OK, local history buffs, here’s a riddle for you to solve.

What has been covered up by plywood and a green rug in the elegant Vaile Mansion in Independence and hasn’t been seen by the public in decades?

If your guess is anything but the original encaustic tile foyer floor in this magnificent Second Empire-style  Victorian home – with its 31 rooms and nine marble fireplaces  – you’re wrong.

Thanks to the efforts of the Vaile Victorian Society, which provided the funding, and Alex Ramirez, the labor, the renovated tile floor will debut Saturday at the society’s “Lavender and Old Lace Tea” fundraiser.

This strong, long-lasting English tile has graced the 8 1/2-foot-by-5 1/4-foot entryway for 128 years. However, wear and tear has taken its toll on this once-beautiful floor.

When the city inherited the Vaile from the Mildred Vick DeWitt estate, Society members removed the coverings in 1884. What they saw on the floor was disheartening.

Many of the colorful tiles were missing. Others were cracked and chipped. Worst of all, a  large area in the center of the foyer was devoid of tile, says Sandee Dougherty, former Society president and renovation project spokesperson.

“It was just pulverized,” she recalls, explaining how one tile, if broken, can cause the tile around it to loosen and to start disintegrating.

Sandee believes most of the tile damage occurred when the landmark at 1500 N. Liberty St. was turned into a nursing home years ago.

“The nursing home just let the floor go,” she surmises. “To them it was just old ... probably just one more expense they didn’t want to mess with.”

But the expense didn’t prevent the society from putting the tile-replacement project on its five-year plan. In fact, “This project has been on our five-year plan for 10 years,” she says, laughing.

Actually, the society has been talking about this much-needed project since 1999, when former City Preservation Manager Patrick Steele got down on his knees with a grid he had prepared and counted the tiles and colors to see what was missing and what needed to be ordered.

Eight years passed. And the proposed project was at a standstill. It wasn’t until her presidency, Sandee says, that the society started talking about replacing the tile, after discovering a company in Stoke-on-Trent, England, still manufactured the same kind of tile used at the Vaile and in Truman Home entryway.

With a list of needed tile replacements in hand, Sandee and husband, Dave, interrupted their 2007 vacation to visit the English tile manufacturing company and place an order.

But what wasn’t known at the time was the order was incomplete. When the tile arrived about nine months ago, missing was a shade of brown.

“So we had to reorder it on the Internet,” Sandee recalls, explaining that for some unknown reason the brown shade never was omitted from the original 1999 order slip. The second batch of tile arrived March 16 – less than a week before the society’s tea.

For Alex Ramirez, owner of Custom Tile and Plumbing of Independence, taking the various tile sizes and shapes off the foyer floor, then numbering and placing them in precise order on a hallway tarp was extremely time consuming, as was putting them back in the same position they were taken off the floor.

Since Alex is mixing new and old tile together, all the old tile must be washed by hand. The new tile must be sealed and each tile must be leveled, because the new tile is an eighth of an inch shorter than the old tile and the new tile thickness is less than the old tile.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Alex, who is working with square-, rectangular- and triangular-shaped tiles in shades of yellows, browns and blue.

“It’s like putting a real nice puzzle together.” 

Preparing to lay the tile, Alex removed the entire concrete floor in January. After smoothing it out, he installed a Wonder Board concrete sheet floor.

In order to put in the Wonder Board and tile, Alex removed about an inch off the original floor and another 5/8ths of an inch off the floor so the tile would fit under the frames.

Alex puts the tile down very methodically – one line at a time, beginning at the south end of the room and moving across the floor. As he does so, “I need to work four different designs at the same time,” he explains. “It’s a lot of work.”

A lot of work, yes. But the skillful tile-layer loves his work because he loves the house in which he’s working.

Alex says it was love at first sight when he toured the Victorian mansion last October for the first time.

“I love marble. I love stone. I love tile. When I saw those fireplaces, I said, ‘Wow! This is a great job, and I fell in love with this house.’”

Alex wants his tedious work to complement the graciousness of the house, which a Kansas City newspaper described in 1882  as “the most princely house and the most comfortable house in the entire West.”

“I am just taking my time,” he says. “I enjoy doing it and I want it done right.”

And so does Sandee, who is so excited the project will be ready for public viewing at the upcoming tea.

“It’s going to be so nice to take up that plywood and that old green rug and let people see how gracious the entryway was.”

Then it’s on to preserving something else in the big house; hopefully, not the tile floor again.

Alex says not to worry. The floor will “last forever.”