Bridget Taylor was getting ready for church on a recent Sunday morning when she got a panicked call from a friend.
The Hubbard House, a picturesque 19th century Olathe home, was being demolished. Taylor, her husband and their cultural arts group had been frantically trying to move the home to repurpose it as a new youth arts center.
But the developer who owned it couldn’t wait any longer. A backhoe was working away, and by 8:30 a.m. Jan. 21, the house was down.
“Shock, dismay,” Taylor said of her reaction. “It stood for 100-plus years, and it came down in less than an hour.”
The home, which had been vacant for years and wasn’t on any historic register, was owned by developer Tim Allen, who had a demolition permit and will build a 208-unit upscale apartment complex. Some heirlooms were salvaged and will be displayed in the clubhouse of the complex, which will be west of Parker Street and south of Loula Street.
The loss of the Hubbard House in west Olathe comes on the heels of the demolition of an entire square block of downtown Olathe homes to make way for the new Johnson County Courthouse and parking lot. But city officials and preservationists say they remain committed to saving as much of Olathe’s history as possible.
They point to inspiring projects like the rebirth of downtown Olathe’s Pickering House, a national landmark that had fallen into disrepair. It is now being lovingly restored by Terry Presley, a second cousin to Elvis Presley.
“We will always look for ways to minimize loss wherever possible,” said Emily Carrillo, staff liaison to the Olathe Historic Preservation Board.
The Hubbard House had been built in 1887 by David Hubbard, one of Johnson County’s earliest surveyors. It was known for its striking Greek Revival facade and ever-present wreath on the front door.
Allen befriended the heirs to the Tainter family, pillars of the Olathe community who had owned the house for more than 66 years. He will honor their legacy in his new apartment project, according to development attorney John Petersen, speaking for Allen.
“Tim was very sensitive to this from the get-go,” Petersen said.
The apartment clubhouse will include a storyboard of the home’s history, plus Tainter family artifacts, including windows, a grandfather clock, a clawfoot tub and an oil painting of the home.
Petersen shared a letter to the community from Becky Vrbas, a granddaughter who wrote on behalf of the Tainter family in support of the new development.
“We knew some day the property would have to be sold,” Vrbas wrote. “Mr. Allen was the only person when looking at the property who was genuinely interested in preserving the Tainter history and heritage. We were blessed to have sold the property to such a man of integrity. He included our family in his vision for the property from day one and continues to.”
Time ran out
Plans to demolish the home, located at 301 S. Parker St., were first revealed when the Olathe City Council approved the apartment and commercial project in early October.
When Bridget and Damon Taylor and parents involved with their Trilogy Cultural Arts Centre learned of the home’s fate, they mobilized to try to acquire and move it. The Taylors’ youth performing arts program is based at an Olathe church, but they were looking for more dance and theater space.
Allen agreed to give them the home if they could pay to move it. Taylor asked city officials to try to find a suitable location downtown.
“I approached the city and said, ‘This is your chance to be a superhero to the community,’ ” Taylor recalled. The effort also drew volunteer contractors, skilled workers and historic preservation enthusiasts eager to help. But it was always going to be a daunting task, costing $50,000 just to move and much more to adapt it.
City officials spent months trying to find a new lot for the home, but could never find a willing seller.
Petersen said Allen gave the group as much time as he could, but the spring construction season is approaching, and he needed to get moving.
“He delayed and delayed and delayed, but we’ve got to get to the business of building,” Petersen said.
Critics lament that Olathe history is disappearing before their eyes.
“I feel very strongly we are doing our children, grandchildren and all future generations such a grave disservice by continuing to repeatedly tear down pieces of our history here in Olathe,” wrote Sarah Graybeal in a community petition that gathered nearly 6,000 signatures in support of saving the Hubbard House.
Taylor and her arts group say they are scouting for another historic property that could house their program.
“That seed was planted,” Taylor said of the Hubbard House effort. “We want to start preserving our history.”
Labor of love
Olathe City officials say other important preservation efforts continue, including two recent historic landmark approvals and an outreach to 700 owners of properties over 80 years old, to encourage awareness and historic register nominations.
One of the most interesting projects involves Terry Presley’s restoration of the Isaac O. Pickering house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The home was finished in 1878 by a Union Civil War veteran and two-term Olathe mayor. After working on the project for four years, Presley hopes he can complete the job late this year.
Presley knows these historic preservation projects are difficult, expensive and not for the faint of heart. He says Kansas Historical Society grants have been crucial.
When he was a child in 1968, Presley’s family lived 10 houses away from the Pickering House on West Park Street. He marveled at the Italianate landmark and thought he would love to live in something similar one day.
“You’ve got to be really careful what you wish for,” he now says with a chuckle.
He spent years running a home remodeling business, and was a musician on the side, traveling the globe doing tribute shows to Elvis. He still cherishes a memory of visiting his famous cousin at Graceland and going to the movies with him in 1971.
But now he is consumed with the Pickering House project, which began after he drove by the property one day in 2011 and was appalled to see it nearly in ruins.
He learned it was in foreclosure, was able to buy it, and started restoring it in earnest in 2013. He’s mostly finished the exterior and hopes to finish the interior late this year, doing all the work himself.
He gets great satisfaction in saving what had been a majestic place and an invaluable piece of Olathe history.
“If I hadn’t bought this house, they would’ve leveled it,” he said. “Any time you can save a piece of history, that labor is worth it. It’s well worth it.”