Olathe & Southwest Joco

Glory returning to Olathe’s Pickering House

The main stairway featured a stained glass window, which is being repaired.
The main stairway featured a stained glass window, which is being repaired. skeyser@kcstar.com

It was one of the prettiest houses in Olathe.

A century and a half later, it was an embarrassment.

But one Olathe man’s hard work is turning back the clock.

When Terry Presley purchased the Isaac O. Pickering House from a bank in 2011, it was a mess. Broken windows and filthy siding greeted visitors who drove by. Gnarly weeds grew along a bleak wire fence surrounding the property. The inside of the mid 19th-century home was gutted, its previous owners having sold everything attached to the walls, from the fireplaces to the light fixtures.

“There were leaks everywhere and missing windows and missing siding, even parts of the roof were gone,” Presley said. “There was a bee’s nest in the wall and part of the flooring was gone.”

The home at 507 W. Park St. was close to condemnation, with the city preparing to tear it down. But Presley, a business owner and house restorer, saw potential. Plus, fond memories of the home tugged at his heartstrings.

In the 1980s, when the Pickering House was a bed and breakfast, he used to drive by and marvel at its elegance. He dreamed of living in a similar home. Seeing the once- majestic Italianate house 30 years later in such a deteriorating state both saddened him and inspired him to take action.

After buying the property four years ago, Presley has dedicated hundreds of hours to fixing it up. And he still has a lot more work to do.

“I knew what I was getting myself into,” Presley said. “It was a dump surrounded by a fence. But there was beauty hiding inside of it, waiting to come out.”

In two years, and with the help of a small Heritage Trust Fund grant from the Kansas Historical Society, the exterior renovation is nearly complete.

Presley rebuilt most of the window frames and replaced window glass, and replaced 1,000 square feet of missing siding, replaced rotten siding and significantly cleaned up the yard. The front porch also was restored.

When the Kansas State Historic Preservation Office put up a photo of Presley’s exterior renovation, along with a “before” photo, the response from the public was overwhelming.

More than 1,000 Facebook users liked the photos, with around 335 people sharing the post with friends. The photos also garnered more than 100 comments, most of them thanking Presley for his dedication.

“I was shocked at the number of people who liked the photos of the house on Facebook,” Presley said. “I never knew so many people even knew this home existed.”

The appreciation follows him in person, too.

“When I see people drive by and admire the house, it makes me happy,” Presley said. “Sometimes people wave or take the time to tell me it looks great and it means a lot.”

Although Presley isn’t used to the attention, he’s no stranger when it comes to beautifying homes. He has renovated five homes in the Kansas City area in the past 40 years.

One of his former projects was a dilapidated 75-year-old farmhouse in Olathe, which had additions. It is located just a few blocks away from Pickering House.

The Pickering House is the first home on the National Register of Historic Places that he’s restored, however.

“Renovating homes has been a big part of my life,” Presley said. “I really love it when people say ‘that can’t be done’ and I do it anyway. It’s rewarding.”

Now that the outside of the Pickering House is nearly complete, he is turning his attention to the interior.

The four-bedroom house, with a curved walnut staircase, is going to take a lot of time and money to restore, Presley said. Electricity, plumbing, flooring, insulation, trimming, painting, and foundation work need to be done.

He also plans to decorate the home in an early 1900s style, with light fixtures and decorative moldings similar to the time period.

He estimates it will take around $200,000 for him renovate the entire home. He plans to apply for another grant, and is seeking financial partners, whether it is an individual or a business.

Although securing the finances will be difficult, Presley has a lot of cheerleaders.

One of them is Bob Courtney, president of the Olathe Historical Society, who calls the Pickering House an icon for the community.

The house was built over a 10-year period in the late 1870s for Major Isaac Pickering, a Union Civil War veteran, who was a prominent lawyer and two-time mayor of Olathe. The Pickering family often showed off their grand home during gala lawn parties and society weddings. It was kept in the family until 1960.

“Keeping this house alive is keeping our city’s history alive,” Courtney said. “Progress is being made and it’s exciting to see, but something like this takes time and money. Restoring this house isn’t going to happen overnight.”

He wishes more historical houses in Olathe had been preserved. After all, the Pickering clan wasn’t the only well-to-do family to build an architectural stunner in the area.

“We’ve lost a lot of houses in Olathe,” Courtney said. “There used to be a mentality that if it was old, it wasn’t good. Beautiful homes were torn down to make way for modern, turn-of-the century ones.”

It was for that reason the Olathe Historical Society created its homes tour in 1987, he said.

Educating the public about the importance of preserving older homes helped instill appreciate for them.

“We had people who took the tours turning around and buying old houses,” Courtney said. “Fixing an older home is a lot of hard work, but it’s doable.”

Once the Pickering House is completely restored, Presley plans to live in it and eventually open it for tours.

But for right now, he just wants to focus on bringing it back to life.

“It took them a decade to build this house, so if I can get it restored in half the time, I’ll be happy,” Presley said.

He gives a heartfelt thanks to people have supported him on his journey, including Katrina Ringler and Marsha Lonogofono with the Kansas State Historical Society; Courtney, Ed Kenny and Emily Kukal with the Olathe Historical Preservation Board, and the city of Olathe.