A Sulgrave Situation

Louise Barry is ready to host a party. Nothing too fancy, just her friends from the coffee shop and their spouses or dates in her apartment twenty stories above the Plaza in the Sulgrave building.

Her thick glass dining room table rests on its concrete-column base. Her bronze sculptures and ornate wood cabinets are dust-free. Her blood-red Chihuly glass sculpture waits to be admired.

The guests will have to make their own drinks, however, since Barry couldn’t find a bartender. She is stocked for martinis, though she never drinks them herself. “Stupid drink,” she says. “It knocks people out.”

But life at the Sulgrave seems meant for martinis. For more than three decades, 121 West 48th Street has been Kansas City’s prime rental address.

“The Sulgrave is a twenty-story luxury apartment building … for people seeking elegance and perfection in living with complete freedom from the responsibilities of home ownership,” brags the original brochure. The Sulgrave’s minimalist design was the height of modern style. The brochure includes pastel drawings of thirty-and forty-somethings with trendy bouffant hairdos and dinner jackets. Life at the Sulgrave would be all cocktail parties, card games and lounging at the pool.

Instead of hipsters, however, the Sulgrave filled with retirees who embraced worry-free apartment living where black doormen helped with their groceries and white carpet tickled their feet.

The Sulgrave became the retirement home of choice for the city’s elite. It was the last move for couples departing their rolling estates to the south. And eventually, the households evolved from silver-haired couples to widows alone on their upper-floor balconies enjoying the best view in Kansas City.

That view is no longer for rent. The building is going condo. The prices run from $175,000 for a small apartment on a lower floor to nearly $900,000 for a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot penthouse. That means residents will pay between $150 and $430 a square foot.

“People tend to imply we’re evicting people,” says John Williams, project manager for Sulgrave Development L.L.C. “No one is being evicted.”

Sulgrave Development is honoring leases, some of which stretch for two more years, and offering renters the first option to buy the units they live in now.

In February, Sulgrave Development purchased the Sulgrave and its neighboring Regency House apartment building from Highwood Properties Inc., which bought out Plaza owner J.C. Nichols in 1998. In 1991, Nichols had changed the use restrictions on the Sulgrave and Re-gency House to allow for condos. He did it as a tax break, Williams says. The new ownership group in-cludes Mike Rainen, Fred Coulson III, Brad Nicholson and Cecil Van Tuyl. (Van Tuyl’s vision for the north side of Brush Creek drew rabid criticism in the mid-’90s when he proposed bulldozing older apartment buildings for a new development; he eventually withdrew the proposal, though another version was reintroduced last month.)

“This is a bunch of hometown guys, not [someone] flying in doing a project and flying out,” Williams says. The group paid about $27 million for the Sulgrave, he says.

The building’s new incarnation is driven in part by necessity. The grand Sulgrave’s heating and air conditioning system needs an overhaul. Weather has chipped away parts of its brick-and-concrete exterior. The elevator motors are clean and well-oiled but controlled by a room full of obsolete mechanical switches that keep tenants waiting for as long as three minutes. Computers will cut the wait time to fifteen seconds.

“It’s going to cost millions on things you’ll never see,” Williams says.

More millions will transform 1960s minimalism to 2001 decadence. The concrete sun deck will get a layer of dirt, landscaping and a putting green. Architects have designed an opulent glass-and-steel vestibule to link the Sulgrave to the Regency. The extras include a new club room and conference room, a minitheater with surround sound and a 96-inch screen, and a fitness center with a locker room, steam room and sauna.

Those are the amenities today’s high-end condo-dwellers demand, Williams says.

They are not, however, amenities being demanded by current Sulgrave residents. The departure list will be long.

“Whatever they do to it, they are increasing the cost, so we have to pay for it if we want to stay in our condo,” says Jim Johnson, who lives with his wife on the nineteenth floor. “We probably talked to 35 people. We only know of three who are going to be staying here.” Johnson, 67, says he and his wife are debating whether to buy in. They are looking at a bill of $595,000 plus a $1,000 monthly maintenance fee. Both Johnson and his wife still work.

Barry, a retired community college administrator, has lived in the Sulgrave for eighteen years. She says she won’t be able to plunk down that kind of money to stay in her twentieth-floor apartment. “My in-come is now fixed,” she says. “It is not fixed at a menial level, but it’s fixed.”

Williams has found someone who will buy Barry’s apartment and continue renting it to her, at least for now. And Barry holds no grudge against the owners, despite the hard choices they are forcing on their residents.

“A way of life is ending, but animosity, I think, would be very inappropriate,” she says. “Ours is a capitalistic society. If I wanted to live in a socialist society, I could have moved to Russia a long time ago.”

Barry says the building is simply going the way of the Plaza, which has lost its unique specialty shops. The stores on the Plaza are the same as mall stores in any city. The Sulgrave has changed as well.

Sam Walker, the doorman, has heard of only one person who plans to stay. Walker started working at the Sulgrave in 1981 after he retired from General Motors. He was 59 then and split time between jobs at the Sulgrave and the Standard Club, a Jewish men’s club on Gregory. Back then, the Sulgrave was filled with rich people and their attendants. One woman had two maids living with her, he says. Another had a chauffeur to look after her five cars. The building supported so many employees that one spent much of his shift just polishing the marble floors of the entryway. “He kept it looking like glass all the time,” Walker says.

In those days, Walker and other doormen carried groceries upstairs and knew most everyone by name. People they didn’t know needed permission to pass. “You’d have to be admitted here,” he says. “You just couldn’t come in and walk the halls.”

Now residents roll their own luggage carts. Ladies no longer gather to play cards in the lounge, where a pool table and chess set sit unused. Corporate apartments, where companies house their consultants in temporary luxury, have ensured a certain amount of turnover among residents.

“They’ve let anybody in here,” says Margaret Redford, who has lived at the Sulgrave for fifteen years but says she’ll be moving out when her lease expires.

Redford was let in, but she can’t pay the price to stay.

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