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Historical picture, St. John the DivineThe St. John the Divine Catholic Church building, shown in this 1890 photo when it was the Metropolitan Avenue Methodist Church, has been placed on the state historic register and is being considered for the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo on file with Kansas State Historical Society)
Historical picture, St. John the Divine
An effort to save the old St. John the Divine Church building, 2511 Metropolitan Ave., in the Argentine area of Kansas City, Kan., moved ahead this month with the approval of historic site designation by the Kansas State Historical Society.
Next step is the approval of the National Register of Historic Places, expected as a matter of course because of the state approval, according to Daniel Serda, an urban planner who has been volunteering with the historic preservation effort.
As reported recently by the Kansas City Hispanic News, the effort has not been without opposition. There is a demolition order still standing on the building in Kansas City, Kan., although Serda does not think it will be carried out at the present time. Now a nonprofit group, St. John the Divine Art and Education Community Center Inc., is starting a fundraising and restoration phase for the project, according to Serda.
The codes action was originally filed by an Argentine community association, according to Serda. He said it sometimes takes a few years for a project to go from the planning stages to completion, and this project has an entire plan in place, including plans to fix the structural flaws of the building.
The two-story Gothic Revival building, originally opened as Metropolitan Avenue Methodist Church in 1887, was sold to the Catholic Church in 1937, and sold again to private owners a few decades ago. It has stood empty for decades, and needed fixing up. A nonprofit group has been formed to make the old church building into a community arts and Hispanic heritage center. There would be no religious use of the building, he added.
The building itself has weathered two major floods, one in 1903 and the other in 1951. There was a mission purpose to the original church building, as it was near railroad camps of Mexican-American workers.
The building has been vacant for so long, attracting vandals and graffiti, that it has tested the patience of neighbors who are apparently tired of waiting for it to be fixed up.
Unified Government Commissioner Ann Murguia had opposed the historic designation for the building when it came before the state board last year. The designation was tabled while the state board considered the issues, which delayed the project about a year, according to Serda.
Murguia said she believed the restoration group was not reflective of the community.
“Nobody has any objections to them fixing it up,” she said, “they just haven’t done it for 20 years.”
“If something happens, a significant investment to improve it, that would be great and nobody would be tearing it down,” she said. But in the four years they have been working on it, they haven’t raised the money to fix it up, she added. Murguia said she believed the building could be a public safety issue.
“There’s no question as to the historical significance of the building,” Serda said.
As far as its structural integrity, the building can be stabilized and restored, he said. “It’s all a matter of dollars,” he added. “This is a project that has every likelihood of success, what’s needed is to get final support of the community.”
The project has the support of a number of residents. About 300 people two years ago signed a petition asking the UG to take every step possible to insure the preservation of the building, he said.
The group plans to fix up the building and restore it, according to Serda. It has held several community activities with other groups during the past few years, and there has been some work done by the group in establishing a safe perimeter around the building, doing routine maintenance, remediating graffiti and tagging on the building, and cleaning up illegal dumping at the site, he said. The group has had to remove two full dumpsters of material that was dumped illegally at the site, he said. The inside of the building will not be used until it is fixed up. Some of the problems with the building predate the private ownership, he said.
Serda also said the building was significant in that it was a place where the Hispanic community met and held important community activities. A letter of support by a former St. John’s parishioner helped convince the state board to support the restoration project, he said.
In other parts of the country, some restoration projects of formerly segregated buildings have sparked opposition from the community, but Serda has not heard that that was the case here. St. John’s was a segregated church going back to the 1930s, when Mexican-American residents of Kansas City, Kan., were not allowed to attend other parishes, he said. The city had a long-standing tradition of ethnic churches.
“For every person who feels shame over the fact it was segregated, that was just the way things were then,” he said. “Within that environment, we created our own community, we created our own accomplishments.” And, there is nothing about what the restoration group is doing that celebrates those old practices of segregation, he added.
On the church’s stained glass windows, every single name is a Hispanic name, with the exception of one, Dorothy Gallagher. She was one of the founders of Guadalupe Center and a long-time St. John’s supporter, he said.
What the restoration project has accomplished is already unique in Kansas City, Kan. Of 90,000 sites on the National Register, less than 100 of them are associated with the heritage of Hispanics, he said. The only one in the Kansas City area is Guadalupe Center.
Many of the sites associated with Hispanic history tend to be modest buildings that are old, he said. Many historic Hispanic places around the country with an amazing history have been torn down by the leaders of their organizations in order to build new buildings, he added.
While there is some feeling that something newer would be better, Serda said that “sometimes you need anchor points.”
“We’re not quite there yet but we think we’ve made some significant progress,” he said.
A public meeting for comments on the pending demolition of the St. John the Divine Church building at 2511 Metropolitan will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13, in the Argentine Community Center, 2810 Metropolitan Ave. The meeting will request public comment on alternatives for mitigation in the demolition case, in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, according to UG information.
Another meeting scheduled on the St. John project is on Saturday, Sept. 21, to celebrate the addition of the church to the National Register.
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