Dilapidated structure has owners at odds with town

By Rose Schneider

The fate of a small limestone house in a little town has caused some big controversy among the citizens of Wakefield, including the building’s owners, Joseph and Nancy White.

“It is the oldest house in the community, if not the state,” said Ed Hooker, chair of the Endangered Properties Committee.

The exact age of the house is just one aspect of the story up for debate. One person claimed it was built in the 1840s; another contended it was more like 1860. But almost every detail of the story behind the structure at 107 Elm St. varies, depending on the person telling it.

A concerned Wakefield citizen, Marcy Chapman, first contacted the Mercury to say that the house had been condemned and would be demolished in upcoming weeks. She had concerns regarding the procedures and presentation of evidence against the property and was frustrated with what she considered to be a lack of evidence against the limestone structure.

“Other than standing in front of a bulldozer, I think I’ve done everything I can,” Chapman said.

According to Wakefield’s chief of police, Robert Lee McGee, city officials had been discussing what to do with the Whites’ house prior to October, when he took the job.

On Thursday, the city was still awaiting bids for the demolition - but a lot has changed since then.

Chapman said Wakefield city officials claimed that the house’s contents were in disarray and the appearance didn’t “meet the standards of observers,” according to a city document, which apparently left tearing it down the only viable option.

Officials said they did everything they could to try to save the house before arriving at this conclusion.

“We made every effort and went above and beyond to not have the stone house come down,” Wakefield City Clerk Jerry Mason said. “We just can’t get the property owners to respond, and they won’t pick up their certified mail… they’re aware of the situation, but they haven’t done anything.”

The alleged lack of communication from the Whites to the city of Wakefield and the city’s attorney, Rick James, has made negotiating the situation nearly impossible from the city’s perspective.

The city has a derelict ordinance that it is using against the property and its owners.

“Under the derelict ordinance, if you have a structure that is derelict, a health hazard, or where people could get hurt, we require the owner to repair it in a certain amount of days; if they don’t, we have a hearing where the owner could show up and protest, giving the city an opportunity to give testimony,” James said. “The Whites did not show up.”

Despite the city’s inability to contact the Whites, this reporter was able to get in contact with both Nancy and Joseph within 24 hours.

“What’s odd is we’ve only received one notice, and that was the one that said they’d condemned the house,” Nancy said.

“It’s hard to be at a city meeting at 6 p.m. when you’re at work at 6 and your husband is out of town working on the railroad.”

Once Joe returned to Kansas early last week, he said he realized that his daughter had received some mail in Junction City addressed to his wife from the city of Wakefield in regard to his property. However, he couldn’t understand why the city would send something about his house to someone else’s address, instead of sending it to his actual address -109 Fir St. in Wakefield.

According to Nancy, since her name isn’t on the house deed, her “hands were tied” in anything that had to do with saving their home when her husband was away, saying all she could do was relay the messages to her husband.

The house has been uninhabited for nearly two years.

“The only reason we moved out of the house is because my husband’s mother passed away,” Nancy said. “We couldn’t keep up with both houses, so we had everything shut off and I went to live with my daughter.”

Even though neither of the Whites has lived there in almost 24 months, Nancy said she would go over and take care of the yard periodically.

“Just because the outside got neglected that didn’t mean we weren’t going to move back in there; it has been one hassle after another,” Nancy said. “Now they have it condemned and want to tear our home down.”

According to Kim Gant, the review and compliance coordinator at the Kansas Historical Society, there are organizations that protect older buildings, but the owner has to be willing to take the appropriate steps to restore the property to its original state.

“Our office administers programs where the owner could register for rehabilitation tax credits and grants from the state,” Gant said. “Whatever the owner adds has to be compatible with the original house.

“I’ve seen some very damaged properties; there isn’t much that can’t be repaired,” she said.

The original limestone house consists of a living room and an upstairs loft-type bedroom.

The kitchen and bathroom are housed in a wooden addition that was built in the 1940s, according to Joseph. The addition was the only part of the house that had any running water or plumbing. It was also was one of the city’s main concerns and the first thing Joseph said he planned to remove.

“I would love to move back into the property,” he said. “My dad said I should have torn the back off the house a long time ago.”

And that he did. Just last weekend, Joe removed the entire addition from the back of the stone house. He also removed the very large trampoline that was sitting next to the building and cut down some of the trees that were leaning precariously in the yard.

Many other repairs still need be done, including fixing the roof and awnings, adding a kitchen and bathroom to the house and removing all of the nests, cobwebs and animal waste that has accumulated in the house from two years of inactivity.

All those issues can’t be taken care of overnight, but McGee acknowledged that it is a start in the right direction. And the action means that - for now, at least - the house isn’t in danger of being demolished.

“He’s trying to comply with the city’s requests in bringing the property back into compliance; we just wanted it cleaned up and he is complying with that,” McGee said. “We’re trying to work together to make this whole situation work for him and for the city so it is no longer an eyesore or a hazard.”

Even though the Whites have taken the initial steps in restoring their home to a livable state, that doesn’t guarantee that the city will call off the demolition process.

As of Monday, neither McGee nor the Whites had talked to the city council about the house’s progress, and the next meeting isn’t until April 1.

“He still has ownership of the property; all the city did was condemn it,” McGee said. 

The house has sentimental meaning to the Whites, who have had family living in it for many generations.

According to Chapman, throughout the years the structure has housed a blacksmith and a blind broom maker, among others, and Nancy said the house was once associated with a stable where the town’s horses would go to get shoed.

If the Whites do not continue to repair the property, the city likely will move back toward condemnation and demolition. If that happens, the demolition costs will be added to the Whites’ taxes, and a lien will be put on their property.

“Realistically, many cities don’t see that money because the lot is worth less than the cost placed on it to tear down the house,” James said.

However, James is also hopeful that it won’t come to that for the sake of the city’s budget and for the historical value of the house.

“I have a master’s in history and am with the rest of the people of Wakefield; I don’t want to see the house torn down,” he said. “That house is a great architectural example of everything built in Kansas.”

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