by Mary Rupert
It’s time for Wyandotte County to consider a better way to preserve its historic buildings.
Recently, the Unified Government Landmarks Commission voted to give approval to tear down a historic building, the old 7th Street Methodist Episcopal Church, at 7th and State Avenue, if certain conditions were met.
The issue goes before the full UG Commission for a vote on Thursday, Dec. 2.
The church, which is on the local historic sites list, was more than 100 years old, and its founders included some of the founders of the town of Wyandotte, one of the towns that came together to make up Kansas City, Kansas. Native American Wyandots came here from Ohio to found the town, with many staying to settle here. Only a few blocks away, the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention was held, near 5th and Minnesota, where the state constitution was debated. That historic site was marked by the Reardon Convention Center.
Such an important link to the town’s history as the church at 7th and State should not be forgotten.
The new $70 million KCKCC downtown campus to be built at 7th and State is a very worthy project, and it will be a great benefit to the community.
However, how did the church get to the point of being on the brink of being torn down for the development of the campus?
A recent discussion with retired Rev. George Kemper Sr., who was pastor of the Ebenezer Church of God in Christ at 7th and State from 1988 to 2008, shed some light on the situation. He said the Ebenezer church sold the building to a Hispanic congregation around 2011 or 2012.
The church was built about 1888, and has been vacant and owned by the UG for a few years. It is the last standing example of High Victorian Gothic architecture in Kansas City, Kansas. There are plans to use parts of the old church, such as stained glass pieces and a few pews and trusses, in the new KCKCC campus building. The church building itself would be torn down, if conditions are met.
The church building, according to Kemper, should never have been on the UG’s delinquent tax sale list because it was being used as a church the whole time.
Apparently what happened, he said, was that the last owner did not file its paperwork for a nonprofit organization with the state, and ended up accumulating taxes, with the Land Bank eventually getting the building. Also, he said the last church had sublet the property to another congregation.
If their paperwork had been filed, the church would have been tax-exempt, according to Kemper.
He added that the Ebenezer church wasn’t interested in buying it back, and it had accumulated more than $30,000 in back taxes, almost around the amount they sold it for. It was difficult to keep up the old building, and it was put on the market in 2008, although there wasn’t serious interest in it until around 2012, he said.
The Ebenezer church made several efforts to preserve the historic building, starting in 1988, he said. They tried to get the church on the state and federal historic registers, but it did not work out.
Several public officials came to events emphasizing the church’s history, and they included city officials and the chief of the Wyandots, he said.
“We put almost $50,000 worth of renovations into it, but nobody would help us,” Kemper recalled. They restored a lot of the church to the original, but there was only so much they could do, he added.
He’s a little upset that currently, some people are talking about trying to save the old church. “Where were they then?” he asked.
“There was years and years and years of effort put in to try to attempt to save that church and bring it back to former glory,” Kemper said. “Everybody who came in talked about how beautiful it was and it was just not cost-effective.”
With a small congregation, it would cost too much to restore the church, he added. To sum it up, they couldn’t get any help and they couldn’t sustain it, he said. The cost was overwhelming. Kemper feels the church probably should be torn down, as it is expensive to restore.
However, keeping the church and restoring it could be an addition to the efforts to promote historic tourism in Wyandotte County. It might have become a museum, with exhibits about the early settlers, tours given, and admission charged to help support the building costs.
It was the church where the Conley sisters were members, and they were significant to Wyandotte County history and the defense of the Huron Cemetery against commercial encroachment. There are definitely pre-Civil War-era stories to be told about how passions were so inflamed in early Wyandotte that some of the local churches were burned. If the church could not be restored at its site at 7th and State, perhaps it could be moved to a different site, such as a county park, and become part of a larger historical tourism setting. As we know there are efforts to develop historic sites for tourism in the Quindaro area, it may be a good time to expand that effort to the rest of the community.
The situation with the 7th and State church points up the difficulty of maintaining historic buildings.
While some of the community may feel that this or that group should have restored the building, there is a point where an older building should pass into community responsibility, especially a prominent one. After 100 years or so, the community ought to ask itself how it can help take care of these landmarks.
A better mechanism needs to be set up to help preserve historic buildings in Kansas City, Kansas. Local historic preservation funds should be set aside and kept up for these purposes, to be used with historic preservation grant funds that may be available.
Throughout the nation, historic sites are the backbone of tourism, and it seems that this community could work harder at it so that historic sites, like the 7th and State church, could be a bigger part of tourism efforts here.
To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.