As Sauer Castle decays, KCK neighbors fret over landmark

Heidi Holliday, executive director of the Rosedale Development Association, hopes that Sauer Castle in Kansas City, Kan., can be restored after years of standing empty.
Heidi Holliday, executive director of the Rosedale Development Association, hopes that Sauer Castle in Kansas City, Kan., can be restored after years of standing empty. The Kansas City Star

On 10 acres atop a steep ridge in Kansas City, Kan., stands historic Sauer Castle — or what’s left of it.

The roof is in bad shape, according to the caretaker, who lives next door. Boards cover some of the tall windows smashed by vandals who found their way through or over the chain-link security fence.

Three decades ago, New York City businessman Carl Lopp began restoring the 19th-century mansion that his great- great-grandfather Anton Sauer built on this hill high above the Kaw River Valley.

But other than some repairs to the castle’s red brick facade, there’s been little visible progress all those years to the 21/2-story house with the tower jutting skyward and the widow’s walk on top.

Quite the opposite. Sauer Castle is slowly deteriorating.

“I’m on the Landmarks Commission,” said attorney and amateur historian Loren Taylor, “and we’re all furious about it.”

Angry as he and other officials may be, there’s little they or anyone else can do about that, because of a change in Kansas law several years ago that limits the power of local governments to intervene on private property.

Were Sauer Castle not a local and national landmark, the 142-year-old, Italian villa-style home would be just another eyesore in an urban core full of blighted houses.

But given its cultural significance, its deteriorating condition provokes sadness and disgust.

Heidi Holliday, executive director of the Rosedale Development Association, calls the mansion’s state of deterioration “a travesty” and issued a plea for Lopp to put the house up for sale rather than let it rot.

“The neighborhood would really love to see the castle restored,” Holliday said. And if the castle’s 59-year-old absentee owner can’t get it done, she said, he should sell it to someone who can.

“We would expect to see development proposals lining up.”

But Lopp, owner of a telephone equipment company, collector of exotic sports cars and a fixture on Manhattan’s social scene, has said he has no intention of letting go of the family jewel.

Although he declined to be interviewed by The Star, he’s previously made it clear that it’s no one’s business what he does with the house.

As a private landowner, even one who is perennially behind on paying the property taxes, his rights trump the public interest.

State law makes it difficult for local officials to force property owners like Lopp to do much beyond keeping the weeds mowed around the castle, which is said to be the best example of 19th-century Italianate architecture in the state of Kansas.

That wasn’t the case 15 years ago, when the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., attempted to wrest control of Sauer Castle from him.

Back then, local governments in Kansas had the power to take private property for private purposes if a case could be made that it was for the betterment of the community.

A private developer had wanted to restore the castle and add new housing units on 44 surrounding acres owned by Lopp and others. A tax-increment financing district was proposed to underwrite the $7 million redevelopment project.

But after neighbors objected to the big project and put their trust in Lopp to restore the castle, that project fell through.

Since that time, the power of local governments in Kansas to take private property for private purposes has been severely limited.

No longer can Kansas municipalities force private owners to sell their land for anything other than public purposes, such as building a road.

“When we lost eminent domain, it was projects like this that suffered,” said Unified Government Commissioner Ann Murguia, who represents the district where Sauer Castle sits.

About the only hope for government intervention is a narrow and little-known exception to the eminent domain limits.

After Murguia learned of that provision this week, she said it was worth exploring.

“It’s just pathetic,” she said, “that this beautiful building is allowed to sit there and rot away.”

Bed and breakfast

The exception in question goes like this:

Local governments can acquire private properties by force (for a fair price) if, according to the statute, they are deemed “unsafe for occupation by humans under the building codes of the jurisdiction where the structure is situated.”

No one lives at Sauer Castle and hasn’t for a long time. At one point in the 1990s, it was declared unsafe for habitation.

Problem is, no one in an official capacity has assessed the mansion’s condition in the dozen years since the Kansas Court of Appeals threw out housing code violations the Unified Government had filed against Lopp.

Preservationists and neighbors suspect there’s been weather damage from the leaky roof. Conversation among the 2,340 members of a Facebook group page devoted to Sauer Castle often focuses on its tender condition.

“It needs a lot of work,” said one member of the group who has been inside several times and didn’t want to be identified because he knows Lopp. “Just basic cleaning up both inside and out, that alone would take weeks or months to do.”

What’s indisputable is that Sauer Castle is No. 1 on Historic Kansas City’s current list of the 10 most endangered buildings in the metro area.

Eleanor Pitts, who heads the Shawnee Road Neighborhood Watch, has been distressed about the castle’s condition for years.

“It’s just falling apart,” she said.

Periodically, Lopp will report in at neighborhood meetings with the promise of progress ahead, but nothing happens, residents say.

“He ain’t going to do anything with it,” said Bud Wyman, who sold the mansion to Lopp 27 years ago for about $200,000.

Wyman bought it from the estate of the previous owner, who’d lived there 30 years. He rented it out for weddings but faced objections to his plan to turn it into a bed and breakfast.

“All the neighbors were against it,” Wyman said.

Neighbors were also opposed to a Lawrence developer’s more ambitious plan.

Like Wyman, Dan Riedemann also wanted to turn the house into a bed and breakfast. He also proposed restoring the vineyard that Anton Sauer, a rich German immigrant, planted in the 1800s. Riedemann wanted to open a winery and build 30 bungalows.

But at a March 2000 Planning Commission meeting, opponents presented a petition with 467 signatures on it. They didn’t want the traffic the development would bring and trusted Lopp to finish the restoration he’d started a dozen years earlier.

“Let him restore this castle,” one woman said, meeting minutes reported.

But Lopp’s renovation project stalled after replacing mortar in the bricks, working on the chimneys and erecting a fence.

In a recent interview, Riedemann said he moved on after that and put the castle project behind him.

“It’s sad,” he said. “Every time I’m in Kansas City, I think about that place and wonder whether we should get involved in that again.”

Tax sale

At the Rosedale Development Association, Holliday keeps waiting for the right moment to buy Sauer Castle at the county tax sale.

She thought the time had arrived last fall. Like now, the property taxes on the castle were three years past due. About $2,000.

Each September, properties three years or more behind on their taxes become eligible for a tax sale the following spring. Holliday was hoping the deadline would slip by and the castle would be put up for public auction to the highest bidder.

“I’ve talked with a couple of people who inquired about it,” she said.

But at the last minute, one year’s worth of taxes were paid, and it was taken off the list.

What’s perplexing, she and others say, is why Lopp doesn’t simply make good on his pledge to restore the castle or let someone else do it.

The job would be expensive. And Lopp hasn’t made a fortune selling the cellphone docking device he patented, known as the Dock-N-Talk, relatives say.

But he is not without money, either. Back in 2005, a gossip columnist called him one of the most eligible bachelors in New York.

His classic Ferraris win trophies, he attends formal galas and gets his picture in the New York Social Diary.

Certainly, it hasn’t been easy being the owner of Sauer Castle.

Years ago, the Unified Government had Lopp arrested for the housing violations that were later overturned in court. A previous caretaker stole $30,000 worth of items from the house, including an ornate chandelier and wall sconces.

The curious, believing it haunted, show up on Halloween night expecting to see ghosts.

Dogs and the caretaker shoo them away. The only phantom is a house in its own netherworld, somewhere between life and death.

“It’s too bad,” said Pitts, the neighborhood watch leader. “At one time, it was really fine.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.