The homes in this unique Blue Springs neighborhood date from 1906 to 1938 and are said to make up the first retirement community of any Protestant denomination in the country.
Century-old maple, oak and sweet gum trees line both sides of a peaceful street near old downtown Blue Springs, which seems, at first, to offer sanctuary solely to the birds who sing their springtime tunes and the squirrels that scamper up and down the tree trunks.
But, a neat row of cottage-style homes demonstrates a different calling for this small community.
The 13 mostly one-story houses date from 1906 to 1938 and are constructed of stucco, wooden and Cape Cod shingling. Together they make up Blue Springs Terrace.
The not-for-profit community offers respite to some retired United Church of Christ pastors and their spouses, according to Terrace Administrator Deloda Hempenius. The terrace was the first retirement community of any Protestant denomination in the country, and, therefore, earned recognition on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The homes’ design demonstrates the architectural style of the area during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The street, which is southwest of the Blue Springs business district, on 19th Terrace and Walnut, is so peaceful and solitary that an unrecognized car driving along its corridor attracts stares and timid waves from occupants who happen to be outside.
“We say they’re lost souls,” chuckled Richard Hempenius, Deloda’s husband and a retired Untied Church of Christ pastor.
The first house was built at Blue Springs Terrace in 1906, after terrace founder, Pastor John Sauer, wondered how the church’s retiring pastors in the area could survive through retirement. Sauer, who was serving as pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Kansas City, knew that the pastors at the time received little pay and had no savings.
“You didn’t have pensions back then, and you didn’t have Social Security,” said Harold Gertz, a member of St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in Independence who sits on the terrace board of directors.
The community also served as respite for sick or disabled pastors and their families. But those who were able worked a nearby farm where a Lutheran church now stands, Gertz said.
“They had to milk the cows and gather the fruit,” Gertz said of the farm’s many fruit trees, some of which still exist on the Lutheran church property.
Gertz explained that the community offered the only retirement option for the pastors, many of whom came here from Germany, Switzerland, Russia and Italy to start congregations and couldn’t afford the travel expense to return to their homeland upon retirement. Some were first-generation Americans with strong ties to their parents’ homeland.
The United Church of Christ has its roots in Germany and, therefore, before it was named Blue Springs Terrace, the community was known as “Germantown.” In the early days, residents spoke German and followed the social traditions of their former homeland, including speaking German.
The community’s first residents lived rent-free. Today, residents pay $275 to $450 per month in maintenance fees. Residents pay their own utilities and health insurance. Payment covers lawn care, including snow removal in winter and home repairs and upkeep.
Julie and Marvin Pigg, who also live at the terrace, searched for a long time for a retirement community to call home. Julie, who retired from a church in Midway, Ill., near St. Louis, said she and her husband, a retired school teacher, had either rented homes or lived in church-owned parsonages throughout her career and therefore were in search of a mortgage-free residence.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Julie said. “We couldn’t have picked a better one. It’s a very calm and peaceful piece of old history…”
At 90, Gladys Washburn is the community’s oldest and longest resident. She and her husband, Jost, moved there in 1980 when he was forced to retire due to a heart condition. He died in 1983, but, Gladys continues to live at the terrace. Today, her home is a handicap-accessible duplex, which was constructed in 1997 and accommodates her wheelchair. She described her neighbors as friendly and cooperative and added, “We feel like family here.”
Deloda and Richard, who also make their home on the street, are in charge of home maintenance and renovation, lawn care and filling vacancies in the community. The couple has made their home in the community for the last 15 years. They stay for the part-time paycheck and fellowship. The small, close community meets at the Agape Center at least once each month, where they celebrate residents’ birthdays, holidays and anniversaries, memorial services for residents who’ve passed away. Most celebrations include potluck dinners.
Built in 2003, the Agape is the newest building on the street, and the pride of the community, besides the oldest building, the chapel, which was built in the 1920s. The two-story building used to feature an altar as its centerpiece and served as a place of worship for the residents during its early years. Today, the building is mostly unused.
“Everybody would love to live in the Agape,” Deloda explained.
The couple is not solely responsible for housing renovations and maintenance. A volunteer crew of about a dozen United Church of Christ members arrives each Tuesday, ready to hammer and nail room additions or renovations, repair porches, lay carpeting or paint and wallpaper to update the homes. The crew must follow strict guidelines, because of the community's listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The houses along the street have been updated and remodeled to meet the changing needs of residents, which have numbered more than 170 over the years. All but one house has added central air conditioning. All have been reroofed and are in the process of upgrading furnaces and water heaters. For instance, the 1938s-era home and the home next door, 310, where the Hempeniuses reside, were remodeled, creating a sitting room from what originally an opened front porch.
Debbie Coleman-Topi is community relations director at Steppingstone, the other community in Eastern Jackson County administered by the United Church of Christ. The transitional living center, at 5100 Noland Road, teaches life skills to neglected and abused youth ages 15 1/2 to 21.