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Background Image The Warren Hotel Liberal

Downtown - Everything's Waiting for You

The excitement was electric in downtown Liberal, Kansas, on April 4, 1930, when an estimated 6,000 people gathered to attend the opening of the Warren Hotel. The grand Art Deco-style hotel on Kansas Avenue was built for $250,000 and featured 81 rooms, a coffee shop, a drug store, and offices. Fast forward ninety years and Liberal is looking to recapture the 1930s enthusiasm for the downtown business district with a boost from an HK Humanities for All grant

Like many small towns in rural Kansas, Liberal has seen its downtown shops dwindle or be boarded up — pushed out by big box stores along highways. Liberal’s community leaders want to bring back the foot traffic and business activity of decades past and immerse the community with a greater sense of place. The Seward County Historical Society and the Seward County Development Corporation are joining forces to aid residents and visitors in reimagining downtown’s vibrant past and enhance its present-day vitality.

The plan centers on sharing the histories of the buildings, former stores, and shopkeepers in a five-block area with the historic Landmark Center – formerly the Warren Hotel – serving as the centerpiece. Local historians are scouring the community for images and researching building histories and early shopkeepers in Liberal. Large-print historic images will overtake the empty storefrontwindows and accompanying QR codes will provide the backstory of each building and its former uses. One building the community will learn more about is the J.E. George building located at 204 N. Kansas Avenue. John E. George arrived in Liberal with his family in 1899, but not before a colorful life as a Texas teen running cattle to Dodge City and owner of a ranch in Beaver Creek, Oklahoma. His Dry-goods and Gents Furnishing store was completed in 1907 at a cost of $40,000 and was the go-to place for surrounding homesteaders and ranchers to purchase supplies. Later, a small hotel operated out of the building. 

JE George Store Liberal Kansas

J.E. George, Liberal. Courtesy Seward County Economic Corporation.

Eli Svaty, president of the Development Corporation, explained, “For too long, rural communities have ignored vacant buildings or resigned them to dreams. This project won't fill those buildings with new businesses (immediately), but it will change the conversations the community is having about them. No longer would they simply be old buildings with empty storefronts.” Svaty also hopes Liberal’s next generation will experience their town in a new way and develop deeper connections with downtown and its people.

Organizers hope the local history project will serve as a model for other rural towns working to create a stronger sense of place and sparking new economic opportunities in downtown corridors. The project is slated for a May 2022 completion, so mark your calendars for a summer walk down memory lane. 

people in front of a building

Eli Svaty, Todd Stanton, and Lidia Gray are working to research downtown Liberal's history.

Humanities for All grants support projects that draw on history, literature, and culture to engage the public with stories that spark conversations. For more information, contact Leslie VonHolten, HK Director of Grants and Outreach.

 

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