Kansas City is known far and wide for entrepreneurship and hospitality, but there’s another aspect of this region’s identity that isn’t in the DNA of its people; it’s in the brick and mortar of the cityscape that gives this community its distinct flair.
Even as new projects come on-line and city leaders discuss more potential changes to the Downtown skyline, there is an architectural personality already built into Downtown Kansas City and the region. We too often take those design treasures for granted, failing to appreciate them as we zip past on the morning or evening
And yet, much of our history is locked into those buildings. The iconic structures and thoroughfares that have survived well into the 21st century are legacies of the vision and leadership shown by those who came
before us. The Kansas City signature can be seen in its buildings and fountains, in its stadiums and public art,
in its boulevards and the majestic homes erected by 19th-century barons of business.
Some might criticize the judicious application of the wrecking ball here with a collective reluctance to embrace inevitable change. But good stewardship of these enduring icons helps define us as a metropolitan area today. In honor of our 45th Anniversary, Ingram’s pays tribute in the following pages to Kansas City’s architectural signature.
Can anyone create a comprehensive list of our city’s lost landmarks and enduring icons? Doubtful.
Depending on whom you ask, the wildly diverse structures that constitute this city’s architectural signature
vary in significance. That said, we hope you enjoy this compilation of Kansas City as it was then—and as it is now.
The harsh reality of modernizing a city’s infrastructure means that when a building meets the wrecking ball, it’s gone forever. While Kansas City has done a better job than many regions to save its historical buildings and landmarks, the ghosts of some long-lost iconic facilities still haunt us. Here are but a few places that were once touchstones for community engagement as far back as a century ago:
Field Before the Truman Sports Complex redefined sports architecture in this country and blessed us with Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, we had Municipal Stadium, which hosted minor and major league sports for nearly 50 years. Originally named Muehlebach Field after local beer baron and park owner George Muehlebach, it was built atop a wetland at 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue during the early 1920s. With a capacity of 17,500, the stadium initially housed the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs and the minor-
league baseball team, Kansas City Blues. After renovations increased capacity to more than 30,000, Municipal became home to major league baseball teams—Charles Finley moved the Philadelphia Athletics here in 1955 before taking off for Oakland after 1967; then the Royals were born in 1969 and played at Municipal for several seasons. Most notably, the former Dallas Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs and won a world championship while playing in Municipal Stadium. Offerings that made a game at Municipal Stadium memorable included a small zoo and picnic area beyond right field, a mechanical rabbit nicknamed Harvey that delivered baseballs from underneath home plate, and “Little Blowhard,” a device that tidied home plate. Municipal Stadium was demolished in 1976, but it left behind a legacy that includes a leading Negro League team with players such as Ernie Banks, Satchell Paige and Jackie Robinson; a minor-league team that won several championships; and the Kansas City Chiefs’ AFL championship years. The site later became home to a community garden, then was eyed for development of single-family homes that have given that plot a new purpose.
This Downtown department store made its mark on more than the Kansas City skyline; as the cornerstone of KC’s retail district known as Petticoat Lane, it defined an era when people came Downtown from throughout the region for shopping, entertainment and society. Downtown was where the action was. Before suburbanization, before covered shopping malls and megaplex theaters, Downtown was more than just the place to be; it was an experience. At the heart of the action was a trifecta of commerce that included department store behemoths Emery Bird Thayer, Macy’s, and Jones. Once tagged as “The Southwest’s Greatest Store,” the roots of Emery Bird Thayer can be traced back nearly to the origin of Kansas City itself, and its growth coincided with that of the city’s. In the 1890s, the department store opened a new Downtown location that covered a full block at 11th Street and Walnut, reflecting the decades of growth and development of Kansas City. Emery Bird Thayer closed in 1968, and though remnants of the business remain—such as its warehouse-turned-lofts on Walnut Street, and the recently-closed restaurant EBT—the department store building itself was demolished in 1971.
Kansas City’s reputation as a cow town is largely tied to the Kansas City Stockyards, which drove the city’s cattle business from 1871 through 1991—a cornerstone of Kansas City economics. Cattle drives after the Civil War moved millions of Longhorns and other breeds up from Texas, feeding on the tallgrass prairie of Oklahoma and Kansas before making their way to slaughter in the packinghouses here. The advent of the refrigerated rail car created demand for Kansas City steaks in the major cities of the East. Located in the West Bottoms on the site where the former Kemper Arena (now Hy-Vee Arena) now sits, the stockyards, like other area trade and distribution companies, benefited from Kansas City’s advantageous location as a staging point for the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails, and the stockyards played a significant role in making Kansas City a hub of development and commerce. At the height of business in the 1940s, the stockyards served as a convergence point for 16 railroads and the Kansas City Livestock Exchange could boast that it was the largest building in the world devoted exclusively to the industry. Although a major flood in 1951 caused a downward spiral from which the stockyards could not recuperate, its doors were not closed for business until Halloween 1991.
Built in 1967, Temple B’ Nai Jehudah was the design child of Kansas City architecture firm Kivett and Myers. Although the firm is better known for its Kansas City International Airport and Truman Sports Complex designs, its modern flair is evident in earlier structures as well. Located on 69th Street, the temple featured an unconventional, tent-like sanctuary and a 6,200-square-foot skylight—the largest in the world at the time—that gave a blue hue to
the surrounding light. Preservationists applied for local landmark status after B’nai Jehudah—the area’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation—sold the property in 2002 to the Helzberg Foundation, but the effort was not enough to save the distinctive temple from demolition. In 2003, the temple was razed and replaced with University Academy, a public college-preparatory charter school. The move garnered public debate over the community benefits of a new school and the architectural importance of the temple, which was included in publications such as the American Institute of Architects Guide to Kansas City Architecture & Public Art.
Most anywhere you look today, you can spot a piece of this region’s rich and colorful architectural history; we are blessed today with historic and enduring buildings that continue to motivate and inspire us. Here are but a few, chosen for their architectural, historical and emotional significance.
At nearly 100 years old, the Ninth Street Fountain—recently renamed the Women’s Leadership Fountain—is the oldest working fountain in Kansas City, gracing the park grounds at Ninth and The Paseo. But the J. C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, a few miles to the south, is the most photographed and has thusly become an icon for Kansas City. Sitting at the east entrance to the Country Club Plaza, the fountain is dedicated to the memory of Jesse Clyde “J.C.” Nichols, visionary developer of the Plaza. The Nichols family purchased the fountain’s figures, which were sculpted by Parisian Henri Greber, as salvage from an estate in New York and dedicated the reconstructed fountain in 1960. J.C. Nichols’ Country Club Plaza is the country’s first suburban shopping center, and the area remains a popular regional destination for Kansas City retail, entertainment and dining. The buildings there were intentionally designed using Seville, Spain, as a model, before the invention of indoor malls. The project would become a signature success of what a planned community could be. The gas stations and day-to-day necessities like dry cleaners and grocery venues are generally gone, and national retailers have flocked to the property, but it remains a beating heart of commerce for the region.
The intersection of 18th and Vine streets is where Kansas City’s Jazz District has long stood as a Mecca in the music industry. During the 1930s and ‘40s, neighborhood nightclubs such as The Blue Room hosted the biggest names in jazz. The district served as a center for African American life and culture for more than 60 years, but by the mid-to-late 20th century, it had succumbed to years of neglect and disrepair. The mid-1990s, though, produced developments such as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, touching off a reinvigorating move in the neighborhood. The baseball museum is the only facility of its kind in the U.S. dedicated solely to the Negro leagues and its players, and the district’s jazz legacy lives on in the American Jazz Museum, and the Gem Theatre—built in 1912 as a movie venue for African Americans—is now a modern performing-arts facility. While redevelopment of the district has been slow, and it continues to rely on millions of dollars in city support, the district nonetheless remains intact and stands as a lasting reminder of a historical era in the city.
Constructed as part of the “City Beautiful” movement, Kansas City’s Union Station was the third largest station in the world when work was initially completed in 1914. But it is not simple square footage that sets this structure apart. The station’s innovative design allowed for trains to actually pass through its terminals, an unusual offering at that point in the nation’s rail history, and even the station’s location was a major point of contention. Logan Jones of the Jones Store wanted it at the foot of Main Street near the merchants; William Nelson wanted it near the daily newspaper he had made a cornerstone of civic life. Neither got precisely what he wanted. Nelson came closer to getting his wish, but it is one of the supreme ironies of development life that, as newspapers have faded in prominence, his newspaper building itself is now being remade into a multi-use venue. An estimated 1 million passengers traveled through Union Station during World War II, but by 1971 the station’s relevance was fading. Facing possible demolition, it closed in 1989. Union Station once again made headlines in 1996 when a combined Missouri and Kansas tax initiative, the first of its kind, made $118 million available for restoration. Union Station is now home to the Science City museum and multiple theaters, restaurants and shops, and serves as the headquarters for various civic and business organizations and associations. It also hosts traveling exhibits and if you need transportation, you can once again catch a train at Union Station, or do some local sight-seeing with the Downtown streetcar system that has the station as its southern terminus.
Dating back to 1881, the Savoy Hotel owes much of its notoriety to the growth in the city’s population and the subsequent building and economic booms, as it was during this time that stays in luxury hotels became popular. This particular hotel, at the intersection of Ninth and Central, featured imported marble and tile, claw-footed tubs, brass fixtures, and stained-glass windows. A two-year restoration project wrapped up in 2018, remaking the building into the 21c Museum Hotel, complete with art gallery. That gave second life to the former Savoy Grill; after a brief closure, it has reopened as the Savoy at 21c, still serving classic American cuisine. First opened in 1903, the Savoy Grill offered an elegant dining experience and long had the distinction of being Kansas City’s oldest operating restaurant. It originally opened as an establishment for men only; it would not serve women. This stipulation changed, however, and through the years, diners have included Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, W.C. Fields, and John D. Rockefeller, as well as Lillian Russell and Sara Bernhardt.
Kansas City’s theaters cover the spectrum of entertainment from stage to film, vocal to silent, and each venue has a history all its own. Built in 1900, The Folly Theater is Kansas City’s oldest operating theater. It opened as a vaudeville and burlesque house under its original moniker, The Standard Theatre, and hosted rising acts such as the Marx Brothers and Humphrey Bogart. In 1971, after falling into disrepair, the theatre dubbed “The Grand Lady on 12th Street” was in danger of demolition. A community urban renewal effort aided restoration projects, and the Folly Theatre re-opened for business in November 1981. Although no match for the Folly’s age, the Midland Theatre— located at Main and Baltimore Avenue —had no local comparison in terms of size and grandeur. When it was built in 1927 as a silent movie and live entertainment venue, the Midland was the third-largest theatre in the nation and featured the design flair of renowned theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb. AEG LIVE, AMC Entertainment, and the Cordish Co. renovated the venue and The Midland by AMC re-opened in September 2008 after a brief hiatus. It is now home to an active lineup of concerts and live events, as part of the hugely popular Power & Light entertainment district, and has picked up a corporate sponsor and new brand as Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland. New York Life Building Much as changed since McKim, Meade and White designed Kansas City’s first skyscraper, the 12-story New York Life Building. Constructed in 1890, it was one of six in simultaneous development by New York Life Insurance Co. In addition to doubling the height of the Kansas City skyline, it also contained the city’s first elevators. Located in the Ninth Street Historic District—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—and along with other area businesses comprised Kansas City’s business center. Fans of architecture might notice a strikingly similar resemblance between Kansas City’s New York Life Building and Omaha National Bank’s Omaha Building, as it was also designed by McKim, Meade and White. Energy company Aquila, Inc. (Utilicorp United) bought the building for its corporate headquarters and in 1996 began restoring and modernizing it. The renovation was heralded in publications such as The New York Times for its preservation of the building’s brick and brownstone exterior, atrium flooring, and two-ton bronze eagle that hangs over the entryway. Although the building still stands tall at 20 W. Ninth St., it has an entirely new mission: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph bought the building in 2010 for $11.7 million, and it is now home to the diocese’s administrative offices. Liberty Memorial Kansas City can be proud of its efforts to preserve history, and such efforts are especially evident in Liberty Memorial and the National World War I Museum. Two weeks after the fighting in Europe ceased in 1918, Kansas City began planning a commemorative structure. In less than two weeks, a community fundraising campaign in 1919 raised more than $2.5 million—more than $36 million in today’s dollars. A national competition to select an architect and designer added to the excitement surrounding the monument. In 1921, nearly 200,000 people turned out for the site dedication and to listen to the speeches of five Allied military leaders, who for the first time in history—and last—gathered together in one place. President Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1926, and the impressive 217-foot art deco tower remains distinct, even in a city known for its examples of art deco architecture. After years of disrepair and neglect, a proposal to invigorate it with an interpretive, interactive museum brought it back into the public eye. A tax initiative passed in 1998 helps assure the future maintenance and success of the memorial and the museum that opened in 2006.
Historically, Kansas City has frequently and consistently belied its Midwestern, conservative roots with interesting, challenging and even edgy architecture and public art. That tradition continues to this day. Here are just a few of the newer buildings and other icons that stand out—and above—the Kansas City landscape.
One Kansas City Place
Year Completed: 1988
Address: 1200 Main
Not only is it the tallest building in Kansas City, it is also the tallest building in Missouri. The lighted color stripe around the top of the building can change colors to reflect season or daily events. Shuttlecocks Year Completed: 1994 Location: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Love ’em or hate ’em, the world’s largest “Shuttlecocks,” sculptures by renowned pop artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, sit playfully on the lawn of the stately art museum. They continue to inspire debate, but have become iconic symbols of Kansas City.
Year Completed: 2007
Location: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Nobody in the city accused the Nelson-Atkins of playing it safe in the way it expanded. Architect Steven Holl incorporated the innovative design of the Bloch Building into the existing aesthetics of the 1933 Nelson-Atkins Building and adjoining Kansas City Sculpture Park. Five vaulted “lenses” thrust through the lawn from the mostly underground structure. At night, these glowing lenses create a dynamic spectacle. Some in the community, though, are less enthusiastic about the daytime appearance. Regardless, architectureand art critics from around the world have offered praise.
Year Completed: 2007
Address: 1407 Grand Boulevard
The Sprint Center opened amid fanfare and an Elton John concert in October 2007 and hosted more than 1.3 million visitors during its first year of operation. In conjunction with the neighboring Power & Light District, the multipurpose entertainment facility further illustrates Kansas City’s commitment to revitalizing Downtown. A few naysayers have belittled the structure as a flying saucer or a fruit bowl. Nobody has accused it of being boring or cookie-cutter. It adds yet another distinctive icon to Downtown’s unique and evolving skyline.
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
Year Completed: 2011
Location: Downtown’s South Loop
World-famous architect Moshe Safdie was responsible for the stunning, complex design of this state-of-the-art, 284,780-square-foot performance center. When it opened in 2011, it dramatically transformed the Kansas City skyline and became one of the world’s premier performing arts venues, giving North America an architectural counterpoint to the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
Luxury Living Towers
Year Completed: 2016-18
Location: P&L District, Crossroads
As Kansas City has rebuilt, it summoned people back to the core to live, starting with the One Light, then Two Light apartment towers adjacent to the Power & Light District, and more recently, the 12-story ARTerra luxury apartments in the Crossroads. Those towers, and new ones planned, are remaking the Kansas City skyline even today.