A tour of the Deffenbaugh estate
The “for sale” sign goes up this week on what experts say may be the priciest home ever put on the Kansas City housing market.
Sitting on more than 100 wooded acres in the hills of western Shawnee, the two-level, 13,000-square-foot mansion was the last residence of the late Kansas City trash collection titan Ron Deffenbaugh.
Beneath the 24-foot ceiling in the great room is a built-in saltwater aquarium, the enclosed service area behind it as big as a studio apartment.
Downstairs, the home theater features a 120-square-foot screen behind red velvet curtains like you might find at an art house.
Outside the 5-year-old, five-bedroom house are waterfalls and fountains, an indoor-outdoor swimming pool and, within easy trotting distance, horse stables.
“You’re kind of in a kingdom unto yourself,” real estate sales agent Teresa Dunn said with a dreamy smile as she led a private tour last week.
Ah, but not everyone who can afford the $14 million asking price will think the neighborhood all that royal.
The RD Ranch, as it is known officially, sits directly across the street from the fetid receptacle for much of the garbage collected in the Kansas City area: the Johnson County Landfill. It was the centerpiece of the empire Deffenbaugh once owned.
About 1.8 million tons of household waste and other garbage is dumped there each year, by far more than any other waste-handling facility in the region.
Technology controls the stink most of the time. But last year, the city of Shawnee fielded 41 odor complaints on 35 different days. You can’t see the landfill from the Deffenbaugh house, but at times you can smell it.
“It depends on how bad the weather is,” said Bruce Bird, the Deffenbaugh ranch’s next-door neighbor to the west. “You get some evenings when it’s calm and it’s pretty rank.”
Not rank enough to have dissuaded Deffenbaugh from setting up housekeeping there. For the last few years of his life, using a wheelchair and tended to by a staff of dozens, he was right where he wanted to be until his death last August at age 73.
“To him, this property had special meaning,” said longtime associate Mark Rosenau, who now leads a firm solely devoted to managing the Deffenbaugh estate.
Special meaning or not, in the real estate business, where “location, location, location” are said to be the three most important words in making a sale, the ranch’s proximity to the dump could be a turnoff to potential buyers.
“Oh my, that’s challenging,” said Susan Fate, who specializes in selling high-end properties for ReeceNichols. “I would venture to guess that’s probably going to sit for a while.”
Dunn and Jim Holland sure hope not. The Crown Realty duo hired by the trustees of Deffenbaugh’s estate to sell the place say neighbors assure them that landfill odors cause little discomfort.
They’re convinced that once they have strolled the hallways and grounds, the right buyer or buyers will fall in love with the laid-back, casual feel of the place.
“It’s not a castle on a hill. It’s a home,” Holland said.
Even if they don’t know his remarkable rags-to-riches story, virtually everyone in Kansas City knows the name Deffenbaugh. It’s stenciled on the sides of countless dumpsters and recycling bins. It’s splashed on the fleet of green trash trucks that haul waste from across the region to the landfill up the hill from the Kansas River and across the street from the opulent house the founder of Deffenbaugh Industries lived in at 18555 Johnson Drive.
What a story it was.
Starting out at age 15 with a single trash truck, Deffenbaugh would build a waste management conglomerate that picked up trash in cities as far away as Nebraska and Arkansas, collected medical waste, rented out portable toilets and operated a rock quarry.
His obituary said he’d greet his local trash truck crews every morning before they set out, and they loved him for that and the fact he always made sure there were three guys to a truck so no one worked himself to death.
“Here was a guy who built a company on his back,” said Tom Nolte, a Lenexa city councilman and the architect who designed Ron Deffenbaugh’s dream house.
But by the time Nolte got that job, Deffenbaugh’s circumstances had vastly changed after a freak accident left him a quadriplegic the last seven years of his life.
It happened in the summer of 2007 as Deffenbaugh was getting ready to sell his company for an estimated $300 million. While at Shawnee Mission Medical Center for a routine procedure, Deffenbaugh slipped off an X-ray table and his neck snapped.
His attorneys said the hospital was at fault. Deffenbaugh was sedated, they said, improperly restrained and unattended when he fell.
Shawnee Mission countered that Deffenbaugh was not under anesthesia but was taking painkillers not prescribed by hospital staff at the time of the accident and was not left unattended.
The lawsuit was settled quietly in 2009. And the next year, workers began building a home especially for someone in his condition on the 100-plus acres Deffenbaugh had owned since the 1980s.
Others might have balked at spending millions to build a home across from the landfill, but Deffenbaugh was unfazed.
“He shared with me on several occasions that this is where he wanted to build his future home,” Rosenau said in an email last week. “After his accident, he told me he was ready.”
Told by his doctors that, due to his almost complete paralysis, he wasn’t likely to live long — he went on, however, to survive seven more years — Deffenbaugh spared no expense. Nolte, the designer, said “it was a World’s Fair-type project. It was anything and everything.”
While not at liberty to discuss the details — Nolte signed a confidentiality agreement at the outset of the project and the plans were kept out of the public record at Deffenbaugh’s insistence — the opulence he mentions is apparent in all 21 rooms.
The furniture is custom-built. The wood floors on the main level, Brazilian cherry wood, are accented with marble tiles. Even the towel racks are heated in the master bathroom (the house has five full bathrooms and four half baths).
But not all of the house’s unusual features are in plain view.
The big-screen TV set between the great room and the kitchen is concealed in a waist-high credenza, but the 55-inch screens (programs are visible on the front and the back) rises at the push of a button.
The home uses a geothermal heating and cooling system, with tubes supplying warmth under the floors. And in every room, behind a small door in the wall, is a hookup for the air tubes that Deffenbaugh needed to breathe.
The central oxygen system and the backup generator to run it in case the power went out are in an attached garage. In a basement room set off from the main living area is a walk-in refrigerator and walk-in freezer, as well as a commercial washer and dryer set.
All of that was there to handle the homeowner’s needs, as well as those of a staff of as many as 40 people at times who tended Deffenbaugh and the property until his death nearly seven months ago.
Twice divorced, it was just him and his staff.
“They were like a big family, I’m told,” Holland said.
Wanted to have hope
The hired cooks, housekeepers and health care workers are gone, now serving other clients.
Gone too is Deffenbaugh’s collection of sports cars and antique fire engines that once filled the 40,000-square-foot garage set off from the house.
Before he died of complications connected to his paralysis, Deffenbaugh founded a charity designed to live long after him.
Among the millions of dollars in donations the Ronald D. Deffenbaugh Foundation has handed out in recent years, $4 million went to the spinal injury program at the University of Kansas.
“I think what he wanted to do was have hope,” said Peter Smith, the doctor who leads KU Medical Center’s Institute for Neurological Discoveries. “People who have this injury want to walk again.”
One of Smith’s hopes was that the house might someday be converted into a center for people with spinal cord injuries. It’s accessible to the disabled in every way, from the wide doors to the desk in the study, which was set to the height where Deffenbaugh could wheel up to it and hold court with guests.
In an email response to questions from The Star early last month, Rosenau said that was, indeed, one of several options being discussed after Deffenbaugh’s death.
They ranged from selling the property in one piece to “developing the surrounding property with additional home sites and contributing it to his foundation to partner with other organizations to care for disabled individuals.”
Since then, the trustees have settled on the sale option. Holland said it would take a lot of work to convert the house to institutional use. As for subdividing the property, that wouldn’t be easy, or cheap, either.
Between the steep, rugged land on the south end of the 100 acres and the lack of sewer lines except at the main house, “it’s going to be a challenge,” Shawnee planning director Paul Chaffee said.
Crown Realty’s Teresa Dunn said that, for now anyway, the best use would be the one for which RD Ranch was designed: comfortable, informal living on a regal scale.
It won’t be cheap. Currently the highest-priced listing on record on the local Multiple Listing Service is an active one, a home in Mission Hills on sale for $12,995,000, according to the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors.
That’s nothing compared with what real estate goes for on the coasts. But in low-cost KC, the highest sale price for a single-family home since data was first collected in 1997 was $6.5 million, the association said.
Should they get the asking price for RD Ranch, the people who run the estate and the Ronald D. Deffenbaugh Foundation would garner more than twice that.
Surely, Dunn said, some rich person will want to buy this property, landfill or not.
“The people with money have cash,” she said, “and they’re buying.”
Besides, the landfill won’t be accepting trash forever. At last check, it was scheduled to cease operations — in 2043.
Although, according to the city of Shawnee, extensions are “very possible.”