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; Chicago skyscraper pioneers Holabird and Roche 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.

Our walking tour of the Central Business District west of Main Street will include the Power & Light District anchored by its namesake Art Deco treasure, the Power and Light Building, but before we get there we’ll begin in the Library District and its namesake structure...

Central Library
14 West 10th Street at northeast corner of Baltimore Avenue

The Kansas City public library got under way in 1873 with a set of the American Encyclopedia corralled by one oak bookcase. Sixteen years later the library moved into its own building, an unassuming storefront, where it operated on a subscription basis. It would not become a free public library until 1898. The Central Library now anchors a system of ten branches from the former headquarters of the First National Bank. The Neoclassical vault was constructed in 1906 with imposing marble Ionic columns that required a massive steam engine to swing into place. The first books were lent here in 2004.


University Club/Kansas City Club
918 Baltimore Avenue

With a membership roster of ten graduates from local schools the University Club organized in 1901. The club moved into this classically flavored clubhouse, their third, in 1923. Architects John McKecknie and Frank Trask decorated their masonry and reinforced concrete structure with white terra-cotta window surrounds and a lively entablature under a false parapet. When the older, but dwindling, Kansas City Club went looking for new digs in 2001 it merged with the University Club and settled here.  

Carbide and Carbon Building
912 Baltimore

While most private development money retreated turtle-like into its shell during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Kansas City real estate rolled merrily along. Three of the town’s biggest players backed construction of this eleven-story tower in 1930 and sold it to Washington University. Local architect William A. Bovard blended elements of Art Deco and Moderne styles in cream terra-cotta for the office building.

Kansas City School of Law
913 Baltimore Avenue

The Kansas City School of Law opened its doors in 1895, founded by local attorneys and judges. It is one of only eight law schools in America to have produced a United States President (Harry S. Truman) and a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (Charles Evans Whittaker). This building was raised in 1926 as the school’s fourth home, created in a Jacobethan style by architects Norman Wilkinson and Roy Crans. The law school was absorbed by the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1938.

New York Life Building
20 West 9th Street at northeast corner of Baltimore Avenue

Frederick Elmer Hill of the legendary New York City architectural firm McKim, Mead & White designed Kansas City’s first skyscraper in 1885 and came out West to oversee its construction. Hill stayed until 1901, contributing important buildings to the city streetscape. He designed the New York Life Insurance building in the Italian Renaissance Revival style with ten-story wings flanking a 12-story tower. Hill used brownstone on the lower stories and bricks the rest of the way up. The entranceway is looked after by an eagle with a 12-foot wingspan and a nest of eaglets that was the first significant work of Louis Saint-Gaudens, brother of America’s premier Beaux Arts sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The work contains more than two tons of cast bronze


Bunker Building
820 Baltimore Avenue at northwest corner of 9th Street

Walker A. Bunker was born in New Hampshire in the mid-19th century and traveled west to St. Paul, Minnesota where he attended business school and found work in a bank. He came to Kansas City in 1877 with a plan to furnish hundreds of weekly newspapers with pre-printed outside advertising sheets. His Western Newspaper Union became one of the largest advertising printers in the United States with a weekly circulation of more than 200,000 and Bunker pumped some of his profits into real estate. This eclectic Victorian commercial brick building with Romanesque windows and Gothic ornamentation was constructed in 1880, probably for his ready-print business, in the heart of the Kansas City business district. Bunker, who was an enthusiastic early proponent of the town’s potential to join the ranks of great American cities, kept an office here until his death in 1922.  

Lyceum Building
102-106 W. 9th Street

This exuberant four-story survivor from the 19th century Victorian age was financed by Arthur E. Stillwell’s Missouri, Kansas and Texas Trust in 1895. The Trust’s superintendent of the building department, George Mathews, gets the credit for this work as he does for all the buildings along the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad operated by the Trust. The line kept a ticket office in the Lyceum which is named for its elegant auditorium that was the go-to destination for the town’s high society affairs. The ballroom was maintained through the years as the space was converted from offices to hotel rooms.

Kansas City Dime Museum
110 West 9th Street 

Abraham Judah had been in the theater exhibition business for twelve years when he arrived in Kansas City in 1883 and was soon managing the Dime Museum for which he trumpeted as “Refined and First-Class Stage Performance in Theatorium. Everything, First Class. Everything New.” For a single dime patrons could see performing animals; Colonel R.A. Steele and Wife, the smallest couple in the world; James Wilson, the Human Balloon; J.C. Braden, the famous Nebraska skeleton; Sig Franco, the Stone Eater and many more. Later visitors could also enjoy Kansas City’s first public art gallery here.

New England Building
112 West 9th Street at northeast corner of Wyandotte Street

This Italian Renaissance six-story structure, wrapped in brownstone and classically ornamented, was one of the town’s most impressive structures in the 1880s. The Boston architectural firm of Bradlee, Winslow and Wetherell provided the design which features a prominent oriel window jutting from the corner. When finished in 1888 the primary tenant was the New England Safe Deposit and Trust Company, whose offices featured the largest vault west of Cincinnati.   

Savoy Hotel and Savoy Grill
219 West 9th Street at southeast corner of Central Street

Until the Civil War coffee was sold green in America and beans had to be roasted inconsistently on campfires or wood stoves. In 1865 two Pittsburgh grocers, John Arbuckle and his brother Charles, patented a process for roasting and coating coffee beans with an egg to produce a reliable, aromatic bean. Arbuckles’ Ariosa coffee quickly became the choice of chuck wagon cooks heading West and it was “Cowboy Coffee” profits that built the Savoy Hotel in 1888. S.E. Chamberlain and Van Brunt & Howe designed the Neoclassical guest house that was the first hotel to greet travelers to Kansas City stepping out of the original Union Depot. The Savoy was the sort of hotel where Presidents, celebrities and captains of industry would sign the register. The Savoy Grill came along in a renovation and expansion in 1903, serving enough high-octane visitors that Booth No.4 became known as the Presidents’ Booth. 


Central Fire Station1020 Central Street at northwest corner of 10th Street

The first fires were fought in Kansas City by a volunteer brigade in 1858 and two years later a volunteer company was formed. In 1871 the growing city put firemen on the payroll. This building was planned in 1905 after great consideration - the fire chief Edward Trickett visited fire departments in several major cities and returned with plans for the most modern and best-equipped fire house in the country racing through his head. Prominent local architect Albert Tunney provided “the most imposing public building” in town to house the fire department headquarters and Hose Company #2. He employed the Baroque-inspired Beaux Arts style with massive ribbed columns supporting a wide, classical pediment from under which the fire engines roared out to the street. A century later the building now does duty as meeting space.

American Hereford Cattle Breeders Association Building
300 West 11th Street at northwest corner of Central Street

Henry Clay, the powerful Kentucky statesman, brought the first Hereford cattle from England in 1817 but the offspring of his bull and two cows eventually became absorbed by native cattle. Other breeders dabbled in Herefords until the importation of Anxiety 4 in 1881 who became the “Father of American Herefords” from whom nearly all Hereford cattle are descended today. Also that year breeders met in Chicago to found the American Hereford Association to keep the breed’s records and promote the interests of Hereford breeders. The organization moved into this Neoclassical home in 1919 designed by Kansas City architects Charles A. Smith, who created every school building in the city from 1898 until 1936, Frank S. Rea and Walter U. Lovitt. The trio had partnered in 1910 and built a national reputation; this was one of their last projects before the dissolution of the firm in 1920.

Ararat Shrine Temple
200 West 11the Street at northeast corner of Central Street

The Imperial Council Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, today known as Shriners International, designated Ararat Shrine Temple its 38th chartered temple in 1888. The reason for the selection of the name “Ararat” is not known but all shrines must take an Arab name and Mount Ararat in modern-day Turkey is by tradition where Noah’s Ark landed. The temple, in which Harry Truman was an active member for more than 50 years, has had many homes through the years. This eleven-bay, three-story Neoclassical creation was home from 1925 until 1940. The building is now occupied by KMBC-TV9 and the Lyric Theatre.

W.R. Pickering Lumber Company Building
301 West 11th Street at southwest corner of Central Street

William Russell Pickering was a Missouri man who started in the mercantile business in Joplin in 1880 when he was 31 years old. As the business expanded into Arkansas he and his partner Ellis Short bought some timber tracts, the success of which soon overshadowed the original trade. In 1894 he organized the W.R. Pickering Company to engage in the yellow pine lumber manufacturing business which came to dominate trade in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and Louisiana. The core of this three-piece composition is the three-story lower section constructed for Pickering Lumber in 1925 and given a lively Renaissance Revival facade by busy local architects Charles E. Shepard and Albert C. Wiser. The building was doubled in size in 1950 when there wasn’t enough money to afford as much buff-colored glazed terra-cotta but the original design was mimicked as well as possible. The six-story addition from 1959 is a complete stylistic departure.

Standard Theatre/Folly Theatre
300 West 12th Street at northwest corner of Central Street 

Edward Butler of St. Louis built this playhouse in 1900 so his son could present shows on the Empire vaudeville circuit. He also constructed an adjoining hotel, the Edward, to house traveling performers. Kansas City architect Louis S. Curtiss gave the Standard Theatre a Neo-Palladian facade fashioned with Carthage limestone and red pressed brick. Through the years the interior has been substantially altered and the acts have changed - after it became the Folly in 1941 striptease was the ticketseller for over 30 years - but the exterior is essentially the same. The ball on the pole on the roof is dropped each year for Kansas City’s New Year’s Eve countdown.  

Barney Allis Plaza Outdoor Plaza
bounded by Central Street, Wyandotte Street, 12th and 13th streets

This open space carries the name of hotel and theater owner Barney Allis who died in 1962. In 1993 the Kansas City Sports Walk of Stars was installed on the edge of the park; baseball Hall-of-Famer George Brett, quarterback Len Dawson, and 8-time golf major winner Tom Watson were the first three inductees. In 2006 it became the home of the Kansas City Explorers, the city’s entrant in World Team Tennis. Below the park is a 1,000-vehicle parking facility.

Bartle Hall Convention Center
301 West 13th Street at Central Street

Kansas City’s complex of structures for meetings and conventions and sports and entertainment was completed in 1994 with a price tag of $92 million. Bartle Hall, named for two-term mayor Harold Roe Bartle, is supported by four 335-foot high concrete pylons. A metal panel canopy extends along Central Street.

Municipal Auditorium
13th Street between Central and Wyandotte streets

With its Steamline Moderne lines the Municipal Auditorium was named one of the world’s 10 Best Buildings by Architectural Record when it opened in 1935. In 2000, the Princeton Architectural Press called it one of the 500 most important architectural works in the United States. The multi-use facility has hosted the Kansas City Kings of the National Basketball Association, the Kansas City Attack of the National Professional Soccer League and the Kansas City Roller Warriors of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. In the early years of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament the Auditorium hosted nine Final Fours.


Kansas City Power and Light Building
1330 Baltimore Street at northwest corner of 14th Street 

This was Missouri’s tallest building for 45 years and Kansas City’s Sky King for 55. Kansas City architects Henry F. Hoit, Edwin Price and Alfred Edward Barnes crafted the Art Deco tour de force in 1931; they had actually planned twin towers but the Great Depression scuttled construction of the companion building. Anticipating the adjoining structure, however, no windows were placed on the west facade. Faced in Indiana limestone, the building boasts a lantern on its crown that sends colored lights for miles beyond the city. The Kansas City Power and Light Company moved out in 1992 and occupancy has been an on-going challenge since.

President Hotel
1327 Baltimore Avenue at northeast corner of 14th Street

This 15-story hotel opened in 1926, just in time to serve as the headquarters for the 1928 Republican National Convention, which nominated Herbert Hoover for president. Prominent architects Charles E. Shepard and Albert C. Wiser designed a Jacobethan building with extensive stone ornamentation. The luxury hotel featured such amenities as radiocasting (a public address system) and an ice manufacturing plant that could churn out 8,000 pounds of cubes per day. In 1941 the famed Drum Room Cocktail Lounge with a South Seas motif opened, hosting the top acts of the day.

Main Street Theater
1400 Main Street at southwest corner of 14th Street

Chicago brothers Cornelius W. Rapp and George Leslie Rapp were America’s foremost theater architects of the early 20th century with over 400 playhouses to their credit. They tapped the French Baroque style for this 3,200-seat theater in 1921. Capped by an ornate corner dome, the Main Street boasted several unique features including a nursery in the basement staffed by a trained nurse to babysit for parents and an underground tunnel to the President Hotel for vaudeville actors to access its stage.

H&R Block World Headquarters
southeast corner of Main and 13th streets

Henry Bloch does his own tax return. And he urges every American to do the same, “People should really fill out their own returns when they can because it’ll teach them a lot about economics. There’s nothing like getting into your own tax return to teach you where your money’s going.” Fortunately for his business, millions of Americans ignore his advice. Henry and his older brother Leon borrowed $5000 from a great-aunt to start the United Business Company in Kansas City in 1946 to provide advertising, accounting and legal services for small businesses. The first year was so bad Leon bailed out and went to law school. H&R Block’s 18-story, 531,168 square-foot glass headquarters came online in 2006.


Midland Building
1232--1234 Main Street and 1221--1233 Baltimore Avenue

The Midland Theater and Midland Office Building form an L-shaped complex along 13th Street with a six-story theater and an adjoining twelve-story office tower. The theater was operated by Marcus Loew’s chain of “vaudeville motion picture theaters.” The architect was go-to theater designer Thomas W. Lamb of New York who was assisted by local designer Robert Boller. Emil Milnar of the Rembusch Decorating Company in New York designed the French Baroque interior, employing fifteen skilled sculptors. On Opening Night of October 28, 1927 the 4,000-seat Midland was the third largest theater in the United States.

Kansas City Club Building
1228 Baltimore Avenue at northwest corner of 13th Street

Following the Civil War social clubs in Kansas City were almost exclusively pro-Confederate. On November 10, 1882 the Kansas City Club formed to offer a less skewed alternative. Today it is one of only two surviving private clubs on the Missouri side of Kansas City; past members have included Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, the last of only five 5-star generals in the United States Army. After absorbing several other clubs by 1920, the Kansas City Club moved into these Beaux Arts digs, designed by Smith, Rea, and Lovitt. It remained their clubhouse until 2001.  


One Kansas City Place
bounded by 12th Street to the north, Baltimore Avenue to the west, and Main Street to the east

This has been the tallest building in downtown Kansas City since 1988. The 624-foot tower was planned to be part of a more ambitious project and only the third tallest in the complex but the building boom of the 1980s fizzled before its beefier companions could be raised. 

Hotel Muehlebach
southwest corner of Baltimore Avenue and 12th Street

George Muehlebach immigrated to Kansas City from Switzerland in 1859 by way of Lafayette, Indiana. Once in town he bought the Main Street Brewery and built it into the largest brewery in Kansas City. The Swiss Cross was part of the logo for all the beers from the George Muehlebach Brewing Company until it was purchased by Schlitz Brewing in 1976 and the brand discontinued. Muehlebach’s son went into the hotel business in 1915, hiring William Holabird and Martin Roche, pioneers in the development of the modern skyscraper in Chicago, to build his 12-story building. Over the years came additions and subtractions and every United States President until Ronald Reagan checked in here. The Muehlebach was the White House headquarters for Harry S. Truman during his frequent visits to his home in nearby Independence, Missouri.

Hotel Phillips
106 West 12th Street at northwest corner of Baltimore Avenue

At one time the Glennon Hotel stood here which housed the haberdashery of Harry S. Truman. In 1930 Truman was a Jackson County judge still working to pay off the debts from that clothing store that had gone bankrupt in 1921 so there was no preservationist outrage when long-time Kansas City hotel man Charles E. Phillips tore the building down for a new Phillips House Hotel. Architects Boilet & Lauck designed a 20-story Jacobethan showcase dressed in brown brick and white terra-cotta. With 450 rooms it was the tallest hotel in Kansas City and cost Phillips $1.6 million; the Art Deco lobby with herringbone floors and black walnut woodwork has continued to wow visitors to this day. The sculpted golden lady at the staircase is celebrated Kansas City artist Jorgen C. Dryer’s representation of Dawn, the mythical mother of stars.

Hotel Bray/New Yorker Inn
1114 Baltimore Avenue

With a footprint only 25 feet wide, the Hotel Bray was one of the smallest hotels in Kansas City’s downtown when it opened in 1915. Architect John Martling did not leave much undecorated space on his narrow, brown-brick and terra-cotta building. The classically flavored building rises to a pair of decorative gables at the top of its nine stories. In 1947 it received an interior makeover and a name change to the New Yorker Inn.   

Continental Hotel/Mark Twain Tower
106 West 11th Street at northwest corner of Baltimore Avenue

Arthur E. Stillwell, founder of what would evolve into the Kansas City Southern Railway, is credited with having built more than 2,300 miles of track and founding scores of towns along the right-of-way in his lifetime. In 1887 he also founded the Fairmount Cycling Club that would shortly morph into the nationally respected Kansas City Athletic Club. In 1923 the club acquired an unfinished 22-story tower here and hired Hoit, Price and Barnes, the town’s go-to architects for big buildings, to complete the building as a clubhouse. They delivered a Gothic Revival look with three stories of white marble chip around the base. Stone is also used to envelop upper and lower windows. The Continental Hotel Company took over the property during the financial crisis of the 1930s and shuffled the Club up to the uppermost six floors. In 1982 the building was remodeled as an office building and renamed for Missouri’s favorite son. 


Kansas City Southern Railway Building
114 West 11th Street at northeast corner of Wyandotte Street

Arthur Stillwell was able to build his Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf railroad to the ports on the Gulf of Mexico with energetic fundraising. His luck ran out in 1900 and his line went bankrupt. Eastern money revived the railroad as the Kansas City Southern Railway which would grow into one of the most successful hometown railroads in American history. This office building was erected in 1914 on plans drawn by local architect John W. McKecknie and the railroad remained here until 2002. 


Board of Trade Building
127 West 10th Street at southeast corner of Wyandotte Street

Kansas City’s grain exchange was set up in 1869 and by 1877 a national design competition was staged to design a building to hold it. In the 1920s real estate developer Joseph A. Bruening built the world’s largest grain exchange in the world here with architects John McKecknie and Frank Trask providing a suitably imposing H-shaped structure to handle the voluminous grain trades. They embellished their building with generous heapings of glazed terra-cotta, powerful classical pilasters and symbolic medallions, including a carved shaft of wheat. Bruening owned the building until his death in the 1960s and the Board of Traded moved on.

Graphic Arts Building
934 Wyandotte Street at northwest corner of 10th Street

Busy local architect Samuel B. Tarbet added this commercial building for printers to his resume, which mostly included residential work, in 1915. Tarbet tapped the Arts and Crafts style for the facade and used special brick called Hy-Tex in the construction. For many decades if you needed engraving, typesetting, lithography or commercial printing done in Kansas City, this is where you came. With all the paper and combustible chemicals in use here, the building’s design included an extra large water tank on the roof capable of holding 100 tons of water. The building currently does duty as residential space.


F.P. Burnap Company Building
107-09 W. 10th Street

The Burnap Stationery Company began in Kansas City in 1878 and under the guidance of Frank P. Burnap evolved into one of the largest retail stationery and office supply companies in the country. John McKecknie designed this Chicago-Style six-story building in 1909 for which Burnap was the sole occupant. Burnap retired from the stationery game in the 1920s and devoted himself to English pottery, amassing the finest collection in America and becoming the foremost authority on the subject. 

Dwight Building
1004 Baltimore Avenue at southwest corner of 10th Street

Connecticut-born Stephen Northrop Dwight forsook the traditional Eastern businesses for the promise of the West s a young man in the 1870s. He worked in banks in Kansas, Arkansas and Colorado and tried mining in California before settling in Kansas City. he cashed in his interests in mining and waterworks and plowed his money into real estate. In 1902 he undertook to construct the town’s first all steel-framed building that rose seven stories on plans drawn by Charles A. Smith. The ornate building is dressed in granite and contrasting stone with a wide molded entablature with egg and dart banding above the second story and rising to a wide denticulated cornice (the plain additional three stories came in 1927). Dwight enjoyed his pioneering buidling for less than a year; he died of a heart attack in 1904 when he was only 51 years old. 

New England Bank Building
21 West 10th Street at southeast corner of Baltimore Avenue

The New England Bank claimed this corner in 1907 with a Renaissance Revival building from the newly formed design partnership of Edward T. Wilder and Thomas Wight, who had earned his architectural chops as a draftsman in the revered shop of McKim, Meade & White in New York City. In 1924 the Land Bank Building next door took many of its stylistic cues from the New England Bank as it soared above it. But after J. A. Bruening and William Pitt took over the property in 1930 they tacked on an additional twelve stories to match its ambitious neighbor.


Finance Building
1009-1013 Baltimore Avenue

Charles Smith began his working life as an architect in Des Moines but came to Kansas City in 1887 at the age of 21. He would design buildings in town for more than 60 years until his death in 1948. This creation to house finance companies came in 1908 with Charles Rea as his partner. Like many high-rises in the days before air conditioning, the seven story building was designed around a central light well to form an H-shape, with the well oriented away from the main street. Smith was brought back in 1923 to add an eight floor which it looks like he did with less imagination and a smaller budget. 


Land Bank Building/Hanover Building
15 West 10th Street

Architects Arthur Samuel Keene and Leslie B. Simpson faced a unique design challenge in 1924 when they were charged with constructing a substantial, security-projecting bank building on a narrow, mid-block footprint. They pulled it off with a distinctive Italian Renaissance design with copious amounts of mahogany and marble for the 12-story tower that won the Business District’s Gold Medal that year. The client was Walter Cravens, whose Kansas City Joint Stock Land Bank was one of five such institutions created by the Federal Farm Loan Act in 1916. Cravens had little time to enjoy his bank’s new showcase - he and his chief lieutenants were all indicted for fraudulent loan practices in 1927.