Published April 22nd, 2020 at 2:07 PM
Faced with a pandemic shutdown and the likelihood its important patron, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, will remain dark until fall, Shirley Helzberg had no choice but to close her labor of love, the Webster House, permanently.
“The Kauffman Center isn’t opening until at least fall and the symphony and other arts are looking at fall openings, too,” she said. “There are so many unknowns. I just knew we could never come back in the same fashion.
“Because of its uniqueness and how important to the community it’s been, and how so many people loved it with all the special occasions they celebrated there, it’s a real heartbreak for me.”
However, Helzberg has no plan to sell the historic building that she rescued from decay in 2000 and reopened in 2002 with a renowned restaurant upstairs and high-end antique shop and boutique below.
The 135-year-old school house building at 17th and Wyandotte streets recently underwent significant exterior repairs and is in excellent condition. A 182-space garage built across the street to serve it and other organizations is only six years old.
“Our family would like to maintain ownership,” Helzberg said. “We have no intention of selling. The main thing is to thank people for their support.”
The Helzberg family’s restoration of perhaps Kansas City’s only surviving Richardson Romanesque buildings from the 1880s, according to its National Register application, came at pivotal time early in downtown’s 21st century revival.
Much of the since-thriving Crossroads neighborhood was blighted and deserted then, and the idea a world-class performing arts center would be built next door was not on the radar.
Helzberg said the old school building, which had been vacant since 1977, was in terrible condition. The building was renovated and a new bell tower had to be fashioned from metal. The bell itself was purchased in Cleveland.
“It was a joy for me,” she said. “There weren’t many other venues downtown for events. Downtown has changed a lot since then and we were so excited when the Kauffman Center opened and the restaurant was busy.”
As for the future uses of the building, Helzberg said it was soon to tell, although she’s already had several inquiries.
“The garage gets great occupancy when there’s something at the Kauffman Center,” she said, “and it also provides parking for symphony musicians and the other tenants it was built to serve.”
Her immediate plans are to determine how to sell the current inventory, including a new line of summer clothes that had recently arrived at the boutique.
“Hopefully, before the end of the summer, our merchandise will be sold,” she said.
Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is founder and publisher of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.