A new laundromat in a restored old building surprisingly revitalizes a Kansas downtown

With a population of 903 folks, Cottonwood Falls is the largest city—and the county seat—of Chase County, Kansas. This is a very, very rural state.

The town’s one brief moment on the national stage came in 1931, when a Transcontinental & Western Air flight crashed near Cottonwood Falls. All eight on board died, including famed Notre Dame University football coach Knute Rockne.

As with many small towns in Kansas, many local residents don’t have washers and driers. Neither do most of the local guest houses. A laundromat was needed, and Christy Davis opened Wash-O-Rama with her husband in 2016.

That would seem to be the end of a short-but-still-boring story, but for two factors:

  • They restored a much-abused historic building to house the laundromat, winning Kansas Preservation Alliance’s 2017 Merit Award for Excellence in the the process (probably the only laundromat to win a historic preservation award in the recorded history of this planet), and
  • Wash-O-Rama helped revitalize downtown Cottonwood Falls.

Hideous blue panels covered the century-old building.

The circa-1900 building they chose had little remaining of its exterior architecture.

A 1970s renovation replaced the original facade with large square blue-green plastic tiles that were incongruous with the rest of the streetscape.

The building, which was last used as an office, had drop ceilings and wood-paneled walls inside.

I imagine there were people who didn’t see the potential,” Davis says, “but I’ve been doing this for a long time.

The revitalizing effect mentioned above didn’t come from making the citizens look and smell better. It came from the fact that the laundromat is the only place that’s open 24 hours.

Wash-O-Rama thus became a downtown social hub, restoring a function that used to be served by the Midwest’s formerly-ubiquitous dance halls and “opera houses”.

Few could have foreseen how a small-town laundromat would become so much more than a place to do laundry, or that it would be so well supported.

When you do a project in big cities, it’s a drop in a bucket,” Davis notes. “When you invest in a small town—when you do one little project—it impacts the whole community.

Featured photo credit: Harold Gaston/Kanscape Photography. All other images courtesy of Wash-O-Rama.

See article by Meghan White in Saving Places.

See Wash-O-Rama’s Facebook page.

You must be logged in to post a comment