(KC 1900 Series: # 7)
The last post ended the story of Nelson’s campaign for a convention hall with a reference to the headline on the day it was announced the project would go forward. “A Start On the Building,” was how it read. No need to say which building; by now, as all of Kansas City knew which building was THE building. But as ever, Nelson wasn’t yet showing his readers all his cards. The real start on the building had begun weeks earlier, when Arthur Stilwell, eccentric entrepreneur and President of what would become Kansas City Southern Railroad, took over the task of raising funds for the Convention Hall. His business acumen and his connections throughout the Midwest and within the railroad industry made him well suited to the task.
In the late spring of 1897, William Rockhill Nelson successfully completed the publicity campaign that earned public support of the Convention Hall. But that effort was for the benefit of the public. Behind the scenes, Kansas City’s men of influence – in this case mostly in the form of the Commercial Club membership – had started the work of funding the project at the same time Nelson started his campaign, and by the time it was finally decided, were well underway, with only the most general ideas about what the property and construction might cost.
In the world of development, as far as financing that is, the approach remains today as it was in the 1890s. Development doesn’t depend on certainty. A project doesn’t have to have a final price tag, a detailed design or even a specific site to get started. The only essential for development is an idea for which there is a market. For the Convention Hall, the market was local businesses that would benefit in many ways – construction companies, product expositions, conventions, hotels, restaurants, theatres, saloons – there were few businesses of a retail nature in downtown Kansas City that wouldn’t have benefited. This was the real purpose of the Commercial Club, and others like it. The socializing, the lobbying and the charity were important, but a club like the Commercial Club provided the Kansas City business community a separate non-profit legal status that allowed its members to take an active role in directing civic improvement.
Mid-afternoon, June 12th, the Commercial Club held a special meeting. With the usual discussion and declarations of support, the Club voted 1) to proceed to procure funds for a public building, and 2) to form a committee to organize and manage the fundraising. But in between those two motions, the subject of the discussion, largely led by Arthur Stilwell, was the status of the fundraising that had been done to date. Some additional donations were made during the meeting, so that by the end of the day, the Convention Hall fund already had about $25,000.
On that first day, the contributions were all pledges, mere promises (although almost all would be made good.) But up until that point, the project had received no outside contributions, nothing from the general public. But the Commercial Club’s Secretary, E.M. Clendening, had arrived at the meeting with a letter. He opened the letter and read it to the group.
“Dear Sir: Enclosed you will find my check for $100, which amount I take pleasure in subscribing to proposed public building to be erected in Kansas City. Very truly yours, Mary McDonald.”
Clendening said, “Here’s the check, boys,” as he held it up. “The first check given, and by a woman!” When someone asked who this person was, Clendening answered, “She’s proprietress of McDonald’s Popular Price Millinery House at 1013 Main.” Somewhere in the gathering, a man was heard to say, “It may be a little inelegant to say so, but I say bully for Mary,” which prompted a vigorous round of applause.
Although they hadn’t yet determined the cost of the property or the building, the committee determined they need to work toward a goal of $150,000. After one day they had almost $25,000, at two weeks it was $50,000 and by the end of July, they had $100,000. A significant portion of that were pledges, not cash in the bank. Still, it was an impressive effort.
These were cautious businessmen who well understood two seemingly contradictory concepts. They understood that once you got into a project so far, with enough prominent names behind you, you didn’t need all the money on hand to start. In the end, the money would be found somewhere, for there were too many prominent names invested in the project’s success to ever allow it to fail. But they also understood there was no reason not to keep fundraising, and in fact, some very good reasons to keep fundraising, even if the amount you might collect would be only a fraction of what was needed.
The big wallets and well-known names represented by the Commercial Club needed the public sentiment behind them, particularly if funding ran thin towards the end, when the project might need an injection of the public’s money – individual contributions, like businesswoman Mary McDonald’s had been. To insure that support would be there when it was needed required just the right marketing. The Commercial Club had intended all along that the hall be built with private money – from businesses and individual citizens. The people of Kansas City needed to feel a personal connection to the building. So the building started to be touted as “Kansas City’s building,” “the people’s building,” and “the heart of the City.” At least once a week, The Kansas City Star ran an article (often front page) detailing the growth of the building fund. Each article listed every contributor in descending order of the size of the contribution. While there were always businesses and organizations prominent on the list, over time more individual names appeared, a great many contributing ten, five, even one dollar, and a few pledges of fifty cents. Workers at factories would pool their contributions and be proudly listed under the company’s name, and then each employee and his or her contribution amount.
Despite their almost certain success, the fundraising committee tried everything they could imagine to keep dollars coming in. A productive ploy that appealed to a broad spectrum of Kansas Citians was the sale of buttons. The buttons were small, plain pins, numbered sequentially and sold for one dollar each. Arthur Stilwell and his committee marketed them as “badges of the Kansas City Admirers.” Funds were being donated from the proceeds of amateur baseball games, horse races, bicycle races, and concerts. The children of Kansas City were fair game for fundraising, too. Witness the message in the letter of a little girl, sent to The Star in early July:
“I am a school girl 11 years old. I have been reading about the convention hall the city is going to build and about the park scheme. I am in favor of both and hope they will be fully carried out. I have always lived here and am interested in the city’s progress and welfare. I think it would be a good plan for some child to start a fund for the benefit of the hall. I will head the list with $24 which papa gave me. Hoping there will be other children who will follow this plan, I am, yours very respectfully, Lulu S. Hayes, southeast corner of Twelfth and Michigan Avenue.”
In early November, the Convention Hall Committee was presented with a petition at their regular weekly meeting. The petition was signed by some of the project’s most influential and well-financed supporters, including Standard Oil, Armour Packing, the Kansas City Star, and three of Kansas City’s leading banks. It called for “prompt action in selecting a site and beginning the construction of the building, and respectfully request your honorable body to proceed in this matter with the subscriptions now in hand with as little delay as your good judgement may suggest.” The committee immediately strategized about how to claim every penny pledged, to revisit every unanswered request, and aim for December 1 as the goal to be ready to move to the next step. And whether or not they had reached their goal by December 1, they faced the reality that the project had to begin, and soon.
“If every business man in our city will do what he can toward it, a noble building will soon be erected as a monument to those public spirited men. ¶ As to the method in selecting a location for the building and raising money for it, I suggest that we use prudence and carefully avoid blundering. I hope that loyalty to Kansas City will influence every man who would give money for a building on any particular site, to give it for any site that may be selected.” – William Barton, VP Commercial Club 1897
The quote above, said on the occasion of that June 1897 meeting where the club voted to move the Convention Hall project forward, is a lesson in hidden language. Barton opens by encouraging the support of every business man for the hall, declaring that the building will be a monument to those who built it. In other words, we’re honoring you for building your own monument. And the caution to avoid blundering? Always a good idea to avoid blundering. But then, he gets to the point, and in a rather convoluted way, reminds the business community that their support of the hall shouldn’t be determined by what site is selected. That’s a proper caution. For every man who would be selecting the site, or having any influence on it, had interests in downtown real estate. Even if your interests weren’t tied to the land, they were likely tied to your business’ proximity to the site of the “noble building.”
As Commercial Club members arrived for the meeting, several came bearing offers to sell land for the hall. The offers were politely accepted for consideration, but the specifications for the property had yet to be discussed Keep in mind, there was not yet even a formal board to accept these offers, let alone the completion of all the legal requirements to satisfy the formation and actions of such a board. That may account for why, even though the discussion began in June, it took until October 11 for the committee to announce its formal notice of accepting proposals for the purchase of a site. The specifications they had decided upon were: 1) located between 7th and 14th Streets, and between Broadway and Locust; 2) the property should at a minimum be able to accommodate a 60,000 square foot building; and 3) the price of the property could not exceed $50,000. Proposers were given nine days to submit a formal proposal.
Seventeen proposals were submitted, and the committee reviewed them for almost a month before convening to select a site. The minutes of their November 15 meeting list the proposals they had reviewed, each providing the location, dimensions and price for the site, and what that meant in terms of price per square foot as a relative measure for comparison purposes.
Having looked at all the proposals in terms of their response to the criteria, not a single proposal met all the criteria set out for the site. Most were too small, but several failed on all points – too small, too expensive, and/or outside the target area. The committee then reached out to two bidders with the closest specifications. The committee gave them a new ceiling of $70,000, and asked them to try to work within that budget. Both attempted, but tried as they might, they couldn’t meet the $70,000 requirement.
But having lifted the acceptable price level, one proposal where the only failed criteria was price was now hitting all the marks. Arthur Stilwell’s proposal for the site at the northeast corner of 13th and Central was selected. There’s no denying Stilwell had influence within the Commercial Club ranks, but having scrutinized the merits of the proposals simply on the basis of the criteria the club selected, it’s undeniable that Stilwell’s site was the only one to comply with all of the criteria for site selection.