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After a 53-year Run, an Overland Park, Kansas Landmark --
the White Haven Motor Lodge -- Quietly Closes

By Dawn Bormann and Brad Cooper, The Kansas City Star, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 25, 2010 --After a 53-year run, an Overland Park landmark -- the White Haven Motor Lodge -- quietly closed on Wednesday.

The motel and its iconic neon sign has served as a beacon to travelers since 1957.

Now the owners plan a huge auction that will include everything from the massive sign to the motel contents -- ornate dressers, wrought iron luggage stands and brass "Do not disturb" signs.

"Wall to wall -- inside and out -- everything that we can sell will be sold," said Anne Smith of A. Smith Auction Group. "It's a two-day auction. It's going to be huge."

The auction is set for July 1 and 2 at the motel.

On Friday, a motel clerk confirmed that the business closed on Wednesday.

"Just closing due to an economy that will no longer support the business," the clerk said.

Former co-owner Esther White didn't need the new owner to tell her that her beloved family business had closed for good. She and her brother-in-law sold the family business nearly two years ago, but she drives by every day on her way to church.

"They had a no vacancy sign, and there were no cars. I know the hotel business," she said. "It just brought tears to my eyes. It was my life."

Yet the news didn't entirely shock her. She knows how the economy has taken a toll on the motel and hotel business.

"I think it's just the way the world is right now. There's no more salesmen and that's what we relied on," Esther White said. "It was just wonderful. We had the good years."

Her brother-in-law and co-owner Gene White said chain hotels flooded the market.

"We put it on the market because it was getting to be marginal whether or not we were making any money," Gene White said.

He said developers bought the motel and other property nearby for the land investment. Once the property was sold he expected that the motel his family built would be torn down.

The new owner, listed as Metcalf LLC, could not be reached immediately for comment.

Under the White's ownership, the motel gained a strong reputation as a family-run operation. Customers occasionally call Esther White at home to inquire about her.

It's no wonder. The family has been known to clear car windshields of snow, repair vehicles and open up their home to good customers with no other place to stay.

"We were family to them. If they were sick we took them to the hospital," she said. "Some of these people stayed with us 25, 30 years. It was family and when they walked in, they were family."

The White family had offers long before they sold. The motel sits on prime real estate in one of Overland Park's main commercial corridors. But selling the property meant putting several family members out of work.

Eventually Esther and Gene White decided the time was right. They sold before real estate prices plummeted.

Local leaders were disappointed but not surprised when they learned about the closure.

"For many, many people who frequented the area it really was a home away from home, and the White family's attention made it that way," said Ed Eilert, former longtime Overland Park mayor and now a Johnson County Commissioner.

"It used to be you could drive by the White Haven at any time of day or night and there were no vacancies. They had a large number of repeat business," he said.

"It's always sad to see a longstanding business -- and one that really helped put Overland Park on the map -- leave or not be able to continue," Eilert said. "For many, many people who knew where Overland Park was, it was a because of the White Haven motel."

For Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach, the hotel took him back to days going to downtown Overland Park as he grew up.

"As long as I've lived around here and went to downtown Overland Park, I remember the White Haven," Gerlach said. "It was an instrumental part of downtown Overland Park.'

Gerlach said the White family relied more on good customer service in getting word out about their hotel than on mass advertising.

"Once people stayed there, they told other people how nice it was and how friendly it was," Gerlach said. "It was like going home."

At least in the short term, losing the hotel leaves a hole in the downtown area, Gerlach said.

"You hate to lose a property like a hotel in middle of downtown," he said. "It really helped our downtown area.

Overland Park City Councilman Curt Skoog also was sad to hear about the motel's closing.

"It's been part of Overland Park since its beginning," Skoog said. "It was just a matter of time unfortunately."

The idea of selling off such historic memorabilia is sad for Smith as well.

"That hotel has had such an impact on thousands of people over the years," Smith said. "It's not like going to a Ramada Inn. It was a true family business. I never stayed there personally but from what everybody said, they catered to everybody in such a family way. That's what you hate to see leave."

Her company is prepping the items for auction. She said the owners wanted to move on the auction quickly.

"They just simply decided that when it was time to do this, they wanted it done," Smith said.

The auction will not only include the items inside the 77 hotel rooms, but also the apartments and houses that the White Haven rented to customers.

Almost everything will go to the highest bidder. The list includes things like lawn mowers, service carts, a gazebo, televisions, beds, fixtures, statues, urns, the boiler and a weather vane that sits atop the building. Decor ranging from drapes that appear to date back to the '50s, artwork and bedspreads will hit the auction block as well.

A few items like the motel doors and wrought iron fence around the pool must stay to keep the property safe.

While it's sad to lose a city landmark, Smith points out that customers will get the rare chance to take a piece of nostalgia with them.

"It will be hard because you just hate to see these historic landmarks go, but on the other hand it will be interesting to see who wants what," Smith said.

The motel building itself is not for sale, but Smith could not say what plans the owners had for it.

If Esther White had her way, the building would be torn down quickly. She drives by three times a day and the sight can be heartbreaking.

"It's like (watching) someone getting sick," she said.

The building is filled with nostalgia for some, to be sure. But Gene White has no intention of attending the auction.

"I'm just going to look the other way," he said.

Curiously, the closure doesn't cause him any regrets.

"I'm not sorry I sold it because heavens I'm 72 anyway. You can't go on forever," he said.

And Esther White agrees. She knows her family misses the business, but the time was right to move on.

"We had the most glorious times," White said. "We had, I'd say, close to 50 years of the greatest business in the world."

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Auctioneers plan to sell the motel contents on Thursday and the outside items including the sign on Friday. To see pictures of the auction items go to www.asmithauctiongroup.com

To reach Dawn Bormann, call 816-234-7704 or send e-mail to dbormann@kcstar.com. To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send e-mail to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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To see more of The Kansas City Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kansascity.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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