KC neighbors hope to save Thacher School

07/24/2014 12:14 AM

07/24/2014 12:14 AM

The massive, empty brick structure towering above Independence Avenue is dilapidated. It’s boarded up. It’s vandalized.

And it’s entirely worth saving, insist a group of Historic Northeast community activists.

When Kansas City Public Schools announced earlier this year that it wanted to demolish the closed-down 115-year-old Thacher Elementary School and turn it into a parking lot and green space, several residents became upset by the news.

They attended a school board meeting in March, asking administration to give the property a chance to find the right developer instead. The school board relented, giving the passionate neighbors six months to find a developer for the property.

Thacher, which shares an eight-acre site with Northeast Middle School, has sustained major fire damage and vandalism recently, creating safety concerns as the district plans to reopen Northeast Middle in August. Administration feels it would be better served as expanded field space and additional parking for the faculty of Northeast Middle.

But neighbors and interested Thacher alum are hopeful they can find a developer who will save the school.

On a recent Saturday, dozens of people showed up at the site to pick up trash from the sidewalks and show their support for keeping the building alive.

“When people see a historical building like Thacher torn down, it’s a symbolic failure of the city’s, the school district’s, and the neighbors’ ability to work together,” said Indian Mound Neighborhood Association President Bryan Stalder. “I’d love to see us all get on the same page eventually because that building is salvageable — it can be turned into something that will benefit everyone.”

Stalder, who grew up in the Northeast area, said there has been some interest from a couple developers in the past few months, but he declined to give details as nothing is set yet.

Manny Abarca, one of those leading the effort, said by email that the Thacher contingent is working with a construction development group “that has had regional success with restoring a building of similar stature in a neighboring community.”

The group toured the building in late June, decided it was worthy of redevelopment and agreed to help the Thacher group approach experienced developers about taking on the project.

Abarca said the group also is looking into fundraising opportunities.

Stalder, who grew up in the Northeast area, said some developers have mentioned senior housing or rent-assisted apartments.

He also has ideas of his own.

“In cities like Colorado Springs and Portland, Ore., you see historical buildings turned into really cool retail space, with restaurants, movie theaters and hotels,” Stalder said. “I don’t see any reason why that can’t be done here.”

At the end of their six-month mark, Stalder and other supporters plan on updating the school board on their progress, and hopefully, showcase a plan.

“It hasn’t been easy,” he admitted. “A lot of developers have shown us the challenges with this building. Lead paint needs to be removed. There’s mold in places. It needs asbestos removal, and it needs elevators to be ADA compliant. It’s going to take a lot of money, but we hope there is a developer who sees that it’s truly worth it.”

His sentiments were echoed by several other supporters who braved the wet Saturday morning to pick up trash.

Jenna Wilkins, 24, recently moved to the Northeast area with her boyfriend. She’s disappointed the school district allowed the historic building to get so run down and neglected, but like Stalder, believes it can be saved.

“It would benefit the neighborhood greatly if Thacher could be restored because this neighborhood thrives on history,” Wilkins said. “The Northeast is becoming vibrant again, with more young people and families moving here, so it would set a good example.”

Shane Rowse, who has lived in the area since 1998, agrees.

“If you take away a building like Thacher, you’re taking the charm away from this neighborhood,” he said. “I want people to see that it is a valuable part of this area because the layout of this neighborhood is a throwback to the time it was built 100 years ago.

“It was built for a lifestyle that still exists here, where small businesses thrive and people know their neighbors.”

For Thacher supporter Jan James, however, the run-down school is more than just a slice of Kansas City history. It represents her past.

When she looks up at the dreary boarded-up building, she can still see the hallways decorated with colorful balloons and crepe paper for the elementary school’s annual carnival during the 1950s.

Running down the hallway in puffy pastel gingham dresses, little girls would squeal with delight when a beaming clown pulled trinkets out of her giant pockets. A baby doll. A toy ring. A bubble blower. The kids never knew what to expect.

James’ favorite activity of the carnival, however, was the cake walk, which featured stunningly gorgeous homemade five-layer coconut cakes topped with a cherry, and fluffy pink strawberry cakes worthy of a magazine cover.

“That school, this neighborhood, they were all great places to be a kid,” she said. “It was a different era, a more innocent one.”

Although James knows those picture-perfect days of the past are long over for Thacher Elementary, she would like to see the building put to good use.

“I’d like to see it turn into something like a community center,” she said. “There could be a food pantry, basketball courts, and a counseling center for low-income residents.”

For now, however, the future is uncertain.

At a meeting in the early fall, the Kansas City school board will vote on whether to go through with the demolition or go forth with a development plan the community members may present, said Ray Weikal, public relations coordinator for the district.

Currently, the district has nothing new to report on the matter and school board members are not speaking publicly on the issue, he added.

“We’re just looking forward to seeing what the community members come up with,” Weikal said.

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