Preservation underway on Vinland Church
The free-roaming chickens secure enough to slow cars on unpaved streets to a crawl are but one of the features that give Vinland the feel of a rural village from years ago.
“That’s what’s unique about the town,” said Ray Wilber. “It’s largely intact. It didn’t have a highway running through the middle of it. It didn’t have a lot of infill. The depot is gone — that’s a big piece — but the Grange Hall, the storefronts, the library and the churches are still here.
“It’s a pretty good example of a small town of that era.”
The rural Baldwin City man owns three houses in the hamlet four miles north of Baldwin. He’s restored two and the renovation of a third is on his to-do list. Consuming his time right now is a project separate from his personal preservation efforts. He and his brother, Leon Wilber of Topeka, are helping with the second-phase renovations to the Vinland Presbyterian Church.
“It’s been here since 1879,” he said. “It’s been part of the cultural landscape here all that time. We want to make sure it’s here for a long time to come. ”
The “we” in that statement are Ray’s 16 fellow shareholders of the Vinland Preservation LLC, who bought the property 2001 with the goal of saving the church. To do so, the group renovated the adjoining residence, originally built not as a parsonage but as a Sunday school annex. The rental property now pays the mortgage on the property.
The group next got the church, which hasn’t had a service since 1954, on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a list that also includes four other Vinland buildings, the Grange Hall, Coal Creek Library, Vinland Fair Exhibit Building and Barnes Apple Barn. The church’s inclusion was made easier when old church records revealed James Naismith, the inventor of the game of basketball and one-time Kansas University coach, had been the minister there from 1914 to 1916.
With the designation, the group secured a grant from the Kansas State Historical Society to rebuild the church’s crumbling foundation, strengthen the roof, repair the failed built-in gutters and replace wall sections and siding on the south and north exterior walls ruined by the bad gutters.
Last year, the group was awarded a $30,000 Heritage Grant from the Douglas County Conservation Council. The money and that raised through the Lawrence Preservation Alliance will be used to replace front siding, reconstruct three windows and repair the steeple and the roof to the vestibule.
The church shares the same rectangular design of thousands of churches and schools built in the Midwest and Great Plains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ray said. But two of the elements that identify the church’s Gothic Revival style are the focus of the second round of restoration, he said.
“The cantilever steeple makes it special,” he said. “It pretty unusual. That and the molding around the eaves and the gable ends are a cut above the vernacular architecture.”
The steeple sits half in and half out of the church with its outer portion supported by two ornately carved braces. Leon said they found the 133-year-old steeple’s interior support structure in surprisingly good shape.
For the past two weeks, the brothers have been preparing the front façade and the steeple for the work Baldwin City contractor Scott Braddock is to do.
Leon said Braddock and his crew would be installing new siding on the front and shingles on the steeple, using a modern, more durable product to replace original cedar shingles.
The crew will also employ a hydraulic bucket to reach the steeple rather than the unknown means its original builders used to access the steeple 30 to 40 feet above ground.
“That’s exactly the thing,” Ray said. “I think sometimes when we get stalled with the work, ‘Gosh, if they could build that with a handsaw and hammer and we can use power tools and scaffolding, we don’t have much to complain about.’”
Vinland Preservation plans one more exterior project on the church, the restoration of the east side and replacement of a stolen stained-glass window. Ray said work on the gutted interior will be left to its next owner once the property is sold sometime after the expiration of a five-year no-sell clause in the latest grant.
“What we want to do is get the building preserved and pass it on to a sympathetic buyer,” Ray said. “I see it (the church) as part of a single-family residence, perhaps as a workshop, studio or office. But that’s for someone else to figure out.”