Flames shot through the roof of Westport Presbyterian Church on Thursday evening as a powerful fire devastated one of Kansas City’s oldest congregations.
The church’s stone walls still stand at 201 Westport Road, but the 107-year-old building’s roof sustained extensive damage. Investigators from the Kansas City Fire Department hope to enter the building today and see what started the blaze and how extensive the damage is.
“It looks like a really terrible loss,” said the Rev. Scott Myers, the church’s pastor, who went to the scene as flames devoured the roof.
Neighborhood leaders say the fire represents a huge blow to the city. Only a few dozen people regularly attend Sunday services there, but the church is home to arts organizations and social-service groups that serve the larger community.
And there’s the history to consider: Westport Presbyterian has operated in the neighborhood since 1835, and that building had been there since 1904.
“It’s one of the oldest remaining churches in Kansas City,” said Alana Smith, president of the Westport Historical Society.
Kansas City firefighters rushed to the scene about 5:30 p.m. after a church secretary smelled smoke and called 911. They found heavy smoke and fire coming from the building. It was so intense that firefighters couldn’t make an interior attack and were forced to take a defensive posture outside. At least four ladder trucks poured water down on the flames.
Former church members at the scene said the fire appeared to have started in the back, where there are a kitchen and meeting rooms. The rear east side of the structure suffered a partial building collapse about 6 p.m.
Firefighters contained the flames to the church and stopped the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings, such as the Harris-Kearney House, which is home to the Westport Historical Society’s museum.
A large group of people gathered across the street as the church burned.
“It’s gone,” said Mike Swanson, who leads Boy Scout Troop 60, which meets at Westport Presbyterian. “It’s going to be absolutely totaled.”
Though it’s a relatively small congregation, Westport Presbyterian is a big part of the neighborhood’s history and civic life.
It was founded in the fall of 1835 as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the Town of Westport, according to press materials prepared for last year’s 175th anniversary observance.
“It was truly an Oregon Trail congregation,” Myers said at the time.
The first 30 years of church records were lost when Westport became a battleground during the Civil War. However, church leaders later determined that Alexander Majors, who played a key role in westward expansion and the Pony Express, was an elder in 1843. Another elder was John Calvin McCoy, the founder of Westport.
Before the current church was built in 1904, the congregation met at several locations in the Westport area, including one building that burned in 1903. It has had only five pastors since 1893, church officials said last year.
Church attendance was robust until the 1970s and then dwindled as urban residents left for better schools, said Marian Thomas, a congregation member who used to serve as the organist and choir director.
But the church building became home to community organizations, including the Westport Center for the Arts, Meals on Wheels and several ethnic dance groups.
The Westport Center for the Arts was established at the church in 2006 and sponsored numerous events. A concert by the Doug Talley Quartet to honor Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled for Jan. 16.
The arts group showed foreign films, presented brown bag concerts and offered live readings from “A Christmas Carol” and other classics. It also provided space for visual art shows.
The church building served as a hub for the community, said Jeanne Murphy, the art group’s president.
“People are in and out of there all of the time.”
She worried about the fire’s impact on groups like Westport Cooperative Services, a nonprofit that works with senior citizens and low-income families. It was based at Westport Presbyterian, too.
“It was the center for Meals on Wheels in the midtown area,” Murphy said.
A daycare center, Willow Woods Child Development Center, also operates on the church property.
Troop 60, which met in the church basement, probably will lose its camping gear and a big part of its history.
“I wish it was just camping gear,” said Swanson, the group’s scoutmaster.
He said his group — one of Kansas City’s oldest, continuous scouting groups — was getting ready for its 100th anniversary in a couple of years. Scout pennants, banners and awards dating to the 1920s hung on the meeting room’s walls.
“It’s not replaceable,” Swanson said. “The camping gear, we can replace.”
Among the dozens of onlookers was former member Jim Royer, who grew up in the church and belonged to the Scout troop there.
He and his wife were shopping at Pryde’s Westport across the street, left the store, saw smoke and called 911.
He said it was sad to watch flames consume the building.
“I have a lot of memories there,” Royer said. “It’s a historic old church.”