House on the hill: Epperson House, rich in history, uncertain future

Meredith Shea

The once lively and vibrant Epperson House mansion now sits empty on a hill at 52nd and Cherry Streets.

The 1923 mansion, originally home to Kansas City businessman Uriah Spray Epperson, slowly deteriorates with minimal maintenance work being done to keep it from falling apart entirely.

All 24,180 square feet of Epperson House will remain vacant for the foreseeable future.

“There’s two main reasons,” said Robert Simmons, UMKC Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities.  “The biggest one is that the building is not ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990] accessible.”  The second concern is weather proofing the house.

The ADA is a federal civil rights law, passed in the George H.W. Bush Administration, which entitles people with disabilities access to public buildings.  This requires buildings to have wheelchair ramps, elevators and bathrooms equipped with special handrails for the disabled.

“The house has level changes throughout,” said Simmons.  “It’s very hard to go from one room to another without having two steps up or two steps down, and that’s just the way grand old houses like that were designed.”

Simmons estimates that to renovate the Epperson House to comply with ADA standards, it would cost $1 million at minimum.

“Any program that the university would want to put in a building like that is one that we would want to be accessible to everyone.  Academic programs have to be accessible to everyone,” he said.

However, this does not even begin to address the second issue: outside conditions.

Epperson House still has most of its original stained glass windows.

“We have a lot of conditions in those where the wind blows through.  It’s very difficult for occupants of the building to have a good comfort level,” Simmons said.

“We’ve estimated that to really restore in a historic sense, restore the exterior of the building, to add the elevators, and to really make the building purposefully good for the next century is probably about an $8 to $10 million project,” he said.

Professional architect and visiting professor of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design (AUP+D) Ted Seligson thinks it would cost even more for proper historic renovations to be made.

The AUP+D program was housed in Epperson House for over 20 years, but was relocated after the renovation of Katz Hall in 2010.

“I think somebody has to come along and put $10 million in [Epperson House], but honestly I think it would cost even more than that,” Seligson said, “but I think that it is very necessary.”

Restoring the building in a historic sense not only includes fixing the stained glass windows, but also fixing the crenellations on the top of the tower.

“They took the crenellations off at the top of the towers because they were falling down, which reduced the character of it,” he said.

Although Epperson House is gloomy and mostly forgotten, it was once a fine example of Tudor-Gothic architecture in Kansas City.

According to the “American Institute of Architects Guide to Kansas City Architecture and Public Art,” “Key stylistic elements include brick and stone cladding, a castellated tower and parapet walls, simulated half-timbering and diamond-paned leaded glass windows.”

Seligson refers to Epperson House and architecture seen on the south side of the Bloch School, formerly the Oakland mansion, as Collegiate-Gothic style and compares them to the buildings of Cambridge University in England.

Collegiate-Gothic is an amalgamation of Renaissance, Tudor and Gothic styles.  He gives it this name because many older Eastern colleges in the United States, such as Yale and Harvard, exhibit similar styles, mimicking European Gothic architecture from around the 14th and 15th centuries.

In Katz Hall, Seligson said, “the feeling is different.”  At Epperson House, the feeling was “collegiate.”  “I’m not particularly entranced” with Epperson House, “but some of the students were.  They liked it there.”

Seligson refers to the wooden paneling found in what used to be the Epperson family dining and entertaining rooms, the wooden floors and the overall atmosphere of the building.

“It reminded me a lot of some of the colleges in England.  It had sort of an ambiance that was very historical in a way, but the building wasn’t very historical,” he said.  “It had the characteristics of medieval England.”

Despite Epperson House’s deteriorating conditions, Seligson enjoyed its atmosphere.

“It had that intimacy where the students would be more one-on-one with the teachers in a way,” he said.  “We still have it here in the modern buildings, but it’s different.  That environment is what we relate to a collegiate environment.”

Seligson believes that unless money is donated, Epperson House has no real future at UMKC.  It will continue to rot away, and eventually become an eyesore.

Simmons said UMKC spends about $60,000 each year heating and cooling Epperson House, repairing leaks and fixing broken windows.

Without this basic maintenance, the building would be in a much worse condition.

Central air was only installed seven years ago.  During installation, a worker was soldering pipes together in the attic and a piece of insulation caught fire and set the sprinkler system off, proving renovations to old buildings are a risky task.  Seligson said the water did tremendous damage to the AUP+D library.

Nonetheless, Simmons and Seligson dream big.  They would love to see a donor come along and donate the $8 million or more needed for restoration, and envision it being turned into an alumni center.

“I think it would be a wonderful alumni center because the alumni have always known it as part of the campus,” said Simmons.  “It has the grand spaces with wonderful wood.  They could be great ballrooms and meeting rooms.”

“At Washington University, they’d have a very distinguished guest, maybe a world renowned scientist or something, and they had a house right there near the university, an old mansion,” said Seligson.

Seligson worked at Washington University in St. Louis before coming to UMKC.

“It was also a faculty club dining area, and then the second floor up above they’d have for the distinguished guest who could stay there for a month instead of putting them up in a hotel,” he said.  “In my opinion, it should not be torn down.”

Simmons said demolition is off the table. Before 1942 when Epperson House was willed to what was then the University of Kansas City, the mansion was not intended for collegiate use. Instead, it was Uriah and Mary Elizabeth Epperson’s private residence.

Uriah was a wealthy businessman who was an underwriter of fire insurance for grain elevators and lumberyards.

He hired French architect Horace LaPierre to design Epperson House.  Construction began in 1919 and ended in 1923.  It cost $450,000 at the time, an estimated $6 million by today’s standards.

Uriah, Mary and Harriet Evelyn Barse, a 46-year old Conservatory of Music student they claimed as their daughter, planned to move into Epperson House together.

The furnished mansion included a large organ, a symbol of the Eppersons’ love for music.  Both Uriah and Mary were creative and large donors to the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra.

“It feels like you’re walking into a very nice home, but it’s not until you step into what they call Oak Hall, which was the big open hall where the organ used to set, and that’s when you really feel like you’re in a grand home,” said Simmons.

“This was a very, very upscale district.  You had to be darn rich to live in this area,” said Seligson.  “The Dickeys lived in [what is now] Scofield Hall,” right down the street.  Scofield Hall was donated to UKC and was the first building UKC held classes in.  “I mean, these were wealthy and prominent people.”

In December 1922 before the house was completed, Harriet died.  Just four years after the house’s completion, Uriah died.  Mary lived in the mansion for the rest of her life.  After her death in 1939, a business associate of Uriah, J.J. Lynn, took ownership of the house.  Lynn planned to use the Epperson House as an office for the Epperson Underwriting Company, but wealthy neighbors objected and in September 1942, he donated it to UKC.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, much of Missouri and Kansas were used for United States Army Air Force (USAAF) training posts, including UKC.

According to a university self-study in 2009, Swinney Gymnasium was converted into barracks for the soldiers.  Epperson House was transformed into the education center for the Army’s Specialized Training Unit and the Navy’s V12 program, which allowed soldiers to finish baccalaureate degrees while training.

After the war, “it was used as a dormitory for the university, the Conservatory [of Music] held classes there, and most recently it housed the Architecture, Urban Planning and Design programs,” said Simmons.

The future of Epperson House is a mystery, but the grand old mansion has a lot of potential.

“We’re just waiting for the right donor to come along and take an interest in it,” said Simmons.

“If it could be restored and improved, it’d be quite an accomplishment and quite a landmark in our city,” Seligson said.

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