Sumner building, relationships deteriorating

The future of the historic, deteriorating Sumner Elementary School won’t be determined as long as Topeka city councilwoman Karen Hiller is part of the process, a liaison for the school’s California owners said.

 

“If I was the owner and I kept getting what I thought was some negative feelings and pressure, I might even go ask about getting it demolished,” said Phil Gonzales, who formerly was part of the Brown v. Board Sumner Legacy Trust group that has been working to restore Sumner and now works as a local representative for the school’s out-of-town owners.

Asked if he was threatening to tear down the school at 330 S.W. Western Ave., which is on the national historic register for its part in the landmark Brown v Board desegregation case, Gonzales replied that he wasn’t, adding, “That’s always an option, right?”

Gonzales had been an active participant in collaborative work between Topeka groups looking to save the school and Sumner owner Bishop W.R. Portee, the leader of the Southside Christian Palace Church in Los Angeles. Portee purchased the building in 2009. He died in late 2015, and the church is still listed on Shawnee County records as the property owner.

Gonzales expressed hostility and frustration toward the Sumner Legacy Trust group, chaired by Hiller, and also the Ward Meade Neighborhood Improvement Association, which last week voted to ask the Topeka City Council to pursue action in the hopes of saving the school.

“Karen Hiller, she has done some things, (church officials) just don’t want to deal with her now,” he said. “There’s a history to it that has more to it than somebody who just wants to buy the building.”

Hiller was struck speechless for almost a minute Wednesday when asked if she was aware of the enmity being expressed through the Sumner liasion.

She groped for words: “No. Well, yes and no.”

She paused.

“At least somebody is talking. It somehow had to break open.”

A person answering the church’s phone referred questions to Gonzales, calling him its local representative. Although he repeatedly said he has no legal authority to speak for the owners, Gonzales said church officials call him when they receive offers or calls about someone buying the church. He then vets the potential purchasers.

Hiller and local businessman Cody Foster both said they had reached out separately and left messages at the church office about potential buyers for the property. Hiller through the Sumner legacy group also has called and sent letters, she said, trying to open communications with the church officials so something could be done with the property, which is deteriorating.

Asked if a church official might talk to Foster, who confirmed Wednesday he would be interested in buying the building for its historic value, Gonzales said: “I will listen to him and take the information to the church, by all means. But again, the question they’re going to ask is if he has any association with Karen, and that’s going to be a dealbreaker, if she had anything to do with connecting him with the whole situation. I’m just telling you.”

Hiller said the relationship between Portee, the Sumner Legacy Trust and the NIA had deteriorated after a disagreement in 2014-15 time period. Portee and his representatives worked closely with both groups to put on a 60th anniversary celebration of the Brown v. Board decision, held on the Sumner school grounds on May 17, 2014.

After that, they collaborated to apply for a Kansas historic preservation grant to use for basic and much-needed work on the building, such as patching a leaky roof, Hiller said. The group failed to get the funds, she said, adding that it wasn’t unusual to have to apply two or three times for the grants.

Meanwhile, volunteers stepped forward to offer to do some of what they’d outlined in the grant, including a roofer who would do the work for cost of materials, with free labor, Hiller said. The legacy group put together a proposal and sent it to Portee, asking him to put in $17,000, the sum he had agreed to contribute as part of matching funds for the grant, and they would get a chunk of work done.

“We got a letter from the bishop — you would never think we had spent the last two years together,” she said. “It was so vitriolic. We were just so stunned, we did nothing. We didn’t respond right away. We just let it sit.”

Eventually, the legacy group reached out to Portee to reopen communications, Hiller said.

They never heard another word from him or, after his death, from his heirs or the church, she said.

Deborah Edwards, who took over as chairwoman of the Ward Meade NIA after Gonzales led the group for six years, said her group has been agonizing over what can be done to save the school. It is the regular target of vandals, and recently its iconic weathervane was stolen from the top of the building, leaving a hole in the roof.

“At this point, my opinion is that until we get it back into local ownership, nothing can happen except more deterioration and more blight and more of the same,” she said. “I am determined I am going to do what I can to say enough is enough. Something has to happen.”

Before learning of Gonzales’s feelings about Hiller’s involvement, Hiller had said she was willing to be more outspoken about the situation to get something done.

“For years, when everything looked like they were going wrong, I handled the contacts with the press,” she said. “We wanted to keep it positive about the building and about them, hoping for the best. But at this point, it has been two years since they have been willing – since the church itself has responded directly to any communication to us. We gave it some time; we have continued to work on developing the future uses of the building.

“They may still be harboring dreams of doing something, but for it to be a heritage site and for it to come alive in Topeka, they’ve burned their bridges by waiting so long on getting local funding and local partners, or corporate funding and partners,” Hiller added. “We were willing. They didn’t realize you have to let those people have a seat at the table if you were going to take their money.”

Gonzales said he has no idea what the church officials plan for the property and if they still intend to save the building.

“That’s something you’ll have to ask them. Personally, I feel that they are. The bishop was very … he knew everything about civil rights, and that was the reason why he looked at the building and bought it,” he said.

Hiller, who emphasized she has worked on this project for five years, is hopeful it will move ahead.

“Today, BvBSLT has prospective partners for neighborhood and local programming, historic interpretation, global programming if needed and for mothballing and renovation funding,” she said.

12Days
 

More

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 17:47

$10,000 reward offered in Wichita Pizza Hut driver’s death

WICHITA, Kan. — Pizza Hut is offering a $10,000 reward for information in the death of one of their drivers last month... Read more