You’re driving uphill along winding roads in Wyandotte County, Kan.
You turn the corner and see a high chain-link fence surrounding a foreboding house out of a ghost story: it’s a three-story, red-brick, Victorian home with a high tower at the top and carved lions framing the doorway. That's Sauer Castle.
As a child, Patricia Schurkamp of the Wyandotte County Museum would regularly go up the hill to see the house. As an adult, she finally got to see the inside.
"It is a beautiful home inside. Just to walk through those two beautiful tall doors they’re so ornate," says Schurkamp. "You walk in and you’re immediately facing this beautiful wood staircase that just goes up and around, you almost feel like you’re in Gone with the Wind."
Sauer "castle" (it's actually not a castle — but that's what people in the neighborhood call it) was built by Anton Sauer, a German businessman who moved to the Kansas City area at the end of the Civil War.
He was a widower and when he arrived, he married a widow. They decided to build a house for their combined family of twelve children.
Schurkamp says that he searched for a location that would remind him of his hometown along the Rhine River in the Swiss Alps.
"The idea of the house is that you almost have a 180 — you can turn around and on one side you can see the Kansas-Missouri River where they conjoin and then you turn back around and you see the Missouri River coming up," she says.
The house was completed in 1871 and included a winery, grape arbor, bakery and schoolhouse for the children. Now, those features are all gone and the house is empty and in disrepair.
"To walk into that house and get a sense of the opulence and what Mr. Sauer was trying to bring to the home .... It would be wonderful if somehow that home could be revived," says Schurkamp.
The house is not just historically significant for the neighborhood, it’s listed on the national and state registry of historic homes.
"It has been said that it’s the finest example of an Italianate villa in the state," says Cydney Millstein, an architectural historian who surveyed the house in the late 1980s and early 90s. "We strongly suspect it was Asa Beebe Cross’ design. He was the first professional architect in Kansas City, Missouri."
Millstein warns that with each passing year the house is uninhabited, potentially irreparable damage occurs.
"If it suffers through many more hard winters, I just don’t know how much more that house can take," she says.
A coalition of historians and community developers have wanted to see the house restored, but over several owners, it hasn’t been so easy.
Haunted by the past
After Anton Sauer died, Mrs. Sauer and their daughters continued to live in the house. The husband of one of the daughters committed suicide in 1930, which sparked rumors it was haunted. And while the ghost stories have kept the Castle in the public’s imagination, they’ve been a problem for the house and the neighborhood.
Joy Lindsay’s living room window looks out onto the overgrown yard of the Castle, but she doesn’t buy the ghost stories.
"I’ve lived here, right in this house since 1961 and I’ve never seen a witch or a ghost," says Lindsay. "It’s never been haunted, its not haunted today and its never been haunted."
When Lindsay moved to “the hill,” Paul Berry lived in the house. He bought it from the Sauers in 1954. Lindsay said Berry was a good neighbor, especially to the kids.
"A couple of the neighborhood kids would go over and sit on the back porch. He’d make Kool-Aid and cookies. And then catch his goats and let them ride his goats," says Linsday. "People off the hill thought he was a vicious terrible old man because he had big vicious looking dogs. One of them was a three-legged dog or had something wrong with it. And of course everyone knew that old mean three-legged dog."
The dogs were to prevent break-ins. Even with someone living in the house, it was frequently broken into, either by thieves or curious ghost-hunters.
Joy Lindsay says haunted house tours would stop by and allow people to wander the grounds.
"But it was a nuisance. I mean the house wasn’t a nuisance. I’m used to it, wouldn’t know what to do without it. But it’s the people that come from other places to try to see what’s there," she says. "Every Halloween it’s broken into or gets vandalized."
Looking for a future
Paul Berry had only lived in part of the house. When he died in 1985, it was in need of serious repair. In 1988, it was bought by Carl Lopp, a descendent of Anton Sauer.
"Nobody was doing maintenance, so the roof needed work, there were broken windows, it was kind of just deteriorating. So a lot of people wanted to save it," says Wendy Wilson, director of the Rosedale Development Association. She became aware of the house in 1993.
The city cited Lopp for codes violations. A developer submitted a proposal to renovate the castle and build new housing on the grounds. If approved, it meant the city could condemn the house and sell it to the developer. Wilson says that got Lopp’s attention.
"He went before the local Landmarks Commission, he did draft a plan. He did do some work but he never really completed it," she says.
Lopp appealed the code violations and they were reversed by the state supreme court. The developers withdrew their proposal because they were unable to survey the property and give a full financial estimate.
Work on the house stopped. Wilson has found it very frustrating.
"I mean he’s been offered fix it, sell it, we’ll help you. We suggested to him, ‘Why don’t you sell it. We’ll get a historic society or somebody and fix it up and put your family’s name on it,'" she says. "You know, what better memory of your family than to have this looking nice. And he was unwilling to do that."
We reached out to Lopp to comment on this story. He didn’t want to give a recorded interview, but says he plans to restore the house.
Wilson says the city has run out of options. She’s now retired but she still has hope for the castle.
"It would be a nice boost to that whole area. Beautiful location. It could be made a beautiful, restore the gardens," she says. "When you get up high like at the top of the tower of the castle you can see downtown Kansas City, Missouri its a 360 degree view. It's stunning."
In the meantime, the house sits on the top of the hill, quiet and empty.
What Is That? is a regular series on Central Standard in which we investigate weird storefronts, architectural oddities and other mysterious landmarks around the Kansas City area. Do you have a suggestion of a spot you’d like us to investigate? Let us know!