One year after fire, Westport church looks ahead

The Rev. Scott Myers stood in tears one year ago as he watched historic Westport Presbyterian Church go up in flames.

His cellphone rang. It was Rev. Bob Hill of the Community Christian Church near the Country Club Plaza, offering reassuring words.

“The church didn’t burn,” Hill told his friend. “Only the building did.”

That has been a motto for members and supporters of the Kansas City church with roots older than the battle of the Alamo who look forward to the future.

They will assemble Saturday behind the remains of the church at 5 p.m., almost one year to the hour after the building caught fire and sustained $6 million to $7 million in damage.

With live folk music, the congregation will celebrate plans to return once their church is rebuilt. They hope to celebrate Christmas 2014 in a reborn Westport Presbyterian Church on the same site at 201 Westport Road.

“I’m not really into blessings in disguise — because this is really not fun,” Myers said recently as surveyors took measurements on the property. “But the congregation is stronger than it was before the fire. So that’s good.”

On Sunday morning, over a 9:30 a.m. breakfast at their temporary home at The Villa, 4120 Baltimore Ave., members will get a look at plans for the new incarnation of their church. BNIM Architects has worked up a couple of concept designs for the congregation to consider.

The church is really three buildings connected to one another. The main one, built with limestone blocks in 1904, contained the sanctuary and some other rooms. It is now open to the elements, the interior having been destroyed by fire and water. A support beam had to be erected to keep the front gable from collapsing.

The stone work remains intact and will be incorporated into the new building. But modern codes require that a steel infrastructure be built inside to support the flooring and walls.

All but one of the church’s 60 to 70 stained glass windows were spared by the fire and were carefully removed for storage by A.L. Huber contracting. They will be reused in the new building, which will also get a new entryway from the parking lot.

A building behind the church that houses the Willow Woods day-care center was slightly damaged by the fire but was able to reopen soon afterward. It will also get some upgrades when the church is rebuilt.

The third building was grafted onto the east side of the church about 15 years after the sanctuary was built. It was also heavily damaged and will have to be completely rebuilt to meet modern standards, Myers said. It will be perpendicular to Westport Road instead of at an angle, as the old one was.

Before the fire, the east building housed Westport Cooperative Services, an umbrella that includes Meals on Wheels and other programs to help seniors continue to live independently. Those now operate out of Central Presbyterian Church, 3501 Campbell St. Last week the organization merged with Shepherd’s Center Central in Brookside, but it is looking forward to returning to the Westport church.

“We’re hoping there will be money available to build that piece of it back so we could potentially move back into that space,” said Pam Seymour, executive director of Westport Cooperative Services and the newly merged entity.

The relocations and planning for a new building thus far have been paid for with money from Westport Presbyterian Church’s insurance policy. The final cost of rebuilding is not yet known.

The fire was attributed to combustible materials related to a contractor’s installation of a rooftop air conditioner. Firefighters were called about 5:30 p.m. and found heavy smoke and flames, which forced them to take a defensive posture. Ladder trucks poured water down and kept flames from spreading to neighboring structures.

The sanctuary building was nearly 100 years old, but the church traces its origin to 1835 when it was founded as Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the Town of Westport. It was known then as an Oregon Trail congregation. Elders have included Alexander Majors, a key figure in Western overland trade, a principal in the Pony Express and Kansas City’s first millionaire before he lost everything. Another church elder was John Calvin McCoy, the founder of Westport.

Today the church has an active congregation of about 90 people, but its presence is widely felt in Westport through its cooperative services programs and its Westport Center for the Arts.

Before the fire, the church had begun a community assessment project to survey people about the role it should play in the community. The project has continued and more than 150 people have been interviewed so far.

“The community is saying they want us to help solve problems and act with creative compassion with respect to the needs of homeless persons, teenagers and the largest group in Westport, young adults,” states the church’s Facebook page.

Myers said his church, although going through a painful period, has a deep sense of commitment to the community.

“We want to make sure, when this is all done, it’s going to make Westport a better place to be a human being,” he said.