(originally published 8/15/19)
“I can’t think of another piece of landscape of similar size where so many things have happened that have been of significance in the story of America.” That quote, from Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, referred to Jackson County, Missouri. But it’s a phrase that always comes to mind when I think of Loose Park, the community park that sits on the bluffs just south of the Country Club Plaza, near 51st and Wornall Road. If Jackson County encapsulates so much of America’s history, so too does Loose Park capture so much of Kansas City’s.
In fairness, most of the history layered into Loose Park’s soil has nothing to do with the property as a park that opened in 1927. And those layers account only for the history of settlement; they say nothing about events before white men came to the area as missionaries and traders. But consider this: beginning in 1831, the Loose Park site and dozens of acres around it were first a missionary settlement, and after, the first steps south along the Santa Fe Trail, the homestead of storied frontiersman William Bent, a Civil War battlefield, a cow pasture, and by 1897, a golf course.
But even with all that history, the creation of Loose Park is arguably the most important event of all.
The roots of the park begin with its life as a pasture belonging to Seth Ward, who had acquired the property in 1871, following William Bent’s death. Ward was a self-made man. He spent his youth in the west, working as a trapper, a trader, and a sutler at Fort Laramie. In mid-life he married a woman from Westport with no interest in frontier living. Ward bought the 450 acres from Bent, operating it as a farm, and moved in his wife and their seven year old son, Hugh, from his father-in-law’s home in Westport.
Ward had made enough money over the years, and had married into a prominent enough local family, to ensure his son’s life would be nothing like his own. Hugh Ward was part of the first generation of Kansas City scions, young men whose families had either built their wealth from the bottom up, or had come here from the east to capitalize on the city’s new industrial economy. Hugh was a Harvard educated lawyer and businessman. By the time he and his friends built their first golf course in Hyde Park in 1896, he was only thirty two, had already served in the state legislature and was only two years away from an appointment as the City’s Police Commissioner. The country club was originally just an informal 9-hole golf course, but as development closed in, it was impractical. The elder Ward leased the northeast corner of his pasture to the club. The property already had a small lake, so the club incorporated it into its permanent golf course, adding a club house, and a polo field.
When his father died in 1903, Hugh took over the property and the lease of the club. Shortly thereafter, he met a young man developing real estate just to the east of the new country club. He knew young J.C. Nichols was calling his development the “Country Club District,” unapologetically associating his housing with the Kansas City Country Club. It seems fitting, then, that Ward hired him to develop the property around the country club into high-end residential homes. It would be the only time Nichols would develop housing for anyone other than his own company. The subdivision was named Sunset Hill, and in 1908, the Ward Investment Company announced the parcels were available for development. Sunset Hill immediately became one Kansas City’s preferred address for the up and coming men and their families.
The project launched the career of Nichols, and through Ward, it also connected him to city leaders who would be vital to his long-term success. The development eventually made Hugh Ward’s heirs wealthy as well, but Hugh Ward died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1909, at the age of 45. His fortune, including the country club property and the assets of Sunset Hill, went to his young widow, Vassie James Ward.
In 1921, Mrs. Ward became Mrs. Albert Ross Hill. Hill, a former president of the University of Missouri, was interested in developing more high-end residential housing on his new bride’s available property, specifically the land leased to the Kansas City Country Club. The Hills informed the club the lease would not be renewed when it expired in five years. When they finally had control of the property, they contacted Nichols about serving as developer. Nichols declined. By the mid-1920s, the housing market was already declining, and would soon burst. Regardless, Nichols told them the local high-end housing market was saturated. Finding buyers would be difficult. The Hills were not happy. There was no tenant on the property, and now there would be no profit made on the property.
It was J.C. Nichols who struck the deal that created Loose Park. Jacob Loose had been the co-founder of the bakery that later became the Sunshine Biscuit Company, and in so doing amassed a substantial fortune. He and his wife Ella had no children, but were active supporters of many local causes, including the Gillis Home for Children and Children’s Mercy Hospital. Jacob Loose died in 1923, and so J.C. Nichols saw a good opportunity to approach Ella Loose about purchasing the property to donate to the city as a park. Everyone benefited. Mrs. Loose agreed, and created a lasting tribute to her husband. The Hills got their cash, and Nichols created one of the most important amenities in the Country Club District, without having to invest a dime of his own money to do it.
Loose Park officially opened in 1927, still looking more like a golf course than a municipal park. But in the early years, improvements came steadily. The club house was replaced with a shelter near the park entrance on Wornall Road. In 1931, a group of women led by Laura Conyers Smith established the Kansas City Rose Society to build a formal rose garden in the park. The Laura Conyers Smith Rose Garden was designed by the landscape architectural firm of Hare & Hare. With time, the Kansas City Rose Society periodically expanded and improved the rose garden through their own fundraising efforts, and it remains the principal steward of the garden to this day.
When Ella Loose deeded the property back to the city, she added use conditions in the deed that prohibited sports and playground-type activities. But by the late 1930s, in response to the changing needs of the community, she rescinded those restrictions. The tennis courts on the west side were added in 1939, and in 1941 the playground area at the north end of the park was built. Both have been updated since their original installations. In 1948 a band shell was built for the concerts that had been a feature of the park since its early days. It was intentionally built as a temporary structure that would have been made permanent once funding was available. The funding was never approved, and after some time the band shell and amphitheater seating were removed.
From the 1940s through the early 1960s, many considered it a post-holiday tradition to bring a Christmas tree to the park for a large community bonfire. It was the same era when there was also community controversy over the Loose Park pond and its ducks. Residents in the area, particularly those on Wornall Road, considered the ducks to be pests on a par with rats, but noisier. They decried the noise, the smell, the waste, the trash left behind by humans who insisted on feeding them, and the fact that the birds multiplied beyond the city’s apparent ability to control them. Over the years, the city tried several tactics, some of which are best left undescribed here. Not surprisingly, the community’s fondness for the ducks eventually outweighed local complaints, and somehow, the city has noiw managed the proliferation of ducks at Loose Park for many years.
The international spotlight fell on Loose Park in 1978 when environmental artist Christo chose it as a site for one of his “wrapped” installations. Wrapped Walkways covered 2.7 miles of pathways around and through Loose Park in 135,000 square feet of saffron-colored nylon fabric. The exhibit lasted for only two weeks in October.
I said in the beginning that the creation of Loose Park was arguably the most important event that happened on a site where there is so much history. Had Vassie Ward Hill had her way, and had J.C. Nichols been less savvy, the acreage would have been plowed and prepped for housing development. Any traces of history would be buried beneath the houses, as it is in the blocks surrounding the park where development happened before history could be captured.
But today, there is an interpretive display at the park’s south end that describes the Battle of Westport. There are still traces off swales carved by pioneer wagon wheels. The lake remains as a reminder of the golf course. And although much has been changed about the park land itself, it is still possible to wander into the center of the park with its long stretches of lawn, clusters of trees and rolling hills and get a sense of what the land looked like 150 years ago or more, a rare sight in this heavily developed part of the city.
I am a dedicated picnicker, and Loose Park is my favorite spot for it. Sitting at one of the old, round picnic tables, enjoying a glass of wine while the sunset silhouettes the surrounding trees, I am content to watch my fellow Kansas Citians enjoy the park in their own ways. And I reflect on the fact that what once started as a park for an exclusive part of the city is today among the most egalitarian places I know, where I invariably see people of all ages, races, languages and incomes find a place for playing, eating or just relaxing, making a kind of history of their own.
(Featured Photo: The Loose Park pond has been a feature of the park when the park was still the Kansas City Country Club. In more contemporary times, the signature fountain and the bridge were added.)