- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The former Menninger campus has sat abandoned, its remaining buildings deteriorating since that mental health organization moved to Texas in 2002.

Fourteen years later, the Sunflower Foundation is determined to breathe new life back into at least part of what was once a thriving health care campus at S.W. 6th and Wanamaker. The nonprofit organization will renovate two buildings that predate Menninger and locate its headquarters there, president and CEO Billie Hall said.

But Sunflower Foundation - which gives grants to further health care initiatives in Kansas - is putting forth an even larger goal that Hall called “an extension of our mission.” More than 22,000-square-feet of space in the two buildings will be renovated to provide lease space to area nonprofits and meeting and conference space, as well, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported (https://bit.ly/1TIhmh7 )

For Hall and the Sunflower Foundation’s board, the idea of relocating to an area that is such a large part of Topeka’s health care history is exciting.

“We just got excited about maybe we can do all of this and at the same time, contribute to preserving the history of Topeka. That sold us on it,” Hall said. “The tower building is a beautiful building, and it was larger than what we would need, so we looked at the other two remaining buildings there. We love the idea of the powerhouse being a center of learning. We think that’s perfect.”

As part of their interest in historic preservation, Hall and others on Sunflower’s staff have delved into the history of what was once called Martin’s Hill, or even “Healing Hill.” Hall said not many people know that the hill’s health care history extended significantly beyond the Menninger Clinic’s years there.

In the late 1800s, the Knights and Ladies of Security Home and Hospital Association incorporated, forming an organization that was thought to be the first of its kind in the country, a Topeka Capital-Journal article said. It was a fraternal society that offered life insurance to everyday people - something previously available only to the wealthy - and 11 investors contributed $1 each to start the project.

In 1919, Sunflower researchers found, that organization merged with another to become the Security Benefit Association, with plans to create a community on the hill that would include a new hospital, retirement home, orphanage, cooperative farm and greenhouse.

A new hospital was built by 1925, considered state-of-the-art at the time, and it expanded by 1930 to 250 beds, 15 clinic rooms and two laboratories for the cost of $800,000.

The buildings that Sunflower Foundation will occupy were built as a nurses’ residence and the powerhouse that supplied energy for the SBA campus, Hall said. When Menninger occupied the campus from 1959 to 2002, the tall smokestack on the powerhouse became unstable, and Hall said it was shortened to about half its size. It is a prominent feature of the building today.

In their research, Sunflower’s leaders interviewed Walter and Roy Menninger, former leaders of The Menninger Clinic, about the property’s history.

“At one point, we had 1,200 employees, built 22 or 23 buildings,” Roy Menninger told Sunflower. “The patients often commented on what a place of serenity it was. It was undemanding, it was accepting, it was beautiful, It was reassuring. The intention was to make it unique, and it was. It was one of the few places in the country that tried to look at the whole patient, rather than just what is his illness and can we fix that.”

Sunflower hopes to continue the innovative health care approaches that have been implemented from the prominent Topeka hill, Hall said.

Cleanup of the buildings, which have been extensively vandalized, begins Monday, and Hall said construction will begin as soon as the final plans are determined. If all goes as planned, the buildings will be renovated and ready for occupation by late fall in 2017.

The cost of the project originally was estimated to be $6 million to $7 million, but Hall said an upper end of $10 million was set. Given how difficult renovations can be, and how unexpected problems can occur, they are unsure of the final cost. The project will be funded through a combination of structured debt, grants and private contributions, and revenues from leasing the tenant space and for use of the powerhouse conference center will help to offset costs.

Hall said Sunflower Foundation’s level of grant making won’t change as the organization funds its new headquarters.


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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