Politics & Government

Group fighting to protect Century II calls it the ’most iconic structure in Wichita’

A group of people fighting to protect Century II from what they fear is an effort to tear down the iconic building in downtown Wichita met there Tuesday to advocate for remodeling the structure instead.

One of the organizers of the meeting, which was attended by about 100 people, said he believes an international consulting group plans to demolish the 50-year-old convention and performing arts center along the Arkansas River.

“Why are we here continuing to debate to save Century II?” said Greg Kite, president of the Historic Preservation Alliance. “The Populous group has obviously been given a directive with respect to eliminating Century II from the master plan. All we need to find out is where is that directive coming from and from whom.”

His comment was followed by a round of applause.

But the leader of one of several organizations behind the formation of a master plan said that’s not true.

Susie Santo, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting, told The Eagle that planners are considering many options, including demolition and a remodel. Santo is CEO and president of Visit Wichita, one of many organizations in the coalition of local government plus private and quasi-public organizations involved in the $700,000 Riverfront Legacy Master Plan. The group has hired Populous, a global architecture firm with a Kansas City office, to study the area along the river and form recommendations based in part on public feedback.

The timeline calls for the planners to present their findings in October, followed by a November presentation of various recommendations. Santo said she expects there to be about three different designs for the entire area, and while one plan may call for tearing down Century II, another may call for renovation.

“I think anything’s on the table,” she said. “When you hear that there’s already a decision made — that’s just not true.”

City officials have said it could cost roughly $272 million to renovate Century II and about $492 million to raze and rebuild.

A July 31 meeting hosted by Populous consultants indicated the Wichita landmark may not fit in the master plan. Celeste Racette, one of the organizers of the group fighting to save Century II, was told to leave that meeting after setting up a tabletop display of her dad’s artifacts and photos of the early days of the building. Her father is Vincent Bogart, who was on the City Commission from 1963 to 1967 and mayor in 1964 and 1965.

“Citizens have the right to a transparent and accountable city government,” Racette said at Tuesday’s meeting. “When redevelopment turns into a closed, non-voting process, it can turn into a financial fiasco such as Gander Mountain, or WaterWalk or the destruction of Mead’s Corner.”

Santo said there have been several ways for the public to comment and stressed that there are more opportunities for people to make their voices heard and to get involved in the process. She encouraged people to attend urban explorations next week, where guided tours will include the chance for people to share their thoughts at the end of each tour.

“We have to respect the process of the master plan,” Santo said. “It’s inclusive, it’s transparent and it’s going to provide the opportunity to cast a vision for generations to come.”

The group advocating for renovating Century II argued four main points at Tuesday’s meeting:

”The city would lose a significant economic opportunity if Century II were destroyed.”

”The loss of this iconic building would be a waste of resources.”

”Leave Century II alone.”

”We want an open process.”

Shirts sold outside the meeting as a fundraiser were emblazoned on the front with a colorful image of the performing arts center. The text read “Save Century II” and “Frank Lloyd Wright Style Architecture.” The back of the shirt showed the city skyline and read “Wichita Iconic Landmark.”

“We believe Century II is the single most iconic structure in Wichita,” said Kite, the Historic Preservation Alliance president. “We believe Century II should be renovated, updated and upgraded, more properly maintained and incorporated into any future master plan.

“We are not developers or contractors, we are not an international urban consulting group, we are not from Kansas City, Missouri. We are not being paid $700,000 to come up with the biggest project we can dream up, to generate the largest contracts imaginable, for the greatest cost to Wichita taxpayers, that will necessitate the demolition of Century II.”

Wichita architect Dean Bradley said “there’s no reason that we need to send stuff to the landfill that is working for us, has worked and will continue working for us,” and that doing so would be an insult to those who built the facility. He said Century II is an example of organic architecture, or designing a building that is “of the place, part of the place and sort of growing out of where it belongs.”

“You see that with the brown tone of the lower base — the prairie wheat relationship there,” Bradley said. “You see it as you go up the building at the horizon lines. We are so used to the long, unbroken horizon lines out on the prairie. ... You have the blue dome representing the sky, and all of this goes together like frozen music. It’s like a symphony and each part plays a part.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle