May 26, 2022

🎙As reorganization continues, Ellis County Historical Society votes to save historic church

Posted May 26, 2022 11:01 AM

Hays Post

As work continues to organize and catalog the entire collection of the Ellis County Historical Society, its board of trustees voted this week to save the former Presbyterian Church at the corner of Main and Seventh.

The future of the building had remained a point of debate for the organization after the last permanent director, Lee Dobratz, unveiled a plan in 2019 that would have seen the building demolished and replaced with a new structure on the society’s grounds.

That plan was estimated to cost over $14 million and presented a solution to replace the deteriorating facility wrought with water damage and mold after it was closed to the public in June of 2019.

Dobratz resigned in April 2020.

With an infusion of new board members and under the leadership of interim director Amanda Rupp this year, the society has taken on a new focus. First, it is working to bring the society’s entire collection back together in one location. And then the process of cataloging, sorting and removing items with little historical significance to the county begins.

But until the board’s vote Monday, the church building’s future remained uncertain.

“They’ve decided that we are going to keep the building, and we are going to start a campaign to renovate it and utilize it,” Rupp said.

The action reflects the overwhelming desire of the community to save the building.

“One board member puts it; 'There’s a lot more community support behind that project than to tear down and build something new for the historical society,' ” Rupp said.

She also said that revitalizing the building was “a little bit more doable” than the larger-scale plans presented in 2019.

“So, we’re all excited.”

Now that the building’s future is secure, Rupp said efforts to find funding for the project would begin.

“We’re going to start working on a capital campaign that we hope to launch at the end of the summer,” she said.

While the effort is new, the current board and staff members will benefit from the work of earlier efforts to mitigate the building’s damage.

“The prior boards have done a lot of the footwork,” Rupp said. “They’ve done feasibility studies. So we know exactly — from reputable architect companies and mediation companies — what needs to be done and close to what dollar amounts needed to happen there.

“We’ve got half of the work done for us.”

As the bigger plan comes into focus, she said an anonymous donation would help renovate enough space in the building for offices, allowing staff to work on-site. Currently, the society’s offices are in the Eagle Plaza, 1011 W. 27th.

“We’d like to be at home, and not necessarily open to the public, in that red brick building,” Rupp said. “We can be there on-site to have the gallery in the stone church open more often if we have our offices on site.”

And as the future of the facility solidifies, staff continues the effort to catalog the collection, using a new computer system Rupp proposed in February.

Rupp said that board members raised the $10,000 price tag for the system in only three months.

“We have new computers in place, and the new software system is being combined with our old data,” she said. “And we’re going to start moving on entering some of our collections this summer.”

Also, this summer, the society’s stone church will be open to the public to display the George Sternberg firearms collection — for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Rupp said the collection has been in storage since it was transferred to the society when the Sternberg Museum shifted to focus on natural history and moved to its current location in 1999.

“This collection is magnificent,” she said. “He’s collected from all over the world.”

The exhibition will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

A model of Fort Hays that was previously on display at Historic Fort Hays will also be on display.

“If you are an Ellis County Society member, you get in for free,” Rupp said. “If you are not, there is an entry fee of $10. And children under 12 years old are free. But you can always buy a membership when you walk in the door. So, you and your wife and your children can all get in for free all summer long for $25 instead of $10 apiece.”

However, this Saturday, the society plans to waive the entrance fee as they kick off the summer.

“I really encourage people to come and look, even if you’re not into guns or weapons,” Rupp said. “It’s an impressive collection. There’s going to be over 300 pieces on display and some rare pieces.”