Origins of a City:
The origins of Kansas City date to the early 1800s, when French fur traders arrived by the Missouri River and built rough cabins along the river. The town of Kansas was formed in 1838 and a trail connecting the river landing to the Santa Fe Trail in the town of Westport was established. Several years later commercial buildings were popping up along the river bluffs. The era leading up to the Civil War was a tense and bloody time in Kansas City, as Missouri was a slave state and Kansas a free state. The Battle of Westport–one of bloodiest battles west of the Mississippi–took place in what today is Loose Park and Forest Hill Cemetery. With the Union prevailing, the city remained divided. Northerners preferred to live on the west side of Main Street on streets dubbed Pennsylvania, Broadway and Washington, and Southerners on the east side on streets such as Oak, Walnut and Locust. By 1870 a downtown street grid had been established.
Cow Town and the Early Years:
When a number of railways and the first bridge across the Missouri River were completed after the Civil War, the city’s population boomed. With the increased population came downtown development, and the wealthy built their mansion’s on Quality Hill. The City Market at 4th and Walnut was the center of trade and where people to gathered to buy and sell goods, while the West Bottoms was the center of the burgeoning cattle industry, including stockyards, warehouses and packing houses.
Prosperity and Building Boom:
Last decades of the 19th century were a time of prosperity that brought a building boom, resulting in a number of iconic Kansas City buildings, including the Board of Trade Building in 1888, the New York Life Building in 1890, Emery Bird Thayer building in 1890 and a Convention Hall in 1899. Architectural firms in New York, Chicago and Boston established offices in Kansas City to take advantage of the construction boom. During this time Kansas City had more cable roads than any other city except San Francisco and Chicago, shuttling people to and from popular areas including the Garment District at 9th and Walnut, Quality Hill, and Independence Avenue–where a number of wealthy business owners were building mansions. The City Beautiful Movement, begun in 1884, led to George Kessler’s design of the parks and boulevards system by 1895.
In 1906 gave rise to several modern skyscrapers, including the R.A. Long building at 10th and Grand, the Scarritt Building at 8th and Grand, and Commerce Bank at 10th and Walnut. In 1907 electricity was celebrated with the opening of a grand amusement park called Electric Park at 47th and Paseo. In 1909 the City expanded as far south as 77th Street, resulting in many new houses, businesses, roads and boulevards. That same year the Kansas City Zoo opened in Swope Park and the Boley Building designed by Louis Curtiss featured the first “curtain wall” design. With more room to stretch out, many working class citizens moved to residential neighborhoods primarily consisting of bungalows and simple four square houses that were accessible by the cable car. For more wealthy residents, J.C. Nichols built the County Club District in the area south of Brush Creek, and was planning shopping centers to serve these midtown residential neighborhoods.
The 1920s saw even more development of residential suburbs in the southern portions of the City, and remarkable commercial growth downtown, including the Professional Building at 11th and Grand and the President Hotel at 12th and Baltimore. Movie going replaced burlesque at this time, resulting in the construction of a number of dowtown and neighborhood theaters. As the city grew south, so did entertainment venues such as Fairyland Park that was constructed at 75th and Prospect.
The Spanish themed Country Club Plaza opened in 1923. Developed by J.C. Nichols and designed by Edward Buehler Delk, the Plaza was the first planned suburban shopping center in the world. It was designed to accommodate and attract shoppers arriving by automobile through its abundance of gas stations and free parking. The shopping center, serving the Country Club District and Midtown neighborhoods, quickly became a popular destination and had its first display of annual Christmas lights in 1925.
1930s: Jazz, Baseball and Corruption
In the 1930s, jazz reached its artistic and popular peak, with Kansas City at the center of the action. Nightclubs opened along 12th Street and at 18th and Vine, and become popular venues where many notable and innovative musicians gathered. The segregated 18th and Vine area, in particular, was a place where jazz and baseball came together. Blues Stadium for the Negro National League, the Mutual Musicians Foundation and popular joints such as the Blue Room at the Streets were all located within 1/2 mile.
During the Depression, while most other cities were suffering, “Tom’s Town” expanded. Mayor Tom Pendergast’s 10 Year Plan funded some significant construction projects that kept the City’s economy afloat, including a number of great examples of Art Deco design: the 29 story City Hall, the former Jackson County Courthouse, Fidelity Bank and Trust and Municipal Auditorium. Taxes were half the amount of comparable cities, and the City Manager at the time admitted to a sleight of hand when handling the bills related to these projects. Corruption was widespread and Kansas City was noted for its vices under Mayor Pendergast’s term.
Post World War II Suburban Development and Modern Times
In 1947 Kansas City annexed more land to the south. In the 1950s and 1960s, the White middle class moved in droves to newly developed suburban areas such as Prairie Village, just across the state line in Kansas. Blacks were no longer restricted to living north of 27th street, and many moved south to residential neighborhoods east of Troost. Unfair housing and lending policies, blockbusting, and redlining in the public school system further contributed to this pattern of white flight and disinvestment in neighborhoods east of Troost.
The city continues to see the effects of these policies and patterns today. Our metro area continues to expand south into suburban sprawl, and neighborhoods east of Troost continue to struggle. In the 1970s, this movement to the suburbs also affected downtown, which saw much disinvestment. In the past 20 years the city has made much progress locating businesses and residents downtown, which has contributed to revitalization. Today, areas such as Crossroads Arts District and City Market are popular and trendy.
In the past 10 years Kansas City has made strides in positioning itself as a great place to live and work. Construction of the Power and Light District and the Sprint Center in the heart of downtown has done much to encourage commerce and revitalization in the urban core. The city has also received world recognition for several projects, including the Bloch addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, both of which are award winning and notable designs.