Missouri church owners just want to save the limestone

Friday, December 24, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — To some, it's a piece of Kansas City history that deserves better than the wrecking ball.

But it may be too late to resurrect the former Holy Name Catholic Church from the ravages of time and neglect. Unused for decades, the building at 23rd Street and Benton Boulevard is on the city's list of dangerous buildings scheduled for demolition.

Its owners, though, have gone to court to halt demolition, at least temporarily, while they seek a way to somehow salvage the countless blocks of limestone and other materials used to construct the 22,000-square-foot example of Gothic Revival architecture.

"I love beautiful churches," said attorney Brian J. Gordon, who owns the property. "It was such a gem."

The former church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its history mirrors the city's history of racial discord, and it played a key role in one of the city's most tumultuous periods.

"The church serves as a significant landmark that towers over the neighboring homes and provides an anchor for the community," according to documents filed with the National Register.

That one-time anchor is more blight today. Although the building is structurally sound, the roof and interior require extensive renovation. Pigeons fly freely through broken windows. Thieves have stripped the copper sheeting from near the pinnacle of its 140-foot steeple.

People in the neighborhood are tired of living near the vacant building, said Sister Loretto Marie Colwell, executive director of the Seton Center, a social service agency housed in the former parish school building next to the church.

"At this point the neighborhood feels it's time to fix it or take it down," she said. "It's a beautiful structure, but the cost of repairs would be enormous."

The first Holy Name parish was founded in the late 19th century, when the neighborhood was made up of white professional and middle-class families. Seeking to expand, the parish purchased the land at 23rd and Benton sometime before 1907, when Benton Boulevard was completed.

Construction of the new church began in 1911 but had to be halted because of lack of money. By the early 1920s the church had raised enough money to complete construction. It was finished in 1928.

According to a historical synopsis of the church on the website of the National Register of Historic Places, several black families who moved into the neighborhood in the early years of the parish were subjected to death threats.

The neighborhood remained overwhelmingly white until the late 1940s, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed discriminatory real estate covenants and deed restrictions. As more black families moved into the area, white families left.

With membership dwindling, Holy Name merged with a neighboring predominantly black parish. Church leaders integrated services but amenities like the bowling alley in the basement remained available for whites only.

In 1968, Holy Name became the scene of a notorious incident when rioting engulfed the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In an effort to reach out to the community, the church hosted weekly dances for young people. One of those dances was being held as police and demonstrators clashed near City Hall.

Police, unaware of the dance, which had been organized by KPRS radio as a way to diffuse tensions, responded to a report of a disturbance around the church. Some young people met them by throwing stones. Police responded with tear gas. After some people ran into the church, police fired tear gas inside, where several hundred young people had gathered.

Many believe that the incident helped fuel much of the ensuing unrest that embroiled the city for several more days.

The parish scuffled along until 1975, when it closed. Holy Name, then about 90 percent black, merged with two neighboring parishes.

The building was sold to another Christian denomination, which reopened it for a time. It changed ownership several more times before finally closing in the mid-1980s.

Today its majestic stained glass windows are boarded up or broken out. The roof is sagging and full of holes. Thieves and vandals have trashed the interior.

Gordon has been part of a group that since 2007 has been trying to find a way to restore the building.

"It was a beautiful church at one time, and I saw potential in it being a beautiful church again," he said.

But economic realities prevented those plans. Instead the group has been looking for a way to re-use the building materials and help nonprofit agencies in the process.

Last year, a plan fell through for taking down the church and supplying the stone to a Missouri order of nuns to build a facility on their property. Seton Center could have expanded into the vacant lot.

"That would greatly benefit the neighborhood," Gordon said.

Still hoping to find a way to salvage the building materials, Gordon filed a request for a restraining order on Dec. 7 in Jackson County Circuit Court to block the city's demolition plan.

The demolition has not yet been scheduled, though the city has put out bids for a contractor to do it.

Like many in the neighborhood, Mary Edges, who has lived nearby for 58 years, said it was a shame to see such a stately building sit empty for so many years.

"I don't know why it couldn't be put to good use," she said. "It's become an eyesore."


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