The historic mansion that was once home to the Rockhill Tennis Club has new owners. Peter and Heather Caster of Kansas City, Missouri, have bought the house built in 1910 for the daughter of Kansas City Star founder William Rockhill Nelson.
"It's a beautiful home," says Peter Caster. "We're going to do everything in our power to do it the right way and bring it back to its former glory."
The Rockhill Tennis Club occupied the five-acre site at 4520 Kenwood Avenue from 1944 to 2010. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art had owned the property, sometimes called the Kirkwood home, since the 1950s and leased it to the tennis club. Interest was high when it was listed as a single-family residence with ¾ of an acre for $289,900.
The museum plans to use the north and south ends of the property to extend its sculpture park.
"It's been a long process, but we're excited about this next step," says Laura Burkhalter, president of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association, who also serves on a stewardship committee of museum and neighborhood representatives.
Caster, who's been in real estate for nearly 20 years, buys, rehabs and sells properties. But he also has experience in historic preservation, having rehabbed a 1903 Hyde Park home designed by Shepard and Farrar for George J. Myers.
Caster estimates it will take almost a year to complete renovations to the former tennis club, at a cost of about $500,000.
"We've already submitted our plans to the Historic Preservation Department," he says. "Probably some of the biggest changes would be the kitchen, bathrooms and altering the garage."
Currently, the residence has no kitchen, and the bathrooms were changed to toilet- and sink-only for the tennis club.
Exterior changes are already visible. Last summer, workers started tearing down the site's crumbling tennis courts.
Residents from the nearby historic neighborhoods have been pleased about the changes so far.
"The communication has been very free-flowing," Galen Mussman, former president of the Rockhill Homes Association, told KCUR last May. "There's just a sense of goodwill and trust."
But it wasn't always that way.
Tensions simmered between the museum and its neighbors for almost a decade, as the museum expanded to add the Bloch Building and proposed using the former tennis club for office space.
It took about six months of negotiations for the museum and its surrounding neighborhoods to hammer out terms for the museum's development framework, called the Master Planned Development or MPD. That agreement was approved in 2017 by the City Council, and the museum was encouraged to put restrictions on the sale of the former tennis club for historic preservation.
Michael Cross, the museum's program manager for asset protection and facilities, said last year that the new owners will have an "amazing yard" — the parking lot will also be removed to make way for sculpture by December 31, 2020.
"It will be fairly low-density in terms of sculptures, just like the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park is now,” said Cross. “It should be a really nice addition to our city.”
Caster did not specify whether the family, with three kids ages 19, 17, and 8, planned to live in the Kirkwood home long-term.
"We're just taking it day by day," he says. "I'm not going to rule out anything. We'd like to see how the property turns out before any decisions get made."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.