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Oak Tower may be Restored to Original 1920s Grandeur

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3 minute read

By Kevin Collison

A towering downtown architectural treasure that’s been hidden by cement stucco since 1974 may be restored to its Gothic glory by a Lawrence developer.

The 28-story Oak Tower near City Hall was bought by Bill Schultheis a year ago, and he’s pursuing a renovation plan that would restore its original terra cotta exterior and give it new life as a mixed-use project including possible residential.

“We are exploring two things, whether we could obtain the historic tax credits required to bring the building back to its glory days and how it could be used in the future,” Schultheis said.

“We have some good tenants there already and I envision it as a mixed-use building.”

The bland stucco hides a building that briefly reigned as the tallest in Missouri and has a colorful history that includes being the first headquarters of Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. and an aviation tragedy that claimed four lives.

The 28-story Oak Tower near City Hall was covered by cement stucco in a 1974 remodel.

A single-engine plane lost in a snowstorm in January 1965 crashed into the 28th floor of the tower at the corner of 11th and Oak killing all aboard.

Construction on what was to become the Southwest Bell headquarters began in 1917, but was delayed during World War I. It was completed as a 14-story tower in 1920, and was doubled in height in 1929 to accommodate the growing telephone company.

At 28 stories, it was the tallest building in Missouri until the 31-story Power & Light Building was completed in 1931.

Elizabeth Rosin of Rosin Preservation said the Telephone Building, Power & Light, Professional Building and the Bryant Building were the first round of modern high-rise buildings completed downtown.

“It originally had these Gothic-Jacobean ornaments in terra cotta applied to a high-rise frame,” she said. “It’s been lost for too many years after 40 years of being encased.

“It would be exciting if it was restored.”

Rosin has been hired to determine whether the building can be restored to qualify for federal and state historic tax credits. Those programs have proven essential to help provide financing for historic preservation projects.

Steel anchors connect the cement stucco to the original exterior, causing damage to the terra cotta. (Photo courtesy Rosin Preservation)

An initial inspection by Corey Thomas of Pishny Restoration Services in Lenexa has found most of the original terra cotta is intact behind the facade. The anchors used to attach the facade to the building however, have caused damage.

Thomas said the terra cotta decorative trim at the top of the building was removed when the facade was erected, but the original drawings are available and the work can be duplicated.

And Schultheis said in a stroke of luck, the previous owner had found the ornate original entrance canopy in a junkyard where it had sat for 30 years after being removed for the stucco work and replaced it.

The building at 324 E. 11th St. is about 30 percent occupied.

“My current tenants are really good, but that leaves a lot of the building left to develop,” Schultheis said.

“Residential is a possibility but we need to make sure its placed correctly. The space on the first floor could be a good restaurant.”

Schultheis and his family members own and manage Cherry Hill Properties in Lawrence. The firm’s holdings include residential and commercial properties.

He and his wife, Brenda, are big fans of Kansas City and have a downtown apartment in addition to their Lawrence home.

A hint of the original 1920s grandeur still remains despite the 1970s renovation. (Photo courtesy Rosin Preservation)

His son, Ryan, works for Reece Commercial Real Estate of Overland Park.

“I approached my son and said, ‘I’d like to do something in downtown Kansas City,” Schultheis said. “I was familiar with the building and thought it was cool.”

Cherry Hill Properties acquired the Oak Tower in December 2020. Schultheis wants to make a decision in 2022 on how the building could be redeveloped and whether to move forward with a project.

The Lawrence developer also is well aware the Oak Tower is located only a couple of blocks away from the East Village redevelopment area, considered the prime location for a potential downtown ballpark for the Royals.

“If the Royals come downtown, it would be such a boost to downtown, it would be the icing on the cake,” Schultheis said.

“If that happens, I’ll put a zipline from the Oak Tower to the ball field.”

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