In a step that moves a 110-year-old mansion closer to demolition, the Kansas City City Plan Commission on Tuesday voted to deny historic designation to the home, whose owners want to sell it as the possible site of a future high-rise.
The commission’s 3-2 vote (with three commissioners absent) is a blow to neighbors and preservationist groups, such as the Historic Kansas City Foundation, which hoped that placing the Classical Revival home on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places would help save it from the wrecking ball. Historic designation would prevent demolition for at least three years.
Indeed, documents show that the home’s owners already have a buyer — a Kansas City developer who has built numerous apartment buildings.
“Honestly, we are disappointed,” said Laura Burkhalter, president of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association, where the home is located, near the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “We feel we made a strong case to preserve this house. … We haven’t lost hope that we can still be successful.”
That’s because the Plan Commission’s vote is non-binding. It does not seal the fate of the mansion, but instead is a recommendation to be passed along to a committee of the new Kansas City City Council, which was sworn in Tuesday as the commission held its monthly meeting.
The council’s Neighborhood Planning Development Committee — following public testimony and discussion — will make its own recommendation to the full council, which would then vote.
In May, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted the other way and recommended to the Plan Commission that the house at 4526 Warwick Blvd. be deemed historic because of its architectural qualities.
Built in 1913 for George B. Richards, the wealthy owner of the Richards & Conover Hardware Co., the red brick home is fronted by four white Corinthian columns, a long, elegant portico and white balustrade. It has five bedrooms, three and a half baths, carved fireplaces, a music room, ornamental plaster ceilings, fluted moldings and a grand staircase. A carriage house sits out back, while, out front, a view of Southmoreland Park sits just beyond a gently sloping lawn.
The home was built for $26,000. For the last 61 years, it has been owned by the Vawter family. Brothers Matt Vawter of Boulder, Colorado, and Stephen Vawter of Kansas City inherited the home following the death of their mother, Susie Vawter, in February 2020. Since 2021, it has sat empty.
Controversy ignited this year when a “For Sale” appeared on the property, saying that the 0.9-acre site might be made available as the future site of a “hi rise.”
The Vawter brothers contend that the house, despite its beauty, is practically uninhabitable and in need of monumental repairs to its plumbing, heating, cooling and electricity and other matters that would cost $1.5 million to nearly $2 million. Such costs, they insist, mean they couldn’t sell it as a single-family home. But the property, they believe, has value for future development. They initially placed its value at $2.5 million, but later lowered it to $1.9 million
Documents sent in July by their attorney to the Plan Commission state that the brothers now have a buyer. They said George Birt, who has developed numerous loft and apartment buildings in and around downtown Kansas City, has agreed to purchase the property for $1.9 million, but only under the condition that the house not be designated as historic, and its zoning be changed to accommodate high-rise, multi-family development.
Matt Vawter said Tuesday that Birt, at this point, has no drawings or solid plan for the site. The house’s parcel is currently zoned R-5 for single-family. The home stands at 41 feet tall.
The commission’s decision certainly is a win for the Vawters, who, with their real estate broker Whitney Kerr Sr., argued that the commission’s decision is one that pits homeowners’ interests against those of the neighborhood.
“I am very concerned with what you are having to struggle with,” Kerr told the commission. “This is not Soviet Russia, where you have groupthink and people coming in and saying, ‘I’m going to take your property and keep you from doing what you want to do with it.’ … The preservation of private property rights is extremely important. That’s the basic issue here.”
Once they learned that the Vawters intended to sell their house for demolition and development, two area residents, Ryan Hiser and his partner, David Tran, offered them $1.1 million and later $1.3 million to purchase the home, with the intention of turning it into a boutique hotel. Hiser and Tran already own two bed-and breakfast boutique hotels in the Southmoreland neighborhood, created from renovated homes. One, The Truitt Hotel, at 4320 Oak St., is highlighted in the November issue of Condé Nast Traveler in a piece titled “23 best places to go in the U.S. in 2023.” The other, The Aida Hotel KC, is at 206 E. 44th St., in a renovated 1903 limestone home.
The Vawters turned down the offers, believing the property is worth more. To slow and possibly stop any demolition, the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association filed an application to have the home placed on Kansas City’s historic register.
It is an unusual move, in that the application came without the permission of the property’s owners.
“My brother and I do not consent to this designation,” Stephen Vawter told the commissioners. “I repeat, we do not consent. I understand it’s close to unprecedented to designate against the owner’s wishes.”
The Vawters and Kerr also argue that a high-rise development would not materially change the nature of the neighborhood. The home is the only single-family house left on the block, which is bounded to the north by All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church and the Kansas City Art Institute and, to the west, the Simpson House event space inside a 1909 limestone mansion. To the south stand multiple apartment complexes including the 12-story Oak Hall.
Neighbors meantime, said that seeking historic designation was the only tool available to to them to prevent or slow the Vawters from razing a still beautiful home from a time gone by. They insist that the Vawters have never actually tested the house on the open market, as they have yet to place it on the real estate MLS, the multiple listing service.
The Southmoreland neighborhood has other grand homes that have been renovated for other uses. The Simpson House as an event space. Just south of the Vawters’ home is the Jannes Library, a mansion turned to use by the Kansas City Art Institute. No such uses have been explored, they said.
Although a potential buyer has been identified for the property, no actual plan has been presented. Neighbors fear that once the property is sold and the house is demolished, there is no reason that the property might not just sit as an empty lot. More, they simply believe that a beautiful, old home should be preserved.
“This is the last single family home in this part of the neighborhood,” Burkhalter told the commission. “They just don’t make them like they used to. So we find that it’s very important to maintain the historic fabric of our neighborhood and continue with trying to preserve this house.”