Historic Sauer Castle

On 10 acres atop a steep ridge in Kansas City, Kan., stands historic Sauer Castle — or what’s left of it.

The roof is in bad shape, according to the caretaker, who lives next door. Boards cover some of the tall windows smashed by vandals who found their way through or over the chain-link security fence.

Three decades ago, New York City businessman Carl Lopp began restoring the 19th-century mansion that his great- great-grandfather Anton Sauer built on this hill high above the Kaw River Valley.

But other than some repairs to the castle’s red brick facade, there’s been little visible progress all those years to the 21/2-story house with the tower jutting skyward and the widow’s walk on top.

 Quite the opposite. Sauer Castle is slowly deteriorating.

“I’m on the Landmarks Commission,” said attorney and amateur historian Loren Taylor, “and we’re all furious about it.”

Angry as he and other officials may be, there’s little they or anyone else can do about that, because of a change in Kansas law several years ago that limits the power of local governments to intervene on private property.

Were Sauer Castle not a local and national landmark, the 142-year-old, Italian villa-style home would be just another eyesore in an urban core full of blighted houses.

But given its cultural significance, its deteriorating condition provokes sadness and disgust.

Heidi Holliday, executive director of the Rosedale Development Association, calls the mansion’s state of deterioration “a travesty” and issued a plea for Lopp to put the house up for sale rather than let it rot.

“The neighborhood would really love to see the castle restored,” Holliday said. And if the castle’s 59-year-old absentee owner can’t get it done, she said, he should sell it to someone who can.

“We would expect to see development proposals lining up.”

But Lopp, owner of a telephone equipment company, collector of exotic sports cars and a fixture on Manhattan’s social scene, has said he has no intention of letting go of the family jewel.

Although he declined to be interviewed by The Star, he’s previously made it clear that it’s no one’s business what he does with the house.

As a private landowner, even one who is perennially behind on paying the property taxes, his rights trump the public interest.

State law makes it difficult for local officials to force property owners like Lopp to do much beyond keeping the weeds mowed around the castle, which is said to be the best example of 19th-century Italianate architecture in the state of Kansas.

That wasn’t the case 15 years ago, when the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., attempted to wrest control of Sauer Castle from him.

Back then, local governments in Kansas had the power to take private property for private purposes if a case could be made that it was for the betterment of the community.

A private developer had wanted to restore the castle and add new housing units on 44 surrounding acres owned by Lopp and others. A tax-increment financing district was proposed to underwrite the $7 million redevelopment project.

But after neighbors objected to the big project and put their trust in Lopp to restore the castle, that project fell through.

Since that time, the power of local governments in Kansas to take private property for private purposes has been severely limited.

No longer can Kansas municipalities force private owners to sell their land for anything other than public purposes, such as building a road.

“When we lost eminent domain, it was projects like this that suffered,” said Unified Government Commissioner Ann Murguia, who represents the district where Sauer Castle sits.

About the only hope for government intervention is a narrow and little-known exception to the eminent domain limits.

After Murguia learned of that provision this week, she said it was worth exploring.