Kansas City’s Spirit: Accomplishing the Impossible

(KC 1900 Series #18)

(Top images are just three of the sketches Norman Rockwell tried out for the painting, The Kansas City Spirit.)

We’ve already demonstrated that the phrase “Kansas City Spirit,” did not originate with the Convention Hall of 1900, but besides dispelling that misconception, I’d hoped to find a fresher, more pertinent meaning than seemed evident in the original phrase. It turns out that the deeper meaning was there all along, but to the modern ears is seems a glib slogan. In truth, the whole totality of the Convention Hall experience – from building to ashes to building again – had long ago turned a glib saying into a community’s credo.

E.M.Clendening

It wouldn’t be until three years after the fire that someone first tried to define and describe the Kansas City Spirit, beyond its use as a mere slogan. The man who took the simple slogan and gave it the form of a manifesto was E.M. Clendening. In 1903, as (still) Secretary for the Commercial Club, he had been asked to address a large group of Indianapolis community leaders and businessmen. The banquet was convened as part of building interest in the construction of an Indianapolis hall. Clendening had been invited by his friend and former Commercial Club member, Hugh McGowan, now a resident of Indianapolis. McGowan had been involved in the Convention Hall project, but he knew only Clendening was in a position to know the real story, all the tricks and tips.

Clendening noted early in his speech that he recognized he was being asked to respond to question, “How did you do it?” He went on to say that he knew what the gathering really wanted, the answer to the question, “How did you get the money.” In sharing this in his speech, Clendening admitted he could have made an easy answer of it, telegraphing back to his McGowan, the glib answer of, “We did everything, and we did everybody,” for which he got a big laugh. But Clendening quickly changed the tone by adding, “or I might have said we laid awake at night thinking what we would do the next day.”

Clendening’s speeches show him to be a strong and clever speaker, adept at framing a story, and knowing the moment to set the hook, persuasion-wise. Here, the “hook” was a call for the greater good. The quotes above and following come from the minutes of the Indianapolis gathering.

“Civic pride,” he declared. “Unless you have that element in your hearts so deeply rooted that it will make you cheerful donors to a public enterprise, unless you value citizenship far more than the luxuries and comforts it buys for yourself, and your own family, and unless you have realized that you owe something to the community in which you live, you cannot hope to make a success of the proposition which you are about to launch.”

When the spontaneous applause died down, he finished his civic pep talk by describing the Kansas City civic pride.

The Kansas City Spirit inspires an original and locally published march, shortly after the Convention Hall’s reconstruction.

”I come from my own town, and there is one thing of which we are justly proud and that is civic pride. It has been inculcated into us, we preach it, we talk it, and we believe it, and we practice it. The building of a coliseum or convention hall such as Kansas City’s is not the work, gentlemen, of idle dreams, but in a modern phrase, it is the work of those who hustle while they wait.

These are sentiments that ring true to me. This speaks to me about a place where genuine individual connections to the community bring enthusiasm for seeing things done, to fix and especially to build for the community. It also heartens me that Clendening declares actual criteria for being able to claim one has civic pride. These lessons in character are particularly aimed at the well-to-do and those of any stature who believe they can only win if others lose. Clendening had spent his career with people who were genuine movers and shakers, and others that were opportunists and posers. He would have seen many examples of those both qualified and unqualified to earn the right to claim their civic pride based on his criteria. The Convention Hall experience taught him this, and helped him make clear his convictions around civic pride.

Just one view of the horrific destruction that the 1903 flood that tore through the West Bottoms, and other parts of Kansas City’s riverside neighborhoods.

Five months later, Kansas City would face its next great challenge. The 1903 flood wiped out the west bottoms, from the train depot to the rails to all the parked rolling stock. It killed the livestock, wiped out a whole riverside neighborhood on the Kansas side, and dozens of businesses in the area. It also was just one chapter in a flooding event that covered north Kansas and Missouri, the Missouri river towns above Kansas City into Nebraska, and east all the way at least to Des Moines.

There would be more floods in 1951, 1977 and 1993. There had been a tornado in 1886, and there would be more in 1957, 1996, and 2000. There would be ice storms in 1984 and 2002.There were three major fires over one weekend in January 1978. Structural calamities happened in 1979 and 1981, And bombings in 1977 and 1988. Each of these devastating events grabbed the full attention of the area when they happened, and no doubt they were worthy of summoning the phrase “Kansas City Spirit” in some way to raise the local moral.

But if the Kansas City Spirit were only about the strength to get up and go again, it might as well be “We’re Kansas City Strong.” Sadly, too many American cities have had to adopt the “be strong” message, after devastating human and property loss in the wake of weather and violence. But time has shown that while good at rallying a community in the moment, the “be strong” messages ironically weaken over time.

Norman Rockwell on site in KC for preliminary sketches

The phrase, “Kansas City Spirit,” has been around since about 1870. The underlining meaning was crafted by E.M. Clendening, around 1903. But the image that will forever be associated with it came as a result of another flood, the flood of 1951. Locally, the damage is remembered as, like in 1903, centered in the West Bottoms. In reality, over a three-day period the flooding covered more than 300 miles along the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries, from Wamego, KS east to St. Louis, Mo. Hallmark’s Founder, Joy C. Hall commissioned American’s most famous illustrator, Norman Rockwell, to capture the Kansas City spirit as a way of invoking the ideal and raising civic pride once again. The picture would be named “The Spirit of Kansas City.” Note the banner image at the top of this post. These are three of many of the sketches Rockwell produced and considered before selecting the final composition (below).

Rockwell’s finished painting

The image is remarkable on so many levels. First it is itself a collaboration, and the only collaborative painting of which Rockwell was ever a part. Collaboration has been a constant feature of the evolving definition of the Kansas City Spirit. The picture captures as best as can be hoped, the spectrum of industry that has – again in evolving forms – become the recognized character of Kansas City. Smoke stacks and sky scrapers fill the background. The airplane in the upper left heads west, while the locomotive in the lower right heads east. A shock of wheat, a stalk of corn, cattle in the pens make clear the foundational role of agriculture. Among the buildings, there’s a generic church, iconic government buildings with their deco touches, and some architectural references to the style of the Country Club Plaza. The only thing missing is the river. Given the prompting reason for the commission was the flood, its absence is understandable.

That background was painted by another Saturday Evening Post illustrator, John Atherton. But the central figure, “The Builder,” is classic Rockwell in detailed features, realistic rendering, and humanistic portrayal.  It’s easy to identify any number of fine traits in the man, but the ones that come to my mind are strength, confidence, insight, determination, and readiness. That’s just me. But I’m guessing most everyone’s word choices could fall under that larger category of “heroic.” Each of these ideas, or all of them, I would find easy to argue are part of the Kansas City Spirit.

But I take my final cue from one of the things E.M. Clendening said in his 1903 speech:

Unless you have [Civic Pride] in your hearts so deeply rooted that it will make you cheerful donors to a public enterprise, unless you value citizenship far more than the luxuries and comforts it buys for yourself, and your own family, and unless you have realized that you owe something to the community in which you live, you cannot hope to make a success of the proposition which you are about to launch.”

Joyce C. Hall, Founder of Hallmark Cards

As an early definition of the Kansas City Spirit, Clendening’s words align well with what has become the institutionalized definition, assigned in the dedication of the Rockwell painting, by Joyce C. Hall. For me, this is what began as and still is the definitive idea of the Kansas City Spirit.

The Kansas City Spirit is something to be found in good men’s hearts that enables them to place service above self to accomplish the impossible.

Joyce C. Hall, 1951

∞∞∞∞

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.

Auld Lang Syne

(KC 1900 Series: #16)

What with the string of events that had just transpired, the Democratic Convention had become the finish line for Kansas City. Keeping focus on the do-or-die task at hand made the successful completion of the 1900 Democratic Convention the big “ta-da” moment the city needed to pinch themselves into recognizing that they’d made it. They’d built a hall a second time, at an impressive pace, and they’d played host to some of the country’s most influential men of politics and the press.

The story of the Kansas City’s first convention hall, what it took to get it, and do it all over again, and the triumph of the Democratic convention was over. But of course, the life of the hall was just beginning, and beginning right in time for a most auspicious occasion.

In the ninety days available to rebuild the Convention Hall before the Democratic Party descended on Kansas City, it quickly became apparent that the hall might be serviceable for the convention by July 4, but it would be far from complete. That probably suited Kansas Citians just fine. When the first building had been completed, the opening day celebrations were left wanting. The general public was awed by this impressive building in which Kansas Citians felt invested. But with three frantic months of rebuilding the hall and preparing for the convention, there had been no time for Kansas City to congratulate itself on its monumental achievement. But now the convention was over, and an opportunity was on the near horizon which brought a reason to celebrate anew the Convention Hall, literally a once in a century opportunity.

The future looked bright for Kansas City at the start of the 20th century, at least from the point of view of the publisher of the Kansas City Times.

As those of us who experienced the beginning of the 21st century learned or were reminded, a decade, any decade, begins with the year ending in one, not zero. While the zero seems to make some sense aesthetically, since there is no year 0 the first year is always 1. So it was that the night 1999 ended and 2000 began, we were actually celebrating the beginning of the last year of the 20th century. But folks in the century before us must have been smarter than folks from 2000. They understood that the really important date of celebration for the shift from the 19th to the 20th century would be December 31, 1900, and that January 1, 1901 was the first year of the 20th century. And so to welcome in the century and to finally and properly welcome their new Convention Hall into the life of Kansas City, the Century Ball was planned for New Year’s Eve, 1900, to be held in the Convention Hall, of course.

The idea for the ball was presented and approved by the board on October 11, a mere eighty days before the event. Admittedly, for a town that had just built an entire building and planned a convention in 90 days, 80 days should be more than sufficient to plan a big party. The proceeds of the ball would go into the hall’s operating fund, although the Committee thought it best to focus the reason for the celebration on the important moment in history and that a specific – yet to be determined – ceremony would provide a nice theatrical touch to the celebration.

But first, there were some items on the to-do list. At the top, by the calendar at least, was the matter of post-fire subscriptions that had been pledged but never paid. The organizational structure of the convention hall was expanding – it now had its own Finance Committee, but still within the purview of the Commercial Club. The finance committee met the week after the Democratic Convention, on July 11, to discuss ways to collect those subscriptions. The pledges, particularly the larger ones, were needed immediately as the Convention Hall had only about $1,000 in its coffers, and needed to add $10,000 to the pot to finish off the work that couldn’t be completed in time for the Convention. That $10,000 was over and above the amount of past due subscriptions, about $14,500.

The July 11th minutes recount that the Secretary E.M. Clendening submitted a list of unpaid subscriptions, and that a special committee of four members of that committee were selected to meet personally with one of the slackers, none other than W.R. Nelson himself, who had made a showing of his largesse by committing to that pledge publicly in his newspaper the day of the fire. His pledge was for $5,000, almost one third of the total unpaid subscriptions. In a meeting of the committee a week later, a motion was approved to provide a list of the outstanding debts to the newspaper for publication, to be accompanied by a short description of why the money was so urgently needed.

For reasons not detailed in the record of the Convention Hall directors the following week, this resolution was proposed and adopted:

Dancers on the floor of the arena, as depicted in the Kansas City Times

WHEREAS; woman, in all crises affecting the home, the community and the nation, can always be relied on for material assistance and moral inspiration, and

WHEREAS, in the great task of rebuilding Convention Hall the Directory has been sustained and encouraged by the loyal support substantial, financial assistance and patriotic endeavor of the women of Kansas City,

THEREFORE: be it resolved by the Board of Directors of Convention Hall, that we extend to the Megaphone Belles, the Women’s Auxiliary, the Harmony Musical Club, and all the noble women who have assisted in forwarding the great enterprise of rebuilding Convention Hall, our sincere and grateful thanks for the magnificent services they have rendered in this crisis in the history of our City.

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

Based on the minutes and other corporate documents, the planning for the ball took up much of October, November and December, and the man hours of a remarkable number of committee members. So many, in fact, that the minutes reported that the committee would be wise to contact the newspapers to request that the names of committee members not be listed. This many people out in the community asking for advice, sometimes for favors, negotiating terms with vendors, could not help but spread the word about the Century Ball quickly, which would naturally result in requests for tickets in exchange for goods or services, or special requests for this accommodation or that many tickets, and so on. It was probably too late to stop the side deals, but keeping the wraps on the committee members’ names might stop the spread.

Ultimately, the committee took a similar approach to the arena floor tickets. The arena floor was the premium spot for the occasion, where everyone would be in their finest ballroom attire, where the band would play for the dancers, and where the finest of everything would be on offer to those who could afford the high price of that admission. The committee chose to extend invitations for the arena floor, presumably based on lists of names of the city’s wealthiest, most influential, and most generous citizens. When requests for those tickets came in, the policy was to inform interested parties that those tickets were by invitation only, and that the invitations were in the process of going out. Beyond that, there was nothing to be done. No amount of pleading, no side deal offers could materialize an invitation.

As the committee agreed, the ceremonial focus around the evening was this important date on the calendar, when not just a year or decade but an entire century was closing, and the promise of a new century lay just ahead. Arbitrary, it’s true, but the human instinct to mark the passage of time in significant increments makes it feel like the work is making itself anew. The impulse to bridge past, present and future is undeniable, and calls for ceremony. It’s recorded that the Decorations Committee for the Century Ball had been tasked with orchestrating the moment on stage that celebrates the moment in history, but no committee minutes or similar documents appeared to detail the discussion. Their choice was a fine one – tried and true and still in use today. The time capsule.

The time capsule was officially known as “the Century Box.” The box was built of heavy copper plates joined at the edges by ornamental brass trim, and measured 19 inches long,  15 inches wide, and a foot deep, sufficient to hold artifacts and messages. Another metal plate was affixed to the top, inscribed, “To the Mayor of Kansas City, Kindly Open the Enclosed” along with the date.   

Based on lists provided from various sources both at the time and later, the following pieces were part of the collection ceremonially placed in the Century Box in front of the crowd gathered at the Convention Hall the night of December 31, 1900:

The dinner menu for those who paid for the arena floor seating, the most expensive ticket for the night of the Century Ball.
  • Photographs of the forty-three men who were officers and directors of the Commercial Club during 1897 and 1898
  • A list of all the Century Ball committees and their members
  • Century Ball ephemera – badges, programs, tickets, menus and the like
  • Messages to future Kansas Citians, written out on small cards provided to the Century Ball attendees who had paid for the premium seating on the floor and in the boxes
  • A letter from Judge Charles E. Moss who proposed the Century Box as the ceremonial piece of the celebration. Judge Moss’ letter was purely tongue-in-cheek – it was addressed to the future President of the United States under the fanciful presumption that in 100 years, Kansas City would surely be the nation’s capital.
  • Letters from James A. Reed, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, and Robert L. Marshman, the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, both letters addressed to their future counterparts.
  • Similarly, letters from Fire Department Chief George Hale, Police Department Chief John Hayes, and other city officials, each letter addressed to their future counterparts as well.
  • City information, including the annual Fire Department report, the Police Blue Book (a sort of department directory) along with the department’s rules, the City’s Blue book, a State of Missouri handbook, and the annual Police Department reports.
  • The current city directory, assuring a great number of Kansas Citians that their names were included in the box.
  • The society blue book, featuring all the names, club affiliations, business affiliations and events of interest to those who followed Kansas City high society.
  • Various Kansas City newspapers
  • A poster from the 1899 American Royal. Note: The American Royal’s own history dates their origins to 1899, but at that time it was still known as the National Hereford Show.
  • Materials related to the Livestock Exchange
  • A program from the sausage makers’ ball
  • Examples of lacework and embroidery
  • Samples of local businesses’ advertising materials
  • The Masonic by-laws
  • An 1898 issue of Century magazine with a Maxfield Parrish cover illustration, as well as other magazines including Harper’s
  • A John Deere equipment catalog

The box was enclosed in the western most of the pillars that marked the main entrance at the south. It was covered by a plate, not be opened until the dawn of the 21st century. In the accounts of the fire and the second rebuilding, however, I found no mention of the Century Box. Some thirty years later, when the Municipal Auditorium was built adjacent to the Convention Hall site, the box was moved there, waiting patiently for the midnight toast to the new 21st Century. It would have to wait almost seventy years.

Kansas City Star’s front page depiction of the Century Ball’s costume dance, wherein many wore the fashions of the 18th century, in celebration of the 19th century’s departure and the 20th century’s arrival.

The 1900 Convention: Kansas City in the Spotlight

(KC 1900 Series: # 15)

And so the story finally reaches the day on which Kansas Citians had for so long pinned their hopes and dreams. Many had been convinced of its importance because they were assured that word would be sent far and wide about their wonderful city, how miraculous its resurrection had been, and how Kansas City was on the brink of a bright and unparalleled future.

Kansas City had already received a great deal of positive press and a genuine outpouring of support and sympathy across the nation for its recuperation from disaster. As to the other imaginings – how wonderful the city was, and the brightness of the city’s future, the wire stories that came out of the convention give a peak at the impression Kansas City was making on those in attendance – or at least the press in attendance.

On July 4, 1900, Kansas City played host to the Democratic National Convention. The city had long struggled to shake off a rough and tumble reputation glommed together from images of wagon trains, outlaw gangs and border wars. Indeed, even as it grew, connecting to rail lines, building the stockyards and linking the most disparate and distant places in the country, it remained a place on the way to somewhere, but with seemingly nothing to offer the country’s more sophisticated citizens.

This illustration published in the Kansas City Star during the three days of the Convention depicts shows the Convention Hall’s arena floor literally packed to the rafters with enthusiastic delegates and spectators.

Of course, that wasn’t true. By 1900, Kansas City was on its second generation of Eastern investors who had sent their sons and sons-in-law, their seconds-in-command and their hired advisors to come to Kansas City and figure out how best to invest in, and profit from, the growing markets Kansas City provided. And when these relative newcomers established themselves as community leaders side-by-side with those who had been here since “pioneer” days, the whines and moans of a collective inferiority complex were transformed into a community-wide determination for changing that image.

Securing the bid for the Democratic convention was the cherry on top of the sundae that was the city’s new Convention Hall. Originally, the hall had been planned for more commonplace – though important – conventions of trade and professional groups. But the City’s links with the eastern establishment gave it an opportunity to claim the Democrat’s big event with relative ease. They were officially notified only about a year prior to the convention, so the city went into overdrive to make the convention happen, at the same time remembering that this was their chance to emerge from the shadows and walk into the spotlight.

So how did Kansas City fare? It almost didn’t matter what Kansas City did or didn’t do to fashion the particular image of the city they wanted the world to see. As it has ever been and will be, it was the press that fashioned the image. And in the process, they give us a glimpse into what Kansas City was like that wouldn’t necessarily have been mentioned in the local press. What follows are some selected passages from field reports by correspondents from three major New York papers of the day – the New York Times, the New York Tribune, and the New York Sun that follow several themes. The newspaper accounts below have been condensed and conflated around these themes, and are taken from editions of each paper during the first week of July, 1900.

Advertising cards were a great way for local saloons, hotels and entertainments to entice the out-of-towners to the places in Kansas City that had given the town its well-deserved “rough and rowdy” reputation.

“Wide Open Town”

Kansas City is a wide open town, whatever else you can say about it. Conventions don’t interfere a little bit with the regular order of things on Sunday out here. {If} there is any stranger within Kansas City’s gates tonight who doesn’t have a good time it is because he doesn’t want it. 

Kansas City seems to be the paradise of the nickel-in-the-slot machines and similar automatic gambling devices. Besides the cigar stores and saloons, the drug stores, newsstands, restaurants, theatres and every other place where the public may be expected to gather is fully equipped with machines of one kind or another. In the barrooms there are machines for winning drinks and cigars on either end of the bars and away from the bars there are other machines where you can gamble for the nickel that your less fortunate brothers have dropped in and failed to get back. These machines would not be tolerated a minute in New York. No one wins by playing them.

How is it that we have not heard of this before? New York has a reputation for extreme wickedness, and we are painfully aware that we are none too good. But New York does refrain, nominally, and, to some extent, really, from many forms of Sunday amusement that Kansas City permits, and yet Kansas City does not get its name into the magazines. In some respects it is a great advantage to be little, unimportant, and inconspicuous.

The City Beautiful

The bar room fad of Kansas City just at present is cut glass displays. In many of the most popular and prosperous of these places there is a most elaborate selection of beautiful cut glass, consisting of punch bowls, vases, flower dishes, etc., piled up in the middle of the shelf behind the bar, in one of the places where an exhibit of cut glass is made it is placed upon a revolving shelf and is a very attractive sight, as it shines and sparkles in the rays of the electric light and is duplicated in the many mirrors of all sides of the room. In the smaller places the glass exhibit is stationary and not so expensive, but the general idea seems to prevail all over the town.

A modern colorization of the original Pergola on The Paseo Boulevard at 11th Street. Though the quote (right) references “Grand Boulevard,” by its description the writer was describing The Paseo, one of the earliest developments in the Parks & Boulevard Department’s “Kessler Plan,” begun in 1893.

Kansas City is not all made up of hotels, theatres, barrooms and places of that kind. It has some beautiful spots where quiet, modest people live who know nothing of politics and care as little. These pleasant breathing spots are scattered here and there, mostly on the bluffs that line all sides of the city, and there is one place that is unique. There is the Grand Boulevard that is ten squares long and contains green grass and fountains and attractive walks and drives all around and about it. There are pillars and arcades, too, of Grecian architecture, and during this hot Sunday the benches that line the walks were filled with men, women and children in their best clothes, looking as if they were all having a good time in spite of the trouble down at the political centres.

A perpetual source of delight to convention visitors is the attention which is paid by the average Kansas City householder of modest means to the cultivation of flowers. They are seen in window boxes in little area plots abutting on the pavement, in more ample beds on the lawns and along the walls and fences, on hundreds of trellises may be seen the beautiful purpose clematis, which is now in season, while the crimson rambler, with its clusters of diminutive roses, is just closing a brilliant and successful engagement. The hollyhocks are in bloom and are seen in pleasant profusion and in great variety of colors.

How Kansas City Runs Her Railroads

There are a lot of mighty sore people in town today who don’t like the way Kansas City runs her railroads. It is the custom in this town to start the last car from each terminus at 12 o’clock midnight. That this was the custom was not generally known, and when, at half past 11 o’clock last night, when it was still hotter than mustard, and growing hotter, the people who did not have anything else to do but search for ways to keep cool, took to the street cars. They intended that they should go to the end of the line and come back. They went to the end of the lines all right and those who are kicking today discovered when they go there that the last car had gone. The ends of the Kansas City street car lines are most of them miles away from the city itself and these unfortunates were held up with no means of getting to town but to walk. The Hon. C.A. Walsh, secretary of the Democratic National Committee, was one of the victims. Mr. Walsh got out on the end of one line that ends somewhere near Independence, Mo. The conductors said when he got there, “We turn in here.”

“Thunder,” said Mr. Walsh. “How am I going to get back to town?”

“Don’t know, and care less,” said the conductor, cheerfully.

Walsh got off and snapped back at the conductor, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know where you wanted to go,” said the conductor, and Mr. Walsh started trundling the miles back to the city. He was in luck, for he had not gone far when he found a telephone and he got a hack to come out for him. It was 2 o’clock before he got to his hotel. In many cases people were not able to find telephones and they had to walk it clear in.

A portly office holder from Greater New York, after enjoying a two hours’ session in a cool lager beer resort, started for his hotel about midnight. When about to cross the street an open car bowled along, and the New Yorker soliloquized: “Guess I’ll take a ride.” He did. The car took him to the Kansas line, and alighting, he waited expectantly for another to convey him back to the Midland (Hotel). After waiting fifteen minutes he made inquiry of a policeman and learned that no cars would go out until morning. Then he trudged along and heartily cussed the railroad company.

“Kansas City is All Right.”

This spirit of hospitality exists everywhere in this town, and the verdict on all sides is “Kansas City is all right.” The men are just as kindly as the women. Here if a stranger’s face wears an inquiring look…the citizen will ask him if there is anything that he can do. If the stranger wants to go anywhere, the man tells him how many hills away it is, or very likely he will accompany him there and that, too.

In the era of the “big hat,” it shouldn’t be surprising that someone designed this wearable marvel in celebration of the opening of the Democratic Convention, Note, too, that she wears one of the subscription buttons like a broach on her collar.

They are very swift people out here in Kansas City. You can get almost anything while you wait. Right opposite [from] the Baltimore Hotel, there is a tailor shop where you go in and get measured for a suit of clothes and get it before dark the same day. At the hotel if you want to get your clothes cleaned and pressed, they will do it for you in fifteen minutes. Of course, every Eastern man who comes here has had to have his clothes cleaned and pressed. The tailor shops in the hotels have this sign: “We fix you up while you eat or sleep.” The laundries in the hotel get clothes in the morning and return them before noon. On Walnut Street there is a sign in front of a doctor’s office: “We diagnose your case without asking questions.”

Kansas City expects a lot of women at this convention. Many delegates and leaders have sent word that they intend to bring their wives and the Kansas City women have made up their minds to give them a good time. The Athenaeum of Kansas City will throw open its house at Ninth and Locust streets, and it has invited all the women’s clubs of the city to help entertain the ladies who come here to attend the convention. All the women are going to wear lavender badges with a ribbon of red, white and blue. Like the badges the Kansas City men wear here, the badges of the Athenaeum women will contain the words: “Ask me anything you would like to know.”

The hospitality is genuine. It is kindly and not obtrusive. And visitors will go away from Kansas City with a warm spot in their hearts for the people here.

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This political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly from the week of the Kansas City Convention is a master-class in squeezing as much political symbolism into a single panel as possible.

As to the politics involved at the 1900 Convention, I leave to others to dissect, to the real historians who have devoted their time and talents to the stories of William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, “the Cross of Gold,” the McKinley/Bryan rivalry and the short-lived Roosevelt/Bryan rivalry following President McKinley’s assassination shortly after his second term inauguration in 1901, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt’s sudden start on what would become one of the most interesting and influential presidencies in American history. See what I mean? A lot of history there, and Kansas City was just a small early part of that.

Also, none of that has anything has anything to do with Kansas City’s history.

But another story does, if it is in fact true. The local democrats were not only contractually saddled with underwriting much of the hospitality costs involved, they were challenged to provide the convention with a large number of volunteers for various roles. The best assignments of course went to the party’s most faithful and most generous supporters. Something as small as serving as a page on the convention floor, a grunt assigned to be available to help delegates with anything they needed whenever they needed it?

Well, that was an assignment for a youngster, maybe one whose interest in politics was just beginning, and would relish this chance to play a small part in history in the making. Perhaps even one without ambition, one who’d never imagined himself as playing a large part in history. Certainly not as President of the United States.

Such, as the story goes, was President Harry S Truman’s first entry into the world of politics. But note that even though this story is (or has been) made available through the Truman Library’s website, a conversation with staff there revealed that they themselves could not identify the source of that information. If that story isn’t true, it should be.

Young Harry Truman, probably a few years before he served as a page at the 1900 Democratic Convention in Kansas City

Causes and Effects

(KC 1900 Series: #14)

(photo above: In the background, the gutted remains of the fire’s victims. From Left to right, Second Presbyterian Church (steeple & attached), unidentified residential or commercial building on Broadway, Lathrop School, Convention Hall (long row of arches), partial view of the Williamson block flats directly north of the hall. In the center a small crowd next to some of the few salvageable materials, and foreground and right, small lots with stables, worksheds, small houses, etc., and larger tenement housing)

In this dual-topic post, it’s time to consider causes and effects of the Convention Hall Fire. The Causes segment refers to the single, technical causes of the fire, plain and simple. On the other hand, the fire’s Effects are varied and nuanced. How does a major disaster affect the morale, the economy, the priorities of a city? Whose reputations would rise or sink as a result of the calamity? And the city’s reputation, how was that effected, and would it also effect the city’s ability to keep the all-important Democratic Convention, scheduled to open exactly 3 months to the date after the fire?

Let me be clear right up here. There were no conspiracies or heinous crimes behind the fire. And there are no singular heroic deeds of sacrifice and bold action in resurrecting the hall. But there are some fascinating backstories that I’ve never seen in any of the modern accounts of the event. It’s possible I’ve missed them, but not for lack of searching.

Causes

An ad from the Kansas City Star the day after the fire. In the ad copy, the store plays off descriptors of its hats as “hot,” “bright,” and “radiant” in appearance, causing effects like “combustible,” to make a weak and exploitive connection between a hat sale and a civic disaster. However, not the first to do so, and more than a century later clearly not the last.

The Convention Hall fire consumed virtually any possible evidence of the cause of the fire. Even if there had been evidence, forensic investigation in this era was limited Inevitably then, the exact cause of the fire was never determined, but it was officially declared accidental.

The most likely cause was electrical, based on the most informed comments quoted in the paper in the days following the fire. It was disclosed in the editions of the Star on the evening of the fire and the next evening that well before the fire, back when the building was nearing completion, the wiring was deemed to be inadequate by industry standards, even though the city inspectors had approved it. They approved it because the city’s building codes process had been followed, even though it was out of date. The wiring contractors, the H.R. Electric Company and the electrical engineering firm, Hodge, Walsh & Loring, had installed the wiring as directed by the plans. Before they could be paid, the city’s electrician and the insurance underwriters had to approve the work. Insurance for the hall had been underwritten by many companies so as to minimize the risk to any one company. The underwriters and the city inspectors all approved the work, and the contractors were paid.

Subsequently, Frank Fetter step forward to dispute those approvals. Fetter was the manager of a bureau that was not named but according to the Star, was where “all the insurance companies get their information about building.” Fetter pronounced the wiring as inadequate.

“It was done after a fashion that is prohibited by the national underwriters,” Fetter said. “The rules do not permit running as many lights from one wire as they insisted upon running. I don’t know that the electric wires caused the fire, but where so many lights run from one wire the current runs to 300 or 400 ampheres, and that produces heat.”

Carbon arc lamps, like the ones used in the Convention Hall, were the first electric light bulbs to be developed and made commercially available. These examples are from the 1880s.

The wires to which Fetter objected serviced 3,200 arc lights. Arc lights were used then for lighting large spaces, like factory floors or arenas. They were also used to bring intense light to small areas, like the stage in the Convention Hall. All it would take is for just one lamp in the string to malfunction and overheat, conducting that heat through the length of the wire and igniting fire along any combustible surface it encountered, which was most of the interior of the hall. The arc light wiring connected at the main junction on the building’s northwest corner, creating a probable place for ignition and for spreading throughout the building quickly..

An electrical fire would explain the fire’s ability to move as it did throughout the building without creating the kind of billowing smoke that a rubbish fire usually makes. The fire had to have been burning for a long time to create enough heat to cause the front of Lathrop School to be hot to the touch even before the fire broke through the roof of the Convention Hall.

Eye witness accounts corroborated Fetter’s theories. There were witnesses inside the hall at the time, who saw the blaze’s beginnings. The men were C.B. Norton, a local wholesale jeweler, and his two out-of-town customers, E.V. Moorsel and R.J. Maulsby. When the visitors expressed an interest in the new hall, Norton offered to take them to see it over the lunch hour. In a newspaper account shortly after the fire, Norton recalls they entered the building just before 1:00 pm. They walked right in, entering the building from the southeast corner, passing only a few other people. Everything seemed normal until they reached the center of the large arena floor and, looking around, saw the flames at the northwest corner near the stage. Even after they could hear shouting in the street and a voice that said the fire had been called in, they remained a few minutes more to watch the fire progress. “The tongues of flame that were just starting their work when we first saw them rapidly grew into blazing sheets that climbed up the sounding board and ate their way to the roof,” Norton told the Star reporter. “The area of the blaze broadened on all sides and the entire north end of the hall became a mass of flaming red as we watched. The blaze reached the ropes that supported the curtain and ate them away. The big roll of canvas fell with a crash that shook the building and as the sparks became too numerous we hasted from the building and took a stand at the church corner. We were driven from there a few moments later by the sparks and heat together.”

Effects

Without its first-class venue, there was great doubt, locally and across the country, whether Kansas City could find the capacity to hold the convention, particularly given it was scheduled to open in just three months. There were three major threats to Kansas City’s goal of holding the Democratic Convention on schedule:

These clippings and two others appeared in April 5, 1900 edition of the Star. Simultaneous assurances from the National party, on demand site inspection, and the threat of other cities luring the convention away kept Kansas City having to defend from multiple angles
  • The efforts of other cities to convince the national party they would be better off changing plans now and selecting another site for the convention.
  • The financing of the new building, which had to be in place soon so work could get started and keep moving.
  • Revisions to the design to improve fire protection, and the actual rebuild, which had the usual odds of facing problems with labor, materials, scheduling, and weather, just to name a few.

Democratic Convention:

If the Democratic Party backed out, local enthusiasm for the rebuild project almost certainly would wane. The purses of the corporate financiers and the common citizens would snap shut. It might never again be possible to regain the civic commitment to a Convention Hall, and if that weren’t bad enough, a large empty chunk of downtown Kansas City would remain a sad reminder of failure.

The “Imperial Brochure” prepared as a promo piece for the Democratic Conventioneers had to be printed before the building was completed. They chose to use a photo of the original building (and identified it as such), with a footnote stating the building was in the process of being built.

Almost immediately, it became clear that some elements of the building would have to be temporary, only serviceable for the term of the convention, and subsequently made permanent after the convention was over. As part of considering the possibility of a temporary facility, immediately upon hearing about the fire representatives came from St. Louis came to Kansas City, ostensibly to give advice on the quick construction of a hall, having recently completed a similar but much smaller venue in seventy days. St. Louis assured Kansas City that it came only to help its Missouri sister city. Should Kansas City decide to build a temporary structure, they were welcome to use St. Louis’ plans. Said a member of the St. Louis advisory delegation, “I don’t believe there is a business man in St. Louis who did not feel a genuine sorrow when he heard of Kansas City’s loss yesterday. We here want to do everything we can and offer every encouragement to her at this time. St. Louis doesn’t want to be put down in the vulture class, like Cincinnati and Milwaukee, who were hovering over your town, asking for the convention before your building had ceased to burn, but if it is found that Kansas City cannot handle it we will make an attempt to keep it in Missouri. We have a hall not quite as large as your Convention Hall, but it is big enough.”

Even as firefighters and laborers worked to clean up the disaster site, the city of Cincinnati was letting it be known through the Associated Press that it was interested, as was Kansas City’s rival in the final round, Milwaukee. But the same day as the fire, the Star ran a small piece, “Will Meet Here Anyway.” The article was filled with mostly reservedly hopeful statements of various members of the Democratic Party higher-ups, from Missouri’s former Governor Stone to the Secretary of the Democratic Executive Committee. But the most affirming statement came from the secretary of the Democratic Executive Committee, who offered, “Any person who has come in contact with the business men of Kansas City must have been impressed with the fact that the town contains a higher degree of public spirit than any other city in the United States, and I believe the people there will provide suitable accommodations for the national Democratic convention. It seems to me that the national committee will certainly aid them in every way in its power.”

And while the Democratic Party did not have to step in to play a direct role in getting Kansas City ready for the convention, the Party’s reiteration of its plan was enough to quash any serious discussion of moving the convention, which immediately helped solidify Kansas City’s attempts to start rebuilding the hall right away.

Finance:

It may sound like local myth or great press, but it is absolutely true that as soon as the Commercial Club crowd heard the Convention Hall was on fire, they set about raising money all over again. While reports differ slightly, the figure that came up most frequently was that they were able to raise (not hard cash, but firm commitments) about $35,000 before the fire was extinguished. The Commercial Club was not alone in this spontaneous fundraising, but having been the flag bearer for the first Convention Hall, it was natural and inevitable that the lead of the rebuilding movement would position the Commercial Club members and staff as the public faces of the effort.

There was a critical need for financing as soon as possible because there was an even greater need to demonstrate to the city, the nation and most of all, the Democratic Party that Kansas City could rebuild. The rebuild would turn out to be considerably cheaper than the original, because big ticket items among the original expenses like the property acquisition, the predevelopment steps, and the design wouldn’t be repeated. But the speed required to do the work would add back costs when it came to expediting materials. The construction estimate was already about $180,000, with no contingency attached. The insurance on the building amounted to $150,050. The coverage was spread among 92 different companies, many responsible for only $500 each, and eleven responsible for between $4,000 and $5,000 apiece. The Building Committee had another $10,000 in the bank. And though there had originally been some hope of salvaging some of the trusses, they were declared unusable, but would be scrapped for another $8,000. The $35,000 in subscriptions that was collected from the public in those first days after the fire took the total available funds to about $203,000.

The Commercial Club probably would have been able to cover the costs based on the money from all sources they had in hand in the first week. But, since no one yet knew what the final cost would be, because any remaining money could be used for additional investment in the building now or in the future, and because the public subscription drive was, as it had originally been, the best way of making sure the citizens of Kansas City felt truly invested in the success of the “people’s building,” the decision was made to continue the subscription drive.

Design/Build:

The new steel trusses for the rebuild of Convention Hall #2 go up, even as the old trusses wait in front to be hauled away by the salvagers.

One of the overarching effects of the fire on the city was the doubt cast by many that it wouldn’t be possible to rebuild the hall in three months. Some of the most persuasive voices were noted architects and builders in the city, who seemed to be in agreement that it would be an “absolutely impossibility,” according to the newspaper. Their reason was the steel, which everyone believed could not be fabricated to specifications and shipped to Kansas City in time..

The architectural plans would need some revision, but not before the basic construction could begin. So it was decided that Frederick Hill, the architect who had designed and built the original hall, would be retained for the rebuild. Commercial Club Secretary Clendening took the lead on contacting the metal manufacturing companies, to determine the earliest possible date for duplicating the ironwork and steel trusses. He contacted one company in Minneapolis about the ironwork, but the steel trusses were more imperative, and more difficult to have produced quickly. Several other members of the Commercial Club, with one connection or another to a short list of three national steel producers, reached out to them about their ability to meet Kansas City’s needs. While the others were still contemplating and calculating what it would take to produce the trusses, the Carnegie works in Pittsburg responded, pledging to produce three trusses deliverable in six weeks, and three more every week until the work was completed. The directors wasted no time, and voted to accept the Carnegie proposal.

The one and a half million board feet for the original building had been furnished by the Kansas City Lumber Company. When contacted by Chairman Campbell of the original Building Committee, company Secretary and Commercial Club member George Gray not only pledged that the lumber would be provided on schedule, but that the cost would be the same as it had been when construction on the original hall in 1897. In the four years that had since passed, the price of lumber had risen nearly forty percent.

The Building Committee and the Hall’s Board of Directors may have seen these early offers as signs of victory over the greatest challenges they faced in meeting their July 4 deadline. But in the way of almost every construction project completed since perhaps the Pyramids, the usual snags and delays kept the board and committee members individually involved in making the project work. Carnegie’s pledge for the trusses fell apart when they failed to meet the schedule they proposed. The job scheme had been designed for an efficiency that presumed each trade would follow the other in proper sequence, working in sequence from the south end of the hallto the north. When installation of the trusses, one of the most basic building elements, was delayed, it stalled every trade in the queue behind it. And beyond their delay, even when the trusses arrived, the crew that had been hired to salvage the burned trusses that littered the worksite was barely making any progress.

Finally there were problems with the laborers. Because of Carnegie’s failure to produce, the contract was given to Gillette-Herzog from Minneapolis, who brought their own non-union workers to install the trusses. The work, they explained, was better done by those with the specialized training, which, given the company’s area of expertise, the workers definitely had. They added they also had hired a few of the top men from the local unions. Labor disputes of all types continued through the rebuilding of the Hall. It’s a complicated story involving all the trades, with continuous lockouts creating a herky-jerky feel to the pace of progress. The Commercial Club and their supporters simply wanted to have the hall ready by July 4. The various labor unions and industrial councils wanted to remind the community of promises made and speeches given underscoring the project as the “people’s building,” in every sense of the word, including its provision of a working wage for all the laborers on the site – union and non-union. And contractors were anxious about meeting their individual deadlines, and thereby avoiding any financial penalties.

In the end, Gillette-Herzog finished installing the steel trusses three weeks ahead of their promised deadline of June 21, and the work now progressed smoothly from the south end to the north. The labor disputes were resolved in time to get to the hall completed sufficiently for the Democratic Convention. And though victory was declared, and no real mention of the matter was made during the convention, the hall was, in fact, incomplete, and many of the interior spaces and fixtures were barely finished enough to be serviceable.

The hall would not be complete until the end of the year, just in time for the city’s end-of-the century New Year’s Eve celebration. They would call it the Century Ball.

The Kansas City Convention Hall Fire, Moment by Moment

(KC 1900 Series: # 13)

The Great Kansas City Convention Hall Fire is about to start. And those who were there will tell the fire’s story. The accidental witnesses, the denizens of the boarding houses and shops in the vicinity, the newspaper reporters, the civic leaders all have a view to share. There were so many, in fact, that their pieced together stories provide a continuous story of the day, raising this event from a common conflagration to an influential milestone in the city’s history, and deservedly so.

Thanks to the exhaustive reporting of the Kansas City Star and other local papers, as well as an excellent retrospective that appeared in the Star fifty seven years after the event and a few other miscellaneous sources, it is possible to capture the big and small moments over the course of the day from multiple points of view. The March 31, 1957 Star retrospective, “The Fire that Gave Birth to The Kansas City Spirit 57 Years Ago,” was written by Henry Van Brunt. Van Brunt was a well-known architect who had submitted a design proposal for the hall in 1898 at the start of what became a long, distinguished career.

Monday, April 2, 1900: Two days before the fire

That evening, the Chief of the Fire Department, George Hale, came to the Convention Hall to meet with some of his men, in anticipation of the National Democratic Convention, still three months away. That same night, the local Democratic Party was meeting at the hall, to plan the individual events of the convention in the spaces where they were to occur.

Fire Chief George Consider Hale

Hale walked with his men around the arena, assessing the hall for fire hazard concerns related to the convention. As the firefighters toured the building, Hale noticed piles of old straw under the arena balcony, some empty paper boxes and other debris in a corner, left behind after a recent event, and the number of people inside – workers and visitors both – freely smoking. Smoking was prohibited inside the building but the rule was rarely observed. Hale immediately called the hall’s manager, J.P. Loomas, to the site and ordered the mess cleaned up as soon as possible. Loomas promised to attend to it first thing in the morning, so Hale kept watch by the piles for the remainder of the evening.

Tuesday, April 3: One day before the fire

As directed by Chief Hale the prior evening, J.P. Loomas put a crew on clearing the debris under the balcony. He later told the Star, “I had the old paper and rubbish carried away so that the place had been cleaned thoroughly the day before the fire. Except that there was tobacco on some of the floors that had not been cleaned since the Democrats had their big meeting Monday night, the building was cleaner than it had been, I might say, since it was built.”

Also that day, the city had elected its 32nd mayor. Democrat James A. Reed succeeded Republican James M. Jones, and would be sworn in two weeks later.

Wednesday, April 4: Morning of the fire

Four carpenters and a plumber were working on the flooring in the building’s interior roof garden. A group of boys who had been hired as part of the janitorial crew were working on small jobs about the building. When interviewed later by Fire Chief Hale, the boys said they had seen two men walking around inside the building smoking cigars in the late morning. The boys ordered them to leave, but the men ignored them. It is worth noting that the story the boys told was later corroborated by Chief Hale, and so was deemed credible. It is also worth noting that the boys were identified in the newspaper account as “negroes.” That, and the fact they were young boys likely accounts for why their order to leave the building was ignored, and the fact that they did not press the point further.

12:00 pm: An hour before the fire

Noon brought the lunch hour. Three janitors were inside the building, taking a break. The building manager, Loomas, went home for his meal. Despite the blustery southwest wind and the mid-day chill of early spring, the sun was shining and the downtown sidewalks were filled with people going about their lives.

12: 45 pm: The fire starts

The likely source of the start of the fire was identified at the time as the northwest corner of the building, where the boiler and circuit rooms were located. Picture of Convention Hall is oriented so that north is to the left.

Based on the investigation that followed the event, the actual fire likely started somewhere around 12:45. It must have traveled quickly through the building. The first sightings all focused on the northwest corner. There were two potential sources of heat or combustion housed in adjacent rooms in that northwest corner – the circuit room and the boiler room. Whatever the source, the fire likely used the wiring to start spreading out, slowly igniting the wooden elements as it went, until there was sufficient fire to break through the roof, where the flames were fanned by the strong southeast wind.

1:00 pm: Flames sighted

At 12th and Broadway, just a block north of the hall, someone outside the Eyssell Drug Store spotted smoke coming from the northwest corner of the hall. At 1:00 pm, the store clerk made the first call to the fire department. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, the janitors inside the hall discovered the fire, and made another call to the fire department.

At the Lathrop School, just across from the hall on the west side of Central, lunch period was over and the study bell at the school had just rung. About 200 students were at school that day. Principal J.A.Barnard looked out his window and saw flames and smoke right across the street, coming from the Convention Hall. Walking toward the school from the schoolyard where students had gathered before the bell, the teachers and students saw fire too. Barnard ran to the front entrance only to discover the front façade of the school was already hot. Embers at first, then pieces of wood on fire floated with the wind and settled around the school.  As teachers and students came down the stairs toward the front entrance, Barnard directed them to the back door, away from the fire. Some of the teachers and children who were still outside first headed for the front door, but by then the school had caught fire, so they ran north on Central. No serious injuries were reported, but the newspaper noted that “the pupils nearly all lost their schoolbooks.”

A view of the gutted Lathrop School, looking through the east wall of the Convention Hall, through the hall’s interior to the school sitting on the west side of Central Street.

Sitting just south of the Lathrop School and across Central from the south entrance to the hall was the sanctuary and the parsonage of Second Presbyterian Church. The school and the church buildings were most likely ignited by the flames from the south end of the hall, so the church likely caught fire shortly after the school.

1:05 pm: Fire engines head to the fire

No picture of firemen on the scene of the Convention Hall fire could be found, but this 1893 photo of another downtown KC fire shows the KC Fire Department at work.

Fire Chief Hale was enjoying his luncheon in a downtown eatery, having left Assistant Chief Alexander Henderson in charge at the department’s headquarters at 8th and Walnut. Henderson led the first crew to respond to the call. The minute the team left the firehouse, Henderson could see the smoke billowing above the buildings in the direction of the convention hall eight blocks away to the southwest, and he called back to the men on watch in the firehouse to give the second alarm.

More calls started flooding in, including one from Edward H. Murray, a sign painter, who saw the smoke from the back door of his shop at 13th and Main, about two blocks east of the hall. According to Murray the first fire engines arrived on the scene nine minutes after he called in the alarm.

1:10 pm: Reporters on the scene

Peck’s Dry Goods Store at the NE corner of 11th and Baltimore, would have been only two blocks east and two blocks north of the fire.

On the fifth floor offices of Peck Dry Goods Store at 11th and Baltimore, Charles Blood, editor of the Star’s regular feature, “Forty Years Ago,” was waiting for Mr. Peck. Peck’s had provided one of the prizes for the Convention Hall’s subscription drive – a pedigree English bulldog named Buckskin Pritscher, and Mr. Blood, the winner, was there to pick up the dog’s certification. Mr. Blood was waiting by the window when he noticed a plume of smoke in the general direction of the Convention Hall, quickly followed by the clang of the fire wagon bells and the sound of galloping hooves on the cobblestone streets below. Fires being fairly common , Blood paid no particular heed until he left the Peck building and came out on Main Street, just as another fire engine raced past him. He watched the horses as they turned to climb the 11th Street hill, and then noticed the growing mob following in the fire engine’s wake. Blood followed the crowd until he reached the Kansas City Club at 12th and Wyandotte, only a half block from the hall.

The Kansas City Club

Another reporter, Louis Shouse with the Kansas City Times, was walking down Baltimore when one of the first fire engines came by, led by Dan and Joe, the horse team that Chief Hale and his men had made famous at the international firefighter competitions in recent years. The horses headed up 10th Street, then turned south on Central. In a 1950 edition of the Star commemorating Kansas City’s 100th anniversary, Shouse recalled the moment.

“By the time I reached Twelfth Street, flames were bursting out of the roof of the hall…It soon became plain that there was not a chance of saving any part of the building…Exposition buildings of this type had in them enough wood to create such terrific heat that the thousands of panes of glass melted to a liquid and the steel girders twisted like strips of tin…”

1:15 pm: Word spreads far and wide

Twelfth Street was flooded with onlookers who, along with Mr. Blood of the Star, were catching their first glimpse of the fire by peering down the alley between the north end of the hall and a row of boarding houses known as the Williamson block. But by then, there was little to see of the hall but “smoke and ashes and stark, twisted girders.”  Mr. Blood looked at his watch. It was 1:15 pm, just 15 minutes after the first call, and about 30 minutes after the fire had started.

It could not have taken more than ten minutes for at least the first two fire engines to arrive on the scene. However, it is true that there were some engine teams – one from the West Bottoms was mentioned in the reports – that had trouble getting to the site of the fire quickly. Poor equipment, steep terrain and aged horses all played a part in the delays. At the fire, the water was woefully under pressured. There was also one report that one of the hoses had become disconnected and that for nearly ten minutes there was no water being sprayed on the fire. But none of this likely would have changed the outcome. When Assistant Chief Henderson and his men arrived, first on the scene, it was already too late to save the hall.  From the Star:

“When we reached the hall,” [Henderson] said, “the heat was so terrific that we never got inside the building. It was a blessing to the firemen that we did not, for if it had been possible for human beings to stand the heat I would have sent those boys into the building and they wouldn’t have hesitated to go. Every fireman who was there contributed to the building of the hall and had the interest in it that a man has in his own property. But we never got nearer than across the street. The men dragged one line of hose across 13th Street, but the heat drove them away, and before the water could be turned on or the hose dragged back the hose was burned to pieces.” The fire was so intense that there was really no need for the rope blockades the fire department had put in front of the crowds: the heat was enough to keep everyone far back from the fire.

Fifteen minutes after the first report of the fire had come through the phone company’s Central exchange, word of the disaster had passed to towns all over the region. Between the calls from locals wanting to know what was happening, and the newspapers from all over the area trying to call in for information, the Central exchange reportedly set records for the number of calls handled within an hour. The Star reported the manager of the exchange claimed, “Our operators were so busy that several of the girls fainted from exhaustion. It was by far the busiest day in the history of the system.”

Kansas City Star’s office, 1908

Meanwhile, Charles Blood headed back to the Kansas City Star’s offices, but first stopped to talk with some of the men he knew who had come out of the Kansas City Club to witness the fire. The men were collecting money from people in the crowd, money that was then stuffed into envelopes. When Charles Blood asked the men what they were doing, they answered they were starting a fund for donations to rebuild the hall, just as they had done for the one that now lay in ruins. The hall, they reminded Blood, had to be rebuilt in time for the Democratic Convention, just 90 days away.

1:30 pm: Breaking news

Charles Blood raced all the way to the Star’s offices, and up the inside stairs until he found William Rockhill Nelson himself in conference with city editor Ralph Stout. Blood would later claim to be the first to tell Nelson about the fire, even though it would be reported later that there were already 34 reporters on the scene by this time. Blood noted how both men were stunned to hear the awful news, and in a retrospective on the fire in 1857, the author, Henry Van Brunt’s account reported that the story Blood told brought tears to Nelson’s eyes. While that might be hyperbole, it is important to remember that this was more than a major newspaper story to Nelson. This was one of the major civic projects where he used the Star’s position and influence to promote broad community support for something he believed was absolutely necessary for Kansas City’s growth. So when Blood further told him about the fund raising efforts that were already underway, Nelson declared this would be the feature of the paper’s evening story on the fire. The evening edition did focus on the donations, and reported that already, almost before the fire was extinguished, Kansas Citians had contributed more than $30,000 for reconstruction. This time, the largest contribution that first day came from the Kansas City Star.

By 1:30 a fire engine arrived at the south end of the hall, only to spot a workman on the roof. It took four long minutes to raise the ladder to the roof, and in that four minutes the wind had shifted and was quickly spreading the fire southward. The workman (identified only as Roby in the Star, but as James Brennan in the Kansas City Gazette), and the fireman who climbed the ladder to reach him both came down unharmed.

Convention Hall interior, post fire. Based on the plan, these doors likely led to offices or coat rooms.

When the roof had burned nearly all the way to the south end, Charles Blanton, a janitor at the hall and a black man, made a daring decision. His boss, J.P. Loomas, having gone to lunch, had locked the door to his office near the front (south) end of the building. Blanton knew the office held the hall’s most important records. Many were in a safe, but as to the rest, he broke into the office and took as much as he could hold in his arm, rescuing these papers from the fire. Included among the papers were correspondence, invoices, contracts, photos and other documents that told the early history of the Convention Hall, some of which served as invaluable resources for this series on the Convention Hall fire.

1:45 pm: A complete loss

The far south end of the Convention Hall, the last part of the building to catch fire, finally succumbed. It crashed onto 13th Street, taking with it the brick Corinthian columns that had become a signature feature of the hall. And with that, at last, the remainder of the ceiling and the burned twisted trusses crashed to the floor of the burned out shell that had only moments before been the building that was the pride of Kansas City. As if choreographed, at the same moment, just across Central the tall graceful steeple of the 2nd Presbyterian Church leaned to the west and collapsed almost silently while suddenly sending up a column of sparks and smoke.

2::00 pm: More devastation

The north end of the Convention Hall, see from the interior. The building with multiple chimneys just beyond the hall’s north wall is the Williamson block

The wind-stoked flames and the flying embers and debris caught the Williamson block on fire. The Williamson block consisted of six different boarding houses, directly north of the hall along 12th Street. Firemen evacuated the buildings as quickly as possible, while some residents stayed behind to save belongings. Eventually, however, though the block was a total loss, the residents were all safe.

The 1200 block of Broadway, the stretch directly west of and behind the 2nd Presbyterian Church and the Lathrop School caught fire, too. The fire eventually reached six private homes, the Arklow boarding house, Carey’s book store, A.G. Gardner’s tailor shop, Wolf’s meat market, the Hotel Cunningham, and Eysell’s Drug Store, where the original call to the fire department had been made just an hour before.

As the occupants of the Broadway buildings struggled to save whatever possible by dragging their belongings into the street, linemen were working to cut the wires along both 12th and 13th Streets, creating a level of chaos and a threat of electrocution that the police department struggled to control.

Crowds gather outside the east wall of the Convention Hall, even before the fire was under control.

2:30 pm: It’s over

The fire was finally contained and with the exception of a few remaining hot spots, nearly extinguished. The crowds moved back to their position next to the ropes that kept them from harm’s way, straining to get a look at the extent of the damage. One look and they saw the awful truth – virtually nothing remained of the Convention Hall. Even the stone and concrete work that remained standing looked unstable, visibly pitted and scorched, and broken in places where the great, twisted trusses shattered it apart as they fell to the ground.

3:30 pm: Wasting no time

The Board of Directors of the Commercial Club quickly convened an emergency meeting at their offices just a few blocks north of the hall. The meeting was largely ceremonial. They entered into their minutes a statement describing how the devastation of the loss of the Convention Hall struck at the heart of the City and its residents, and that the Club was committed to the effort required to rebuild the hall or, in the event that wasn’t possible, to find a suitable place for the meeting of the Democratic Convention. They had three months. The manager was directed to begin the site clean-up. Secretary Clendening was directed to meet with the insurance companies, and to give notice of a public meeting to be held the following evening. The Kansas City Star was already tallying the fundraising efforts.

The work of rebuilding the hall had begun. And the story continues.

(All photos courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City)

The Mayor & The Chief

(KC 1900 Series # 12)

At the time of the Convention Hall Fire, Kansas City was home to two extraordinary men who were in a position to be influential in the story of the Convention Hall fire and resurrection. One was at the start of a long and brilliant political career that would put him in the circles of the most influential men in both the national political arena, and the local criminal organizations. The other was already at the height of his career as an internationally recognized leader in the innovation of his profession. Both would have been in a position to emerge as one of the heroes of the Convention Hall fire story, but it was hubris for one and unforeseen forces for the other that kept them from that opportunity. So why include them? Because these two men are among the most fascinating and influential men in Kansas City’s history, yet among the least familiar. Because their lack of influence serves as a reminder that position and expertise shine when a project is on the rise, but it’s often luck, timing and grit, the purview of the less exhalted, that seize the day when the going gets rough.

James A. Reed

James A. Reed on the cover of Time, March 7, 1927. Reed was featured in an article on the League of Nations debate in the Senate, where Reed took the lead in the opposition. Time Magazine

The day before the Convention Hall fire, April 3, 1900, Kansas City held its biennial council and mayoral election. The mayoral race went to James A. Reed. Reed was a prominent public figure by this time, but I had yet to come across Reed’s name in any of the documented discussions, public or private, that I had unearthed concerning the Convention Hall project. Reed was, as they say, conspicuous by his absence. But whatever his role in the resurrection of the Convention Hall, Reed’s is a story worth sharing, because it captures a genuine national-level politician’s long and eventful career at the moment it begins, at the rise of the Kansas City political machine’s influence and with a national political convention waiting in the wings.

James Alexander Reed was twenty six when he came to Kansas City in 1887 having learned the law in the apprentice’s way at a firm in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The move was precipitated by his recent marriage to a woman with whom he had had an affair, resulting in her divorce and her subsequent marriage to Reed. In Kansas City, Reed started his law practice almost simultaneously with his lifelong association with the Pendergasts.  This was Reed’s entry into the political life of Kansas City, in particular, the Democratic life. For in those days, the Pendergast machine wasn’t the only one in town, or even the only Democratic faction. Reed was welcomed by the Pendergast men, but not as much by Shannon’s. But when it came to bipartisan elections, the two groups found a way to bond behind a single candidate. So in that way, Reed was both the darling and the black sheep of Kansas City’s Democratic “family.” 1897 saw the end of Reed’s private law practice when he was appointed city councilor, and in 1898 was elected Jackson County prosecutor, both positions courtesy of Pendergast support. And thanks, too, for the support that positioned him to fulfill his political ambitions, for in 1890 there would be a mayoral race that Reed had his eye on.

While no question Jim Pendergast’s support was instrumental in giving Reed his start, Reed was by all accounts a remarkable attorney. Over his long career, he prosecuted some of the most notable or notorious cases in local history. He was a remarkable orator – erudite, but plain spoken and direct. He was not known for his public persona, which ranged from taciturn to dour, but he evoked strong reactions in everyone he met. In 1910 Reed was elected to the US Senate, and served three terms. In 1919 he was the most vocal among the senators who voted against President Wilson’s League of Nations. For that, Wilson excoriated him publicly. When Wilson retired in 1929, he was lauded by the noted journalist, H.L. Menken, who wrote in “American Mercury,” the journal he co-founded,

H.L. Mencken.

“To be a fraud is safer and happier in Washington today, [for James A. Reed] …has hung up his sword and gone home to Missouri…The stature of such a man as Reed is not to be counted by his successes. The important thing is that he fights.”

But that was still ahead of James Reed early in 1900, as Kansas City was anticipating the imminent opening of the new convention hall. Reed was not-so-privately discussing the pros and cons of  running for mayor with the political influentials in town. The election was little more than three months away. The Kansas City Star had written an article speculating on Reed’s candidacy, attributing his reticence to the pay disparity between the county prosecutor and the mayor – $1,600 per year.

When the Kansas City delegation made its pitch to the National Democratic Party in Chicago that February, the contest had come down to Kansas City and Milwaukee. Each city was allowed to present a case for its selection using no more than three designated speakers. Kansas City went first in the debate, and James A. Reed was its opening speaker. Kansas City won the vote, and more than a few reports indicated Reed’s powers of persuasion played no small part in the victory.

If there had been any doubt that James Reed would run for mayor, by the time the Democratic junket returned to Kansas City that doubt was erased. The pieces had all fallen in place. But even with all his talents, Reed was not a shoe-in, but what today would be cast as a “likeable candidate.” His personality deficits have already been noted. Worse, Reed was not a big promoter of the city – he had actively opposed the parks and boulevards plan and he had opposed the building of the convention hall, one of the issues that put Reed on the outs with William Rockhill Nelson and The Kansas City Star, an unfortunate dissonance for a politically ambitious lawyer like Reed.

But a convention, especially a Democratic one, was something else. The pitch session had already given Reed a chance to show the national party what he was made of. And no doubt the Pendergast imprimatur on Reed made for a fine introduction to the men to know in Chicago. Confident in his oratory and his rhetoric, Reed would likely have considered primarily one thing – a chance to be mayor in a city hosting a national convention of his own party would be the ideal setting for laying the groundwork for future political office.

 Senator Reed begins the midwest leg of his bid for nomination for President at the 1928 Democratic Convention with a radio broadcast from Chicago. KCPLibrary, MVSC

In some ways, Reed won the primary, and then the general election, almost in spite of himself. Reed was the king of the county courthouse, but city hall was of only occasional interest, unless it had to do with legal work. Being, as he was, almost completely unfamiliar with the day-to-day tasks of running the city, and the issues of the day, and where the important players stood on the issues, he tended to lead with his personal opinions (not necessarily fully informed, nor aligned with his constituents) and then rely on his talent for rhetoric and oratory. Early in the race he arrived at a series of town-hall-like meetings so ill-prepared that he became the laughing stock of the week, and every one of Reed’s missteps made the pages of the Kansas City Star – Nelson made sure he had reporters at every meeting to catch Reed in a moment of embarrassment.

When Reed awoke on the morning of April 4, he was looking at Kansas City with new eyes, no doubt, seeing a world in which he had a strong professional reputation, a network of well-positioned supporters, the majority position gained from the Democrat sweep of the election night, and more or less carte blanche to set the city’s agenda. But by 1:00 that afternoon, a lot of what Reed assumed he had was, quite literally, going up in smoke. And that, as we’ll see in an upcoming piece, Reed discarded whatever chance he had to provide help to the rebuilding efforts. And eventually, prove himself no friend of the subject of the following profile.

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

George C. Hale

Learning about George C. Hale, Kansas City’s world-famous fire chief, and writing a bit of his story for an earlier KCB post was one of the tales about the Convention Hall fire that made me interested in learning more. And I have learned more – enough, in fact, that the original piece, while largely on the mark, assumed some things that have proved to be more common belief than fact. At the same time, I came across information that wasn’t present in the original research pertaining to the Convention Hall story. So here, now, is the slightly updated story of George C. Hale.

Kansas City was lucky in so many small ways – the right people at the right time to make use of the opportunities presented. But of all the ones unearthed as a result of putting together the Convention Hall’s story, no example of providential opportunity should have been better than that of George Consider Hale, the premiere firefighter of his day, certain in this country, and quite possibly anywhere.

George Consider Hale, early in his career with the Kansas City Police Department

Locally, George Hale was praised as Chief of the city’s Fire Department, being in possession of all the most important attributes needed for the job. As proclaimed by his predecessor who endorsed him for the position of chief, Hale was “an active worker…always found in the thickest of the fight…a man without fear, always ready to command.” But George Hale’s legacy, the important attribute that kept him from being relegated to a footnote in history, had nothing to do with his talents as a leader of the city fire department. Indeed, Hale was unique among peers for this talent. He was an ingenious machinist and engineer – a sort of firefighting entrepreneur.

Not much is readily available on Hale’s personal life. He was born in 1849 or 1850, and came to Kansas City when he was about thirteen. It’s reasonable to assume he came here with family, but with or without a family, he apparently set out straight away on an apprenticeship as a mechanic. During that apprenticeship, he is credited with having built the first industrial steam engine in the city. That might seem far-fetched, but consider that just three years later, only about 20 years old, Hale was in charge of a major feature of building the first bridge to cross the Missouri River, the Hannibal Bridge (today’s Broadway Bridge). Hale was key to the bridge’s greatest innovation, the rotating bridge that turned ninety degrees to create clearance for the larger ships navigating the river. Hale worked directly under the supervision of the famous Octave Chanute, the world renowned engineer who designed the bridge and oversaw its construction.

Hale was said to have had a long-standing fascination with fire engines and the fire service. That may explain why just after the bridge was completed, when he was still only about twenty-one, he joined the fire department to work as the chief mechanic for the department’s first steam engine. A year later, the department completed the transfer from all volunteer to full-time staffing. Fire was an increasing problem in Kansas City – in every city, for that matter – where so many of the structures were wooden, yet fueled by wood burning stoves. With the full-time staff came an expansion in the number of fire houses, and the acquisition of more and better equipment. Lucky, then, was Kansas City to have George Hale in its ranks. In the years between his first hiring, through all his advancement in the department, George Hale turned his ideas into inventions, and with Hale as its leader, the Kansas City Fire Department became one of the most famous fire departments in the world.

Hale’s mobile water tower near the 19th & Central Station

Because Hale was a fireman, he understood at a very practical level what firefighters needed in terms of equipment. As an engineer, Hale understood the mechanical principles needed to make more modern and more specialized equipment. Over the years, he became the holder of some sixty U.S. Patents, most of which registered between 1878 and 1890.  His inventions included a specialized rotary engine, a water tower that could be transported to the site of the fire. He also paid attention to the small improvements, like specialized cutters, alarm systems, and special fittings for the horses that pulled the fire engines.

Through the popularity of these inventions, Hale and, consequently, the Kansas City Fire Department became so well regarded that twice they were selected to represent the United States at the International Fire Congress, first in 1893 in London, and then again in Paris in 1900. At both competitions, Kansas City performed heads and shoulder above its European counterparts, and Chief Hale in particular was celebrated, including an audience with Queen Victoria. Stopping over in London on the return from the Paris showing, Chief Hale was offered $3,000 a week to exhibit his crews’ talents nightly at the London Hippodrome. Even though the trip had drained most of their travel funds, Hale declined, saying they had not traveled to make money, but only to promote Kansas City, Missouri and its fire department.

The Kansas City Firefighters, winners of the International Fire Congress competition, held at the Crystal Palace in London, in 1893.

Hale and his award-winning team appeared at the Paris Congress in August of 1900. By that time, all of America and most of Europe had heard about the great fire that had consumed Kansas City’s brand new convention hall, and how the city had rallied to rebuild. Hale and his crew were already celebrated in Europe, so recognition of the role that the Fire Department must have played in this great catastrophe only enhanced that reputation. As bad as the fire was, outsiders could only assume that it would have been worse if not for Kansas City’s excellent fire department: How could it be otherwise?

How indeed? In next week’s post, we will experience the fire – as close to minute by minute as possible, from the perspective of a dozen or so first-hand accounts, that will reveal the true extent of the role of the fire department on that all important day.

(Banner Photo: (left) Kansas City City Hall, and (right) Fire Department Headquarters at the time of the fire in 1900.)

Courting the Democrats

(KC 1900 Series: # 11)

The Industrial Revolution. Reconstruction. The Gilded Age. The Progressive Era. At least four major periods of American history are packed into the last quarter of the 19th century, filled with significant and sometimes contradictory events, like the wave of European immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act; like the 15th Amendment as the first Civil Rights Act along with the rise of “Jim Crow” laws and the so-called Indian Wars; or the rise of the wealthy alongside the rise of the labor unions, but also two major economic depressions. All of these issues touched Kansas City in large or small ways. So, too, were the great political debates of the time of interest to Kansas Citians, and certainly Kansas City was in the political landscape. What was missing was Kansas City’s chance to step into the spotlight. That is, until the Democratic Convention of 1900 came to town.

The Local Effort

The day after the official opening of the Convention Hall, the Kansas City Star’s editorial page kicked into gear to promote its next civic goal – attracting one of the national political parties to hold their 1900 National Convention in Kansas City’s new hall. It was not a new idea, but Kansas City’s lack of a venue had always been a sticking point. That obstacle was gone, and finally Kansas City was going to take a fair shot at a national political convention, as long as William Rockhill Nelson had ink in the barrel. Of the dozen of the Star’s quick editorial comments printed that opening day, the following summed all up.

A completed original (pre-fire) Convention Hall, circa late March 1900. State Historical Society of Missouri

“It has been demonstrated that Kansas City can build a great hall and can manage it. When the great national convention of whatever political party first shows the good judgment to summon its class to Kansas City to meet in the Convention hall, a novelty in such gatherings will be witnessed. There will be room for everybody, and everybody will be able to hear, and there will be no such scenes of suffering and disorder as have occurred in the improvised wigwams and shanties which have served as corrals for national conventions.”

The first steps were shaky. A new group had split off from the local Democratic group. The original crowd represented a long-standing source of leadership, while the splinter group’s unnamed leader was Jim Pendergast – the bar keep in the West Bottoms, presumed racketeer and older brother of the man that would be known in twenty years as “Boss” Tom Pendergast. It was a surprisingly wealthy group of men, many of whom were newcomers to the city. But more than wealthy, they were influential, involved in city issues through their own system of social connections, like the Commercial Club. The original Democratic club claimed the newcomers wanted to take the lead with luring the national party convention so as to grab the glory, the spotlight and the perks of hobnobbing with the notable national Democrats of the day. The newcomers saw the old guard as mired in their entitlement, which led them to think connections were more important than a good strategy, and that fawning over the nationals would buy them everything they wanted.

Ultimately the dispute was resolved. The Democratic Club of Kansas City became the public face of the effort, which made sense from both the social status of the Commercial Club, whose membership overlapped heavily with the DCKC’s, and the fact that the Commercial Club had spearheaded the Convention Hall initiative, and through its Convention Hall Building Committee, had the power to enter into contracts with the Democrats. The breakoff group, while not excluded, served at the direction of the newly formed “Convention Committee.” It would not be long, however, before the Pendergast influence changed all the old social dynamics.

An early headquarters of the Democratic Club, upstairs at1908 Main Street.

Kansas City had an excellent chance, owing mostly to its new Convention Hall. Among the cities considered viable rivals – Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Cincinnati – Chicago was presumed the leader. Chicago was a major Democratic center, having hosted the 1892 and 1896 conventions. Cincinnati had hosted twice before as well. Then again, national leadership were interested in reaching the emerging west, hence Denver’s place on the list. But Kansas City could satisfy both goals, and provide a new convention hall that even Chicago admitted was the superior among the choices. Best of all, the party’s presumptive candidate liked the Kansas City proposal. Native son of Nebraska and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan had been in Kansas City to speak to the gathering of the agents of the Modern Woodmen of America Insurance Company. Bryan praised the hall publicly and often during his visit, in particular citing the building’s superior acoustics that made the speaker easily understood from the farthest rows of the audience. Worthy praise, considering Bryan was famous as one of the country’s greatests orators.

Page from the brochure promoting Kansas City’s capacity as a convention city.

There was only one perhaps insurmountable issue. As a general rule, the Democrats would expect the host city to pay $50,000 in largely in-kind contributions to cover the Democratic Party’s expenses. This included a waiver of the rental fees for the hall, and all other operational expenses yet to be named, as well as accommodations for party leaders, and favorable room rates for delegates. On the heels of fund-raising for the convention hall, which itself was the last of several civic projects that had been funded at least in part by the good graces of the citizens of Kansas City, another $50,000 ask might be difficult. But not impossible.

What might be impossible was that the $50,000 would only cover the costs for the Democratic party, but the total costs for the civic celebrations – the decorations, the promotions, the printing of brochures and maps, the complimentary trips on the trolleys, everything and anything to make the visitors comfortable and viewing Kansas City favorably, would add another $50,000, making the necessary pitch a total of $100,000. That figure was perilously close to impossible. But Kansas City kept moving forward, moving in the way that it had with the convention hall. Entreaties to local businesses and prominent businessmen, events held with proceeds going to the convention effort, convention promotional contests and souvenirs for sale. Any idea seemed worthy of execution. Some combination of Kansas City’s occasional luck and ever present tenacity brought the total to within $10,000 of the first $50,000 by mid July 1899, a year before the convention.

Three hotels that “volunteered” to underwrite convention expenses by serving as convention headquarters for various state delegations to the convention.

Then, between July 1899 and February 1900, the weekly reports in the newspaper tracked the shifts in the saga. Efforts to raise money for the remaining $50,000 was now overlapping with the local party’s actual preparations. Other cities were still in the running, donations were being held back until deemed “safe.” Then, suddenly, a piece in the Kansas City Star reported the Milwaukee committee had turned “lazy.” They counted on votes that hadn’t been secured, or that they assumed they had based on old information.  When they arrived in Washington to meet with the selection committee, they put out the word that they were amenable to consideration in the cost of their rooms at a Kansas City hotel in exchange for dropping their bid for the convention.

On February 22, 1900, exactly one year to the day since the Convention Hall’s grand opening, the Democratic Party announced that Kansas City would host the 1900 Democratic Convention, and that the Convention would begin on that most patriotic of days, July 4, 1900. When the announcement was made, Kansas City had exactly 132 days to get ready.

The National Agenda

At the beginning of this post, four major periods of American history were tied to the period of the Convention Hall, the last thirty years or so of the 19th century (and into to the 20th century, too) – the Industrial Revolution, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Now add a fifth – the Fourth Party System of American politics. Note the name “Fourth Party System,” wholly different than a four party system, which would be like the two party system but likely twice as dysfunctional.  Generally, the Fourth Party System refers to what historians named in the 1960s as the fourth configuration of political parties since the beginning of the Republic. What began as the Federalists versus the Whigs (First Party System), shifted to the Second around 1824, with the Federalists now known as the Democrats and the Whigs as the National Republicans. The system shifted again about 1854 to the Third Party, with pro-slavery Democrats (or Redeemers) in the South and the Republicans (or Freedmen) of the North.

Then, in 1896, following the latest in a string of national economic depressions, the Fourth Party System began to rise around the shifting of issues associated with each of the two major parties. The progressive issues (i.e. social welfare, economic reform, professionalism and organizational efficiencies) were first picked up by the Republicans but would in a few years shift to the Democrats, for Republicans had become too closely aligned with the interests of big business which largely had no interest in the large costs and considerable changes that Progressivism required. The Democrats, who had been marginalized because of their ties to the South, therefore started with an interest in agrarian issues (the backbone of the South’s economy) but broadened slowly to include labor issues, industrial regulations and other interests that would early in the 20th century become the heart of the Progressive movement, now aligned with Democrats.

The central issue at the heart of the 1896 convention was the question of the gold vs. bimetallism (gold and silver) as the standard for American currency. William Jennings Bryan may have been one of American politics’ greatest orators, but today he is mostly known for one speech, a speech at the Chicago 1896 convention where he was first nominated for President – indeed, really only for one line in his address to the convention during the debate on the issue. Bryan is famous for saying, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Though McKinley prevailed over Bryan in 1896, the subject of bimetallism remained at the heart of the Democratic Party’s polemic, or at least it did with Bryan, who was for the time the voice of the Democratic Party. Having regained the White House, the Republicans had moved on to new issues of more immediate interest to the voters. The Democrats had moved on too, and had a robust platform. Yet the Democrats would stick with their bimetallistic platform at Bryan’s insistence, in fact under his threat to withdraw his candidacy. For all his single-mindedness, the Democrats knew he was still their best chance for victory.

Despite that, William Jennings Bryan (spoiler alert) went on to be defeated again in 1900 by McKinley. And when Theodore Roosevelt became President following (spoiler alert again) McKinley’s assassination shortly after his second term began, Bryan lacked support for another Presidential run until the 1908 election, where he ran one more time and (last spoiler alert) was defeated handily by William Howard Taft.

As to Kansas City’s role in all this, it has nothing to do directly with national politics except as one scene of the continuing drama of American political theater. Whether or not it influenced either party’s course of action at the local level, I cannot say. But it gave local politicians an up close and hopefully meaningful behind-the-scenes look at national politics. And it whetted the city’s appetite for more. Through the lens of the convention, the world had seen Kansas City’s new hall, and the city was open for business.

(All images: the archives of the State Historical Society of Missouri)

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.

Grading

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.

The Short Event-filled Life of the First Convention Hall

(KC 1900 Series: # 9)

For those in the day-to-day trenches of it, the work on the convention hall had been a struggle to find time to breathe. The Convention Hall initiative had been announced in June 1897, but the fundraising work had begun some weeks before that. The site selection officially started that fall, but real estate deals had been proposed from day one. In the first quarter of 1898, the competition for an architect began, but the actual plan had been in the discussion since 1894, a plan suggested by the architect who was eventually chosen.

And so it was with the bookings. No need to wait until the hall was finished before starting to book acts. In fact, no need to wait until the hall was even started. As soon as the plan was established, there was plenty of regional and national interest in the hall. Eventually, thirty acts would appear in the Convention Hall between the time of its grand opening and its last performance the day before the fire. And while there was plenty of local groups who were ready to book – like the Priests of Pallas and the Epperson Megaphone Minstrels – the hall’s national exposure had attracted the interest of an artist whose music established a new genre that became the soundtrack of the era.

John Philip Sousa

Early in 1898, just as the committee was preparing to open up the design competition, J.M. Loomas, President of the Priests of Pallas came to see E.M. Clendening, Secretary of the Commercial Club. He brought a letter from the business manager for John Philip Sousa, arguably the most famous musician in America. The letter offered the band’s availability for the first week of October, during which Sousa and his band were willing to perform sixteen concerts – the equivalent of two per day, for the total fee of $6,000. This being early December, Sousa’s manager advised in the letter that the band couldn’t guarantee that availability until the end of January. Sousa was no longer affiliated with the U.S. Marine Band, but his own band, formed in 1892, was one of the more popular touring acts during America’s “ragtime” years.

John Philip Sousa, 1910. MVR, KCPLibrary

Such enthusiasm there was among the committee for this idea that they wasted no time in advising Sousa’s manager of their interest. This would give the whole project a specific goal, a timeline for completing the hall by early October, a full ten months later. Sousa could be the centerpiece of the hall’s grand opening, and the whole affair would coincide with other fall festivities, most importantly the Priests of Pallas celebrations.

In the end, the building was not ready by October 1. The committee had to renegotiate an agreement with Sousa, but as it turns out, to the betterment of both parties. Sousa offered a couple of options; in the end, Sousa would only do one concert, but something he had never done before – a dance. The Sousa band would provide music for a ball, to be held as part of the hall’s opening day festivities.

As the Kansas City Star touted when the event was announced a month before opening:

The first town on earth to dance to Sousa’s music, played by Sousa’s band under Sousa’s direction will be Kansas City… Think of all that glory crowded into one night!…Sousa’s band, under John Philip Sousa himself, will begin a new career here that night. It will be a new experience for that greatest of all bandsmen to lead his own musicians through the intricacies of dance music while dancers really dance to it.

Subscribers & Prizes

On New Year’s Day, 1899, the hall served as the venue for distributing the gifts to the hall’s subscriber donors. Among the some 8,000 gifts given away over three days were several heads of prize winning cattle, a couple of thoroughbred race horses, real estate, plans and materials for the construction of a house, a piano, a billiard table, typewriters, a buggy, a bicycle, various pieces of jewelry, and one hundred dollars each in gold and silver. The gifts were somehow assigned to individual subscribers – presumably by a ticket-like number on each certificate. The Committee had to follow that format, cumbersome though it may be, because to have a random drawing for the prizes constituted a lottery in the State of Missouri, where lotteries were prohibited.

“Armour Rose” decorated the tickets that gave entrance to the awarding of prizes to subscribers. Ironically, the heifer was not given as a prize, but rather was sold at auction for $40,000. The committee had originally hoped to sell the animal for $1,000.

The first day the drawing was a celebration. The Third Regiment band played in between sessions of drawing tickets. Short tours were provided by the hall manager, Mr. Loomas. But the hall was very much incomplete, so on days two and three of the drawing, the tickets were selected amidst the sounds of construction all around the building.

Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrels

The Epperson Megaphone Minstrels performing at the Convention Hall

In the relatively short life of the first Convention Hall, there were plenty of other entertainments held in the hall both before and after its official opening. When it was clear that the hall wouldn’t be ready for the Sousa Band by early October, there was still the need to continue to raise money for construction and, soon, operation. Instead of the Sousa band, the Committee looked to a tried and true – and highly popular – entertainment at the time, the minstrel show. In this case, it was a local group known as Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrels, funded and partially led by U.S. Epperson, a prominent Kansas City business man.

Minstrel shows are most often associated with whites performing in black face. In some shows, everyone on stage was in blackface. While there were notable differences from show to show, the minstrel show followed a general form. An interlocutor was part emcee for the change of scenes and acts, and part straight man for the jokes. The show moved briskly through the vignettes, and featured all types of music of the day, particularly ballads, ragtime and spirituals, and almost always a few tunes crafted for the occasion. Minstrel shows could have a hundred or more performers, all men. Most of the performers were part of the orchestra; however, because amateur shows like the Epperson show were rooted in the membership of social or professional clubs, there were performers in the orchestra whose instruments were rudimentary and rhythmic – triangles, tambourines, wood blocks, etc. Everyone, including the orchestra, performed on stage. The interlocutor and the acts performed in front of the orchestra. E.M. Clendening, the Secretary of the Commercial Club was also one of the interlocutors for the Megaphone Minstrels.

Program from later performance by Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrels, in service to the ongoing maintenance of the Convention Hall (#2).

Then there were the “end men” who, in blackface, performed the role of clown, making fun of the black race or making fun of the white race’s misperceptions about blacks. There’s no question that at their core minstrel shows were a vehicle for disparaging the black population; after all, the name “Jim Crow” originated in association with a buffoonish Negro character in a minstrel show. But it’s also interesting to note that minstrel shows regularly included barbs and ridicule directed toward many issues of the time. For example, some would knock the aristocratic North for its corruption and its condescending, patriarchal view of blacks. Others might possibly mock Southerners’ for what was characterized as their parochial attitudes, or even lampoon topics having nothing to do with race, like women having the vote. And throughout the history of minstrelsy in America, in addition to all-white shows and mixed-race shows, there were all-Negro minstrel shows as well. When vaudeville began in the early 1900s, blacks who could not get hired for vaudeville moved to the minstrel show, increasing the number of shows in the country. In the surviving pictures of the Epperson show, only the two “end men,” were in blackface.

U.S. Epperson circa 1930

Uriah Spray (U.S.) Epperson had grown up in Kansas City, and came from a modest background. He was 39 during the period of the Convention Hall opening, and was in the middle of a 22 year career as general manager of the Fowler Meat Packing plant. The years of his wealth building were still in his future, when he would create both a fire insurance underwriting company, and a land investment company. But his real love and the beneficiaries of his philanthropy late in life was the cultural life of the city. Epperson had formed the Megaphone Minstrels around 1895, as a means to raise money for Kansas City’s new parks system. The Megaphone Minstrels appeared in the hall, such as it was, on October 1, 1898, the original opening date. In April 1899, the Megaphone Minstrels performed for what for was billed as an “Easter Monday Ball,” underwritten by William Rockhill Nelson, for the support of proposed public baths, which were never completed. The Minstrels were deployed similarly once it was known the building would not be ready for John Philip Sousa by October 1.

Opening Day, February 22, 1899

The day so long in the planning finally arrived. Opening day would truly be a full day of excitement, with two Sousa concerts, and the all-day chance to roam inside the new building to see what all the money, the effort, the time, and the good will of the community had bought. There were 10,000 in attendance for the afternoon show, and another 12,000 again that evening. The best sense of what those ceremonial moments must have been like was expressed in some articles and speeches left behind. The Kansas City Star wrote:

Sousa on Stage on opening night, as illustrated in the Kansas City Star the next day

“As John Philip Sousa stepped out of a small door in the rear of the sounding board of the huge Convention Hall shortly after 2 o’clock this afternoon, he stopped for an instant, and on his face was written a look of mixed astonishment and admiration. It was not the wild burst of applause that caused his expression of wonderment, for that is an old story to the great bandleader, but it was because he saw before him a sight that even to a man of Mr. Sousa’s wide experience was never duplicated. He saw a hall interior, the like of which is not found in the United States, unless it be Madison Square Garden, in New York. He looked upon thousands of faces and double that the number of hands, every pair trying to outdo his neighbor’s in his appreciation of the occasion. He beheld a large number of American flags that were probably bigger than anything ever brought together under one roof for decorative purposes, and palms that had they been gathered together in one bunch might have reminded one of a tropical jungle.  And this made John Philip Sousa stare. Why not? Even he never saw its like before.

Charles Campbell, President of the Convention Hall Committee of the Commercial Club, made an address to the crowd, in which he said, “You all look happy and contented, and well you may be, for today you are by your own fireside, sheltered ‘neath the friendly roof of your own home. It is yours to keep forever. The bondholder shall never have it, for not a dollar of debt is against it. It stands as a fitting monument to the progressive and generous people who, by their contributions, whether one dollar or thousands of dollars, have made it possible for you all to be here today at the opening of this grand building. You have built better than you knew.” Then finally, Campbell made the official pronouncement. “And now to Kansas City, the peerless Queen of the West, in Commerce and Trade, Agriculture and Mining, Manufactures and Machinery, Architecture and Building, Science, Art and Music; to the garden fields to the north and east, the rugged hills and forests to the south, the golden prairies to the west; in peace and prosperity, to charity and good will to all mankind, and to “the Stars and Stripes Forever,” this building is most respectfully dedicated and now declared formally opened.”

Another Kansas City Star illustration of opening night. The stage where Sousa and his band play is in the background.

Mr. Campbell bowed and left the stage. Then Sousa waved his baton, and the band began “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” when from the topmost point of the sounding board directly above his head a large, fluffy national emblem unfolded itself from a decorated box where it had been concealed, until it hung there with each red and white bar and star and blue field displaying its own individuality, while around it, on all its edges, sparkled red, white and blue lights. At the same moment Sousa raised his baton and really before the flag’s colors could be made out the hall was filled with the strains of the stirring “Star Spangled Banner.” The effect was instantaneous. Men and women stood and waved hats and handkerchiefs until the air was filled with waving black and fluttering white.

Other Events

The announcement of the planning of the opening day events was likely at least part of the reason that, almost immediately after that, the Committee started having to field requests for future dates. Again, the reality of the demand for the hall was well ahead of the committee’s plan for its future. Once the Convention Hall project was announced to the public, requests for future use of the hall came pouring in. The Convention Hall Building Committees minutes during late 1899 and early 1900 were replete with requests, not all of them honored. The hall was not yet fully completed, so there were legitimate accommodation issues. There were also issues of scale – some proposed events were too complex, or anticipated large attendance, and until the Committee had some experience actually in the hall, they were reluctant to book such risky events.

Then there was the matter of rates. Rates had generally been established, but it seems, according to the minutes, that every organization that requested dates in the new Convention Hall wanted to renegotiate the rates, and not just the dollar amount. Some wanted it free, some wanted to have to pay direct expenses only, others agreed to pay the rate if certain accommodations were added, as in one case, a special floor. Still another, a nonprofit, wanted to borrow 200 chairs at no cost. The sheer time it was taking for the appropriate Convention Hall Building Committee members to try to define policies, and to be present, debate and then counteroffer was eating up scarce time and risking forfeiting income. By December the board had made the decision that rates were to be straightforward and consistent.

The occasion of that decision was, ironically, a request from the fire department. The city’s chief of the Fire Department, George Hale, requested a rental price reduction for “entertainments” to be given by the department for two days in mid-December. He was denied. The Universities of Kansas and Missouri asked to hold their November 30, 1899 game in the hall, but they were denied as well, and ended up playing at the old Exposition Park.

Gleaned from the Convention Hall Committee’s financial report at the end of 1899, and miscellaneous minutes of the committee, the following are some of the other events that took place between opening day and March 30, 1900, just five days before the fire.

(Banner photo: The full compliment of the membership of the Epperson Megaphone Minstrels, on the performance stage of the Convention Hall.)

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.

Money and Real Estate

(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.

FUNDRAISING

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.

Illustration of the Commercial Club meeting that appeared in the Kansas City Star

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.

Unidentified men atop wagon bearing sign that reads “It Costs One Dollar to Talk To Me – Buttons for Sale Here – Kansas City Admirer’s Association”. Wagon parked in front of Silverman Brothers Grocery Store. MVR, KCPLibrary

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.”

BUILDING SITE

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.

Arthur Stilwell

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.

The People’s Voice

(KC 1900 Series: # 5)

The previous post looked at the role of the Commercial Club, one of the driving forces behind the Convention Hall project. Now we look at the man and the institution that brought the project to the people, and then pushed it forward every step of the way  – William Rockhill Nelson and The Kansas City Star.

In a modern world, it gets harder to remember that once, cities had many papers, and the bigger the city, the more newspapers. Competition for eyeballs was keen, and the market was large for news at all levels, but particularly local. Like other cities, Kansas City had newspapers for different faiths, different ethnicities, different parts of town, different social strata, and different professions and special interests. Newspapers came and went. But none approached the status of a newspaper for the whole city, and an authority for the whole area, like the Kansas City Star, and its morning sister, the Kansas City Times, all thanks to the confidence and determination of the driven, opinionated and self-assured publisher behind the newspapers, William Rockhill Nelson. This 19th century newspaper baron and his part in the Convention Hall project serve as a reminder that the persuasive powers of the press are not just a product of modern communication.

First, it’s important to know that there was such a thing as a “golden age” of newspapers – several of them, in fact. One of the better known periods runs from about 1870 to 1920. In American history, it’s a time when the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era would overlap, and newspapers were a large part of the shift between the two. By 1880 – the year Nelson starts his Kansas City newspaper empire – the Gilded Age was tarnishing. The wealth gap, the flagrant disregard for the workforce, the hubris of the corruption, the accidents and disasters, the strikes and protests, had changed what the public thought of when they heard the names Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie. But sometime before 1900, the mood started to shift, and the America people – not just the workers – looked for change at a larger scale. Americans starting taking an interest in doing better. Professional disciplines emerged, research and innovation were becoming part of the norm. Cities established new departments with new programs designed to be – fingers crossed – the rising tide that would lift all boats. The ability of a large part of a nation to embrace even the possibility of change is no small matter. But they did for a time, and a large part of that shift was the impact of the newspapers.

A quick note or two about someone who preceded Nelson as king of the Kansas City daily. Robert Van Horn ran the Republican-leaning Kansas City Journal from 1858 to 1942. Van Horn was a man of many accomplishments. He learned printing as an apprentice in his native Pennsylvania, and was trained as a lawyer in Ohio, both by his twenty sixth birthday. He came to Kansas City at the age of thirty one and by thirty three, he was a member of the city’s board of alderman, and city postmaster. The next year, 1858, he started publishing the Journal. He had been in Kansas City only three years.

Van Horn was the city’s mayor in the years before (1861), during (1863), and after (1864) the Civil War. Simultaneously, he served with the Union Army in the 25th Regiment of the Missouri Volunteer Infantry. Right after the war he served in the Missouri Senate, then immediately went on to represent a Kansas City district in the 39th, 40th and  41st Congresses through 1871. He remained active in national, state and local politics in the Republican Party, then returned to serve again in the US Congress from 1881 to 1897, when he retired. During his terms in Congress he was Kansas City’s man in Washington when it came time for negotiating the regulatory, legal and contractual requirements to secure the Hannibal Bridge for Kansas City, the single most important economic project in Kansas City up to that time.

Van Horn used his paper to encourage support for projects that, while sometimes benefiting his own interests, were still fundamentally good projects for Kansas City. Van Horn understood what Nelson would later understand as well – that newspapers could be effective tools of change, particularly at the local level. When it came to the Convention Hall, however, the Star had better timing. Van Horn was just a few years away from retirement. In 1897, just as the Convention Hall project was gathering momentum, he retired as editor of the paper. He was 73. At the same time, Nelson was a youthful 56.

William Rockhill Nelson

William Rockhill Nelson came to Kansas City from Indiana in 1880, specifically to start a newspaper in what he deemed to be a city on the verge of great growth, and facing the problems growth brings. Nelson had three guiding principles for his newspaper. He freely admitted that his voice and the editorial voice of the Star were one and the same. As posthumously quoted in the Star’s own fifty-year retrospective edition, Nelson unapologetically admitted, “I am publishing the Daily W.R. Nelson. If people don’t like my paper they can buy another.” He also believed that newspapers should be about the important topics of the day. In Harry Haskell’s fine book, Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds: Kansas City and its Star,” he quotes from an interview in which Nelson said, “Anybody can print the news, but the Star tries to build things up. That’s what a newspaper is for.”

In these two guiding principles, Nelson is aligned with his contemporaries, Hearst and Pulitzer. But in the third, Nelson’s aim could not have been more antithetical to the others. Pulitzer and Hearst appealed to the masses by dropping scandal, lascivious crime, and defamatory stories in and amongst the real news. Nelson proclaimed his paper to be a “family” paper. Nelson once said, “You can always trust the people to do what is best when they know what is best.” Of course, Nelson was certain of what was best and was unequivocal in his position, once taken. And no doubt at various points in his career he used his powers of editorial persuasion strategically to his personal benefit as well. But at its core, The Kansas City Star fairly declared itself “a paper for the people.”

The Kansas City Star Builiding, 1900

But Nelson expected something from the citizenry in return. He was an agenda setter, a rabble rouser and an iconoclast, but at every turn he urged Kansas Citians to take responsibility for their part in the growth of the city. On October 7, 1894, under the editorial heading, “Kansas City’s Opportunity,” he writes,

“The manifest destiny of Kansas City is to be the Chicago of the Southwest. But the fulfillment of this destiny rests with the people who live here – not the people who have lived here nor the people who shall live here in the future – but the people now on earth. The conditions are all favorable; the beneficiaries must place themselves in an attitude to take advantage of these conditions. As genius has been defined to be the faculty for taking infinite pains, so success is the result of constant vigilance and untiring effort.”

The editorial continues for several column inches – Nelson was a man of many words and barrels of ink, after all. But among the remaining paragraphs, one stands out for its foreshadowing:

“The conditions which favor Kansas City today are more promising than those which confronted Chicago after the great fire of 1871, and Chicago’s chief progress dates from that period.”

Time would tell if Kansas City’s progress would date from its own day of reckoning.

Next post, we’ll look at how Nelson’s editorial influence was put to use for the Convention Hall project, by following selected editorials and articles designed to persuade the community.

(Editor’s note: Most of the information used for this profile was gleaned from Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds: Kansas City and its Star, by Harry Haskell. I highly recommend the book. It’s a thorough look at the history of The Star and its founder, as well as the perfect framework for understanding Kansas City history – its politics, its culture, and its major events – from 1880 to the 1960s.)

Top Photo: Page one of the Kansas City Star the evening after the Convention Hall fire, April 4, 1900.

The Commercial Club

(KC 1900 Series: Post: # 4)

As the 19th century moved toward its close, Kansas City had become the type of city of which its founders could have only dreamed. An increasingly important part of the national economic network, and the new gateway to the vast resources of the west. A city resilient in its response to hardships, and a modern city in terms of culture, industry, and expertise. And a solid location for investment from the commercial capitals of coastal New England and the river towns of the new industrial Midwest. But those dreams were fulfilled, and belong to prior generations. This generation of Kansas City leadership had its own dreams.

Consider that the Hannibal Bridge was completed in 1869, and that the City of Kansas City was incorporated only nineteen years earlier. Would a town with only two decades of experience have the financial or even the administrative capacity to broker and implement such a monumental deal? With all due respect to the city’s leadership of the day, it seems a stretch. And, in fact, the story of the Hannibal Bridge demonstrates that while there’s always an important public component to such projects, it was the needs of business that prompted the campaign, and it was individual private interests that sealed the deal.

For the first thirty six years of Kansas City’s existence, the private interests played a role in every major project, working together through a network of social and business connections that were organic and informal. But the pace of progress had changed dramatically with the completion of the Hannibal Bridge. What had been a city of 32,000 in 1870 would be one hundred thousand more by 1890. The city government had grown as well, but the involvement of the business sector had exploded to the point that had left the long-timers awash in a sea of new faces.

Presidents of the Commercial Club, and its latter form, the Chamber of Commerce, 1887 to 1925. MVR, KCPLibrary

Kansas City was coming to grips with the need for order, like other cities of its age. Kansas City’s eastern influences brought with them a model for that order. The Commercial Club, the forerunner of today’s Chambers of Commerce, dated back to 1830s Boston.  The Commercial Club of Kansas City was formally organized in August 1886, with an initial membership of fifty-seven, although within a decade its membership exceeded one hundred, and by the turn of the century, two hundred. For many years its membership was limited in a couple of ways. First, only officers or executives of a company could represent that company as the certified member. At the time of the Convention Hall project, the total membership was limited to 250. The other limitation was affordability. The certificates cost $100 and then the annual dues were another $50. In modern terms, that equates to about $3,000 for the membership certificate, and $750 for the annual dues.

The Club’s objective, as their adopted slogan put it, was to “Make Kansas City a Good Place to Live.” The strategy to achieve that was initially very simple – encourage good business relationships within the community, and widen Kansas City’s trade territory. One tactic for the latter was the junket – short trips, usually by rail, to other parts of the region. The club’s archive at the State Historical Society contains itineraries for two junkets in 1890 – one through southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri, another through northern Texas and the Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma). These trips included upwards of 100 members traveling in special Pullman cars and lasting anywhere from two to ten days. While there were many stops along the way, most were whistle stops. There were typically only one or two cities where the group stayed longer than a few hours. But even the briefest stop featured a local band to herald the arrival of the train, and a brief but flattering speech by a local dignitary expressing gratitude for the visit, describing the city’s best assets and overall prosperity, and their sincere desire to have a trade relationship with Kansas City. Sometimes there were tours, and in select cities, formal banquets and entertainments. The direct benefit of these junkets is hard to calculate, but the fact that they were only conducted during the club’s first few years suggests the benefits did not exceed the expense. The junkets did geographically broadened the Commercial Club’s reputation, but it was through its local work that its true influence was raised.

Though the Club had strict guidelines forbidding the direct endorsement of specific candidates or taking formal positions on strictly political questions, from its earliest days the club played a passive role in most of the community-related issues of the day. As time went on, The Commercial Club took on a civic leadership role in implementing plans that were – or could be – solely the concern of the city’s private sector. At the first mention of a new cause to champion, the Commercial Club would assign the subject to one of its numerous committees. Or create a new one, if the matter was deemed sufficiently important.  Committee members were selected on their position within the community and/or within their industry, but also for the special talents they might have – a savvy investor, a level-headed negotiator, an attorney experienced in contracts. Notable individual members and familiar names included Arthur Stillwell, August Meyer, U.S. Epperson, Gardiner Lathrop, Kirkland Armour, Kersey Coates, George Fuller, F.A. Faxon, Hugh McGowan, Walter Dickey, and J.V.C. Karnes, while corporate members included company names still known, like the Kansas City Star, the Midland Hotel, the John Deere Plow Co., the Armourdale Foundry and Berkowitz & Co.

During the early days of the Commercial Club it was critical to have these “marquee” names associated with it, but the long-term success of the Commercial Club required the inclusion of businessmen and businesses more familiar with Kansas City at the “main street” level. Representatives from smaller manufacturers, retailers, insurance agents, utility operators, bank branch managers, sales representatives and the like kept the more elite elements of the Commercial Club connected to and in the service of Kansas City’s broader interests in maintaining a healthy local economy for everyone and a quality place for business to locate.

E.M. Clendening

The light that shines bright on the names that live through history leave other names in their shadow. The minutes and correspondence of the Commercial Club highlight the real and considerable contributions of these notables, and other names less familiar are present, but their contributions are less clear. Then there is E.M. Clendening, a man who’s contributions to the Commercial Club and the Convention Hall project arguably exceed that of every other member of the club.

E.M. Clendening, later in his career. MVR, KCPLibrary

Edwin McKaig Clendening was one of few early members well connected on both sides of the Club’s status line. Clendening had arrived in Kansas City in 1882 as owner of a shoe manufacturer and wholesale distribution company. “E.M. Clendening & Co. Fine Boots and Shoes,” sat at 8th and Main Street, as close to the center of Kansas City commerce as one could get. Clendening and his business would have been well known from the moment the doors were opened. He came from West Virginia (at the time, part of Virginia), with his family. His in-laws’ had wealth and position back east, and some of Clendening’s shirt-tail relatives were the wives of men who had also come to Kansas City to represent that wealth, and who wound up in the higher ranks of Kansas City elite. Clendening was well-regarded, but not as favored, and his life would not always be as comfortable. In 1892, his business failed, and for a while, his financial position was shaky. But the same year that his business closed, the Commercial Club offered him the recently vacated position of Secretary, a position comparable to the modern Executive Director. Clendening held the position for the next 32 years, and became the driving force behind many of The Commercial Club initiatives.

During his tenure, The Commercial Club would take on a number of important projects beyond their immediate interests, including formation of the city’s public library system and its manual training school, active involvement in the creation of the Kessler Parks and Boulevard Plan, the expansion of the city’s Priests of Pallas celebration, and public relief and improvements following the 1903 flood. Clendening was crucial to the Commercial Club’s success in each of these endeavors, and most of all in the Convention Hall Project. For if there is one entity that was responsible for Kansas City’s Convention Hall story, it was The Commercial Club, and if there were only one person responsible for overcoming the remarkable obstacles between the first brick laid and the opening of the Democratic Convention, it is E.M. Clendening.

Clendening’s name appears frequently because he was the thankless administrator who handled it all for the city’s influential men. He’d already being doing that for five years when the Convention Hall idea became a real undertaking. This became a project of enormous complexity, and for a period of about five years, Clendening added to his load the management of all the various Committees and Boards associated with the club and the Convention Hall, and was the on-site manager of the Century Ball.

Clendening’s name appears in virtually every document in the Convention Hall archives, and so his name will also appear in future posts regarding the actual events involved in building the fire and all that follows from that. While there is not much personal correspondence, Clendening appears to have been well regarded by the Club’s Board of Directors, of which he was one, well recognized in his position by the public in general, and with an affable personality he employed in service to the Club. Clendening embodied the philosophy that the Commercial Club promoted, a philosophy he summed up years later in a 1904 edition of Harper’s Weekly:

The lesson to us of Kansas City is to take advantage of our opportunities to redouble our energies, to encourage higher manhood and better citizenship, to place in office men of ability, and to do whatever is right, not only to make this place great commercially, but also to make it a city worthy of emulation.

Top Photo: Members of the Commercial Club board a streetcar during the 1900 Democratic Convention. MVR, KCPLibrary

The Spirit of Kansas City

(KC 1900 Series: # 3)

I had always wondered about the phrase “Kansas City Spirit” – where it came from, and what it meant. I knew the former wouldn’t be too hard to find, but I figured the latter would be impossible to answer. Still, when I learned that it was commonly accepted that the phrase emerged from the Kansas City Convention Hall fire story, the whole phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes motif, I decided it was a good time to explore those questions in the context of this event.

In upcoming posts, the subject of that spirit comes up often, which gives a chance to see the small, singular ways the theme of Spirit is used to a purposes other than rallying the citizenry. This story is more about humans than buildings. We’re guaranteed to run into occasions when the people are tested and prevail, as well as occasions where “better angels” are ignored in favor of expediency, pecuniary interests or personal aggrandizement.

The Spirit of Kansas City by Clara Virginia Townsend

First, let us recognize the poem for what it is – a distinctly 19th century poem filled with nods to romanticism, individualism, natural beauty, myths and legends, wholly dependent upon meter and rhyme, and unapologetically in praise of place. It extols history even as it glosses over it. And it was very, very popular. I found this poem by Clara Townsend as the opening entry in noted local history tome, Charles Deatherage’s 1928 Early History of Greater Kansas City. The poem was the winner of a local poetry contest in 1915.  The phrase “Kansas City Spirit” was certainly applied to the rebuilding efforts of the Convention Hall in 1900, but it was not the first time. The phrase was used in both the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times as early 1885, in reference to earlier efforts at becoming an exposition city.

Some point to the opening of the Hannibal Bridge, the first train bridge to cross the Missouri River, as the probable source. Well it may be, but I have found no contemporary document that uses that phrase. Whether it’s either of these choices or another entirely, two things are clear: the use of the phrase “Kansas City Spirit” clearly predates the construction and reconstruction of the Convention Hall, and its earliest uses all pertain to characteristics having to do with commercial and industrial projects and the city’s skill at using such projects to promote itself.

Both the top illustration and this one are portions of the border artwork around the poem “The Spirit of Kansas City,” as printed in the Chaarles Deatherage history.

But I’m really less interested in the “when” than the “what” and “why” of the idea of a Kansas City Spirit. And because of its association with the Convention Hall of 1900, I’m going to look for it in its various forms in some of these Convention Hall stories. I don’t expect to answer anything definitely, but it’s still worth exploring. The idea of having “spirit” allows for broad interpretation of meaning, making the phrase both practical and poetic. “Spirit” is the can-do attitude, a warm aura of optimism and determination. It’s also the fighting spirit, akin to “can-do” but decidedly more about advocacy. “Spirit” is ephemeral in nature, too. It evokes thoughts of resurrection, and themes of firm resolve and overcoming hardships. In short, “spirit” captures all that we all want to believe is within us. But to embrace the idea of a “Kansas City Spirit” based on the earliest experiences with self-promotion requires us to embrace the less-than-honorable efforts that also made the construction of a major bridge and a spectacular hall possible – political maneuvering, side negotiations and the investment of power and authority in those who sometimes abused the position. It takes a lot of things to put the “do” in “can-do.” Not all of them are pretty.

Crossroads

Kansas City Builds an Economy

(KC 1900 Series: # 2)

Here where these rocky bluffs meet and turn aside the sweeping current of this mighty river; here where the Missouri, after pursuing her southern course for nearly two thousand miles, turns eastward to meet the Mississippi, a great manufacturing and commercial community will congregate and less than a generation will see a great city. 

Senator Thomas Hart Benton – 1852 speech in Kansas City

Kansas City’s rose up from its geographic influences – from is geology and topography, to its anthropology and economics. The subject of the history of the Convention Hall begins there as well. Were it not for its geography, the Convention Hall might have been built in another location entirely, forever affecting the city form built after it. More importantly, geography was at the center of what made Kansas City grow, and made it worthy of and ideally suited for a Convention Hall.

There is much Kansas City history to tell from its earliest beginnings to the late 19th century, and many fine sources of that history. But thankfully for us all, I’m content with providing a general reminder of three periods in the city’s history that help explain the connection between those early years and the ultimate manifestation of a Convention Hall.

Early 1800s:

There had been native peoples here forever. Even when Lewis and Clark floated by in 1804, there were already men who had explored the west for their personal interests in trade or trapping. The mission of the Corps of Discovery was greater. Lewis and Clark came to map the west for the government’s interests in the future. Many settlements along the Missouri River were established because of the travels of the Corps, but Kansas City was in the perfect position to capitalize on the “opening of the west” before the others. The spot that would become Kansas City was the first major place for trade, with its confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. Having established a foothold, the founders of Kansas City started making the local economy a place that took the greatest advantage of its location. Kansas City became what St. Louis has claimed – the gateway of the west. If St. Louis was a gateway, it was a gate to a single path west, the Missouri River. Kansas City was the gate that swung wide, and opened the northwest, southwest and far west to the agents of change. The gate swung wide to the east, too, happy to help bring the wealth of the new world to the old.

Covered wagons were still coming through the city as the grading began. 2nd & Delaware, 1869. KC Public Library, MVSC

1830 to 1860s:

The era of the Overland Trails further fueled the area’s growth, and turned Kansas City into the ultimate “jumping off place.” The Santa Fe Trail opened up, and a vital trade route that now connected the United States and Mexico ran right through Independence, then Westport. Gold was discovered in California, and almost every overland route to the gold fields came through Westport, where prospectors spent their last cent with certainty of its ability to grow into a fortune. The territories of the northwest that became Oregon and Washington were opened to settlement, and families came through in the thousands, again, loading up in Kansas City. All told, about a half million people traveled through this area on their way west in the twenty years before the Civil War.

Every event that had contributed to the growth of Kansas City and helped insure the city’s place as a center of enterprise gave the community every reason to believe it could continue to grow well into the future. Except for one thing. There was no more room to grow. The city had become so crowded with its success that it was crammed between the south bank of the Missouri River and the foot of the limestone bluffs just a few hundred south. There was only one way to go – up. Up to the top of the bluffs.

3rd & Walnut, looking north, 1868. This shot gives some sense of how the streets were carved around and beneath existing buildings. KC Public Library, MVSC

The ravines that runoff had carved in the bluffs over millions of years were only a start. What were needed were ravines thirty, forty, fifty feet deep, in some places more. The city began the arduous, almost impossible job of claiming the high ground of the bluffs by clawing up and then through them. They started slowly at first, in the 1850s, then delayed during the Civil War, revived after the war, continued through the end the 19th century. Kansas City’s new nickname became Gullytown.

The city first budgeted $10,000 for improvements, to dig below grade to create Main Street. The edge of the bluff near the river was graded down, and the levee widened and paved for the distance of one quarter of a mile. Within the next three years, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Streets were improved; Broadway and Wyandotte, Delaware, Main and Market (Grand Avenue) Streets were graded from the river south to Fifth Street.

To provide a more contemporary account of this effort, I have included some excerpts from the narrative of this period found in Carrie Westlake Whitney’s Kansas City: Its History and Its People, Vol. I, 1908 (a separate KCB story on Whitney can be found here.) Whitney’s account provides more detail on the grading project than any account I’ve seen to date. And while some modern-day citizens might bemoan the loss of these natural outcroppings, it’s interesting to note what Whitney notices from the viewpoint of the day:

Obstacles in the shape of elevations or depressions were met at every turn, tons and tons of rock have been torn from the crest of the hills and used to fill up the valleys and ravines, and out of the chaos a beautiful city with magnificent thoroughfares, has arisen. The cliffs and valleys that were left undisturbed later were utilized to beautify the driveways and boulevards… In looking backward through the years to the dim horizon of fifty years ago, one can scarcely realize the wonderful transformation that has taken place, topographically, in Kansas City. It required wonderful perseverance and energy to make Kansas City sightly.

Grading at the foot of the levee at Walnut St., 1870

1870-1890:

This final era of Kansas City’s pre Convention Hall period began around 1870, even though the construction of the hall wouldn’t get truly underway for about twenty years. To begin, in 1870, the Hannibal Bridge was built by the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Company, and for the first time, a rail line crossed the Missouri River. For several years any commodity needing to cross that divide traveling in either direction had to make its way through Kansas City to do so. And because of that, Kansas City became an early home to the railroad industry as it conquered the west. And then it built a stockyard, second only to Chicago’s, which in turn justified building a new Union Depot in the West Bottoms. From which the growing independent interurban lines began to form a network that helped to define Main Street as just that – a larger version of an “everytown” main street.

So began Kansas City’s life as a true crossroads, a place that connected the corners of America – the cultured east with the western wilderness, the industrial northeast with the agricultural southwest. Whether by river or trail, or rail, Kansas City was a physical crossroads. Whether to trade, to make, to buy or to sell, Kansas City was an economic crossroads. And those fortuitous intersections brought investment interests from the financial capitals of the eastern seaboard.

Of course, Kansas City was infamously known as a rowdy, open town. That rough side was part of the attraction for some, but for most, it made them cautious. The city struggled with that image for years, and in the early 1890s, the city was at a turning point. But turning from what to what? In Kansas City’s case, it’s from the type of city it had become while no one was much paying attention, to the city it imagined itself to be, or could be, and for some people already  heavily invested in Kansas City’s future, the city it simply had to be. A producer of wealth and influence.

And so the civic discourse began on how to remedy the situation and redraw the city’s image in the eyes of the country. It didn’t take long for the convention hall idea to rise to the top of the list, where it found the influential champions it needed, those who recognized the opportunity for all its virtues. The city had a well invested and successful old guard, fresh eastern money, political leverage, and the economic foundation of the railroads and the stockyards. What they wanted and needed was a combination civic monument, world-class spectacle, and most importantly, an icon of Kansas City’s economic success and its vision for the future.

And what better to fit that bill than a public building, a building that could house the spectacle of a circus, grand concerts by the likes of John Philip Sousa, industrial expositions highlighting the city’s economy, or conventions bringing industry leaders or political candidates and their entourages of power brokers? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing could be better.

Banner Photo: Bird’s Eye View map of Kansas City, circa 1870

The “KC 1900 Series” Begins

KC Backstories Changes Its Approach

To Loyal Readers, and friends Old and New

KCBackstories has been pretty much idle since COVID hit. I think the pandemic gave us all pause on a lot of things in our lives – and for me it was my writing. Ready for something different than what I had focused on in my books, I revived an idea I’d started and stopped several times. But this time, I started and didn’t stop until I was done – two years later.

First, the venue had to change. KCB left its woefully lacking home on Facebook (Goodbye, Zucker!) and resides now in its own site, KCBackstories.com, with all of its archival posts. No loss of content.

The new posts start here, and the next 18-20 posts will be under the banner of what I’m calling the KC 1900 Series, a collection of essays about Kansas City in the pivotal year of 1900, but all related to the story of the catastrophic Kansas City Convention Hall fire. What makes that moment worth exploring can be easily explained right here up front, and yet will take nothing away from the larger story. It is the moment that the city’s brand new Convention Hall burns to the ground one early April afternoon, in the space of about 30 minutes, exactly 90 days before Kansas City was to play host to the Democratic National Convention that would nominate William Jennings Bryan as its presidential candidate.

But I’m most excited about these new stories. But they all explore aspects of that singular moment in Kansas City’s history. The series is filled with the tales of spectacle and tragedy one might expect from such a disaster. The conflagration, along with its aftermath, stands on its own as a story worth telling, and one could stop there if one is only interested in how a fire consumes a building and its surrounds. But the hall was years in the planning, and had been burdened with the future of the whole city riding on its success. So many of the city’s famous names of the period played a role in the story – Arthur Stilwell, James A. Reed, the Pendergast brothers, William Rockhill Nelson, Robert Van Horn, Bernard Corrigan, Kersey Coates and even a young Harry Truman. Other familiar stories like the development of the West Bottoms and the Hannibal Bridge provide the backdrop for the times. And then there the tales not yet explored, like the myth that this was the event that started the slogan, “The Kansas City Spirit.”

Except for this introduction accompanying the first post, the stories will be posted about once a week. Each of the 1900 Series posts will be numbered, and are always available in the archive. The blog archives posts from newest to latest, so the numbering system helps makes sense of the order.

Thanks for your continuing interest. As we make this transition, please bear with us as over the next two weeks duplication of emails will be necessary with overlapping close out and start up dates overlap.

If you would are not already, please consider being a follower – just use the invitation forms throughout the site, or the direct email info on the Contact page.

If you are no longer interested in receiving KCBackstories updates, likewise use any of the contact info on this site and we’ll happily remove you.

Thank you.

LaDene Morton

Locked in a Forgotten Safe

(KC 1900 Series: # 1)

TO THE MAYOR AND MEMBERS OF THE COUNCIL

During a recent audit and survey of the Municipal Auditorium, there came to our attention an old safe in the control room. The combination was not available and no one appeared to be familiar with its contents. It was deemed advisable to have this safe opened and an inspection made of its contents.

            It was found to contain all of the original records of the “Kansas City Convention Hall Building Co., 1897 to 1936.” The contents were inventoried and brought to the City Auditor’s Office for analysis and disposition. These official records include the Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, Minute Books, Stock Certificate records, ledgers, contracts, etc. Newspaper clippings were arranged in ten large scrapbooks. Also available were hundreds of excellent photos of the old building and the attractions which used it. All of these records covered the period between 1897 and 1936, and are now available because of the foresight and care of Louis W. Shouse, who, for the life of the Building Company, was its Secretary and General Manager. A copy of a summary of the inventory is attached.

            These records being 40 to 50 years old, we deemed them to be of great value as they portray a colorful era in the history of Kansas City, as most of the public events were held in old “Convention Hall.” A summary of the more important of these is attached. It will be noted the list contains two national political conventions – the Democratic National Convention in 1900 and the Republican National Convention in 1928; the second historic national convention of the America Legion, when Marshal Foch of France, Admiral Beatty of England, General Diaz of Italy, and our own General Pershing were distinguished guests; the first Boy Scouts’ exhibition, the first Mayor’s Christmas tree; the first Kansas City Automobile Show.

            The Hall was closed in 1936, the last attraction being the Ararat Shrine Vaudeville Show on the night of May 1. An overflow audience danced in the incomplete new Municipal Auditorium across the street.

            From the books, records, newspaper clippings and other data available, we have prepared a chronological history in “The Story of Convention Hall,” a copy of which is attached.

            All of this wealth of material is a symbol of the aggressiveness, vision, and faith of a previous generation out of which developed the “Kansas City Spirit.” We believe these records should be carefully preserved and to that end should be delivered to the Native Sons of Kansas City of the Kansas City Museum for preservation and display.

            We request instructions from the Council as to the appropriate disposition of this material.

Respectfully submitted

Chet A. Keyes, City Auditor

A few years back, while research for an earlier project, I stumbled across the story of the 1900 Convention Hall Fire. I was captivated by the positively cinematic structure of the story. A conflagration of epic proportions, a community’s hopes and dreams first consumed by the flames and then resurrected from the ashes. The backdrop of a famous political rivalry at a pivotal time in American history. The lucky detail of having the 4th of July – Independence Day! – as the date recovery was achieved and victory declared.

The story was already fascinating when I found this letter from the City Auditor (above). It stopped me in my tracks. First, I had a feeling akin to what surely those who opened that safe must have felt – the excitement of first discovery. But then, I took a step back from focusing solely on the building and the fire, and when I did, I saw a story in layers. At the center is the miraculous story of the building’s first life, then the fire that took it, and its resurrection. The next layer is a story of the city, how the culture of those times influenced the events that made the Convention Hall project possible. The final layer that encompasses it all is the story of the oft-cited “Kansas City Spirit,” a popular phrase that’s generally told came to be part of the city’s identity as a result of this very event, but that would be called upon in countless future challenges in Kansas City’s future. Recognizing that, I saw that this wasn’t a book – it was a series of stories that attempt to answer the questions I asked myself when the project started.

There’ll be lots to cover: a view of a Kansas City that’s long-since disappeared, the beginnings and endings of several careers a few secrets, a few deals and more than a few smoke filled rooms. But since I’ve put the Convention Hall fire in the center of this narrative, let’s review the central event:

Around 1897, after years of discussion and planning, the City of Kansas City, Missouri finally determined to build a Convention Hall, a venue for every conceivable purpose that might draw thousands of people, and boost the local economy. Trade shows, concerts, rodeos, traveling exhibitions, annual meetings for all sorts of groups – religious denominations, fraternal organizations, professional groups – and political delegations. The city did not formally lobby for the 1900 Democratic convention until after it had committed to building the hall, but once committed, the national convention certainly would prove to be a fabulous endorsement of Kansas City’s national stature as a city on the rise. The building opened on February 22, 1899. One year later to the day, the Democratic Party announced it would hold its convention in Kansas City on July 4, 1900.

An illustration from the Kansas City Star the day after the fire. The arches are on the southeast corner of the Convention Hall, the crowd standing along Wyandotte looks west, and the cross street is 14th.

In the early afternoon hours of April 4, 1900, a fire broke out in the building. Near as it was to the central commercial corridor of the city, it was noticed almost immediately, and the city’s fire department was quick on the spot. Even so, in just about 30 minutes, the entire structure was engulfed in flame. Except for some of the stone façade work, it was a total loss. The fire would eventually and officially be determined to be an accident, but the exact cause was never definitively identified.

Even before the fire was extinguished, plans were underway for reconstruction. With a well-organized effort, the entire demolition and reconstruction was completed in time for the Democratic National Convention on July 4, three months to the day after the fire. The convention went off without a hitch, and the hall enjoyed almost 30 years of service before it was replaced by a second hall, and ultimately by the Municipal Auditorium that still stands at the south end of Barney Allis Plaza.

That’s the story to which we’ll return as we flesh out the story of a city that had the will, the capacity and in some ways the audacity to take on such a project – not once, but twice.

Future posts in this series will include:

  • How the Convention Hall helped Kansas City shift from being a Cowtown to one of the promising cities leading America into the 20th century.
  • The powerful influence of William Rockhill Nelson and his Kansas City Star in setting Kansas City’s agenda, with exampless from the Convention Hall coverage.
  • Why the powerful Commercial Club of Kansas City, its members among the city’s most notable men, used their power and influence to make the hall something in which every Kansas Citian would feel ownership.
  • The early political career of James A. Reed, still one of Missouri’s all-time most influential politicians, a career that began the day the Convention Hall burned down.
  • The story of the world’s greatest fireman, Kansas City’s own George C. Hale.
  • A moment-by-moment account of the fire, collected from the many eye-witness reports captured at the time.
  • What caused the fire, and how much of the city beyond the walls of the Convention Hall was decimated.
  • How the triumverate events of the building, burning and rebuilding of the Convention Hall impacted Kansas City then and now.

I look forward to sharing it all with you. Starting now!

Top Photo: Letterhead from the actual letter sent to the city regarding the Convention Hall documents.

Brookside’s Birthday Close-Out Special

(originally published 9/8/20)

With something as auspicious as a 100th anniversary, one doesn’t want to limit celebrations to a single date. If any anniversary is worth spreading it out over a year, surely it is the centenary. A lot of us had high hopes for the types of celebrations and events that might come out of such a special occasion. Alas, Brookside’s big bash was another pandemic casualty. So with the close of September 2020, a date that marks the end of a year’s worth of recognizing a 100th anniversary, the celebratory year comes to a close with a whisper.

Since the first shops opened in October 1919, 2019 was the year declared to be the anniversary year. But there has always been some confusion about Brookside’s dates of origin, in no small part because of some of the merchants. The Brookside district’s website even touted the 1920 date, causing at least one notable merchant to sink marketing dollars into promotional pieces for sale that declared “Brookside 1920.” But before that, I’ve encountered more than one merchant who, having heard a date associated with when their particular shop space first opened, assumed that translated to the whole district. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The timeline from the Brookside Shops’ conception to the moment that the last major area of today’s Brookside landscape was developed actually spans more than 100 years. Including the important planning phase, the era of the Nichols Company’s construction of its iconic buildings on the north side of 63rd Street covers the years 1909 to 1950. Construction of new buildings south of 63rd Street generally occurred between 1930 and 1970. At that point the footprint of the Brookside Shops was established, although a few individual sites have been redeveloped and renovated over the last 50 years.

This is good news for the merchants, patrons, neighborhoods or anyone else who still cares about celebrating Brookside – there are many other milestones in this small corner of KC’s history left to celebrate, if one is so inclined.

In this, the fourth and final post of KCB’s Brookside 100 tribute, I offer a brief timeline of how the Brookside Shops were developed by the Nichols Company and others over the last century, along with mentions and pictures of some of the businesses most associated with those parts of the district, particularly those rare businesses that have stood the test of time.

The combined fire and police station was built by the city around 1917, but it was the Nichols Company that sold the city the land for its development.

1908 – Nichols begins developing the Country Club District residential area, starting with the neighborhoods between the south bank of Brush Creek to approximately 55th Street.

1909 – The Nichols Company purchases the property that will be its Brookside Shopping District from the Wornall family.

1911 – The Nichols Company donates land to the city for construction of a new state-of-the-art police and fire station on 63rd Street.

The original Standard Oil station at 62nd Terrace and Brookside Boulevard, circa 1915.

1915 – The Nichols Company’s first single-tenant building, a Standard Oil station, is built on the southeast corner of 62nd Terrace and Brookside Boulevard, where the Roasterie coffee shop sits today. It remained a Standard/Amoco Station for about 70 years.

1919 – The front page of the October issue of the Country Club District Bulletin, the Nichols Company’s newsletter, features an announcement of the opening of its first multi-use commercial building in the Country Club District Bulletin on October 1, 1919. The building is named the Brookside Building, and sits on the northeast corner of Brookside Boulevard and 63rd Street. (see banner photo at top).

Announcement for the Brookside Garage in an early Country Club District bulletin.

1920 – The Brookside Garage is constructed, just west of the police and fire station.

1925 – Phase II of the Brookside development begins on 63rd Street. The US Postal Service opened the Country Club Station just west of the Brookside Garage, and over the next few years construction continues westward on 63rd Street to the intersection with Brookside Plaza (then Wyandotte Street).

Phase II – Brookside Plaza (then Wyandotte St.) on the left, looking from 62nd Terrace, and, on the right, the northeast corner of 63rd Street and Brookside Plaza.

1925-1930 – Phase III begins with the extension of the 63rd Street shops around the corner at Brookside Plaza, and north to 62nd Terrace, and finally, the last few shops east of the police and fire station, continuing eastward to Main Street and the Phillips 66 Service Station.

Final phase: the northwest corner of 63rd Street and Brookside Boulevard

1930-1936 – The final phase was slow to start, owing to the upheaval that the 1929 stock market crash caused in the development industry. But the Nichols business model had been working toward a more balanced approach to developing resident and commercial properties simultaneously, so the company was better positioned than most to throw its resources at commercial development. The last piece of the Nichols Company’s development was the shops on 63rd Street between Brookside Boulevard and Wornall Road.

Located at 308 W. 63rd, the building housing the Brookside Barber may be the last phase of Nichols Company development in Brookside, but the barber shop is now (as of this posting) the oldest Brookside Business, and the oldest currently operating in its original location.

Also during this period a few businesses showed up on the south side of 63rd Street between Main and Baltimore, most done by individual developers commercializing small parcels of land.

The Brookside Theatre Building on the east side of Brookside Plaza (Wyandotte) between 63rd Street and Meyer Boulevard, shortly after

1938-1949 – During the years surrounding World War II, development continued, but was somewhat sporadic. The biggest developments began at the beginning and end of this period. In 1938, Harry Jacobs’ Brookside Theatre Building rose along the east side of Brookside Plaza between 63rdStreet and Meyer Boulevard, creating the district’s largest and most varied collection of businesses under one development “roof.” In 1949, Jacob Hyman purchased most of the property on the west side of Brookside Plaza, opposite the theatre complex, to construct the flat-iron shaped office and retail building that sits there today.

The flat-iron building on the west side of Brookside Plaza (Wyandotte), between 63rd Street and Meyer Boulevard, circa 1960.

1950-1970 – During these last years, a few other smaller developments appeared that finished off the Brookside landscape as we know it today. The properties along 63rd Terrace just west of Main were developed, as were some of the smaller buildings on the south side of 63rd Street, also east of Main. The largest of the last plots to be developed was the site of today’s Commerce Bank building at Brookside Plaza and Meyer Boulevard.

Since that time, only two completely new buildings have been constructed. The most recent is the latest iteration of that Commerce Bank building mentioned above, just within the last few years. The other takes us back to the site of Nichols first stand-alone development, the old Standard Oil Station site. The station was razed in 2000 by the district’s new local ownership, who built the first retail shop for the coffee company that was born in “a basement in Brookside,” – the Roasterie.

The design of the Roasterie at 62nd Terrace and Brookside Boulevard, generally imitates the style of the original Standard Oil station.

Carrie Westlake Whitney: Mother of the Kansas City Library

(originally published 8/15/20)

When I thought about a post to mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, codifying women’s’ voting rights, I saw the opening I’d been looking for to write about Carrie Westlake Whitney, the first director of Kansas City’s library system. In my admittedly limited research, I found no evidence that Whitney was an active member of the suffragette movement, but neither have I found evidence she wasn’t. I did find one particularly succinct quote in a 1910 Kansas City Star piece on women and the vote. In response to the question of her support for or even interest in the right to vote, Whitney responded,

It seems that the right of suffrage is an inevitable issue; almost a pending one. Had I the privilege of selecting a motto for the cause I would choose, “He that controlleth his temper is greater than he that taketh a city.”

I do know that she shared a too common experience with women of her time – publicly accepted bias against her competency based on her gender. That event began the end of her career, but by then she’d had 30 years of building Kansas City’s public library system, imprinting values and philosophies present today, through the strength of her convictions.

The Life Behind the Librarian

Very little is certain about the woman who became Carrie Westlake Whitney before she arrived in Kansas City.(1) The facts about which sources seem to concur are that Whitney was married in Sedalia in 1875 to E.W. Judson, that she gave birth to a daughter, Edith, who died as an infant in 1879, and that by 1881 Carrie had come to Kansas City, employed as the first head librarian of Kansas City’s only circulating public library. She arrived still using the name Mrs. Carrie Judson, but the fate of Mr. Judson, deceased or divorced, seems to have been lost in the cracks of history, along with the rest of Carrie’s early story. She married a second time, in 1885, to a Kansas City Star newspaperman, James Steele Whitney, who died around 1890 from tuberculosis. She was known forever after as Carrie Westlake Whitney.

The first home of the library, where is occupied the second floor above commercial offices, and shared space with the school board staff.

As much of her early life is shrouded by conflicting stories, her later life is cloaked in allusion. For more than forty years, she lived with Frances Bishop, the most constant relationship in her life. Bishop was second librarian for most of Whitney’s tenure as head librarian. They began living together shortly after James Whitney’s death, and continued until Carrie’s death in 1934. Their names were often mentioned together in the newspaper in stories about the library or Whitney’s involvement with state and national library associations, as when the two traveled together to the national library convention one year at Mackinac Island, Michicgan. That established relationship created a safe place for the following declaration, taken from the Kansas City Star article on the occasion of Whitney’s death.

After retirement Mrs. Whitney lived a very quiet life. She and her inseparable friend and assistant librarian, Miss Frances A. Bishop, already had cast their lots together. For more than forty years these two, bound by a rare and beautiful friendship, found happiness in each other and the books and current literature with which they surrounded themselves.

Creating the Library Life

The Kansas City library system began with the Kansas City School Board. The superintendent, James Greenwood, was a visionary man who would go on to be a nationally prominent leader in education. It was at his suggestion that the idea of a public library was first proposed, a somewhat daring idea given that the norm was not for free or public libraries as part of a public institution, but rather libraries organized by private charities run by subscription. At the time of Whitney’s arrival in 1881, the library was little more than a small but growing catalog of books, where Greenwood was still the one only employee, who took time from his superintendent duties to open the small room to readers and handle the check-out process. Whitney was hired as the library’s first full-time librarian…but her job description said she would also perform “such other clerical work” as assigned.

The first purpose-built library building, shown here in the late 1980s. The building is still in use as offices, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The school board and the library were housed together at 546 Main Street. The growth of both the school and library systems kept them on the move in the early years – from Main Street to 8th & Walnut in 1884, and from there to 8th and Oak in 1889, the first purpose-built building. It would take another eight years for the library to plan and fund their next building at 9th and Locust, where it would operate for the next 63 years.

Nothing seems to document how Whitney came to even be considered for the job, but whether or not she had bona fides, she had vision and passion in abundance. Over the years she became known as an ardent advocate for libraries in general, and Kansas City’s in particular. She rose to be on the first board of the Missouri Library Association, and the next year went on to be its President. She was involved at the national level where she often spoke at library association conventions. Locally, she became known, too, as an often-quoted public presence. The area newspapers carried frequent features on new books, trends in reading, and the growing uses of the library. Whitney was an innovator, and credited with two of the library’s most important early initiatives: she took the library from a subscription fee-based membership, to open and free access to the community; and she began the practice of giving school age children access to the library and with special services for smaller children, a process that would for a long period place a library branch in nearly every public school in the city.

The Reading Room at the 9th & Locust library.

Whitney used the financial resources she had for acquiring books with a clear strategy – diversification. While most libraries in the country counted about 80 percent of their collections in the fiction category, in Kansas City it was 50 percent. Whitney herself was known to disdain the popular fiction of the time, but kept it in the stacks along with what she considered the “best” fiction. She was never one to deter any potential patron, but she was ever eager to improve their quality of reading. With more reference and nonfiction resources on hand, the library become a source of useful information for more types of readers. She put much effort into developing the library’s children’s room because she considered it a social need, but also a way to foster new generations of patrons.

To her credit, Whitney was smart enough to grow her staff along with the library collection. By 1900, the staff numbered 28. A larger staff surely made it possible for Whitney to pursue her passion projects within the library, and a few of her own. She edited the library’s quarterly magazine, and penned a number of the articles for it. In 1908 she published her three-volume masterwork, Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, which thoughtfully and thoroughly explored the story of her adopted home both in terms of the chronological history (Volume 1) and biographies of hundreds of figures of note throughout the state (Volumes 2 and 3). Out of the entire catalog of profiles, there were only six women listed, Whitney being one.

The End of the Librarian Life

The Women’s Meeting Room at the 9th & Locust Library

In 1910, seemingly out of nowhere, Whitney lost favor with the School Board. A July 21 Kansas City Star front page story reported the board’s request for Whitney’s resignation. As to the cause, the only hint is in her quote:

“I think, since my ability to administer the affairs of the library has been questioned, that an investigation should be made. I court it. The only treatment I ask is justice and fairness.”

In that same issue, on page 3 a lengthier story about deposing Whitney included statements from Frank Faxon, then head of the library committee about the change in librarians. Of their conversation, Whitney is unequivocal about the reason for the requested resignation.

“Yes, it’s true I have been asked to resign. The request came personally from [Faxon], when he came to see me at the library Tuesday. It was not because of any fault that the committee had with my work, he said, but was instigated simply because the committee believed that a man could fill the post of librarian to better advantage than a woman.”

Later, other reasons appeared in the newspaper reports – allegations about deteriorating patron service, feuds between staff members, and Whitney’s inability to get full productivity from the staff. There was also likely interference in administrative details by board members, encouraged by staff who capitalized on personal relationships with influential people to carry their complaints around Whitney and directly to the board.

With Whitney’s fate still in the balance, the paper reports on August 2 “Many Seek Librarian’s Place,” with the board cautioning it would not be hasty in filling the position, so as “to make no mistake.” By August 6, the matter was resolved. Whitney agreed to a position of assistant librarian, pushing the faithful Miss Bishop to second assistant librarian, though their salaries remained the same. Publicly Whitney continued as “Acting Librarian,” because, true to their word, the board didn’t settle on a candidate until January of 1911, six months after ousting Whitney.

The board’s choice for the new head librarian was Purd Wright, recently from St. Joseph, but currently in his first year as head Librarian of the prestigious Los Angeles city library. Before that, Wright held the same position in St. Joseph, before that several years with the St. Joseph newspaper, and before that as an advertising copy writer. Wright and Whitney were acquainted at least as early as the formation of the Missouri Library Association in the 1880s, where she had served as the organization’s second president and Wright the third. Wright went on to serve as president of the National Library Association.

Whitney and Wright shared a keen intellect and a talent for library promotion, but otherwise they could not have been more different. Wright was a bit of a gadabout professionally, where Whitney spent her entire working life as a librarian. Her talents for promotion and advocacy were rooted in a genuine love and respect for literature, his talents were in diplomacy and relationships, rooted in his affable and social personality. Whitney was studious and serious, Wright was an inveterate publicity hound and yarn spinner.

Questions about Wright’s selection should have been raised when, after a January 1911 offer of the Kansas City position, he required another two months before accepting, and yet another two before he arrived in Kansas City. His salary was $1,000 more than Whitney’s had been, and he immediately ordered new office furnishings and a personal stenographer to boot. Then, too, within a few short months of Wright’s employment, it was clear that the board’s goal of increasing productivity and mending interdepartmental feuds was no closer to being realized under Wright than it had been under Whitney.

Claiming an unspecified illness that was adversely affected by the frustrations of his new position, Purd Wright offered his resignation in to the board in July 1912, just 14 months after he arrived. Carrie Westlake Whitney and Frances Bishop were still on staff when Wright left Kansas City for Excelsior Springs and other therapeutic locations. By September 1912, Whitney had been fired, and Miss Bishop sent to one of the branch locations.

Carrie Westlake Whitney in her later years.

With Wright’s resignation it appeared the board would have to start a new search. Some of Whitney’s longtime supporters briefly lobbied for her reinstatement, but it was far too late for that. In the end, after delays in organizing a search process, further inquiries into the internal problems at the library that went nowhere, the seeming improvement of Wright’s health, and no doubt the board’s exhaustion over the whole mess, the board’s library committee refused to accept Wright’s resignation, almost a year after he had tendered it. Wright effectively took a year’s leave from the library after only his first year, and returned to work as if nothing had happened. He would remain head librarian until 1937.

Carrie Westlake Whitney retired to a quiet private life following her departure. Though she had been out of the public eye for more than twenty years, when Whitney died in 1934 at age 80, letters and remembrances filled the local newspapers for several days. The accomplishments which were celebrated in her tributes were those which were likely most valued by her, for they were where she spent her life’s energies – on her relationships with the library, the city, and her friendship with Miss Bishop.

(Featured Photo: the library building at 9th and Locust served as the main branch from 1897 to 1960. Courtesy Missouri Valley Room, KC Public Library)

Midwest Research Institute’s Early Technology – A Photo Essay

(originally published 7/16/20)

Last week, I shared some of Midwest Research Institute’s early history. A hallmark of those early days was the struggle to stay current with, or even just acquire, the high-dollar, over-sized equipment that was necessary for “hard” science research. The whole field of instrumentation was evolving. The market for that equipment was small, and those who understood, built, installed or maintained it were few and far between. For its first projects, MRI often borrowed equipment from their client to perform the research, all the while hoping that the client might “forget” they loaned it out. No such luck.

Even when I arrived in the early 1980s, things were not as up to date as one might think if one only has a 21st century perspective. Most of us in the Economics and Social Sciences Department didn’t need fancy equipment, but we were still calculating with adding machines. It wasn’t just that these machines weren’t electronic, they didn’t even run on electricity. All manual, punch in the numbers, pull the handle down, listen for the big “ca-chunk” and so forth. No hard feelings nor disrespect. The cost of keeping current on equipment was and probably still is, an ongoing challenge for the Institute. But we got there. By the time I left as an employee 8 years later, most people had a PC.

So this little photo essay is an “homage montage” to the early years at MRI when scientists not only had to be innovative in their methods, but also in their mechanics, a time when references to working with “chewing gum and baling wire” were not that far-fetched. In keeping with that spirit, the captions that accompany the pictures here were the same ones that accompanied them in Charles N. Kimball’s book “Midwest Research Institute: Some Recollections of the First Fifty Years – 1945 -1975,” (hereinafter MRI30) which was the source of last week’s piece as well.

Nothing Up My Sleeve!

“Gained through hard work, not magic, MRI’s first project was nevertheless celebrated with good humor in an early photograph.” (Image courtesy MRI30)

Let’s be honest. It’s not that scientific types don’t have a sense of humor. They do. What they often lack is a sense of whimsy, which is what struck me about this photo. This literal interpretation of a scientific discovery as equivalent to “pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” is – admit it – kind of charming. But to my original point, of all the many photos in MRI30, this is the only one with any sense of whimsy. After all, science is serious business. By the way, the fellow left rear, gazing at the bunny and holding the hat, is the infamous and beloved Charlie Kimball, the “father” of MRI.

Science Fact – Stranger than Science Fiction?

In a world where there’s more computing capacity in your smartphone than there was on an Apollo guidance system, the equipment shown below seems more like the gizmos of a Saturday matinee sci-fi flick than state-of-the-art systems. But state-of-the-art it was in their respective periods – roughly 40s, 50s and 60s left to right.

(left) “Equipment was scarce in the beginning and what MRI had was often secondhand or borrowed. A 1946 electronics bench looks primitive by today’s standards. (center) “Paul Constant, electrical engineer, worked with the hydraulic analog computer planning water distributing systems in Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi and Nebraska, 1952.” (right) “The accident rate for aircraft landing on carriers at sea and to the US Navy’s program at MRI to develop methods of tracking wind speed and gusts to reduce these hazards.”

Chewing Gum and Baling Wire

With the sort of equipment in use in MRI’s early years, it makes sense that repair/customization was often DIY. But don’t discount the technical skills (soldering, wiring, fabrication, etc.) and the wonderful ingenuity and inventiveness of a scientist. Such talents might as well be part of the job description, so prevalent are they. The images below attest to that. From (left to right) having to innovate a new technology for an urgent need, to customizing the equipment for the subject, to finding equipment at hand for new applications, these scientists were handy to have around the MRI house.

(left) “After the 1951 flood, the worst in Kansas City’s history, MRI’s researchers used stress gauges attached to oil storage tanks to measure possible stress fracture.” (center) “A special assignment for MRI was the transfer of NASA’s life science findings to the health care industry.” (right) “New methods of measuring air speeds of helicopters were found for Bell Helicopter Corp. in 1959.”

Rosie the Researcher

World War II gave women employment opportunities they might otherwise never have had. But for most women, those jobs disappeared when the war ended. And, too, most jobs women held were not jobs yet elevated to a professional level where a woman would have been considered as a candidate. Yet, as they say, “she persisted.” To the Institute’s credit, women were a part of MRI from the beginning, even if in the early years their roles were too often relegated to administrative and supportive research roles. By the time I came in the early 80s, there were a fair number of women at all levels and in all roles, including as principal scientists and division and department leadership. There could have been more. I hope by now there are.

(left) “Staff members in the home economics section evaluated restaurant equipment, conducted food-related studies, and experimented with detergents , laundry methods and coffee brewing.” (center) “Studying ‘dishpan hands’ helped in the evaluation of detergents for skin irritation in early MRI experiments.” (right) “Research associates in the Chemistry Division in 1945. Most of the Institute’s early projects were in the chemistry field.

Strange Places

A research institute sounds like a pretty sterile place to work, but a lot of the work spaces were about as quirky as they get, as the photos below show. Not pictured but worth mentioning is the Deramus Field Station. Just a few blocks south of Main Street in Grandview, the station sits on 125 acres, including a lake, donating by the Deramus family in 1957, and used primarily for environmental projects and anything requiring being outdoors. Let your imagination run where it might. I don’t know what went on there – I’ve never been on site.

(left) The original caption for this picture talked only about the testing, but it’s included here to point out that the original MRI labs were in the fire engine bays of the old Westport Fire Station, as evidenced by the large arched doors in the background. (center) “The Barstow School loft, once an art studio, served many purposes for the Economics Division.” (right) “A permit for the Institute to handle radioactive materials came in the mid-1940s.”

Modern Times

Even during its early years, and for all its quirkiness, MRI really has made some significant contributions. The images below represent just a few of those, chosen because the focus of the research is something most of us have seen at work during the course of our lives.

(left) “Bioengineering done in collaboration with the Kansas University Medical Center resulted in an early heart-lung machine, a forerunner of those used in cardiac surgery today.” (center) “A scale model of the Apollo was used to study the effect of sun on the spacecraft. Studies simulating the sun’s heat showed that spacecraft could be slowly rotated to distribute heat and cold. This discovery is still important to space exploration today.” (right) “The role of automobile exhaust in creating smog was confirmed by a 1955 project sponsored by the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation. The effects of sunlight on engine exhaust were measured in a greenhouse behind the Institute.”

The Early History of Midwest Research Institute:“…a lighthouse on the prairie”

(originally published 7/9/20)

When I scheduled a post on the history of Midwest Research Institute for this year, I truly didn’t realize (or perhaps remember?) that the story of MRI begins where the previous three posts ended – ongoing opportunities presented by Kansas City’s WWII-era defense production plants. Serendipitous, yes, but that fact is just one small part of the fascinating early history of MRI I’m sharing here. I had the great fortune to work for MRI first as an intern, eventually as a senior analyst, and finally as a contractor, between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. It was the start of my career as a jack-of-all-subjects researcher.

The history I’m sharing here is taken almost exclusively from the book MRI published on the occasion of its 40th anniversary in 1985. The book was written by Dr. Charles Kimball, who referred to MRI in that book as a “lighthouse on the prairie.” Kimball became MRI’s third President in 1950, but from the standpoint of the ongoing life of the institute, he is considered the intellectual and organizational father of MRI. Among the staff – even those who didn’t know him or even had met him before he retired in 1975 – he was always referred to as “Charlie.” Something about that familiarity speaks to the regard his employees and colleagues had for him, and indeed, for the affection he felt toward everyone there that permitted him to put his impressive titles and credentials aside.

A telegram from President Harry Truman, a official (though largely honorary) member of MRI’s Board of Governors, as they were then called, sent to the group on the occasion of their 1947 meeting.

The end of WWII left a lot of assets on Kansas City’s table. Facilities that had employed technologies that could be privatized, a population of scientific intelligence that would have to migrate to suitable jobs in other locations, and a local capacity for growth that would be sent elsewhere if something weren’t done to capture it. Several regional business leaders, coming from backgrounds as varied as real estate, manufacturing, chemical production, research, and philanthropy came together to create a non-profit institute that could be the mechanism for turning all that potential into real local value, and in the process, turn Kansas City into a midwestern mecca for research. In 1945, there were three other comparable institutions, all east of the Mississippi. The model was for an independent institute that would be different from the others, whose funding came from long-term sponsorships. MRI would contract with research interests – public or private – on a project-by-project basis, allowing it a flexibility in responding to the market that other contract research institutes lacked.

As Kimball described it in his book, “The charter was unusual in its emphasis on regional development through science, a new direction for research institutes. The founders were more than hometown boosters. They believed in the midwest’s potentially dynamic mix of industry, resource utilization, and food, fiber and livestock production and processing. They wanted to turn an area of the country that was all but ignored, except for its natural resources, into a self-supporting region.”

When Westport was its own city, 4049 Pennsylvania was its first city hall and fire station. In the late 1940s, it served as MRI’s first home. The building was razed in the 1970s.

The Institute was chartered in 1943, but it took another two years to put all the elements in place. Employees were hard to find – much of the talent was either employed by or enlisted in the armed forces. As they did in war production factories, women with appropriate expertise would have had a rare opportunity for work here, but sadly workers, too, were few and far between. The equipment required for even the most basic tests was expensive and in demand due to war production, and while MRI was quickly developing a backlog of potential projects – demand was surprisingly high for this sort of work – funding for equipment would only be available after project revenue came in. The first big-ticket item purchased was for an RCA electron microscope, but most of the rest was war surplus machining equipment from places like Pratt & Whitney. Computers, such as they were, were far too big and expensive for a fledgling firm. The whole operation ran on mechanical adding machines.

MRI is responsible for the big white “M” on every M&M you’ve ever eaten, and the coating process they created made possible the claim that the candy “melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”

MRI’s first official quasi-permanent home was in the old Westport City Hall and former fire station at 4049 Pennsylvania. The building was so small, and so ill-suited to the purpose, that a half dozen other buildings, many of them formerly residential, were leased for additional space. MRI started with core capacities around traditional scientific disciplines, predominately chemistry and chemical engineering, microbiology, mechanical and electrical engineering, and food science. In fact, two of MRI’s most “famous” projects were in the latter category. Between 1944 and 1963, the Institute had several contracts with the Folger Coffee Company to work on projects like instant coffee and the mechanics of brewing coffee for an automatic coffee dispenser. MRI also helped M&M candies live up to their claim of “melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” As recounted in the company’s 1985 history, “To keep from melting, the chocolate center of the candies needed a smooth coating applied as sugar syrup. Then the coating could be waxed, polished, and imprinted with the letter “M” before packaging. To be able to use this process profitably, the company had to increase production. MRI developed the prototype of an automatic method for continuously applying the special brightly colored coating to 3,300 pounds of candies per hour in an exact proportion of color and sugar for each little chocolate center. The process also reduced the need for refrigeration and lowered handling costs.” Also, the original “M” was black – MRI worked out the formula to make it white.

Three views of the new MRI campus at 425 Volker Blvd: (l) the original Kimball building; (c) aerial view of the campus built out by the 1970s; (r) the amphitheater behind the old Barstow School building.

With more and larger contracts coming its way, MRI began to plan for a new location, a purpose-built facility that it still occupies at 425 Volker Boulevard. The main building opened in 1955, but additions over the next twenty years included a laboratory expansion, a world-class research library, 5,000 square feet devoted to a state-of-the-art mainframe computer center and acquisition of the old Barstow Sch00l building at 51st and Cherry, on the southeast corner of the MRI campus. The Barstow building became home to non-laboratory dependent disciplines like the Economics and Social Sciences Department (of which I was a member). The Barstow facility also included the old school’s gym, which became an employee gym, and the amphitheatre between the school and the gym buildings, a popular place for lunch, company social gatherings, and the occasional departmental meeting on a nice day.

An early view of the construction of the original KCI airport, for which MRI supplied the construction management plan.

From approximately 1960 to the mid 1980s, MRI’s client-base shifted slightly from a dominance by private industry to a dominance by the public sector, in particular, the federal government. MRI took over operation of the government’s Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in Golden, Colorado, now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; it played a major role in various projects with agencies like NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the US Department of Transportation. There were Department of Defense contracts, including one that identified possible reuses for a number of military bases the government was closing in the early ‘80s. Some of these federal contracts were classified, but a good many dealt with more routine matters, like NASA’s need for an improved system for storage of its more routine materials and equipment. On the local front, MRI developed the construction management program for the build-out of the Kansas City International Airport. It also created “Framework for the Future,” a long-term comprehensive economic development plan for the City of Kansas City, Missouri; a feasibility study for a possible Kansas City World’s Fair; and a study to identify potential development sites along the (then) soon-to-be-opened Bruce R. Watkins Roadway.

MRI’s reputation and that of its leadership brought many famous and important people to the Institute as speakers or recipients of MRI’s annual Citation Award. (l) Senator John Kennedy, speaker, seated beside “Charlie” Kimball, 1959; (c) noted physicist Edward Teller, Citation recipient 1960; (r) Walter Cronkite, Citation recipient, 1979

When I was associated with the Institute, I was often asked about what “mysteries” MRI holds, and if this or that project really did happen. The short answer is this: Most of MRI’s project work, if not officially classified (a small percentage at best), is most definitely proprietary. I never worked on anything requiring more than the most basic clearance, nor did many of my projects involve non-disclosure agreements. I’m quite certain there is much project work that I would never have known about, nor would many of the employees. But I can confirm that sometime in the late 1960s, early 1970s, they conducted studies on marijuana use, as over the years I’ve had at least two or three people confirm they served as subjects. They spoke fondly, if hazily, of the experience.

I left the Institute in 1990 as an employee, though I remained a contract employee for special projects over the rest of the 90s. So I am not able to speak to their current history, and not surprisingly, the Institute’s promotional materials do not cover their projects in much detail. In 2011, the Institute changed its legal name to MRIGlobal, an apparent nod to the fact that its interests and influence had grown well beyond its midwest origins. But I noticed in researching the recent history that it still often refers to itself as Midwest Research Institute. It’ll always be MRI as far as I’m concerned. It was a remarkable place to land as I did in 1982, a graduate degree in public administration in hand, but no real plan for where that degree would lead me. Gratefully, it led me to MRI, and what I learned there led me beyond its campus to a smorgasbord of professional adventures. It was exactly as Charlie Kimball described in his book:

“Many people at MRI are doing things that they never dreamed of doing. Researchers don’t move deliberately and self-consciously from one discipline to another, but they may begin the shift to a new scientific activity by working on the fringes of some other program. Professional growth is evolutionary, and a number of individuals over time at MRI have developed impressive generalist backgrounds. Through the years, MRI has seen the emergence of a new type within a research institute: the professional who is flexible, who is interested in the scientific method irrespective of the particular science to which it seems technically to belong. Research institutes are the ideal environment for such individuals to develop to their fullest capabilities.”

Next week, there’ll be a photo montage of some more of the vintage MRI photos that give a glimpse into research technology of yesteryear.

[Photos: All photos included here, with the exception of those in the top banner, were taken from Charles N. Kimball’s book, “Midwest Research Institute: Some Recollections of the First 50 years, 1945-1975]

KC in WWII: The Sunflower Ordnance Plant, the Olathe Naval Air Base, and the Darby Shipyards

Part 3 of 3

(originally published 6/25/20)

Last week, we looked at three plants that dominated the Kansas City area’s defense plant industry. This week’s offerings are no less important to the war effort, but less familiary to many and in some ways, hidden in plain sight.

SUNFLOWER ORDNANCE WORKS – DeSoto, Kansas

Sunflower Ordnance Works under construction in May 26, 1945. Image courtesy: Kansas State Historical Society.

Location: What remains of the Sunflower Ordnance Works plant can be found in northeast Johnson County, KS just south of the Desoto exit on KS Highway 10 between Lawrence and Kansas City. Accounts of Sunflower’s size vary between 9,000 and almost 11,000 acres, making it the largest WWII defense facility built in the Kansas City area, about 2 ½ times the size of Lake City.

Workers at the Sunflower Plant take their war bond “drive” to the road.. Image courtesy Kansas State Historical Society

Significance to the War Effort: During WWII, Sunflower was the world’s largest “smokeless powder” plant. While it was neither a powder (instead granules) or smokeless (only in the sense that it created less smoke than black powder), it was a replacement for black powder, and was used as propellant for artillery shells, cannons and rockets. During World War II, the Sunflower Ordnance Works produced more than 200 million pounds of propellants.

Operations: Sunflower was another defense plant that was government-owned and contractor-operated. In this case the operator was the Hercules Powder Company, a part of DuPont Chemical. The plant was home to 4,500 buildings, 175 miles of roads, 70 miles of railroad track, and 12,000 employees.

Life after World War II: Sunflower operated for three years during WWII and immediately after. In 1947 when the Hercules Powder Company contract expired, the plant was secured and placed on standby. During the next five decades, the plant went through repeated periods of production and closure until the Army closed the plant in 1998, and finally designated it as surplus property.

In 1999, out-of-state developers tried to get Johnson County support for a “Wonderful World of Oz” theme park and resort. The initial proposal projected the park to cost $860 million, and extraordinary amount that didn’t seem to fully account for the expenses of environmental remediation. Even without that concern, the Johnson County Commission had concerns about both the developer and the project, and they rejected the Oz concept in 2001.In 2002 the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma tried to reclaim the Sunflower property, which was part of its reservation property in the late 1800s. The federal courts rejected that claim. In 2005, Johnson County had transferred development rights to a local developer. But development cannot be planned until the federal government completes the environmental remediation. The latest date for completing that is 2028.

OLATHE NAVAL AIR BASE – Gardner, Kansas

The original administration building at the Olathe Naval Air Base. Image courtesy Johnson County Museum

Operating today as the New Century AirCenter, the old Olathe Naval Air Base is one of only two of the original Kansas City area defense facilities still in operation, albeit for a very different purpose. The original base earned much distinction as a transport facility during the war, but over the years a far greater reputation as a training facility, where future astronaut John Glenn made his first military solo flight as a cadet in training.

Location: The Olathe Naval Air Base is actually located in Gardner, KS, just southwest of Olathe. It’s directly north of the 175th Street exit on I-35 heading southwest from Olathe. At the time the Navy purchased it, the property included the original Johnson County Airport.

A training flight begins, with the Olathe base’s operational buildings in the background, circa 1955.

Significance to the War Effort: When the Olathe Naval Air Base was built in 1942, its purpose was to relocate its training facilities in Fairfax, which had been crowded out by the new B-25 bomber plant. A 1938 Navy plan had already recommended modernizing and expanding the capacity of all its Navy bases, so the new facility was designed with those needs in mind.

The function of the Olathe air station changed completely in 1944, when its primary mission became that of training transport pilots and providing support facilities for Naval Air Transport Squadron (NATS) Three. The purpose of NATS was to transport personnel and cargo to both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war. The primary duty of Squadron Three was to operate hospital flights, so as to equalize patient load among all naval hospitals. The Olathe base became the largest of these transport facilities because its central geographic location made it a convenient mid-continent stop.

Operations: The base was officially commissioned on October 1, 1942, as the United States Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Olathe, Kansas, but its name was changed on January 1, 1943, to the United States Naval Air Station in order to give it comparable status with other air bases.

Construction began in January 1942. First phase projects included a hangar, an assembly and repair shop, personnel quarters, a ground-school building, and fuel storage facilities, as well as three 5,000 foot runways. Over time, additional property was acquired to expand. The initial purchase of what was then the Johnson County airport cost just over $72,000, while the construction of the new facilities cost about $12.2 million. When completed, the Navy estimated the base could accommodate 2,000 Navy personnel, but by the end of the war, that number was 6,400. Cadet instruction peaked between the spring and fall of 1943, when 1,100 prospective pilots were in training at one time.

Life after World War II: In July 1946, the Olathe Naval Air Base was one of 17 stations selected by the Navy to continue operations as a reserve training center, in addition to its service to both the Navy and the Marine Corps as a base for flight operations.

In 1951, early in the Korean War, the Air Force’s Air Defense Command selected the base to be one of 28 radar stations in the command’s radar surveillance network. For a two year period during the Korean War, the Naval Reserve Fighter Squadron 774, based in Olathe, was recalled to action, extending the base’s period of military service. That war also prompted runway extensions and new pilot training programs for use by both Air Force and Marine reserve units. The base was officially closed by the Navy in 1969, but continued to occupy some of the facilities and use some of the services for many years after the base was transferred to the Johnson County Airport Commission in 1973. The transfer stipulated that the property had to be used as an airport. The Airport Commission renamed the facility New Century AirCenter in 1994, and all military functions ceased at the airport in 1996.

THE DARBY SHIPYARDS – Kansas City, Kansas

Panorama of the Darby Corporation’s WWII shipyard operations at Kaw Point.

Unlike the other Kansas City defense facilities profiled here, the steel plate-manufacturing Darby Corporation was not government-owned. Darby was one of many existing area businesses that ceased normal operations to provide the US military with either services (mostly training) or goods needed for World War II. Much of what was produced locally had logical connections to Kansas City industries – meat packing, food processing, garment construction, chemistry and even steel. But the Darby Corporation built one of the most recognizable pieces of World War II equipment, in what seems like the least likely place in the country. Darby built boats.

Location: The Darby Corporation was located in the Kansas-side West Bottoms area, on property adjacent to what is known today as “Kaw Point,” the junction of the Kaw and the Missouri rivers.

A postcard of one of the Darby landing craft, as its launched and starts its journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Significance to the War Effort: During World War II, Darby operated the biggest shipyard in the region, manufacturing amphibious landing craft, including some of those that brought the troops to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Specifically, the craft were known as LCTs (Landing Craft, Tanks) and LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized). Darby delivered an average of a vessel a day for the US Navy, a total of about 2,000 ships. Located as it was on the river bank, the company could launch the completed boats on the 1,000 mile journey down the Missouri/Mississippi waterway to the Gulf of Mexico. From there they were deployed in both the European and Pacific theatres of war. The curiosity of the ships coming from the country’s deep, farm inland earned them the nickname, “prairie ships.” While the boats were Darby’s main product during the war, they also made locomotives and 1/2 ton bombs.

A Darby LCT in a testing operation, 1942.

Operation: The Darby Corporation had roots in Kansas City going back to the mid-1890s, and had considerably more after the acquisition of another steel company in Leavenworth, Kansas. Darby survived the Depression, and shortly thereafter, the death of founder Harry Darby. By the time WWII began, Darby was operating in the black under Harry Darby, Jr. the second generation of family management.

There is not a lot of ready information on the operations of the corporation, but there is one account of an event in its war-time history that has made it into some Kansas City history books. Early in 1944, Darby had 62 vessels that could not be sent down river owing to low water levels. The delay created a surprising sense of urgency within the Navy, which started throwing out several ill-conceived plans for healing this break in the production chain. An order to release reservoir water far upstream on the Missouri resulted in just a one-inch gain on the water level. A proposal for shipping the boats overland was nixed when Darby reminded the Navy their ships were too large for bridge clearances. The Navy’s response was a plan to remove the bridges and replace them with temporary structures, further evidence of the Navy’s sense of urgency, now nearing panic. The planned demolitions were set to begin, but the night before, storms blew in from the west and raised the river four feet. The boats were on their way. Only six months later did the world, and the Darby Corporation realize the Navy needed the boats fully deployed by June 6, 1944 – D-Day.

Life after World War II: After the war, the Darby Corporation continued to produce steel products, including railroad equipment and water towers. The company continued to diversify within the steel fabrication industry, and to acquire other steel companies. Harry Darby Jr. died in 1987. The company continued to operate for a couple of years after his death, but had been struggling for some time and finally just couldn’t continue. Without a buyer, the Darby Corporation closed in 1989, and its assets were sold at auction.

There is no doubt that the economic impact of all the facilities this series has covered – and all the other war-related business in the area – changed the city both during the war and afterward. That contribution continues to this day through both the operations long gone, and those like Lake City, Fairfax and Olathe that continue today, even where the history is buried beneath the current operation.

There is another legacy that continues today, one for which it may be impossible to ever calculate the importance. One that for me – and I’m sure many, many Kansas Citians – is very personal. Two generations of my family worked in some of those plants during WWII – my mother, my father (before he enlisted), my father’s dad and his older brother and an aunt and uncle, two each at Pratt & Whitney, Sunflower Ordnance and Lake City. It was part of their story, but not one they talked much about, as if these were typical experiences. I suspect they were, in that lots of people they knew shared them. But in retrospect, I see how important this war-time employment was at the family level. It kept food on the table and gas in the car in leaner times, and it kept them from having to leave everything and everyone they knew, to move to where the work was, an all-too-common experience during the war.

KC in WWII: The Fairfax, Pratt and Whitney and Lake City Defense Plants

Part 2 of 3

(originally published 6/18/20)

One of the many government-issued “propoganda” posters for the defense production efforts.

Last week the first in a 3-part series of Kansas City’s WWII experience laid the background on why the Kansas City area was able to land so many important defense plant contracts, considering the long tradition of military production plants located predominantly on the coasts. For this week and next, we’re going to look at some of the most noteworthy of those facilities – noteworthy for their importance, their impact, or the peculiar role they played. This week’s group might be called “the Big 3,” for they seem to be the most often mentioned among the plants, and for good reason.

Despite the genuine interest in supporting the war effort shared by Americans, the cities that landed these new defense plants were primarily looking to their post-war futures. An injection of the level of capital that building these massive facilities and employing the tens of thousands of workers would bring meant money to sustain the local economies through the lean war years, and, if all went as hoped, the jobs and the investment would continue for years after. Of all the Kansas City area plants, it’s easy to make the case that the first three, this week, did the most to create a lasting impact on Kansas City, albeit in different ways. The North American Aviation bomber plant in Fairfax cemented that relatively new (in 1940) district as one of the leading industrial locations in the midwest. Pratt & Whitney’s plant near 95th & Troost morphed over time into the Bannister Federal Complex that housed everything from the production of non-nuclear bomb parts to the regional processing center for the IRS for more than 60 years after the WWII production stopped. Lake City Army Ammunition Plant’s impact is hardest to calculate, because it’s in operation today, and with the exception of a short stand-by period, has stayed in production since the end of WWII.

NORTH AMERICAN AVIATION BOMBER PLANT – Fairfax Industrial District, Kansas City, KS

A 1941-45 aerial view looking north at Fairfax Airport, with the North American factory at top-left, and the Modification Center at the right, surrounded by dozens of military aircraft. Image courtesy Fairfax Industrial District.

Location: The North American Aviation B-25 bomber plant was located in the Fairfax Industrial District, Kansas City, KS. The District covers 2,000 acres of bottom land just north of the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, of which 75 acres was the site of the B-25 plant. The District is northeast of downtown KCK, and it connects by bridges to Kansas City, Missouri to the east and to the Parkville/Riverside area to the north. The district was created in 1923 by the Union Pacific Railroad, and lays claim to being the first planned industrial district in the country. Between its creation and the time the North American bomber plant was installed on the site, Fairfax housed facilities for railroads, foundries, refineries, construction firms, manufacturing plants, a lumber mill and an airport. All of these added to Fairfax’s attractiveness as a military production site, but so was the fact that the military was already highly invested in Fairfax. A naval reserve base was installed at Fairfax in 1935, one of several elimination bases in the country charged with screening candidates for final training as pilots.

B-25s being assembled within the massive North American Aviation facility at the KCK Fairfax Industrial District. Image courtesy Fairfax Industrial District.

Significance to the War Effort: The B-25, a medium-sized bomber, was ubiquitous in World War II, serving in every theaters of operation, and in the air forces of virtually every member of the Allied Forces. The plane was known as the B-25 Mitchell, named for General Billy Mitchell, considered the father of the US Air Force. On April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle led his squadron of B-25s in the bombing raid on Tokyo.

Operation: While the government owned the building and property, the plant was operated by a specially-formed subsidiary of North American Aviation. Over the course of the war effort, the plant was reported to have produced 6,608 planes, about 40 percent of all B-25s produced for WWII. Approximately 26,000 workers were employed at the plant.

Life after World War II: For a time, the government used the plant as the depot for selling its remaining B-25s to public and private buyers. Private carriers leased parts of the base for aircraft maintenance. But by far, General Motors accounts for most of the long-term use of the plant. Immediately following the war, General Motors leased the assembly buildings to produce both automobiles and – for a while – post-war military aircraft. After fifteen years as a lease holder, GM purchased the property from the government. The original B-25 plant was demolished for GM’s expansion, and a replacement (Fairfax II) was built in 1986. GM continues assembly operations there to the present.

PRATT & WHITNEY ENGINE PLANT – 95TH Street at Troost, Kansas City, MO

The Pratt & Whitney Complex, looking ESE, circa 1945. Image courtesy Kansas City Public Library.

Location: The Pratt & Whitney Engine Plant sat about 300 acres at the northeast corner of 95th and Troost in Kansas City, Missouri. The site had originally been developed in 1922 as a 1.25 mile wood oval track for auto racing, known as the Kansas City Speedway. The track lasted only two years, and the property effectively sat dormant for almost twenty years. As an industrial site, the location had advantage of being close to Dodson, the small emerging industrial center to the east, and was adjacent to the streetcar line that ran along the property’s northern border, the Missouri Pacific rail lines that also ran through Dodson, the Blue River and major road transportation routes.

A “test cell,” for testing the Pratt & Whitney engines. Image courtesy National Park Service.

Significance to the War Effort: The plant was responsible for manufacturing and testing the 3,400 horsepower, R-2800-C engines. In the 2 ½ years of its operation, Pratt & Whitney produced 7,934 engines for a variety of planes that saw action in Europe and the Pacific, including the Army’s “Thunderbolt” and the Navy’s “Corsair” and “Hellcat,” three of the most critical American aircraft flown in WWII.

While the engines the Pratt & Whitney plant built were important in terms of performance, the plant’s design made a significant contribution, too. The war’s dependence on basic materials made steel a scarce commodity for construction, so the army hired famed industrial architect Albert Kahn to design their production facilities with as little steel as possible. Kahn’s concept used wide-span concrete arches. The material – concrete – was relatively cheap and far more forgiving in construction than steel. The 40-foot arches made possible huge expanses of uninterrupted floor space, adding flexibility to the use of the space. And the building process was much quicker, making it possible to serve the war effort faster.

Operation: At the peak of its war-time operation, Pratt & Whitney employed around 22,000 workers. When completed, the plant covered about 3 million square feet, the equivalent of about 69 football fields. The engines, mounted on trolleys, moved around the plant on tracks as workers attached the engine’s 18 cylinders, one at a time.

Life after World War II: For a while after the plant closed in September 1945, parts of the facility stored surplus goods the military transferred or sold. In 1947, the Internal Revenue Service moved into some of the facility, and would be a tenant for the next 60 years.

In 1949, the building returned to military use when Westinghouse moved in to part of the facility to produce engines, jet engines this time. Westinghouse also leased part of the space to the Bendix Aviation Corporation, with whom they were in a partnership on the engine production. Bendix would become another long-term tenant.

In addition to its work with Westinghouse, Bendix soon had separate contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission for the production of non-nuclear parts in America’s nuclear weapons. That work continued when Bendix merged with Allied Signal in 1983, and until the final closure of the complex in 2014. Demolition on the entire facility began shortly thereafter, and continues now. After what is anticipated to be at least several years of environmental remediation, the federal government has general plans to redevelop the site in conjunction with private developers and city assistance.

LAKE CITY AMMUNITION PLANT – Lake City, Missouri

Contemporary photo of the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. Image courtesy of LCAAP

Location: The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LCAAP) sits just south of Highway 24 on 7 Highway in the northeast corner of Jackson County. While the plant is within the city limits of Independence, the plant takes its name “Lake City” from a small unincorporated farm community north of the site. The operation sits on almost 4,000 acres.

Significance to the War Effort: Lake City’s mission has always been to provide the Army with its ammunition for small, military-issued pistols, revolvers, rifles, and machine guns. During its initial WWII operation, Lake City produced nearly 6 billion rounds, still only 13% of total military production. It shared war-time production responsibilities with 12 other similar facilities around the country. Today, Lake City is the army’s only small arms ammunition plant, but its production is dramatically less than it was even twenty years ago, less than 2 billion rounds per year.

Like the other plants, women were on average 40 percent of the war-time work force at the KC defense plants. Image courtesy LCAAP.

Operation:The first facilities at the site had 340 buildings, most related to production, but a large number devoted to services for personnel, especially with regards to worker safety. Not only were there first-aid stations throughout the plant, but there was a separate hospital. WWII employment peaked around 21,000, including a police force, a 640+ member horseback detail used for perimeter security, and a fire department with 82 firefighters.W

The initial operation contractor was Remington Arms, and in its day, the plant was often referred to as “the Remington Arms plant.” As contractors changed over time, it became Lake City, the only constant identity the plant has had. It is also the only defense operation profiled here that still operates to the same purpose as it did when it first opened.

Significance to the War Effort: Prior to WWII, the Army’s only small arms ammunition plant was in Philadelphia, already deemed outdated by the 1930s. In the late 1930s, the Army, anticipating involvement in the war in Europe, devised plans for increasing capacity and modernizing production methods. The Lake City plant was the first of six of these new plants to be built, and served as a prototype for the construction of the others. It was also one of only two of these plants that were put on standby status at the conclusion of WWII.

Life after World War II: When Lake City was put on standby status in 1945, the plant’s production facilities were closed down and stored in place, and for the next five years, the plant was monitored and maintained by the Army’s Ordnance Department. The plant came back on-line in December 1951, with considerable investment on the part of the Army in the facilities and the technology, even though the old production machines remained in place and in use. Remington Arms returned as operating contractor, and would remain so until 1985. Employment didn’t rise to WWII levels, but was still an impressive 15,000. Lake City served the Korean War efforts by producing ammunition with an average annual production of around 1 billion rounds. Also during this time, another 135 buildings were added to the site, and many of the original buildings were modernized. The plant continued operations after the Korean conflict through the 1960s and 1970s, through the Vietnam War, and to keep up, added another 35 buildings.

Remington Arms operated the plant from its opening in 1941 until 1985. Olin Corporation operated the plant from 1985 to 2001. Since that time, a succession of mergers have moved the plant under the operating umbrella next of Alliant Technologies (2001-2015), then Orbital Sciences (2015-2018), then Northrup Grumman (2018-2021). Last year, the modern iteration of Olin Corporation, known now as Olin Winchester, will assume that role. After a one-year transition period, operations will pass to Olin Winchester. Lake City is now the country’s only government-owned, contractor operating facility manufacturing ammunition for small arms.

All of the WWII era original equipment is reported to still be onsite, functional, and for the most part still in use. It sits alongside equipment of every other era in Lake City’s history, up to and including the sophisticated robotics used today.

Next week, we finish up the series looking at three slightly less familiar defense operations, coincidentally all on the Kansas side of the metro – the Sunflower Ordnance Plant in Desoto, the Olathe Naval Air Base, not in Olathe, but in Gardner, and the Darby Corporation, also in the Fairfax district of KCK, and fabricators of some of the most recognizable equipment from World War II.

(Featured photo: A billboard encourages Kansas Citians to join the industrial production effort by coming to the War Job Headquarters at 11th and Grand.)

KC in WWII: Defense Plants Come to the Heartland

Part 1 of 3

(originally published 6/11/20)

J.C. Nichols in his Washington office at the Advisory Committee for the National Council of Defense. Nichols headed the Miscellaneous Equipment Division.

In July 1940, J.C. Nichols, Kansas City’s nationally renowned real estate developer, arrived in Washington D.C., with World War II still just beyond the horizon. At the request of his government, Nichols had agreed to join the ranks of the “dollar-a-year” men – notable corporate and institutional leaders from a wide range of businesses all over the country. These were people whom Franklin Roosevelt had tapped to help organize and then implement the public-private work that would support the war effort. For though the US was not yet formally engaged in the war, the Roosevelt administration was anticipating the inevitability that became reality in 1941. First, the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 gave structure and sanction to America’s involvement in the War in Europe, and on December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor put the US at the center of the conflict.

The National Council of Defense was a collection of cabinet members from defense, interior, agriculture, commerce and labor, but the real work came under the council’s Advisory Commission, where the dollar-a-year men worked, distributed among various departments aligned with industrial production, transportation, labor, and agriculture. As the Commission’s own manual explained, its purpose was “to translate this national defense program from appropriations and blueprints into action. It is based on three fundamental questions: What do we need? Where is it? How do we get it?”

The morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds wait in line for the opportunity to join the workforce at the Fairfax B-25 bomber plant. Image courtesy Kansas State Historical Society

Nichols had been involved at the national level before, working on public infrastructure commissions under President Hoover. But that was different – volunteer committees, not working positions. And the air was more than a bit rarified in this assignment, for Nichols’ fellow conscripted CEOs were people of considerable reputation. William Knudsen, who had left his position as president of General Motors to head the Production Division, had been the one to suggest Nichols to Roosevelt. In that same division, holding similar positions to Nichols, were presidents and vice-presidents of companies including Proctor & Gamble, AT&T, Pontiac, McGraw-Hill Publishing, the Chicago Tribune, and the director of the Mellon Institute. Heading Nichols’ specific department was W. Averell Harriman, at the time Chairman of Union Pacific, but with a resume that would eventually include a long list of historically important positions, including Governor of New York and Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

According to Nichols’ unpublished memoir, he had only expected to be there for six months. But upon arriving, it seems he found there was more to do than he had expected. Nichols wrote, “As soon as I arrived in Washington I was astounded to find that the proposed program included no defense plants or air bases between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains except in the extreme south. I immediately contacted all the important officials in Washington, including President Roosevelt; Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox; Secretary of war [Harry] Stimson; Admiral [John] Towers, head of our corps, and many others…not once but many times. In fact, it might be said that I camped on their doorsteps! I rallied support from leading industrialists; business officials and heads of chambers of commerce throughout the middle west, getting larger delegations to come from certain states, and we finally changed the whole thinking in Washington and brought about establishment of a reasonable number of defense plants throughout the middle west. At that time there were more than 500 men a week being shipped out of Kansas City alone to defense plants on west and east coasts.”

Nichols wrote as much in a letter to the New York Times, which it published on August 18, 1940. In it, Nichols wrote, “It is essential not only for maximum production but for the creation and maintenance of a sound and balanced national economic machinery that every geographic section of the country take part in the industrial expansion contemplated.” Then, on August 30, the Midwest Defense Conference met in Kansas City. Its attendees included governors, senators, local politicians and businessmen from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. They adopted a resolution in support of the same concern, entitled “Decentralization of Defense Industries.” Both Nichols’ letter and the conference resolution were entered into the Congressional Record in October, by a sympathetic member of congress from Mississippi. And by December 1940, when the National Council on Defense formally defined its role in its official publications, the functions of the Procurement Division included the provision of “whole new factories” to be built, “some, such as those making munitions, in inland areas away from the unusually vulnerable industrial region.”

Front page of the Kansas City Star, December 29, 1941, announcing plans for local defense plants. Image courtesy newspapers.com

J.C. Nichols is most known as a real estate developer whose work impacted Kansas City in ways both intended and beneficial, and unintended and detrimental. But if there was anything Nichols loved more than his Country Club District, or was more adept at than the management of large-scale development projects, it was his love of the Kansas City area, and it was his talents as a salesman which here translated to converting his belief in Kansas City’s potential into tangible support for drawing defense dollars to his hometown.

That said, it’s not realistic to attribute Kansas City’s success only to Nichols’ talents and efforts. History, as they say, is written by the winners. So while the record supports J.C. Nichols as a leader in this national discussion, he himself attributes the importance of others in applying local leverage to the Washington fulcrum. And there is plenty of evidence that this idea of broadening the geography of the home front war effort among the branches of the military pre-dates the Advisory Committee. Indeed, the Committee’s Knudsen, having come from the auto industry was specifically charged with revamping aircraft production from the single-output model to the auto industry’s mass-produced assembly model. As it turned out, middle America was ideal as a location for the defense industry. There the government could find a surplus of housing and labor, two crucial requirements that were suddenly in short demand in locations where production was already concentrated.

If there were a lot of locations in the running for defense plants and contract work, there was more than enough to ensure the impact of that investment in the heart of America would be important. Years later, Nichols recalled, “I estimate that this change of policy… has resulted in the establishment of more than a hundred defense plants, air bases, etc., in the middle west, many of which have been converted to peace time usage, and are still functioning.” Indeed, that was the case in the Kansas City metropolitan area where we benefited from five different facilities, well scattered around the region, as well as several hundred existing businesses who retooled their operations and under contract produced goods and services for the military.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll look at six “mini-histories” of some of these facilities. Next week, we start with three of the largest and most familiar plants – North American Aviation’s B-25 bomber plant at Fairfax in Kansas City, Kansas, the Pratt & Whitney engine factory in south Kansas City, Missouri, and the Lake City Army Ammunition plant in eastern Independence.

The following week finishes up with the Sunflower Ordnance Plant in Desoto, Kansas, the Olathe Naval Air Base in Gardner, Kansas, and the Darby Corporation, a private contractor in Kansas City, KS. Each of the six profiles will share something of how the plants operated, how their contributions were significant to the war effort, and what fate has befallen them since the end of World War II.

(Feature Photo: One of a series of U.S. war effort posters that served as a constant reminder of the importance of industry’s role.)

Christo: Wrapped Walkways 1978

(originally published 6/4/20)

The artist Christo passed away last weekend. Many of us 50+ers will remember Christo’s connection to Kansas City – two weeks in October 1978, when the pathways in Loose Park were wrapped in gold. An improbably amazing event by an artist who was then only about 20 years into his 62 year career. But this is not a Christo bio cum obit. The reason I had already planned this piece for this summer was that I wanted to know more about the how and why of it all. And as usual, while finding those answers in the research, I came upon even more.

But first things first…

Jeanne-Claude and Christo in studio, New York, 1976, two years before the Kansas City project. Image courtesy artist’s website.

Knowing something of Christo’s body of work gives context to the Loose Park project. His portfolio begins in 1958, the same year he married Jeanne-Claude, with whom he collaborated on every project since at least 1963. He was Bulgarian, but he escaped Communism and fled to Austria when he was 20. Jeanne-Claude was French, but born in Casablanca when her family was stationed there. The artists met in Paris, but spent most of their careers in New York. They led international lives, and created international art. Over the course of their joint career, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped Italian fountains, a Germany art gallery, and the entire Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. They wrapped monuments in Milan, walls in Rome, and in Newport, Rhode Island, they wrapped the beach and the ocean. Their art was impermanent, lasting anywhere from 8 hours to two months. Fabric was the medium of choice from the beginning, and Christo often used the term “wrapped” in the title of his pieces.

“Running Fence,” Sonoma & Marin Counties, CA, 1972. Image from author’s website.

In 1977, Christo was well known within the art world, but was not quite yet a household name in America. His most notable work was a 1972 piece. Running Fence was a 24.5-mile fence of white nylon supported by posts and cables that ran across the hills of Sonoma and Marin counties in California, until finally it crossed the coastline and ended in the sea. But it was another piece, Valley Curtain that first brought Christo to Kansas City. Valley Curtain, 200,000 square feet of orange nylon, was strung between two mountains, hanging over a highway near Rifle, Colorado. That was 1972, and owing to a sudden wind, the curtain hung for all of 28 hours. Later that year, a Kansas City gallery held a showing of photos of Valley Curtain. Christo came to the opening of that showing, his first trip to Kansas City. A connection was made.

Fast forward five years, and the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), a new membership subgroup of the (then named) Nelson Gallery of Art was looking for a unique inaugural event. The Nelson Gallery’s reputation in contemporary art had been strong in the 1960s, but was thought to be fading, and the Society wanted to reverse that. CAS approached Christo, and discussions began in earnest in September 1977.

But where to put Christo’s signature brand of over-sized art? The city had two suggestions – the Missouri River, and Loose Park. Christo’s past work had given him the idea of wrapping a pathway, and he’d been looking for the right spot. And as he said many times, he had never had an installation in such a busy place, such a public space. So Loose Park it was. His proposal illustrated a vision of the walkways just as they would be realized, a project timeline of a year (a short time-frame for a Christo project), and a public viewing of two weeks in October 1978.

The concept of wrapping a sidewalk may seem simple, but the numbers prove the extent of Christo’s undertaking.

The schedule anticipated that public resistance might delay things. Past experience had taught him to anticipate that time, and plan accordingly. But Kansas City was different than other places Christo had worked in one fundamental way. There was no long convoluted permitting process for this type of project. The Board of Parks & Recreation has complete autonomy over how the parks are used. Citizens could appear before the board with objections, but in all the meetings held before the final agreement was reached in April, more people showed up to support the idea than oppose it. Individuals could – and did – have their letters to the Star’s editor published, but rather than offering persuasive arguments like the disruption to the neighborhood or presenting a safety hazard, most of the letters landed on one of two softer points – the project was a scam or folly, or a sinful waste of resources.

As newspapers often do, the Star’s reporting continually mentioned the “controversy” surrounding the project, even when the only controversy rose from the letters to the editor the paper published. But say something often enough and it becomes truth, and the walkways project became the subject of a broader, but still ineffectual debate. The Star itself added to the confusion by contradicting its own stories – sometimes stories in the same edition. It repeatedly reinforced or failed to correct two pieces of bad information – that Christo had come to Kansas City of his own volition just to sell his project, and that he’d convinced the City, or the Nelson, or both to pay for the work. None of that was true. The invitation came from the Contemporary Art Society. Aside from the usual practice of underwriting travel expenses for a trip made at the organization’s invitation dating prior to any formal agreement, the executed contract explicitly stated that all project expenses were the responsibility of the Christo team.

A sample of the slick and shiny saffron nylon used to wrap the sidewalks was included in the book, Christo: Wrapped Walkways, a commemorative book on the event.

Even so, some nerves were rattling in City Hall at the thought of angry citizens flooding city meetings. And while only a few complaints ever arrived, the city felt the need to pass a resolution that formally disassociated it from the project, an act both spineless and pointless. The park board, by charter, is its own entity, so the city had no authority in the matter. The only group that might have had some authority was the Municipal Arts Commission, but because this was to be a temporary piece, the Parks Department rightly defined it as an event in their application, and avoided need for MAC’s approval.

The only legitimate concerns were raised by the Park Board, all about safety and security. Would the wrapped walkways present trip hazards? Would someone be responsible for repairs? How would the property be patrolled for security? To answer the first concern, Christo installed fabric on a small stretch of sidewalk in the park. Seeing it and walking on it themselves, the board members concerns were allayed. That same month, April 1978, the Park Board approved the project, CAS entered into an agreement with Christo, and the project that Christo and his team had already been working on for the last six months was finally given the green light.

One group of installation workers hammering the spikes into the fabric’s grommets, securing it to the ground. Image from project book.

The other two questions about repairs and safety may have come from Frank Vaydik, the director of the parks department. His years of experience would have told him that projects like this are usually long on promise and short on delivery. He was neutral on the question of art/not art, but was determined not to use valuable department resources for the maintenance or security of the piece, nor for the inevitable damage left behind. But at the end of the project, Vaydik allowed that he had never seen a team so well prepared and so efficient as Christo’s.

By 1978, Christo had cultivated an impressive team. He typically worked with three engineers, each taking the lead in the design process, project management or project construction. He always included a local contractor, this time A.L. “Augie” Huber. Christo probably didn’t tell anyone in Kansas City how far the project had progressed, even before it had begun. Most of the design time was spent just working out what was effectively a pattern for every inch of the pathways. The asphalt, cement and gravel paths, all different sizes. The twists, turns, bends and circles in the pathways, all measured to a custom fit.

Ruby (center) was one of four professional seamstresses hired for the project. The heavy duty machines were put on wheels so that could be moved around the park as needed. Image from project book.

Then production began. Whole factories were involved. The specially designed saffron nylon came from a factory in Putnam, Connecticut. Once finished, the raw yardage was sewn to specification in West Virginia. Two kinds of spikes to hold the fabric into the ground, each for its own soil type were custom made. Workers had to be hired – installers, security guards, monitors for repairs, even professional seamstresses for piecing the long stretches together, and for on-site modifications.

Everything went as planned. It took two days to wrap the walkways. The grand opening was October 4, 1978, but the park had been open to the public during the two days of installation, so people had already experienced the walkways before opening day. For two weeks, Kansas City was the center of attention in the art world, and Loose Park was the center of attention in town. By the time Wrapped Walkways was over, the project had many converts, and the whole experience was hailed as a success.

(l) The duck pond bridge was a popular viewing spot. On a busy day during the two weeks of the project, people had to wait in line to cross it. (r) Christo liked the contrast between the park’s formal areas, like the Rose Garden (top) and the informal areas like the winding path around the duck pond (bottom), and how those contrasts gave a different look to the walkways. Images from project book.

I saw it in person, and I lived in midtown then so I saw it often. The gold walkways were streams leading through the morning fog around the pond. They caught the early autumn colors in the bright light of day, and reflected back the sunset and the glow of streetlights in the evening. Some years ago, I was delighted to find a copy of the commemorative book for the project in Prospero’s Book Store. Christo: Wrapped Walkways is the source of much of what I’ve shared here. Which, it turns out, is what Christo intended all along.

That’s what I learned forty plus years later. Christo intended that the books he published for each project to be as much a part of his art as the instillation itself. In true artist fashion, Christo could only articulate his work from his own perspective, and his perspective was his experience of the project from concept to conclusion. For him, the finished art was inseparable from the effort. So, in the spirit of Da Vinci, I suppose, he preserved letters, photos, sketches, calculations and contracts of each project, and put them in a book. Further, he saw every event of the process, including the meeting he attended, the hurdles he encountered, the public discourse, the eventual response by the community, the very setting of the piece, all a part of the art. So the documentaries, the photo prints, the working sketches, and other pieces that he sold both bankrolled his art and deepened the experience for public.

That’s exactly what happened when I read the book and did the research. And it’s what I hope has happened here with this post for you.

(Featured Photo: A detail of one of the wrapped walkways as featured on the cover of Christo: Wrapped Walkways, published to help support the project.)

100 Years ago in Kansas City: A Photo Time Capsule

(originally published 5/21/20)

It doesn’t seem possible that 1920 is one hundred years ago. My parents were born within a few years of either side of that date, and so growing up, when I remember them best in the 1960s and 70s, 1920 was only about 40 or 50 years earlier. Now, I hate to recall, those 60s and 70s were 50 or 60 years ago. Time doesn’t just fly. It speeds through like a Land Speed Record car – the thrill is in the anticipation as it comes hurtling toward you, but it disappears into the distance at an alarmingly fast rate in a blur.

I’ve gone back to the archives of my two favorite local history resources, the Kansas City Public Library and the State Historical Society of Missouri, to cherry pick some photos from 1920 that remind us (or at least me) how long ago 1920 was, and how much the city has changed since then. Each picture was chosen because of that very fact – it’s a symbol of change, a reminder that change is constant, and not just there when thrust upon us.

Let’s begin with the feature photo (top). While the photo doesn’t have a specific address associated with it, based on geography, some address clues hidden in the photo, and a familiarity with how this city has developed, I believe this photo was taken somewhere in the vicinity of what today we think of the East Crossroads, the flats just north of Hospital Hill. There have been “junk yards” there since at least 1908, and some are there still. In that respect, it hasn’t changed. What has changed is that now, the treasures, like the airplane shown here, are hidden from view by virtue of city ordinances that protect us from what we believe to be a visual assault. In 1920, this yard was in full view of the public. The variety and value of its offerings were in bold display. The stairs leading up to the large sign were the business’s front door. And the workers there mostly seem to be dressed in slacks, white shirts and straw boaters. A business of which to be proud. (This image is a detail of an uncropped version included at the end of this piece.)

City Views

City Views: clockwise from upper left: Threshers north of the river; military parade; Intercity Viaduct; downtown regrading

While we think of the 1920s as a sophisticated and even urbane time, here in the heartland, our rural origins and original terrain were still near-at-hand. But clearly, by 1920, Kansas City was already an expanding metropolis.

(Upper left) The threshers have descended upon this field of wheat in the rural countryside north of the Missouri River. But not as far north as it might seem. There on the right, in the visible distance, behind the clouds of black smoke billowing from the farm machinery, is the downtown skyline.

(Upper right) The photos from 1920 included a lot of “military parades.” Closer look reveals they aren’t all military – for instance one I found was for a parade held when the annual Future Farmers of American came to town. But here, sailors who served in World War I and recently returned are the stars of the parade.

(Lower right) Even though it had been completed in 1908, the Intercity Viaduct (now Lewis & Clark Viaduct) had only two years of operation before finally being opened to traffic, and this after the project was seven years in foreclosure (tolls failed to pay the debt). The view is to the northwest, toward Kansas City, Kansas. The Missouri River is seen next to the bridge, well out of its banks, but well below the concrete traffic lanes.

(Lower left) Fully forty years after serious development of Kansas City’s downtown began, the savage regrading that forever changed the city’s topography has come as far south as today’s Crown Center complex. The car in the center of the frame is headed north on McGee, about even with 23rd Street.

Neighborhoods

Neighborhoods – Clockwise from upper left: Parks plan built out on Ward Parkway; Northeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library; Belvidere Hollow neighborhood; Happy Hollow Park in Crestwood

1920 was the pinnacle of a national housing boom that started in the early 1900s and lasted to the Great Depression. The period paralleled the Progressive Era, and together the two social forces brought shape to the city’s modern urban form. Kansas City became a model other cities emulated, in two disparate categories. It was the first city in the US to have a Board of Public Welfare, which set the model for public involvement in the common good, and the social issues of the city’s least fortunate citizens. It was also the home of the country’s largest contiguous residential development, the Country Club District, whose residents were nothing if not fortunate – a new upper middle class of professionals and business owners, ranging up to the city’s most influential families.

(Upper left) The city’s parks plan provided the form, and the expanding Country Club District provided the development incentive for the first stage of Ward Parkway, looking north east from 59th Street. The streets, sidewalks and other features were built long before much of the housing.

(Upper right) 1920 saw the Kansas City Public Library in the midst of a forty-year period of extending libraries into the city’s ever expanding neighborhoods. The Northeast Branch, seen here in 1920, was the first of many branches to be located within a public school.

(Lower right) The Belvidere Hollow neighborhood was an early enclave just west of today’s Independence Avenue and The Paseo. It was home to many of the families who worked in the West Bottoms industrial plants and meat packing houses. Because it was a working class neighborhood, Belvidere attracted a diversity of residents, by race, religion and ethnicity. By 1920 Belvidere was a predominately black neighborhood. The building’s sign reads “Belvidere Neighborhood House – Social Welfare – Everyone Welcome.”

(Lower left) The Nichols Company, developers of the Country Club District, installed many landscape features into the neighborhoods they built. Happy Woods Park was a “hidden” park in the Crestwood neighborhood, located on the interior of a block but still a shared neighborhood space. The park was built before much of the Crestwood housing had even been started. In a time when safety and liability were not as primary as today, this pool was originally intended as a wading pool for young children. These parks were problematic in other ways, in terms of responsibility for maintenance and blurring of the property lines. Only a few remain in any of their original forms. Crestwood’s park space remains, absent the pool.

Kids

Kids: Brookside kindergarten; Mill Creek Park; Switzer School’s Boys’ Club; Boy scout troop hikes a trail in Mission Hills.

More than a century ago, children’s lives were lived much closer to home than they are today. A child’s whole universe was contained within their neighborhood , but by 1920 that was changing, with new places to go and new adventures to experience.

(Upper left) Brookside’s original building at 63rd& Brookside was only a few months old in 1920 when Miss Houston’s kindergarten class met regularly on the second floor Community Hall in that first Brookside building. Until the late 1940s, community hall was home to everything from the Conservatory of Music to the meeting hall of Masonic Lodge No. 655. Around 1949, the space was converted to offices.

(Upper right) The city had been developing its system of parks for almost 20 years when it created Mill Creek Park, just east of the Country Club Plaza at 47th Street and Mill Creek Parkway (Broadway). Seen here in 1920 looking north from the 47th Street side, the park has nothing yet in the way of facilities. But a broad open field was an increasingly rare sight in a developing city, and a welcome one for kids with more imagination than space. Mill Creek Parkway retained that open field quality until the late 1960s, when Miller Nichols donated a fountain salvaged from a demolished Long Island mansion. Today, the J.C. Nichols Fountain – sometimes referred to as the “horse” fountain – occupies the space from which the photo was taken.

(Lower right) This is a gathering of a neighborhood Boys’ Club, the members standing on the steps of their meeting place, the Switzer School branch of the public library. The breeches and newsboy caps place the scene squarely in the 1920s, but by facial expression and pose, it’s clear the spirit of young boys is just the same.

(Lower left) Though the Country Club District was at the height of development, the Nichols Company had left large stretches of woodlands intact on the Kansas side, in the areas surrounded today by Mission Hills, Fairway, Prairie Village and Indian Hills. In the center of those communities today three country clubs occupy most of that once open area. But in 1920, bridle trails, foot paths small lakes and picnic ovens were intentionally built into the landscape as amenities for the area. Here, a Boy Scout troop is hiking along one of those trails.

Play

Play – clockwise from upper left: wading pool in Gillham Park; excursion boats on the Swope Park lagoon; polo match at the Kansas City Country Club; Fairmount Park, Independence

The growth of Kansas City’s park system created a new kind of leisure time. In the 19th century, opportunities to be outdoors and active were occupational, but by 1920 they were far more recreational, and in the city’s many parks, boating, fishing, and riding become sport and play.

(Upper left) Folks gather on a sunny day at the casting and wading pool that was once on the south side of 41st Street, just east of Gillham Road. The activity of the day is casting; presumably casting and wading did not happen concurrently. Gillham Park is not officially a park, but rather the remnant of the right of way the city acquired for the construction of Gillham Road. The pool in the photo was built in 1913 and lasted until 1976.

(Upper right) In Swope Park, there were “excursion” boats available for rental, though the excursions were short tours. Early in the park’s development, this lagoon was created, and a boathouse for rentals was installed. The boathouse lasted until 1949.

(Lower right) When something is called “The Sport of Kings,” it’s clearly an exclusive experience. This photo shows a match underway on the polo grounds of the Kansas City Country Club, when the club occupied property that is now a part of Loose Park. The club’s original property extended a block or two further west than today, and this is where the grounds were located, according to maps. When the Club moved to its current location on Indian Lane in 1927, the polo field was on the southwest corner of the current golf course.

(Lower left) Fairmount Park in Independence was built about the same time as Kansas City’s parks . Fairmount Park is now remembered for its amusement park, but it also had a lake with canoe rentals, until a fire destroyed the boathouse in the late in 1949.

Work

Work – clockwise from upper left: Motorcycle unit of KCMO Police Department; unidentified business, possibly print shop; Wilson & Company meat packing annual picnic; KCMO’s new street sweeper

Changes in culture and technology have made the workplace one of the most transformed places over the last 100 years.

(Upper left) The latest in emergency response – the Kansas City Police Department’s new motorcycle unit, no helmets required.

(Lower left) This Waycleanse Street Sweeper was 1920s state-of-the-art city maintenance equipment, even though many of Kansas City’s streets were not yet paved by then. The Waycleanse, according to the promotional literature, was a leap in technology, designed to pick up the fine dust left behind by the conventional machines. While it may seem like a marginal difference, in fact the small fine dust was the cause of much of the problem. Litter and debris could be swept up with brooms or captured by more rudimentary mechanisms, the fine dust, continually kept adrift by traffic and winds, contained the materials that caused serious harm. It choked the engines of cars and trucks, carried waste particles from horses, and caused serious pulmonary issues. The Waycleanse machine was introduced to the market in 1920, making Kansas City one of the first cities to purchase one.

(Upper right) The information accompanying this photo gave no address, no company name, and could not identify the type of work being done. That I can do. Three of the fellows with their backs facing the camera are wearing matching printers’ coats, and all four of them are using earlier versions of the mimeograph machine – the hand-cranked, drum-based copiers many of us remember from our early school days.

(Lower right) In 1920, meat-packing was still a large part of the Kansas City economy, though nowhere near as dominant as it had been around the turn of the century. Among the leaders in the meat-packing industry that descended upon this area in the 1890s was Wilson & Company, located in Kansas City, Kansas. This picture was taken on the occasion of a company-sponsored picnic for the “Plant Girls,” the women who worked in one of the company’s processing plants. Wilson & Company operated in KCK for another 55 years, and was the last of the area’s “big four” meat-packing plants to close, having outlasted the plants of the more recognizable names of Armour, Swift and Cudahy.

As promised, the uncropped version of the picture used for this post’s Feature Photo

The Big Hat Stampede of 1895

(originally published 5/14/20)

Kansas City has many claims to fame, but I unearthed a new one today – at least new to me. It wasn’t news to Dr. Felicia Londré, author of 2007’s The Enchanted Years of The Stage, Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater 1870-1930. I have her to thank for filling out the story so well that it compelled me to share it with you.

These hats were featured in a Kansas City Star advertisement for a local millinery, in the same time frame as these events

In the 1890s, the entertainment culture in Kansas City covered the spectrum from crude to refined. On the one hand, downtown was home to a number of attractions that wouldn’t be appropriate anywhere today, let alone in the heart of the city’s business district. Freak shows, dime museums, vaudeville houses and cycloramas – these “low brow” entertainments were scattered among the same blocks that were home to the city’s most “high brow” venues, like the Coates Opera House, the Grand Opera House and the Ninth Street Theater.

But in 1895, the eyes of the city’s theatrical maven, D. Austin Latchaw, were trained on something more problematic, more of an assault to theater-goers’ sensibilities than tawdry entertainments and collections of phony relics. Latchaw was incensed about the wardrobe of many of the ladies who attended the city’s more refined performances. Specifically, their over-sized hats.

Latchaw was a major figure in the city’s theatrical community, by way of his position as drama and music editor for both the Kansas City Times and then the Kansas City Journal. Latchaw left the Times for the Journal in 1895, the year of this event. Ultimately, he found his way to the Kansas City Star where he finished his forty-year newspaper career in 1928.

Latchaw took up the “big hat” question because hats represented a real distraction from the enjoyment of an evening’s performance for all patrons, although as events were recounted, more attention seemed to be put on the “poor, suffering men” who accompanied these women to the theatre, or had the misfortune of being seated behind one.

Reproduction of the notice printed in the Coates Opera House program.

Latchaw approached Mel Hudson, manager of the Coates Opera House, requesting he include a notice in the program politely asking women to remove their hats during the performance. Hudson refused, not willing to offend or inconvenience half his patrons. So Latchaw organized the city’s other theatrical and society columnists to join the campaign by addressing the “hat issue” in their columns. The campaign convinced Hudson to include the message in his program.

The following is a transcript of the front page article on the event as it appeared on the front page of the Star’s edition the following day. The story captures with humor and charm the moment-to-moment account of the big hat showdown in the Coates House that March night in 1895. Of course, having occurred 125 years ago, the modern reader will quickly see the vast difference in the presumptive role of the sexes, as well as the obvious class boundaries, to say the least.

Her Ladyship, with gracious suavity, has taken off her hat! When the comic paragraphers jeered, when the Man Behind grumbled, when the witch-burning legislators threatened, Her Ladyship’s hugest hats and broadest bows and proudest plumes held their begrudged place in calm defiance.

But when Melville Hendrick Hudson, manager and diplomate, gave courteous wording to the pleas of Those Who Came Yet Saw Not, and with irresistible politeness, requested forbearance, the obstructive top-gear-vanished as if by magic.

The scene of this most memorable and generous capitulation was the Coates Opera house; the time, last night. The programme of the evening’s performance contained – as the newspapers had foretold – this card:

When the people began pouring into the theater, shortly before 8 o’clock, it looked bad for the hat proposition. The way hats floated in, defiance seeming to breathe from each feather and flower and ribband [sic], was appalling. There were moments of hope, moments when the mirror in the lobby became a kaleidoscope reflection of yellow hair. Why it was that blond women, particularly,, made that mirror a sacrificial alter of headgear is past finding out, but they did.

Then big, defiant black hats would come in a bunch and hope was thrust back, until a concourse of sweet little hats, followed by a bevy of absolutely hatless heads and radiant smiles, gave reassurance. Then a big black hat, again, like an unrelenting conspirator in the court, and so the tide of hats and heads flowed in.

Five minutes before the curtain rose, there were hats all over the house like ominous specters. Manager Hudson flung up his arms. “All is lost” he exclaimed.

The subservience of man was pitiful. The man who has said many bitter things about big hats – who has railed at big hats – was there and the bitterer the anti-hat man, the bigger the hat of his companion. The big hats marched in front and the man followed after, like a captive dragged at the chariot wheels of female supremacy.

The hatless women and the almost hatless ones bowed and smiled to friends; they were happy. The big-hatted contingent looked neither to the right nor to the left, but seemed resolute. They were only misunderstood: they knew their own plans and were content to await, in patience, their exculpation. But it looked like open war.

Suddenly came the stampede!

Stories have been told of the stampedes of wild-eyed cattle; of mad stampedes of scared soldiers who wanted to quit the war quick; of conventions stampeded to a “dark horse,” but a stampede of hats had yet to occur and it happened at 8:07 o’clock last evening at the Coates.

Just where it began observers differ. Some say a large yellow hat just behind the rail on the right started it. It is asserted that this hat riveted the glance of every feminine eye and it became thus the leader, and when it sank from sight the rush was on.

At any rate, an uneasy flutter ran through the house, like the sound of leaves shaking in the presage of a tempest, and here and there white hands went up and tugged at hat pins and other mysteries. Hats disappeared on all sides. Two hundred hands fluttered about hats that had seemed defiant.

Incredibly, this is neither the largest nor the most outrageous of the Merry Widow hats.

One, two, three, four, and ten! The curtain rolled up and only three big hats remained in all the orchestra seats and orchestra circle.

Two of them were together, far back. The other held its own alone.

There were hats which stayed on, to be sure, but they were not the “theatre hats” of fame. The parquette contained 201 women. They wore, to begin with, five distinct sorts of headgear, namely: Big, big hats, 19; big hats, 22; unobtrusive hats, 37; sweet little hats, 39; no hats, 84. When the stampede was over three big hats remained, together with fourteen of the obstructive kind, and twenty-seven sweet little hats.

The eighty-four who came hatless and charming were the phalanx of victory against the big hat in the parquette and they were radiant with triumph.

In the balcony it was different. An atmosphere of perversity as subtle as the perfume that floated about, surrounded exactly two-thirds of the fair ones there. The other one-third sat hatless, targets of disapproving eyes of their twenty-five unyielding sisters, but inwardly upheld by their own conscious graciousness. Of these those who came without hats were about equal in number to those who removed their hats after entering.

Manager Clark of the Ninth Street Theater will agitate a like movement with possibly a few variations. “I have been thinking of trying the scheme for some time,” he said this morning. “It’s a good thing, doubtless. It certainly ruffles a man a bit to pay a dollar or a dollar and a half for a seat at the theater for the privilege of contemplating a rear elevation of elaborate design in headgear. I shall inaugurate the plan in a few days and I believe it will be successful. If the ladies object to holding their hats on their laps, I will arrange a dressing room where they may check them on going in.”

Manager Judah at the Grand takes a different view of the matter. “I don’t feel that I have any right to dictate as to what ladies shall wear in the theater,” he said. “there is no doubt that it would prove a great benefit to the men if they would not wear hats, but if there is any change here at the Grand it will be entirely voluntary. The plan worked very nicely at the Coates last night and believe it won’t be long until the ladies will either all remove their hats or else wear small ones, but if they haven’t enough consideration for the men to remove them without a request from me, why, they’ll continue to be worn. I’m not going to ask them to take them off.”

Latchaw was not the first in the country to call attention to this – for lack of a better word – problem. Londré writes “Latchaw must be credited as the trail-blazer who changed Kansas City audience behavior in a way that was quickly emulated in theaters nationwide.” Her research and citations back up the claim. The Coates Opera House event occasioned a number of articles in the major newspapers from coast to coast, adding to a national discussion. But Latchaw’s success was fleeting. Just on the other side of 1900, a new millinery trend emerged, a trend toward hats twice as large and infinitely more extravagant as they had been in 1895. They were then and are still referred to as “Merry Widow” hats. Ironically, the name came from an extravagant hat worn by the actress Lily Elise, who played the title character in one of the most popular operettas of its time, “The Merry Widow.”

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

All due credit for the content of this post is given to Dr. Felicia Londré and her wonderful book for providing the basis for this piece. Among her many accomplishments, Felicia Hardison Londré is the former long-time Resident Dramaturg with the Missouri Repertory Theatre at UMKC. Her previous eleven books include the History of World Theater: From the English Restoration to the Present, and Words at Play: Creative Writing and Dramaturgy.

(Featured Photo: two ladies with extreme hats, in one of the popular styles of the time – use of a stuff bird in the ornamentation.

Dr. David Waldo – Part 2: The Later Years

(originally published 5/7/20)

Last week introduced us to the colorful figure that is Dr. David Waldo, original owner of the property around 75th and Wornall, and the man whose name was adopted for the community in that area. Having established himself financially and professionally in the eastern part of Missouri in his twenties, he moved to Jackson County and started learning the freighting business accompanying his mentor, Samuel Owens, on trips to Santa Fe.

The center of modern day Waldo is noted by a star. Waldo’s land was ideally suited for its proximity to Independence and the edge of the frontier. When Westport rose to prominence some ten years later, the Waldo homestead was well located to that as well.

In the mid-1830s, about midway into the preeminent years of David Waldo’s career, internal conflicts between the Mexican government and its provinces began to make freighting along the Santa Fe Trail increasingly dangerous. The uncertainty along the trail caused David Waldo to focus his attentions on other aspects of his growing business, in particular on his Jackson County land holdings. In 1841, David Waldo purchased the land that is today part of the Waldo community. The greatest contiguous acreage constitutes much of what today lies between Wornall Road and Troost Avenue, north of 75th Street. At one thousand acres, it was the largest of Waldo’s holdings throughout Jackson County. He built a house and barn and convinced another brother, Lawrence, to manage his Mexican mules on the farm. Waldo also planted a grove of walnut trees that were for many years the only cluster of trees on the open prairie. It was no doubt a nice little farm, but David Waldo was no farmer, and his interests in it were purely to support his other operations. As it turned out, his brother Lawrence shared David’s disdain for farming and his love of adventure. Shortly after taking over the mule operation, Lawrence Waldo turned it over to his wife so that he could join brothers David and William in the freight operation business.

This engraving of Bent’s Fort is taken from an 1850 account of “Doniphan’s Expedition,” of which Waldo was a member as was the book’s author, John T. Hughes.

His brothers proved more than capable as freighters, so when the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, David Waldo was able to be a part of the fight. By this time, he was forty-four years old and no longer a young man, but he felt compelled to join in. After all, he was a patriot with strong business interests at both ends of the conflict. The United States Army recognized the value of Waldo’s personal experiences in Mexico. He was made a captain in the Missouri Mounted Volunteers. On June 22, 1846, Waldo’s regiment departed from Fort Leavenworth under the command of Colonel Alexander Doniphan as part of the famed “Kearney’s Army of the West.” The soldiers reached Santa Fe unscathed. Upon arrival in Santa Fe, the U.S. Army declared New Mexico to be a territory, and Waldo was on hand to witness his old friend Charlie Bent sworn in as the territory’s first governor. In the two years of the war, David Waldo saw only one major conflict, in which his reputation as a fearless fighter was reaffirmed. The writer and historian Rudolph Umland attributed Waldo with this famous quote made during that battle, which seems to sum up both Waldo’s fearlessness and pragmatism: “Shoot low! Shoot low, boys! If you break one man’s leg, it will take two men to carry him off!”

When the war with Mexico ended in 1848, David Waldo moved dramatically away from the life he had lived for so long. He kept his trade business but favored a less speculative government contract, under the name Waldo & Company, to ship supplies for the army. The world was changing, and adventure had taken its toll. Only four months after his appointment as governor, Waldo’s friend Charlie Bent was ambushed in his home in New Mexico and murdered by rebels. Tragically, a few days later, Waldo’s brother Lawrence was killed in a fight with Mexican revolutionists over the caravan he was leading. Now Waldo had Lawrence’s young family who needed his financial support.

Shortly thereafter, Waldo had his own family to support. On March 27, 1849, at the age of forty-seven, David Waldo married for the first time in his life. The bride was Eliza Norris of Independence, twenty years his junior, and the daughter of a prominent local family. In a few short years, the Waldos were the parents of five children. The change seems to have domesticated David Waldo. Visitors to their house recount the elegant decorations in their home at what is today 1018 West Waldo Avenue in Independence, Missouri. In those years, Waldo led a gentrified life. He read and translated Spanish, Greek and Latin (all self-taught). He remained current on all events and politics of the day and was a favorite of Independence society, always with something to offer any conversation. He was well known to drive about town in a fine carriage pulled by two black mules, and Waldo proudly declared himself a “mule man” after all his days on the Santa Fe Trail. He remained active in business, mostly managing his assets and dabbling in a little trade, and he expanded his government contract work the same year as his marriage. Through a partnership that included Kansas City founding father William McCoy, the stagecoaches of Waldo, Hall & Company carried passengers and mail deliveries across the Indian territories between 1850 and 1854.

In this only known photo of Dr. David Waldo, taken near the end of his life, it’s not hard to guess the rough frontier life and the hardships of age. Waldo died in 1878. Courtesy Jackson Co. Historical Society

The Civil War years took their toll on David Waldo. Like many of his Missouri contemporaries, he was that curious combination of a slaveholder who seemed to have Unionist sympathies. As a result, he was neither side’s friend, and the conflicts associated with both the guerrilla actions of the “border war” and the subsequent Battle of Westport left much of his property decimated. In his account of the life of David Waldo, Rudolph Umland notes that the doctor’s enterprises suffered heavily during the war years and that “marauding bands of guerillas drove off his horses, destroyed his fences, burned his buildings” to such an extent that the war is considered by some historians to be one of the major contributors to David Waldo’s later mental decline. After the war, his behavior was variously described as “eccentric” and “depressed.” He was inclined to fits of insomnia, of disorientation and memory loss, and he may have suffered from dementia. In the late 1860s, he was admitted to an asylum. After years of taking morphine to help him sleep, he died of an overdose of the opiate in 1878, at the age of seventy-six.

His unfortunate end did not diminish David Waldo’s reputation in the community, nor did it lessen the unending affections of his family. Years later, writing for the Jackson County Historical Society, his grandson Waldo Douglas Sloan recounted how his mother, Lula Waldo Sloan, remembered her father.

“His mental faculties were marked by great strength, breadth and quickness; his heart, like his intellect, was large, vivid and keenly sensitive; his imagination far-reaching and brilliant. Over these splendid powers there reigned a will so strong that he could command his strongest emotions to remain unseen in the secret recesses of his soul and allow himself to execute his business enterprises without their interferences. He was a constant reader, genial and social, and of sunny nature. A grand, noble man; an earnest Christian.”

(Feature Photo: 1855 illustration of the Independence Courthouse by artist Charles Dana.)

Dr. David Waldo – Part 1: The Early Years

(originally published 4/30/20)

The one thousand acres that Dr. David Waldo purchased in 1841 might have been any one other thousand acres in the area. Had anyone else bought it, the area obviously would not be known today as “Waldo,” a unique corner of Kansas City’s urban landscape. But location was central to Waldo’s objectives. He wanted property he could use in his new Santa Fe Trail freighting operation, both close to the trail system that ran through the area, and to the border Missouri shared with Indian Territory in modern-day Kansas. When he purchased the property – north and east of the current intersection of 75th Street and Wornall Road – he had no plan to start a community that would bear his name. But in the space of one generation, Waldo’s instinct about the property would prove true.

I shared the story of David Waldo in The Waldo Story not just because his was the enterprise that fostered that area. I have read a great deal about the American west, and one would be hard pressed to find a more fascinating character of remarkable talents who played a part in many events of his day. Yet outside the Kansas City area, he remains virtually unknown. Perhaps if I share this story often enough, that might change. So in the next two posts I’m reprinting the story as it was originally published (with minor modifications), and maybe Dr. Waldo’s story will be shared a little wider.

The only known photograph of Dr. David Waldo, likely from the late 1860s or early 1870s. Courtesy of the Jackson County Historical Society.

David Waldo was born April 3, 1802, in Clarksburg, West Virginia, on authority of an article written by his grandson, Waldo Douglas Sloan, for the Jackson County Historical Society in 1968.

Other sources have attributed Waldo’s birthplace to Virginia. Whatever his birthplace, Waldo only spent his first eighteen years outside Missouri. In 1820, he moved to Gasconade County. Why he chose Gasconade isn’t known, but in hindsight, it is easy to see what may have attracted him to the place. Still, Waldo displayed remarkable insight, particularly for his young years. Insight would be a distinguishing characteristic for him throughout his life.

“Scene on the Missouri River” taken from an unknown geography book published in 1872 showing a raft of logs in the lower right hand corner with sleeping and supply quarters and small boat riding along. The Big Piney and Gasconade River rafts would have been smaller. Courtesy of Mike Dickey, Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources, Arrow Rock Historic Site.

Missouri was about to be designated a state then, and Gasconade was one of the first counties established when that happened. The Missouri River, with all its riverboat traffic moving goods to and from St. Louis, was the county’s northern border. Its interior was filled with woodlands ripe for the cutting, and the Gasconade River made it easy to move the wood to trade. Young David Waldo made what some considered later a small fortune off the timber, helped in part by his brothers who had joined him in Missouri. [Note: Post-publication research reports the Waldo Brothers were one of several groups that also operated a distillery along the Big Piney River just south of Gasconade.] The money he made was certainly sufficient to invest in his future, to position himself for more and better opportunities. This, too, would be a lifelong trait.

In 1821, Waldo took his earnings and traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, to attend medical school at Transylvania College. Academic requirements being considerably less than present-day, Waldo earned his medical degree in one year and returned to Gasconade as Dr. David Waldo. Now he had a profession. He also had an instinct for civic interests, another recurring attribute. As a man of education now, he quickly became involved in the local business and political communities. In a short time, he held a number of influential and strategic positions—postmaster, county assessor, county treasurer, circuit court clerk, justice of the peace and deputy sheriff, among them. In his spare time, he practiced medicine. One account of this period recounts that Waldo became known locally as “governor of Gasconade.” He accomplished all this by the age of twenty-six.

Daguerreotype of Samuel Owens, Waldo’s mentor

He could have easily and successfully lived out the rest of his life in Gasconade. But he wouldn’t have been content. The same instinct for budding opportunity that had first drawn him to Missouri drew his attention farther and farther west, as the years went by. In 1828, at the invitation of a friend and business acquaintance, Waldo traveled up river to Independence, Missouri. David Waldo’s host, Samuel C. Owens, was himself already making a fortune in the Santa Fe trade, but Owens’s view of the world was larger than Missouri. He shipped merchandise not just between Mexico and Missouri, but also all the way to the industrial east. He is considered by some to be the “first citizen” of Independence. He believed that Independence would be the next, and perhaps last, great eastern trail station. Owens was in the business of convincing others that this was so. His success was dependent on it, as he was heavily invested in the area. He recognized that a man of David Waldo’s ingenuity and enterprise would be a welcome asset to the area.

David Waldo, interested as he was in new opportunities, was easily persuaded by Owens. He moved to Independence and began buying property around Jackson County. He made his home in Independence, but there was scarcely a township in Jackson County where David Waldo did not own land. Over the course of his life, there would be many purchases and sales of property. But the property some four miles south of Westport would be among his largest contiguous holdings and where he put the most effort.

Samuel Owens also enticed Waldo into traveling with him on a trade expedition to Santa Fe, then still a part of Mexico. For a man of Waldo’s inquisitive nature and entrepreneurial leanings, the invitation would have seemed the chance of his young life. The trip proved as much adventure as opportunity. Their first journey south introduced Waldo to some of the most important and colorful characters of the early days of the frontier. Some are lesser known but critical in their influence, such as Ceran St. Vrain, one of the leading fur traders of the day, based in St. Louis. On that first trip, Waldo and St. Vrain formed a partnership for a freighting expedition. That partnership made St. Vrain and Waldo a nice profit.

By the next year, Waldo had enlisted brother William to leave Gasconade County and join him again, this time shipping goods in from St. Louis. The Waldo brothers would lead the train to Santa Fe themselves. They took seventy men and thirty-seven wagons. Their captain was Charles Bent, who, with Bent’s brother William and St. Vrain, had established Bent’s Fort in modern-day southeast Colorado. Bent was another major figure of the west in those days. In his future, Charles Bent would be named the first governor of territorial New Mexico.

Basic Santa Fe Trail routes – the Cimarron (southern) and the Mountain.

In these and various other partnerships, Waldo and his partners would hire trappers, teamsters and guides, among them the legendary Kit Carson and his brother Moses. Also during this period, Waldo became friends with Josiah Gregg, whose 1844 publication on the Santa Fe Trail, The Commerce of the Prairies, was so widely circulated that it became the most influential resource for promoting westward expansion. In the book, Gregg attributes David Waldo as a primary source of true and critical information on trade with Mexico.

From his late twenties to his mid-forties, David Waldo led an exhilarating life. When at home in Independence, he was an active and prominent citizen, thoroughly well-respected and sought-after as a business partner. With his professional degree and the reputation of his considerable civic history in Gasconade, the citizenry of Independence considered him among its most important and educated residents.

On the trail, he had another persona altogether. There, Waldo was part teamster, part fighter. By doing the work himself, Waldo learned what sold and what didn’t, and he learned how to organize a successful convoy of men and goods. He trucked household goods to Mexico and brought back Mexico’s resources in the form of furs, minerals and livestock, particularly mules. He encountered trouble with Indians almost from the start. On its first trip with Bent, the Waldo party was attacked shortly after crossing into government territory. One of the teamsters was killed, though the goods had been what they were after. For the next month on the trail, the harassment continued, and Waldo and Bent repeatedly had to fight off their attackers. Through the years, they are said to have both earned reputations as fearless men who never backed down from a fight.

In Mexico, Waldo had yet another reputation. There, in his dealings with other traders, he was clever and strategic. Bargains were struck at the Mexican end of the trail, as well as up north. Here, too, his reputation as a fair man made him a popular business partner. But there was a political climate to consider in Mexico. So David Waldo became a Mexican citizen, on paper at least. It afforded him a few advantages, not the least of which was his apparent commitment to both ends of the trail. He also practiced medicine a bit in Mexico and is considered to have been the first doctor to practice in Taos. In Santa Fe, he opened stores and banks. He was a solid member of the Santa Fe and Taos communities.

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Next time we’ll follow Dr. Waldo as he purchases the property which will one day bear his name, and “settles in” to life off the trail, even as he becomes one of the trail’s most prosperous freighters.

(Featured Photo: Engraving from the original 1844 edition of Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies, the first published account of life on the Santa Fe Trail. Gregg acknowledge David Waldo’s contributions to his work.)

The Magazine for Kansas City’s Ice Age

(Originally published 4/16/20)

“Every product – every industry – every modern industrial development – has its “story.” The pages may not have been turned back so that he who runs may read and be interested, but the story is there. Perhaps some of our greatest untold romances concern those taken-for-granted commodities which the public sees, uses, appreciates without giving a thought to their interesting origin or the struggles of men in their development.

As an outstanding example – ice.”

This was the opening to an article in the inaugural issue of City Ice Man magazine, first published in March 1925. The article was titled “The Romance of Ice.”

I had been reading up on the history of refrigeration, which was the actual topic of the article. So I read it, as I have now read several other pieces on the history of commercial ice. I don’t know everything, but I do know one thing for certain. I find nothing remotely romantic about ice. But City Ice Man magazine, now that’s another story altogether.

I’d first come across City Ice Man for the book on Waldo. In its April 1925 issue, the article, “Waldo, a Beautiful City of Homes” gave me some great background on 1925 Waldo, and a wonderfully useful photo spread. But the story of the magazine was one I always wanted to revisit. Since then, for other projects, I’ve come across a number of industrial magazines from the first half of the 20th century. They always prove to be a rich source of information on the context of time and place, and for supplying obscure facts, great quotes and wonderful pictures. City Ice Man has all that, with the added bonus of being in a unique position to reflect the time when home-delivered ice was as essential to daily life as electricity, but just a few years before the service would disappear forever.

Typical early 20th century ice box, most commonly made from wood, or as with this example, porcelain.. Here, ice was stored in the upper left compartment.

The industrialization of ice is a longer story that I realized – dating back to the late 1700s when ice was first harvested from great bodies of water (notably New England), then shipped around the world. The switch from harvesting to manufacturing happened in the late 1800s As the process evolved, smaller local ice plants were making it possible to deliver ice to individual homes. The ice box was a staple in every home, commonly in the form of a free-standing wooden locker with one lined compartment for the ice, and the rest for the storage of food. This “technical innovation” served families for generations. Even so, around 1910 inventors were already working on translating the principles of commercial ice manufacture to the residential scale, creating what became the early refrigerators.

But in 1920, home delivery of ice was still the norm, and would be for the most part until World War II. And in Kansas City, the ice industry was doing what it was doing all around the country – consolidating. Local ice companies merged with one another, creating local monopolies. These, in turn were purchased by larger companies; utilities and storage companies were frequent buyers. By the time the demand for home delivered ice was replaced by home refrigeration, what remained of the ice industry was a minor business activity that might not even be contributing to the parent corporation’s bottom line.

The “pretentious” cover of Kansas City’s own City Ice Man magazine’s first issue.

As a result of a 1922 merger, the City Ice and Storage Company was born. Their main office was at 21st and Campbell, but they operated numerous ice plants all around the city. City Ice Man magazine was the brainchild of Arthur Hargrave, the post-merger president and managing partner. He used City Ice Man to promote the business to employees, vendors and clients. The first edition of the magazine was the subject of a review in the national industry’s own Ice and Refrigeration Magazine, which started out by noting City Ice was following in the footsteps of other similar magazines put out by companies like Detroit’s General Necessities Corporation, and Chicago’s Consumer Ice Company. Then, after calling the cover of the premiere issue “very pretentious,” the reviewer admits “the magazine itself has gotten up in a very interesting manner,” and goes on to describe some of the articles. The previously mentioned article, “The Romance of Ice,” is one of those. The following are others that fit that “very interesting manner” description.

A Word from the Chief was President Hargrave’s opening address to employees, with mottos and slogans reminding employeees they share in the work and reward of the company’s success. Hargrave closes with, “Put your shoulder to the wheel, side by side with mine, and let us, together, build for the City Ice Company a reputation for fair dealings.”

Clothing featured in “Our Pattern Department” runs the gamut from children’s rompers to sophisticated day wear.

Articles that might generally be categorized as Home Economics ran throughout the issue. Intended as a regular feature, the first installment in The Department of Economics deals with “The Refrigerator in the Home.” Its tips on product choice, cleanliness and maintenance seem targeted for the consumer, not the employee. But they are informative, if one can imagine a time when the notion of keeping food preserved by refrigeration was still novel. Good Things to Eat promised to be a regular series that offered “original and out of the ordinary recipes of unusual and appetizing dishes” all of which required ice or refrigeration in some creative way. Sadly, none of the recipes for egg lemonade, chicken mousse, iced bouillon or – worst of all – jellied tongue, excite the palate today as they must have 100 years ago. On another kitchen front, an upcoming cake baking contest was promoted repeatedly throughout the magazine. And finally, The Our Pattern Department provided illustrations of dress patterns that could be ordered directly from the City Ice Company.

The “jolly” employees attending the company’s Employees’ Mutual Benefit Association dance, 1925.

Company news started with a headline touting the recent EMBA (Employees’ Mutual Benefit Association) Dance as a big success, indicated by the picture caption question, “Doesn’t it seem that everybody was having a perfectly jolly time?” The answer is no – on closer inspection, those present were at best mustering polite smiles. Employee mutual benefit associations were once a popular method of covering wages in the event of worker injury or illness, by way of subscriptions to a common fund paid by member employees. Creating a social component was the company’s way of using an existing program to further employee collegiality.

Among all the offerings in City Ice Man magazine, the worst by far was the column Ice Picks, a motley assortment of quips, quotes and jokes, the best of which were corny or fell flat, and the worst, as read today, are blatantly racist and demeaning.

The American Royal winning teams were (clockwise from upper left) Dan & Joe, Charlie & Ray, Mac & Sandy, and Jim & Laddie.

The best feature by far was “We are Justly Proud of Our Horses.” Four of the company’s horse teams for their delivery wagons were award prizes at the prior year’s American Royal. The occasion was a good opportunity to introduce the horses as part of the City Ice Company family. Horses were mascots of the company, with “Bill” and “Jerry” featured in the magazine’s logo. In the neighborhoods, the ice wagon and its horses were beloved as part of the fabric of daily life. “Out in the resident districts, [the horses] come to know the home of every customer,” the article explains, “and remember with remarkable accuracy those who treat them to a daily lump of sugar.” Residents were asked to put a card in their front window indicating they did or did not want ice that day, the article explains, then adds, “Yet ‘Bill’ and ‘Jerry’ would insist on stopping for just a moment and looking longingly towards the door. They of course could not understand that while the sign said ‘no ice’ it also meant ‘no sugar’.”

There was no ready evidence of how long the company published City Ice Man, perhaps, because as the companies had merged to form the City Ice Company, future mergers and consolidations folded local company magazines and newsletters into one publication for the larger group. These mergers were no doubt good for the companies and their shareholders. Hopefully for the employees as well. But for a while City Ice Man helped knit together the fabric of industrial life in Kansas City, promoting values that benefited the company, but for the most part those that benefit the employees and their families, and the community at large.

(Feature Photo: The cover banner of City Ice Man‘s inaugural edition)

For more quaint expressions of historical behaviors and consumer attitudes, virtually check out the Kansas City Public Library’s online copy of the magazine.

City Ice Man

Fairyland Park 1940

(originally published 4/9/20)

I’ve written several pieces about amusement parks in Kansas City on both sides of the state line, but mostly turn-of-the-century parks, including one of the so-called Negro parks, Pastime Park. Kiddieland in Waldo is the only park I’ve written about that I imagine anyone who reads this might possibly remember. But the one I’ve never written about, but inevitably comes up in conversation, is Fairyland Park.

I’ve intentionally avoided writing about Fairyland Park. It’s a well-documented story, and a place that many readers remember vividly from the 60s and 70s, right before the park closed for good. I remember going once when I was very young, but mostly I remember my dad saying he and his brothers sneaked in through a back fence in the late 1920s. They lived just behind the park on a street now buried under Interstate 49. For him and other long-gone members of his generation who knew the park as it is depicted here, reflecting on youthful adventures at Fairyland evoked a wistful smile. But not everyone felt that way. Except for one day a year, Fairyland was a segregated park, in keeping with those regrettable times. As a result it became a symbolic battle ground for racial integration in the early 1960s.

I couldn’t imagine anything I could add to that story that I hadn’t already heard. But as usual, while looking at the 1940s Tax Photos for a recent post, I found unusual photographs that gave me a view of the park I hadn’t found elsewhere. The 1940s Tax Assessment Photos were intended to take a picture of every taxable structure in Kansas City. Since there was usually only one main structure on each parcel, there was only one picture. In a few relatively rare cases, there might be two, if the property included a sizeable outbuilding. For Fairyland, there were 10 photos extant, and no doubt as many as 20 at one time – many within the set of tax photos were lost in storage long ago.

I’m not sure why Fairyland was an exception, but apparently the photographers, erring on the side of the tax revenue, took photos of all the main buildings on the park site in 1940. Then, I found a detail on a 1925 map that showed the layout of the park. The park first opened in 1923, so the map is a fair representation of what the park looked like from the beginning. Judging by the 1940s photos, it hadn’t changed much by then, either. The big changes would come later, in the 1950s on. Most of those who do remember the park remember it from that period. The double-sized Olympic pool had closed. More roller coasters and a giant Ferris wheel were added.

So today we’re piecing together a view of Fairyland Park as it was in its earlier days, a time almost beyond remembering. This is purely about the park’s architecture and layout, as a glimpse of what the park experience might have been in its golden age.

Fairyland Park, 1925. Red numbers correspond to photos below.

This map is from the Tuttle-Ayers-Woodward Atlas of Kansas City, Mo., and Environs, 1925. Not shown on this map, but included in the 1940s photos were two small, ramshackle homes. Their tax ID numbers indicate they were a part of the same parcel that held all Fairyland’s property, likely in the northeastern area of the property, where houses abutted the backside of the park.

The numbers in red on the map indicate the location of the remaining park pictures included below:

1) Fairyland’s main entrance at 75th & Prospect.

1) Park Entrance: The park’s main gate at the southeast corner of 75th and Prospect faced northwest across a triangular shaped greenspace. Today, this area and most of the north side of the property is occupied by Alphapointe, an agency supporting the visually impaired.

2) (left) Tunnel from main gate to park interior. 3) (right) Funland; kiddie rides.

2) Park Entrance Tunnel: Once through the main gate, the long dark tunnel heightened the effect when the visitor emerged from the tunnel into full view of the park. The picture on the left shows that tunnel exit.

3) Funland: Funland, directly east of the main gate, the kiddie park rides. Some accounts claim that when Kiddieland in Waldo closed in the early 1960s, some or all of those rides were brought here, but this is only anecdotal.

4) (left) Skyrocket, the roller coaster. 5) (right) Skooter (bumper cars); the Shooting Gallery

4) Skyrocket: Located next to Funland, Skyrocket,, a wooden roller coaster, was the original signature ride of the park. In the 1960s, the Skyrocket was replaced with the Wildcat, a more modern, but still wooden coaster.

5) Scooter: Next to Skyrocket was the “Scooter.” On the map it is marked as “Dodge ‘Em,” but both names apply to bumper car rides. Next door to “Scooter” is a staple of the midway, a shooting gallery.

6) (left) Concession area; 7) (center) Merry-Go-Round; 8) (right) Crystal Pool swimming pool.

6) Concessions; The man holds the ID plaque in front of the concession stand, represented by a tiny square on the map. It’s unclear whether he’s identifying the concession stand or the building labeled “Booths” on the map.

7) The Merry-Go-Round: The pavilion features a row of glass windows to illuminate the interior, but sadly, not enough to be able to see the carousel figures inside.

8) Crystal Pool: The entrance to the Crystal Pool, perhaps the most popular attraction overall, especially during the heat of summer. The pool itself was said to have been twice the size of a regular Olympic pool, or roughly ¼ of a football field. The photo also shows tracks of two other rides. Just outside the entrance to the Crystal Pool was the miniature Railroad. Inside the train’s loop was the “Mill Chute,” a water flume ride.

(9) This example of Auto Polo comes from an early 1910s match in New York State. Auto Polo was one of the original Fairyland Park rides.

9) Auto Polo: Depicted on the map is another attraction inside the railroad loop, “Auto Polo.” I was unfamiliar with Auto Polo, but a quick-apedia research yielded Depicted on the map is another attraction inside the railroad loop, “Auto Polo.” I was unfamiliar with Auto Polo, but a quick-apedia research yielded this photo not from Fairyland Park, but somewhere in New York state. The sport only lasted from the late 1910s to the late 1920. From what the picture shows, it’s hard to imagine guests participated. Perhaps it was only a spectacle event. Eitherway, it’s no small wonder that the Auto Polo “ride” did not last long.

The park’s first catastrophe hit just three years after the 1940s photos when a fire burned most of the south end of the park. There were fires before then, and there would be fires later, as well as a tornado in 1977 that bent the Ferris wheel in half. The park faced too many costs and the competition of modern parks like Worlds of Fun, and closed by the 1978 season.

The pictures help capture some of the park’s early days, but there is no real way to capture what the experience was like. Then again, if you’re a fan of roller coasters, you might try this link to the Wildcat (see video link below). The replacement coaster to the Sky Rocket, the Wildcat was the park’s signature ride in its last half. When Fairyland closed, the Wildcat was sold to an amusement park in Oklahoma City. Since this video was made, the Oklahoma City park has closed. While the course was slightly modified to fit the space in the new park, the video otherwise gives you a pretty good idea of what the ride was like.

Just remember to raise your hands in the air as you go down that first drop!

(Feature Photo): This high angle partial shot of the park shows generally the park in its early to mid-life, as covered here. The photo was on a Facebook page called We the Italians, (see link below) posted by a member of the Brancato family, who built and operated the business during its entire life, from 1923 to 1977. The article tells the backstory of the Brancatos.

We the Italians: Fairyland Park

Photo Montage: The 1940s Tax Assessment Photos

(originally published 3/26/20)

In my July 18, 2019 post, I wrote about the 1940s Tax Assessment Photos available online for Kansas City, Missouri. If you don’t want to go back and read the earlier post, here’s the short background. In 1940, Kansas City participated in a WPA program whereby all – yes, all – of the structures in Kansas City were photographed, to establish information for the basis of assessing property taxes more accurately. The photos were produced as tiny thumbnail pictures, smaller than those on photo contact sheets, and as a result, many were lost, but a remarkable number were saved. Eventually they were digitized and you can follow the link at the bottom of this post to learn more, and search the database.

At the time of that original post I didn’t know how to incorporate photos into the post, so the only examples I could show were in the header. Now, I’m all about the photos , so this week I’m focusing only on the photos and why people are drawn to them. My categories mirror those interests. Some folks begin with a search for a photo of their own home, then the home they lived in as a kid. It grows outward from there – their friends’ houses, their school, their favorite haunts, still personal memories. For some, the interest ventures beyond the personal into a broader interest in the community. Those folks interested in change, or the lack thereof. They search for a Kansas City long gone and largely forgotten, or for hints of the old hidden behind the new facades. So this sampling of the tax photos includes all that, and ends with a smaller story hidden at the edges of the photos.

Then and Now

Kelly’s, Pennsylvania Ave. and Westport Road

“Then and Now” pictures are a great way to note where changes have been dramatic, and where they have been almost nonexistent. The Westport-Plaza area has great examples of both.

Kelly’s in Westport has long held the title of the oldest building continually operating as a business. In Kansas City that is – at least mostly. Strictly speaking Kelly’s first 47 years of life were within the city limits of Westport until Kansas City annexed Westport in 1897. It is conceivable, I suppose, that there are other, older structures, but all evidence of their construction or façade has long been hidden. Not so with Kelly’s. It still sports a touch of what I’ve learned is called “Western false front commercial” design, where commercial buildings in the 19th century west had false extensions about the roofline and/or beyond the sidewalls, to make them seem more impressive. Kelly’s stair-step roofline is part of that design family, and has been for a while as evidenced by the 1940 photo. Also note that everyone knows the place as Kelly’s, it is actually Kelly’s Westport Inn, retaining something of the old there, too.

The west side of Main street between 43rd and 44th Street

A stretch of Main Street between Westport and the Plaza shows a mix of change and continuity, and these pictures are a good example. The west side of Main Street between 43rd and Cleaver II (47th) was a strong neighborhood center. But at the north end, the buildings were small, detached buildings on lots that were mostly consumed by parking. After modern development, most recently the American Century Towers, all that’s left that’s even remotely reminiscent of the past are two unremarkable buildings just south of 43rd Street.

The west side of Main Street between approximately 45th and 47th (Cleaver II Blvd.) Street.

Just south of those buildings, along the long steep hill leading down toward Brush Creek, is a set of shops contemporary with the Plaza’s development. While the businesses aren’t strictly neighborhood-oriented these days, they’ve been consistently viable and have had notable tenants like the Blue Room and a number of restaurants, including the current Café Trio. And they have now, as they did in 1940, the benefit of a parking garage.

Then there’s the Country Club Plaza proper. From a preservationist point-of-view, probably the place in Kansas City that stirs up the greats number of advocates for maintaining the Nichols Company original vision. Yet long before post war, post Nichols Company threats arose, the Plaza had already lost its original building.

The flagship retail space the Nichols Company built for Chandler Floral (right) was the first building to set the architectural style for the Country Club Plaza. The greenhouses that supported the business (left) were directly south of the main building, and did not fit into the Plaza aesthetic at all.

Though the Plaza as we know it wasn’t really in development until 1923, the Nichols Company started purchasing land there in 1911, and in 1917 built a home for its first tenant. Chandler Floral was a widely popular florist and nursery founded in 1909 and located in the high-end residential district of Hyde Park. It attracted the very customers the Plaza was designed to attract. The first home Nichols built for the florist stood approximately at the southwest corner of 47th Street and Mill Creek Parkway, although street alignments have changed since then. In contrast to the high standards of design for which the Plaza has come to be known, the original building was unremarkable. Its one distinction was a small suite of apartments on the second floor, the first residential property on the Plaza. In 1920, still three years before Plaza development kicked into full gear, the Nichols Company tore down that building, and built another, finer home for the business, this time reflecting the Spanish motif that would become the norm. For at least twenty years, Chandlers maintained a full greenhouse operation directly south of the floral shop. That it lasted that long is surprising given that both the type and the use of a greenhouse would have been directly in conflict with the Spanish style that had by then been well established at the Plaza. In 1967, the corner was redeveloped and the now iconic Giralda tower was constructed. Adjacent to the west, at 47th Street and Wyandotte, the Nichols Company dedicated the Chandler Court, in honor of its original tenant.

Long Forgotten

Two examples of the kinds of interesting but mostly serviceable buildings that covered much of what today is “Downtown” – these two from the current site of T-Mobile (originally Sprint) Center.

Redevelopment, changing times, and changing traditions can account for why some buildings disappear. In my random sampling of areas of town, I came across a few that caught my attention, in the Crossroads/Downtown area, in Columbus Park and in Waldo.

Decades before anyone even imagined a Sprint Center (subsequently the T-Mobile Center), the four city blocks it now covers were just a nondescript part of downtown. Covering the area between 13th and Truman Road, Grand to Oak Streets, development of the Sprint Center did eradicate many buildings that had long seen better days, and were not of particular cultural or architectural interest. The few that had once filled that bill had long since been demolished. From 1940, here are just two that do a great job of evoking their times. The Missouri Electric Store was the Apple Store of its day. Maybe more like the Best Buy. Here, in one convenient location, consumers could satisfy their dreams of all the most important electronic devices of the day, like vacuum tube radios (transistors were still to come) and the latest must-have for the American household – a television set with a 12 inch screen. Elsewhere in the block was a small unassuming restaurant that, according to the signs, served steaks and chops. It was exactly the kind of operation that did well in pre-WWII Kansas City, the kind that didn’t survive a modern world of increasing dining options, and sadly, would have fit in perfectly with the quirky milieu of today’s Crossroads District.

Jennie’s Italian Restaurant in Columbus Park (top) and Schafer’s Corner at 85th and Wornall in Waldo (bottom).

In contrast, Jennie’s Italian Restaurant (right, top) did survive and adapt to cultural changes between when it first opened in the late 1930s and when it closed in the late 1990s. The 1940s building was expanded, and most people who remember Jennie’s remember the expansion. Another building lost to the ages is the quirky little soda stand that used to occupy the corner of 85th & Wornall Road. It proudly boasts the sale of Cleo Cola, which I have learned was introduced by the Whistle Cola Company in 1935. Both the cola and the building are long gone.

A Glimpse of Ourselves

For the most part, those who scan the 1940s tax photos online will find them static and of modest to poor quality. So many are missing, they might not find them at all. But if you look closely, you’ll catch glimpses of Kansas City living its day-to-day 1940s life. You see the clothes we wore and the cars we drove. You might find a house under construction, or someone leaving a corner store carrying their groceries. I’ll close with one of my favorites. It’s a glimpse back in time, it’s a glimpse at our youth, and most unusual, it’s portrayed over four consecutive images.

(Top Left) As the photography crew worked its way down the block, (top) moving from house to house, their worked attracts the attention of a group of children playing along the sidewalk on what appears to be a lovely spring or summer day

I found this sequence while working on a book on the Greenway Fields neighborhood, just west across Wornall from the Brookside Shops. These photos were taken along 61st Terrace. Don’t let the property number sequence confuse you. The pictures as they were taken could begin anywhere on the block – backward order or forward. In this case, they were taken in descending order. Looking at this grouping, I’ve imagined the events as follows (clockwise starting Top Left):

(Top Left) As the photography crew worked its way down the block, moving from house to house, their worked attracts the attention of a group of children playing on the sidewalk on what appears to be a lovely spring or summer day.

(Top Right) The children engage one of the men in a conversation, no doubt asking, “What are you doing?” followed by “why?” then a string of random questions, as kids often do.

(Bottom Right) Our fellow has convinced the children that he and his cohort have to get back to work, and that they, the children, should “keep out of the picture, now.” The girl on the tricycle manages to sneak just inside the frame.

(Bottom Left) The smaller children have been scared off, or gave up out of boredom, but in the last picture, the older girl on the bicycle boldly rolls into frame at the last minute, taking her “glamour shot.”

For more information on the photos, go to:

1940 Tax Assessment Photos

BKS 100: Shaggy Dog Stories

(originally published 3/19/20)

To my dear readers: As you may know, I write a post a week here. To do so, I create a calendar of topics, some coinciding with real events or dates, but most just slotted somewhat randomly. Two weeks ago, I moved up a piece planned for later in the year, the one on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. I’m glad I posted that when I did, for I think that event has lessons for our times, as history is wont to do.

By coincidence, this week’s post was planned to be on another public health story. This time, I tried to write it up, but I found I just couldn’t. Not now. I’ll save it for later, when our present uncertainty is behind us. There are enough messages out there, important and empowering messages that we need to read and to hear. We need reasons to be more hopeful, not more fearful. So, what I’ve decided to do for the next few weeks is to be more upbeat with KC Backstories. History’s stories are often big and important, but they are also small and whimsical, funny, and heartwarming. If my next few posts become just another of those quick reads online that bring a smile to your face, then that’s what I can do to help. That is, I hope it helps, at least a little. It’ll help me a lot.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the term shaggy dog story refers to a long joke full of twists and turns and irrelevant details that ends in an anti-climactic punchline or a pun. The stories offered here are not strictly speaking shaggy dog stories. Any sense of climax is pure happenstance, and there is no punchline, nor no – god forbid – pun. On the other hand, these are related stories from different tangents. And it starts with the story of an honest-to-goodness shaggy dog.

If you lived in the Brookside area in the late 50s and early 60s, you may remember the subject of our first piece. Or you may think you do. I’ve had lots of people tell me they knew Rags, but each story is different. But as far as I know, the real Rags was the only one to have his story in the paper.

Rags, Brookside’s Favorite Resident

The profile of Rags that appeared in The Wednesday Magazine in 1962.

He was just a mongrel from the pound, a scruffy mix of Airedale and sheep dog. He cost his owner, Hy Davidson, one whole dollar to take home to 63rd and Ward Parkway. Somehow, his affable, tail-wagging ways earned Rags a special place in the community. He was allowed to accompany the Davidson children to school – to Border Star and Southwest High School. And during part of his day – every day – Rags would make the rounds of Brookside. Better known (and better liked) than some of the merchants, Rags was a regular at the fire station, Hogerty’s Lounge, Lu Gaines Travel Agency, the Parkview Drug Store, Malang’s. He was greeted and fussed over wherever he went. Certainly, he had found canine heaven.

“Rags on his rounds pauses in the fire station to chew the fat with Albert Guth, a driver on No. 29 pumper company,” read the original caption to this picture in the Star.

Then the Davidson family moved west, to 64th and Verona. But Rags, by then an elderly dog of ten years or so, would have none of it. He continued to come to Brookside when he could get away, despite the toll it took on him. So the Davidsons accommodated Rags. Each day, someone would bring Rags to Brookside in the morning, and fetch him in the evening. Rags would not have to do without his daily treats and pettings.

Rags continued his daily rounds in Brookside for four years after the Davidson family moved. On September 1, 1962, following a sudden illness, Rags was put to sleep, ending a special era for the merchants and patrons of Brookside. As one neighborhood resident said in a 1960 Kansas City Star story on him, “Somehow you get the feeling the feeling that Rags is more than just a dog.”

∞∞∞∞

The fire station where Rags spent much of his time is the subject of the next story. The Station Building was a centerpiece of Brookside life, even before there was a Brookside.

The Station Building

The Station Building at 63rd and Baltimore, shortly after its opening, in 1914. Built by the city, the combined police and fire station building was the first commercial building in Brookside, and was a state-of the-art facility at the time. Courtesy Wilborn Associates.

Nichols’s decision to sell the property for the police and fire station to the City of Kansas City was more than an opportunity to quickly capitalize on his investment. He saw it as an anchor. In his residential areas, he looked for the wealthy buyers to secure the district’s stability. With the Station Building, he secured the city’s long-term commitment to Brookside.

The station’s architectural design is so in keeping with the other Nichols-built Brookside Shops that it is commonly believed that Nichols must have had a hand in its design and perhaps even its construction. It was certainly more handsome than any other station in town, with its leaded-glass windows, slate roof and a small fishpond in front. Structured with concrete and wood, its two stories accommodated the Police Department’s Station No. 3 on the east end and the Fire Department’s Station No. 29 in the center and on the west end, with sleeping quarters upstairs. There were two bays for the fire trucks and a holding cell for the miscreant. The barred windows of that cell still remain. Also remaining is the receiver for the old call box system. When an emergency happened, someone need only run to a street corner in town with a red call box fixed to a light pole, and pull the handle. In the station house, that triggered a ticker-tape printout of the call’s location.

The Station Building, shortly before it was decommissioned and leased for commercial use in 1978. Courtesy the Brookside Business Association.

The Station Building faithfully served the Brookside area for more than sixty years, but by 1978, it was too small and antiquated to retrofit for modern equipment. The city shuttered the building and moved these stations to new facilities farther east. There was plenty of potential in the property. According to newspaper accounts, about thirty businesses expressed an interest in the building. The Nichols Company was interested, too. After all, it owned the adjacent property. But the Nichols Company’s interest was not in retail—it had plenty of that. Wha