By MARA ROSE WILLIAMS
The Kansas City Star
(LEXINGTON, Mo., AP) — Roger Slusher walked through a vacant 1850s house in this river town, mesmerized by the history he suspected lay within its neglected walls.
Patches of plaster had fallen from the ceiling. Water from a leaky roof had stained the peeling walls. The back side of the house had collapsed. Still, Slusher “oohed” and “aahed” over the sturdy dark wood molding, the long staircase, the hardwood floors.
That was nearly 30 years ago, when he first set foot inside the antebellum house on South Street that he and his wife, Sandra Slusher, eventually bought, restored and made their home. It frustrated him, as it does others in this town 40 miles east of Kansas City, to see some of Lexington’s old buildings fall into disrepair and crumble. Demolition by neglect, they call it.
Slusher, an unofficial town historian and unwavering advocate for saving Lexington’s historic structures, died last month.
His last request, his wife said, was that a small pre-Civil War building — possibly former slave quarters — be moved from his neighbors’ property, where it was at risk of demolition, and into his backyard for safekeeping.
That hasn’t happened, though. The building has become a symbol of sorts for efforts to save more of the historic buildings in Lexington, which in the mid-1800s was a major center for merchants, trappers, traders and immigrants. South Street and Highland Avenue, both lined with large antebellum homes, were part of the Santa Fe Trail.
Rebecca and Ralph Browning own the property in the 1400 block of South Street where the small building stands.
A city engineering report said the two-story building was in danger of collapse. Fixing it would cost about $30,000, the Brownings said. Maintaining it would cost more. Last month, the City Council gave them permission to tear it down.
A local group — Missouri’s Little Dixie Heritage Foundation — hopes the city will rescind its decision and save the building. Mayor Jerry Brown said he’s not opposed to the idea, if “someone with a pot of money steps up.”
Gary Gene Fuenfhausen, president of the heritage foundation, said that in researching the building’s history this week, he learned that census records show the Brownings’ house was owned in 1860 by John W. Waddell. He was the son of William B. Waddell, a co-founder of the Pony Express.
The house was in the Waddell family at least from the 1850s to 1901. John died in the house in 1895; his wife died in 1896. The couple at one time had owned eight slaves and an undetermined number of slave quarters.
The Brownings have referred to the building as a carriage house because they said they’ve seen no documentation that slaves ever lived there. Rebecca Browning, who is a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and abstained from voting on the demolition dispute, could not be reached for comment Friday on Fuenfhausen’s findings.
“I’m amazed at all the hoopla over this little building when we have other significant historic buildings collapsing in town,” Browning said in an interview earlier in the week.
Roger Slusher two years ago first pointed to the building as former slave quarters, based in part on its size and proximity to the larger main house. It appeared to have had a kitchen on the first floor — a summer kitchen, to keep heat out of the main house — and a sleeping area upstairs.
“That slave quarters is an extremely rare dwelling,” said Charles Sands, an architectural preservationist and former member of the Lexington Historical Association.
Still, Sandra Slusher said she can understand the Brownings’ desire to demolish it.
“The walls have buckled outward,” she said. “Basically what’s holding this building up are its window frames. It’s about to fall onto their house.”
She also knows how expensive saving a historic building can be.
“Keeping up these historic houses takes a lot of money,” she said. “You fall in love with it, you buy it and reality sets in. It’s bigger than your pocketbook. It took all our savings. We got in debt. I know some people who ended up divorced working on old houses.
“I wish I could save them all. But I can’t.”
If the crumbling building is former slave quarters, it would be the second to be torn down in Lafayette County in six years.
Before the Civil War, Lafayette County had one of the largest populations of slaves in Missouri. Of the 13,300 slave quarters in the state in 1860, nearly 900 were in Lafayette County, and 225 of those were in Lexington, where only 11 remain today.
The demolition decision has some townspeople fired up about the loss of another historic structure, and that’s exactly what the chairman of the Lexington Historic Preservation Commission, Byron Nicodemus, says needs to happen.
“We need some awareness that we have to do something to save our historic buildings here,” he said.