(originally published 3/26/20)
In my July 18, 2019 post, I wrote about the 1940s Tax Assessment Photos available online for Kansas City, Missouri. If you don’t want to go back and read the earlier post, here’s the short background. In 1940, Kansas City participated in a WPA program whereby all – yes, all – of the structures in Kansas City were photographed, to establish information for the basis of assessing property taxes more accurately. The photos were produced as tiny thumbnail pictures, smaller than those on photo contact sheets, and as a result, many were lost, but a remarkable number were saved. Eventually they were digitized and you can follow the link at the bottom of this post to learn more, and search the database.
At the time of that original post I didn’t know how to incorporate photos into the post, so the only examples I could show were in the header. Now, I’m all about the photos , so this week I’m focusing only on the photos and why people are drawn to them. My categories mirror those interests. Some folks begin with a search for a photo of their own home, then the home they lived in as a kid. It grows outward from there – their friends’ houses, their school, their favorite haunts, still personal memories. For some, the interest ventures beyond the personal into a broader interest in the community. Those folks interested in change, or the lack thereof. They search for a Kansas City long gone and largely forgotten, or for hints of the old hidden behind the new facades. So this sampling of the tax photos includes all that, and ends with a smaller story hidden at the edges of the photos.
Then and Now
“Then and Now” pictures are a great way to note where changes have been dramatic, and where they have been almost nonexistent. The Westport-Plaza area has great examples of both.
Kelly’s in Westport has long held the title of the oldest building continually operating as a business. In Kansas City that is – at least mostly. Strictly speaking Kelly’s first 47 years of life were within the city limits of Westport until Kansas City annexed Westport in 1897. It is conceivable, I suppose, that there are other, older structures, but all evidence of their construction or façade has long been hidden. Not so with Kelly’s. It still sports a touch of what I’ve learned is called “Western false front commercial” design, where commercial buildings in the 19th century west had false extensions about the roofline and/or beyond the sidewalls, to make them seem more impressive. Kelly’s stair-step roofline is part of that design family, and has been for a while as evidenced by the 1940 photo. Also note that everyone knows the place as Kelly’s, it is actually Kelly’s Westport Inn, retaining something of the old there, too.
A stretch of Main Street between Westport and the Plaza shows a mix of change and continuity, and these pictures are a good example. The west side of Main Street between 43rd and Cleaver II (47th) was a strong neighborhood center. But at the north end, the buildings were small, detached buildings on lots that were mostly consumed by parking. After modern development, most recently the American Century Towers, all that’s left that’s even remotely reminiscent of the past are two unremarkable buildings just south of 43rd Street.
Just south of those buildings, along the long steep hill leading down toward Brush Creek, is a set of shops contemporary with the Plaza’s development. While the businesses aren’t strictly neighborhood-oriented these days, they’ve been consistently viable and have had notable tenants like the Blue Room and a number of restaurants, including the current Café Trio. And they have now, as they did in 1940, the benefit of a parking garage.
Then there’s the Country Club Plaza proper. From a preservationist point-of-view, probably the place in Kansas City that stirs up the greats number of advocates for maintaining the Nichols Company original vision. Yet long before post war, post Nichols Company threats arose, the Plaza had already lost its original building.
Though the Plaza as we know it wasn’t really in development until 1923, the Nichols Company started purchasing land there in 1911, and in 1917 built a home for its first tenant. Chandler Floral was a widely popular florist and nursery founded in 1909 and located in the high-end residential district of Hyde Park. It attracted the very customers the Plaza was designed to attract. The first home Nichols built for the florist stood approximately at the southwest corner of 47th Street and Mill Creek Parkway, although street alignments have changed since then. In contrast to the high standards of design for which the Plaza has come to be known, the original building was unremarkable. Its one distinction was a small suite of apartments on the second floor, the first residential property on the Plaza. In 1920, still three years before Plaza development kicked into full gear, the Nichols Company tore down that building, and built another, finer home for the business, this time reflecting the Spanish motif that would become the norm. For at least twenty years, Chandlers maintained a full greenhouse operation directly south of the floral shop. That it lasted that long is surprising given that both the type and the use of a greenhouse would have been directly in conflict with the Spanish style that had by then been well established at the Plaza. In 1967, the corner was redeveloped and the now iconic Giralda tower was constructed. Adjacent to the west, at 47th Street and Wyandotte, the Nichols Company dedicated the Chandler Court, in honor of its original tenant.
Redevelopment, changing times, and changing traditions can account for why some buildings disappear. In my random sampling of areas of town, I came across a few that caught my attention, in the Crossroads/Downtown area, in Columbus Park and in Waldo.
Decades before anyone even imagined a Sprint Center (subsequently the T-Mobile Center), the four city blocks it now covers were just a nondescript part of downtown. Covering the area between 13th and Truman Road, Grand to Oak Streets, development of the Sprint Center did eradicate many buildings that had long seen better days, and were not of particular cultural or architectural interest. The few that had once filled that bill had long since been demolished. From 1940, here are just two that do a great job of evoking their times. The Missouri Electric Store was the Apple Store of its day. Maybe more like the Best Buy. Here, in one convenient location, consumers could satisfy their dreams of all the most important electronic devices of the day, like vacuum tube radios (transistors were still to come) and the latest must-have for the American household – a television set with a 12 inch screen. Elsewhere in the block was a small unassuming restaurant that, according to the signs, served steaks and chops. It was exactly the kind of operation that did well in pre-WWII Kansas City, the kind that didn’t survive a modern world of increasing dining options, and sadly, would have fit in perfectly with the quirky milieu of today’s Crossroads District.
In contrast, Jennie’s Italian Restaurant (right, top) did survive and adapt to cultural changes between when it first opened in the late 1930s and when it closed in the late 1990s. The 1940s building was expanded, and most people who remember Jennie’s remember the expansion. Another building lost to the ages is the quirky little soda stand that used to occupy the corner of 85th & Wornall Road. It proudly boasts the sale of Cleo Cola, which I have learned was introduced by the Whistle Cola Company in 1935. Both the cola and the building are long gone.
A Glimpse of Ourselves
For the most part, those who scan the 1940s tax photos online will find them static and of modest to poor quality. So many are missing, they might not find them at all. But if you look closely, you’ll catch glimpses of Kansas City living its day-to-day 1940s life. You see the clothes we wore and the cars we drove. You might find a house under construction, or someone leaving a corner store carrying their groceries. I’ll close with one of my favorites. It’s a glimpse back in time, it’s a glimpse at our youth, and most unusual, it’s portrayed over four consecutive images.
I found this sequence while working on a book on the Greenway Fields neighborhood, just west across Wornall from the Brookside Shops. These photos were taken along 61st Terrace. Don’t let the property number sequence confuse you. The pictures as they were taken could begin anywhere on the block – backward order or forward. In this case, they were taken in descending order. Looking at this grouping, I’ve imagined the events as follows (clockwise starting Top Left):
(Top Left) As the photography crew worked its way down the block, moving from house to house, their worked attracts the attention of a group of children playing on the sidewalk on what appears to be a lovely spring or summer day.
(Top Right) The children engage one of the men in a conversation, no doubt asking, “What are you doing?” followed by “why?” then a string of random questions, as kids often do.
(Bottom Right) Our fellow has convinced the children that he and his cohort have to get back to work, and that they, the children, should “keep out of the picture, now.” The girl on the tricycle manages to sneak just inside the frame.
(Bottom Left) The smaller children have been scared off, or gave up out of boredom, but in the last picture, the older girl on the bicycle boldly rolls into frame at the last minute, taking her “glamour shot.”
For more information on the photos, go to: