Residents Rally To Save Gothic Church Threatened With Demolition In Kansas City, Kansas
The Kansas City, Kansas Community College has proposed a $70 million expansion for an educational center downtown aimed at addressing poverty and lack of jobs. But the plan requires tearing down the abandoned, but culturally significant, Seventh Street Methodist Episcopal Church.
There are few well-known, remaining monuments to the rich cultural history of Kansas City, Kansas, and Jim Schraeder, a longtime member of the city's Landmarks Commission, worries downtown progress will come at the expense of a significant one: the Seventh Street Methodist Episcopal Church.
“This is probably the last example in our city, and probably one of the few in the Metropolitan area, of what they call High Victorian Gothic architecture,” Schraeder explains, sweeping his flashlight over the vaulted ceiling, carved interior trusses and lancet stained glass windows. “See the frou-frou woodwork, the gingerbread on all the arches?”
The structure has been abandoned for decades and allowed to decay. It sits at the corner of 7th Street and State Avenue in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. A chain link fence surrounds the tall grass and weeds that have grown on the property, the white paint is peeling from the eaves of the church and a small tree grows out of the bell tower, which is missing its steeple. The icon of the city's skyline was destroyed in a storm in 1945 and never replaced.
Preservationists succeeded in adding the building to the local register of historic places in 1986, but the Kansas City, Kansas Land Bank took it over last year because of back taxes.
A new day
Now, the Kansas City, Kansas Community College has proposed demolishing the church. It has plans to expand on the downtown block with a massive, state-of-the-art educational center.
The new facility is designed to address the community’s economic challenges, notably, the high rates of poverty and unemployment.
College President Greg Mosier says officials began looking at the downtown expansion about two years ago after studying disparities between the population in eastern and western Wyandotte County.
“There is a 200% increase in people who are working full time and living in poverty when we go to the eastern side of the county," Mosier said. “There are great jobs out there. Our problem is we don’t have a skilled work force that is ready to obtain and maintain those jobs.”
The expansion will offer job training in high-wage fields like commercial construction technology and automated engineering. They’ll offer wrap-around services from Wyandotte County Behavioral Health and the YMCA to address persistent health disparities.
Records indicate the last congregation to use the church was The Faith Cornerstone Church of the Full Gospel, Inc., but it’s unclear when they held their last service.
Today, rather than wooden pews populating the church, the signs of a temporary makeshift home — a double mattress, a bicycle, a child’s cowboy boot and a winter coat — litter the floor.
Muted sunlight comes through a handful of the leaded stained glass windows in the back of the church. Above the entry door, a small circular window in blue and rust-colored glass reads "Seventh Street" in white letters.
“The stain glass is pretty much intact," Schraeder said. “Even though the building has been abandoned, it’s all very repairable.”
He argues the history of the church is equally important to the community.
It was built by the Wyandot Indians in the mid-1800s after they had been forced off their land in Ohio and removed to a reservation that later became Kansas City, Kansas.
In addition to the connection to the Wyandot Indians, the congregation struggled through the Civil War years as both abolitionists and slave owners were among the descendants of the Wyandot.
In its early years, the church split over the issue of slavery into two separate buildings. The Seventh Street Methodist Episcopal Church was once the Seventh Street Methodist Episcopal Church South.
Later, the church was home to members of an African American Methodist Episcopal congregation.
President Mosier said the college community is well aware of the architectural and historic value of Seventh Street Church and plans to highlight it. The center, almost twice the size of the White House and stretching the full block between 6th and 7th streets, will integrate elements of the original building into a living history display.
“We will very carefully and slowly raze that church to save a lot of the red brick, the stained glass windows, and see that the foundation stones are preserved,” he said.
But he said to renovate and repurpose it entirely would require too much of the project's $70 million budget.
“There is really no way to affordably remodel and bring it up to code,” Mosier said. "We understand there are different thoughts on what to do with that church, but one view is that (it) will continue to serve the community, maybe in a different way.”
In the hands of the UG
The fate of the church ultimately rests with the Unified Government's Board of Commissioners, who will have the power to accept or reject the Landmark Commission’s recommendation.
Gunnar Hand, Director of Planning and Urban Design for the Unified Government Kansas City, Kansas, says it may be harder to save the building because it is protected solely by a preservation ordinance in Kansas City, Kansas.
“This particular property is a locally designated landmark which provides it with our local review and protections, but it is not a state or federal landmark which makes it a little more complicated,” he said.
Back outside the dilapidated building, preservationist Schraeder says this church, in the heart of the city where Native Indians, Mexicans, Eastern Europeans and African Americans have cobbled together neighboring communities over the decades, may provide an educational lesson no college class can.
“The history we have of everyone coming from everywhere and trying to get along and get together is embodied in the story of the people of this church,” he said. “We would do well to pay attention to how that might inform how we move forward.”
He says if the church is torn down, he won’t be there to watch it.