KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Walt Disney used to stand at the corner of East 36th and Walnut streets in Kansas City and admire how the Westminster Congregational Church looked particularly like a castle.

“Uncle Walt was always taken by architecture,” said his nephew, Charles Elias Disney. “And when he would talk about architecture in later years, he talked about that church.”

Charles Elias, the oldest surviving Disney, stood near that same spot Tuesday evening. His brother, Daniel H. Disney, was beside him as they craned their necks and pointed to different sections of the crumbling limestone facade.

Built in 1904, the Westminster Congregational Church at 3600 Walnut St. served its congregation for more than 100 years as countless worshipers, including the Disney family, attended services inside the church, a centerpiece in Kansas City’s Hanover Place neighborhood.

Charles Elias Disney recalled with a chuckle that while Walt, who moved to Kansas City with his family in 1910 at the age 9, liked to sit in the balcony, Walt’s parents, Elias Charles and Flora May Disney, liked to sit as close to the front as they could, to make sure they didn’t miss anything.

As a child, Charles Elias Disney would sit in the sanctuary and search for the peak of the 65-foot ceiling as natural light streamed through the golden stained-glass windows. It made him think of heaven.

But when Disney, now 80, gazed in the same direction Tuesday evening, all that remained was sky.

On Feb. 13, a structural failure caused the sanctuary’s roof to collapse in on itself.

The structure was deemed a “dangerous building” by the city’s Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department on Feb. 19 and an “emergency order to demolish” was issued.

Six days later, Kansas City’s City Planning and Development Department’s historic preservation office put a hold on any demolition pending a structural assessment of the site to determine what could be saved, if anything.

When he heard of the building’s potential demise, Charles Elias Disney pleaded in a letter to the editor published in The Star, that the building, which is on the national and Kansas City lists of registered historic places, be saved and restored.

But despite the appeals of Disney, the Historic Kansas City Foundation and others, the Gothic Revival building began coming down, stone by stone, last week.

“We spent a tremendous amount of money trying to undo what 110 years had done, and we took on that risk, thinking that we could see it through,” said Sam Unruh, who purchased the building several years ago.

Restoring it, he said, would have incurred “astronomical” costs that would have been an impossible lift for his small business, a custom furniture company. Stabilizing and waterproofing the roof and walls could cost upwards of half a million dollars alone.

Unruh, founder of Unruh Furniture, purchased the then-abandoned 36,000-square-foot building for $350,000. In September 2016, after nine months of renovations, Unruh Furniture unveiled its new space inside the old church.

Last summer, Unruh and his colleagues noticed a crack in a primary truss holding up the tall ceiling.

After several months and $100,000 spent out of pocket trying to repair the truss, the ceiling eventually gave way. The city deemed it a “catastrophic collapse which endangered the health and safety of the public,” according to a statement from Beth Breitenstein, a spokeswoman for Kansas City’s City Planning and Development Department.

“We are saddened to see the loss of this significant Kansas City landmark,” Breitenstein wrote. “City staff will review existing ordinances and determine opportunities for revisions that will better protect such important community assets. We will also reach out to our partners in the Historic Preservation Commission and historic preservation community to identify best practices.”

Unruh said despite outcries to save the building over the past few weeks, no one seemed to have the money to help restore it.

Brad Wolf, a city historic preservation officer, previously told The Star that dilemmas like this are common as buildings grow older, and risk falling into disrepair.

On Tuesday, Wolf said if the Historic Preservation Commission could review historic sites prior to emergency demolition orders, they may be able to discuss possible funding options and solutions with the property owner before it reaches the point of no return.

“We know that not everything is going to be saved,” Wolf added. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Unruh drives past the building every day or two. His wife is still too sad to come with.

They bought a house in Midtown the same year they bought the church. In the time since, they’ve collected countless memories inside the grand structure, including trips to the bell tower with their four young children. He remembers the thousands of hours he and his employees put into cleaning the brick and stone as they attempted to restore the old church.

“It was a labor of love for quite a few years that has now come to a close,” said Unruh, who found a new workshop out of a warehouse in Harrisonville. He’s still looking for a space in the metro to lease as a showroom.

The Disney brothers have made frequent stops by the lot over the past week, watching as the church, a cornerstone in the neighborhood, and a cornerstone in their lives, turned to ruins.

“I think he was probably as a young lad as awed with it as I was,” Disney said of his uncle, Walt. “There was something about it that spoke to your heart.”

He blew the old exposed church a kiss as he turned away.

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Tribune Wire


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