July 19, 2014

Pieces of history: Alliance works to preserve Wichita’s heritage (VIDEO)

Some of the artifacts from Wichita’s most treasured past sit in warehouses across the city.

Some of the artifacts from Wichita’s most treasured past sit in warehouses across the city.

Among the collection is Pete, the original Pizza Hut character, and an animated clown sign that once welcomed visitors to Joyland amusement park. There also is a 30-ton Arkansas Valley Interurban trolley and stonework from the old Allis Hotel.

The Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County is best known for trying to stop the demolition of historic buildings. When that fails, it collects the pieces.

“When the artifacts, the memorabilia are the only things left, you have to preserve them,” said Greg Kite, president of the alliance.

Preservation future

For two decades, the organization’s hope has been to restore the artifacts and create an exhibit of Wichita’s architectural past.

That hasn’t happened.

“It is tragic that no one has stepped forward to realize the value of some of these items in order to help preserve them and take them out of mothballs,” said Dudley Toevs, a past board member of the preservation alliance.

Due to the lack of progress, some are beginning to question whether the group is simply storing Wichita’s legacy.

Vicki Churchman, one of the founding members of the group, said she and her husband, Dale, left the group a few years ago to focus their attention on saving Riverside Park’s Fresh Air Baby Camp, which was also once used as a Girl Scout camp.

“We saw nothing happening,” she said of the preservation alliance.

The group has had trouble raising money recently, Kite said.

The preservation alliance has 30 to 60 regular members, according to an annual report filed with the state. Since the recession hit in 2008, the group has received $2,000 to $10,000 a year for its preservation efforts, said Kite, who has presided over the organization since 1995.

Some past board members, he said, thought the group should concentrate on saving buildings, not salvaging pieces of history.

But these pieces, he said, are “very important artifacts that are just as important to Wichita’s heritage.”

“Our mission is the preservation and restoration of Wichita’s heritage,” he said. “These are part and parcel of the items that represent Wichita. To parody a recent movie, we are the ‘monuments men’ and women. We are doing the right thing. These are one-of-a kind pieces. Without us, they would not exist.”

The group was able to purchase some Joyland artifacts with unrestricted grant money it had received for the restoration of the McAdams/Fultz house in the 1400 block of North Fairview, according to Kite.

Kite would not say how much the group paid to buy pieces of Joyland, Wichita’s amusement park at 2801 S. Hillside that operated from 1949 to 2006.

The group is looking for places and major donors who will help in restoring and displaying the artifacts. In the meantime, Kite says, the group is working on securing a location for the J.C. Kinkead house, an 1886 Victorian home at 913 N. Broadway, and continuing the restoration process of the McAdams/Fultz house.

Kite, an attorney, has successfully written grants for preservation projects across Kansas. The Richmond Schoolhouse, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1870, was moved to the Clearwater Historical Society museum complex with a $15,450 grant. Other grant projects include the Home on the Range cabin in Smith County, $24,640; the St. Francis band shell in the city’s park, $64,458; and restoration of the front steps of the Cheyenne County Courthouse, $78,384.

Saving and storing

The group began in the early 1990s when Joan Cole, then president of the Historic Midtown Citizens Association, and Lois Ann Newman, chairman of a city advisory board, started a grassroots effort to save the John Mack Bridge on South Broadway. After a public outcry, the city gave up on its plans to tear down the two-lane bridge, known for its distinctive rainbow arches. It is now a local landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the John Mack Bridge, the group attempted to save the 17-story Allis Hotel at William and Broadway in downtown Wichita and the Wichita Livestock Exchange building on East 21st Street. When those efforts failed, the group took to saving what artifacts it could.

The cattle auction business at the stockyards on 21st Street closed in 1979, and the Livestock Exchange building was temporarily reopened in 1989 as a work-release center for Kansas prison inmates. It closed when the Oklahoma company that ran the center went bankrupt; it was demolished in 2000.

By that time, there was little left to tell passersby that the area was once home to a business center where livestock was bought and sold every day.

The preservation group salvaged the tiles of a 40-inch-by-45-inch bull’s head on the first floor. On the second floor, it salvaged a 4-foot-by-6-foot section of tiles that said “Market That Satisfies,” surrounded by the heads of a cow, horse, pig and sheep.

The group also saved some stonework and decorative tiles from the Allis Hotel, which was demolished in 1996, and the Crest Theater near Douglas and Oliver, demolished in 1997. It has the Eaton Hotel marquee as well as the entire Wishbone building, an unusual-looking structure with a sharply peaked roof that once housed speakeasies and several restaurants at its East Central location. During Prohibition, the building was a bootleg roadhouse.

For now, the building sits outdoors in cut-up sections at a storage facility, with volunteer trees and weeds growing around it.

The group also is storing the sign from the Takhoma Burger joint that used to sit atop the white cinder block building near Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, as well as one of the original Pete signs that sat atop some of the earliest Pizza Huts. It also has the signs from Willie C’s restaurant, which closed in 2008, and the 30-ton rail car from the Arkansas Valley Interurban. The Arkansas Valley Interurban line provided daily trolley service from Wichita to Newton and on to Hutchinson. The idea for the Interurban was born in 1903 when George Theis, a Wichita capitalist, envisioned an electronic trolley line. The line began operating in 1910 and ended in 1938.

In recent months, the Historic Preservation Alliance has salvaged pieces of Joyland, including the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe’s house, which was part of a play area for kids.

When Kite and a friend went to pick up the items at Joyland, “we were approached by this big, burly guy,” Kite said. “He said, ‘Well, I hope you are proud of taking all our Joyland stuff away.’ ”

Kite and his friend explained to the man that they were with the Historic Preservation Alliance.

“We explained what we were doing, that we were trying to preserve things – that, but for us, these things would be lost. He ended the conversation with three words – ‘God bless you.’ I was very taken by this. The emotion is high on Joyland. Of all the things we have ever done, Joyland has been the one item that has drawn the most attention and that I’ve received the most attention on. I have had people from all over the country wanting to buy stuff from us – at times for very large money.”

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