Ninety-two years after the death of Nick Chiles, a Black newspaper editor in Topeka, three aging buildings he owned in downtown Topeka are the subject of a debate whether they should be demolished or restored.
The buildings’ owner points to their structural issues and decay. The buildings’ advocates point to their historical significance.
AIM Strategies LLC, a development firm led by Cody Foster, hopes to tear down those structures — which it owns at 112-114, 116 and 118 S.E. 7th — and rebuild at that location.
The new building would face west toward the adjacent, outdoor Evergy Plaza, which opened last year at the northeast corner of S. 7th and Kansas Avenue. It would include an open-air museum with interactive features highlighting Chiles’ career and life.
The three buildings AIM Strategies proposes to demolish are part of the South Kansas Avenue Commercial Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
Two were constructed in about 1880 and the other in about 1888, according to the application submitted to gain that distinction.
AIM Strategies allowed access to the interiors of the three buildings Thursday by a reporter and photographer for The Capital-Journal. A bird flew overhead during the tour, apparently having gotten in through a broken window.
Buildings were falling into disrepair
AIM Strategies bought the Chiles buildings in late 2017 with hopes of restoring them, Foster said.
The purchase was made essentially “because I got tired of watching them fall into disrepair,” he said.
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Once he got a look at them from inside, Foster said he asked Seth Wagoner, AIM Strategies CEO, to find alternative locations for everyone who was renting space there.
“It wasn’t safe, or sanitary, for anyone to be in there,” he said. “At a big expense to us, we moved everyone out because the buildings were so disgusting. The upper levels were full of dead pigeons, bats, rats, bird (feces) everywhere.”
Still, the company spent three years and hundreds of hours looking long and hard at different plans for restoring the buildings before realizing it couldn’t do it in a cost-effective manner, Foster said.
AIM Strategies considered about 12 different options, Wagoner said.
Restoration would have cost a minimum of $10 million, Foster said.
“Our intentions were always to do something special with them,” he said. “There’s only one problem. It won’t work. Every single idea we looked at wasn’t feasible because of the conditions the buildings are in.”
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AIM Strategies officials discussed their plans for the Chiles buildings earlier this month at a meeting of the seven-member Topeka Landmarks Commission.
That body is expected, on a date that hasn’t yet been set, to consider whether the demolition would adversely affect the properties’ historic integrity, and adversely affect the historical integrity of the surrounding South Kansas Avenue Commercial Historic District.
Should the Landmarks Commission deny AIM Strategies request on the grounds that it would do either or both of those, the company’s request for permission to demolish them could be could be appealed to the mayor and city council.
To overturn any decision by the Landmarks Commission, the mayor and council would need to conclude there is no feasible and prudent alternative to razing the buildings, and that the project involved includes all possible planning to minimize harm to historic properties and the historic district.
Demolition opponents seek signatures for petition
Meanwhile, opponents of demolition are maintaining a “Save Nick Chiles’s Buildings” Facebook page, where they are seeking signatures on a petition asking Topeka’s mayor and city council to prevent the demolitions, should such a proposal come before them.
The petition notes that downtown Topeka was once home to numerous thriving Black businesses, many of which were leveled and replaced as a result of urban renewal.
The petition says, “As the years have gone by, much of downtown, and Topeka in general, highlights the contributions of many white people with statues and plaques in front of buildings, but have ignored the Black entrepreneurs that built up the progress of our town.”
That petition had 265 signatures early Saturday.
It says Chiles was a “hell-raiser,” editor, entrepreneur, businessman and civil rights activist.
Chiles moved in 1886 to Topeka, where he owned grocery, restaurant and hotel businesses, as well as a newspaper, the Topeka Plaindealer, the petition says.
Chiles edited and published that paper from 1899 until he died at age 61 in 1929. The Plaindealer came to enjoy the largest circulation of any Black newspaper west of the Mississippi River.
“Chiles developed a reputation for his timely and thought-provoking editorials on subjects of concern to African Americans in Topeka, around Kansas, and beyond the state’s borders,” said the website of the Kansas Historical Society.
The Plaindealer was published from 1899-1958, making it the longest running black newspaper in the United States, the site added.
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It said although Chiles was believed to operate a saloon in the basement of his hotel, he felt sympathy for hatch-wielding saloon smasher Carry Nation, who came to Topeka in 1901.
“When she was arrested during her campaign in Topeka, Chiles provided money for her bail,” the website said. “The two joined a brief partnership and published ‘The Smasher’s Mail,’ which she edited. After three issues, the partnership ended.”
‘His history must be preserved’
Chiles was disappointed after the Rev. Charles Sheldon, pastor of Topeka’s Central Congregational Church, chose not to take a strong stance against racism in 1900 while being allowed to edit the Topeka Daily Capital for one week “as Jesus would.”
“Disappointed in the effort, and with that of the Protestant church for not standing up to racism, Chiles invited the new Pope Pius X to speak out on behalf of the Catholic Church,” the historical society website said. “After receiving a letter from the Pontiff’s secretary months later, Chiles was gratified.”
Chiles, a Republican, ran in the 1926 primary election against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Curtis, whom he had accused of not championing the voting rights of southern Black voters, the historical society website said. Curtis won that primary, then defeated a Democrat to keep his seat. He won election two years later as vice president.
Chiles’ Senate run and correspondence with the pope were mentioned in a video posted on the “Save Nick Chiles’s Buildings” Facebook site by Raymond Chiles, a direct descent of Nick Chiles, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., works as a chef and is an owner of a historic home that was part of the Underground Railroad.
“As someone who wrote the pope — as a Black man during that time — and was answered, and somebody who ran for the Senate — as a Black man — and was taken seriously, I think this is pertinent history and that this history needs to be preserved,” he said.
Advocates urge finding a way to save buildings
It is a “disgrace” anyone would want to tear down the buildings Nick Chiles owned, Raymond Chiles added.
“I would love to see them restored, not renovated,” he said. “I would love to see them operational and giving back to the community, as Nick Chiles did.”
The “Save Nick Chiles’s Buildings” Facebook page also features a video message from another relative of Nick Chiles, international opera singer David Lee Brewer.
“We’re asking you for your help, for your interest in joining us to save history and to do what Nick Chiles would have wanted, and that is to keep those buildings for the empowerment and uplifting of young Topekans,” Brewer said.
A Capital-Journal article published in February 2019 prompted people to think the Chiles buildings would continue to be valuable commercial space and that AIM Strategies would pursue rehabilitation, said Topekan Donna Rae Pearson, who is among those trying to save them.
Those buildings have a deep meaning in terms of the progress of Black entrepreneurship, especially during the time of segregation, Pearson said.
“Chiles built several businesses where Black people were able to walk through the front door in a time of blatant segregation in Topeka, Kansas,” she said. “He was an advocate and activist for all in the community.”
The demolition of the Chiles buildings would contribute to “the erasure of not only our community history but also specifically the erasure of African-Americans’ impact and contributions to the development of our city,” Pearson said. “I want people to understand that history happened here.”
The Chiles buildings are “the last buildings representing the Black business ownership of the past that was key to Topeka’s growth,” Pearson said.
Those structures tell the local story of a man who had a huge impact nationally, and also are the three oldest buildings in the South Kansas Avenue Commercial District, she said.
“If it is allowed for these buildings to be demolished, as a community, we have to realize that once they are gone, they are gone,” Pearson said.
The buildings also are “one of the greatest symbols of where we were, and should help guide us in the future,” she said.
Cody Foster wants people to know Nick Chiles’ significance
Foster said he’s researched Nick Chiles extensively and is “very educated and knowledgeable” about his significance.
“Candidly, it’s a shame that more people in Topeka do not know his story,” he said. “He’s one of the more fascinating people I’ve studied. Not only was he an incredible civil rights leader, he was also a great entrepreneur, which both are important things to me.”
Foster stressed that he’s tried to share the history of Topeka through almost every project he’s pursued through AIM Strategies.
He said its creation of The Pennant, a restaurant at 915 S. Kansas Ave., paid tribute to the Pennant Cafeteria, which had been located decades earlier in the same building, while AIM Strategies raised “a ton” of awareness about Topeka co-founder Cyrus K. Holliday by making him the namesake of its Cyrus Hotel at 920 S. Kansas Ave.
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Sharing Topeka’s rich history and reminding people of its great past — and the leaders of that past — are important in helping this community build a brighter future, Foster said.
While Chiles is the namesake of a bridge over the Shunganunga Creek located on S.E. 10th Street, just west of S.E. Branner Trafficway, that bridge is “not exactly telling his story,” he added.
Through the open-air museum that would be part of AIM Strategies’ proposed development, “we are going to make sure everyone knows his history,” Foster said.
Water damage has weakened buildings’ structural integrity
But to effectively accomplish that, he said, AIM Strategies needs to first be able to tear down the current structures.
Bird droppings covered the top floors of those buildings when AIM Strategies officials first toured them after the 2017 purchase, said AIM Strategies CEO Wagoner.
“We had to have the buildings environmentally remediated,” he said. “We had to hire a special firm to come and out clean up all the bird droppings and everything else.”
Water damage was also a significant problem.
Nothing has been done to the buildings’ upper floors since 1995, said Greg Schwerdt, president of Schwerdt Design Group, which is working with AIM Strategies.
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Water damage has consequently decayed the top floors and run down through the other floors, he said.
Meanwhile, Schwerdt said, the structural integrity of the buildings is questionable in terms of whether they’re safe, and their floor-loading capacities probably aren’t adequate to handle even residential units.
The condition of the buildings isn’t the only problem, Schwerdt said.
If AIM Strategies is going to attract any sizable user that’s willing to pay significant rent, it needs spaces that are large and contiguous, he said.
“And we’ve got three different buildings with three different floor elevations, and so there’s no way we can tie these things together,” Schwerdt said.
AIM Strategies has been open and transparent about its intentions, Wagoner said, and intends to meet at some point with opponents of the proposed demolitions.
Foster said he’s willing to sell the Chiles buildings for the amount he paid for them, provided the buyer has “a great plan” and the necessary funding to renovate the buildings.
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