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An Epic Life
By Maura McEnaney
LibertyTree PressCopyright © 2013 LibertyTree Press
All rights reserved.
EPIC ON THE PLAINS
"Why Kansas? Because it is as far as I can get from both coasts." – WWG
MORE THAN A thousand miles from the salty ocean breezes of both U.S coastlines, Wichita, Kansas, rises skyward from the vast South Central Plains.
A journey there by highway is a venture due west from the Atlantic seaboard across the muddy Mississippi at St. Louis and on to Missouri's Osage Plains to the border town of Kansas City. Once inside the Sunflower State — so named for the bounty of giant yellow blooms that prosper in the late summer's scorching heat — the renowned Kansas flatlands are overshadowed by the contrasting beauty of its Flint Hills; sprawling wheat fields begin about 50 miles northeast of town.
From the Pacific coast, a Wichita trip promises more of an adventure. Out of Los Angeles, drivers must cross California's majestic Mojave Desert and pass through the excesses of Las Vegas before hitting Utah and then the Rocky Mountains. In eastern Colorado, the land begins its descent and greets its Kansas neighbor at the appropriately named town of Kanorado. Further along on Interstate 70, the winds pick up at the town of Goodland, where less than a century ago the "good land" of the High Plains once brought prosperity to just about anybody with a tractor.
Eastward still is Colby, Kansas, a slightly larger farm town where Willard Garvey spent the first eight years of his life. Today, Colby dubs itself "The Oasis on the Plains," perhaps more for the availability of traveler services than for its geographic beauty. Architecturally, the county seat boasts the grand Thomas County Courthouse, a proud Romanesque limestone structure built with a $50,000 bond issue approved by residents in 1906 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the city's top attractions. Another is the Prairie Museum of Art and History, where visitors can see a Kansas sod house replica and get a three-dimensional view of life among prairie pioneers at the turn of the century.
In 1928, Willard's father, Ray Hugh Garvey, a county attorney turned real estate man and service station owner, left Colby's dusty dirt roads as a 35-year-old entrepreneur with a wife and four children and headed east to Wichita. They traveled about 300 miles southeast in a Dodge sedan with the hopes that a bigger community could offer more opportunities for young Ruth, Willard, James, and Olivia.
None of the Garveys would regret that decision. Wichita was good to the family, and they were good for Wichita, too. It became the center of their considerable business empire.
* * *
MODERN DAY TRAVELERS from any direction are likely to find a welcome sight in Wichita. Named for the Indian tribe that settled in the area around the junction of the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas rivers, Wichita grew first on the shoulders of the cattle trade and the farming industry before becoming best known as a home to the aircraft industry. Namesake company founders Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, and Bill Lear all called Wichita home at one time, and the city still prides itself on its "Air Capital of the World" moniker.
Aviation provides major support for the local economy, despite Chicago-based Boeing's 2012 decision to close its Wichita plant. The city is still home to Boeing parts maker Spirit Aerosystems, and by another estimate, Wichita makes nearly half of the world's general aviation airplanes.
The vitality of that business and others provides Wichita's 382,000 residents with access to the commercial conveniences and cultural amenities of most any midsize American enclave. The city is home to three colleges, more than a dozen museums, a ballet, a symphony, a horticultural center, and a zoo.
Against the brilliance of a blue summer sky or the foreboding clouds of a classic Kansas rainstorm, downtown Wichita's white buildings stand out as a collective symbol of Midwestern commerce and activity. Foremost in the group and reaching 325 feet and 22 stories into the air is the pointed copper peak of the Epic Center, the tallest building in Kansas.
To some, it may appear to be an unexceptional office tower, about one-fourth the height of New York's Empire State Building. Yet hundreds of lawyers, administrative assistants, investment bankers, and accountants travel in and out of the doors of the 300,000-square-foot building every day. At night, when the downtown neighborhood around Second and Main streets is all but abandoned, a lighted outline of the building's slanted, triangular roof is transformed into the city's true beacon, a reminder, perhaps, of the spirit of hearty Kansans who stood tall to survive the prairie's pioneering hardships.
It also recalls the impact of the man who built it. While Willard Garvey's accomplishments ranged from farming to real estate and his interests eventually extended to five continents, Wichita was always his hometown. Like the center, Garvey's life merits the term epic, with Garvey himself as its larger-than-life hero, and the story of the Epic Center reflects the quintessence of Garvey's sometimes blustery, often headstrong, and endlessly optimistic character.
* * *
WHEN SID PLATT looked at the Epic Center he thought of his friend Willard Garvey. It had been about 85 years since the two men first met in the early 1920s, as playmates during summer campouts in western Kansas. They parted ways during the college and war years but came together again as men, with Platt plying a trade in architecture and Willard following in his father's footsteps in land development and housing. During their lifetimes, the two friends joined forces on a half dozen building projects in the Wichita area. Willard even called on his friend to design the family home in 1957.
Platt, who at 90 sported the white curly hair, chiseled face, and lean build of a Roman nobleman, still drove to his appointments and spoke with the powerful and deep intonation of a seasoned radio broadcaster. His age was reflected only by his faulty hearing, which led to his retirement from architecture a decade earlier. An architect's second language is numbers, and when you can't distinguish one from the other, the results can be disastrous, he said.
Willard Garvey began his crusade to make the Epic Center come to life in the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan was in his second term as U.S. president and the country was beginning to recover from a devastating recession.
More than 50 years after moving to Wichita with his parents and siblings, Willard — a well-connected homebuilder, oil man, ranch and grain elevator operator, and owner of substantial land in and around Wichita — got word that the city's major aircraft companies were shopping for some new headquarters. At the same time, the city was trying to unload a tract of vacant land just south of City Hall. An opportunity was in the making, Willard thought.
As he so often did when mulling an idea that involved architecture and building, Garvey sought out his long-time friend at Platt, Adams, Braht, Bradley & Associates with hopes of bringing the aircraft firms downtown.
"You know, we ought to build those buildings for them," Willard told Platt.
Like so many of Willard's associates often did, Platt tried to get him to think through the idea. Talk to the aircraft companies, he said. See who might be interested in moving downtown. Secure the tenants first and then build a building; it was good advice. But Willard's mind was already made up.
"Hell, we'll just build the damn thing and then they'll come to us," he told Platt. "And while we're at it, let's do two."
The idea of building the largest single development in downtown Wichita's history at a time of uncertainty in the local and national markets was risky to say the least. But the 65-year-old Willard Garvey knew about risks. He had dodged German V-l "buzz bombs" in London in World War II. He had co-signed a $50 million personal guarantee loan with his father, whose sudden death left the entire family facing possible financial peril. He had lost plenty of money in his lifetime, and he knew that sometimes, the principle overshadows the risks.
An idea man with a lifelong dream of making Wichita a world-class city, Willard Garvey loved to think big, as long as the government wasn't involved. Attracting new companies to downtown Wichita through private efforts was the only way that could work. The city — or any public entity for that matter — did not belong in the development business, he thought. A giant new office complex in downtown Wichita could help propel a "switch from dependence on government and centralized elites." It could "revitalize individual, competitive action." It could fulfill a dream.
At Builders, Inc., the Garvey Industries real estate and construction subsidiary, managers charged with drumming up commercial development were receptive to the idea of building twin 22-story towers on 6.7 acres of prime downtown land. Under the absolutely right set of circumstances, the project could work, advisers said. Under the wrong set, the Epic Center could permanently jeopardize, or even bankrupt Builders, Inc., the business Willard's father, Ray Garvey, had started at the end of World War II.
As usual, Willard wasn't worried.
"You know, I might regret building it," he said, once board members gave the okay to the project. "But if I don't build it, I'll regret it more."
"He built because he had to build," recalled Platt. "He had to build."
Platt would eventually design the Epic Center for his friend. It would be the last project he and the businessman, developer, philanthropist, and gadfly of local renown would ever work on together.
For five years, Willard and his associates, family members, financiers, and trusted advisers endured the ups and downs of building a $28 million commercial office project. First, construction was delayed when the developers were unable to purchase an additional acre of land needed for the original four-building design. That design was later scrapped, and Platt was named architect for a new, two-building project. Project managers scrambled to get new plans and financing approved, as lost time added up to lost money.
Epic threatened the financial stability of Builders, Inc. It also threatened a friendship.
Platt remembers walking to Willard's office carrying his big roll of plans and a telephone book-size set of notes from which he would regularly update Builders' executives on the building's progress. Inevitably, the luncheon meetings erupted in arguments as Willard incessantly questioned the project's costs, design details, and decisions. One day, all that nitpicking was too much for Platt to take.
"He just started saying, 'What are you doing? What are you doing?'" Platt recalls.
"I said, 'Goddamn you Willard!' — and I threw the plans down, and the specs over in the corner. Then I said, 'Besides that, damn it, I'm not coming to any more luncheon meetings. They upset my stomach.'"
Despite the flurry of arguments, Platt and his firm successfully executed Garvey's vision, and the friendship held steady. "What we soul-searched for was Willard's idea: that it be epic," Platt told the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. "Epic, whatever that is, is a pretty big impetus. How do you make Epic on the Kansas Plains?"
The building schematics called for two identical white structures with pointed peaks, a copper roof, and eyehole windows. A tubular concrete design — borrowed directly from the design of the family's grain elevators — would help sustain the building in the face of fierce Kansas winds, giving prospective tenants a sense of security. In height and style, the modern Epic would far surpass the buildings at the nearby Garvey Center, the downtown landmark erected in the 1960s to honor Willard's parents.
On paper, the Epic Center was a winner. To help make it a reality, the city issued $28.5 million in industrial revenue bonds. It also gave Builders, Inc. a 10-year, 50 percent property tax abatement equal to $1.7 million.
But clashes with the city over the design changes, a simultaneous crash in the oil industry upon which Wichita was heavily dependent, and subsequent high office-vacancy rates all spelled trouble for the speculative development. "Sneers and snickers of skeptics and doubters in government, business, and even John Q. Public," were heard all over town, the local newspaper wrote.
The naysayers were wrong. And they were right, too. There would be an Epic Center. But there would be only one tower, plenty of bad publicity, and a forfeited deed along the way. Willard Garvey lost millions on the Epic Center and still came out a winner. He built the tallest building in Kansas, a structure that changed Wichita's skyline and created a permanent beacon for the eventual revitalization of the city's downtown.
* * *
ON NOVEMBER 12, 1987, downtown Wichita and its newest landmark were ablaze with activity as the Epic Center held its grand opening. Crowds of dignitaries and tuxedo-clad employees of Garvey's Builders, Inc., mingled as they moved between floors, where international foods and entertainment were offered. On the top at floor 22, a costumed King Kong hammed it up with guests for the camera.
"There was a festive air about the whole event," said Bonnie Bing, the social scene columnist for the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. "It was just a big party."
On this night, 67-year-old Garvey, his family, and fellow employees were celebrating more than just the completion of another project. They were heralding a vision and a dream come true. Tonight, the entire city was celebrating with them. Everyone who laid eyes on the building was proud of the end result. The Epic Center is "as strong as it is spectacular," the newspaper proclaimed.
The celebration would not be long-lived. In its first two years, the building — which carried a $26 million, 11.25 percent loan from the Alaska Permanent Fund and the Boeing Retirement Fund — was about 40 percent vacant, double the vacancy rate for all of downtown. Some said the building "flooded an already overbuilt commercial real estate market." When the tenants never materialized, Builders, Inc. was left paying the bills, incurring a $100,000 monthly shortfall.
Parent company Garvey Industries tolerated the losses for two years. In 1989, the building was turned over to the lenders, in accordance with the "non-recourse loan" that protected Willard and his companies from further financial obligations. The Epic Center still stood tall, but Willard was out almost $5 million in the process.
"In hindsight, that was quite foolish," Willard said later. "We were trying to do something for downtown Wichita. ... I intended to put $3 million into it. But I made a $5 million mistake instead of a $3 million mistake."
Twenty-five years after the Epic's grand opening, those mistakes have long been erased. The building, with its mellowed copper roofline pointing heavenward, still defines the Wichita skyline. Embracing the Kansas state motto "Ad astra per aspera," meaning "To the stars, through difficulties," Willard Garvey turned an empty lot into a towering presence of business opportunity that rises above the municipal buildings at its feet. He built it — with or without profit — because he had to build it, as a symbol of individual, competitive action and private enterprise in a city he loved dearly.CHAPTER 2
DOWN ON THE FARM
"I have been most fortunate – particularly in the selection of my parents." – WWG
THERE WAS NO such thing as a skyline when eight-year-old Willard Garvey and his siblings first laid eyes on their new hometown of Wichita.
When the Garvey family pulled into the city of more than 100,000 in 1928, the Roaring Twenties were in full swing, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis had successfully landed in Paris the year before, and aviation was all the rage. In the air, there were Wichita-made biplanes from the E.M. Laird Co. and Travel Air, headed by Walter Beech. There were monoplanes from Cessna Aircraft Co. with instructors from the city's thirteen flying schools. On the ground there were streetcars, shiny new Model A Fords, flashing theater marquees, department stores, and a massive exhibition hall.
Even the rivers were full of activity. On the weekends, the banks of the Little Arkansas River near Murdock and Waco streets were full of spectators, some of whom lingered beneath the Corinthian-columned porches of the Riverside Boat Company, as canoeists navigated the shallow waterway beneath them. On the opposite side of the river, youngsters perched on a brick wall abutment to watch the boaters and even a few swimmers enjoying the water.
"It was a big deal coming from Colby to Wichita," Willard recalled years later. "You had a swimming pool and crafts and camps and all the good things. I was pretty excited about it."
Excerpted from Willard Garvey by Maura McEnaney. Copyright © 2013 LibertyTree Press. Excerpted by permission of LibertyTree Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1. Epic on the Plains,
CHAPTER 2. Down on the Farm,
CHAPTER 3. Training Ground,
CHAPTER 4. Recipe for War,
CHAPTER 5. "We're in It. Let's Win It.",
CHAPTER 6. A Lifetime Devotion,
CHAPTER 7. Father and Son,
CHAPTER 8. Our Fellow of Perpetual Motion,
CHAPTER 9. Growing Up Garveys,
CHAPTER 10. Wheat for Homes: Every Man a Capitalist,
CHAPTER 11. The Doers and the Thinkers,
CHAPTER 12. Don't Fence Me In,
CHAPTER 13. Willard's Wichita,
CHAPTER 14. Final Challenges,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,