The score is now 2 to 1 in favor of saving the George B. Richards mansion, a stately 110-year-old Classical Revival home in Kansas City’s Southmoreland neighborhood whose owners argue they should be allowed to sell it and raze it to the ground for potential commercial development.
On Wednesday, the Kansas City Council’s Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee voted unanimously to recommend passage of ordinance 235705, which would place the three-story brick home at 4526 Warwick Blvd. on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places. Such a designation would save the structure from demolition for at least three years.
Neighbors and preservation groups have been ardently fighting to save the house. The fate of the 7,400-square foot home, built in 1913 and overlooking Southmoreland Park near the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, now rests with a vote by the City Council in coming weeks.
Wednesday’s committee’s vote is in line with a similar recommendation made on May 26 by the Kansas City Historic Preservation Commission, which also voted unanimously to place the home on the historic register because of its architectural significance.
On Aug 1, however, the owners of the property delighted and neighbors lamented when the Kansas City Plan Commission voted 3-2 (with three members absent) against historic designation, agreeing that the owners should have the right to to sell and dispose of their home as they see fit.
The owners of the property, Steve Vawter of Kansas City, and Matthew Vawter of Boulder, Colorado, inherited the home on its 0.9-acre plot following the death of their mother, Susie Vawter, in February 2020. Constructed originally for George B. Richards, the wealthy owner of the Richards & Conover Hardware Co., the mansion built by the architectural firm of Root & Seimens has been in the Vawter family since 1961.
It was empty for about a year when, in 2022, neighbors saw a “For Sale” sign go up, marketing the residential plot for potential “high rise” development. Neighbors later discovered that the Vawters had applied for a demolition permit for the house.
At that point, neighbors banded together. Against the wishes of the Vawters, and to waylay immediate demolition, the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association in April put in an application to place the home on the city’s register of historic places, a process that alone prevents demolition for six months while the application is being considered.
Since then, Southmoreland neighbors, along with other groups, including the nearby Rockhill Homes Association and the preservation group Historic Kansas City, have been at odds with the brothers and real estate developer Whitney Kerr Sr., representing the brothers in their efforts.
“My brother and I strongly oppose the designation of our property,” Steve Vawter said. “It’s economically unfeasible to restore. It’s just old and worn out. It’s a maintenance nightmare.”
On Wednesday, committee members Eric Bunch and Mayor Pro Tem Ryana Parks-Shaw expressed their unease at recommending that the house be placed on the historic register against the wishes of the homeowners. They raised the point that the city may need to look at other avenues to protect historic structures other than using historic designation against the wishes of owners.
But the committee was unanimous in its decision given the fact that, at this point, no development plan for the site exists. The site currently is zoned R-5, meaning for residential development with a height restriction of about 35 feet.
The committee gave sway to the argument that if the house is demolished, the lack of any site plan means the property could be left as an empty parcel for an unknown period. The Southmoreland neighborhood already has six acres of empty parcels, some of which have attracted debris, said Laura Burkhalter, president of the Southmoreland Neighborhood Association.
“We want to avoid a vacant lot,” she said, calling the residence “a beautiful home, inside and out.”
“There is no development plan for this site,” she said. “So if this house were demolished, which the owner intends to do, we have a hole in the ground and a lot of upset neighbors.”
She added, “there are a lot of people who want to live in a historic home.”
The Vawters have repeatedly argued that there is no residential market for the home. The house, they have said, needs new plumbing, heating, electricity and other restoration that they estimate would cost $1.4 million to $1.9 million, above and beyond the cost of the house.
The property, they insist, is worth more than the home that’s on it. First priced at $2.5 million, the Vawters reduced the price to $1.9 million. In July, they revealed they have an agreement with local real estate developer George Birt to purchase the property for $1.9 million. That contract, however, is conditional on the home not being given historic designation and on the property being rezoned for commercial use.
Neighbors maintain that neither Kerr nor the Vawters have ever truly tested the property on the open residential market. It has never been on the residential MLS, the multiple listing service, used by Realtors. They hoped the owners would do so, or consider selling it for an alternative use such as a bed and breakfast of for offices or other space.
Ryan Hiser and his partner, David Tran, who have turned two historic homes into the The Truitt Hotel and The Aida Hotel KC, offered the Vawters $1.1 million for the house, with plans to spend up up to $1 million to convert it into another hotel. The Vawters considered the price far too little.
Other grand homes in the area have been been repurposed, including one just to the south, now the Jannes Library, part of the Kansas City Art Institute. Other homes have been turned into office space for the Nelson-Atkins.
Matt Vawter, speaking to the committee via Zoom from Colorado, insisted that historic designation will not help the home or neighborhood.
Although historic designation protects the exterior of a building from any changes without approval, the designation does not prevent owners from changing the interior, including gutting it or allowing it to sit unused.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk about save the house,” Vawter said, “save the neighborhood and preserve this property to prevent blight. Whether this group likes it or not, this house is empty. This house has been boarded up and will remain empty if a historic designation is granted.
“It is the target for thieves, vandals and vagrants. One way we can avoid that is to build on the current site and to demolish the property. Designating it as historic will not stop that process.”