Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

The Value of Digitization

One aspect of my job as an archivist at the Truman Library and Museum has been record digitization. Although this can be a tedious and repetitive task, I find it as rewarding as processing collections and writing finding aids. As a researcher, I understand the value of having online access to photographs and documents. Researchers anywhere in the world can view records online, and many archives are digitizing their holdings. Digitized records can also be shared on social media to reach a broader audience.

For example, I scanned Margaret Truman’s diary from 1941 because the Truman Library wanted her December 7th and 8th entries to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Over the past two days, the Truman Library has shared the diary pages on their social media accounts and website. As of today, 275 people have liked or shared the diary pages on Facebook and 139 people have liked or retweeted them on Twitter. This is why I find digitization so valuable. Making history accessible is a large and rewarding part of what public historians do. I was able to connect over 400 people to an important part of our past simply by scanning two documents and putting them online. Digitization may not be the most exciting task, but it is certainly an important one filled with meaning.

This Old House…

By Savannah Lore

MajorsHouse

Part of the charm of historic homes is the creak and groans of the place as you walk around. They add to the story you are trying to tell and take the person back to that time period. They can hear the history in the walls and in the floors. When I am not giving tours, I am documenting the well loved and well used spots of the Majors House. This is mostly so we know what is going on in the home. Where are the holes? Which cracks need to be filled? Did that one get larger? This is just part of the job when you work in a building with floors that are 159 years old.

I will say that we do not need or want every flaw to be repaired. A great example of this is a little mark in the floor of the children’s room of the house.

Closeofironburn

This mark is a burn from a hot iron that fell on the floor in the children’s room. I use this mark  in tours to discuss not only who would be in this room but what they would do in here when Alexander Majors lived here in 1856. (The enslaved women ironing the children’s clothes.) Also, I can give context to how dangerous simple things domestic task could be in this period. That iron was hot enough to burn a deep indent in solid wood floors and it happened in the children’s room. You can imagine how much that would have hurt if it fell on the enslaved women who was ironing or a child in the room. Stories can come from the most unusually places and I have learned that what can seem like flaws can be great tools to share history.

Digitization and Microfilm

By Autumn R. Neal

In my last post, I talked about going through the letters and photos of the Edgar Snow Papers at the State Historical Society. After choosing the items I wanted to use, I had to digitize them and before this assignment I only knew how to use a basic scanner. Even though I had a lot to learn and got confused a few times, the process of digitizing the documents was entertaining, as least for me. I learned about archival standards such as the required scan resolution, file names, and the information that needed to be attached to each file. We also learned how to use Photoshop which, by the way is amazing. I had never used it before and now I have a hard time using other photo editors.

IMG_1140When I was scanning the newspaper articles I had chosen, I decided that the copy of the “Kansas City Boy Stowaway” article that I found wasn’t in very good shape and thought I would have to scrap it. The very helpful women at the Historical Society told me that it was on microfilm and I could request it to get a better copy. They ordered it for me from who knows where, emailed when it arrived, and helped me get the viewer set up. I looked through a month’s worth of newspapers from the 20s. In another class of mine, I am writing about advertisements from the 1970s and having that experience helps with the way I’m looking at my other paper. Even if you’re not doing research, looking at old microfilm would be a good way to entertain yourself while learning something at the same time.

Getting Un-stuck

Research Vacuums Suck

Research Vacuums Suck

By Matthew Reeves

Every now and then, you’re going to hit a research wall. All HistoryMakers have experienced it. And now that I think about it, the wall metaphor is not exactly a great one. It’s really more like a research vacuum. You’ll know the question that you want to ask, and perhaps you can even imagine the type of sources that you’d like to find. But like oxygen in space, the sources aren’t there, and don’t seem likely to present themselves anytime soon.

At times like these, even the most experienced researchers reach out to their dear friends, the archivist. Archives are wonderful places – most that I’ve visited bubble over with resources – but they are often a bit like a junk-yard. No, you’re not likely to find a spare side-mirror for a 2003 Corolla at an archive, and they usually don’t have large dogs guarding the documents. But what you are going to need, at either a junkyard or the National archives, is help finding the right item.

My own particular research vacuum was the White Oak School, a modest country school that operated in rural Jackson County from the late nineteenth century until the middle 1960s, when it was annexed into the Independence School District. My largest research trouble was that the nature of small school and its county locale meant that there was literally no information about the school at the Missouri Valley Archives. Dr. Wolf, the Kansas City Historic Preservation Officer and erstwhile internship, suggested that I contact David Jackson at the Jackson County Historical Society.

The Old Jackson County Courthouse

The Old Jackson County Courthouse

Located in the historic (and recently renovated) Old Jackson County Courthouse, the Historical society had a wealth of information about the White Oak School. There were some primary source accounts of the school’s creation that David Jackson found in a well-worn county history. The historical society even had a vertical file dedicated to Jackson county schools, which contained several yellowing newspaper articles from 1960s that covered the White Oak School’s annexation and eventual closure. David even helped me find some additional information on Little Blue, a rural Jackson County community that had previously proved difficult to locate. Without David Jackson’s knowledgeable and capable assistance, I would still be stuck in that research vacuum.

So, get to know your local archivist — they are your best friend in the archive.

Defining and Introducing Neighborhoods

By Matthew Reeves

What’s a neighborhood? And more importantly, who gets to decide?

One of my tasks as an intern is to write introductions for a book on historic buildings and structures in Kansas City. We’re revising the first edition of the book, which had its own neighborhood by neighborhood introductions. For the revision several neighborhoods will be condensed into one introduction. For instance, I’ve just submitted a draft introduction for a mega-neighborhood that includes the West Bottoms, the Westside, the Central Business District, and the Northeast.

Does the opulence of the suburbs...

Does the opulence of the suburbs…

Each of those areas used to have its own introduction — about 1,000 words — that told the story of the people that settled in the area: who they were, why they came to Kansas City, and in some cases, why the left the neighborhood. In the process of consolidating introductions, I was inevitably forced to cut some material. I dislike editing history because it comes with terrible responsibility.

Neighborhoods are geographically static but sometimes transform dramatically in terms of prestige, population, and ethnic character. Many readers are familiar with the “White Flight” into the suburbs that struck many urban areas in the 1950s and 60s, but might be surprised to learn that such urban shifts have been going on in Kansas City for much longer.

Much of my anxiety results from a desire to share history in a fair and responsible manner.

...outweigh the decline of the urban core?

…outweigh the decline of the urban core?

In that sense, defining neighborhoods is a lot like being a historian. You have to make conscious (and hopefully conscientious) decisions about how to frame any project, which always includes political choices about what to include and what to leave out. That kind of power – to silence by omission – weighs heavy.

Of course, most of the practical issues about what constitutes a physical neighborhood are less complicated than theoretical debates about the ontology and propriety of history. And thankfully, boundary issues have already been decided by the city. But describing and defining neighborhoods still present difficult choices – how to look at issues, how to frame them. Do we celebrate the opulence of the suburbs, or should we lament the loss of tax base and resulting urban decay that accompanied suburbanization?

Does it have to be a zero sum game?

Churches, Churches, and more Churches

photoKansas City is unique in that it is home to so many religious groups and the diverse histories they bring with them. If you have driven down 71 highway, particularly near Linwood Boulevard, you will notice a number of immaculate churches with breathtaking architecture that conjures up images of Old World European cathedrals. I have driven by these churches so many times and always marveled at the dramatic contrast between these massive structures and the thriving metropolis that has grown up around them.  Part of the work I am doing in my in internship deals with the East and Swope District, both of which contain a majority of the city’s churches. The past couple days I have been buried in property deeds and descriptions for many of these churches and while it might sound boring, it has actually been quite fascinating.

I have learned so much how about how the various religious groups in Kansas City divided up the geographic landscape of the city.  I would like to think that I have become a bit of an expert in architectural terms associated with churches such as fenestration, doric porticos, sash windows, stone gables, and buttresses. So why is all of this important? Well, for one, I think it is imperative to understand the historical significance of the churches in our city. They represent much more than a Jewish Synagogue or a Catholic Cathedral. These awe inspiring structures remind us of the melting pot of religions that is Kansas City and how a boulevard like Linwood managed to pack Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, and various other religions into one lane that comfortably coexisted. In another sense, these churches stand as symbols of a dedication to archictecture that is rarely seen in our modern world. Essentially, an effort to create cathedrals that call to their old European predecessors versus the more modern church structures built today. These magnificent buildings serve as a reminder of the old and the new in Kansas City, standing out in their ancient appeal against the backdrop of a fast developing city.

JPEG1Sadly, some of these amazing churches have long since been abandoned. Fortunately, some have been repurposed into various business or similar purposes. My favorite example is the B’Nai Jehudah Temple that looks as if the Parthenon itself had been dropped into Kansas City. Today that temple is the Robert J. Mohart Multi-Purpose Center. While it seems rather unfortunate that the building is no longer occupied by the original congregation it was designed for, it is nice that the building is being used and not abandoned. If not used as churches I think it is important to preserve these structures not only because of their historical significance (this temple was home to the largest Reform Congregation in Kansas City and the largest reform group in the Midwest), but because of their architectural significance.  It is one of the fines examples of Greek Revival structures in the city and should therefore be preserved and maintained.  The best part about working with all of the property descriptions of these churches is learning the dual histories of the architecture and the original congregations. It has certainly made me appreciate all the immaculate churches and cathedrals I have driven by in the city.

Shared Historical Consciousness

By Natalie Walker

Michael Frisch, author of A Shared Authority, writes that “public historians need to realize that their method can do much more than merely redistribute knowledge. It can, rather, promote a more democratized and widely shared historical consciousness.” In short, as public historians, it is our responsibility to not simply retell a story, but to add all of the competing ideas that have a part in this story – that “share” a part.

photoAs I have been writing the site histories for my internship, I find this to be one of the most difficult aspects of my research.  A lot of the information I use comes from files that contain site descriptions listed in the National Register for Historic Places. These documents depict the architectural importance of a place as well as its historical significance.  Where my work begins is when I have to combine these elements to tell a complete story.  While I may not be a real Public Historian yet, it is still my responsibility to do more than “redistribute knowledge.” One site in particular, The Santa Fe Neighborhood, I found to be particularly challenging. This area of Kansas City (see map) was in 1931 an all-White neighborhood with a covenant banning African Americans from living in the houses for a 30 year period.  However, by 1948, a prominent African American doctor moved into one of the homes leading to the overturning of this covenant by the Missouri Supreme Court.  Had I not told you this, there would still be plenty of history to write about in this area. The Disney Family, for example, lived in the neighborhood for sometime and so did the famous baseball player Satchel Page.  Not to mention the unique bungalow style homes that create a unique architectural neighborhood in Kansas City.

I think what Frisch is encouraging us to do, whether we are writing a site history, combing through archives, or writing a research paper is to remember that it is our job to tell a complete story.  More importantly, and I find that this relates specifically to my internship, is not to redistribute history with a newer, flashier title. Just because I am working to update a new guidebook to Kansas City’s historical buildings and neighborhoods does not mean I should regurgitate the same information. It is my responsibility to uncover anything that can be added to these site histories and to do so in a way that fosters a “shared historical consciousness.” Essentially, every part of the Santa Fe Neighborhood history is important. From its farm community and service as an outpost for supplies in the late 1880s to its significance as place where African Americans challenged unjust rules. If we all remember that our duty is to tell a complete story that portrays a “widely” understood and interpreted history, we are one step closer to being true historians for of and for the public.

Stewards of History

By Tony Lawson

I have been immersing myself in the history of the Wornall House these last few weeks and I’ve learned as much about the present as I have the past.  What strikes me most is the depth people have for caring about the past.  The archives I visit, the historic objects I observe, and the meetings I attend all indicate the collective concern of individuals toward preserving the past and handing it down to future generations to study, analyze and evaluate.  I feel the weight of the generations before me–as well as my profession and my moral obligations to myself and the society I live in–tasking me to do the best job I can in dissecting this history to learn from it and pass it down to the next generations. Like teaching, as a historian I am always asking myself; am I doing a good job?   Have I learned all I can?  Am I fair and honest? Am I a worthy of being a steward of history?  

Tony@JCHS

What one person deems an important piece of history and worth preserving, such as genealogy, ephemera, or financial records, may be insignificant to another, but all these types of things wind up in archives.  I’ve been sorting through some archives at the new digs of the Jackson County Historical Society piecing together the puzzle of the past so that I may tell a compelling story of the Wornall House.  I did not think I would be interested in genealogy, but I got sucked into a black hole for about 90 minutes yesterday.  I barely escaped.  I’ve always prided myself on being a local history geek, but I am stunned by the amount stuff I did NOT know about the Wornall family in Kansas City history.  So far, I seem to only be working around the edges of my topic picking up tidbits of information here and there.  Hopefully, this thing will start to come together when I write some papers and start to organize my research. 

Not Just Places, People Too

By Natalie Walker

In the few weeks since my last post, I have done some research for my internship that has reminded me about why cities are such fascinating urban spaces.  Perhaps because they are often concentrated in one area, cities are overflowing with years of history just waiting to be peeled back and discovered.  While learning about places that will be added to the book I am working on, A Place in Time, I am constantly reminded that these sites and site introductions are much more than words on a page.  Moreover, these places represent so much more than a house with a history or a district with a personality, they represent people and generations of shared human experiences. What is also quite exciting is that while I write about these places I am given the unique opportunity of “going back in time” and picturing places in their original context.

Take for example Brush Creek that runs along the Country Club Plaza. Before its development by J.C. Nichols it looked something like this. Granted, this is still a somewhat manicured depiction, but the swampy creek and the stone certainly dates the picture.

brushAfter Nichols’ development to the place and when people started to move into the surrounding area, namely wealthy homebuilders, brush creek began to look like this.

IMG_4314

Every time I drive by Brush Creek now I picture it as a dense marshy swamp that was transformed not only by J.C. Nichols, but by everyday Kansas Citians. So what exactly makes Brush Creek so special? What makes the Country Club District so special? Well, for one there is an immense history that surrounds the area: Civil War Battles, famous real estate moguls, exquisite architecture, to name a few.  All of these however seem lacking if we forget about the average citizens who created the place and made it what it is today.  What started out as a dense tract of brushwood and farmland is now a world famous entertainment district and gorgeous community.  Nichols was part of that, yes, but so were the settlers of the area when it was still a dream in the making.  People often forget about those that lived in a area before them. I drive by the plaza everyday and never think of it as farmland that Nichols had a vision for and the homebuilders were apprehensive about. Now I see the whole Country Club District in a new way because I know a little of the history, but more importantly I know about the people who were brave enough to settle along the southern city limits and create a truly iconic neighborhood and community.

As I continue to work on this internship, my goal is to remember the people and not just the place. I want to make sure that I tell a story that incorporates the story of the Kansas City citizen, not just the facts about a builder or a real estate developer.  Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” If we think of Kansas City, if we think of the Country Club District as something created by generations of people then we are partaking in history and in a shared human experience.

Meanwhile, on the 16th floor…

city hall

City Hall on a cold day in January.

By Matthew Reeves

It isn’t everyday that UMKC students get to pass through the metal detectors at City Hall, but last Thursday, Dr. Cantwell, Natalie and I did just that. We were on our way up to the 16th floor, more specifically, the Kansas City Historic Preservation Office. Dr. Wolf, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer, will be heading up our internship project. We met with him to find out more.

After a quick elevator ride, we intrepid HistoryMakers stepped out onto the sixteenth floor. The Historic Preservation Office is, in many ways, exactly what you’d expect: a small reception area, a few cubicles, and then stack upon stack of records stored in filing cabinets, three-ring binders, and card catalogues. There are even a few genuine well-worn historical atlases that help tell the tale of KC’s historic built environment.

Seated at a conference table, we discussed our project, a revision and reissue of Kansas City: A Place in Time. Dr. Wolf showed us a copy of the last printing, from 1977. The tall, narrow volume resembles a pamphlet on steroids. A Place in Time contains images of Kansas City’s most notable historic buildings, combined with a short (1 paragraph) architectural and historical synopsis of each property. The last printing included fewer than 200 listings, but for our project, we interns will be doing research and writing on many more locations.

Natalie, Dr. Wolf, and the author (what a ham).

Natalie, Dr. Wolf, and the author.

Part of the revision includes combining and redefining some historic neighborhood boundaries. For instance, in the 1977 edition, there were separate sections for the Westside, Downtown, and the Northeast. Now, those sections have been combined into one district, as you can see listed on the map below (I’m sure we’ll come up with a better name than “Downtown/Westside/Northeast,” but it works as a placeholder for now).

Natalie and I divided the workload by district; I took Downtown/Westside/Northeast, Crossroads/Midtown/Westport, and Martin City/Hickman/Little Blue. Armed with our spreadsheets and typed printouts of the extant building descriptions from the previous edition, we are officially on the job! After a brief tour of the City Council Chambers, Dr. Wolf returned to his office, and we from UMKC ventured back to campus. There’s lots of work to be done.

HPO Map

Working Map for Historic Districts, courtesy Kansas City Historic Preservation Office

Spreadsheet

Example spreadsheet containing Kansas City Historic Properties