Design and Construction

(KC 1900 Series: # 8)

With the site selection completed, the Convention Hall Committee was ready to precede with design. In late December, 1897, the committee made public its invitation for any local architect to submit a design. The design process the committee would follow was somewhat unusual. The submittal was required to include floor plans, elevation drawings, a description of recommended materials, and general estimates of material and labor costs, an overall production schedule and a more detailed schedule tracking when the various trades – masons, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and such – would be on the job site. These plans would be the starting point for future bids from those subcontractors.

Where the process was untypical was in its architectural fees. Instead of a flat fee, the top four submittals would be awarded prizes – $500, $250, $150 and $100. In a speech E.M. Clendening of the Commercial Club made a couple of years after the hall was built, he recommended this process to the City of Indianapolis, where he was speaking to the local Commercial Club regarding their interest in a convention Hall.

“Now, you may want to say to your architects as we did, ‘We agree to pay the successful architect $500 in cash, to give him $2,000 in stock and $2,500 more as the work progresses,’ so that, no matter what the building might cost, his entire compensation would be $3,000 in cash and $2,000 in convention hall stock. The ordinary fee on our building would have amounted to something like $10,000.”

This was possible because the committee had limited its applicants to Kansas City architects, and the reason for that was to capitalize – or some might say extort – the local talent who would feel it part of their civic obligation to perform their professional services at a significantly reduced fee. At least, that’s what William Rockhill Nelson wrote in an editorial in the Kansas City Star early January 1898, when the architects were still in the early stages of drafting their designs. Nelson was particularly peeved that members of the architect’s guild had banded together to protest the fee structure. “No man need apply a moment’s thought or an instant of endeavor to this project unwillingly. It continues to be, as it has from its conception, a voluntary enterprise…But to promptly league together a whole guild to compel the adoption of the most expensive methods of carrying out the project – that is another matter and one which calls for public protest.”

The architects wanted payment as it had traditionally been calculated – five percent of the cost of the building. But they offered what they believed was a concession, by agreeing to accept eighty percent of that five percent fee in cash, and the remainder in stock. The architects who coalesced around this complaint were not listed in the newspaper accounts, but architect Henry Van Brunt had made a public statement in favor of the architects that prompted W.R. Nelson’s response in the quote above. Though the request (demand) was turned down by the committee, Van Brunt was still interested in doing the work, and was among those who bid on the project regardless.

On March 15, 1898, the seven submitting architectural firms arrived at the Commercial Club to make the presentations of their proposals to the committee. One firm having submitted two plans, there were eight plans under consideration. Kansas City was fortunate to have a strong field of professionals in the construction industry. Many of the architectural and engineering firms, as well as the materials providers and master tradesman had come to Kansas City for work on the Hannibal Bridge, and the significance of Kansas City in that industry would continue to rise into the 20th century. The mid-1880s brought many soon-to-be notable architects to Kansas City, including several among those submitting designs for the Convention Hall.  The more recognizable names who submitted plans for the hall include the following:

Louis Curtiss (age 33) was a relative newcomer to the field. He had only recently stopped working for Adriance Van Brunt and started his partnership with Frederick Gunn. Over the next two decades Curtiss’ diverse designs included the Boley Building (12th & Walnut), Mineral Hall on the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute (4340 Oak), the Hotel Baltimore (11th & Baltimore), the Bernard Corrigan residence (55th & Ward Parkway) and the Folly Theatre (12th & Central).

Frederick Gunn (age 35) was Louis Curtiss’ partner in the Convention Hall project. Gunn would gain a solid reputation that led to a long career. Before his death in 1959, Gunn had designed General Hospitals 1 and 2, the City Market, and the Jackson County Courthouse. He is also the architect of a half dozen or so prominent homes in the Country Club District.

Adriance Van Brunt (age 62), part of the Hackney, Smith & Van Brunt team, would be most remembered as one of the first members of the Parks Board, and an architect associated with public structures, including the entrance to Swope Park, and the former stables building at 39th and Gillham Road. He also was the architect for some of the early high-end residential housing in the Country Club District. Adriance Van Brunt had a brother John who was also an architect, but neither was directly related to either Henry Van Brunt (below) or his son, Courtlandt Van Brunt.

Henry Van Brunt (age 62), partner of Frank Howe in the firm Van Brunt & Howe, had come to Kansas City in 1887 from Boston, with the flood of eastern investment. The partners designed the Bullene Moore & Emery Building (later Emery Bird Thayer at 10th & Grand), the Kansas City Club (12th & Wyandotte), the Coates House (10th & Broadway) and the August Meyer residence (now Vanderslice Hall at the Kansas City Art Institute, 4415 Warwick.) Henry Van Brunt would soon gain a national reputation as one of a team of designers of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, a team that included some of the most famous names in architecture: Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1899, Van Brunt served as the President of the American Institute of Architects. The Van Brunt & Howe firm submitted two plans for the Convention Hall competition.

Frederick E. Hill (age 38), a Minnesotan by birth, first practiced in New York then came to Kanas City in 1885. Operating as a sole practitioner, his local work included the 12-story New York Life Building (9th & Baltimore), generally considered to be Kansas City’s first skyscraper, and the first building with elevators. Hill also designed Oak Hill, the baronial home of William Rockhill Nelson of the Kansas City Star, the home of Judge Edward Scarritt (3500 Gladstone Blvd.,) and the Westport City Hall.

Three other sole practitioners also submitted designs: George Matthews, William W. Rose, and C.P. Schmidt.

Each plan was allowed only twenty minutes for its presentation. But in the end, the interview process lasted more than six hours, until 8:30 that evening. The vote resulted in two firms tied for first – Frederick E. Hill, and Van Brunt & Howe. But after the second vote, the chosen architect was Frederick E. Hill. Three additional votes were taken to individually award the prizes for the design competition. Second prize went to William W. Rose, third to Van Brunt & Howe, and fourth to Gunn & Curtiss.

The next day, Frederick Hill arrived at the Commercial Club at the request of Secretary E.M. Clendening for the public announcement of the architect selection, and the awards for second, third and fourth place. Newspaper reporters had been gathering in front of the Commercial Club all morning. The reporters were invited into one of the main rooms of the Club, where Clendening announced the names, and unveiled the drawings of all the plans. The press took photos or made sketches of the drawings.

Frederick Hill’s winning design for the Convention Hall: the main floor in the arena configuration.

Two days earlier, the committee had received a letter from the local office of Studebaker Manufacturing, offering its show room windows as a display venue for the winning drawings, and further included an offer of a $100 donation for the Convention Hall fund. The notion of a public display hadn’t occurred to the board until that letter arrived, but they immediately agreed it was a good idea. But an earlier disagreement about Studebaker’s expectation of compensation for items which the club considered donations left the club disinclined to take their offer. Rather, after some discussion, the committee chose to award the honor of hosting the drawings to someone who had already supported the convention hall effort, an early supporter who had been generous and required no conditions. In fact, this person had given the fund its very first check to deposit. So the drawings were displayed in the windows of Mary McDonald’s Popular Price Millinery House, the very same Mary McDonald who had sent in the letter with the $100 first check. The Popular Price Millinery House would display the drawings in the windows of her shop at 1013 Main.

The site and design now settled, there was about six months remaining to complete the hall before October 1, the deadline the Commercial Club committee had set for itself. Ultimately, that date would be extended into February of 1899, but not until the October 1 date had passed. Still, in the early days, under the assumption of a six month deadline, there was much to be done before the public would see any physical progress at the project site. Demolition, soil tests, utility connections and then grading needed to be done. Meanwhile, offers to supply materials or provide technical services were already pouring in, offers meant to subvert or leap over the required bid process. And the bid process couldn’t begin until all the legal needs of the committee were attended to – certifying them as the agency authorized to redevelop the site, and then all the administrative tasks involving contracts, titles, permits, and insurance.

The basement of the first convention hall included an armory and a rifle range

Originally, the Convention Hall Company (the name of the newly formed legal corporation) had been insured the hall for $ 110,000. Shortly after the original October 1 deadline passed, and realizing the final construction costs would be greater than originally planned, the board of the Company voted to increase the insurance to $150,000, the purpose being, “to have our property so insured that in the event of a big conflagration, the policies would represent their face values.” They further authorized the building manager to purchase an office safe (no more than $200) for the purpose of storing the books of the company, the stock certificates, and other valuable papers, in the event of theft or fire.

Here are some of the main characteristics in Frederick Hill’s design for the Kansas City Convention Hall as described in the Kansas City Star:

  • Location: Northeast corner of 13th & Central
  • Dimensions:
    • 62,275 square feet
    • Footprint: 198.33  feet on 13th Street; 314 feet on Central
    • Height
      • to roof apex: 75 feet
      • to roof edge: 40 feet
  • Seating capacity: 5,000 main floor; gallery/amphitheater seating, 16,000. Total = 21,000
  • Two stories, styles:
    • 1st Story: Renaissance
    • 2nd Story: Peristyle (open colonnade)
  • Exterior finish: Native stone, cream brick, terra cotta
  • Roof: Copper and composition
    • Encircling roof garden, 25 feet wide at north & south ends; 40 feet wide at east & west sides:
  • Assortment of smaller rooms for event service, small meetings, ladies meeting room, etc.
  • Arena floors are removable, adjustable
  • Inclined walkways to substitute stairways in patron seating areas
  • Porte cochere entrance
  • Full service kitchen and banqueting hall
  • Estimated building cost (March 1898): $100,000

********************

The site and design now settled, there were about six months remaining to complete the hall before October 1, the deadline the Commercial Club committee had set for itself. Ultimately, that date would be extended into February of 1899, but still, in the early days, under the assumption of a six month deadline, there was much to be done before the public would see any physical progress at the project site. Demolition, soil tests, utility connections and grading needed to be done. Meanwhile, offers to supply materials or provide technical services were already pouring in, offers meant to subvert or leap over the required bid process. And the bid process couldn’t begin until all the legal needs of the committee were attended to – certifying them as the agency authorized to redevelop the site, and then all the administrative tasks involving contracts, titles, permits, and insurance.

Originally, the Convention Hall Company (the name of the newly formed legal corporation) had insured the hall for $ 110,000. Shortly after the original October 1 deadline passed, and realizing the final construction costs would be greater than originally planned, the board of the Company voted to increase the insurance to $150,000, the purpose being, “to have our property so insured that in the event of a big conflagration, the policies would represent their face values.” They further authorized the building manager to purchase an office safe (no more than $200) for the purpose of storing the books of the company, the stock certificates, and other valuable papers, in the event of theft or fire.

The bid process for all the materials required – steel, stone, lumber and wire and so much more – took most of the summer. But in the short term, construction consisted mainly of the tedious process of preparing the site. On August 6, 1898, the Convention Hall’s commemorative corner stone arrived at the construction site pulled behind a festooned wagon hitched to a two-horse team giving the appearance of a very short and slow parade that still drew a fair-sized crowd. Made of dressed limestone, measuring seven foot square and three feet thick, the stone was inscribed simply “Corner stone for the Convention Hall Building,” but no date mentioned in the account provided by Clendening’s report two-and-a-half years later. That report mentions the Convention Hall directors had decided against holding a public event when the stone was put in position. They may have felt that way, but clearly Clendening didn’t, for he defines the exact time and day the stone was positioned, officially (if arbitrarily) marking the beginning of construction as Thursday afternoon at 5 o’clock, August 12th, 1898.

While all of the exterior construction and most of the interior finish was completed by December, there were a seemingly endless list of details to attend to inside that kept the project going longer than the public could appreciate, as they gazed at the exterior of a seemingly finished building. But on February 21, 1899, 344 days after Frederick Hill’s plan for the hall had been chosen and the real work of building the Convention Hall began, 163 days after the cornerstone was placed, and  144 days after the original opening day target, the new Kansas City Convention Hall was ready for its grand dedication then next day.

The first convention hall, arena floor, completed. The semi-circle is the bandshell on the stage at the north end of the hall.

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