It has been eight and a half years since the late Rev. W.R. Portee (of the Southside Christian Palace Church in Los Angeles) purchased Sumner Elementary School. Almost a year after the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Sumner one of the most endangered historic sites in the U.S. in May 2008, Portee purchased the school from the city for $89,000.
At the time, Portee had grand ambitions to turn Sumner into a “community center and human rights memorial.” Instead, it has become an ugly, decrepit embarrassment for residents of the Ward Meade neighborhood in Topeka. From worsening leaks to exposed copper flashing dangling above the school’s entrance to the stolen weathervane that left a hole in the roof, Sumner is in an advanced state of decay. The Ward Meade NIA reports that it has also attracted crime to the neighborhood, and it’s a frequent target of vandalism.
Although the school’s owners worked with the Sumner Legacy Trust and the NIA to host a 60th anniversary celebration of the Brown v. Board decision in May 2014, communication has all but ceased since then. According to city councilwoman Karen Hiller, after members of the trust asked Portee to invest $17,000 for some desperately needed maintenance, he responded with a letter that was “so vitriolic” that it “stunned” them. She says the trust never heard from him – or anyone else at the church – again.
But some messages are even worse than silence. Phil Gonzales is the church’s local representative, and he recently made threatening remarks about what might be done with Sumner: “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.” While he said this wasn’t a threat to tear down the school, he added, “That’s always an option, right?”
These comments are disgraceful. Of course the owners are being subjected to “some negative feelings and pressure” from our community – they’re letting a historic landmark disintegrate right before our eyes. They’re also forcing residents of Ward Meade to contend with higher crime rates, diminished property values and the sight of a moldering vandalism magnet in the middle of their neighborhood. Do the owners in L.A. have to look at Sumner every day? What happened to the “community center and human rights memorial” that was promised almost nine years ago?
Local businessman Cody Foster has expressed interest in purchasing Sumner, but Gonzales says Hiller’s involvement would make any deal impossible: “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.”
Let’s get this straight. The owners of Sumner – who have let the building fester for eight and a half years – would hold it hostage because a prospective buyer is peripherally connected to someone they don’t like? We see no evidence that Hiller has done anything to deserve this bizarre animosity. And frankly, we don’t care what happened between her and the church leadership – allowing a pointless feud to determine the fate of a civil rights landmark is the height of pettiness and irresponsibility.
If Gonzales’s comments don’t reflect the church’s position on this issue, its leaders better speak up. But if they think the Sumner situation should be handled with vindictive threats and childish bickering, they should be ashamed of themselves.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.