Beloved landmark: Preservation group breathes new life into Vinland icon
It’s been 129 years since its cornerstone was set.
About 90 years since James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, preached from its pulpit.
A good 54 years since hymns rang up into the rafters.
And though it may never function as a church again, the Vinland Presbyterian Church is still crackling with life.
After years of dormancy that included time as a makeshift grain silo and parts emporium for thieves, the church, 697 E. 1725 Road, now has a new foundation, restored roof and a fixed-up Sunday school addition that is rented out as a three-bedroom home.
This is all because of a group of friends who seven years ago formed Vinland Preservation LLC, with the goal of keeping the neglected church and its history intact.
“Our main goal was to keep the church from being torn down and a whole bunch of little houses from going in there,” group member Paula Johnson says. “Just to conserve the building, to preserve the building so it wouldn’t be torn down.”
The group, which has 17 members, bought the church in 2001 and successfully got the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. The next year, it received a Heritage Trust Fund grant of $80,000 to help renovate the church, which needed nearly everything replaced. The walls were rotting and the foundation and roof crumbling, among other problems.
“The church was pretty well vandalized,” says Johnson’s husband, Denny. “People took the lightning rods, and we lost the window. ... There was a plaque in the foyer there that had shown everybody that had been baptized there. That’s all missing.”
Saving a landmark
Back in 2001, the members who formed Vinland Preservation were worried that eventually the entire building would be gone — and along with it a real landmark in the tiny community near Baldwin City.
“It’s an important symbol of the community,” says group member Cathy Dwigans. “A lot of people in the area would say that.”
The church was Vinland’s first, starting before the local Methodist church by a few years. It was constructed in a Gothic Revival style so unique that a group of students from Kansas University drew it up as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, which catalogs America’s achievements in architecture, design and engineering. The drawings are stored at the Library of Congress along with drawings of other landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge — living proof the church is something special.
The problem is, even something so special can decay.
“The solid walls were just sort of flapping curtains,” says Ray Wilbur, Dwigans’ husband. “The roof had kind of a swayback to it. The walls were very rotten, and the foundation in very bad shape.”
With the building looking like a strong wind might blow it over and its future in limbo as it sat with a “For Sale” sign out front, the group that would become Vinland Preservation formed and bought the property from John Holmes, who had owned it for nearly 20 years.
“We always recognized it as an important building. So, when John needed to sell it, we were concerned about its future,” Wilbur says. “It was so precarious that we thought, ‘Who knows what will happen if it sells?’ Maybe they won’t be able to sell it. We thought we could.”
A connection with everyone
With time, the grant and donations made through the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, the group has replaced the foundation, stabilized the roof and remodeled the attached apartment. The income from the attached rental has helped fund the project, but the money has pretty much run dry.
“We got a grant, and we spent quite a bit, over $100,000 on it. And you might say we’re half-done,” Denny Johnson says. “We’ve redone the roof with original guttering, and we finished two sides. The foundation has been completely redone. So we basically have one side and the front there to finish and then a major undertaking to put the steeple back in good condition.”
Members say they’re not sure what use the building might have once the project is complete.
That next large task — stabilizing the steeple — will be an expensive one. But it’s a part of the renovation that can’t wait much longer. It’s unstable, and if it were to fall, much of the group’s hard work would be lost — as would a symbol that means many different things to members of the community.
For Denny Johnson, the church is a connection to family that is long gone. He was baptized at the church in the 1940s, his grandfather was a member, and his grandmother’s funeral was held there.
To others, the church is a place to remember Naismith, the father of basketball and the first coach of Kansas University’s storied team. For two years he took a buggy from Lawrence to Vinland to preach at the church.
For others like Wilbur and Dwigans, the church is something that can’t be replaced in the community they adopted when moving to the area in 1971. And even if it takes another seven years or longer to complete the church’s restoration, it’ll be worth the wait.
“It’s the landmark of the larger community, not just the people who live in the 10 houses in town. Vinland really did have, continues to have, quite a community,” Wilbur says. “A lot of people just identified with it.”