A historic landmark in Butler County will soon be demolished following the David City City Council unanimously voting in favor of razing the Chauncey S. Taylor House during its March 27 meeting.
The home, 715 N. Fourth St., was built in 1888 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, it was listed as a nuisance property by the city and condemned in September 2018 by Building Inspector Raymond Sueper.
He said the home was left vacant for years and primarily used for storage by owners Kathy and Roger Treat, who primarily live in Colorado. Sueper also said his office constantly receives complaints regarding the property and described the inside as “one of the worst cases of hoarding I’ve ever seen.”
While the building's structure is sound, the outside porches have rotted, paint is peeling and the plumbing is shot. At the council meeting, Sueper said there have been reports of people breaking into the property and illegally staying there, potentially teenagers using the bedroom on the second floor or homeless individuals.
“We determined that there are people who have been accessing that house,” Sueper said. “Someone has been using that property for illicit and immoral purposes while the Treats have been living in Colorado.”
In November 2018, The Board of Zoning Adjustment agreed to give the homeowners six months to bring the house and property into compliance and 60 days to have it completely emptied of items. Otherwise, the city said it would tear down the property. By the two-month deadline, the homeowners had only emptied about 50 percent of the dwelling.
The council decided at its Feb. 27 meeting to give the Treats until the council's March 27 meeting to sell the property to a responsible party who was able to bring the home into compliance or face its demolition.
As this new deadline came and went without the Treats presenting the council any proof of sale of the home, council members discussed which measures to take next. Mayor Alan Zavodny told the council that he was unsure of the sincerity of the homeowners' intentions to ever sell the home. A For Sale sign was on the front yard with no phone number listed on it and the Treats had asked the city not to give out their contact information to anyone.
“How do you sell a house, but you don’t have any contact information?” Zavodny said. “How true were those efforts? They’ve had viable offers that they’ve not taken.”
Ward 1 Council Member Skip Trowbridge made a motion at the meeting for the city to begin the process of property demolition.
“My. Mayor, I would move that we reaffirm our prior condemnation of this property, saying how it was protested and the hearings have been held, and the people failed to do what the agreeing officer told them they had to in a timeline that matched the Board of Zoning Adjustment’s desires,” Trowbridge said. “And we move from condemnation to advertising for demolition bids.”
A discussion then broke out between the council members about alternative actions the city could take to demolition. But Ward 2 Council President Kevin Hotovy said he was hesitant to tear down a historic home.
“Are we sure? This is the kind of deal where you have to take into account that this is a 100-year-old house. I’m not saying what has happened in the last decade is right by any means, it’s terrible. But it is still a 100-plus-year-old home,” Hotovy said. “I would hate to see a piece of history go to the scrap collector just because people are being unreasonable. That’s what’s unfair in this whole situation, is that the people are being unreasonable.”
The mayor responded to Hotovy's remarks, saying that there were many in the city who shared his frustration toward the situation. However, Zavodny said he was concerned about the kind of precedent this would set if the city were to go back on its word.
“The problem we have that I see at this point is if we don’t move forward,” Zavodny said, before pausing. “If we stop the process, it’s like we get up right to a line and say we’re going to do something, and then where do we go if we don’t act.”
Hotovy asked the body about applying for grants to fix up the house. Trowbridge responded by saying it's not the city’s job to fix up people's homes when owners have neglected them. He also said leaving the house in the hands of the Treats would only allow the house to further deteriorate and become more of a liability.
Ward 2 Council Member Pat Meysenburg said he was concerned with the current situation being a repeat of what happened with the Treats several years ago in Octavia. The Treats purchased the old post office/grocery store building on the corner of Dix and Broad Street in May 2002 for $1,000. Chairman of the village board, Rick Kopecky, said the property was neglected by the owners and used for hoarding. Windows fell out, its ceiling caved in and brush and trees overgrew the yard.
“It was a hell of a nice building,” Kopecky said. “(But) they never took care of it.”
The village board and the Treats went back and forth in court for years until they agreed to gift the property to Octavia in July 2017. The village then demolished the building and the land has since merged with a nearby park.
The Chauncey S. Taylor House is one of the oldest buildings currently standing in the county. Also known as the Richard Zeilinger House, it is currently 131 years old. The home was constructed for Chauncey S. Taylor, a local jeweler. In 1903, he sold it to a local hardware store owner John Zeilinger, according to The Banner-Press archives. It was owned by the Zeilinger family until 1967. The fourth owner of the home was violin maker David Wiebe, who moved into the property in 1976.
After 27 years of ownership, Wiebe sold the home to Kathy and Roger Treat in May 2003 for $144,900 and proceeded to move to Woodstock, New York. In a letter to The Banner-Press, Wiebe wrote that the property was in poor shape when he first moved in and had to fix it up. He dealt with numerous holes in the roof, water running down inside walls, deep-seated rot and an infestation of bats. He wrote that the structure was fixed up to last another 50 or 100 years with proper maintenance work. In the letter, he pleaded with the council to save the home from such a cruel fate as demolition.
“If no one can change the course of events when the time deadline runs out, it will only be a matter of a few hours and all that will be left is a cloud of dust and a big sad hole in the ground. Every board, every piece of trim in that house was cut with a handsaw - it could all just be splinters,” Wiebe wrote. “Surely some better 11th-hour solution can be found.”
In 1982, the home was put on the National Register of Historic Places. It is currently one of 13 historically listed places in Butler County, and the only residential property on the list. Despite the historic listing, it does not prevent the city from tearing it down like other condemned properties in David City, such as the former house at 1115 C St. and a vacant apartment house at 310 E St.
The two were razed by the city in summer 2013 by Mid Nebraska Grading and Demolition for a total of $24.693, according to The Banner-Press archives. Trowbridge said it would be unfair to give the Treats any kind of special treatment that they would not give these other property owners, simply because of the historical nature of the home.
Hotovy said he wished the city could just take possession of the home and give it to someone who will fix it up, but the mayor said that isn’t an option. Without the cooperation of the homeowners, there’s nothing the city can do.
“As much as this pains me tremendously, I just think we’ve run out of options,” Zavodny said. “I think there are some responsible parties out there that ownership of that property would do wonderful things with it. But we can’t get from here to there without some cooperation from the homeowners, and we don't have it. And that limits our options, unfortunately, in this case to a tragic end for a piece of history.”
It was then the council unanimously voted to approve the motion to demolish the condemned Chauncey S. Taylor House. The city will soon advertise for demolition bids and open them at its May 8 meeting. City Attorney James Egr said he was notified that the Treats have sought legal counsel and could potentially seek a legal injunction regarding the demolition in the district court. There, it would be up to a judge to determine whether the city can proceed with the demolition or not.
Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at email@example.com.