Kansas City Park Series – #5 (Final): Swope Park – A Park for the Whole City

(originally published 8/29/19)

Kansas Citians started asking for city parks around the mid 1870s, which makes sense, considering that this was the beginning of Kansas City’s railroad, stockyard and industrial growth. The city’s population was growing, too, so much so that any sense of open space in Kansas City’s early footprint (today’s downtown and old northeast) was quickly disappearing.

Kansas City was one of several emerging western cities where interest in parks was growing – the eastern cities were already “civilized.” Kansas City was competing with Denver and Omaha and Dallas and all the other trans-Mississippi cities coming of age in the late 1800s. They were competing for investment by eastern money. It was this need to pander to an eastern sensibility that infiltrated the post-cowboy west, raising the demand on cities to be modern, cultured and beautiful.

The seeds of the City Beautiful movement had started in more mature eastern cities hoping to remedy the effects of blight and poverty that came with the growth from decades before. The western cities, on the other hand, were not as fully formed. The mistakes of the past weren’t old enough to be entrenched or without remedy. Those western cities were in a unique position to take advantage of this progressive approach to civic improvement, and each chose their own path.

Kansas City’s approach was particularly clever. It chose to create a city park system that would fulfill the progressive moment’s ideals about using public spaces, buildings and landscapes to engender a greater sense of “civic virtue” among the citizenry. But it would also accomplish two additional and vital purposes. A city with parks, boulevards and great public spaces was attractive to the wealthy investors of the east. This was a signal of civility, and therefore stability, a trait that attracts money like a magnet. Equally important to both the new money and those already here, the parks plan would of necessity also organize property values and spur investment. The plan not only made the whole city seem more stable, but the individual tracts adjacent to the parks became inherently more stable and worthy of investments in development. Kansas City’s City Beautiful project wasn’t just a vision for the future, it was money in the bank for “today.”

But while the interest in a parks system may have been there in the 1870s, the political will was not – at least not completely. That would take another twenty years. There were lots of reasons for the delay. There was the matter of passing an amendment to the city chart to empower a park board. There were state legislative actions, and counter rulings by the state courts. There were editorial arguments, political wrangling and public protestations on both sides.

But what does all this have to do with the history of Swope Park?

The Swope Memorial, overlooking Swope Park, facing west.

“Colonel” Thomas J. Swope, the local real estate magnate who was the largest individual land owner in Kansas City in the 1890s, was among the most vocal and steadfast opponents of the proposed-but-yet-to-be-defined Kansas City park system. He repeatedly and publicly decried it as a way for the city to generate additional taxes. And with all his assets, Swope was tired of taxes.

Swope’s relentless opposition continued well after the city’s park commission released the first phase of its plan in 1893. Yet, in 1896, Swope suddenly donated the original 1300+ acres for Swope Park. Despite the fact that the land was at the time miles from the city with no roads or streetcar lines connecting it to the city, Swope’s donation did more to stoke civic enthusiasm for the parks system than anything else the parks board might have done. Upon the announcement, June 25, 1896 was declared a city holiday, and a parade was organized to proceed to the park for a celebration, led by the band of the Missouri Third Regiment. Without those roads or streetcar lines to get them there, an estimated 18,000 Kansas Citians – walking, on horseback or by wagon – joined the procession to the park.

The story that Kansas City generally tells about this chapter of its history tends to gloss over the motives behind Swope’s surprising move, thinly implying it was a change of heart by a man in his seventies contemplating his legacy. That’s certainly possible and may have played a part. But Swope’s actions then and later would indicate there had been no change of heart. At the time, there were those who quietly accused Swope of taking advantage of the system he berated. By donating the land to the city, he no longer had to pay taxes on it, and the city no longer received his tax dollars. Surely Swope would have seen that as a double win.

Then, too, there’s the fact that as the city acquired (or tried to acquire) other lands to be converted into parks, Swope would find ways to bring objections to the city for this reason or that. He would manage to slow down the process, and create the delays he would later cite in public statements decrying the city’s lack of progress in creating parks as proof of a city “bamboozle” to divert tax dollars.

Despite those efforts, the parks system continued to evolve. By the time the 1909 phase of the plan was revealed, and even though Swope Park was still remote from the city and the other parks in the plan, it was connected to the city by new roads and streetcar connections. As many know, Swope died in 1909, at the age of 81, presumably murdered by his nephew-in-law (who was also his doctor) for his fortune. That story has been well documented and won’t be covered here (for now!).

But Swope Park would go on to have its own history separate and apart from the Swope’s legacy. Now, considering the level of research I’m able to devote to each of these pieces – writing one a week – the rest of Swope Park’s history that I’ve gathered reads best as a timeline of events, with a few comments laid in. So here’s a timeline describing how Swope Park evolved from its original 1300 acres of meadows, forests and Blue River backwaters in 1896, to the centerpiece of the city’s park system today.

Suspension Bridge Over the Blue River (courtesy MVSC, KC Public Library)

1897 – The city begins a two-year survey of the park property.

1898 – George Kessler, architect of the master city park plan, finishes a plan specifically for Swope Park.

1899 – The park board appropriates the first funding for Swope Park; the city persuades the Kansas City Interurban Railway Company to connect the park to the rail system.

1905 – Following three years of designing and one year of construction, the park’s Grand Entrance at Swope Parkway and Meyer Boulevard is completed. This includes Shelter No. 1 (today’s Interpretive Center), just inside the entrance, built on the park’s highest elevation. A year later, sunken gardens, terraces and a refreshment building were added. This was also the year that the park’s first greenhouse was built, and a nursery covering 35 acres of the park.

1907 – The suspension bridge that originally connected the two sides of the park bisected by the Blue River is completed. Today, the bridge connects the two sides of the zoo area.

1908 – Near the intersection of Gregory Boulevard and Oldham Road, Lake of the Woods is completed.

1909 – The first building of the Swope Park Zoo (now Kansas City Zoo) is dedicated as the “Bird and Carnivora House. “

1911 – A new golf course is opened south of the original which had been adjacent to the zoo. The relocation was in response to complaints from zoo visitors forced to dodge golf balls shanked in their direction.

1912 – Features are added to the Lagoon, originally completed in 1909. The new features include boat rentals and a public bathing beach.

1915 – A flagpole donated by Jacob Loose is dedicated. At 200 feet high, it was at the time considered the highest unguided flagpole in America. Shortly thereafter, wind knocked off the top 15 feet. When a small aircraft struck the pole in 1931, killing one passenger, the pole was permanently reduced to 175 feet.

1916 – The pavilion just east of the main entrance is completed.

1918 – The newly completed Swope Memorial sits on the bluffs on the east side of the Blue River, with a commanding west-facing view of the park. Thomas Swope, having died in 1909, is finally laid to rest in the mausoleum that is the centerpiece of the memorial.

1922 – When a fire consumes the clubhouse at the second golf course, the course is moved again, adjacent on the north to the Swope Memorial. In 1934, the course itself will be redesigned by famed course architect A.W. Tillinghast, and in 1949 the course becomes the only course in the Kansas City area ever to host a PGA tournament.

Swope Park Pool, circa late 1940s. Courtesy MVSC, KC Public Library.

1941 – The original Swope Park Swimming Pool opens, a 105’ x 60’ facility that could accommodate 3,000 swimmers. Originally a “whites-only” pool, the policy was officially challenged in 1951 when six African Americans were denied admittance. The pool was closed during the years the litigation continued, until 1954 when the park board announced that admittance to the pool would not be denied on the basis of race.

1950 – Though not yet fully completed, Starlight Theatre opens with its inaugural performance, “Thrills of a Century,” a tribute to Kansas City’s 100th anniversary. The theatre facility was designed by famed architect Edward Buehler Delk, who also created the master plan for the Country Club Plaza.

Starlight Theatre, 1959. Courtesy MVSC KC Public Library.

Late 1950s (circa) – Facilities for residential camps are built at the Lake of the Woods, The parks department runs regular youth camp programs, one a general recreational program, the other focused on environmental science. The camps are known respectively as Camp Lake of the Woods and Camp Hope. The programs run through the 1960s to the 1980s.

1968 (circa) – The park opens the Lakeside Nature Center as a place for the study of local flora and fauna.

1981 – The Swope Park Disc Golf Course opens

2003 – After 25 years, Kansas City Community Gardens moves from 22nd and Brooklyn to Swope Park, allowing for an expansion of facilities and programs.

2008 – The Battle of Westport Museum opens in the Interpretive Center ( Shelter No. 1) near the park entrance.

2010 – The newly built Southeast Community Center replaces a center built in the 1950s, and provides a range of community services including exercise facilities and a swimming pool.

2014 – Seven years after its dedication, all the facilities for the Swope Park Soccer Village are completed.

During those more recent decades, on dates not readily documented, Swope Park expanded or improved its athletic fields (basketball courts, tennis courts and ball diamonds), added an equestrian center, opened a demonstration garden with the Kansas City Master Gardeners, and created an ERTA-certified mountain bike trail. And these are just the more visible improvements.

Over the years, almost 500 acres have been added to Swope Park, taking it to just a hair over 1,800 acres. For all the activities available in the park – sports, nature, entertainment, history and more – after 120+ years, most of those 1800 acres remain either undeveloped or underdeveloped. That’s not a bad thing – much of the beauty of the park lives in the many places where it is possible to go and be so surrounded by nature that the city seems far away. But to the casual observer, say the suburbanite who comes to the park only a couple of times a year at most, perhaps for the zoo or Starlight, much of Swope Park can look wild, and therefore dangerous. I would be surprised to learn that much more than 10 percent of Kansas Citians have ever been to Swope Park to visit anything but its two most famous – and well controlled – attractions.

That’s a shame. Don’t get me wrong – I love the zoo and Starlight, and am so grateful they are there to draw folks into Swope Park. And if that’s all anyone ever sees of the park, that’s better than nothing. But all city parks need advocates. Small parks serving residential areas can usually can find them in neighbors. But Swope Park is a park meant to serve the entire city, and without the entire city’s advocacy, it’s very much in danger of falling even farther behind in maintenance. Forget about improvements and new features. So if you live here in the Kansas City area, and have never explored Swope Park, I encourage you to do so. I promise you won’t be alone, and you’ll find more than enough to do.

Note: For this post I’m particularly indebted to two publications that provided me with a lot of good background information, and most of the milestones included in the timeline. They are:

A City Within a Park: One Hundred Years of Parks and Boulevards in Kansas City, Missouri, by Jane Mobley and Nancy Whitnell Harris

https://www.amazon.com/City-Within-Park-Boulevards-Missouri/dp/0932845525

Kansas City’s Parks and Boulevards, by Patrick Alley and Dana Boley

https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467112598

(Featured Photo: The Swope Park Lagoon. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, KC Public Library. )

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