“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
High on a ridge south of the Kansas River stands a very old and stately Italianate Villa known as Sauer Castle. The grounds are protected by a caretaker and his scary dogs who is rumored to always be well into the bottle and willing to pull a shotgun on any that dare cross the 7 foot fence that surround the house and it’s grounds or so we were told by a neighbor that wandered over to warn us from getting too close.
Anton Philip Sauer had the house built for his Kansas City bride Maria Einhellig Messerschmidt and their children. Anton had come to Kansas City in 1867 via New York, where he had lived briefly after immigrating from Germany. He established a tannery, was a partner in Crider and Sauer, Wholesale Groceries, and by 1870 was president of the German American Savings Association at 823 Main.
Construction was completed in 1872. Anton chose the site overlooking the Kaw River and valley as it reminded him of his native land and his father’s house which overlooked the Rhine river in Germany. The land was on the south side of the old Shawnee Road, which since the 1830s had linked Kansas City, Missouri with Shawnee Town in the Shawnee Indian Lands. The property had become part of the 200-acre allotment of a Shawnee Indian named Big Knife following the division of the Shawnee Reserve in 1854.
The fact that the house is built on Indian lands is not lost on those that insist it is haunted because we all know the best haunted house stories begin with someone building a house on Indian burial grounds or lands sacred to Indians. After the Indian Removal Act of 1830 passed, a Shawnee band relocated to Indian Territory in Kansas. Their Kansas lands were drastically reduced in 1854 and broken up into individual allotments in 1858. In 1861 Kansas became a state, and the non-Indian people of Kansas demanded that all Indian tribes must be removed from the state. By 1870 the land high on the river bluffs, or what was left of it, some 74.62 acres in extent, was in the hands of J. L. Pritchard who had developed it as a fruit farm. Courthouse records do not indicate any improprieties in the procurement of the land by Pritchard and that the sell was approved by the Indian Commission, but it is commonly known that many Indians lost their property to legal maneuverings of local governments. Big Knife remained on the property for some time after the sell before dropping from known history altogether. Strongly interested in horticulture, Sauer purchased the Pritchard farm in early 1871.
Construction of the house took over a year. Time has erased any record of an architect, but it is widely speculated that is was Asa Beebe Cross, the first professional architect in Kansas City, Missouri. The design would have been consistent with Cross’ other work of the period, and a well-to-do businessman like Sauer would probably have known him. The three story, twelve room house features a four story tower and was one of the first in the area to have running water, pumped by a hydraulic engine from a large spring to the south of the residence, to the laundry, the kitchen, and to a bathroom with a marble tub. A more detailed description of the original interior can be found here: clickie
Despite the many years of neglect with a decomposing roof & broken windows allowing in the elements, the wooden floors rotten and unsafe, the structure still stands, the tower rising perfectly erect overshadowing the property, a sentinel above the Kaw River Valley on the Sante Fe Trail. The two stone lions, carved by an Italian sculptor and brought by boat from St. Louis, still stand guard at the front entrance. The passing of years has erradicated the splendor of the gardens; the cobblestone front drive and fountains are lost under grass and dirt, possibly never to be recovered. The stone outbuildings that served as kitchens and stables and smoke houses, as well as the giant stone ovens are completely gone without a trace. In the early 1900s, the Sauer heirs had platted off all but 3.13 acres of the original lands as Sauer Highland Subdivision and the grand home is now surrounded with a hodge podge of new and old construction. Coming around the curve on the river bluff you are at once taken with how out of place the house seems in the neighborhood until, after gazing up it’s beautiful facade, one realizes that it is the other homes that are out of place; this house was was made for this hill.
Standing in front of the grand structure, I never felt scared, but there was an overwhelming sense of loneliness and of yearning. Such a large house built for a large family, it must have born witness to every kind of joy and tragedy that can befall mankind and it leads one to wonder if in its empty state, it holds the memories of a time past and resents its current state of inertia. In the 1930s, ghost stories started being told among the neighborhood children, perhaps stemming from the drowning of Anton’s young great granddaughter in the pool that was on the west side of the house and the suicide of Anton’s son-in-law John S. Perkins who shot himself at the age of 73 due to his declining health in the parlor room on the first floor.
Stories flourished about sightings of Anton on the grounds, who died in the upstairs master bedroom on a hot night in August of 1879, having lived in the house just a short 7 years. It is said that the ground around the area where the swimming pool was located is always wet (this could be attributed to the natural springs on the property). There are reported sightings of ghostly apparitions in the windows and strange noises. Urban legends that have no basis in fact have grown up around the house and now it is a target for vandals and thrill seekers. In fact, as many ghost stories as surround the house, there are just as many stories from those that remember tormenting the former caretaker and his dog when they were young. As with any such place, there are those crackpots that are always drawn to such places claiming to have had seances and ‘black masses’ on the grounds.
The night we visited, while jockeying for good camera angles in the dark, I grabbed on the the top of the fence and put my hand on something squishy, cold and wet. Upon closer inspection with the flash, it looked like charred raw meat, but it smelled more like cheap hand lotion. I took a shot so I could inspect it closer on the screen, but I still have not determined what the substance was, I suspect from stories that I have read that it’s grease of some kind, maybe baking in the sun all day causes the charring effect. I’m not sure. It’s an old trick to deter vandals by making the climb more difficult and wrecking their clothes in the process. From all accounts, the caretaker is an unpleasant person on his best days, a shot-gun wielding, mean, drunk bastard on his worst.
The house has stood empty since December 1987. Although several owners have started repairs, none have completed the task. The house was purchased by Carl Lopp, a descendant of the Sauer family and although he has done minor repairs and placed the fence to preserve the home from vandals, he currently lacks the funding to restore the home. Mr. Lopp resides in New York City and employs caretakers to watch over the home which is located at 935 Shawnee Road, Kansas City, Kansas. He has been quoted as saying it is his life’s dream to restore the home in which 5 generations of his family lived in. Please be respectful if you visit. The neighbor we spoke with said that about 10-20 people a day come by to gaze through the fence and parking is a challenge of the narrow street.
“Gossip says she hanged herself from the turret on the tower, but when you have a house like Hill House with a tower and a turret, gossip would hardly allow you to hang yourself anywhere else.”
― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House