Volker’s Roselawn is a tribute to the neighborhood’s founder

Just a block away from the site of a recent zoning controversy sits Roselawn, former home of William Volker, who gave his name to the neighborhood where it stands. The house is on the national register – a tribute to Volker for his low-key charitable works.

The Volker neighborhood has been in the news recently for its objection to a proposed multi-unit house. For many folks, Volker is best known as the home of Roselawn, a  home that is recognized for the contributions its owner, William Volker, made to Kansas City.

Posted by Joe Lambe

Roselawn, at 3717 Bell Street, serenely dominates the area as it has from the neighborhood’s start.

It is on more than 13 lots surrounded by a limestone wall but it’s not like the common enough house is that imposing.

“It’s no mansion,” said current owner Dr. Scott Ashcraft. “It’s a 4.000-square-feet spec home.”

The reason it is on the National Register of Historic Places is Volker, a millionaire businessman who died at 88 in 1947. He was called “Mr. Anonymous” for his quiet, lifelong donations to people, city institutions, hospitals and charities.

This book, Mr. Anonymous, tells the story of William Volker. It was written by Herbert C. Cornuelle.

According to the Roselawn historic designation paperwork:

Volker donated over one-third of his yearly income to charitable purposes and from 1911 to his death alone gave away an estimated $10 million.

This from a man who started in the United States as the 12-year-old son of German immigrants who moved to Chicago in the 1870s just after the great fire there. The motto above their doorway in Germany had been “Work and Pray” and his mother’s favorite saying was “Idle time only leads to mischief.”

By age 20, he was made manager of a picture frame company in Chicago after its owner died in a horse buggy accident.

In 1882, he moved to Kansas City with $3,000 in savings to start his own business that soon expanded from picture frames to window shades to linoleum to many other home furnishings.

For a time he lived with his father and family members in a rural area with farm animals in what is now Penn Valley Park. In 1889, he bought the first spec house in a suburban development built by Walter Mellier from about 36th to 39th streets, State Line Road to Wyoming Street.

It was a 2½ story shirtwaist with two different materials on the first and second stories. His sister later gave it the name Roselawn after his father planted many roses there.

The 1889 home went up the same year that Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth was published. Those essays say the only responsible way for a rich man to dispose of his fortune was to “administer it during his lifetime for public benefit.”

Volker avoided notice and praise, but after his death, a fountain near Volker Boulevard and Rockhill Road went up in his honor. It depicts Saint Martin cutting in half his cloak to give half of it to a shivering beggar.

Part of that was to “set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance. . . .”

Volker’s site grew only modestly, mostly as space was added for family members. A carriage house/barn stable building added in 1907 and was later made into a home for his father.

By 1906, Volker was a millionaire but still unmarried. The shy and quiet man did not marry his friend of 20 years, Rose Roebke, until he was 52 in 1911.

His many donations included 40 acres to the University of Missouri at Kansas City that became what is now called Volker campus. He also donated to churches and many hospitals, including Kansas City General Hospital and the Wheatley Provident Hospital for Negros.   The founder of Children’s Mercy Hospital called him her “rock of Gibraltar” because of his many donations there.

He gave half a million dollars to Research Hospital, then called German Hospital. He also worked to unseat or reform the Tom Pendergast regime and he served on committees promoting probation and parole and better incarceration conditions.