If you didn’t grow up in Manhattan, there’s a good chance you don’t know about the Community House. Even among townies, it’s sometimes mistaken for the Douglass Recreation Center because it’s the host site for Manhattan Parks and Recreation. But for a significant portion of Manhattan residents, it’s just a 102-year-old brick building with some windows boarded over near the mall that they would drive right by.
As chance would have it, Ben Burton drove by the Community House in September 2018 when he was looking for a “cool” project downtown. He saw the potential of the brick building and quickly recruited fellow developer Tyler Holloman and financial whiz Gavin Schmidt to the project. Their goal was to turn the dilapidated building into a thriving commercial and residential hub for downtown.
“I’d actually played dodgeball in that building,” Holloman says. “Just from working downtown, I’d drive past it and think, ‘This is such a unique building.’ Obviously, it’s underutilized. Aside from a few dodgeball games and a few classes, there just isn’t much going on in that building.”
The first big obstacle to doing anything with the Community House was figuring out how to buy it from the City of Manhattan. “We reached out to Jason Hilgers and asked what the possibilities might be,” Burton says. “We started to work with him to understand the process for purchasing a city-owned property. From there we had some conversations, and he really pushed for the request for proposal scenario as the best option to open up the process for everyone.”
While there are still some hurdles to clear, Burton, Holloman and Schmidt are on track to buy the Community House for $1. The Manhattan City Commission has also agreed to kick in a $500,000 grant, provided the three spend at least $2 million renovating and rehabilitating the century-old building at the corner of Fourth and Humboldt streets, while keeping it on the Register of Historic Kansas Places and the National Register of Historic Places.
A Historical Landmark
The Community House was built via a joint effort between Manhattan citizens and the Rotarians of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma to serve soldiers coming and going from World War I. After the war, it was intended to become the “first permanently constructed community house in the United States,” according to a June 18, 1918, article in The Manhattan Mercury. A plaque on the building is inscribed, “1917 Manhattan Camp Funston—Community Building—A Tribute from the Citizens of Manhattan and the Rotarians of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma—To Our Soldiers. He profits most who serves best.”
After the war, the city owned the building until the federal government bought it for a USO building during World War II. At the war’s conclusion, ownership reverted to the city, and it’s been used by a variety of clubs and organizations ever since.
H. B. Winter, a well-known Manhattan architect who was the 12th graduate of the Kansas State Agricultural College’s architecture program, designed the Community House. Other blueprints to his credit include First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, most of the buildings for Long Oil Company and Varney Bookstore, which is now Rally House.
Winter’s two-and-a-half story Community House features a limestone foundation with red brick facade, according to a Kansas Historic Resources inventory. It further describes the building features:
“Cut stone frames brick panels as a cornice band or frieze beneath a projecting cornice near the top of the building. A brick parapet with simple stone cap extends above the cornice and is crenulated on the front (west) facade and features diamond-shaped stone panels on the north and west facades. The front facade is comprised of three bays; the center bay is recessed with stone pilasters and an entablature inscribed, ‘Community House’ framing the entrance.”
From Liability to Asset
Without Burton, Schmidt and Holloman’s proposal, the city would have to pour millions of tax dollars into the Community House to bring it up to code so everyone could access the building. That’s before considering preserving the historic elements that qualified the building for the state and national registers. Under the purchase plan, the city’s liability is capped at $500,000 for the grant, and it will have a new multi-million dollar building on the tax roll.
The building hosts some practices for city recreation sports, as well as public and private meetings, and it generated $2,630 in rental fees in 2018. While they need to invest a minimum of $2 million to receive the city grant, Burton says the final investment will likely be closer to $3 million. Once renovated, the Community House could generate an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 in property taxes each year for the city.
“We’re taking that off their books and putting a tax-producing asset back,” Burton says. “I think that resonates with a lot of people. Not only are we creating tax revenue, we’re renovating a piece of downtown in an area where a lot of renovation and investment has occurred. We’re really trying to continue that momentum.”
Burton says the commission was clear that whatever happens with the Community House, it needs to remain a historic building. Preserving key elements like the exterior design, front stairway, fireplace, chamfered columns and the doors, windows, trim, plaster and wainscot where possible is the number one goal.
“During this process, we were able to put some worries to rest by negotiating with the city an actual covenant in the deed that this building will remain on the registry,” Holloman says. “With that, there are certain restrictions we’re bound by. I think overall the community has been supportive of this fact knowing this building will be historically maintained. In fact, more so than it is now.”
The city can enforce the terms through legal action if necessary, and any future owners will be bound by the same covenant. The covenant and Burton’s thorough presentation earned commissioners’ praises.
“I’m really excited to see where this is going to go,” Commissioner Usha Reddi says. “I think it’s definitely the right proposal for this building. I think it would be a great asset to the community.”
Commissioner Jerred McKee lauded the public-private partnership not only for its potential to preserve a piece of Manhattan’s history, but also to boost economic development. “If you look at other communities that are having success, this is what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re finding ways to attract remote workers and those workers who have an entrepreneurial spirit. Those workers tend to want to live in an urban environment and spaces much like this one.”
A Community Effort
Burton, Holloman and Schmidt all have backgrounds in developing and managing properties. Burton is a licensed general contractor with experience building and managing multi-family projects as well as commercial real estate. Holloman is the founder of Frontier Property Management where he oversees more than 600 residential and commercial rentals in Manhattan. In addition to being vice president of commercial lending at ESB Financial, Schmidt also has commercial and residential real estate management experience.
While all three have a passion for the Community House project, they’re also seeking help from others.
“For a project like this, we’ve engaged Brenda Spencer who’s a historic consultant,” Burton says. “We really wanted to use those local resources for a project like this. While we have experience on the construction side, we wanted to bring in some more experts in the field.”
Spencer, who holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architecture from Kansas State University, got her start as coordinator of Manhattan Design Project, a $26 million downtown revitalization campaign in the mid-1980s. For the last 25 years, she’s run her own firm specializing in historic preservation consulting, including state and federal tax credits for the rehabilitation of historic buildings.
The group is also working with locally based companies like Anderson Knight Architects and BHS Construction, who have worked on similar projects, such as the renovation of Katie’s Way and Wamego’s Columbian Theatre.
The historic tax credits will be key to making the project work financially.
“We have to make sure the numbers pencil out. That’s always one thing we look at any time a project gets evaluated,” Schmidt says. “This project looked like it had some challenges from the get-go. It’s pretty big. There’s been some water damage. From the first tour, we knew that we had to get pretty creative to be able to obtain this property and turn it into an asset the community will be proud of.”
Kansas and the federal government recognize projects like the Community House aren’t generally cost effective, Schmidt says. Knowing this, they offer incentives for people to preserve and rehabilitate historic buildings.
“How that works is if you invest $100,000 into a property, and that expense is qualified within the criteria, the state gives you 25 cents on the dollar in a state tax credit,” Schmidt says. “On the federal side of things, they end up giving you 20 cents on the dollar in a tax credit.”
The credits are an incentive not to bulldoze buildings or to overlook those properties, but rather restore and preserve them.
“When you try to renovate a building that’s more than 100 years old, in the condition it’s in to the standard that the national and state historical societies are holding us to, it’s just economically not feasible,” Holloman says. “I think we tried to get creative, and I think why we feel so good about this project is how open it was. Anybody could have submitted ideas. Anybody had the opportunity to put their vision on this project.”
In early fall, the group finalized its design and budget and submitted them to state and national preservation offices. Once they receive the necessary approvals, and the City Commission signs off on the plans, the trio plans to apply for building permits in February with the goal of starting construction in March and finishing by October.
“I think the work will speak for itself,” Burton says. “I think the due diligence we put into this project has kind of helped lay that foundation of why [the renovation] is important.”
The work will turn the underutilized building into a live-work space with 10 private office suites that will have a shared reception and conference area, six one-bedroom lofts and a multi-functional space that will be available for a wide variety of events like receptions and community meetings.
“It’s really tailored to individuals who need an office presence but don’t necessarily need a 1,500- to 3,000-square-foot office,” Burton says. “Maybe it’s an individual marketing firm or an attorney. It also helps them because they don’t have to negotiate a build out of a larger space or come up with the funding to do that. They have all the amenities they need, whether it’s Wi-Fi, common reception, restroom facilities, conference room—all of those items that can be shared amongst everyone.”
Schmidt says larger companies could rent an office to “dip their toes” into downtown without making a big commitment.
“I think an urban feel is an objective we’re hoping to check on the residential side,” he says. “If anyone kind of shuts their eyes and pictures what a downtown city apartment looks like, I think we all kind of have that vision in our heads.”
Holloman says those urban-style apartments will hopefully be a draw for people working downtown. They also could help businesses recruiting workers from larger cities.
“Really, at the end of the day, we believe in Manhattan,” Holloman says. “We believe in the future of Manhattan, and we believe that this building is going to improve that future in a small way.”
“All of us really love the downtown community and are trying to figure out how we can increase the popularity of downtown and provide another amenity. Specifically, as an employer in the area, we look at what makes this area more attractive to attract, keep and retain talent. We believe buildings like the Community House are what’s needed for the future.”
Greg Doering is a writer and photographer at Kansas Farm Bureau. He resides in Manhattan, Kansas, with his wife, Amy.