In recent budget workshops, as well as within public meetings, the Newton city commission has been discussing the difficulty of properly caring for the Warkentin House Museum.
Newton City Communications Officer, Erin McDaniel, said the city has owned the museum since 1973.
Considering the money required for ongoing care for the property and managing upcoming difficulties in the city budget, the commission has recently discussed the possibility of transferring ownership of the museum.
According to McDaniel, Bernard Warkentin, who built the house, died in the early 1900s. Mrs. Warkentin died in the 1930s.
In her will, Mrs. Warkentin left the house to the Bethel Deaconesses, who were a religious nurse sisterhood.
McDaniel said the deaconesses lived in the house and used the house for social functions, while they worked out of Bethel Deaconess Hospital, which was later incorporated into Newton Medical Center in the 1990s.
By the 1970s, the religious sisterhood tradition faded, and McDaniel said the house was transferred in ownership to a group called Preservation of Kansas Landmarks Inc. – which was formed specifically to own the house. That group needed help immediately.
Because of Bernard Warkentin's incredible contributions to Newton, McDaniel said many were concerned the house might be sold to a private owner or a landlord, who wouldn't preserve the building's historic significance. The city responded to that concern by assuming ownership of the house in 1973.
In 2012 and 2013, McDaniel said the city received grants for the house.
Over the years, McDaniel said the house had started to settle significantly and the foundation was starting to sink. As a result, serious damage was causing visible damage to the interior.
"Basically, it was in immediate danger of really damaging the structure if it continued that way," McDaniel said, so they got preservation funds from the state preservation office to stabilize the foundation and do interior repairs.
McDaniel said one of the requirements of the grants, which are called Heritage Trust Fund grants, is that ownership of the museum must be maintained for a number of years after the grant was issued.
Simply put, if the city transfers ownership of the museum before 2018, it will need to refund a prorated amount of those grants.
In the currently proposed budget, McDaniel said the city has included $100,000 for repairs to the museum, which is mostly for external repairs, painting the house, replacing some rotting wood and repairing the outside pergola.
"I believe that there probably's varying interests among the commissioners as to the house itself," McDaniel said, "but I think they're all in agreement that it's irresponsible of the city to own a structure and not take proper care of it... if they can't take care of the property, there may be an owner out there who could take better care of it."
While McDaniel said the commission is in no rush to transfer ownership, they are likely looking to have conversations with potential owners sooner rather than later – before the issue reappears in 2018 budget conversations.
President of the Warkentin House Association, David Haury, said the house board has only recently learned of the city's consideration of a transfer of ownership.
For that reason, Haury said the association will continue discussions and release a more official statement after learning more and considering their options.
Karen Penner leads tours at the house. For a number of reasons, she said the house is valuable, both historically and in that it draws tourists to town.
Considering the number of domestic and visitors that come to see the house, Penner noted how the house benefits local tourism.
"Those people do not just come to see the house and go back home," Penner said, "they spend time in town, shop, eat at restaurants and stay in local hotels."
Bernard Warkentin's impact on Newton, as well as on Kansas, was significant – for that reason, Penner said the community needs to own and continue to own that history.