Dining With Denise Neil

Historic prefab diner, long hidden in rural Butler County, could find new life in Wichita

A castle-shaped 1930s-era portable metal diner that years ago was home to a Wichita burger stand on East Douglas — but that has been hidden on a rural property in Butler County for decades — could find new life in downtown Wichita.

The story of the building, which was listed earlier this month for free on Facebook Marketplace, is a fascinating tale of Wichita’s history — and of a long list of people who want to preserve it.

Last March, Ada and Robert Sutherland bought an old farm property south of Rose Hill at an auction. It contained the house where the previous owner, well-known Wichita interior designer John Coultis, had raised his family, and the Sutherlands, who were expecting a baby of their own, decided that they’d fix up the house and raise their family there, too.

But the property came with an interesting feature.

In the back stood a steel building, about 20 by 20 feet wide and 15 feet tall. It looked like a little castle outside, and inside, it was fitted with a lunch counter and stools.

The interior of a castle-shaped 1930s-era portable metal diner that years ago was home to a Wichita burger stand on East Douglas. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

After quizzing surviving members of the Coultis family, the Sutherlands learned the back story.

The building had at one time been a little hamburger place that operated on East Douglas. At some point, it was going to be torn down, and Coultis — who died in 2014 at the age 88 — asked if he could have the building if he moved it. He had it relocated to his land, setting it up near the swimming pool and using it as a bar where he would entertain visitors.

The Sutherlands were charmed by the building, but they also realized they had their hands full with a new baby and a home remodel. They decided to try to find it a new owner, and they listed it on Facebook Marketplace.

The price: Free.

“We don’t have the current capacity to maintain or fix up this crazy piece of history — but we’re looking for someone who wants to make this a project of a lifetime!” the post read. “It could be an amazing restaurant, backyard clubhouse/bar or just a crazy piece of history to own.”

The couple did some research and discovered that the little diner, complete with tiny turrets on the front, was likely built by Ablah Hotel Supply sometime in the mid-1930s.

During that decade, Ablah manufactured prefab metal buildings (likely inspired by similar structures created by White Castle, which also started in Wichita). People bought the structures and would open them as lunchrooms or little diners.

One of Ablah’s salesmen was Arthur Valentine, according to a brief history published by the Kansas Historical Society, and by the end of the 1930s, the Ablahs stopped producing the prefab diners and allowed Valentine to take over.

Most of the prefab diners of that style that still exist today are known as Valentine Diners and include Brints Diner at 4834 E. Lincoln, Grinder Man at 510 E. Pawnee and Sport Burger at 134 N. Hillside.

A castle-shaped 1930s-era portable metal diner that years ago was home to a Wichita burger stand on East Douglas but that has been hidden on a rural property in Butler County for decades could find new life in downtown Wichita. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

With the help of a few historical diner experts, the Sutherlands determined that their building was most likely either the former Little Palace Lunch No. 1 at 3037 E. Douglas or the Continental Grill No. 2 at 3012 E. Douglas. Both addresses are on the block where the Douglas and Hillside Dillons is now.

Ada Sutherland said she was flooded with calls after she put up the post offering the building, so much so that she recently took the post down. Interested parties ranged from the owners of a local burger franchise to individuals who wanted the structure for a backyard playhouse for their kids.

The call that most interested the couple, though, came from Greg Kite, president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County.

He told the Sutherlands he’d love to have the building, and he thought he had an idea about where to put it.

Kite, an outspoken proponent of saving historic buildings and signs, said that last year, the alliance bought the land at 1202 N. Broadway that held the Dyne Quik, another Valentine diner, which was in danger of being torn down. The owner agreed to donate the structure and sold the alliance the land it sits on for $48,453.31.

The alliance is still trying to decide what to do with the old diner but hope to eventually rent it out to a new tenant.

The idea is preliminary, Kite said, but if zoning laws will allow it, he’d like to move the Sutherland’s Ablah diner to Wichita and put it on the land with the Dyne Quik. If it all worked out, he said, perhaps the alliance could start a “diner compound” and find different operators to run each one. The income could help the alliance continue its mission.

“Whether it’s a Valentine or an Ablah, these buildings are a very important part of Wichita’s history and heritage,” he said. “Our most important goal is preserving that heritage.”

Kite said he’s spoken with the same movers who helped him relocate the historic Betzen House from 807 N. Topeka to 1250 N. Emporia in 2015, and they’re going to meet soon at the Sutherland property to find out what would be involved in a move. There are a few issues, he said. The floor of the building is cement, which means it will be extra heavy to move, and the steel structure underneath it is rusted out.

“Does that prevent our move? No, it does not,” Kite said. “Does it complicate it? Yes. But that’s no game changer. The important thing is to make this happen, to pick it up and move it.”

Ada Sutherland said that she hopes the deal with the alliance works out because she and her husband have become a little attached to the building and swept up in its history. They can’t keep it, but they want it to continue.

“This building has been so fun for us,” she said. “Now we just want people to be able to enjoy it.”

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.