It is a dilapidated building at the corner of Linwood Boulevard and Woodland Avenue — a red brick, neo-Gothic church, windows boarded up and surrounded by scaffolding and construction fence.
But to Margaret May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, the old Linwood Presbyterian Church looks like years of work and setbacks finally come to fruition, and a promise of better times to come for the Ivanhoe neighborhood.
Next spring, the doors will open once again on a church that sat derelict for years.
Since the mid 1970s, it has been a symbol of inner-city neglect wrought by white flight and slow-to-develop freeway construction. But in a few short months, passers-by will see the huge sanctuary windows lit up for a variety of non-profit agencies that will be there offering their services to the community.
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“It will be kind of like a beacon on a hill,” said May, “for people who are looking for hope.”
For a long time, hope was in short supply when it came to the church and its surrounding neighborhood.
The church has been standing, in some form, at 1801 Linwood Blvd. since the 1890s. The earliest structure did not survive. What is being rehabbed now is the sanctuary built in 1923 and the Harold Thomas Center next door, built in 1931.
Dennis Robinson, president of the Ivanhoe council, remembers when the Linwood Presbyterian Church was full of life and vitality, like the neighborhood. That was in the 1960s, when he went to Boy Scout meetings at the church and flipped burgers at a stand at Euclid Avenue and 31st Street.
A few years later, things began to change, and not for the better. Plans were made and land acquired for the freeway that would become U.S. 71. The vacated area in its path began to collect trash and become blighted, Robinson said.
The church’s fortunes seemed to parallel those of the neighborhood. As white people left the city, the membership of Linwood Presbyterian began to shrink, remembers Kite Singleton, a member of another Presbeterian church who worked with the Linwood congregation on Habitat for Humanity and other efforts to revitalize the Ivanhoe area.
“They tried and tried to attract African-American members,” he said.
Finally, the church hired an African-American pastor, Harold Thomas, in the mid 1970s. He drowned in the flash flood of 1977.
“Really, that was the final blow to a group of very strong Christian people trying to make a difference,” Singleton said.
The dwindling congregation joined with another nearby and closed the Linwood building in 1979. The building was sold, but never occupied. Instead, the owners stripped it of stained glass, pews and other architectural features.
By 1995, the presbytery, which still maintained community services at the Harold Thomas Center, had a change of heart. Church administrators were concerned about the effect of the eyesore on the community, Singleton said.
So the church bought it back and began looking for ways to put it into use. It formed the Linwood Area Ministry Place to get that done.
But it wasn’t easy. Church and community members tried and failed for 20 years to get the right financing together. Finally they succeeded, with a $10 million package that involves state and federal tax credits for historic preservation plus the cooperation of banks and philanthropic foundations.
“The goal is to be a positive force for rebuilding the community,” said David Warm, one of the driving forces behind the project.
Construction crews are hard at work converting the building into usable space. Although a lot of space will be converted into offices and clinic space, the massive sanctuary will still look like a sanctuary, Warm said.
The choir loft at the front will remain, as will the red oak woodwork on the balconies and the plaster vaulted ceilings. Concrete will be poured to level the sloping floor, but the 35-foot windows will remain, although the glass in them won’t be stained. That open space will be used as a common dining and meeting room area.
The space will be “light and inspiring,” said Warm. “It will be fabulous as people are going down Linwood or U.S. 71. That building will be alive again.”
ReDiscover, an organization that provides mental health and substance abuse services, will be the biggest tenant, with about 20,000 of the 36,500 usable square feet. The Heartland Presbytery and Front Porch Alliance are also slated as tenants, and there is room for several more as well, Warm said.
A bridge will connect the sanctuary with the Thomas center next door. The project takes up the northern two-thirds of the block. Eventually, the redevelopers will turn their attention to a master plan that involves more of the block on which the sanctuary stands, Warm said.
For Margaret May of the Ivanhoe council, the Linwood church project represents a pillar on which revitalizing the neighborhood rests. A newly alive Linwood church site, visible to some 90,000 people driving by on the freeway each day, will further show that Ivanhoe is a neighborhood on the move, ripe for more investment, she said.
Robinson, too, is hopeful. As a young man who followed his employer to Chicago, he’d once vowed never to return to Kansas City because of the racial tensions of the 1970s. Although some of those tensions still exist, he eventually decided to come back to be closer to family.
“I did decide I needed to get involved to make changes in this community,” he said. “I’m very hopeful. This community is such a great community. If you want these things to happen, you have to be a part of it.”