Where the mighty Missouri River makes a sharp bend to the north early settlers wishing to travel overland westward landed their boats and disembarked. And it was this quirk of geography that led to the founding of the “Town of Kansas” in 1838. It vied with the nearby settlements of Independence and Westport and Leavenworth as the jumping off point for travelers on the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail and the California Trail.
The tussling for supremacy among western Missouri frontier towns was decided in 1867 when the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad picked Kansas City instead of Leavenworth as the place to build the first bridge across the Missouri River. The Hannibal Bridge established Kansas City as the “Crossroads of the Country.” Leavenworth was twice as big as Kansas City at the time; today its population is about 35,000 while new railroad center Kansas City went on to annex Westport and become a major league American metropolis.
The first stockyards were constructed by the new rail line in 1871 and Kansas City would become second only to Chicago in processing meat. No city would handle more horses and mules. No city would ship more hay and grain than Kansas City.
Kansas City boomtown money attracted the country’s best architectural talent. The influential New York firm of McKim, Mead and White won several commissions in town in the late 1800s; big name Chicago designers like Jarvis Hunt came to Kansas City in the early 1900s to build alongside respected locals like Hoit, Price & Barnes; and Frank Lloyd Wright designed three buildings here. As a result Kansas City is well-represented on compilation lists of great American buildings.
The area east of Main Street developed as the town’s financial district around the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1914 and then came important pockets of retailing but since 1930 the area has been defined as the Government District with the arrival of America’s tallest city hall where we will begin our walking tour...
Kansas City City Hall
414 East 12th Street at southeast corner of Oak Street
At 29 stories and 445 feet tall this is the world’s fourth tallest city hall. This and other big-time construction projects in Kansas City were championed during the Depression of the 1930s by Democratic political boss Thomas Joseph Pendergast who, coincidentally, owned a concrete company. City Hall would require 20,000 cubic feet of Pendergast concrete. Inside were marbles from France, Italy and Vermont in shades of red and green and white. Look up before the building steps back to see a frieze with panels depicting critical events in the city’s history. Sculptures decorating the exterior were executed by German-American sculptors C. Paul Jennewein, Ulric Ellerhusen and Walter Hancock, a Medal of Freedom recipient who supervised the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia.
FACING CITY HALL, TURN RIGHT AND WALK SOUTH ON OAK STREET.
Jackson County Courthouse
415 East 12th Street at southeast corner of Oak Street
Brothers Thomas and William Wight were born in Nova Scotia and began designing Kansas City buildings in their twenties. They won major commissions in the 1920s and contributed several landmarks to Missouri streets, including this Art Deco composition and City Hall across the street. Dedication took place in 1934 and one of its first tenants was Harry Truman who kept an office here while serving as United States Senator.
TURN RIGHT ON 12TH STREET.
306 East 12th Street at northeast corner of McGee Street
The Argyle was raised in two stages; the four-story base was erected in 1907 and a six-story addition was raised in 1924. Both are U-shaped in the back, a standard practice in the early 20th century to enhance air circulation through the interior offices. The original Renaissance Revival design was executed with brownish St. Louis pressed brick laid to create the appearance of rusticated stone. The money men for the Argyle Building were the Dean Brothers Company who spent $60,000 as a speculative real estate venture, stating, “We are building for investment and have made no contracts for tenants.” But in the go-go days of Kansas City at the time they had no problem rounding up Gate City National Bank for the ground floor and a parade of medical practitioners in the floors above.
Palace Clothing Company Building
1126 Grand Avenue at northwest corner of 12th Street
Brothers-in-law Henry A. Guettel and Henry A. Aeurbach opened their first Palace Clothing Company in Topeka, Kansas in 1888. The business would grow to eight locations and 500 employees as Palace became one of the Midwest’s premier men’s clothiers.The Guettel family purchased the Auerbach interest in 1921 and second generation Arthur Guettel took the reins, shopping straight away for a new location as 9th Street, where the emporium was located, was fading as a Kansas City retail center. He hired architect Frederic E. McIlvain who delivered one of the town’s best examples of Chicago Style architecture with a seven-story flagship store boasting clean lines and big display windows. Palace continued to dress Kansas City men and boys until 1964.
1200 Grand Avenue at southwest corner of Grand Boulevard
Harry Heye Tammen, owner of a curio and souvenir shop, and Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, a Kansas City real estate and lottery operator, purchased the bones of the bankrupt Denver Post for $12,500. They knew nothing about newspaper work so they came at the business from the other side - discovering what people wanted to read. That turned out to be the new “flamboyant circus journalism” of the day and in 1900, both Bonfils and Tammen were horsewhipped and hospitalized by a lawyer who disliked their brand of newspapering. But they made their tabloid into one of the biggest papers in America. This Venetian Renaissance Revival building was constructed in 1925 as a speculative property by Bonfils; the architect was Frederick C. Gunn.
TURN LEFT ON GRAND BOULEVARD.
College Basketball Experience/Sprint Center
1407 Grand Boulevard at southeast corner of 13th Street
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began in Chicago but didn’t hit its stride as a force in sporting America until headquarters came to downtown Kansas City in 1952. The organization moved to the suburbs in the 1970s which eventually became problematic. In a national bidding war for the right to house the NCAA headquarters in 1999 Kansas City lost out to Indianapolis. The snub was somewhat smoothed over with this $24 million facility that houses the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. The Hall opened in 2007 honoring 180 players, coaches and contributors to its founding class. The College Basketball Experience is attached to the multi-use Sprint Center that also opened in 2007 with an Elton John concert.
TURN RIGHT ON 13TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET.
Jenkins Music Company Building
1223 Walnut Street
Only the facade remains from this 1911 building, after preservationists won its survival to be attached to a parking garage. Now long defunct, the Jenkins Music Company once sold more than a million dollars worth of pianos every year from its nine branches in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. One of their most successful sales ploys was the “Jenkins Truck” - outfitted with a couple of pianos in the back salesmen would travel through farm communities and invite farm wives and daughters to try out a piano in the truck. And then maybe carry it inside “to see how it looks.” Where more likely than not, it would stay and a sales contract signed. Founded in Oklahoma in 1878 by J.W. Jenkins the family business is still in operation.
Boley Clothing Company
1130 Walnut Street at northwest corner of 12th Street
Canadian-born Louis Singleton Curtiss learned his architecture in Toronto and Paris before coming to Kansas City in 1887 at the age of 22. He would design some 200 buildings in a career that would get him labeled “the Frank Lloyd Wright of Kansas City” and this is his most famous creation, one of the world’s first curtain-wall structures. Raised in 1909, the six-story building with cast iron structural detailing and terra cotta decorative elements caused the Kansas City Post to gush that the light-filled emporium was “without a peer in the United States.” Client Charles Boley did not bask in the glory of his new building for long - he closed down his clothing store in 1915 and was last seen peddling industrial lubricants and hot water heaters in California.
Mercantile Bank & Trust Building
1101 Walnut Street at southeast corner of 11th Street
This 20-story office tower was designed by the noted Chicago architectural firm Harry Weese and Associates in 1974 but is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a rare example of the sculptural form of Modern architecture that is seen nowhere else in Kansas City. A three-story base and a series of cruciform steel columns support the tower above a retail plaza sunk into the street.
TURN RIGHT ON 11TH STREET.
1102 Grand Boulevard at southwestern corner of 11th Street
The first building of substance was onstructed here in 1891 by Dr. John Bryant, whose wife Henrietta was given the property back in 1866 as a wedding present from her father Thomas A. Smart who operated Kansas City’s first general merchandise store in 1827 at the Missouri River and Walnut Street. The land was part of Smart’s farm. Bryant spent $150,000 to construct his seven-story building. This 26-story Art Deco tower replaced it in 1931, incorporating setbacks mandated on high-rise buildings by the City in 1923. The Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White emphasized the verticality of their structure with clean lines defined by glazed cream brick set against dark-hued terra-cotta. It was the tallest building on Grand Avenue and fourth tallest in town when it was built; at eye level the building’s most striking features are its bronze door entrances.
1101 Grand Boulevard at southeast corner of 11th Street
Charles A. Smith, who would design every school in Kansas City for 40 years, provided the Kansas City streetscape this early example of Modernistic architecture in 1929. The building was created to house doctors and dentists but also had shops on the lower floors so as to not forfeit its advantageous location on 11th Street that was then known as “the great retail district of Kansas City.” Its Art Deco influences emphasize the verticality of the sixteen-story tower, constructed of reinforced concrete and dressed in red and buff-colored brick and decorated with buff-colored terra-cotta.
TURN RIGHT ON GRAND BOULEVARD AND WALK A FEW STEPS TO SEE THE BUILDING NEXT DOOR TO THE PROFESSIONAL BUILDING.
Gate City National Bank
1111 Grand Boulevard
The fashion for banks in the early 20th century was to build impressive, confidence-evoking vaults to lure in wary depositors. The Neoclassical structure from architects Arthur Samuel Keene and Leslie B. Simpson, who partnered together for almost half a century, fit the bill for the Gate City Bank in 1920. The building was planned for ten stories which is why the full-height fluted Ionic columns appear as if the bank has hitched its pants up too high. Gate City, which had formed in 1909, was merged with Traders National Bank in 1930 and its name gradually vanished.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS, HEADING NORTH ON GRAND BOULEVARD, CROSSING 11TH STREET.
1006 Grand Boulevard at southwest corner of 10th Street
Hans and Herman Dierks bought a lumberyard in Nebraska in 1887, which would be the foundation for the largest family-owned landholding in the history of the country - 1.8 million acres when the company was sold to Weyerhauser Company in 1969. In 1900, when Dierks Lumber & Coal Company controlled twenty-four lumberyards, it moved to Kansas City. The first seven stories of this Chicago Style office building were raised in 1908; ten additional stories shaped around a light well on 10th Street came along in 1930.
Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City
925 Grand Boulevard at northeast corner of 10th Street
The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 created 12 districts across the country and St. Louis and Kansas City were locked in fierce battle to be named as a headquarters city. In the end each got a nod making Missouri the only state with two such influential banks. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City started operating in 1914 across the street; it was the second largest of all the districts with 835 member banks. In 1921 more than $4 million was spent on this classically flavored tower from Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. At 298 feet it was the tallest building in Missouri, a title it retained for five years. The Fed stayed until 2008 when the building was sold with plans for conversion into a mix ob business suites and condominiums. President Harry Truman kept an office here for several years after he left office in 1953.
R.A. Long Building
928 Grand Avenue at northwest corner of 10th Street
Robert A. Long was Kentucky born and his first business venture in Kansas was a hay bale company. The venture failed but as Long and his partners sold the lumber from the hay sheds they noticed lumber was in much greater demand than hay had been. So they ordered more lumber and in 1887 the Long-Bell Lumber Company landed in Kansas City. By 1906, Long owned 250,000 acres of pine in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana and converted it into 61 lumberyards. As the timber land was deforested in Louisiana, he moved west to the state of Washington and bought 270,000 acres of Douglas fir to fuel the world’s largest lumber company. In Kansas City, Long built a 72-room French Renaissance mansion he called Corinthian Hall that was the town’s first million-dollar home (it is now the home of the Kansas City Museum). For business he erected this Beaux Arts skyscraper in 1909; Long’s office was on the 8th floor.
TURN LEFT ON 10TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET.
National Bank of Commerce Building
922-924 Walnut Street at northwest corner of 10th Street
The National Bank of Commerce was chartered as the Kansas City Savings Bank in 1865 and became one of the 20 largest banks in the United States. For its new headquarters in 1906 the bank hired Jarvis Hunt, a versatile Chicago architect who designed every type of important building in America including clubhouses, palatial estates, department stores and passenger stations such as Union Station in Kansas City. Here he delivered Missouri’s tallest building at the time, rendered in red granite and white terra cotta tiles. The tower was built by the George A. Fuller Company who pioneered techniques in raising early skyscrapers.
The Fidelity National Bank and Trust Company Building
911 Walnut Street at southeast corner of 9th Street
The Fidelity Trust Company took its first deposits in 1899, backed by a beefy roster of American financiers. The bank acquired the Romanesque Revival former post office with two towers that housed the town clock and operated as “the Bank Under the Old Town Clock.” Fidelity gobbled up rival banks at such a prodigious rate that a new headquarters was needed by 1930 and Kansas City architects Henry F. Hoit, Edwin Price and Alfred Edward Barnes delivered an Art Deco landmark rising from a Neoclassical base. They lathered the 470-foot tower with stylized decorations and gave the building setbacks leading to a pair of towers with the clock, like its predecessor. The American Institute of Architects designated it the town’s best designed commercial building of 1931.
823 Walnut Street at northeast corner of 9th Street
On July 21, 1929 the Ricksecker Building was demolished on this site to clear space for the Waltower Building Company to erect this office building. That summer Kansas City was in the midst of its greatest building boom at any time in its history but most of the projects would be thrown into chaos in a few scant months with the crash of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression. The 12-story Waltower Building was completed, however, designed by prolific Kansas City architect Albert Wiser. Wiser gave the upper three stories setbacks, only the second building in town to adopt the practice and wrapped the upper parapets in Gothic-ornamented terra-cotta. Despite its architectural pedigree, tenants were hard to come by in the financial hard times and the Waltower Building went into receivership on December 22, 1931. The building cost $800,000 to erect; five years later it sold for $150,000 and $30,000 in back taxes.
819 Walnut Street
Edward Lucky Scarritt was born in Jackson County in 1853 where there would be Kansas City someday. He became one of the town’s best known lawyers and held posts as City Counselor and circuit judge. In his spare time he helped found the Kansas City School of Law, was president of the Kansas City Bar Association and served in various capacities for banks and railroads and churches. As president of the Scarritt Estate Company he directed the construction of this building in 1906; this four-story arcade connects by a tunnel to Scarritt’s lavish Beaux arts tower on the corner of Grand Boulevard and 9th Street we will see in three stops.
801 Walnut Street at southeast corner of 8th Street
Ohio-born John McKecknielearned his architecture at Columbia University in New York City and in shops around that city until he came to Kansas City in 1896 at the age of 34 to open his own office. He would work in town for 38 years. The Gumbel Building from 1903 was the first large-scale use in Kansas City of reinforced concrete, which McKecknie covered in decorative terra-cotta. As the leading cheerleader for reinforced concrete, he guided some of the town’s tallest and largest buildings to completion.
TURN RIGHT ON 8TH STREET.
United States Courthouse and Post Office
811 Grand Boulevard at northeast corner of 8th Street
One of the ways Franklin Roosevelt tried to jumpstart the economy during the Great Depression was authorizing the construction of government buildings across the country. Often these buildings were raised in the stripped-down classicism of the Art Deco style. It was no different in Kansas City where this elephantine ten-story federal building, created by Wight and Wight in an Art Moderne shell, was one of the last New Deal projects to get funded and came online in 1939. Filling an entire block, the building is faced in Indiana limestone and enlivened with exterior bronze decoration.
TURN RIGHT ON GRAND BOULEVARD.
northwest corner of Grand Boulevard and 9th Street
Walter C. Root and George Siemens formed an architectural partnership in 1896 and for three decades were a go-to firm for major projects in Kansas City, including Union Station. Root was the brother of John Wellborn Root who pioneered the modern skyscraper in Chicago. For Edward Scarritt they delivered an elaborately decorated Chicago Style office tower with a twist. In the days before air conditioning, large offices were often designed in an “H” configuration around a central light well. The main entrance was often sited in the break created by the light well which, in the case of the Scarritt Building should have been facing Grand Avenue. The main entrance is in fact there but the light well faces south along 9th Street to bring as much natural light as possible into the interior spaces.
906 Grand Boulevard at southwest corner of 9th Street
The 13-story, classically flavored Ozark Building was built in 1911 and has been re-imagined as an arts destination and gathering place for the arts community. The building is owned by UMB which purchased the building in 1992.
Grand Avenue Temple and Grand Avenue Temple Building
205 East 9th Street at southeast corner of Grand Boulevard
Grand Avenue Temple was founded in 1865 with 75 Northern Methodists after the Civil War and became known as the “Mother Church of Methodism” in Kansas City. The present sanctuary and 12-story Temple office building were constructed in 1912 from plans drawn by John J. McKecknie. He designed a simple Greek Revival facade for Upon completion, Grand Avenue Temple which became nationally known, and was referred to as the “Crossroads Church of America” and the “Church ofStrangers” as a result of the visitors to Kansas City who stayed in surrounding hotels and visited the Temple.
TURN LEFT ON 9TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON MCGEE STREET.
Pickwick Hotel, Office Building, Parking Garage and Bus Terminal
McGee Street between 9th and 10th streets
This block-swallowing complex stands as a symbol of the golden age of Kansas City development from the 1920s - five million dollars was spent for the Union Bus Terminal that included a ten-story office building and a 300-room hotel. The lead developer was Charles F. Wren, president of Pickwick Greyhound Lines although it would eventually serve eleven bus lines after it opened in 1930 as the largest bus terminal in America. Two hundred motor coaches docked here every day from all the important cities in America in its heyday. In 1967 the bus terminal took a star turn in the movie version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood with Robert Blake in the lead.
TURN LEFT ON 10TH STREET.
318-320 East 10th Street at northwest corner of Oak Street
The core of this building began life as Spalding’s Commercial College in 1905 and was given a Chicago Style commercial makeover in 1920. Insurance offices dominated the tenant roster in its early days and beginning in 1944 the Consumers Cooperative Association consumed all the office space.
TURN RIGHT ON OAK STREET.
324 East 11th Street at northwest corner of Oak Street
Kansas City architects Henry F. Hoit, Edwin Price and Alfred Edward Barnes, creators of many landmarks in town, designed this structure in 1917 as the headquarters for Southwestern Bell Telephone. It began as 14 stories but the rapid growth of Kansas City called for an almost immediate expansion. Another 14 stories were added in 1929 using Haydite, the first modern structural lightweight concrete, which had recently been invented and patented in Kansas City by Stephen J. Hayde. It was the first application for the construction material and made Southwestern Bell Missouri’s tallest building until the Kansas City Power & Light Building surpassed it in 1931. The utility sold the building in 1974 at which time its original terra-cotta facade was covered in white stucco.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT CITY HALL.