Tag Archives: Kansas City Public History

Chief Interest

By Natalie Walker

Since this is my last blog post for my internship, I decided to do a little reading in an attempt to find some overarching quote that would inspire people to think more deeply about Public History and its importance. Suffice it to say, I found myself pouring over the pages of Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage because his concepts are so simple and brilliantly obvious.  At the same time, his words remind me why I have a passion for Public History and why I know I want to pursue a career in the Museum field.

So, what does this have to do with Historic Preservation (where I have been interning the past semester)? Well, in the past four months, I have found myself to be exactly the kind of person that Tilden describes in his book. I, like anyone else, require some sort of a connection to whatever I am learning, reading, writing, or viewing.  Not just any connection, but a personal connection that allows me to relate to something through my own life experience. Tilden describes this as “the visitor’s chief interest” which is “whatever touches his personality, his experiences, and his ideals.” Essentially, if a museum, a national park, or, even a guidebook to Kansas City’s historic buildings and neighborhoods does not establish a personal connection with the visitor/reader then it will not keep their interest.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI can look back on my time of research and writing and distinctly remember moments when I began researching a site and realized I had driven by it a number of times or even been to the location.  Knowing the history of a place automatically made it seem important to me, not to mention the fact that I had written about it, so I was personally invested.  As I wrote the sites, I tried to remember that I was not the only one who would potentially develop a chief interest in some part of the guidebook based on its relevance to their own life. It was thoughts like these that made me want to pull out as much history as possible so that someone reading the site description might find a personal connection with the location because they live near it or drive by it, or any other myriad of reasons.

Kansas-City-Missouri-Downtown_at_TwighlightI am truly grateful for my internship experience. Of course, it was definitely a challenge to learn architecture terms and to write about them with confidence, but I now feel connected to Kansas City in a way I never thought possible. Moreover, I was fortunate enough to take part in making real, public history.  My underlying goal during this project was to latch onto the reader’s chief interest by reminding future readers of the rich history in their backyards that will hopefully spark a personal connection because of the relevance of Kansas City History to their own lives.

Puzzle Master

By Natalie Walker

Researching is sometimes incredibly boring. I know as a History major I probably should not say that, but I am sure many of you would agree that it often feels monotonous, tedious, and tiresome. It certainly feels that way when you have been researching something for quite some time and even though you have a few leads, nothing seems to check it entirely.  There are also those rare moments in which something does reveal itself and even if no one else can recognize the importance of the moment, you yourself feel that you are the ultimate puzzle master, fitting the pieces together slowly but surely.

While working on some final research for some of the more illusive churches within my districts, I discovered an entirely new way to research. Well, I would say that it is not new to everyone, but certainly to myself. I started by working backwards, looking at the website of the newest congregation that occupies the church I had been searching for. When that turned up very little I visited the Missouri Valley Room, and again, no such luck. I was momentarily excited because their seemed to be a wealth of information on the church I was looking into, Paseo Christian Church, though the MVSP only had information on the West Paseo Christian Church. Anyways, I finally took the problem to my internship advisor at City Hall and we both attempted to unravel the secrets surrounding the church such as architecture and the original congregation. Unfortunately, we had little success.Eventually, after a LOT of googling I learned a very brief history of the church. That said, it certainly was not enough to write a full paragraph about. While I did have the architectural information and a little information on the first congregation, I still wanted a more complete history of the church’s function in the city today.

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 9.54.37 PMSince starting this internship, Google Earth has been one of my best friends. I use it to maneuver around the buildings and try to understand the architectural influences of a structure, etc. Well after circling around the building at least a dozen times, I noticed an engraving on a stone tablet above the back (probably basement) entrance to the church. (the image is not fantastic, but I think it captures the awesomeness that is Google Earth). It read “Carver Baptist Bible Institute.” So now I had my answer, or at least an interesting lead. I quickly learned that the Carver Baptist Bible Institute (CBBI) shares this structure with the current congregation, Grace Baptist Church. Anyways, the CBBI has its historical roots in the “Gospel Ambassadors” which was a teacher training ministry for the inner KC area and was founded by a woman named Mrs. Eva Jantz Blevins, a returning missionary from Africa.

Once I had made this discovery, however small it may be, I felt truly accomplished. Like I had made a real accomplishment, not just as an intern, but as a researcher. Of course, this information is not unavailable to the public so I cannot say that I made some significant contribution to local KC History, but I nevertheless felt excited that I had made even the smallest discovery.

Did You Know?

While the information I will discuss in this post is probably common knowledge, I felt like it was fascinating enough that it deserved some more attention. Most of my posts have focused on interesting bits of information I have found or how my internship has changed my perception of Kansas City, but this post is simply about a site I did some research on and was truly surprised by the results…

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 5.05.02 PMIf you are a native of Kansas City or familiar with the local history, then the name Pendergast is probably familiar. He was the political mob boss who, under the dictation of the aptly named “Pendergast Machine,” controlled the politics and other aspects of Kansas City. One of his “associates,” Henry McElroy, served as the City Manager during the tumultuous years that Pendergast was in control. McElroy lived at 21 W 57th Street (to the right is a google map image of his house – blue) with his wife Marie and daughter, Mary. On May 27, 1933, four men drove up to the McElroy residence and kidnapped Mary, holding her hostage for 34 hours at a ransom total of $30, 000 – quite a sum for the 1930s.

photoWhen Mary (pictured left) was finally returned, the four kidnappers were captured and received their sentencing. What I found fascinating about this case is the fact that the ringleader of this criminals, Walter McGee was actually sentenced to death. In fact, a punishment so severe had never been given to a kidnapping offense in US history before! It is compelling that this specific punishment was passed considering Mary’s father had so much influence and was of course, infuriated by the crime. Not to mention, it is a significant judicial decision for KC and the U.S.

I think this might be one of the most interesting stories I have stumbled upon while working on this internship, partly because it was and is so sensational and also because it demonstrates the intriguing local history in Kansas City. Since I began this internship I have found it to be incredibly enlightening and informative on all things KC. I find myself eagerly spouting off new information to my friends and family who probably only feign interest in my newest story. Overall, I think this internship has not only improved my research abilities, but it has made me more aware of the rich history that we drive and walk past everyday.


You can read the full story of Mary McElroy’s Kidnapping at the KC Public Library website: http://www.kclibrary.org/blog/week-kansas-city-history/kidnapped

Finally, a real Historian

Ok… Not really. I am not a real Historian yet, but spending this past Saturday in the Missouri Valley Special Collections sure made me feel that way. It was the first time I have researched there, although I have worked with their website.  I was actually kind of nervous to visit the Special Collections because I have never conducted research in that capacity and while I was confident that they had some of the stuff I was looking for, I could not really be sure until I began researching.

Lib. CardWhen I arrived, I found the staff to be quite attentive and helpful. They had me write down a list of things I was looking for with the collection number or finding aid and then retrieved it for me. I also get an official ‘Research Card’ which I am probably way too excited about.

As they brought me out document after document, I began to feel overwhelmed and hoped that I was finding the right information. Sometimes the documents were filled with all the right information and other times I only found a sentence or two relating to my research. All that to say, I was still impressed with the vast amount of information stored away in their archives in vertical files. I only found a few items that I needed to research that the MVSC did not have any documentation for.

photoPerhaps my best success was with the church histories that are contained in manilla folders in the vertical files. Not only did these contain detailed architectural histories, but also rich detail about the history of the church from its formation (usually in the late 1800s) to its present congregation and location. This information was helpful because some of the other churches I have researched, their information located in Religious Property Surveys, are more about architecture and make it difficult to tease out the history of the congregation itself or religious organization. To the left is an example of one of the churches, Country Club Christian Church, and an opening history that the author provided.

Overall, I found my experience at the MVSC to be helpful an beneficial.  I almost felt like a real Historian as I combed through archival materials. The staff there is great and more than willing to help you research. If you are working on a project about Kansas City or Missouri history, this is the place to go!


Historic Preservation Commission Docket


By Natalie Walker

On Friday I had the privilege of attending a Historic Preservation Commission Docket where I was permitted to sit in the committee seating section and listen to the cases being presented. It was a great learning experience and I felt honored to be a part of the Commission’s proceedings and decisions in the various cases they heard. One thing that I found particularly interesting was the process that homeowners must go through when trying to renovate or update a property that is historically significant.  Whether it is the period in which the architecture originates or the architects themselves, making changes to a home that fits within one or both of these categories can be a challenge.

It was fascinating to witness the relationship between the public and the commission members and how they dealt with each case, trying to come to a fair solution for both involved parties. For example, if homeowners wished to update features like windows, then they would need to ensure that the windows match the originals installed by the architect/builder.  Sometimes it is an easy solution that can be quickly reached and other times those making a case for themselves will have to attend multiple meetings and present progress and status reports to the committee.

I think it is incredibly important to preserve historic homes, neighborhoods, and architecture that reflects significant styles or architects. The service that the Commission provides allows for the careful preservation of historical significant sites while also permitting homeowners to make desired changes in a way that maintains the integrity of the original structure. Granted, this process is not always simple and can be difficult, but the goal to maintain local history for everyone to appreciate is admirable and should be shared by all.

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.