Three Gables, perhaps Kansas City’s oldest house, saved from ruin

06/05/2014 2:32 PM

06/07/2014 10:16 AM

There she stood … neglected, decaying, all but forgotten.

Her shabby yet stately old bones were so well hidden by weeds and brush along Missouri 291, a busy road leading into Liberty, that passing motorists could not see her.

Many longtime locals had forgotten she was there, and some newer ones didn’t know she existed.

Her name is Three Gables, at 9550 N.E. Cookingham Drive, and she’s a rare example of a Gothic Revival house in this part of the country. An abstract indicates two of her rooms are 190 years old, so she might also be the oldest home in Kansas City.

What had the old girl seen? Indians making their way along nearby trails? Union and Confederate troops trudging to and from the Battle of Liberty? Is it possible that Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith stepped foot on her property? He spent the winter of 1838 in the Liberty jail, three miles away.

But nearly two centuries of life brings a lot of ups and downs: Rounds of loving owners followed by neglectful ones, then a period of such bleakness that she could have easily disappeared. Razed.

“It was so overgrown in recent years that people forgot they were about to lose something important,” Deon Wolfenbarger, a historic preservation consultant, said recently. Deon and her family were the last to raise children within the Three Gables’ walls. They moved to Denver in 2000.

The people they sold to figured the house’s best asset was her land — they did virtually no upkeep.

By March 2013, Three Gables was for sale and had been empty for several months. That’s when Mike Yeates and Andrew Mackey, owners of the Real Estate Store, first laid eyes on her.

Vines had crept over her brick exterior, tree limbs poked through windows and 5-foot weeds were so thick in parts that it looked like the Amazon basin.

“It hadn’t been painted in 50 years,” Yeates said. “And there was lots of structural stuff. The exterior walls are three bricks thick and had settled over time, and you could see where they occasionally tried to repair it.”

Yeates submitted a contract to buy Three Gables, thinking he’d knock her down and build a small subdivision.

Weeks went by with no news from the seller. In the meantime, he and Mackey learned about the home’s historical significance and how people were rallying to save Three Gables from destruction.

Then one day, in June, the seller called Yeates. A buyer had just backed out on its contract to buy Three Gables after learning about the preservation efforts.

Yeates called Mackey and said: “Guess what? We have to figure out what do with this piece of (junk) house.”

Three Gables now belonged to Yeates — but what would he and Mackey do with her?

Also known as the Poage-Arnold Farm in honor of her first two owners, Three Gables is a perfect example of Gothic Revival architecture, according to Wolfenbarger.

She has a steeply pitched roof with intersecting cross gables, tall narrow windows and a small front porch. Old pictures show gingerbread fretwork, another hallmark of the style, on the front porch.

The Gothic Revival movement began in England during the 1740s as a reaction to classical Greek and Roman architecture.

It spread across Europe, South Africa, Australia and the Americas during the 19th and 20th centuries and became so popular that experts suspect the number of Gothic Revival structures may exceed the number of Gothic structures built between the 12th and late 16th centuries. Most American examples are on the east coast.

The original house mostly likely didn’t have gables at all.

Bonnie Esterly, who lived at Three Gables from 1944-55, put together a summary of an abstract, a collection of legal documents associated with the property. It traced the house’s origins to June 1824, when 80 acres were deeded to Andrew Poage.

The Poage family built a two-room, one-story cabin.

About 10 years later, the family sold the property to Thomas Arnold for $1,300, about $35,000 in today’s money.

That’s when the home went Goth and got her gables. The Arnolds, who had nine children, built the front of the house, including the dining room, hall, living room and two upstairs bedrooms up through the 1860s.

Not long after finishing the expansion, Thomas Arnold died, and his property went into probate. His will had been lost, and 11 heirs came forward to claim a share of the estate. Three Gables was entangled in a series of legal skirmishes until the probate court sold the land and home. Thomas and Sarepta Holland bought it in 1876 for $2,900, about $63,000 today.

After the Hollands, Three Gables had two owners over the next 68 years. During that time, more land was sold. Some was leased for gas and oil rights or claimed for right-of-way by public utilities for electricity. In 1935, U.S. 71 was built, cutting off a 10-acre portion.

Three Gables’ last big transformation came with Joseph and Bonita Esterley, who bought her in 1944. They tore off her front porch and built a new entrance, tore out a lean-to attached to the original two rooms and replaced it with a half bath and screened-in porch, and expanded the upstairs over the kitchen, adding a bedroom, bathroom, closets and a screened-in porch.

They also channeled out the home’s brick walls, which were a foot thick on the exterior and 9 inches thick on the interior to install heating, plumbing and electricity systems.

This brought Three Gables, which previously had one wall outlet in each room and an outhouse for a bathroom, into the modern age.

The Esterleys also used bricks found on the property to create a patio. They were told that the bricks had been made by slaves, probably Thomas Arnold’s. After Joseph Esterley died, Bonita Esterley added walkways around the house using old paving bricks from the streets of Liberty that she hauled from the city dump — some perhaps trodden upon by Jesse James.

Bonita Esterly apparently worked on the path into her 80s. The Esterleys also planted an orchard and turned a hog house into a hen house.

In her abstract summary, Esterley wrote that she often raced a resident skunk to get to the eggs first: “If he did, I’d stand and watch (him) throw the eggs between his hind legs to break ’em against the side of the nest.”

Esterley sold the property to Robert and Clara Fousek in 1955. They planted more fruit and hardwood trees as well as shrubs and flowers.

At this point, the last vestige of rustic living still sat in the backyard: a well with a hand pump. Robert Fousek lost the ends of two fingers while he was trying to replace a part, Esterley wrote in her summary.

Kansas City annexed the land during the early 1960s and installed water lines about a decade later.

Wolfenbarger thinks the Fouseks sold off the majority of the remaining land around Three Gables.

“They bought it in the ’50s, and just down the street there are ’50s and ’60s houses,” she said.

In 1976 Clay County installed a plaque at the front of the property declaring it one the county’s 76 most historically significant buildings.

In the decade following, much of Three Gables fell into disrepair. By the time Deon Wolfenbarger was introduced to her in 1989, the house needed a lot of work.

Many of the fruit trees had died. The kitchen cabinets were made of plywood. She needed a new roof, gutters and tuckpointing.

Nevertheless, Wolfenbarger the preservationist fell in love with her at first sight.

She and her husband appreciated her details, like the 28-inch-tall hand-carved railing on the staircase. They raised two children there.

A few years after moving in, developers began circling.

“One day, I went outside and found people surveying for roads to run through the middle of our house,” Wolfenbarger said. “They were certain we were going to sell it to a developer. I told them to leave. I said, ‘We’re not leaving this house.’”

She knew what a jewel she had.

“Pre-Civil War, or antebellum, homes are very rare,” she says. “We had such a low population to begin with and many were torn down. So they’re extremely scarce.”

In 2000, Wolfenbarger was hired as preservation planner for the city of Boulder, Colo. It was time to leave Three Gables.

“We thought we sold to a sympathetic owner, but I’m not sure what happened,” she said.

Fast forward to March 2013. James Thorn, curator of the Clay County Museum & Historical Society gets a phone call from a real estate company in California.

Bank of America had foreclosed on Three Gables and sold it to Blue Mountain Homes of Sacramento, as part of a multimillion-dollar deal. Blue Mountain wanted to learn more about the property.

“They had no idea what they had, and they had no intention of saving it,” Thorn said.

He sought help from Wolfenbarger and Krislin Fenner, a paralegal and history buff from Gladstone who volunteers with preservation groups.

“To save the home, you need a two-prong approach, to get people interested and aware of it and to protect it,” Wolfenbarger says.

She inquired with Historic Kansas City and Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation about getting Three Gables on their most-endangered lists.

Wolfenbarger and Fenner researched Three Gables and applied to be on the lists. The old girl easily fit the groups’ criteria of being historically significant and endangered, Wolfenbarger said. She’s important to understanding the early settlement of Clay County because the house was built only a few years after Missouri got statehood.

“And there just aren’t many examples of those (Gothic) types of building, at least on this side of the state,” Wolfenbarger said.

Wolfenbarger then applied to Kansas City to get the house designated as landmark, which would protect her from being razed.

Bradley Wolf, historic preservation officer for Kansas City said Three Gables, or at least the back part of her, could very well be the oldest house in the city.

Only two other structures, the log cabin that is part of Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor restaurant and the Col. John Thornton House, were recorded around that time, he says. Both of them were built in 1829.

The landmark application for Three Gables was accepted but final approval wouldn’t be granted for some time.

Enter Yeates, owner of Brookeview Design/Build of Kansas City, and Mackey, his business partner in another venture, The Real Estate Store. Yeates paid for Three Gables but the two decided to take her on together.

As the young businessmen learned more about Three Gables’ pedigree, they also fell in love with her.

And that’s when the plan started to take hold.

What if they restored Three Gables and used her to house The Real Estate Store?

What if they turned her into a hobby farm with chickens, goats and turkeys?

What if they opened her to the community as a gathering place on weekends, where families could bring their kids to pet the animals and learn about history?

And so it was on a recent Saturday morning that Preston Toth, 3, stood watching Tres, a male pygmy goat, and a 6-week-old kid, Hershey.

“Are you trying to pet the baby goat?” Melanie Toth, of Liberty, asked her son. “He’s eating.”

“I want to cuddle with him,” Preston announced.

Several other children were petting Hershey’s mom, Cinnamon, and chasing chickens nearby. A large tom turkey and his mate clucked nearby in a pen.

Melanie and Steve Toth didn’t know that Three Gables existed until a few months ago, when they saw a sign on the front of the Three Gables property about following the house on Facebook.

That’s right: Three Gables has a Facebook page. She also got a facelift.

She’s been tuck-pointed and painted, stabilized and weeded. Yeates and Mackey installed windows that look like the originals, restored and rehung green shutters found in the basement and put a pergola over the front door.

As soon as they began working on her, motorists started honking and local residents began dropping by to see what was happening. They’d stay for hours, wandering around to look, help clean up, paint or pet the goats.

Yeates’ parents, Bruce and Pam Yeates, spent countless hours landscaping and Yeates and Mackey’s fellow Mormons from their church planted grass seed that has turned into a lush lawn.

Inside, they’ve taken the walls down to the brick and the ceilings to the rafters. They intend to keep them that way to give Three Gables a modern loft feel. They paid $106,000 for the house and put slightly more than that into updates. By the time they’re done, they expect to spend another $60,000 or $70,000 on her.

Some of the changes aren’t what Wolfenbarger and other historic preservationists would have done. But they’re OK with Three Gables’ new look.

“You have to look at the big picture,” said Gieselle Fest, former historic sites director for Clay County, as she stared at the new facade. “The house is saved and that’s most important. You have to do some modernizations for code and, I know that Mike and Andy have been approached to do small events like weddings. Love and elbow grease can only go so far. They’re going to need an income to support this.”

A few feet away, Neil Neumeyer, who lives in a subdivision across Missouri 291, played catch on the front lawn with his son, Landon, 5.

A few minutes later, he was showing pictures on his iPhone of Landon next to Hershey.

“This is the best of both worlds,” Neumeyer said. “Here we are living and raising kids in suburbia and then there’s this? Last weekend, we didn’t have any plans and my son said, ‘Dad, we have to feed the turkeys.’ So we climbed the fence and came in.”

Mackey remembers growing up poor and how his parents would salvage old stuff and make it nice; how they’d take him and his siblings to the country to walk in rivers and play with foals at a local farm.

He and Yeates wanted to create similar memories for other kids and their families.

In Three Gables, they’re doing that and saving a piece of history.

In April, Kansas City granted the house her newest status: Landmark.

Cynthia Gregorian is the editor of House + Home and a writer for The Star.

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