It had been over 60 years since Suzanne Pointon had seen the Oaklawn Estate when she returned to donate memorabilia to the Bloch School of Management earlier this month.
What was once her childhood playground in a mansion right out of a Charles Dickens novel, was now full of classrooms and office space.
A child in the early 1950s, Pointon often visited the estate to see her grandparents, who worked as caretakers of the grounds and chauffeurs, and also to see the secluded lady of the house, Mrs. Martha D. Shields.
In a tale of childhood wonder and grandeur of a forgotten age, Pointon shared her memories of the Bloch Heritage Hall.
Construction on the Tudor style home, now known as the Bloch School of Management, began in 1909. It took most of the next decade to complete. The Shields family had made their fortune in the grain business and Edwin W. Shields sought to build his castle in the south of Kansas City which, according to the Kansas City Star in 1920, he believed to be the next great investment.
In fact, the Shields family were not the only wealthy locals to expand in this area, the Hall family and Dickey family also built great, ostentatious estates right next door, now the Linda Hall library and Scofield Hall. Homes, a great sign of wealth in this time period, often reflected a family’s class and refinement.
It is rumored that Edwin Shields also wanted to make sure the house was rather grand in style and splendor because on the hill across the way sat the already built and equally stunning, Nelson Mansion, later to be the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.
Edwin Shields died in 1920 after the completion of the estate. After his children, Caroline and Richard Tyler, moved out, Martha was left in the manor with only her servants and eventually little Suzanne Pointon to entertain her.
Pointon remembers that the English style of the home’s architecture and furnishings were actually at the direction of Mrs. Shields, being that it was her favorite style.
The widow had loved all things European. Pointon described how on the first floor there used to be a large amount of grand tapestries and oriental antiques that Mrs. Shields collected.
It is the first floor entryway, dining room, drawing room and grand staircase that have been mostly preserved of the interior, though these rooms are used as offices now.
The upstairs floors were redone beginning in 1954 when the home was turned into the new location of the Barstow school for girls. Pointon may be the only one left who could remember the elegance of Mrs. Sheilds’ bedroom, or how it looked when light streamed into the house off the upper and lower screened in porches on the first and second floors.
“She (Mrs. Shields) loved the light because it was so dark on the inside,” Pointon explained
Other memories Pointon cherishes of the lady of the house were when Mrs. Shields would ask Pointon to sing for her, usually “Jesus Loves Me” or perform tap routines.
“She loved me singing to her. I could see the smile on her face, and she gave me a hug when I was leaving. I believed she was very lonely,” Pointon said.
And perhaps Martha Shields had been lonely, by this time in the early 1950s she would have been in her late 70s. She is remembered as rather sickly and frail, though she was never seen without her red lipstick and strand of pearls.
Pointon also recalled Mrs. Shields’ handwriting the first time they met.
“She asked me my name and I told her. She then wrote my name in a beautiful script with an ink pen that she dipped into a gold jar. I thought her handwriting was a work of art,” recalled Pointon.
Like many things from this early 1900s mansion, Mrs. Shields’ possessions were most likely sold after her death. Many of them are probably long gone, except for a few pieces Pointon donated to the school on her visit.
During her trips to Oaklawn as a child and through forming a relationship with Mrs. Shields, Pointon was given gifts which she has now “returned to their home.”
Some of the items include two plates depicting the Nelson Atkins and old Westport Landing that Mrs. Shields had specially commissioned, various different silver forks from mismatched silverware sets, some photographs of the original house and a pair of salt and pepper shakers. “Mrs. Shields was very superstitious, when she gave me the salt and pepper shakers she said, always throw the salt over your shoulder for good luck.” Pointon said.
These artifacts of the home and reminders of the friendship between young Pointon and Mrs. Shields will be displayed in the case to the right of the entry at Heritage Hall.
As for other reminders of this once prominent family and estate, one can observe the original wrought iron fence entrance to Oaklawn on Cherry Street, as well as pieces of the fence that are preserved near the law school.
Curious students can also look to the outside of the Bloch school and notice where the brick and roof change, showing the addition that was constructed in 1986 with money donated by the Bloch family.
Pieces of the estate that are now gone completely include the tennis courts, polo field, sunken garden and the carriage house where Pointon’s grandparents had lived. And though many things have changed, Pointon’s face still lit up with childlike wonder when she stood on the grand staircase or looked out one of the many original windows at the architecture of the home. Afterall, it was these experiences as a girl that eventually would lead Pointon to the Kansas City Art Institute.
“I had no way of knowing that this glimpse of a lifestyle, long forgotten, would lead me to a place close by, to a wonderful atmosphere to develop my talent as an artist. It seems like I have always been a child of destiny, including those days on the Shields’ estate,” said Pointon.