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Time Running Out for Iconic Menninger Clock Tower In Topeka; Demolition Permit Under Review

Courtesy the Sunflower Foundation
Menninger clock tower building, partially obscured by trees.

Time may be running out for the iconic Menninger clock tower in Topeka. It's now one step closer to being torn down.

At a meeting of the Topeka Landmarks Commission in January, Siebolt Frieswyk became emotional as he spoke about the possible demolition of the tower, located on the former campus of the famous Menninger clinic.

Frieswyk, a clinical psychologist, worked in the tower building from 1966 until 2001 — almost the entire duration of the Menninger Foundation’s ownership of the campus, which was from 1961 through 2002.

“The Menninger community stands apart as a vibrant example of collaborative, communal, interracial, international, and cross-cultural union and collaboration,” Frieswyk said in the meeting. “I think it’s not sufficiently appreciated perhaps, but this became a leader not just for this nation but for the world.”

The meeting didn’t decide anything except the question: “Will the proposed demolition of the building damage or destroy its historic integrity?” The answer could only be “yes,” but the question is a necessary formality for any building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sisters of Charity Leavenworth Health System (SCL) has owned the property for nearly 14 years and, for the last several years, has offered to give it away. But in spite of a fierce sentimental attachment felt by many, no one has accepted the donation and demolition may be the only option.

That’s an eventuality Frieswyk cannot comprehend. Speaking with Kansas Public Radio, he calls the tower “a beacon of hope and cherished traditions and insights and is a glorious testament to the power of love,” and says he doesn’t understand why it’s still empty.

The 140-foot-tall structure on SW 6th Street has loomed over the city since the 1920s. It’s not only a familiar physical landmark but one that’s seeped into the collective psyche as well, subsequently showing up in works of art, most recently in native son Ben Lerner’s book The Topeka School.

Security Benefit Association Hospital (SBA) originally owned the Colonial Revival style complex of buildings. They modeled the tower after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and, according to the National Register of Historic Places registration form, it “expresses nativism and stability, and it proclaims democracy as democracy was first presented to the world in the Declaration of Independence." Only three structures remain of what eventually amounted to 28 buildings on 350 acres.

Billie Hall, president and CEO of the Sunflower Foundation, which owns the other two remaining buildings on the property, explains that nearly 100 years ago, the SBA was a self-sustaining complex with a farm and its own power building, which is one of the buildings Sunflower has been refurbishing as healthcare and nonprofit office space.

Hall says the SBA administered medical care to the general population as well as special care for seniors and orphans and was a “precursor to what we know as insurance today. That you pay a little bit per month and you have access to care when you need it.”

Sunflower was initially interested in refurbishing the tower building, but Hall says they quickly realized that its 66,000 square feet was just too much; they wanted about half of that. The clock tower is visible from the two buildings Sunflower bought instead.

SCL senior vice president of real estate Steve Chyung says that his company purchased the property with the plan to move its St. Francis Hospital campus to the site. But just after the purchase was complete, SCL transferred ownership of the St. Francis Hospital to the University of Kansas Healthcare System.

“We no longer own and operate a hospital in Topeka, so us continuing to own the land no longer makes sense,” Chyung says. SCL is headquartered in Colorado.

For 13 years, SCL has footed the bill for maintenance and after-hours security, necessary after vandals did $1 million in damage in 2006. That’s $120 thousand annually for property management and security, and another $90 thousand in taxes for the parcel of land — a cost not tenable for a nonprofit to pay in perpetuity on property that can offer no return on the investment.

Here and there various entities have been interested in accepting SCL’s donation, but no one has been interested enough to commit to the estimated restoration cost of $15 to $20 million.

State and Federal Historic Preservation Income Tax Credits would offset approximately 45% of those costs, and the City of Topeka says it would add the property to a program that can help minimize property taxes on the building for the next decade.

However, since no takers have come forward, SCL has applied for the building’s demolition, which led to the landmarks commission meeting. The next step in the process is review by the city council and mayor, and Topeka planning division director Dan Warner says that has yet to be scheduled.

Warner doesn’t know of any definite timeline for future meetings or demolition. The historical designation means that the process is lengthy and involved, though it ultimately does not protect the building.

He says, “It’s not so much a political process, it’s just following state law and answering certain questions.” The city will listen to and consider what anyone has to say about saving the building between now and the next meeting.

However, if city council reaches the conclusion that the building must not be demolished, that puts Chyung’s company in a bad financial position — they’d be stuck with it.

Yet, he says, “We don’t want to transfer something to somebody who doesn’t have resources to maintain the upkeep of the building and the safety. So, we want to make sure there’s a responsible party on the other end of the donation.”

Frieswyk says of the possible destruction: “I think it’s a terrible, heinous crime to do so, because it destroys a way of thinking and being with others that deserves national and international prominence.”