See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | Long down for the count, the 150-year-old Sauer Castle is on the way to a rebirth

The Sauer restoration began with stabilization and extensive repairs to the brick façade and the four-story tower. (photo by Steve Paul)

A century and a half after German immigrant Anton Sauer built a palatial residence on a bluff near the Kansas River, its new owner is showing a visitor the rubble and the glory that define the historic home’s present and future.

Mike Heitmann, an engineer by profession and a builder and historic home renovator on the side, acquired the historic Sauer Castle in a Wyandotte County tax sale in 2023. Long neglected and deteriorating for decades under absentee ownership by a Sauer descendent, the Italianate brick structure was shuttered and declared uninhabitable. Heitmann saw beyond the decay and rampant vandalism and took it on as a passion project.

“This place was full of 40 years of trash and vandalism,” Heitmann says as we walk through the three-story house. At this point, six months into the construction effort, the interior bones have been shored up as the preservation effort focuses on restoring the roof, guttering and exterior details, including the image-defining four-story tower.

But Heitmann proudly points out many of the features awaiting attention and care: the 12-foot windows in the dining room, a first-floor bathroom that is said to represent the city’s first appearance of indoor plumbing, the three deteriorated and disassembled fireplaces, and eventually, the winding staircase that once again will take visitors up the tower to enjoy its long-range vantage point. Plaster walls are covered in graffiti. Elegant woodwork remains in variable states of disrepair. A color board shows options for interior décor. Outside, sandstone window headers and fascia corbels await reproduction and replacement by more durable materials.

Heitmann projects the restoration will last until the fall of 2025, when he expects — though he’s not 100 percent certain of its ultimate use — the 4,000-square-foot house will once again welcome wedding parties and other community events. He says neighbors along the modest residential street are excited by the property’s improvement as are other Sauer descendants who long regretted the home’s decline.

Last fall Heitmann enlisted the aid of Diana Euston, who teaches journalism and history at Grandview High School and, as a freelance writer and activist, long advocated for the Sauer Castle’s preservation. Heitmann commissioned Euston and two students, Kegen Adcock and Maya Christiansen-Wright, both juniors, to take on an after-school project documenting the rebirth of the castle. They began producing a series of YouTube videos, which can be viewed on their channel, Saving Sauer Castle. The first episode provides a solid account of the historical background. Subsequent episodes, scheduled to appear more or less monthly, provide construction updates.

Mike Heitmann turned his passion for home restoration toward the long-decrepit Sauer Castle in Kansas City, Kansas. (photo by Steve Paul)

Christiansen-Wright, who’s interested in broadcasting, has found it useful to experience what it’s like to be behind the camera. She also discovered how meaningful it was to learn how “hearing about family stories” illuminated the history of what she first thought was “just an old house.”

Sauer, for example, founded a tannery in Kansas City, Kansas, and purchased 63 acres of wooded property in 1869. He died of tuberculosis in 1879, was buried in Union Cemetery, and his widow, Mary, sold all but 12 acres. Vestiges of three outbuildings — a smokehouse, a wine cellar and a chicken house — remain on the grounds. A brick house next door was built by the Sauer family in the early 20th century.

Sauer engaged one of the most prominent Kansas City architects, Asa Beebe Cross (1826-1894), to design the house. Cross is known for several lost beauties, including the Union Depot in the West Bottoms, the 1891 City Hall at Fifth and Main streets, the original Gillis Opera House and the so-called Vaughan’s Diamond, a flatiron building at Ninth and Main. But the Sauer Castle will join only a small handful of his best-known surviving structures, including the Vaile Mansion in Independence (1881) and St. Patrick’s Church, at Eighth and Cherry in Downtown Kansas City (1875), both of which share the Italianate stylings.

Heitmann is working with architects from STRATA Architecture + Preservation, consultant Elizabeth Rosin, and contractor Pishny Restoration Services to adhere to National Historic Register guidelines and to recapture Cross’ original vision. The Sauer Castle has had a perennial spot on the preservation organization Historic Kansas City’s annual list of endangered buildings, and by next year ought to be considered a successful save.

“Mike is doing this project so right,” Rosin told me. “It’s the kind of project we dream about.”

Rosin recognizes the local rarity of restored 19th-century buildings and the value they offer to the public.

“It has such a different story to tell,” she says. “School groups will be able to understand history from a different point in time.”

I was introduced to the self-taught, playfully absurdist visions of Niki de Saint Phalle in a large exhibit a few years ago at the De Menil Museum in Houston. Now The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in collaboration with the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum in Nice, France, which is closing this year for a four-year restoration, is presenting the full range of Saint Phalle’s career. “Niki de Saint Phalle: Rebellion and Joy” is said to be the first comprehensive retrospective in the U.S. of the artist’s two- and three-dimensional works. The show, with nearly 100 pieces, opened in late April and runs through July 21. nelson-atkins.org.

(Four Way Books)

The Kansas City music calendar is jam-packed in May and June; take your pick from some high points: Deborah Brown with Bobby Watson at the Folly, James Taylor at Starlight, Lionel Richie with Earth Wind and Fire at T-Mobile and Yo-Yo Ma at Helzberg Hall. But let’s focus here on the weekend of June 21-23, when we will say farewell to Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony for the last 15 years. Stern’s ear-perking parting program offers Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Samuel Barber’s one-movement First Symphony, and Jean Sibelius’ landscape-inspired epic Symphony No. 2. So long, Michael, it’s been good to know you. kcsymphony.org.

Kansas City’s writing and reading community is lucky to have Hadara Bar-Nadav in our midst. A Ph.D. on the English and creative writing faculty at UMKC, Bar-Nadav is an incisive and stirring writer whose medical investigations, Holocaust memories and fearless examinations of the heart and other bodily presences add up to a singular poetic voice: “I am an ordinary I/ unfree from history,” she writes in “The Singing Pills.” Her new book, “The Animal Is Chemical,” was chosen by Jericho Brown to receive the Levis Prize in Poetry. Her fifth full-length collection, it was published by Four Way Books. Don’t hesitate to add it to your summer-reading stack.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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