Some notorious history with your meal.
Historic details, enhanced by a 1992 renovation, surround a peckish person upon entering through the tall wooden doors, topped with rounded glass transoms, at Merchants Pub & Plate.
Throughout the cavernous dining room, “schoolhouse” chairs surrounded each table, atop a vintage black and white tile floor. On this cold and grey day dozens of milk glass lamps hanging from the soaring ceilings warmed the space.
Merchants replaced the former Teller’s on the bustling corner of 8th Street & Massachusetts in Lawrence, KS. But knowing a little history reveals that dining establishments haven’t always operated at that location. Across the room, mock wrought iron teller “windows” reflected the building’s original purpose.
With Prohibition and bootlegging in full swing, Merchants National Bank served customers from 1888-1930. At the same time, Lawrence’s Patee Theater offered shows for a nickel while Wiedmann’s sold ice cream treats for only a dime.
The financial institution became First National Bank of Lawrence in 1930. And legend has it that, two years later, during the height of the Great Depression, Clyde Barrow, Ralph Fults and Raymond Hamilton robbed the bank. A cursory inspection of the interior, however, did not reveal any bullet holes, as supposedly only bank employees were present when Barrow and gang pulled the caper.
When snowy weather short-circuited the trio’s travels further north, they decided to stay at The Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence. The story goes that they met the bank president — with a sawed-off shotgun in hand — as he opened the bank one day. When two additional employees arrived, Fults then hustled them into the bank, too. The take for this massive heist was $33,000, equal to more than half a million dollars today.
But news of the supposed heist never hit the papers or generated a police report. According to Ralph Fults’s autobiography, the bank president, his two employees — and whoever released them from the vault — apparently were vowed to secrecy. No matter what truth exists in this story, Barrow later became half of the notorious Bonnie and Clyde duo.
The massive antique bank vault door now leads to a bright red hallway and public restrooms. Not the most harrowing experience as being a bank employee locked inside the vault during a robbery.
Believing that Lawrence should capitalize on this tantalizing urban legend, Tom Wilson, Teller’s owner/operator, worked with The Eldridge Hotel to re-enact the event. Mayor Aron Cromwell portrayed the bank president and Theatre Lawrence actors played the crooks. A 1933 Ford sedan from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” served as the getaway car. A cocktail party at The Eldridge allowed actors to mingle with the crowd.
Although there have been reports of ghosts in the building — and curious folks occasionally stop by in hopes of detecting their presence — husband and wife co-owners, Chef TK & Emily Peterson, haven’t encountered any, themselves, but they definitely appreciate the building’s historical roots.
“Walk [inside] and it’s plain to see, that 746 Mass. is a special place,” Emily says. “The historic character is stunning — the high ceilings, pendant lights and original bank vault make it an incredibly unique space for our restaurant and the location in the heart of Downtown Lawrence is exactly where we wanted to be.” Against this backdrop, Merchants offers upscale, seasonal “farm-to-table” gastropub fare alongside dozens of tap beers, inventive cocktails and wine. The Petersons source as many locally and regionally produced ingredients as possible.
“We opened Merchants so we could serve our community on a higher level,” Emily says. “Chef TK had worked in Lawrence restaurants since graduating culinary school and he knew that to source the way he wanted, and serve the food he wanted, he needed his own place. Of course local and seasonal dishes are about sourcing product at its peak, but equally as important to this quality is supporting other small business owners and promoting the health of our local economy.”
Merchants Pub & Plate offers a tasty meal and classic ambiance near the bank vault Clyde Barrow and his cronies likely found irresistible, more than 80 years ago.
Contact Lisa Waterman Gray at email@example.com. A widely published travel and food writer, she has completed assignments for dozens of international, national, regional and local clients. For more information, visit www.lisawatermangray.com.