1950: Kansas City’s Centennial Report

(originally published 1/2/20)

I found a booklet some years ago in a flea market somewhere in town, the “City Manager’s Centennial Year Report.” It was published in 1950, the 100th anniversary of the city’s original charter, and throughout the year, the city celebrated at every turn, and dozens of books and stories were published about the city’s history. The Centennial Report covers the accomplishments of the city but with a helping of post-1950s predictions for Kansas City’s future. So I figured 70 years later, it would be interesting to see which projects have stood the test of time, and which haven’t, and which (if any) of the predictions offered have even remotely proved right.

The Context

Kansas City’s charter requires the production of an annual report. Judging by the city’s website, today’s annual report is told by graphs and charts with little verbiage. Back in 1950, such reports were slick-stock, full-color booklets, filled more with narrative and images than statistics. Interesting, then, that the modern report is called the Popular Annual Financial Report. Here, “popular” describes the report’s intended audience, the general populace. Accessibility is a laudable goal, but the report’s larger purpose is to engender interest and support among the populace. In my experience, a stirring story beats graphs and charts any day.

In 1950, Kansas City issued a particularly special annual report – the City Manager’s Centennial Year Report, marking the 100th anniversary of Kansas City’s organizing as the Town of Kansas. (In 1853, the city was granted a Council-Mayor Charter and changed its name to the City of Kansas.) The report provides a concise history of the city and its departments, and finishes with a discussion of (then) recent efforts and the programs planned for the near-term. In 1950, there were many such projects, thanks to a massive 1947 bond package approved by voters, who also approved a similar package for Jackson County. The city’s part was $41 million.

L.P. Cookingham, circa 1945

The report comes not only at the 100th anniversary of the city, but midway into what is often called the “Cookingham Era” of city government. Laurie Perry Cookingham (often referred to as L. Perry or L.P.) immediately succeeded Henry McElroy, the hand-picked city manager puppet of Boss Tom Pendergast. At the end of the Pendergast era, McElroy resigned in 1939, shortly before his death, and Pendergast pled guilty to tax evasion in 1940. That same year, the newly elected reform city council hired Cookingham as City Manager as one of its first pieces of business. During his nearly 20 years at City Hall, Cookingham tackled major reforms, rescued the city from $20 million debt caused by the Pendergast patronage system, oversaw annexations that doubled the city’s size, managed the devastating effects of the 1951 flood, led the effort for the construction of a new airport and played an important role in the planning of the area’s federal highway system. Further, his approach to professional city management made Cookingham personally and Kansas City as a municipality symbols of the “modern” method of public administration – the council/manager form of government.

The Content

The segments of report are defined by the city’s primary functions – administration, public works, parks department, fire department, public protection, public service, health, and welfare. In each, the report highlights milestone accomplishments over that first 100 years, and concludes with a paragraph about future plans. The pages are filled with wonderful color and black & white photographs, some of which are gems. When you look at old KC photos as often as I do, you are less and less likely to find new ones, but most I saw I hadn’t seen before, and I’m sharing the best of those here.

The following are some of the more interesting of the plans and projects laid out for Kansas City, when $41 million could theoretically buy you a whole lot of stuff. The city used a framework of three major programs, “Tomorrow’s Big Three.” The first two, the newly annexed portions of Clay County and the Northeast Industrial District (just across the river from the Clay County property) were the big areas targeted for comprehensive development, and the $41 million bond fund was the third. As the list reveals, the Northeast and Clay County initiatives used a good portion of the bond fund, but there was a long list of other projects the fund supported outside those areas. Most of the projects support ongoing maintenance or system upgrades. Lack of both time and space keeps me from confirming whether each of these projects was completed as expected. But there are a few that are unique, recognizable successes.

Nearing completion in 1950, this stretch of Southwest Trafficway is ready to cross over Southwest Boulevard and the Westside area as it heads south. The downtown skyline is visible in the upper right.

Public Works highlighted the acquisition and remodel of the old Milwaukee Road Bridge, transforming it into the Chouteau Bridge of today. No cost was given for the bridge, but another $4 million was allocated for improving overall traffic access to the area. Also included were “plans for a vast new industrial district with a residential area nearby serviced by Kansas City’s streets, sewers and bridges made possible by Kansas City’s foresight.” It’s not clear if the residential area is in the same northeast industrial – Clay County target area.

In this earlier rendering of the Starlight Theatre entrance, the basic form resembles the final product, but the facade detail is much different. Edward Delk, who was the master designer of the Country Club Plaza, was the architect.

The Park Department spoke generally about new park and playground facilities that would serve neighborhoods throughout the entire city, but it was most enthusiastic about the construction underway for Starlight Theatre in Swope Park. Construction was completed in 1951.

For both the Fire Department and the Public Protection Department (including police), the bond fund would supply new technology (radio systems) and replace police and fire stations so outmoded that renovation was more expensive than replacement. Fire stations I am familiar with that fit this period are near Wornall & 77th, on Swope Parkway near Blue Parkway, and the home of Planet Sub near 49th& Main. On the subject of the police department, the Public Protection Department section pointedly reminded the reader and the State of Missouri that “although Kansas City does not control the police force which she supports, she intends to see that all of her public protection agencies have the best possible equipment and the utmost cooperation from the City government in good law enforcement.”

In 1950, the Public Service Department was a mixed bag of leftover functions, including the Water Department, the Municipal Auditorium facility and the Aviation Department. The Water and the Aviation Department plans are worth noting, each for its own reason. The major achievement of the Water Department was eliminating almost 30% of its workforce and with other changes, reducing the department’s budget needs by more than $500,000 a year. The Aviation Department boldly listed their plans to invest in the Municipal Airport (Wheeler Downtown Airport) and the Grandview Airport, given to the city by the federal government after World War II. But at the same time, the city was considering plans that argued against those improvements in favor of a new airport. By 1953, those plans were beginning to be accepted and turned into plans for what would become the first iteration of KCI.

1950 – The City Market was a working fresh food market, not as quaint as the weekend shopping destination it has become. Food safety here was a real issue until the Health Department was involved.

Where most department plans are presented as keeping Kansas City on the forefront of modern, the Health Department’s plans are more grounded in the basic needs, and reveal local issues that seem of another time. Its report reveals how new the city’s ordinances and programs were in areas like food safety and industrial hygiene. To convince the reader of recent progress, it cites the Rodent Control Ordinance that was passed in 1946 in response to finding rats bearing fleas capable of spreading typhus. Then there’s mention of the 1949 fly eradication program, again to prevent disease. For the future, the department hoped for things which would seem minimal requirements today – like air-conditioning in surgical wards to reduce the danger of infection.

For a time, the Welfare Department’s programs included the Penn Valley Veteran’s Housing Project, one of nine such projects in the city.which together provided 489 units for 2000 persons. This group consisted of 60 units for 240 persons. This site is now home to ball fields.

In 1910, Kansas City was the first city in the country to create a Board of Public Welfare, designed to address problems of the day, which like today, included poverty, homelessness, child welfare, mental health and similar needs of the city’s most vulnerable citizens. In the era of Pendergast, the various departments under the Board were among those most abused by Pendergast’s patronage system, and the whole concept lost credibility in the community. By 1950, the tide had turned in the department’s favor once more, and it was in the midst of rebuilding. The Welfare Department’s big project was renovation and expansion of the Municipal Farm. Recidivism was a large part of the department’s concerns, which is no doubt why some of the bond funds were committed to that purpose. As the department’s report said, “Kansas Citians have voted to spend bond money to build up the Municipal Farm, so that its rehabilitation program may reclaim delinquent citizens.”

The most fitting conclusion I can offer is this note from Mayor W.H. Kemp that opens the report. It may be quaint in its language, but it resonates with me in its respect for stewardship.

To the Citizens of Kansas City

I am proud to forward to you this story of your City. In the century just past, you and those who went before you have built a remarkable City. As cities go, Kansas City was a child prodigy. In her earliest years she did a fantastic business and became a leader in the family of cities. Others, buffeted by flood or epidemic, or both, never have reached maturity. Some withered and died because they had no will to live. Some survived disaster but lacked the vital spark to grow. But Kansas City lived and grew. While most cities were pinching tax dollars, Kansas City was spending millions to build a park and boulevard system designed for generations yet unborn. Tomorrow was ever in her mind. Today, we who have been elected to office have a tremendous responsibility to the citizens of the future. We have no right to squander our fathers’ wealth or build for ourselves alone. We must provide for the needs of tomorrow. In that spirit Kansas City has grown and will continue to grow.

The chapter opening illustration for the Administration Department report in the Centennial Report. Author’s collection.

(Featured Photo: A stamp commemorating Kansas City’s 100th anniversary. )

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