KC Currents
12:31 pm
Tue May 8, 2012

Renter Holds Art Exhibit In Foreclosed Mansion

Foreclosures have been down by about 25% in both Missouri and Kansas during the first quarter of 2012, but it’s still common for banks to take more than a year to even begin the foreclosure process.

This leaves a lot of owners and tenants in a limbo without legal guidelines. Now, a schoolteacher is using this state of limbo to create a haven for artists. 

About 3 and a half years ago, schoolteacher Elizabeth Schurman moved into the carriage house of a mansion in Hyde Park. The mansion is a mostly stone Victorian shingle style built in 1903. She liked the old building, the neighborhood, and the friendly landlord who lived in the mansion itself. Little did she know how precarious her newly-found home was.  Sitting on the big mansion porch on a warm spring afternoon, Schurman remembered when she found out about her landlord’s financial problems.

Elizabeth Schurman: “About a year ago, he called me and let me know he was probably going to lose the property, and he was going to leave town. I was worried about him when he called, so I said “Should I come over? Should I bring a bottle of wine?” You know, we’re right next door.

So I did, and we had a long talk. And he said “I’m gonna leave, but I’m gonna give you a key to the house in case you want to use it for anything. It’s just going to be sitting empty here.”

I talked about maybe I would have an art opening or maybe I would have a party or something and he said, “That’d be great. I hope something good happens with it after I’m gone.”

Not only did Elizabeth Schurman have the full use of a mansion, but with no landlord, she wouldn’t have to pay rent. Figuring that anything too good to be true probably is, she went looking for advice.

ES: “My dad has some experience as a landlord/tenant attorney so he was my first phone call when this all happened. Cause my landlord said “Oh, you can stay. It could be six months. It could be a year. It could be two years.“

But I was not sure about doing that until I actually talked to my dad and he said “You know that sounds right to me. I think you will be all right.” And he has a basement. A large basement.

Valerie Schurman: “A large finished basement.”

ES: “A large finished basement that wayward children could move into in a pinch also.”

That second voice is Elizabeth’s co-conspirator and sister Valerie. The Schurmans started small. They threw parties for friends, gave informal tours of the mansion, and set up a miniature golf course in the giant master bedroom. But in December of last year, the fun came to a stop when Elizabeth’s gas and water were suddenly turned off. Along with the landlord, the mansion had housed a few tenants, and they’d left behind several months’ worth of unpaid utility bills.

ES: “People left huge bills. Seven hundred, eight hundred bills at both places. But I wasn’t paying rent anymore, so I just started making payments to them instead, and I think I still owe the water company two hundred dollars. But other than that I got everything paid up so they would come out and turn all the utilities on.  The problem when they tried to turn the water on was that we realized that someone had broken in a stolen all the copper. Pipes, the air conditioner coil – it was copper. All the water heaters, they had stolen. So they were afraid to turn the water on because they didn’t know what, you know, where it was going and if it would make a huge mess. But a friend of a friend who was a plumber came out and ran a line from where the water comes into the mansion, across the basement and back out to where it went into my place. A separate line.”

Part of Elizabeth’s tours now include a stop in the basement were the copper thieves broke in. From the bottom of a dark, musty stone stairwell, you can see were they broke in through a basement door window. She reported the break in and robbery to the police, who came to investigate.

ES: “They got to take a tour of the mansion to make their report about the missing copper. They were really interested in the place, and I got to tell them all about it. And they said, “Oh would you mind if we hang out on the porch a little while some evenings just so we can keep an eye on things, and it’s a really good place right here on Armour to check things out and see what’s happening in the neighborhood.”

And I said, “Yeah that’s fine. I don’t mind at all having my own little personal security detail for a little while.”

When the police ask Elizabeth what she was doing on the property, she showed them her old lease and explained the situation, and they was good enough for the police to let her stay.

“Apparently, in this brave new world of foreclosures, this is not as odd as it might have been, years back. It was clear I didn’t have a real motive for…you know, I showed them where I lived. And I’m here; I’ve been here. It was not as odd as I thought, either with the police or with the utility companies. They’ve been dealing with a lot of situation like this, I think, in the last few years. But nobody’s really been concerned about that. I feel like in the city and in this neighborhood, which in sort of on the edge of being stable and being settled, people are happy if someone’s there keeping things up and not selling drugs, which is what I’ve been doing.”

On a tour of the house, you can see not just the original design of the mansion, but over a hundred years of renovations and updates. Nearly every decade of the past century of home design can be found at some place in the mansion. One room looks like a set for the Great Gatsby, and the one next to it is straight out of the Brady Bunch. In the basement, the electrical system has been updated many times, but the old gear seems to have never been removed. What’s left is practically a museum of obsolete fuse boxes and electrical systems. There’s even a coal bin. Valerie explains this room has surprisingly turned out to be one of the most popular in the mansion.

VS:  “What we have on the corner – the best – the largest on/off switch ever known to man.  This thing is, like, as big as my head. It looks like something Frankenstein would use to bring something back to life.”

ES: “When I was – this is Elizabeth – when I was bringing people on tours, I did not realize that the on/off switch would be such a draw. But many people want to get their picture taken with the on/off switch because it’s just so comically delicious.”

Starting on May 11, Elizabeth and Valerie are launching a series of weekly arts events called the Month of Muses. The first is an exhibit called Tomorrowland. Valerie reads the call for work they’ve sent out to artists.

VS: “Today the news is filled with gloom and doom, especially after years of recession, but such darkness also pervades our visions of tomorrows, from the zombies of the Walking Dead to the dystopia of the Hunger Games. Whatever happened to utopia? Former Kansas City resident Walt Disney looked with optimism and enthusiasm toward the future, saying,  “Tomorrow will be better for as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life.” Is Walt’s ideal outdated or just out of fashion? How do you see the land of tomorrow?”

Elizabeth and Valerie Schurman would like to continue their arts events. But for now, they’re just planning one month at a time.

ES: “What I’ve been told is that whenever the bank gets around to noticing the house, they will have to give me 30 days notice. So that’s part of reason we were putting off planning events, cause we didn’t want them to be more than 30 days in advance, and we kept our fingers crossed. We should be good with that now.”

But Elizabeth says she’s still hopeful. It’s not uncommon for a foreclosing bank to ask a tenant to stay on to serve a caretaker even after the property has been repossessed.

The first exhibit that Elizabeth and Valerie Schurman are hosting at Myers Mansion will be May 11, 2012.  It's called Tomorrowland.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.