Century II too iconic to lose, supporters say
By Celeste Bogart Racette
Wichitans have always supported and loved Century II. They have memories of special events – concerts, graduation, car shows, ballet productions – they remember from their youth and now attend with their children. Flying home to Wichita, folks immediately recognize the blue dome roof.
Save Century II efforts have intensified with the orchestrated effort by backers of the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan and its consultant, Populous, to raze both Century II and the former Public Library. Out of five plans to develop the east riverbank at a cost of up $1.5 billion, only one keeps Century II.
Plans in 2009 to modernize Century II with $22 million in capital improvement plans were shelved by City Hall and the building has sat neglected for over 10 years. If we can’t take care of current city buildings, why would we build several bigger ones? Can citizens afford the new buildings with a new water plant coming, and the need for a new sewer plan in our future plans? It is yet to be seen if the new ballpark will support itself.
Save Century II kicked into high gear after the first Riverfront Legacy meeting at the Boathouse on July 31, 2019. I had been sitting at an empty table displaying historical Century II artifacts from my late father’s collection. A public relations representative hired by Project Wichita told me the display was not welcome. Apparently, knocking down Century II was a “done deal.” I left the meeting and helped start a grassroots campaign to give Wichita citizens a voice in Century II’s future.
Save Century II established a Facebook page and started mailing T-shirts for a $20 donation. Donations started pouring in and expert help came from architects in Kansas City (KCModern) and North Carolina (USModernist). Greg Kite, president of Historical Preservation Alliance of Wichita, provided money to rent Mary Jane Teall Theater at Century II for our first public meeting. Architect Dean Bradley, of Platt, Adams, Bradley and Associates, and local historian Dee Starkey joined the panel. They explained the unique design of Century II – blue for the Kansas sky, sand buff colored cement columns for the waving wheat – and showed slides of Century II over the years. Century II’s architects, John Hickman and Roy Varenhorst, were Frank Lloyd Wright apprentices.
For the second public meeting, Bill Warren, founder of Warren Theatres in Kansas and Oklahoma, and Ann Garvey, creator of two city-wide collaborative arts agencies, joined the panel for a discussion of architecture, repurposing ideas, cultural arts activities and renovation costs. John Hickman’s daughter, Ellen, and her son provided their reflections of Century II by video. The poem Century II by the late WSU English Professor Bruce Cutler was read.
The third public meeting was held at Corbin Education Center — designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — at Wichita State University. The speaker, Robert McLaughlin of KCmodern, showed slides and discussed Wichita’s modern architecture, including the Allen House, former Public Library and Kansas Gas & Electric building.
We’re not against a new, one-purpose performing arts structure. But we don’t see the need for a 400,000-square-foot convention center when the convention business is falling off nationally. Our goal is to get Century II put onto the National Register of Historic Places so that we can apply for grants and tax credits to renovate it.
Trust in City Hall has been broken by several projects such as WaterWalk and the new ballpark that were undertaken without a vote by citizens. We welcome citizens to join Save Century II.
Celeste Bogart Racette is the daughter of Vincent Bogart, who was Wichita mayor in 1964-65.
Former skeptics say trust planning process
By Angela Cassette and Wayne Bryan
In the musical theatre, we are collaborators. We plan, we problem solve, we are a team. It is the only way we make it to opening night, and this way of working also brings great joy.
We have learned not to expect collaboration from the private and public sectors. In fact, a few times in recent years, Music Theatre Wichita staff and board have marched ourselves down to city hall to have a public discussion with elected officials. Those were times we felt like decisions were being made to impact us, yet we had no seat at the table, let alone being part of the team.
When Mayor Jeff Longwell appointed a citizen’s committee to explore what solutions could be found for Century II, that impression changed. We were cheered by the caliber of work the committee did. Our statements in support of their findings can be found on our website at mtwichita.org/about/centuryii.
In short, despite our great affection for Century II, the work we’ve done here, and the ways it has shaped our organization, it is time for performing arts and conventions to have new, modern facilities. The people who seem most determined to retain the status quo with Century II are those who have never lived and worked inside this severely outdated facility. Those of us who have striven for decades to do first-class work within the confines of this building are unanimous in our opinion that a city of Wichita’s size and caliber deserves to have a first-rate cultural life to drive economic growth and retain talent. The structure of Century II is such that no amount of renovation can make the space workable for the future of the arts in our community, though we fully expect to continue operating as we are, working around the challenges of the building, until a new performing arts center is completed.
One of the best things to come out of the work of the citizen’s committee was momentum. Their work inspired several of our business leaders to gather a coalition and begin a master planning process, creating a vision and a workable plan for the east bank of the river.
We shouldn’t be surprised that some are calling into question the legitimacy of the master plan process. The two of us have a combined 43 years working in arts management, yet we have never been part of a planning process like this one. Highly professional, transparent, open and inviting, with active and respectful listening – this has truly been a model process.
As one of the major tenants of Century II, we have been invited to participate at every stage, and our opinions have been sought, not only in public or at meetings, but also as the design team worked through possible scenarios.
There has been a wealth of inspiring conversation at the public meetings. We’ve seen fellow citizens of Wichita engaging deeply, asking questions, reserving judgment, weighing the costs of each scenario. It has made us hopeful that maybe – just maybe – Wichita is one of those few places where we can still come and reason together. Where people don’t surround themselves with an echo chamber of those who tell them what they want to hear, but rather listen to understand details and complexities. Where we can truly engage in dialogue and create something future generations will cherish.
It feels daring to hope so much in times like these. But in the musical theatre, we are dreamers. We hope you will dream with us.
Angela Cassette is managing director and Wayne Bryan is producing director of Music Theatre Wichita.