Red brick and fronted by stately white columns, a 110-year-old Kansas City mansion — put up for sale by its owners for possible demolition — has been saved from destruction, at least temporarily.
For several months, residents in the Southmoreland neighborhood near the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art have been at odds with the absentee owners of the house at 4526 Warwick Blvd. ever since it was placed up for sale (original asking price $2.5 million, now $1.9 million ) and a sign was posted saying the plot might be available for possible “high rise” development.
At 7,400-square-feet, the Classical Revival home was constructed in 1913 for George B. Richards, the wealthy owner of the Richards & Conover Hardware Co. But for the last 62 years, it’s been owned by the family of Matthew and Stephen Vawter, brothers who inherited the home after the death of their mother, Susie Vawter, in February 2020.
Neither of the Vawter brothers live in the house, which is unoccupied. Claiming they were unable to sell the home for the price they wanted, the brothers insist that they should be free to demolish the structure as they see fit and and sell the land for a different purpose, such as a “high rise.” The 12-story Oak Hall apartments are only a few parcels away. Multiple apartment complexes, and the Kansas City Art Institute, sit south and north of of the Warwick home.
It is, in fact, the only single-family residence left on the block.
But fear that the acre-sized lot could be rezoned, and a beautiful house replaced by a high-rise, prompted members of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association in April to apply for the home to be placed on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places.
That application process alone prevents demolition for at least six months.
On May 26, the Kansas City Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to place the house on the register for its architectural qualities. Their recommendation will next go before the City Plan Commission, possibly this month, and the City Council following that.
If the City Council votes to place the home on the register, the owners will be prevented from making any changes to the exterior of the house for at least three years without an approved “certificate of appropriateness.” That includes demolition. The designation, however, does not prevent the owners from changing the interior, or removing or selling fixtures, molding or mantelpieces or, for that matter, gutting it.
Neighbors welcomed the commission’s decision as a first step in possibly saving the house.
“It’s the outcome we hoped for, but we know we still have a few milestones ahead,” said Laura Burkhalter, president of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association.
Burkhalter, at the commission hearing, made the case that giving the home a historic designation for its architecture might improve its chance for sale as a single-family residence. If not for a single family, it might nonetheless be kept intact for a different purpose. A home next door was renovated and turned into the art institute’s Jannes Library & Learning Center.
She and other Kansas City preservationists, however, worry that if the house is gutted and not maintained, it would be less likely to be sold and more likely, eventually, to be torn down.
Unpainted plywood planks currently cover the first floor windows and doors.
“If the owners really truly want to sell it, and truly want to preserve it, it would be in their interest to leave the interior,” Burkhalter said.
Whitney Kerr Sr., a Kansas City real estate broker and developer, and president of the firm Cushman & Wakefield, also spoke to the commission hearing. Integral to developing numerous projects such Corporate Woods in Johnson County, Kerr’s company is selling the Warwick house for the family. He noted that he had spent decades advancing historic preservation, including helping save Union Station from demolition before it was ultimately restored.
“There is no dispute that this is a beautiful property,” Kerr told the commission. “But the problem is that you cannot save every property, because they lack functional utility, or nobody wants them. Sometimes the land is so much more valuable than the old structure that is on it.”
Kerr said the Warwick home is exactly like that. The house is 110 years old and needs significant electrical, plumbing, heating, cooling and other repairs.
“This historic neighborhood is gone. When I say the historic neighborhood, I’m talking about the absolutely magnificent showplace houses that surrounded the Vawter property,” Kerr told the commission. “… The one thing we have no dispute about is that it is a beautiful old house, but to say it is surrounded by a single family neighborhood — that is not true.”
The Vawters, he said, were the last single-family residents on their block.
“The house is just too big and needs too much work,” Steve Vawter testified. “How does this historic designation benefit us as owners or sellers? Tell me that, please. … I passionately oppose historic designation of this old house.”
Matthew Vawter, speaking by Zoom from Colorado, said “the neighborhood’s so-called love for the house” and the application for historic registration have created publicity and unintended consequences that left the home open to vandals, who have ripped copper pipe from the walls, and reduced its value.
“I must tell this committee, it is hard not to feel victimized by this process,” he said. Instead of creating an incentive to pour money into the house to maintain or fix it up, he said, “the historic designation will, in all likelihood, force us to literally do nothing as the house sits idle. … and will likely result in a further cycle of decay and deterioration, theft and vandalism. On its current trajectory, it is likely to become blighted.”
He said they want to demolish it now so it doesn’t become an eyesore for the neighborhood.
Jackson County has set the house’s market value at $1.2 million. Zillow says it is worth $1.5 million. Kerr and the Vawters at first set the value of the property at $2.5 million, but have since dropped the sale price to $1.9 million.
Although the property currently is not zoned for a high-rise, nearby properties are. Kerr has floated the idea that it could be used as part of a “cultural arts complex” just off of the future streetcar stop on Main Street and leading to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the art institute and the Nelson museum.
Neither the art institute nor the Kemper, however, said they have any plan to buy the home or its property.
When the property was placed for sale, Ryan Hiser and his partner, David Tran, offered to buy the home for $1.2 million, and to spend an additional $1 million to turn it into a boutique hotel. The partners currently own two boutique hotels in the neighborhood, the Truitt Hotel at 4320 Oak St. and The Aida Hotel KC, 206 E. 44th St.
Their offer was declined.