Whatever Happened To…?

(KC 1900 Series: # 17)

(Photos above: A view of each of the 1900 Convention Halls, before and after the fire, left and right respectively)

More than a century has passed since the Convention Hall disaster and subsequent triumph. Such a time gap fairly begs for the chance to see what has happened to the stories that have been covered here.

Like the trails and the rails before them, the roads created another crossroads for Kansas City. Missouri and Kansas are two of the three states that claim to be where the Federal Highway System began, putting Kansas City right in the middle of that beginning.

Kansas City as a Crossroads

Kansas City has remained a crossroads of America, even as some of the modes of travel and the markets it served have changed dramatically. But more than changes in technology or economy, it was the proliferation of towns and cities popping up all over the west, tied directly to the growing networks of the railroads, that diminished Kansas City’s stature. The city remained important because of its central location, and the fact that its early prominence in transcontinental rail meant it had bigger and better infrastructure than most places. Some fifty years later, Kansas City further benefited from its place in the early development of the federal highway system. There is more to say about Kansas City’s economy during those years between then and now, but as to its identity as a crossroads, whatever has remained is a result of national interests in rails and roads.

The “old white men” are no longer the only faces among Kansas City leadership. For 27 of the last 31 years, Kansas City has elected three African-American men (Emanuel Cleaver II, Sylvester James and Quinton Lucas) and one woman (Kay Waldo Barnes.) In addition, the clubs of the old white men have had to share influence with a wide range of organizations with wildly diverse backgrounds and interests. All to the city’s betterment.

Kansas City Leadership

In the Convention Hall story, Kansas City leadership is represented by the Commercial Club, the embodiment of collective private interests organized for civic improvements. Like most of the other like organizations around the country, the Commercial Club transformed into the Chamber of Commerce in 1916, and continues to this day. But it is not alone. As the city has grown, the number of organizations that participate in promotion, advocacy and economic development projects toward the betterment of the city has grown to an incalculable number. Some are focused by type of project, others by micro-geographies, and some continue to represent the entire metropolitan area. These changes are minor in the grand scheme of things, and the segmentation should, and often does, create greater efficiency and results. But one change is dramatic from the Commercial Club of the Convention Hall story – almost none of the efforts promoted by any of the modern organizations relies solely on private money contributed by citizens, and almost all of them rely heavily on public funding mechanisms.

The Mayor and the Chief

Less than two years following the Convention Hall fire, the man who had served the department in every capacity from mechanic to chief for thirty-one years, the man who had once been proclaimed the world’s greatest fireman, was fired by the Kansas City City Council, under the persuasive guidance of Mayor James L. Reed. Reed wanted to award a lucrative contract for a fire alarm system to the Gamewell Company. Hale refused. In his open letter in the Kansas City Star, Hale called the system unreliable and flimsily constructed, and further pointed out that Gamewell was charging Kansas City twice what Hale knew other cities to have paid. The inference about Reed and kickbacks, though implied, was clear.

In later years, (left) James A. Reed, former Kansas City Mayor, and the man he fired, (right) George C. Hale, former Kansas City fire department chief.

Reed countered with his own accusations of Hale’s self-dealing. Unrelated to the current contract, Hale the inventor had worked with a firm that was a competitor of Gamewell on a new piece of firefighting equipment. Strangely, it was an accusation that was already well known to be false – Hale had long since relinquished his rights to his patents, and so was gaining no benefit from the competitor. But Reed also accused Hale of insubordination, and since the fire chief was a subordinate of the mayor, there was no arguing with that. The mayor’s firing was upheld by the city council in a vote of 11 to 3.

The Kansas City Star

William Rockhill Nelson died at the age of 74 in 1915. By then, the Kansas City Star was a thirty-five-year-old Kansas City institution. The leadership Nelson had installed long before his death served the paper well for many years, and the fact that the newspaper had been purchased by the employees continued to ensure its ties to the community would remain strong for decades. Over its life, the newspaper has won eight Pulitzers, the latest in 2022.

(left) The Kansas City Star headquarters since 1918 has been converted into high-end residential housing with attached retail. (right) The Kansas City Star printing plant, built in 2006, has been sold. It’s future use is undecided.

The newspaper was sold to a national media company in 1977, and since then it has been owned and operated by two other national media interests. In 2020, it was purchased through a bankruptcy auction by a hedge fund, part of a national trend of similar investment interests purchasing local newspapers that have wrecked havoc on the institutional of the local newspaper. Today, the Kansas City Star is a shadow of its former self. Its iconic headquarters has been developed into condominiums, its striking press building has been closed, and the newspaper’s printing has been outsourced to a firm in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Convention Hall

The Convention Hall continued to serve Kansas City for more than thirty years. It was a tumultuous three decades in the life of Kansas City, and America, and the Convention Hall provided a home for that. First and foremost, it fulfilled its original intent, and countless conventions, rallies, corporate and civic events and entertainments were held there. Some of them were more noteworthy than others, and two were famous. Between 1922 and 1924, the hall was rented by the Ku Klux Klan, for a series of meetings. In 1928, Kansas City played host to its second convention, this time for the Republic Party. Herbert Hoover was nominated, and went on to win the Presidency by defeating Governor Al Smith of New York.

The Municipal Auditorium shown here from the corner of 13th and Wyandotte, was built one block south of the Convention Hall.

The City had been working on a plan for civic improvements, a scheme that brought some order to public buildings by their location and their style. Municipal Auditorium was the first of the buildings to be constructed, followed shortly by City Hall and the Jackson County Courthouse, all still in operation today. The auditorium was built in the block directly south from the Convention Hall, and for a short time, the two sat across from one another, an architectural vignette of passing time. Before the hall was demolished, the “Century Box,” the time capsule placed in the stonework of the facade the night of the Century Ball, was removed and reinstalled in the auditorium.

Somewhere in the bowels of Union Station, the contents of the Century Box (foreground) were laid out and indexed before being handed over to the custody of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On January 2, 2001, Kansas City held a special event for the opening of the box. Letting the usual New Year’s Eve events around town have their own moment, as the year changed into a new year, a new century and a new millennium in the same second. The box had been removed from its place in Municipal Auditorium, and brought to Union Station, a place that did not exist 100 year before but is now its own venerable venue. The public was invited, and the local dignitaries ran the program. In the lead was Mayor Kay Cronkite Waldo Barnes, the city’s first female mayor. The box was opened, and local archivists removed the contents carefully, one by one. The contents aligned with the accounts from one hundred years earlier, and judging from the reactions of those present, they achieved what the forefathers had hoped – a sense of how different the life and times of Kansas City were then. But nothing so clearly demonstrated that than when Mayor Kay Barnes opened the letter that Mayor James Reed wrote to his 20th century counterpart. She opened the letter and upon reading it to the crowd, the first words she read captured the changes instantly.

“Dear Sir,” she read, and the crowd roared.

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