly drew critics who questioned the idea of a large expenditure on a museum while the Great Recession was causing so many other budget problems. The plan was controversial enough that the commission finally backed away. The county still owned the building, though, and had to sink $1.6 million into it to stabilize it from further deterioration.

And there things stayed for quite a while.

In 2013, a different plan to put the museum plus some county offices and advance voting at the King Louie failed to get enough votes to approve its bond sale.

Meanwhile, mold problems at the existing museum had grown worse. Mold was discovered between some of the walls, spurring mold abatement work and air quality monitoring because of the potential health hazard. And museum officials were having no luck finding land to expand their parking and space in Shawnee.

Things started to come unstuck about a year later, when the county park district and museum officials came up with yet another plan. This time, the emphasis was on the arts and community participation, with an eye toward rentable space. The museum would become part of the park district, which would manage the new center.

Revenue for its operation would come through rental of the rooms. The expanded museum would be able to justify charging an admission fee. The project would cost $22.2 million and the Shawnee museum building would be sold.

Museum director Mindi Love said as the museum celebrates its 50th birthday, she is glad to finally be able to move into a better space.

“It took a lot of commitment from the county commission, with recognition that the facility we moved from didn’t serve the mission well,” she said.

“I knew it would happen,” she said of the move. “I don’t know that I always thought it would happen in this location. I’m very pleased that it has.”

Looking back on the National Museum of Suburbia plan, she said, “I think it’s a valid idea, and someone will do it somewhere else.”

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert took a fair amount of heat for his part in the King Louie purchase. But then, people also questioned the purchase of land for the Overland Park Arboretum when he was mayor of that city, he said. “That was somewhat controversial but has turned out to be an outstanding community asset,” he said.

The Arts and Heritage Center will turn out to be an asset as well, he said. “I think the end result and benefit to the community was worth some of the process we had to go through it.”

Private donations for the museum have also become a focal point. Because of the short time between approval of the King Louie rehab and its opening, museum fundraisers were scrambling to raise enough money to have the new exhibit ready.

The new space is expected to make fundraising easier, and so far, it has borne fruit. In May, the museum announced a $250,000 pledge from Mainstreet Credit Union going to the children’s portion of the museum. So far, museum fundraisers have secured 95 percent of their $1.8 million goal.

The first thing visitors will see when they enter on opening weekend is the large, open lobby dubbed the “cultural commons.” It’s an area for people waiting to see a show or just hanging out between rehearsals, classes or meetings.

The commons area is filled with furniture reminiscent of the 1960s.

“It’s one of the things they did really well,” Love said of SFS Architecture, adding that the company met the program needs, but also paid homage to the architecture of the early ’60s.

The lobby also has one unique reminder of the building’s former life. A long table still carries the markings of the bowling lane from which it was fashioned. The lane wasn’t from the King Louie, though. Love said those lanes were long gone by the time the rehabilitation started.

From there, visitors can split off to take in the center’s other offerings. Here are some highlights:  

The museum

The All-Electric House got most of the attention during construction, with its slow move down city streets and its enclosure inside the center. Its roofline beckons visitors as they come down the stairs to enter the museum space.

But it is not the first thing that catches the eye. Nor is its friend, the White Haven Motor Lodge sign that lit up Metcalf Avenue for many years. Nor is the replica of one of the white towers of the Sunflower Ammunition Plant.

No, the thing that immediately jumps into view is a huge mural at the bottom of the stairs — “American Progress,” painted by John Gast and blown up in reproduction to take up a wall panel. The painting, done in 1872, features a huge angelic-looking woman floating above settlers as they head westward. It was meant to portray Manifest Destiny, the notion that settlers were destined to spread to the Pacific.

The mural is meant to be the “aha moment” of the Becoming Johnson County exhibit, which will tell the story of how the land has been used over time, Love said. The story takes visitors through the Civil War, the post-World War II population boom, urban renewal, school integration battles and then provides a place for people to express themselves about the future.

The All-Electric House is also getting an upgrade of sorts. In its old location, the museum left the house exactly as it looked when it was a model home toured by potential buyers, agog at the many time-saving gadgets.

But in the new space, the house will get an imaginary family. The den of the model home is converted to a second bedroom, and flotsam of everyday life from the time will be in view.

“I like to say we’re giving its soul back,” Love said.

The location inside the center will allow visitors to interact with the house differently, she said. In Shawnee, the house sat on the museum grounds but was only available to view through a guided tour with an admission price. Now the home can be walked through and is included in the museum admission.

Kidscape also will see major changes. That part of the museum has always been popular with families because it’s a hands-on area where kids can play at various jobs.

That aspect doesn’t change with the new museum. But the space is more open and vibrant, and there are more and different things to do. One station, for instance, will feature a jail with a hole in the wall for kids to escape from. A soft play area for younger kids also has been added.

The new center gives the museum a better way to organize its space because of the building’s openness and high ceilings, Love said.

Display space will increase from 4,050 square feet at the old site to 10,452 at the center, and Kidscape space will go from 1,406 square feet to 3,107. As a result, the museum can exhibit 500 to 600 objects, instead of the roughly 250 objects that were on view in the old building, Love said.

Theatre in the Park

Some of the changes theater artistic director Tim Bair is most excited about won’t be visible to the audience, but they will have a huge impact on how the shows are done.

Theatre in the Park has always been just that — in the park. Shawnee Mission Park, to be specific. So the biggest change the Arts & Heritage Center offers the theater is also the most obvious. Plays can be staged year round and not just in the park.

But the state-of-the-art performance space means much more than that for the people putting on the shows. Two rehearsal studios, for instance, will allow space for all the shows on a rotating schedule, Bair said. The previous arrangement was to rent a variety of spaces for rehearsal and show auditions, with the theater spending about $10,000 each season for rental. Bair calls the center “great for us, actually, and we’re saving money.”

The theater itself is small, seating around 300 people. But it’s also flexible, with a stage and chairs that can be customized for every show. Even the need for a pit orchestra will not reduce the audience capacity, Bair said, because the audio system in the rehearsal studios allows orchestra members to play off site, with music piped in to the theater.

The theater also will have two dressing rooms that can accommodate 10 people apiece, with video monitors so the actors can keep track of what’s happening onstage. A washer and dryer are available for costumes — an additional boon to the museum, whose staff members had been taking the Kidscape costumes home to wash.

Audience members are unlikely to see another innovation above them in the theater’s ceiling. A wire grid, rather than a catwalk system, allows lighting techs to walk anywhere to tend the lights. It’s safer than catwalks and won’t show up on the floor because of the diffusion of the light, Bair said.

“It’s astoundingly safe,” he said. So safe, in fact, that the county Developmental Supports department has expressed interest in participating in some of the technical work.

The whole system “makes technical theater a lot easier,” Bair said. “It looks really, really complicated, but from a user standpoint, these are really great for us.”

The theater and rehearsal studios will be available for other community groups, as will the dance studio, which was converted from the King Louie billiards room, where large windows look out onto Metcalf Avenue.  

Emerging Artist program

Clients of Johnson County Developmental Supports, which provides services to the developmentally disabled, get a couple hundred more square feet of space, storage and more equipment at the center. But for the 10 or so core artists trying to sell their work, the exposure at the new center will be priceless, said coordinator Odell.

The program had been at the Mark D. Elmore Center in Lenexa in space that was a tight fit for the artists, she said.

“I didn’t really realize how short we were on space until George (one of the clients) said, ‘I can move!’ ” she said.

The visitor traffic will not only get exposure for the art but will also allow people to meet and interact with the artists, Odell said, giving clients more opportunities to practice communication skills.

The space also has the advantage of better equipment. An adaptable potter’s wheel, for instance, can be raised or lowered and operated with the hands or feet for someone with a physical disability. The center will also have a kiln for firing pottery.

The extra space may also allow the Emerging Artist program to reach more people, she said.

In a way, the King Louie will be the embodiment of suburban “meta” — an homage to the suburbs inside a building whose space-age architecture illustrated the mindset. For example, Eilert said he’s already been queried by someone interested in having a 50th high school reunion inside the building that was once so popular with teenagers.

As the building enters its second life, Eilert said, “There are opportunities for some great memories to be relived in the facility, including the museum, as well as opportunities for a new generation to build memories.

“It is an amazing space.”

If you go

Center hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

Museum hours: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Museum admission: Adults $5; seniors $4; children $3. Museum memberships provide free general admission for the year and are available online or at the center.

Room rental rates: Range from $75 to $225 per hour, depending on the space and not including ancillary costs. More information on rental can be found at www.jocoahc.com/facility-and-rentals.

Theater tickets vary with the performance. For more information, go to www.theatreinthepark.org/ticket-options.

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