Locked in a Forgotten Safe

(KC 1900 Series: # 1)


During a recent audit and survey of the Municipal Auditorium, there came to our attention an old safe in the control room. The combination was not available and no one appeared to be familiar with its contents. It was deemed advisable to have this safe opened and an inspection made of its contents.

            It was found to contain all of the original records of the “Kansas City Convention Hall Building Co., 1897 to 1936.” The contents were inventoried and brought to the City Auditor’s Office for analysis and disposition. These official records include the Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, Minute Books, Stock Certificate records, ledgers, contracts, etc. Newspaper clippings were arranged in ten large scrapbooks. Also available were hundreds of excellent photos of the old building and the attractions which used it. All of these records covered the period between 1897 and 1936, and are now available because of the foresight and care of Louis W. Shouse, who, for the life of the Building Company, was its Secretary and General Manager. A copy of a summary of the inventory is attached.

            These records being 40 to 50 years old, we deemed them to be of great value as they portray a colorful era in the history of Kansas City, as most of the public events were held in old “Convention Hall.” A summary of the more important of these is attached. It will be noted the list contains two national political conventions – the Democratic National Convention in 1900 and the Republican National Convention in 1928; the second historic national convention of the America Legion, when Marshal Foch of France, Admiral Beatty of England, General Diaz of Italy, and our own General Pershing were distinguished guests; the first Boy Scouts’ exhibition, the first Mayor’s Christmas tree; the first Kansas City Automobile Show.

            The Hall was closed in 1936, the last attraction being the Ararat Shrine Vaudeville Show on the night of May 1. An overflow audience danced in the incomplete new Municipal Auditorium across the street.

            From the books, records, newspaper clippings and other data available, we have prepared a chronological history in “The Story of Convention Hall,” a copy of which is attached.

            All of this wealth of material is a symbol of the aggressiveness, vision, and faith of a previous generation out of which developed the “Kansas City Spirit.” We believe these records should be carefully preserved and to that end should be delivered to the Native Sons of Kansas City of the Kansas City Museum for preservation and display.

            We request instructions from the Council as to the appropriate disposition of this material.

Respectfully submitted

Chet A. Keyes, City Auditor

A few years back, while research for an earlier project, I stumbled across the story of the 1900 Convention Hall Fire. I was captivated by the positively cinematic structure of the story. A conflagration of epic proportions, a community’s hopes and dreams first consumed by the flames and then resurrected from the ashes. The backdrop of a famous political rivalry at a pivotal time in American history. The lucky detail of having the 4th of July – Independence Day! – as the date recovery was achieved and victory declared.

The story was already fascinating when I found this letter from the City Auditor (above). It stopped me in my tracks. First, I had a feeling akin to what surely those who opened that safe must have felt – the excitement of first discovery. But then, I took a step back from focusing solely on the building and the fire, and when I did, I saw a story in layers. At the center is the miraculous story of the building’s first life, then the fire that took it, and its resurrection. The next layer is a story of the city, how the culture of those times influenced the events that made the Convention Hall project possible. The final layer that encompasses it all is the story of the oft-cited “Kansas City Spirit,” a popular phrase that’s generally told came to be part of the city’s identity as a result of this very event, but that would be called upon in countless future challenges in Kansas City’s future. Recognizing that, I saw that this wasn’t a book – it was a series of stories that attempt to answer the questions I asked myself when the project started.

There’ll be lots to cover: a view of a Kansas City that’s long-since disappeared, the beginnings and endings of several careers a few secrets, a few deals and more than a few smoke filled rooms. But since I’ve put the Convention Hall fire in the center of this narrative, let’s review the central event:

Around 1897, after years of discussion and planning, the City of Kansas City, Missouri finally determined to build a Convention Hall, a venue for every conceivable purpose that might draw thousands of people, and boost the local economy. Trade shows, concerts, rodeos, traveling exhibitions, annual meetings for all sorts of groups – religious denominations, fraternal organizations, professional groups – and political delegations. The city did not formally lobby for the 1900 Democratic convention until after it had committed to building the hall, but once committed, the national convention certainly would prove to be a fabulous endorsement of Kansas City’s national stature as a city on the rise. The building opened on February 22, 1899. One year later to the day, the Democratic Party announced it would hold its convention in Kansas City on July 4, 1900.

An illustration from the Kansas City Star the day after the fire. The arches are on the southeast corner of the Convention Hall, the crowd standing along Wyandotte looks west, and the cross street is 14th.

In the early afternoon hours of April 4, 1900, a fire broke out in the building. Near as it was to the central commercial corridor of the city, it was noticed almost immediately, and the city’s fire department was quick on the spot. Even so, in just about 30 minutes, the entire structure was engulfed in flame. Except for some of the stone façade work, it was a total loss. The fire would eventually and officially be determined to be an accident, but the exact cause was never definitively identified.

Even before the fire was extinguished, plans were underway for reconstruction. With a well-organized effort, the entire demolition and reconstruction was completed in time for the Democratic National Convention on July 4, three months to the day after the fire. The convention went off without a hitch, and the hall enjoyed almost 30 years of service before it was replaced by a second hall, and ultimately by the Municipal Auditorium that still stands at the south end of Barney Allis Plaza.

That’s the story to which we’ll return as we flesh out the story of a city that had the will, the capacity and in some ways the audacity to take on such a project – not once, but twice.

Future posts in this series will include:

  • How the Convention Hall helped Kansas City shift from being a Cowtown to one of the promising cities leading America into the 20th century.
  • The powerful influence of William Rockhill Nelson and his Kansas City Star in setting Kansas City’s agenda, with exampless from the Convention Hall coverage.
  • Why the powerful Commercial Club of Kansas City, its members among the city’s most notable men, used their power and influence to make the hall something in which every Kansas Citian would feel ownership.
  • The early political career of James A. Reed, still one of Missouri’s all-time most influential politicians, a career that began the day the Convention Hall burned down.
  • The story of the world’s greatest fireman, Kansas City’s own George C. Hale.
  • A moment-by-moment account of the fire, collected from the many eye-witness reports captured at the time.
  • What caused the fire, and how much of the city beyond the walls of the Convention Hall was decimated.
  • How the triumverate events of the building, burning and rebuilding of the Convention Hall impacted Kansas City then and now.

I look forward to sharing it all with you. Starting now!

Top Photo: Letterhead from the actual letter sent to the city regarding the Convention Hall documents.

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