Faith and Trust Part I: The Case of the Missing Houses

(originally published 4/25/19)

This week’s post is the first of two parts, but was originally a feature in my 2017 book on the history of the Greenway Fields neighborhood – the neighborhood just west of Wornall Road between 61st and 65th Streets. The piece looks at the often-times complicated relationships neighborhoods have with their institutional neighbors. In the case of Greenway Fields, it was two contrasting experiences with their neighborhood churches, Wornall Road Baptist Church, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. It’s a lesson in how neighborhoods and their partners should, but don’t always, work together toward solving problems.

********************

Longtime residents along Greenway Terrace remember a day in the early 1980s when a house on their street suddenly disappeared. Tucked into an odd-shaped lot just inside the street’s one-way entrance on the east, the small house was the first in a short row of houses. The building was there in the morning, but by the time neighbors returned at the end of the day, it was gone. Not only was the house demolished, no evidence that it had ever been there remained except for the bare earth. The house had been demolished by its owner, Wornall Road Baptist Church, on the northwest corner of Wornall Road and Meyer Boulevard.

Passersby might not have noticed the missing house, or thought too much of it. Beginning in 1975, Wornall Road Baptist Church had demolished four other houses fronting Wornall Road directly to the north of the church. The church used them as rental property, and they weren’t maintained as well as the adjacent owner-occupied homes. But this latest house was different. This one was inside the neighborhood, just inside the signature gateway entrance to the neighborhood at the busy 63rd Street intersection. The church owned this house, and the next four on that side of the block. It could demolish them all if it chose to. For the neighborhood, the demolition of the Greenway Terrace house became the next rallying point in a nearly 30-year effort of the church to expand its facilities.

As early as 1953, the church had started acquiring properties with expansion in mind. Acquisition posed no problems, but expansion did. The 1917 neighborhood deed restrictions had limited the how neighborhood lots could be used. Every lot was restricted to single-family residential development, except for the northwest and southwest corners of the Meyer Boulevard and Wornall Road intersection. The restrictions reserved those two lots for the construction of churches. From the earliest days of the neighborhood, they had been occupied by Wornall Road Baptist Church on the north side of the street, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on the south. To make its expansion dreams come true, the church would need the neighborhood’s consent to change the restrictions.

The deed restrictions are intentionally difficult to change, requiring affirmative petitions representing a preponderance of property owners that could only be filed, in Greenway Fields’ case, on May 1 every twenty-five years counting from the starting year of 1917. Since the church had started planning for expansion in 1953, its first available filing date would be 1967.

Initially, the church agreed to work with the neighborhood toward a shared solution. They promised to host a meeting where they would share their plans and drawings. The two groups signed a resolution of their intention to work together toward a mutually beneficial solution. By the fall of 1964 the neighborhood had been given its meeting, a simple event where the church shared only a single architectural drawing of the development. The neighborhood feared it was losing ground. If the church gathered enough supporters, it would likely be allowed to go forward with its plan. Given only what had been shared of that plan, the homes association nonetheless sent a conciliatory letter to its residents, suggesting that “the church’s need for expansion deserves sympathetic consideration, and that the proposed parking facilities may do much to alleviate the distressing traffic congestion on Sunday mornings…” The letter closed by emphasizing that a guarantee of a good aesthetic for the building and the parking area would be success enough.

Apparently, the church knew well ahead of 1967 that it was not likely to acquire the needed neighborhood consent. A Nichols Company memo from 1964, from John Ruddy, a vice-president, sent to the company’s president, Miller Nichols discusses the church’s attempts. Ruddy’s responsibilities included keeping an eye on other projects of particular interest to the Nichols Company, so the church’s project would have fallen into that category. In that memo, Ruddy makes the passing comment, “I have been told by some residents in there that as long as they own property in those blocks they will never consent.” So the church took a different approach. If it could convince the neighborhood to support its plans, then in partnership, the church and the neighborhood could appeal to the court, and ask for a waiver of the restrictions instead of a formal and permanent change in the restrictions.

The wrangling, the lawsuits and the negotiations between the church and the neighborhood continued through the 1970s. In the end the demolition of the house on Greenway Terrace did lead toward the final resolution of the now 30-year-old problem, for it seems to have been the tipping point toward the neighborhood’s realization that as long as the church owned the properties, it could do with them as it liked. It was also likely the incident that finally convinced the church that it was accumulating bad will within the neighborhood. Wornall Road Baptist Church had been formed by residents from Greenway Fields in the 1920s, and church members were feeling torn between their desire for the church to grow and the concerns of their neighbors. Ultimately, the church agreed to eliminate the proposed building in favor of expanded parking, and acquiesced to resident concerns about traffic, parking and design of landscaping and fencing. The rest of the homes the church owned on Greenway Terrace were sold to individual owners.

(Photo: Tax Assessment Photos, Kansas City Public Library)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: