As the Westport Presbyterian Church reopens this month after a devastating 2011 fire, the church is inviting the community into its new space. A weekend of activities from June 24-26, billed as Westport Rising: Open House Dedication Service, will celebrate the church’s long connection to the Westport neighborhood and signal its renewed commitment to serving both its own congregation and the surrounding community.
The Westport congregation grew out of a church organized in 1835 in a log schoolhouse when Westport was a frontier town. In 1903, Westport Presbyterian’s first building in Westport burned to the ground. The congregation rebuilt a large stone building at 201 Westport Road and in 1916 added a three-story educational building that housed community activities and programs. But a second fire in 2011 destroyed the church sanctuary and chapel as well as the adjacent space.
Through the fires, years of suburban flight that saw many churches leave the urban center of Kansas City, and other changes, Westport Presbyterian’s congregation has never considered leaving historic Westport. Church Elder Bob Russell, whose grandparents were members, says the maintaining the connection to Westport – both its site and the community – was the top goal in rebuilding.
“We wanted to rebuild here, and build better. We feel this is where our mission is,” Russell said.
In fact, members saw an opportunity to expand the church’s connection to the community as rebuilding began.
The church rises again on Westport Road
Westport Presbyterian turned to local architect Erik Heitman of BNIM and general contractor A.L. Huber, both of whom understood the commitment to Westport and the desire to meld the old with the new. As the new design was imagined, an early decision was made to keep the still-standing stone walls rather than leveling the site and starting over.
“The new sanctuary was conceived as an “insertion” into the historic stone walls,” Heitman said.
The architect and contractor also bent over backwards to reuse salvageable materials. Although the community building could not be saved, its original materials have been repurposed, with stained glass windows rehung in new locations, stone reused for new purposes, and crosses on the ends of new pews made from salvaged wood.
Rebuilding the church offered opportunities for welcome (and code required) updates, such as an elevator and improved accessibility. Heitman also ensured the congregation also got usable outdoor space, and new landscape design that helps divert storm water from the city sewer system.
“The new sanctuary is completely modern except for stained glass windows that were saved and reclaimed wood in the chancel area,” Rev. Scott Myers explained. “We were able to take advantage of new technology such as digital projectors and screens. And the first row of pews can even be taken out so we can host a dance concert in the space. It’s a wondrous space for what I call a Creative—Traditional style of worship our congregation celebrates.”
A new connection to the Westport community
The biggest change in terms of the church’s connection to the community is the new “storefront,” a space right on Westport Road that connects the hilltop church to the street.
“We brought the whole church to the street to be more inviting and welcoming and more visible,” Myers said, adding that the storefront can be used for art exhibits, community meetings, 12-step groups and other events.
“Taking care of people inside and outside the congregation” has always been the chosen role of Westport Presbyterian, Russell said, and he hopes the rebuilt church and new storefront will help continue the revitalization of Westport already underway.
Russell pointed out that church has had a long history of participation in and cooperation with non-profit and community agencies. For example, it was involved in programs to provide housing and meals to the elderly in the surrounding community and has housed non-profit organizations and a day-care center within its space.
A boy scout troop established in 1914 continues to meet in the church. Its Children’s Peace Quest program works to expand interpersonal and global understanding for young people. Various dance groups and a Tai Chi group which used the church are also eager to return to the rebuilt space.
The new spaces will also provide additional opportunities for the church’s expanding role in supporting the arts in the community. It created the Westport Center for the Arts, a nonprofit that provides Brown Bag concerts to support local performers and provide quality, free musical concerts, a children’s art program (Kids Team Up for Art), and professional theater productions using local actors, all aimed at making the church a place where community arts are honored and encouraged.
Myers said the church has chosen the theme Westport Rising for its rededication to symbolize the struggle required to rebuild, but also to signal to the community the church’s renewed commitment “to make Westport Presbyterian even more of a center of community life.”
Westport Rising Open House Dedication Service
- Friday June 24 7:30 p.m.: Jazz Concert with Doug Talley Quartet
- Saturday June 25 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.: open house with folk dance groups, music, tours, children’s art activities
- Sunday June 26 10:50 a.m.: service
- Sunday, June 26, 12 p.m. – 1 p.m.: tours