Photo Essay: Before the Fire

(KC 1900 Series #10)

Rather than burden each post with all the terrific images I’ve found that are connected to those stories, I’m including “photo essays” of additional image material I found for the respective stories. The first essay, below, includes images related to the first nine stories that take us from the motives behind building the hall, through the fundraising, design and construction, and ending with the short period before the fire, when the first convention hall began to fulfill the long=standing dreams of the Kansas City business community.


In the post titled, “Crossroads: Kansas City Builds an Economy,” we covered a bit about the efforts it took to turn Kansas City into a place physically capable of supporting a city-scale economy, beginning with the incredible street grading that occurred over several decades before and after 1900. The banner photo depicts two men on the north side of the Missouri River looking across to the bluffs on the south side. While this spot is actually a bit further east than the spot where Kansas City was born, it perfectly displays the massive limestone bluffs that runs all along the south side of the Missouri River in western Missouri.

The pictures above from 1867/68 depict the grading along Delaware Street at its intersection with 2nd Street (left) and 4th Street (right).

The Commercial Club & E.M. Clendening

The post about the Commercial Club (Post #4, 6 /21/22) included a short biography of its long-time director who managed the Convention Hall Project, E.M. Clendening. Clendening’s life was one of great highs and lows. He had early success as a prominent merchant in Kansas City, but remained within the city’s circle of influence due to his long and distinguished time with the Commercial Club, even if he found himself more on the outer ring of that circle. This advertising card is very typical of the period, which present beautiful images of landscapes or floral arrangements, but many times had no image of the product – not unlike advertising and promotion of the current period.

Photos of the buttons the Commercial Club issued as promotion and fund-raising tools. “Come to Kansas City and Be Welcome” (left) buttons were issued to all members and others affiliated with promotion and operations of the 1900 Democratic Convention. “Good for One Share of Stock” with its individual number, was issued to one of the businesses or individuals who contributed funding or prizes to be used in fund-raising. Those who contributed wore them as a sign of civic pride – or seen another way, a not-so-subtle way of influencing others to be a part of the much heralded “Kansas City Spirit.”

The Exposition Hall

In the post, “Ink by the Barrel,” reference was made to the Exhibition events held in Kansas City prior to the Convention Hall idea took hold. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room for a fuller discussion of this period in the city’s history. While I hope to make that right in the weeks to come, for now, I wanted to include a few images to give a glimpse into the impressive scale and architectural treat the Exhibitions were, as well as their importance in establishing Kansas City’s first reputation as a gathering spot for national industry.

The poster for Kansas City’s inaugural National Agricultural Exposition and the depiction of its Crystal Palace to rival London’s of 1851 made a promise to visitors of something spectacular – a “45-day wonder.” It did not disappoint in its early years. But even in 1871, the first year of Kansas City’s exposition, such events were somewhat passe due in part to its limitation to a single event held once a year, and its focus on agriculture in an increasingly more modern and industrial world. Below, Kansas City’s Crystal Palace under construction.

Details of Frederick E. Hill’s original plans for the Kansas City Convention Hall

As was mentioned in the post, “Design & Construction,” (#8 in the 1900 Series, 7/19/22) the model Frederick Hill used for his design for the Kansas City Convention Hall was New York’s recently built Madison Square Garden. Kansas City’s version was unquestionably more modest in every respect, but it is generally an apt comparison because all of the civic halls that began springing up around the country – particularly in the emerging west – were modeled on that same general design. In this day and age, the basics of this new type of building were still being established – the breakout examples were still to come.

Even so, because the Convention Hall had such a remarkably short life, having Hill’s original drawings to review is helpful to making the building come to life in its own history.

(Right) The arena setting, the configuration used for the 1900 National Democratic Convention.

(Above) The Mezzanine Floor, which opened out on the west side to a roof-top garden (not shown) was designed to accommodate smaller groups in as wide a variety of configurations as possible. From left to right: The Banquet Hall, suitable for organization’s programs, large annual meetings or board of directors’ meetings, or private events such as wedding receptions; The Ladies Hall, with its small stage, is shown here set up for a small program or entertainment event; and The Armory Hall; so-named and perhaps dedicated to the use of the gun club members of the armory facilities in the hall’s basement.

The Short Event-filled Life of the Convention Hall

Even though the first Convention Hall was operational for only about 14 months, it had plenty of events of all kinds. In this post, (#9, 7/26/22) we covered some of the more interesting events, but these two images really capture something of the era, though not necessarily one of the city’s proudest moments.

Uriah Spray Epperson lived all but the first eight years of his life in Kansas City, was a self-made man who became wealthy in the insurance industry, and was one of the great civic leaders of his day. His particular passion for music led him to be a supporter of the Music Conservatory and other performing organizations in the decades around 1900.

But his interest also led him to form a minstrel show – a very popular form of entertainment in its day, but one for obvious reasons that is looked on with combinations of guilt, shame, repulsion, embarrassment, and regret, among other reactions. Its one saving grace is that Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrels were, as far as I was able to find, employed as entertainment for the purpose of fundraising for Kansas City’s large civic initiatives as well as smaller organizational functions.

The poster (right) shows the kind of promotional billboards often found paced on the sides of buildings or along fences. The black-face character is prominent in the poster, but programs for specific events don’t indicate the interlocutor segment of the classic minstrel show was a very large part of the Epperson show. This should be considered as more of a curiosity than any sort of absolution for the misrepresentation.

From the standpoint of the Convention Hall story, note that the date of the performance on the poster is April 3, the night before the great fire that destroyed the original hall.

The pages from a program (left) for the Epperson Megaphone Minstrels give a sampling of the men who were regular performers with the group. The Epperson group was an entirely volunteer group. In fact, part of the appeal of the show for locals was a chance to see men who were well known on the civic front perform their low-brow musical numbers and comedy sketches. This page shows 36 regular members of the Megaphone Minstrels.

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