Historic Sauer Castle is a landmark that needs saving
By Diane Euston
Nestled on a cliff overlooking the Kaw River valley stands a sturdy brick mansion that holds generations of memories and the story of success of a German immigrant. Commonly referred to as Sauer Castle, this Italian Villa red brick home with a four-story tower looming high in the sky has been the source of much speculation for its entire existence. Rumors of multiple deaths, supposed murders, and ghost sightings in this now-vacant villa leads to its lore.
Its current condition doesn’t help with the suspicions surrounding the three-acre property. Windows are boarded up; the wrought iron accents are falling to the ground. The trees and grass on the once-beautiful grounds remain unattended to and an eyesore. In some ways, the property stands as a shell of its former grandeur. To understand how this house came to be in its current state of shambles at 935 Shawnee Rd. in Kansas City, Ks., we must travel back in time and embrace the history of what once was a showpiece of Wyandotte County’s skyline.
Anton Philip Sauer
Born in Hessen-on-the-Rhine, Germany, in 1826 to Florian and Eva, Anton Philip Sauer was on the move by the time he was 15. He worked first as a bookkeeper in Russia and moved by the age of 17 to Austria. There, he met a woman named Francisca and married at the age of 18 in 1844. They had five children in Austria: Gustave, Anton, Jr., Julius, Emil and Johanna.
Anton traveled extensively for business and for a time worked as a merchant in Australia and Costa Rica. He dealt in wine, wool, cotton, and coffee. In the mid-1850s, he decided to try his luck in the United States and immigrated with his family to New York City. There, his wife passed away. Due to his own ill health, it was suggested that the cleaner air to the west may benefit him. With two sons, he worked in freighting in the Rocky Mountains and opened a tannery in Kansas City. The tannery burned in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. He held interest in a few steamboats on the Mississippi River and worked to build his various business interests.
By 1868, Anton and his children had settled into growing Kansas City, Mo. His sons bought interest in a grocery store at 3rd and Main as Anton settled into a home at 17th and Grand while serving as president of the German Savings Association.
In 1869, Anton met Maria “Mary” Messerschmidt, a recently widowed 28-year-old woman with two girls. They married and opted to start their own family. Anton decided to look for a piece of property to build upon that reminded him of his homeland.
Sauer Castle’s Construction
Around 1870, Sauer set his sights on some land towering on the cliffs overlooking the Kaw River near Rosedale, Ks. The land was originally patented by Shawnee Indian Thomas Bigknife and was sold to Col. J.L. Pritchard who was using the land as a fruit farm.
After purchasing 63 acres, Sauer started carefully planning. The architect of the home is not known, but many attribute its style to Asa Beebe Cross (1826-1894) whose work includes the Vaile Mansion, Union Depot in the West Bottoms, and Gillis Opera House. The first building constructed on the property was said to be a barn to house materials for his large project.
It is said that everything except for the stone foundation was imported from St. Louis. Perched on top of the bluffs looking north into the Kaw River valley, the house was built on the old Shawnee Indian trace that fed into the Santa Fe Trail. The two and a half story home with a four-story tower was a sight to see for miles. As the house neared completion in August 1873, the Wyandotte Gazette reported, “It is in plain sight for a considerable distance along the southern road.”
The front entrance had double, three-paneled doors of solid walnut with an arched stone frame. Two hand-carved sandstone lions were set to guard the impressive entrance of the mansion.
On the first floor, 14-foot ceilings with 12-foot high windows welcomed visitors. It was said that seven yards of fabric was required for each window. The receiving room included an impressive staircase with hand-carved Rosewood spindles. The wood floors were made of alternate light and dark wood and were covered with expensive rugs. The parlor to the left featured Belgian lace curtains and a large fireplace with imported marble. Underneath the parlor was a large, deep wine cellar. The music room adjoined the parlor and, along with another fireplace, included a grand piano.
The dining room to the west of the entrance was furnished with a marble-top table and 24 chairs. Walls were covered with expensive paintings featuring religious figures. A system of bells on wires could be rung from any room in the house and would signal the servants to the room they were needed.
The second floor held the spacious bedrooms. The master bedroom had solid walnut furniture with marble tops, lace curtains, and expensive rugs. The Sauer home was one of the first in the entire area to have running water; a hydraulic engine pumped hot and cold water from a large spring on the property. A second-floor bathroom was equipped with an elaborate marble tub for bathing.
The third floor held the servant’s quarters and a small room built to be a classroom (each child had their own desk). From the third floor, the staircase ascended to the tower with a lookout showcasing the spectacular view. The Wyandotte Gazette boasted that the view included “Wyandotte, Armstrong, and Kansas City, the two river’s valleys, and a very large scope of the country in Missouri and Kansas lie at the feet of the observer like a beautiful map or a splendid picture.”
The Castle’s Grounds
Surrounded by an iron fence with ominous pointed spikes, Anton spared no expense on the grounds of his property. It is said that the house cost $20,000 to build and he shelled out $40,000 for the grounds surrounding it.
A 120×20 foot greenhouse sparked the curiosity of Kansas Citians. Sauer loved horticulture, and his impressive greenhouse housed imported flowers from Europe. His orchids were award-winning, and his year-round access to flowers meant fresh arrangements always adorned the dining room table. Unusual plants and trees were planted on the property. A fountain in the front yard had water piped from a nearby spring.
Anton held a sweet spot for wine. He planted 18 acres of vines on his property and built a wine cellar from stone on the side of the cliff. It still exists today and is approximately 35-feet long, 15-feet wide, and 12-feet high. Vine-covered arches led from the entrance of the cellar and a high-arched ceiling complemented racks placed to hold kegs of wine.
His every day wine seems to have been housed in this impressive building, and his private collection was locked in a room inside. “Under the tower is a private wine cellar, the key of which Mr. Sauer intends to keep snug in his own pocket,” the Wyandotte Gazette reported in 1873.
An outdoor pergola and a small garden were adorned with furniture for summer dining. Anton’s health was never the best, so when he was outside in the summer he wore a gold mesh mask to cover his face and heavy felt chest pads that were thought to protect his lungs.
Anton and his second wife, Mary had four girls together: Eva, Josephine, Clara, and Helen. He would spend hours with his children outdoors and taught them German songs in the garden.
Anton’s declining health had his family aware his death was near. As he was bedridden in the summer of 1879, his one-year-old daughter passed away in the home in July. Knowing her own husband was close to death, Mary temporarily buried Helen in the garden on the property.
One month and one day later on August 16, 1879, Anton Sauer passed away in the master bedroom from tuberculosis. He was 53 years old. He left his 38-year-old wife, three young children, two stepdaughters, and four grown children behind. The newspaper said, “He was a true husband and a kind, indulgent father.” Helen and Anton were buried in Union Cemetery.
Mary continued to live on the property after his death. She couldn’t keep up with the orchards, vineyard and the grounds, so in 1914, she sold off some of the land for a subdivision development.
Anton and Mary’s oldest daughter, Eva (1870-1955) stayed on the property and after a failed 18-month marriage, she wed widower John Seaman Perkins in 1907. They lived on the property with her mother and had three children. In 1919, Anton’s second wife, Mary passed away.
Eva Sauer Perkins and her husband continued to live inside the castle. In 1923, extensive renovations were done and a swimming pool was added. On May 20, 1930, John Perkins shot himself in the head in the upstairs bathroom. The Kansas City Star reported, “He had been in ill health for a year and despondency is given as a cause for this act.”
More misfortune hit the Sauers when Eva’s two-year-old granddaughter, Cecilia Perkins, drowned in the pool while her mother was cooking dinner inside in 1940.
Rumors of hauntings of the castle began in the 1930s, likely caused by these documented tragedies and intensified with people’s creative minds.
After Five Generations of Sauers
Eva stayed in the home along with some of her children until 1954 when the house was sold for the first time. Five generations of Sauer descendants had lived in the castle. Paul Berry, a single man who was an antique car dealer, bought the home and stuffed it full of items. Only two rooms and the kitchen were open for living space. He even parked a 1902 Stanley Steamer next to the staircase inside.
Incredibly private, Berry continued to live in the home and listed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, and it was listed as a Local Historic Landmark in 1987. Berry passed away in 1986, and after a large auction of 50,000 items at the property, the house was ready for its next caretaker.
The Wyandotte County Historical Society flirted with purchasing the home and making it a museum, but a buyer in 1987 had plans to make it into a bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, the neighborhood rejected the idea because of the possibility of increased traffic.
Neighbors, Sauer descendants and historic preservation groups breathed a sigh of relief when a great-great grandson named Carl G. Lopp opted to buy the property in 1988 with the goal to restore it.
Unfortunately, these hopes now seem far-fetched.
Left to right: Mary’s two daughters from her first marriage: Mary and Anna Messerschmidt; Sauer children – Eva Sauer Perkins, Josephine Sauer Kinney, Antoinette Sauer McClean, Clara Sauer and Mother Maria Sauer. Photo courtesy of @ThomasLWeddings
The Fight to Save Sauer Castle
Carl G. Lopp, a sixty-something New York socialite, seemed to have lofty plans for his family’s historic property. Even with a caretaker next door, vandals continuously came onto the property, likely enticed by the ghost stories surrounding it.
To state that Lopp has neglected the mansion is an understatement; while no one was allowed inside the home, increased deterioration could be seen from the street. Windows were broken, the roof had extensive holes, the iron around the widow’s peak was falling down, and the grounds that once showcased one of the most beautiful gardens in the area had tree limbs scattered on the unkempt lawn.
In 1996, further damage was reported on the property when the caretaker was charged with $30,000 in theft of items, including the crystal chandeliers, that were taken from the historic home.
Wyandotte County slapped the house “unfit for habitation” in the 1990s as neighbors and history lovers lamented from a distance at the deteriorating state of Sauer Castle.
In 1997, Lopp was found guilty of two housing court violations and was sentenced to probation. He was ordered to pay back taxes and come up with a formal plan to restore the home.
He failed to meet the terms of his probation, and a bench warrant was issued.
In June 1998, Lopp returned to Kansas City to attend his mother’s funeral. At the visitation, the police arrested him for not reporting to jail. He was released hours before the funeral and his lawyer filed an appeal. His lawyer insisted that Lopp still had plans to restore the home.
In 1999, a Lawrence developer wanted to restore the mansion, open a winery, and build bungalows for overnight guests. Lopp was present and insisted, yet again, that he was going to restore the property. He insisted he had repaired the chimneys, brickwork, and replaced the plumbing and electrical work.
Seeing the improvements inside is a problem; Lopp doesn’t open Sauer Castle for anyone.
But in 2011, he did let extended family inside to see it.
Relatives Demand Change
Thomas D. Laurance, a wedding photographer in New York City, was always fascinated by the family stories surrounding Sauer Castle. His great-great grandfather is Anton Sauer, and he is a descendant of Eva Sauer Perkins. His own mother lived in the home for a short time.
On a visit to Kansas City, Laurance took a risk and contacted his distant cousin, Carl Lopp, and asked for a tour of the home. “Carl has a soft spot for family,” Laurance explained. When Laurance was let on the property for a tour with his cousin, he took video of the condition of the interior. Rubble covered the floors, windows were boarded up, and every step was an obstacle around broken materials.
Laurance explained that much of the bones of the home were still structurally sound. Transoms still opened and closed and intricate knobs still adorned the doors. Lopp openly discussed with his extended family his lofty plans to restore the property- all plans that had gone unfulfilled for over 20 years.
After his visit, Laurance did more research and realized that there was more to the restoration of Sauer Castle. There were groups of people who had tried for years to get the property away from his distant relative with the hopes of restoring it.
It became clear to Laurance that Lopp wasn’t willing to work to restore the home. Whenever the house is up for auction for back taxes, Lopp would pay them days before the sale.
In 2015, a Facebook group page called “Sauer Castle” was created and now has over 10,000 members all dedicated to restoring the property. Laurance joined the group and shared some scanned historic photos of the house and family.
“Carl called me up and asked me to take the photos down,” Laurance claims. He agreed and removed the photos to keep the peace.
But as time went on, Laurance found that complying with Carl Lopp wasn’t assisting with the ultimate goal of saving the castle. So, he put the images back up on the page.
Carl then threatened to sue him. Even with the threat, Laurance kept the images up on the page.
“This is my family history, too,” Laurance explained. “And the biggest obstacle for restoration is Carl G. Lopp.”
In April, the house was set to go to auction for back taxes, but the sale was delayed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to back taxes, the property has $4,850 in “special taxes” due from 2019.
“The special taxes are for special assessments charged to the property for mowing and trash/debris removal,” Wendy Green, Assistant Council for Wyandotte County explained. “The total amount due as of today is $7,737.61. That amount, however, will continue to go up until we can actually have a sale as interest and penalties continue to accrue.”
A Plea to Preserve Sauer Castle
Thomas Laurance and his family say they are sickened by the current condition of the property and hope with the help of others to protect and preserve it for future generations.
Historic preservationists and contractors, including roofers, flooring specialists, carpenters, and countless others have already pledged their time and materials to help restore the historic landmark.
Thomas Laurance is searching for the answers.
Sauer Castle, standing high up on the bluffs overlooking the Kaw River, is a treasure worth saving. She needs us all.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.