Tag Archives: MO Historic Preservation Office

Cracking the Architect’s Code…

By Matthew Reeves

Every research subject has its own peculiar problems. Much of my previous research focuses on mental health issues in the nineteenth century America, and the records sometimes fall under the jurisdiction of federal health care privacy laws. Those laws impose certain restrictions on personally identifiable healthcare information, which in turn affects what types of sources are open to the public and what sources require special permissions. Our HistoryMakers internship project’s peculiar problem was my architectural literacy – as in, I didn’t have any!

Graduate students tend to have fairly solid vocabularies, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I did not know how to describe, classify, and write about buildings. Sure, I knew about roofs, floors, and walls, and could even differentiate between brick and stone. What I could not do was talk about architecture’s finer points – cornices, entablatures, hip-roofs, muntins, and fenestrations were all a mystery to me. Clearly, I needed to keep my dictionary handy!

A Chicago School Skyscraper diagram from the excellent Chicago Textures architecture blog

A Chicago School Skyscraper diagram from the excellent Chicago Textures architecture blog

The best part about learning to describe architectural flourishes in technical terms was that my everyday life got much more interesting. Kansas City is full of complex, compelling, and diverse architecture. With my newfound lingo, I was able to read the City’s buildings in new ways, noting the architectural styles and thinking about their historical and visual context. Instead of seeing a building with a decorative front, I noticed its a structure with a façade; whereas before I saw a ledge-thingy, I now know that the decorative elements visually dividing the wall from rooftop are an entablature. Both façade and entablature came up a lot during my research: they’re common elements in Chicago-school neoclassical high rise design, a common style in downtown Kansas City.

Like a foreign language, learning a new professional lexicon is time-consuming. But my novice architectural vocabulary has expanded my world view by unlocking new and exciting elements in my everyday life. Buildings that I had passed without noticing now speak to me. Or, to put it another way, through my newfound architectural vocabulary I could hear the buildings for the first time.

Mixing an Architectural-Historical Cocktail for Public Consumption

Trying to find the right balance... it's rarely the ideal 50/50 split.

The right balance rarely an ideal 50/50 split.

By Matthew Reeves

For our internship, Natalie and I were tasked to research local historic buildings and write about them. The individual entries are going to aggregated and published in the revised version of A Place in Time, a guide to historic buildings in Kansas City. Beyond the research, which I’ve documented in previous posts, there’s the difficult task of writing the entries. This post will walk through the entry writing process, following my decision making process for striking a balance between historical information and architectural analysis.

Most writers — not just HistoryMakers — should start out by considering their audience. For the revised A Place in Timeour assumed audience is the general public. That phrase sounds good, but what does it mean? What information should we assume our reader will already know? We certainly don’t want to come off as condescending, but at the same time we don’t want to alienate readers by assuming that they are familiar with local history or architectural terms. So, writing for a general audience, I tried to excise all jargon from my entries, sometimes using less precise words; after all, it’s much more important to convey the appropriate idea than it is to show off a huge vocabulary. We also provided brief introductions and historical background when needed.

Bobby Greenlease

Bobby Greenlease

Finally, as a book on the history of architecture, we had to decide how to split up each entry between historical information and architectural analysis. Each entry was like a cocktail, and we had to find a reasonable blend of historical and architectural information for each entry. While I generally tried to split the information evenly, the decision varied for each site. Some buildings, like Notre Dame de Sion’s Midtown campus, were connected to compelling local stories like the Greenlease Kidnapping. Naturally, that story plays a part in the Sion entry. Other buildings were much more architecturally interesting, or maybe lacked a notable historical anecdote. In those cases, the entry focused on architectural description.

Ultimately, our authorial choices reflected the needs of our presumed audience and the strengths of each particular site. Or, at least, that’s the hope!

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.

Treasures of the Missouri Valley Room

Sweeney Automobile School Post Card, Courtesy MVSC.

Sweeney Automobile School Post Card, Courtesy MVSC.

By Matthew Reeves

As part of our internship, Natalie and I are researching historic buildings in Kansas City and writing brief architectural and historical summaries for each property. Finding information about historic structures has been challenging, especially for structures that have been repurposed several times. Churches proved to be particularly difficult to track down if the original congregations moved elsewhere. My hunt for these ephemeral histories led me to the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The collections are accessible primary two ways: one, online via the digital galleries, and two, by visiting the Missouri Valley Room. There are some distinct advantages to the online sources. They are accessible from anywhere with an internet connection, and they available 24 hours a day. Even better, if the material is old enough to be in the public domain, then you can usually make digital copies for free. Nothing like downloading a series of books and carrying a library on your thumb drive!

But really, there’s something to be said about sitting down at a desk and leafing through tangible documents. That, and despite the wonders of Google, there’s an unbelievable amount of information that has not been digitized. So, if you really want to get into the historical nitty-gritty, you have to go to the sources.  And if you are researching a Kansas City or regional history topic, you should do yourself a favor and check out the Missouri Valley Special Collections. The collection’s catalogue is available online, and they have shocking breadth and depth – check it out for yourself!

Located on the fifth floor of the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Branch, The Missouri Valley Room is a free, open to the public research and reading space. You do have to sign up for a researcher card and store any bags or backpacks in lockers, but the process is easy and the staff are helpful and welcoming. Some books and manuscript sources are readily available for perusal, but you will need to request the bulk of the materials at the desk. They’ll buzz back for the item and it will be brought out to you. I found the collection’s extensive vertical files most helpful for our internship. For those that haven’t used them, vertical files are collections of articles, pamphlets, and other documents pertaining to specific topics. The library curates the files, saving items of note to the collection. I had the hardest time finding information about the Sweeney Auto School Building, but the vertical file had all sorts of informative goodies. The contents can be a bit haphazard, but like gambling, the uncertainty is part of the adventure.

One of the great things about historical research is that it takes all sorts of wonderful places.  Well, if you’re reading this blog, I assume that your definition of wonderful places at least somewhat overlaps with mine. Libraries, archives, and other knowledge repositories certainly occupy a spot near the top of my list, making the MIssouri Valley Room is a new favorite haunt for making history in Kansas City.


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.

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.


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.


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


Example spreadsheet containing Kansas City Historic Properties