Can This House Be Saved? The Sternberg Mansion.
A few weeks ago I received an email.
Did I know about the Sternberg Mansion in Wichita, Kansas?
So I clicked on the Realtor.com listing, and my heart was instantly seized.
Before me was a FABULOUS house built in 1886. But, before me was also a house in alarming condition.
Thus, the seized heart.
I am a sucker for a damsel in distress.
The listing offered scant information or images, so I knew I had to call my realtor.
In 2012 and 2013, I was on a mission to buy a building which could house my business and myself. Wichita was a city I gave serious consideration to, and my realtor was very gracious in showing me around one listing after another. We looked at mid-century modern houses, one astounding Moderne house right out of a Hollywood movie, a circa-1910 commercial property (to-die-for but with no place to park a car), and a circa-1940 house which I lusted after in a super-prime neighborhood:
The house had some significant structural issues, and after much thought I decided to pass on it. For, I was wildly busy and knew I would have zero time for a fixer-upper.
So, what did I do a year later? I purchased a massive house needing a billion times more work.
Well, love does strange things to people.
After all this, I figured that my realtor knew I was a nut case, but he still seemed to like me anyway. God bless ’em. So, when I wanted to look at the Sternberg Mansion, I contacted him. Even though I made it clear that I did NOT want to buy the house, my realtor nonetheless graciously agreed to give me grand tour. I also took him to lunch.
Ominously, I had to sign a waiver to even see the house: DUE TO THE POTENTIALLY UNSOUND NATURE OF THE STRUCTURE, SELLER REQUIRES THAT ANY PERSON OR PERSONS ENTERING THE PROPERTY IS(ARE) AT THEIR OWN RISK AND MUST PROVIDE A SIGNED HOLD HARMLESS AGREEMENT TO LISTING AGENT PRIOR TO SCHEDULING SHOWING AND/OR ACCESSING THE PROPERTY.
Wichita had its boom years in the 1870s and 1880s. A prolific builder was William Henry Sternberg. In 1886, he designed and built his own home at 1065 North Waco in Wichita.
It was reported:
The residence of Mr. Sternberg, a handsome and costly structure, is beautifully located on a rise of ground commanding a fine view of its surroundings. Within and without it bears the evidence of refined tastes and ample means, and it is universally admired by all who have occasion to pass it.
In short, Sternberg built a giant calling card to show his capabilities.
Well done, my man, well done.
In the early 1900s, when the house was not quite twenty-years-old, it was purchased by W.S. Corbett, president of Kansas National Bank. He implemented extensive renovations:
- The pair of wood front doors, with a stained-glass transom, were replaced by a single door and a wide side light.
- The stair windows were replaced with prairie-style stained glass
- The dining room had high wood wainscoting installed, and a heavy beamed ceiling.
During the ensuing decades, the once-prime neighborhood declined, and the house was turned into apartments, Later, it became a care facility.
By 1969, the house had lost its porches, was covered in “brick” asphalt siding, and was in perilous condition.
In the early 1970s, the house was purchased by the newly formed Urban Redevelopment Agency (URA) for $11,200, which then spent $55,000 to restore the exterior. This would explain why so much is intact today. I am uncertain if the porches are wholly 1970s recreations, or restored from some original components. The derelict interior was left untouched, save for removing the many apartment partitions.
During the restoration, the house was broken into, and thieves stole the prairie-style stained glass stair windows, the newel post for the main stair, mantles, and other components. The stained-glass windows were recovered four months later, and returned to the house. The newel post was also recovered (although the newel currently in the house is not original).
1975: URA opened the house for a public tour.
1976: URA tried to sell the house.
1977: URA sold the house for $30,000 (a considerable loss to URA) to David and Sally Dewey. The couple renovated and restored the interior.
1987: The Dewey’s listed the house for $295,000.
1998: The Dewey’s sold the house to Hazel and Jim Craig.
2009: Amazingly, after all this effort to bring the house back to life, it was threatened with demolition by the city due to dangerous chimneys and foundation issues. To save it from this fate, the house was purchased by Ken Elliot.
2010: The house was listed as one of the “Most Endangered Historic Property in Kansas” by the Kansas Preservation Alliance.
2011: Elliot received two grants to help stabilize the house.
2015: After a new roof was installed, and significant foundation work completed, and one chimney rebuilt, the house was listed for sale. The current ask is $59K. The exterior is shabby but actually in good condition. The interior is derelict.
The text for the above 1969 article:
Wichita had not been able to justify the cost of sacrificing valuable commercial land to preserve the aging relics of culture from the city’s early days.
The three-story, gingerbread-laden house at 1065 N. Waco is an example of this dilemma.
Located on the fringe of a commercial area, the house is situated on a 125 by 110 foot lot. It is owned by Mr. an Mrs. E. W. Adams who have two children, Mike, 14, and Kathy, 16. Despite its age and apparent decadence, it is their home and they are proud of its history.
It was built in about 1880 by E. W. Sternberg, a Wichita contractor and builder. Sternberg, who came to Wichita in 1875, was the builder of the old Post Office building, the city hall and courthouse. He was also responsible for building many of the large business blocks located in downtown Wichita.
His home is evidence of the same kind of construction. It was built to last with joists of 2 by 8-inch timbers, woodwork of pine so hard it will not take a regular nail and one interior wall that is 15 inches thick.
Four fireplaces, both functional and ornamental, provided heat for the 14-room house and were supplemented by steam radiators. A good portion of the copper tubing for gas lighting has been taken from the house.
Kathy, a pretty North High School student, conducted the tour through the house. Mike trailed behind, visiting with the photographer.
She led us into the first floor study, which is currently being used as a bedroom. The room is large and might have been a game room at one time. The walls are paneled in a dark wood and the ceiling is heavily beamed. A leaded glass panel with a pane or two missing, was once the front of a liquor cabinet.
As we went up the stairs to the second floor, it was even more evident that the house was a victim of old age. The large window in the stair well was broken. And when we climbed up to the third floor, so many panes were missing from the ornate old windows that the pigeons have used it for a shelter.
Adams, who is an employee of Johnson Oil Co., has tried to keep the house from “falling down around their ears,” but maintenance on a house that age is a never-ending process.
In addition to just maintenance, there is a great deal of restoration that still needs to be done. At one time in the house’s history, it was cut up into apartments. Later, it was used as a care home and more “carving” of space was done. Evidence of the flimsy partitions and heavy coats of paint over varnished woodwork are still seen in the house.
The outside, which was in the late Victorian period, was originally wood siding, but at one time or another, someone has applied an asphalt shingle in an imitation of brick.
Porches were popular in that day and the Sternberg home had more than its share. Besides the wide front porch, there was one on both the north and south side of the house, and two on the second story.
At this time, the house has very little future left. Mrs. Adams admits that if the right offer were made they would probably sell.
So there it stands. Dilapidated, decaying but still functioning in the role for which it was built — a home.
A 1978 article:
It took more than three years of controversy, debate and delay, and an estimated $100,000 from various funding scores, but the Sternberg House at 10th and Waco — one of Wichita’s first locally designated landmarks — is ready to reclaim its rightful place as the price of its neighborhood.
It will stay a living, functioning, one-family private home rather than be turned into an antiseptic museum, a fate which befalls many landmark structures. It will echo with the growing sounds of a new generation of children, the five of new owners David and Sally Dewey.
The house, built in 1886, was the first historic restoration project undertaken through the Urban Renewal Agency. URA worked two years outlining the project and restoring the considerable gingerbread exterior of the Queen Anne-style home, and then sold it to the Deweys one year ago this month.
Since then, the Deweys have been restoring the three-story wooden structure inside starting from the studs and working out. Next month, the family plans to move in.
Today through Sunday, the Deweys will open the as-yet-unfurnished home to the general public for tours to benefit the Victorian Society, a non-profit group seeking to establish a house museum. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $1.75 for adults and $1 for children.
The Deweys said this weekend’s tours will be the last general public visits they will allow.
During a preview tour this week, workmen were frantically wallpapering the 10 major rooms on the ground and second floors in colorful floral patterns appropriate for the Victorian era here and reinstalling colored glass panels over the main stair well that had been stolen about three years ago, but recovered undamaged.
Some of the details may not be completed by the tour, workmen said, but the scope of the revitalization will be evident. The 4,000-square-foot home, with its wide foyer and huge windows for cross ventilation, displays what Mrs. Dewey described as a “graciousness and spaciousness” not readily seen three years ago when URA rescued it from being a rundown former mansion that had been converted into apartments. False partitions, including several that boxed in the main stairwell, were removed to readmit sunlight to the interior.
To the right of the heavy front door is the music room, in which Mrs. Dewey plans to install two antique organs and a piano for continuing the private music lessons she gives. It has a working fireplace with carved wooden mantle and will be papered in floral pattern with dark red background.
To the left of the front door is the formal parlor papered in green and gold, carrying the green color scheme of the exterior inside. Connecting with the formal parlor, which also has a carved working fireplace, is a second parlor which the Deweys will use as their dining room. This room has the most elaborately carved fireplace, with an oval medallion of a boy on a dolphin.
To the rear of the dining room is the kitchen, which Mrs. Dewey insisted look period but contain all modern appliances. The original dining room, also to the rear across from the kitchen, will be the Deweys family room. One of the largest in the house, it has a beamed ceiling, and a fireplace with wreath motifs. It is also paneled halfway up the 12-foot-high walls and topped with a display plate rail.
The second floor, which has no fireplaces, contains five bedrooms. The third floor, originally a pyramidal-shaped attic, has been converted into a bedroom suite for the Dewey’s oldest child, a 20-year-old Wichita State University student. This unique room, which the Deweys note will not be as historically accurate as the first two floors, features a sleeping loft over a sitting room, study room and a stereo room.
Outside, the Deweys plan to carry through the historic look of the home with a garden gazebo and appropriate fencing. Also planned are what Mrs. Dewey termed old-fashioned plantings, such as lilacs, roses and honeysuckle.
The Deweys are native Wichitans. She said this is the first historical restoration project they have undertaken although her husband, an attorney, joined with an architectural firm to restore a vintage building at 330 N. Main for architectural and law offices.
The restored Sternberg, built by early-day contractor and pioneer businessman W. H. Sternberg, commands its neighborhood from its corner lot. Only three years ago it was a dilapidated eyesore. At one time, a local businessman had proposed demolishing it and nearby houses to make way for an apartment complex.
The city’s then-new landmark board stepped in and persuaded URA to purchase the house as a historic restoration project under powers legislated in 1972. As the first such local project, URA purchased the home for $12,500 in April of 1975.
URA secured an allocation of $32,000 to restore the exterior, but later boosted the amount to $55,000. The work involved rebuilding the ornate porches to the style from an early photo, repairing deteriorating siding and repainting it in shades of green to match the original color found from paint chip analysis.
Three months after the project started, thieves broke into the empty house and carefully removed large colored glass windows, the carved newel post of the main stairs and that various wooden mantles. Members of the historical community were outraged and saddened by the historical loss in the $3,500 theft.
Four months later the missing items were found carefully wrapped in old blankets and abandoned behind a service station. An anonymous tipster revealed their location.
The house also proved to be a source of controversy on the URA board, first because of the additional funding needed and second because of its ultimate use. At first, URA officials did not want it to revert to a one-family private home. Instead, they proposed adaptive commercial use, such as offices. A project oversight committee, with members from both the historical community and various governmental agencies, finally established that it would be returned to its original use.
The original sale price was $55,000 to recoup the exterior restoration cost, but no bids were that high for what was essentially a shell. The Deweys submitted a $30,000 bid, which was finally accepted after considerable debate and rebidding. URA conceded it would have to take a loss on the project to keep it underway.
The Deweys have been responsible for financing the interior work, but they received help last month when URA approved a larger loan. The original guideline was set at $15,000, but amendments allowed a maximum of $27,000 or $10 per square foot, whichever is greater. A URA spokesman estimated that could mean up to $44,000 for the Sternberg.
The total expense will be somewhere around $100,000 for both interior and exterior work. A new home of comparable size without the Victorian frills would cost about $160,000 based on estimates of $38 to $42 per square foot, local Victorian Society members said.
A 1998 article:
The historic Sternberg House, a 112-year-old Victorian gem at 1065 N. Waco, has new owners — Hazel and Jim Craig. The couple is making it the home of their Divorce Clinic law office and Craig Detective Agency — and of their family of five. The Craigs purchased the property for an undisclosed amount July 1 and immediately opened shop. The offices occupy the first floor; the family, the top four floors.
The couple had long been attracted to the old Queen Anne-style house, said Hazel Craig. That’s why the Craigs jumped at the chance to work — and live — in the roomy Victorian mansion. In fact, she said, the former owners, David and Sally Dewey, made living in the building a condition of the sale.
Built in 1886, the 4,400-square-foot, six-bedroom house was the home of William Sternberg, designer of the historic Sedgwick County Courthouse. The Deweys purchased it in 1978 and restored the home to its original appearance, inside and out.
The Craig’s plans for the house include trading the original green Victorian color scheme for a new one, in still-historic shades of blue.
THE HOUSE TODAY
It seems incredible that after SO much work since the 1970s, the Sternberg Mansion could once again be derelict.
However, while the exterior looks shabby, it is actually in a good condition. The roof is new. There has been a tremendous amount of foundation work done, and the house feels straight and solid. There are no cracks in the walls, or foundation. At least one TALL chimney has been rebuilt.
The interior though was…unexpected. And unsettling.
I can look past the dust, air of abandonment, and missing bits. What was odd though — so very very odd — was the creeping realization that every bit of interior trim, and every door frame, and perhaps even the entire staircase…was not original to the house.
All the trim had clearly been removed at some point. Why? Was it then reinstalled? Or was all the trim removed from the house during its fifty years as an apartment building, and is the current trim salvaged material installed during the late 1970s?
I do not know. But surely somebody knows the answer. I hope they will comment on this post.
While the stair newel is clearly not original (and what happened to the one stolen in the early 1970s but later found?), I think, think, the rest of the stair is original.
All the flooring is particle board, and this, too, seems from the late 1970s work. The whole house then had wall-to-wall carpeting installed.
The kitchen is wholly post-1975. I did not even take a picture of it. Same with the few bathrooms.
Two mantles remain. I am uncertain if one is original. The “dolphin” mantle remains, but reports state that it was originally in a different room.
Most potential buyers will not even notice all this oddness, so I could not say that any of this matters.
The prairie-style stair windows are no longer in place, and the large triple-window is boarded up.
The attic level was a pleasant surprise. As noted above, the Dewey family converted this HUGE volume into a finished space. It vaults up way high in the middle, while the edges are all low and inviting and really cool. An open stair was installed to reach the very peak, which has a single room, overlooking the space below. Yep, really cool.
There are two second-floor porches. These are a delight.
There is large two-story garage, and enough land for a south-facing garden.
If I were a potential purchaser, I would only buy the house IF the former carriage house could also be acquired.
I would also recreate the lost fence:
Financially, restoring the house makes no sense. One would never recover their investment. If the house were in a different neighborhood, this would certainly be possible. The neighborhood today is far from what it was in 1886.
Of course, I purchased a comparable home and know I will never recover my investment, so I am proof that insane old house nuts do exist.
Is such a person out there who could take on this fabulous, historic house?
I pray so.
I pray that this house can be saved.
JOIN ME FOR A TOUR
To me, the Sternberg Mansion is a poster child for something I have long felt is really wrong with America.
For too long, we have been casual and even hostile about protecting our architectural heritage. Yet, money is always found for war.
I refuse to accept that a priority for death and carnage is better than a priority for protecting beauty, history, and livable spaces.
I also will never understand why a painting can sell for $179 million but great works of art like the Sternberg Mansion go begging. As is true for thousands of fabulous buildings across the land.
America has the resources to protect its heritage.
We just don’t give a damn.
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