Published April 15th, 2020 at 10:00 AM
They bought a longtime paint and flooring store.
What they found inside was arguably the most historic building in Overland Park – the 1906 depot built by railroad entrepreneur William Strang, Jr.
“Our original plan was to have some kind of well-publicized unveiling of it,” Brad Moore, president of the Overland Park Historical Society, said recently.
“But I couldn’t wait. So on the same day we closed on the purchase, we went in and pulled away some of the paneling and spray-on stucco and there it was, the façade of the original building.
“It was so cool to be able to touch the stone.”
The limestone wainscoting that Moore delighted in belonged to what he and his colleagues consider the first area commercial structure built by Strang, who developed the Missouri & Kansas Interurban Railway – or Strang Line – as part of his efforts to develop the then-rural district today known as Overland Park, the second most populous city in Kansas.
The nonprofit group acquired the depot last summer and recently mailed out the first fundraising letters to help defray the building’s $1.25 million purchase price and fund its conversion into a museum and society headquarters.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Moore and fellow society officers had planned to invite guests inside the depot during the scheduled July 17 celebration of Overland Park’s 60th anniversary in renovated Thompson Park, just to the south.
”We are prepared to hold an open house on July 17, or any postponement date the city may select,” Moore said.
A planned display of archival photographs, along with the revealed west exterior depot wall, should make vivid the role Strang played in developing the suburban corridors and cul-de-sacs of Overland Park, as well as prompting the vast wave of residential development that came to cover much of Johnson County, Kansas.
The 1906 depot represented the initial pebble in the pond.
It was inside this small, squat structure that Strang planned not only the construction of his interurban line from Kansas City to several points to the southwest, including Lenexa and Olathe, but also where he operated the separate Strang Land Co.
That entity platted residential subdivisions and deployed sales representatives to pitch the possibilities of home ownership to urban dwellers.
The society acquired the depot, meanwhile, in the midst of an ongoing transformation of Overland Park’s downtown district, with several high-rise mixed-use developments built near the vintage storefronts of 80th Street from Metcalf Avenue west to Santa Fe Drive.
This contributed to a sense of urgency to acquire the old depot on the southeast corner of Santa Fe and 80th Street.
“We knew this was a threatened corner and that the depot was a likely candidate for a tear-down,” said Moore. “We didn’t want to see that piece of history go by the wrecking ball.”
Before committing to the $1.25 million transaction, society officers were confident that the depot remained embedded within the contemporary brick building that housed the paint and home finishings store for more than 60 years.
Still, it was difficult to discern from the street.
The depot initially stood 20 by 40 feet, before Strang extended it 20 feet to the south in 1910, said Florent Wagner, a historical society vice president.
After the Strang Line shut down in 1940, developers used it as a real estate office before restaurateurs, for several years, operated what was known as the Trail Inn there, Wagner said. Those occupants extended the building to the east in 1948.
In the mid-1950s the Oetting family began selling paint and other materials used by families and contractors while building or improving homes across the growing suburb. The family added a showroom on the building’s west side in 1963.
In recent years residents knew the store – Suburb Decorations – as a small contemporary red brick building outfitted with wide windows and surrounded by a discreet parking lot.
“At one point, I believe, I was the only one that believed the depot was in there,” Wagner said. “But all the things the owners told us about the original building helped convince everyone little by little.”
By 2019 Wagner and other society officers were meeting with Oetting family members and inspecting the building.
“Florent always swore to me that the original depot was inside it,” said Moore.
During visits, Wagner instructed Moore to bend back a particular piece of paneling to reveal original wainscoting, or climb up the flight of stairs where Moore could see – just as Wagner had said would – the depot’s original roof.
“Seeing that, I was totally on board,” Moore said.
The Oetting family and historical society agreed to the $1.25 million purchase price, with the society putting up $250,000 and the Bank of Blue Valley financing the balance, Moore said.
The deal closed on August 15, with Moore tearing away the paneling that same day.
Strang, the New York railroad entrepreneur, came to Kansas City to rescue his mother.
She was living near downtown Kansas City during the 1903 flood, the late spring disaster that killed 20, left more than 20,000 homeless, destroyed 16 of the 17 area bridges that spanned the Kansas River and interrupted area electricity, gas and water services.
“The stench from the animals and chemicals in the water from the West Bottoms was unbearable,” said Wagner.
“Strang’s mother said ‘Billy, come save me.’ ‘’
He brought her out to high ground, specifically the Johnson County property of an acquaintance, George Metcalf, whose farm occupied acreage near the intersection of 75th Street and what is now Metcalf Avenue.
Strang had access to the large tents used by railroad workers while laying track. He installed his mother under canvas and then spent the next several weeks taking note of the pleasant surroundings and refreshing breezes.
At some point Strang’s wheels began to turn.
He began to imagine a pastoral community built on high ground to the south and west of Kansas City – “directly in the line of its inevitable growth,” as Strang put it – reached by an interurban line whose tracks could be laid along a flood-free path.
Strang began assembling property as well as winning the cooperation of neighboring landowners. In November 1905, John and Mildred Marty granted easements to Strang, allowing the entrepreneur to run track across family property near what’s now downtown Overland Park.
The Strang Line began running the following spring. (Strang expressed his appreciation by naming a street after the Marty family, and another one for Floyd French Marty, a son of John and Mildred.)
Although Strang indeed built it, people still needed reasons to come.
In 1909 and 1910 Strang operated a small airfield near 79th and Marty streets, just east of the Strang Car Barn.
He signed a contract with aviator Charles Hamilton. Beginning on Christmas Day 1909, Hamilton began flying about two weeks worth of flights from the field, coaxing into the air a biplane with wings of rubberized silk and powered by an 85-pound, four-cylinder engine.
Downtown Kansas City residents came to watch, crowding onto Strang Line cars.
Soon Strang moved the airfield south to near 82nd and Robinson streets, and promoted other attractions. He scheduled dances, picnics, shooting competitions and baseball games – all to entice city dwellers to ride the Strang Line out to Johnson County.
“Strang had salesmen working in the grandstands during his baseball games,” Wagner said.
In this way, over time, buyers signed up for single-family homes in various nearby residential subdivisions, several of which featured the word “Overland” in their names. Although the Strang Line suffered various setbacks and ultimately shut down in 1940, there’s no disputing its role in growing the modern municipality of Overland Park, which incorporated in 1960.
Today Strang does not lack for recognition in contemporary Overland Park.
In 2006 admirers placed a plaque on the Strang Line Car Barn and Power Plant, the stone structure at 79th Street and Santa Fe Drive now occupied by a furniture store. The historical society owns the building and maintains historical displays inside.
The same year admirers dedicated a sculpture of the entrepreneur – rolled plans clenched in his left hand – looking eastward, just across Santa Fe Drive from the old depot.
A few doors east of the depot, meanwhile, stands Strang Hall, the recently-opened food hall or “chef collective” on the first floor of the Edison District, a new five-story office-and-retail complex at 80th and Marty streets.
A bowler–topped bust of Strang stands near the north windows. The food hall has temporarily closed due to COVID-19.
For Strang’s 1906 depot, Moore hopes to devote some of the initial funds raised to pay for restoration plans. If the society can submit those to Overland Park officials later this year, he said, the city could issue an initial work permit by late summer.
Overland Park’s Vision Metcalf, which articulated ideas for the upgrading of the Metcalf Avenue corridor and was adopted in 2008, imagined a boutique hotel at the depot’s location.
But the Vision Metcalf plan is a “ ‘big picture’ document and is not prescriptive,” said Meg Ralph, a city spokesperson.
While the former Suburb Decorations building at 8001 Santa Fe Drive is not listed on the Overland Park’s list of historic places, neither is it “part of any planned demolition on the city’s part,” she said.
Ralph added that no demolition permit ever been sought for the property. She said it would be for property owners to decide on the building’s future use and present those plans to the city’s planning commission.
The society has a long history of working with Overland Park. For about 20 years the society occupied the old Strang Carriage House, which the city had renovated in the former Santa Fe Commons Park.
“The city graciously provided the carriage house when we didn’t have a whole lot of money,” Wagner said.
The historical society vacated the building about 18 months ago in anticipation of the renovation of the renamed Thompson Park, and since has occupied office space near 79th and Marty streets. How soon the society could occupy the restored depot depends on how fundraising proceeds.
When the COVID-19 pandemic passes, society officers look forward to allowing others to discover the same landmark that so long had been hiding in plain sight.
“We hope to have an open house for city leaders to show them that the original depot is still there,” Moore said.
To learn more about the Strang Depot, visit the Overland Park Historical Society website at www.ophistorical.org. Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a board member of the Jackson County Historical Society.