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Archive for Sunday, September 2, 1990

COMPASSIONATE CHALLENGE

September 2, 1990

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Sometimes when Robert Lewis is walking his pet dog Napoleon in the 1000 block of Kentucky, passersby stop him and ask what's happening to the house on the southeast corner of the block.

The wood-frame home there with the gingerbread porch sits cockeyed on its lot now, oddly painted several non-descript colors and blocked up on skids, waiting to roll down the street.

"I say `That's my house,'" Lewis said with a grin.

The 73-year-old Lewis and the congregation at First Christian Church, 1000 Ky., where he has been custodian for 21 years, have designed a to make the house on skids, now owned by the church but formerly owned by Ethel Marriott, into Lewis' home.

The pastor there, Rev. Ron Goodman, said church members are rallying around this "hands-on" project.

"We're doing it for him, but also for us, for our own sense of meaning," he said. "We feel like we're just beginning as a congregation to meet (such human) needs in the community."

The Lewis Project, as it is called, hasn't and won't be simple to accomplish though. It involves the demolition of Lewis' long-time home at 820 Ind., the pouring of a new foundation there, moving the Kentucky street house to the Indiana street lot and bringing it up to city codes before Lewis can move in.

According to Steve Batten, church member and a contractor who has, in Goodman's words, "made it happen," much of the work is being done either at cost or by volunteers, mostly from the congregation.

He said the process of gaining a demolition permit for the Indiana street house took longer than they anticipated because city procedures for granting such permits changed during the time their request was pending but now they have the permit in hand.

Demolition is scheduled for Sept. 8.

That same day, he said, they are to begin digging the foundation.

"We're using volunteers as much as possible, and getting people in there to work at the time it needs to be done takes working with people's schedules when they can donate their time," he said.

What must be done could take six weeks, Batten said, but they're hoping to get it accomplished in only two.

Helstrom Movers of Burlingame is to move the Kentucky street house to the Indiana street site, where work then will begin to bring it up to city code.

"In this particular case," Batten said, "it needs all new wiring and new plumbing and some structural work. . . . (Building) codes are different now from the time it was built."

He said he thought the house was about 60 years old, and noted its "architecture will fit in (Old West Lawrence) probably better than houses on either side" of Lewis's old home.

A Boy Scout who is also a church member will paint the exterior of the house, Batten said.

Danny Down, 14, a Life Scout with Troop 53, which meets at First Christian Church, said he's painting the house as his Eagle Scout project, with help from other Scouts and some church members.

He said the mismatched coat of paint now on the house is primer donated by local businesses, but in the end, the exterior will be white.

Late September is now the target painting date, Down said.

Until the house is ready, Lewis has been moved by church members to another house owned by the church, at 1036 Ky., formerly Alice Lescher's home.

That house, as well as another closer to the church that already has been demolished, were offered free to any interested parties through the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, Goodman said, but there were no takers. The structures would have had to be moved.

Batten said that offer is still good on the house Lewis is now in, but if no one wants to move it, it will be demolished too after Lewis moves to his new home.

Goodman said the houses must go to make way for another church project a new parking lot to be built from the 1036 Ky. St. lot on south to the block's end.

Along with the parking lot, he added, another church building, linking the red-brick church at 10th and Ky., and the current educational building at 1010 Ky., is to be built this fall.

He added the only other house now standing on the east side of Kentucky in that block is 1032 Ky., an apartment house not owned by the church.

Goodman said the congregation's efforts to improve their custodian's living conditions sprang from a challenge he put to them last January.

That challenge had involved an experience he had while traveling in the South over the Christmas holidays.

"It was a little town in northeast Louisiana," Goodman recalled. "On the south end of town was a well-kept rural-style church building. On the north end, just the same. In between, there were 20 shacks pretty clearly laborers."

The churches, probably peopled by white farmers, he said, seemed to have no impact on the lives of the community's black workers.

Feeling "righteous indignation," he said, he thought about how much less prejudice existed in Lawrence, but upon his return home, he realized there was a parallel situation in his own church and Lewis' home.

"It was just one of those situations where you suddenly realize there's an inconsistency in your own life, your own parish," Goodman said.

"We let him (Lewis) work for us, and pay him a wage for his work, but allow him to live in a house below the standards we would live in."

Church member Rob Moore said announcements of Goodman's challenge were placed in the church bulletin and a special committee organized to work out the details.

"The wheels have ground slowly since them," he said, noting they first considered building Lewis a new house but settled on the current plan because it was not as costly and because state and local preservation experts thought the 1040 Ky. house would be more appropriate as part of the historic Old West Lawrence neighborhood than a new home.

Lewis, who is now semi-retired although he works at the church every morning, said when Goodman and other church members came to him with their plan, he "thought it was nice, 'cause that house I was living in I don't see how I survived the winter."

He recalled falling against a wall in the bathroom one time and seeing daylight through cracks in the sheetrock. He said he paid gas bills as high as $140 a month to keep the little house four rooms and a bath heated in winter. And he hadn't ventured onto the second floor in years for fear the ceiling below would fall in.

The new house, he said, "is a lot bigger and a lot better."

Goodman explained that because Lewis's original home was within 500 feet of the Old West Lawrence National Historic District, the church has worked through both state and city regulations to get approval of their plan.

The old home, although badly deteriorated, has historic significance that preservation experts wanted to document.

David Benjamin, who with Dennis Enslinger and Cathy Ambler photographed and measured the house for the historic record, said there is some unusual construction.

"It is in bad shape," he said of the 820 Ind. house. "We're betting it was built in four or five stages, the earliest and this is a guess between 1868 and '70."

Benjamin said the unusual construction involved brick nogging and large verticle planking that looks like oak. The brick nogging, he explained, is found between wall studs, where insulation is put today. Then, the nogging probably served both as an insulation and, because it was brick, to strengthen the structure.

Benjamin also is working with Enslinger on a resurvey of Old West Lawrence homes for the state, and he said once Lewis' new home is in place, it also will be researched.

He said records show that Charles Lima paid taxes on the original 820 Ind. house in the late 1860s and Alexander Johnson bought it in the late 1870s. Johnson was among ancestors traced here by Marilyn E. White of Los Angeles, a family historian featured in the Aug. 5 Journal-World Variety section.

In 1912, Benjamin said, a couple named Pleasant and Prudence Carter lived there.

Lewis said the Carters in turn sold the home to a man named Georgia, from whom he bought the property.

Lewis, who was born on his parents' farm at Lakeview and grew up in Lawrence, said he bought the house in 1944 after his return from World War II.

He said he served three years and six months overseas with the U.S. Army's 743rd Military Police while his wife, Jean, whom he had married just before leaving, lived at 920 La.

They continued to live there after his return, he said, until he paid Georgia in full for the house in about 1949 or '50 and finally took possession.

He and his wife, who died in 1979, never moved again.

They raised their son and daughter Robert Jr., now of Albuquerque, N.M., and Beverly Jean, now of Florida there, and later, two grandsons, Philip and Genaro.

Genaro now lives in Hutchinson, Lewis said, but Philip continues to live with him.

Lewis, himself a long-time member and an usher at the Ninth St. Baptist Church, says he's a little sad to see his old home torn down but glad he doesn't have to worry about heating it or having its ceiling falling in any more.

If the church hadn't come to his rescue, he said, "I just planned to stick it out."

Church member Moore said the most difficult part of the project has been accumulating the funds they estimate the project will cost about $30,000.

Goodman said, "We're paying for it through fundraising projects and donations,"

Proceeds from a church golf tournament Sept. 23 at the Orchards will go to the Lewis Project this year, and congregation members are painting another member's house and he's donating what he would have paid professional painters for the project.

There also will be a crafts bazaar in the church parking lot Sept. 27, a time-and-talent auction Oct. 17 as well as a Christmas tour of congregation members' homes.

Batten said that they have a long way to go to reach the funding goal, and they need more skilled plumbers, electricians and carpenters to do the actual work than the congregation contains. He said city codes require licensed people do that sort of work.

In spite of the work ahead, though, Batten said he thought it was more than just coincidence that the church had such an appropriate house on hand when they finally realized the need that God had a hand in the Lewis Project too.

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