Neighbors fear for future of St. Paul School of Theology site

Truman Road is far from Kansas City’s grittiest thoroughfare, but you wouldn’t mistake it for Ward Parkway, either.

East of downtown, storefronts separated by vacant lots commonly sport window bars, and the chain-link fences around the car lots are topped with barbed wire.

One bright spot, though, has long been St. Paul School of Theology. The 19-acre campus, with its red-brick buildings and neatly clipped grounds, fairly gleams.

“We always considered St. Paul the jewel of the Truman Road corridor,” neighborhood leader Dave Biersmith says wistfully. “Now, if it sits empty, it’s gonna be the biggest eyesore.”

That’s right, St. Paul’s is moving out after many decades as a fixture at Truman and Van Brunt Boulevard.

Biersmith and others see that as a terrible blow after having worked so hard in recent years to battle blight and decline along a street that once went by a number — 15th — before it was renamed in honor of a certain president.

“We’re almost heartsick over it,” says Bruce Mathews, who sits on the board of historic Elmwood Cemetery, which is just across the street from the school.

To boost commerce, the Truman Road Corridor Coalition was formed in the mid-1990s with the help of St. Paul officials.

To combat crime, litter and graffiti, businesses along the strip began taxing themselves by creating a community improvement district a few years back, and that, too, has made a difference.

“We’ve been trying to kick butt over here for 21 years,” Biersmith says.

So forgive Biersmith for being more than a little upset when he learned this fall that one of the street’s most prominent property owners was leaving its prim, inner-city campus for the Kansas suburbs.

“I just lost it,” he says of his outburst at a public meeting in November, when he called the loss of St. Paul the biggest setback for Truman Road in decades. “That’s a big piece of geography over here.”

Many worry that, should the campus remain vacant even for a few months, it could start a downward spiral.

School officials promise they’ll work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. As preparations are made for the move next fall into St. Paul’s new home at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, a committee has been formed to find new uses for the grounds and the nine buildings there. They include dormitories, a student center and the Anna E. Kresge Chapel, whose spire has been a Truman Road landmark since around the time the street’s namesake left the White House.

Still, St. Paul president Myron McCoy can’t promise the search for a new occupant will be immediately successful, spawning fears among neighbors that the complex will be plundered by copper thieves and vandals like so many other vacant properties have been in the urban core.

Plus, there’s the sense that the neighborhood is losing an institution that opened its doors to community groups to hold meetings and has been a stabilizing force for as long as most can remember.

“It’s a heartbreak for us,” says Jacky Ross, president of the Blue Valley Neighborhood Association. “It’s been a pillar of the community. I don’t recall when St. Paul’s wasn’t there.”

Long history

The ecumenical seminary began 53 years ago as a school for Methodist ministers. However, the campus predates St. Paul’s. From 1904 to 1964, it was home to National College.

National was a four-year liberal arts school that was founded five years before moving to Truman Road as a religious training school for nurses at Bethany Hospital in Kansas City, Kan.

That background is important, because it’s key to what will ultimately become of the property. It was with certain conditions that National’s owner, the group now known as United Methodist Women, transferred control of the campus to St. Paul School of Theology.

Exact details of that agreement have not been disclosed by either United Methodist Women or St. Paul officials. But suffice to say, not just anyone will be allowed to occupy the property.

“We’re still trying to ferret that out,” McCoy says. “Certainly our goal primarily is something that will hopefully have some focus in bringing healing and wholeness to the community.”

Several groups have expressed interest in the property, though he declined to name them. He’ll have more to announce, he says, after a request for proposals is sent out.

The upshot: The campus could be split among several religious organizations or maybe a community college branch.

“There’s something in the works,” school spokeswoman Heather Chamberlin says.

Surprise to some

The decision to move wasn’t easy, school officials say. Serious discussions began last spring, though the move came as a surprise when it was announced in October. Perhaps because news releases leading up to it spoke of an upcoming “partnership” with Church of the Resurrection without explicitly saying the Truman Road campus might shut down.

“Mama didn’t call and tell me that we were moving,” one St. Paul alum said at the “family meeting” where Biersmith lost it, according to the United Methodist Reporter website.

But staying put wasn’t an option, with a student body of 176 attending classes this term on a campus built to accommodate nearly twice that many, and whose endowment dollars have been dwindling in recent years.

“One of you has suggested this is akin to the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s,” the Rev. Adam Hamilton, St. Paul’s former chairman, wrote in an online response to questions concerning the school’s move to the church where he is senior pastor.

“I think this is a poor analogy. It is more akin to finding yourself in a huge house you can no longer afford and realizing you have to go live with a family member.”

Problem is, the “huge house,” at 217,000 square feet of building space, will still be sitting at the corner of Truman and Van Brunt after the school leaves.

If new tenants don’t move in soon after moving day, Ross fears it will go the way of a nearby grade school that was stripped and tagged with graffiti when it was shuttered a couple of years ago.

“It’s been broken into,” she says, “They set fires in there, took the copper and sprayed it with graffiti.”

Biersmith fears a similar fate awaits the St. Paul site.

“When the bad guys see that beautiful campus,” he says, “they’re going to have a field day.”

McCoy says he’s working hard to ensure that won’t happen.

“That’s certainly my concern, as well,” he says. “We want to leave as well as we go and that means we see the grounds as sacred.”