During the tumultuous late 1960s and early '70s in Lawrence, the old Gaslight Tavern had a well-earned reputation both as a place where diversity was the norm and as an extreme hotbed of political activity.
For the newer Gaslight Tavern and Coffeehouse, sharing one of those two traits with its namesake isn't bad.
"I think part of what it was trying to be was a place for 'the other side' to hang out," says Doozie Midyett, KU student and co-owner. "When we were trying to come up with a name, someone suggested the Gaslight, and we were like, 'Yeah, that's what we're trying to do.'"
The new building oozes the distinctive and eclectic spirit that the original Gaslight was known for during its brief stay on Mount Oread. Its size, accommodating about 40 people comfortably, sets it apart from larger establishments in town, and the decor ranges from Far-Eastern statuettes to collected pictures of the previous bar's past glory.
"We're trying to incorporate some of that old spirit with something new," she adds. "We want people to realize that Lawrence has a backbone and has a lot of history with it."
The history of the Gaslight, originally located where the parking garage next to the Kansas Union now sits, is rooted in political turmoil and upheaval.
"I believe it opened around 1968 and was open for about five years," Midyett says. "It started out as a place where a lot of the students were meeting to gather for some of the protests."
A cornerstone for both civil rights and Vietnam protesters, the bar existed during a span filled with violence and unrest.
Segregation was rampant in Lawrence during the era, emphasizes Jeff Fortier, the other half of the Gaslight's ownership duo.
"People were pissed," he says.
Civil rights demonstrations were common in Lawrence at the time, especially during the summer of 1970. From July 16 to July 23, confrontations between protesters and Lawrence police officers took place, resulting in the injury of several policemen and the fatal shootings of two KU students, Rick Dowdell and Nick Rice.
- Friday, July 16, 2004, 7 p.m.
- Gaslight Gardens, 317 N. Second, Lawrence
Rice's death occurred practically on the Gaslight's doorstep -- mortally wounded, he was carried inside the venue until an ambulance could arrive -- and the bar became a meeting place for students to gather and voice their concerns about the shootings.
"After that, things started to go downhill for the place real quickly," Midyett says. "The protesting died out, and it sort of became known as somewhere to get drugs."
The university finally had enough and purchased the lease to the bar with the intention of closing it down. The students, however, weren't about to let it go without a proper sendoff.
"I believe that the way the story goes is that the night that campus actually took over (July 15, 1974), the students came and burned the Gaslight to the ground as their way of protesting the situation," Midyett adds.
Still, not all of the recollections of the old establishment are ones embroiled in such controversy.
"It was short-lived, but it held a lot of memories for a lot of people," Midyett states. "There have been many people who come down now to look at the different pictures we have of the old place, so we've heard all about the Gaslight's glory days."
A new direction
The modern version of the Gaslight has thus far managed to be a unique voice in the Lawrence bar community, without all the chaos that its predecessor was known for.
"When we opened this, we thought that we were going to be the coffeehouse/hippie place where people would go listen to guys play records," says Fortier, a well-established concert promoter. "The customers -- and the people of Lawrence -- kind of took it in their own direction, and we've made an attempt to embrace what the community wants."
What the community wants, apparently, is to take part in a musical niche that the Gaslight is happy to fill.
"What we didn't realize is that there wasn't a place for bands to play that had around a 50-person capacity, which is about the draw for the majority of bands out there," Fortier continues. "We've tried to accommodate that, and everyone has just been unbelievably supportive."
"There are plenty of big spots to go see shows, so I think we provide something that's not out there right now," Midyett agrees.
What started as a place where DJs would spin seven days a week with the occasional band mixed in has grown into a venue where acts are eager to perform in front of tinier, more appreciative crowds.
"Being that it's so small and cozy and intimate, whether it's 40 people here or 10 people here, it's really comfortable, and it doesn't take a lot of people for us to have a good vibe," Fortier explains. "I think that for the musicians it's nice to be able to play to a crowd of people who are gonna respect you for what you're doing, even if it's just 20 people."
At least for now, plans to expand the Gaslight beyond its current size and capacity aren't on the horizon.
"I don't know that bigger IS better," Fortier says. "We don't want to be super busy and have lines out the door, to create parking problems with Johnny's Tavern (next door) and disappoint the neighborhood community."
"We're trying to respect our neighbors and the people of North Lawrence," he adds.
That effort to peacefully integrate the Gaslight with the area has helped result in what Fortier and Midyett feel is an ideal situation.
"We wouldn't be what we were without all the people from town who come down here and play here," Midyett says. "Jeff and I run it, but it's not just us."