Ink by the Barrel

(KC 1900 Series: # 6)

By the 1890s, the influence of the Kansas City Star had risen to the position of the dominant newspaper in the city, particularly with regard to issues that effected the city’s prosperity on a political, economic and social level. What made The Star effective in its job of creating and driving the public agenda was the genius of good newspapermen. Nelson was a great newspaperman, and was particularly adroit in simultaneously using the feature articles and the editorial columns of the Star to introduce the public to a subject and articulating the civic issues, then repeatedly reinforcing these messages in subsequent editions, so that just when the matter became urgent, the work of persuading the public was complete. The city could, as they say, strike while the iron was hot, and keep the project moving forward, and at the same time, maintain nearly complete agreement with the vision described by the paper. Based on the copious articles related to the Convention Hall between 1893 and 1900, it’s a practice that worked. In fairness, the idea of a convention hall, or as it was originally labeled, a public building, had been part of the civic discussion for quite a while, but it was an idea that seemed relegated to the “ought to someday” category, until the “Daily W.R. Nelson” dug into the cause.

For twenty six years, Kansas City held an annual Exposition, in the tradition and the promise of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Expositions such as these were meant to showcase a city’s technological advancements, and industrial and creative craftsmanship, while serving as a draw for visitors and potential customers. The locations changed five times, but a permanent exhibition building, referred to as the “Crystal Palace,” referencing the building used in London. But in the fall of 1893, Kansas City abandoned the Exposition Grounds in the same year that Kansas City’s much loved fall event, the Priests of Pallas celebrations were starting to wear thin. In the six years they were both operating, the combined appeal of a business-focused exposition and a Mardi Gras-esque multi-night revelry in the streets made Kansas City a very popular destination in October. And the combined loss (or decline) of the fall events made October 1893 the perfect time to start pitching the idea of a convention hall.

October 6, 1893, “A Need and And Opportunity,” and October 7, 1894, “A Great Convention Hall”

In the October 6, 1893 edition of the Kansas City Star, the day after the Priests of Pallas parade, under the headline “A Need and An Opportunity,” Nelson declared the Priests of Pallas celebrations of such importance to the culture and the economy of Kansas City, that it had earned the right to some assistance. And with an “oh-and-by-the-way” approach, he raised again the need for a public building, without committing to its intended purpose. Exactly a year later by one day, October 7, 1894 , under the headline, “A Great Convention Hall,” and presented as news, the subject was brought up again. The article sketches out what this public building might look like. The design was borrowed by a local architect – I suspect not so coincidentally the architect that had designed Nelson’s great home, Oak Hall – from the plans for Madison Square Garden in New York.

For the next two years, The Star would return to the subject, on the odd occasion when opportunity presented itself, or sometimes as a short quip on the editorial page. By January 1897, the subject came up again, and now it was here to stay. At first, there was some article about, or reference to, a Convention Hall for Kansas City several times a week. A little more than a year later, when the project was finally being decided upon, the articles were daily, and many days multiple articles appeared. The articles are so many, in fact, that the small sample that follows diminishes the impact of the frequency, which seemed like a the bombardment of persuasion the newspaper gave its readership. But these quick summaries do provide a sense of the carefully played strategies and use of language that shows the collective talent of the Star staff to make the case for the Convention Hall.

February 15, 1897, “For a Home Product Show”

Here The Star harkens back to its successful support of the Exposition Grounds, by touting the same type of program for the new public building that was a proven winner a decade before. It also introduced – or perhaps more aptly, reintroduced – the Commercial Club as a driving force for this particular event, citing the Club’s capacity and experience, both of which would be equally valuable in the context of a future convention hall project. Simultaneously, the Commercial Club was already discussing playing this role, though no formal agreements had been reached.

2 weeks later; February 28, “All in One Building”

Nelson expands the concept and the utility even further by once using the Commercial Club as a mouthpiece. The club’s president, M.V. Watson, is positioned in the article as suggesting and supporting the combination of the Convention Hall with the Western Gallery of Art (WGA). The WGA was a collection of art gathered by none other than W.R. Nelson, who was looking for a place to house the works. The entire collection had been moved to one floor of the old Kansas City Public Library at 9th and Locust, and stayed there for 36 years. Eventually it would serve as the core collection for the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art, but it never had a home at the Convention Hall.

4 days later: March 3, “Gives a Site for a Hall”

One of the most politically charged questions about the Convention Hall was where to locate it. Kansas City was crawling with land speculators, and in fact, right next to this article The Star printed the story “Life in Real Estate,” which extoled the prospects for Kansas City real estate, listing several indicators which the paper surmised “all show that Kansas City with its present real estate values presents an attractive field for investment.”

That enthusiasm for capturing real estate investment was undoubtedly one of the factors that took the topic of the Convention Hall from an “if” proposition to a “when.” The Star gave a tacit endorsement to the offer of Kansas City pioneer business man William Askew, who offered the obvious location – the site of the Priests of Pallas’ dilapidated “den,” what was essentially warehouse space where the Priests of Pallas stored its floats and held its annual parties. Askew was the owner of the den property. The newspaper covered this offer as an event during a meeting of the Commercial Club, of which Askew was a member. Askew made the offer as a gift, which gave that location a distinct advantage right out of the gate. Further, it was framed as a gift to the people, not to the Priests of Pallas, nor the Commercial Club, nor even to the government. This underscored and endorsed the public character of the future building’s use. Finally, Askew tied the donation to giving the Priests of Pallas’ access to the site and their activities as a priority use of the property.

3 Months later: June 3, “More Proof of its Need,” and June 6, “The City’s Greatest Need”

The whole matter came to a head in late spring, 1897, with an article, “More Proof of its Need,” quoting an unidentified attendee to the annual Home Products Show, complaining about how the location (described only by its address at 12th and Main) was too small to accommodate the visitor demand. “The only way we’ll ever get a big hall is to agitate – agitate every chance we get.” The quote might just have well been Nelson’s own, and in fact may have been. Three days later, under the heading “The City’s Greatest Need,” the report identified a handful of community leaders willing to commit to partial financial support of a new building.

June 7, “Mr. Corrigan’s Offer,” and June 8, “A Site for the Big Hall“

With only that much certainty, the project was suddenly of interest among those with real estate they believed filled the bill. It started with an offer of a whole real estate development package by the city’s transit baron, Bernard Corrigan, for property he owned on the southeast corner of 11th Street and Baltimore Avenue. The property was too small for the prototypical public hall, but Corrigan offered to make it taller, to compensate. The property was not to be a gift, as with the Askew property. The monthly payments from the Commercial Club to Corrigan, covering the cost of the property and cost of construction, Corrigan estimated would run about $6,000 per year.  The Commercial Club’s reaction to the offer must have been negative, for the next day’s Star reported an entirely different offer from a triad of famous local names, one of which was also Bernard Corrigan, hedging his bets. “A Site for the Big Hall,” the June 8th article explained, was the site on the northeast corner of Eighth Street and Grand Avenue. Corrigan et al proposed a lease arrangement for the sum of five percent per annum on the property value, or a total estimated at about $3700. Another of the names in that deal was Norton Thayer, Sr., a real estate man who was also a member of the family that would soon be part of Emery Byrd and Thayer department store fame. Thayer stood as partner and broker for the deal. The third partner was Thomas Swope, who owned some of the proposed property.

William Rockhill Nelson and Bernard Corrigan had famously and publicly clashed for nearly twenty years on issues related to the city’s streetcar operations. Corrigan’s personal interests in the deal were obvious. Not only did he own the rail lines that encircled the site, but had an interest in the Hotel Baltimore, which he had helped development, a hotel that would surely benefit from a nearby Convention Hall. So, in quick response to the Thayer/Corrigan/Swope offer, a Star editorial the next day scuttled that plan on the basis of its location away from the center of downtown activity, and the fact that the property itself was only about half of a city block, nowhere near the size needed to accommodate the big conventions Kansas City had its eye on.

June 9, “An Offer by Mr. Stilwell,” and “The Two Essentials”

On Friday of this same week, The Star announced Arthur Stillwell, Kansas City’s railroad magnate, would be presenting a plan the next day at a meeting of The Commercial Club, a plan so complete that it answered all the requirements of the Convention Hall. Its location was to be at 13th and Central Avenue, the most centrally located of all the proposed sites. The property was not free, but the annual lease cost would be about 20 percent less than the other proposals. The lot would accommodate a building large enough for all likely purposes, and seat at least 10,000. The estimated cost of the building at this early stage in the planning was between $50,000 and $75,000. As a final show of his commitment to kick-starting the project, Stilwell contributed $4,500 toward that cost. Impressive as that was, Stillwell already knew what kind of money could be coaxed out of the members of The Commercial Club, and that was just the beginning. Well, not exactly. The beginning of the fund raising had started long ago. It wasn’t yet popularly known, but it soon would be.

That same day, an editorial in the Star focused on the particulars of the proposals, and from reviewing them all, informed the readership that it knew the two most essential characteristics of the site to be chosen – central location and sufficient space. Without naming names or pointing to specific offers, the Daily Nelson dismissed every proposal except the Stilwell offer.

June 10, “Success Seems to be Near,” and June 11, “Success Depends on It,” and “Ideas for a Building”

Saturday, June 12th was the date set by the Commercial Club to hold “a mass meeting of business and professional men to put the project on its feet.” Nelson did not waste the opportunity of the two days left to him before that meeting. Two articles focusing around the idea of “Success” were filled with accounts of the endorsements of many local leaders, most for the basic concept of a public building, but several in direct support of the Stilwell offer and the proposal that the Commercial Club serve as be charged with overseeing the project.

“Ideas for a Building,” was openly a reprint of its own October 7, 1894 article, wherein architect Frederick Hill had brought forward some plans for the hall that mimicked Madison Square Garden in New York. Hall would eventually be awarded the design contract, and his design varied mostly in scale from the original. The Daily Nelson had pointed the way for the Convention Hall project, and thirty two months later, it had landed just as planned.

And in case there was any doubt as to the influence W.R. Nelson and The Kansas City Star had on the outcome, the following day, June 12, the day of the Commercial Club meeting, the Star printed the article “A Start On the Building.”  

Photos: (top banner) an example of a printing press of the era (there being no available picture of the Kansas City Star’s press at that time) comes from Reading, PA, circa 1900; remaining photos in sequence depict the street-level distribution system of the Kansas City Star of that same “circa 1900” era from top to bottom: (top) paper boys sort and count the daily papers delivered to the Olathe, Kansas Star offices, 1922; (second) Papers ready for delivery by the Olathe paper boys, circa 1922; (third) In 1910 in Pittsburg, Kansas, newspaper delivery was by horse drawn wagon; (bottom) By 1925 , a news agency in Pittsburg, Kansas was delivering the Kansas City Star by truck.

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