Inside JCPRD: Long Live King Louie West

The Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center as it appears today (Photo courtesy of SFS).

By the Johnson County Museum

In the five years since the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center opened its doors on June 8, 2017, the building has been filled with theater productions, museum exhibitions, countless classes and camps, and community events. But the building had another life before becoming the cultural hub for Johnson County. As we prepare to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, we wanted to take time to look back on the history of the iconic building that stands at 8788 Metcalf Avenue in its former life: the history of King Louie West.

King Louie West was a cultural hub in its own right. The original building included 32 wooden lanes lacquered and ready for the public to enjoy. The Johnson County Herald called the bowling alley “one of the largest and most elaborate in the Greater Kansas City area.” Home to a bowling alley, billiards hall, and – eventually – an ice-skating rink, King Louie West was the site of many treasured memories for thousands of people from Johnson County and the surrounding areas.

Conceptual drawings for the King Louie bowling alley (1959). The King Louie West operated for nearly 50 years, closing in 2009 as AMF Bowling.

Vic and Morris Lerner are responsible for opening King Louie West Lanes bowling alley in February 1959. The Polish immigrant brothers’ development was closely connected to the American Dream. The Lerners wagered suburban families would see bowling as fun for the whole family. Their bet paid off. King Louie West quickly became a regional draw, enticing thousands of families moving to the rapidly growing suburban areas of Johnson County and neighboring areas to its modern building.

Wooden glulam beams soaring over the 1954 All-Electric House in the Johnson County Museum. (Photo courtesy of Bob Greenspan Photography).

In 1964, the Lerners opened a major addition to the building: the Ice Chateau. Architect Manual Morris drew inspiration from the Googie form of modern architecture that was characterized by Space Age designs such as dramatic curves, geometric shapes, and angles. The addition made the King Louie West building an architectural icon. The undulating roofline line facing Metcalf, the angular stone façade, and the gigantic wooden glulam beams inside (supporting a massive building with no interior support columns) demonstrated the influence of modern architecture on King Louie West. Perhaps nothing better represents the Space Age designs than the stone and metal spire that pierced the sky near the building’s main entrance. The Lerners chose the Googie Style because it was eye catching, modern, and downright cool.

For 50 years, this building was a special place for coworkers, social organizations, leagues and teams, groups of friends, and families to celebrate, mark milestones, and have fun. As Johnson County continued to expand to the south and west, business at King Louie West (which was by then owned by AMF) began to decline. In 2009, King Louie West closed its doors, but not for good.

In 2011, the Johnson County Commission purchased the King Louie West building with the vision of creating a county heritage center. The Johnson County Museum, which needed a larger and safer building to store and share the history of the county, would help anchor the building. Renovations began in 2015. With so much community history reverberating throughout the building, the project team took great pains to ensure that the unique modern architectural features of King Louie West remained.

Conceptual drawings for design themes for the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center by SFS.

Today, visitors can see subtle but clever nods to the building’s history. Design themes for various sections of the building pay homage to their original use. Because The Black Box Theatre and the event rental spaces occupy the old bowling alley, for example, their theme is taken from the lines and triangles on a bowling lane. The motif for the museum, which sits on the floor of the old ice rink, has white slashes on a gray background, imitating the marks of skates on ice. The fine art and dance classrooms today are marked with graphics that reflect the rooms’ original use: billiards and game rooms. Even the color choices in the building are inspired by color palettes used in modern design.

Like the design, the use of the building mimics the original intent Vic and Morris Lerner had for the building they opened 63 years ago. Like King Louie West, the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center is a place for Johnson Countians of all ages to experience joy and make memories. Gone are the bowling alley, billiards tables, and the ice rink, yes; but here instead is a county museum, community theater, event spaces, and arts and cultural classrooms for young and old. Today, the iconic King Louie West remains one of the most defining structures in Johnson County, both for the architecture and for the incredible experiences offered inside of it.

King Louie is also the name of a new temporary exhibit exploring the history of the building currently housing the museum and the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center. The exhibit features images of the building in use, as well as graphic representations of advertisements. Both this exhibit and another which gives a behind-the-scenes look at how and why the museum collects open on June 11. These two exhibits are located in JCAHC’s Creative Commons area, which is free to enter and open during the center’s regular hours.