'Ghost Town'? Historic Fort Leavenworth Homes Recommended for Demolition Soar to 185

March 4, 2024
Main entrance to the U.S. Army's Fort Leavenworth

Residents of Fort Leavenworth were upset at the news last year that as many as 89 of the garrison’s historic homes are seen as too costly to maintain and could be demolished.

Now, The Star has confirmed, that number has ballooned to as many 185.

Whereas the first 89 included grand, gabled homes built before 1919, with sweeping porches and staircases, the nearly 100 more added to the list are in 12 multi-unit infantry barracks along Pope Avenue and Doniphan Drive dating to the early 1900s.

“This is literally erasing history,” said one military source familiar with discussions, requesting anonymity for fear of repercussions. “Once these are gone, they’re gone forever. If these are removed, Fort Leavenworth is a totally different place. It’s almost a ghost town.”

Fort Leavenworth, set to celebrate its bicentennial in 2027, is a National Historic Landmark with some 269 of its 1,700 living units built before 1919. It has more historic homes than any other military base. Fort Leavenworth is the oldest U.S. Army garrison still in operation west of the Mississippi River.

One of its barracks, The Rookery, built around 1830, is said to be the oldest occupied home in Kansas. Each fall and spring, the fort’s most beautiful historic homes are opened for tours on a parade of homes.

A for-profit company, the Michaels Organization, manages the housing there and would be the one to recommend any demolition.

But the Army, for its part, has remained resolute. No solid plan to demolish any of the residences currently exists.

“Any numbers being recommended by our housing partners are pre-decisional, meaning they have not been agreed to by Army leadership at any level,” said Scott Gibson, Fort Leavenworth’s public affairs officer.

Michaels’ spokeswoman, Laura Zaner, told The Star in an email, “I can confirm that the Army has not yet told Michaels of any decision they have made regarding its plan (going) forward for these homes — so we really can’t comment at this time.”

But that Michaels has been discussing demolition to perhaps replace old structures with new has been an open secret on the post for at least a year. Late last month, the proposal to raze 185 historic units was shared in a meeting at Fort Leavenworth with Tami Bartunek, the Kansas City district director for the office of Kansas Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall.

“That was a topic that was discussed,” Bartunek confirmed.

The Star also sought comment from David Guldenzopf, the Army’s federal preservation officer, but received no response. By law, any proposal to remove historical homes would first have to be vetted by the Kansas Historical Society and other stakeholders, including the public.

Since last year, the proposed destruction of the historic homes has nonetheless become a passionate topic on the post and in town.

Carol Ayres, president of the Leavenworth County Historical Society, said she understands that clash behind a company tasked with making profits versus the high cost of maintenance and preservation.

“It’s expensive to redo those old homes,” she said. “They’re expensive to replace, too. I think everyone understands the reality of the situation. I’m afraid the people that make those decisions, excuse me, don’t always think about the history and how important it is.

“We stand on the shoulders of the people who built that post, who built our town. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”

Marshall, the Kansas senator, on Friday sent a written statement of his own:

“The health, safety, and well-being of our service members and their families will always be our priority,’ the statement reads. “Ft. Leavenworth is in so many ways a historical landmark, and a source of pride for active-duty soldiers, veterans, and the local community. Our office will continue to work with military historians, Ft. Leavenworth leadership, and Michaels, to preserve as many of these beautiful homes as feasible.”

The Michaels Organization in 2006 signed a 50-year agreement to manage the fort’s housing. It currently does so through its management company, Fort Leavenworth Frontier Heritage Communities.

In taking on that obligation, the company also took on an inventory of homes more than 100 years old, burdened by problems such as outdated and faulty plumbing, old heating and electrical systems, asbestos, lead paint and aging wood.

Maintaining the housing is expensive, made more so by the fact Fort Leavenworth is on the National Register of Historic Places with homes in a National Historic Landmark District. Because of that, when the company looks to fix part of a historic home, it must adhere to the strict federal guidelines known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Often, that means hiring special artisans who use original rather than replacement materials.

A complaint heard among post residents is that, over the last several years, instead of maintaining its older homes, Michaels is engaging in “demolition by neglect” — allowing a greater number of historic homes to sit unoccupied and to decay to the point that demolition may become inevitable.

Residents maintain that if Michaels simply lived up to its obligations under its “program agreement” with the Army to properly care for the homes, few to none would now be imperiled.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to inform state preservation officers, such as the Kansas State Historical Society, about actions affecting historic properties.

In December, through a Kansas Open Records Act request, The Star published a story cataloging what Fort Leavenworth’s Directorate of Public Works reported to be a growing list of ”adverse effects” to historic homes from Michaels’ deferred maintenance.

One report, on the Rookery, said that the “level of care and maintenance that this home has received. … Is the living definition of “Demolition by Neglect.’”

It included 50 photographs of rotted wood, peeling paint, missing boards, cracked support columns, along with rusted and leaking gutters. In one Colonial Revival home from 1905, a supposed fix included unpainted boards laid atop of rotted boards. The report included an email from a British officer who complained that the porch was in such disrepair that he worried for the safety of his children.

Reports on other historic homes chronicled falling plaster ceilings from water damage, crumbling bricks and insect infestation. A July report on Syracuse House, a two-story, yellow duplex built in 1855, included multiple photos of rotted planking, trim, soffits, fascia, railings and unpainted patchwork repairs.

Of the post’s 269 homes built before 1919, some 25% sat unoccupied last year because of their condition.

“The Army understands that we must balance the historic significance of our installation while providing the best quality of life for the soldiers and families who live here,” Gibson, the post’s public information officer, wrote. “As part of this responsibility, our housing partners at the Fort Leavenworth Frontier Heritage Communities, also must consider all options for safe, affordable, and quality housing.

“As we work toward solutions regarding our historic homes, there will likely be many more proposals and discussions between the Army and our housing partner, and we are confident that we can work together to preserve the historic relevance of Fort Leavenworth.”

©2024 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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