Freight House mastermind Dan Clothier sets his sights on reviving a Kansas grain mill

Kansas City developer Dan Clothier, who restored the Freight House in the Crossroads Arts District, has taken on a labor of love, restoring an abandoned 1875 mill in Cedar Point, in Chase County, Kan. Recently, Clothier tore off a metal-clad addition that hid the mill’s facade, seen here, from view for 112 years.
Kansas City developer Dan Clothier, who restored the Freight House in the Crossroads Arts District, has taken on a labor of love, restoring an abandoned 1875 mill in Cedar Point, in Chase County, Kan. Recently, Clothier tore off a metal-clad addition that hid the mill’s facade, seen here, from view for 112 years.

The back side of the abandoned limestone mill soars four stories into a tree canopy from the tea-colored Cottonwood River that laps at its base.

Cracks wider than your arm race Chutes-and-Ladders-style from roof peak to water’s edge, adding an eerie element of danger to the romance of the bucolic setting.

That view, the one from the bridge 100 feet away, is the one Kansas City day-trippers to the Flint Hills have been posting on Facebook for years with pleas for someone to step up and save the mill.

In April, someone did.

Dan Clothier, 71, a Wichita native who lives in Leawood, surveys the progress on a sun-drenched November morning from his perch in a front-end loader he has rented to clear debris.

The other vehicle on the site is his tricked-out, red-and-black turbo VW Beetle convertible with a vanity plate that reads “JAWOOHL” — “Yes, indeed!” in German (with an extra “o”), a language he speaks fluently after a year of college in Bonn.

Clothier has a history of saying “yes” to potential money-pit projects, and the mill at Cedar Point is not his first rodeo.

“I’m not as profit-oriented in the way I think about things as I should be. I spend too much on real estate sometimes and don’t make the money on the other side, given what the potential was,” he says.

But sometimes, investing in high-quality restoration pays off.

In the early 1990s, Clothier renovated the Boathouse on the banks of the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita, getting Bill Koch (yes, those Kochs) to fund sailing lessons for urban youth and to park the $10 million “Jayhawk” yacht Koch sailed to win the America’s Cup in 1992 on the lawn.

In the late ’90s, Clothier transformed a burned-out depot near Kansas City’s Union Station into the dining mecca known today as the Freight House, landing New York-based star chef Lidia Bastianich as his first tenant. Civic leaders say Lidia’s Kansas City gave rise to the Crossroads Arts District.

And now Clothier, whose sparkly blue eyes, close-cropped white hair and cheerful smile look like Santa minus the beard, has brought great cheer to sparsely populated Chase County as word has spread that a guy from Kansas City has come to save the mill.

A brief history of the mill

In 1867, a settler from Pennsylvania dammed a steeply banked section of the Cottonwood River at the location of the current mill, using it first as a saw mill. Later he took on a partner and switched to grinding flour.

In 1875, the men completed a new stone building with their names carved above a third-floor window on the street-facing side: Drinkwater and Schriver.

Carved pediments and meticulous finishing work on the stones give the mill’s facade a much more finished appearance than the rough back and sides.

Yet the facade was hidden for 112 years behind a tin-clad addition.

Until a few weeks ago, no living person in the county had ever seen it, not even 94-year-old Pat Sauble, whose family has owned the nearby Sauble Ranch since 1856.

“I didn’t even know about it (the facade) because it had always been covered up. When I met Dan, he said it was going to look pretty good when he pulled all that stuff off the front, and it sure does,” Sauble says.

Removing the addition revealed a surprise: Over the main doorway, a huge half-moon stone has the name Wyoming Mills on it.

Clothier, a history buff, has yet to unravel the mystery. He has learned that there is a Wyoming County and a Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, where the original owners came from, and Clothier speculates Wyoming Mills might have been a company in one of those places offering grist mill outfitting and design.

By 1903, both original owners were gone, and Schriver’s son built a granary addition that increased capacity to 100 barrels a day but added considerable structural stress.

The mill continued to sell flour until 1941.

During that period, Sauble used to purchase 40 sacks of flour at a time, hanging the sacks from rafters in the family’s barn to protect it from rodents.

In 1941, a local cattleman purchased the mill and changed the machinery to grind cattle feed, but it fell out of use in the 1960s and has languished since.

In 1998, Clothier was deep into the Freight House project but living in Wichita. He frequently stopped in the Flint Hills to break up trips to Kansas City and read about the mill in “PrairyErth: A Deep Map,” William Least Heat-Moon’s 1991 book about Chase County.

Book in hand, Clothier found the mill, located the owner and strode into the local bank across the street from the mill to set up a nonprofit to pay for Kansas State University architecture students to document the mill as a design project.

The Freight House, other projects and a move to the metro consumed all of Clothier’s time for the next decade.

Last year, on a visit, he discovered the restoration project had stalled. He had sold two of the successful restaurant properties in the Freight House — Fiorella’s Jack Stack and Grunauer (he still owns the Lidia’s building) — which freed up money and time.

He bought the mill. Standing inside, looking down at rotted steps leading to the silted-in basement where the river once flowed through, Clothier quipped, “Why not restore the mill? I could have opened a restaurant and lost money on that instead.” (The only Freight House restaurant to date that did not thrive was the one he ran: City Tavern, which preceded the successful Grunauer.)

Clothier has set up a nonprofit corporation called Drinkwater & Schriver Mill with Sauble and two other locals on the board.

Sauble led a successful drive to get the mill listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

A few years ago, when the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills event was being held nearby, he constructed a homemade sign on a piece of plywood saying “Help Save the Mill” and lined up volunteers to hand printouts asking for donations through the windows of tourists’ cars.

Sauble, having just given up feeding cattle two years ago at age 92, can recognize hard work when he sees it. He still serves on the state’s Neosho Basin Water Authority.

“I’ve got to hand it to him. Boy, he got in there and started to work on it. He got it all cleaned up in no time,” Sauble says of Clothier.

“Cedar Point used to be a good town,” Sauble continues. “I think there’s gonna be a comeback. Several of the empty buildings downtown have been bought recently, and people are starting to make repairs on some of them.”

A son of Wichita

Clothier says building is in his DNA. So, arguably, is determination.

Clothier’s father was blinded twice. The first time was after being shot in the head at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

Two years after regaining his eyesight and founding a construction company with his brother that built school gymnasiums all over Kansas, he was blinded permanently in a car accident.

After that, he enrolled in Kansas State Chiropractic College in Wichita, was valedictorian of his class and became a successful chiropractor.

Clothier’s mother worked for an oil company in Wichita.

At Wichita East High School, Clothier played football, wrestled, ran track and excelled at debate and German. His exchange year in Germany during college deepened Clothier’s love of history and exposed him to music, art and architecture.

“I lived 30 miles from the Cologne cathedral and made many, many trips there,” he recalls.

Making money always has been part of Clothier’s life, along with academic and athletic pursuits. In elementary school he shoveled sidewalks, mowed lawns and sold Christmas cards door-to-door. In college he worked construction, had a seasonal fireworks business and sold ice cream on a three-wheel Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in German and history and a law degree at the University of Kansas, Clothier ended up on Wall Street in the late 1970s, trading commodities futures.

Living in New Canaan, Conn., Clothier and his first wife collected antiques, which deepened Clothier’s love of old buildings.

Clothier divorced in 1978 and was still in Connecticut when he met his second wife, Kris, during a St. Louis airport layover in bad weather. Clothier was flying home for a high school reunion and Kris, who owns a travel agency in Wichita, was returning from a vacation.

The couple married in 1983, and Clothier moved back to Wichita and began working in securities law.

In 1994, Clothier’s business and law career crashed and burned, he says, a consequence of “terrible judgment.”

Picking up the pieces, he pivoted into real estate, a move he today calls “redemptive.” Restoring old buildings, which quickly became his forte, nurtured his soul.

Rescuing the Freight House

A childhood friend from Wichita who had done restoration work in Wichita’s Old Town had heard the Freight House was for sale and told Clothier about it.

Sean O’Bryne, vice president of the Downtown Council of Kansas City, was working for the real estate agent handling the sale of the five-acre site along the railroad behind Union Station.

“The property had been abandoned for 20 years. The neighborhood was forgotten. The buildings were collapsing,” O’Byrne recalls.

O’Bryne says when his company began to show the building, it couldn’t even get prospective clients through the door.

“There was police tape up and standing water following an accidental fire started by vagrants trying to keep warm. People would see that and turn around and leave. Dan was only person who walked in and said, ‘I love it, it’s perfect.’ 

Looking back, Clothier says he had no doubts the project would be a success.

“You have this grand space with 30-foot-high ceilings and big arched windows. I just knew it was a wonderful space that people would want to come to. It had to be restaurants, I thought.”

Clothier helped a childhood friend from Wichita put the money together to buy the property in 1995; two years later Clothier bought him out.

From the beginning, Clothier invested in quality materials and craftsmanship. For example, he paved the enormous 500-space parking lot with concrete, vastly more expensive than asphalt but much longer-lasting.

In addition, real estate broker Suzie Aron says Clothier was the first private developer in the Crossroads to introduce the concept of public/private art, using development dollars to pay local artist Jim Woodfill to create light sculptures in the parking lot.

“It’s still a delightful experience every time I drive into the lot,” says Aron, a past president of Crossroads Community Association.

Clothier hired El Dorado, a Kansas City architecture firm, to build a stairway to a pedestrian bridge connecting the Freight House to Union Station.

Through one of the partners at El Dorado, Clothier met David Wagner, a native Kansas Citian who was working for restaurant owner and celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich in New York. After the introduction, Clothier immediately embarked on a campaign to get Lidia to open the first restaurant in his restored building.

“Once we knew we were in the running as a possible location, competing with the Plaza and Town Center in Leawood, I was all over her,” Clothier recalls. “I made many trips to New York. The pivotal meeting came when I pitched her the idea of an elegant Tuscan farmhouse, on a very hot day in August 1997 inside the ground floor of what came to be her restaurant.”

The rest is the stuff of local culinary legend.

In 1998, Lidia’s Kansas City opened the doors to its showstopping interior, designed by star New York architect David Rockwell, whom Clothier hired at Bastianich’s behest.

A 30-foot-long fireplace delivered on Clothier’s promise to make an enormous interior feel like a cozy farmhouse.

“The bones of the building are wonderful and have a lot of history. Being so close to the gorgeous Union Station was also a plus,” Bastianich says. “The natural brick material lent itself to the vision of a warm Italian atmosphere.”

Success radiated from there.

“Directly because of Dan and because of Lidia, everything has flowered,” O’Byrne says.

Once Lidia’s was in place, it was easy to get Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, a local institution, on board at the opposite end of the row of three buildings.

In the space in the middle, Clothier opened City Tavern, which stayed in business for eight years but never made money.

“I’m really good at redeveloping old buildings and really bad at running restaurants,” Clothier explains.

Through Joe Bastianich, Lidia’s son, Clothier met Peter Grünauer, a New York restaurateur who earned a four-star review from The New York Times for his restaurant Vienna 79.

Grünauer was interested in opening a restaurant in the Freight House as soon as Lidia’s moved in, but Jack Stack and City Tavern already were in the works. He stayed in touch with Clothier, the two became close friends and Grünauer jumped at the opportunity to take over the City Tavern building in 2010.

The elegant French-bistro-inspired space with its dark wood and tall, aged mirrors fit Grünauer’s vision for a Viennese gasthaus.

“I inherited something very good,” Grünauer says.

The city’s involvement in the $12 million project has had a happy ending as well, with $3 million in TIF funds paid off eight years early because of the success of the three restaurants. Clothier says the city was collecting $30,000 a year in taxes before the redevelopment; now the Freight House is paying around $1 million a year in taxes (on combined annual sales of $18 million) that flow to Kansas City, Jackson County, the state of Missouri, the Kansas City Public Library system and Kansas City Public Schools.

A mill again?

“DREAM BIG” reads a neon orange-and-green artwork by Kansas City painter Archie Scott Gobber that hangs in Clothier’s home office.

He always has.

Sitting at the kitchen table in the couple’s Leawood home, which has Kansas landscapes on the walls, Kris Clothier says she is excited about the mill project, but not as much as her husband.

“I’m from Wichita, so I love the Flint Hills too,” she says. “But I’m more practical. I see all the effort that is required.”

Her husband’s original goal for the mill was to restore the outside of the building only and have museum displays about the history and technology of mills inside, and picnic tables outside on the river bank, a rest stop for travelers along U.S. 50 and a destination for history and architecture buffs.

He would not try to locate a vintage paddle wheel (the original one is missing) or reinstall flour-grinding machinery — too expensive, he thought.

Then he learned about Turkey Red.

Mennonite immigrants from Ukraine planted the hard red winter wheat in Kansas in the 1870s, and it quickly became the main wheat crop planted in the Central Plains.

Turkey Red was replaced in the 1940s by higher-yielding cultivars. Recently Clothier learned that some environmentalists and organic farmers are re-introducing Turkey Red in Kansas for its rich, nutty flavor and because, standing twice as tall as modern cultivars, it shades out weeds, eliminating the need for herbicides.

“How cool would it be to raise Turkey Red right here and grind it up at the mill and even sell it?” he asks, gesturing toward the rich bottomlands flanking the river east of the mill.

As if thinking out loud, he says, “Of course, ka-ching, that pushes the price up, but potential donors seem excited about it, and money always flows to the better ideas.”

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel