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5 things to know about UMKC's Epperson House, a 20th century 'showpiece' in need of a makeover

University of Missouri-Kansas City
The vacant Epperson House, a Gothic Revival style mansion, sits atop a hill on the UMKC campus at 52nd and Cherry, Kansas City, Missouri.

The building is included on the Historic Kansas City Foundation's Most Endangered List because of disrepair. UMKC spends about $60,000 a year to maintain it, and now wants ideas for its future.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City has announced its search for “a partner” to restore the century-old Epperson House, the four-story, 54-room mansion located at 5200 Cherry St. For 10 years now, the building has been vacant.

“One of our responsibilities as a public university is to be proper stewards of our legacy,” Chancellor Mauli Agrawal stated in a news release. “Epperson House is a treasure for not just our campus, but for the Kansas City community.”

The house was built in 1919 for insurance tycoon Uriah Epperson and his wife Mary, who dubbed the mansion — at a cost of $500,000 when completed in 1923 — “Epperson’s Folly.” That's about $8 million today when adjusted for inflation.

Chris Wolff, who manages the UMKC Bookstore and offers campus tours, shared five things to know about the house:

LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries.
This 1926 photo shows the interior of the Epperson House, with paneled oak walls and the organ loft.

Impressive architectural features

Architect Horace LaPierre, who worked in Kansas City and Oklahoma, designed the mansion. And according to Wolff, legend has it that LaPierre showed the Eppersons “plans for 1,500 different houses before they settled on the 54-room castle that combined Tudor and Gothic styles.” It took nearly five years to complete construction.

A Grecian-tiled swimming pool, billiards room in the basement, formal dining room on the ground floor, an Elephant Room for Mrs. Epperson’s travel collection and a barbershop were among the notable features.

“However, the true showpiece of the home was the grand hall and its organ loft,” Wolff explained. “The Eppersons were huge fans of the arts and music and they envisioned using the grand hall to host plays and musical performances.”

The interior of the home, said Wolff, is “filled with hand-carved walnut and oak paneling and banisters ... truly a wonder of woodworking art.”

This undated photo shows Uriah S. Epperson, Mary Elizabeth Epperson, and Harriet E. Barse in the main room of the Epperson House. It served as a music room with a pipe organ and choir balcony.
LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries
This undated photo shows Uriah S. Epperson, Mary Elizabeth Epperson and Harriet E. Barse in the main room of the Epperson House, which served as a music room.

A haunted house

According to Wolff, the “original kernel of the haunting” can be traced back to Harriet Barse, an organ instructor at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music (now UMKC Conservatory). The Eppersons, who did not have children, invited Barse to live with them and considered her an “adopted daughter.”

An organ loft had been constructed in the home, in anticipation of musical performances. In December 1922, Barse was rushed to the hospital with a gallbladder infection and died on the operating table.

“Ever since the home was donated to the University of Kansas City (now UMKC) in 1942, people have claimed to see the ghost of Harriet,” said Wolff. “And the sound of organ music coming from the basement is one of the most common supernatural phenomena that people report in the house. Other unusual occurrences that people have reported include the sounds of footsteps in empty rooms and hallways and lights that turn off and on.”

University of Missouri-Kansas City
The Epperson House at 52nd and Cherry sits empty and in need of repairs. There is no public access for visitors.

Legacy of versatility

Philanthropist Uriah Spray Epperson died in 1927 and left the house to his wife who died in 1939. A few years later, Epperson’s business associate J.J. Lynn donated the building to the University of Kansas City (now UMKC).

The building served as a dormitory for Navy air cadets during World War II, then it was used by various UMKC departments, such as the School of Education and, most recently, the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design. It has been closed since 2011.

UMKC Chancellor Agrawal told the Roo News in April that UMKC was looking to “lease it out or even sell it.”

But, according to Agrawal, approval is required from the Missouri Legislature.

University of Missouri-Kansas City
UMKC is seeking ideas for adaptive re-use of the Epperson House at 52nd and Cherry. Some suggestions include an additional location for the Kansas City Museum and a boutique hotel.

Restoration costs

Renovations are expected to cost $12 to $15 million. A minor fire in recent years activated the sprinklers, damaging the plasterwork. The stained-glass windows are deteriorating. And the house was also converted into classroom and meeting spaces, so there’s wear and tear.

As Wolff puts it, “there are tremendous challenges.”

For example, he lists “refurbishing things like hand-carved walnut panels, oak banisters and leaded glass. That is not cheap. Then of course it would need a new roof and modern wiring and plumbing all brought up to code.”

And it’s not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA which means ramps, modern elevators and chair lifts would need to be installed.

Future looks bright

One of Wolff's ideas for a renovated Epperson House includes utilizing it as a south branch of the Kansas City Museum with a “focus on the history of things like the Plaza, Swope Park, UMKC, Brookside and other southern features. The grand hall could be turned into an event space.”

He also thinks a boutique hotel is a viable proposal. UMKC parents, he said, “would have a place to stay on campus when visiting to see kids play sports or perform or during campus visits.”

Officials at UMKC say they’re “open to a variety of approaches that would preserve the historic and design integrity of the building.”

If you have an idea for the Epperson House, please contact Bill Haverly at w.haverly@umkc.edu. The university will start reviewing proposals on Jan. 31, 2022.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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