‘A Long Time Coming’

The Kansas City Museum Breaks Ground for the Future

The threat of rain may have forced organizers to move the Kansas City Museum’s construction kickoff indoors, but it hardly discouraged people from attending the Oct. 10 ceremony. The iffy weather may have even helped underscore the importance of the event, as being inside Corinthian Hall made clear how much it needs restoration and renovation if it is to fulfill its promise for the future.

Milling about in Grand Hall among the crowd that included museum staff, city officials, neighbors, architects, historic preservationists and others, three refrains dominated the conversations: The project was “a long time coming,” the result would be a critical “community anchor,” and the reborn Kansas City Museum would bring “a new sense of pride” to the museum and to the city.

The Kansas City Museum is in the former residence of Kansas City’s lumber magnate, civic leader and philanthropist, Robert Long. The Beaux-Arts style estate on Gladstone Boulevard in the historic Northeast Neighborhood originally consisted of six structures, designed by prominent local architect Henry Hoit and completed in 1910. Today, five of the six structures remain, including Corinthian Hall, which is the primary space for the museum and the focus of the first stage of construction.

Other structures scheduled for work in the future include the carriage house, the conservatory, the gatehouse, the gardener’s tool shop and the planting shed. The original greenhouse no longer exists.

The Long family lived at the estate until the death of Robert Long in 1934, at which point many interior elements were removed, and some auctioned off, by the family. The property remained vacant until 1939, when the family donated the property to the Kansas City Museum Association for use as a public museum.

Taxed with a building in serious need of work, with little funding available, the Kansas City Museum nevertheless opened a section of Corinthian Hall in 1940 for public exhibitions of a range of largely unrelated artifacts, from Native American objects to natural history items donated or loaned to the museum, with live animals housed for viewing in the conservatory.

The museum closed during World War II, and in 1948, facing a financial crisis when it reopened, the Museum Association sold it to the city. Although improvements were made to the Museum’s Natural History Hall, in the 1970s the museum’s increasingly professional staff decided to refocus on local history and science, the latter to be located at the then empty Union Station.

The plan for Union Station remained on hold for the next two decades until the 1996 passage of the Bi-State Cultural Tax to finance the restoration and redevelopment of Union Station and the creation of a science museum. That allowed the Gladstone Boulevard site to focus on local history. After a slow start in that direction, in 2014 the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department took over operations and management of the museum and began the process of planning a multi-year renovation project.

Vision for a 21st-Century Museum

For three years museum Director Anna Marie Tutera has led a team in preparing a master plan for restorations and renovations to transform what is still largely structured as a private residence into a fully functional, 21st-century museum of history and cultural heritage. One of several challenges was to strike the right balance between improvements and retaining the best of the original architectural elements of the historic structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Another challenge was to provide up-to-date exhibit and program space and collection facilities for “back-of-the-house” museum functions.

To that end, in 2015 the Parks Department hired award-winning International Architects Atelier (IAA) of Kansas City to provide professional design services, which in Phase I involved the investigation and documentation of the existing structures and grounds. As part of Phase II, IAA explored educational and interpretive programming needs and developed a Space Planning Report with design plans, stages of construction and cost estimates.

Museum Management Consultants, Inc. was brought on board to develop new strategic and business plans, including a new mission, key priorities and a course for financial stability, which was adopted in fall 2016. And finally, IAA hired Gallagher and Associates, an international museum planning and design firm, to create a Visitor Experience Plan, which was completed in April 2017.

One of the strategic priorities of the Visitor Experience Plan was to create “a vibrant and participatory visitor experience that reflects the dynamic history, culture and impact of Kansas City.” It builds on the museum’s mission and specifically determines the core interpretive and thematic stories for Corinthian Hall and the carriage house. Those core stories include: Cultural Confluences: Rivers to 1880s; A City Beautiful on the Missouri, 1890s to 1930s; Thriving Populations: 1890s to 1950s; Decline and Renewal: 1950s to 1990s; Cultural Renaissance: 1970s to Present; and Our City, Our Stories: Past, Present, and Future.

In August 2016, IAA began Phase Three, which included design development, construction plans and bidding documents for Stage I Construction, the start of which was signaled at the Oct. 10 kickoff ceremony, with completion envisioned by 2019. J. E. Dunn Construction will be the project’s construction manager.

Here’s What’s Coming

Stage I involves the restoration and renovation of Corinthian Hall. The lower level will include a restored billiards room, a new interpretation of the museum’s former “soda fountain,” public restrooms, kitchen facilities and spaces for administrative functions.

The first floor will include architecturally preserved, restored, recreated, and rehabilitated rooms that will be used for programs, events, interpretive history exhibits and contemporary thematic art installations, as well as a museum store, café and demonstration kitchen.

The second floor will include renovated exhibit galleries that showcase historical materials from the museum’s permanent collection and a meeting room/education space for community use and board meetings. The third floor will include renovated exhibit galleries, a theater/auditorium, and an interactive space for recording and sharing stories.

Stage II will focus on the carriage house, Stage III on the conservatory, gatehouse, gardener’s tool shed, and perimeter fence and gates, and Stage IV on a new building, all of which are scheduled to be completed in 2020, 2022, and 2025 respectively.

The cost of Stage I is estimated at $15 million, including $12 million in construction costs and $3 million for renovated exhibit space. The cost will be met by a public-private partnership. Of the public money, $6 million is coming from the city’s Museum Mill Levy, and $8 million from the “GO KC Bonds” approved by Kansas City voters in April 2017. Jean-Paul Chaurand, chair of the Kansas City Missouri Board of Parks and Recreation and Recreation Commissioners, and Mary Davidson, chair of the Kansas City Museum Foundation, are leading a major campaign to raise private funds necessary to complete all stages of the project, thus far providing the remaining $1 million for Stage I Construction.

Honorary Chairs for the campaign are Bill Dunn, Sr., Edward T. Matheny, Jr., and Henry Bloch. In addition, Honorary Members for the campaign are Anita Gorman, Ollie Gates, and Carl J. DiCapo. Many of them participated in the creation of a ceremonial renovation display at the ceremony.

The museum’s new mission reads: “The Kansas City Museum preserves, interprets, and celebrates Kansas City through collections, exhibits, and bold programs that reflect the city’s evolution and spirit, all of which engage visitors in unfolding stories about Kansas City’s vibrant history, cultural heritage and pride.” Its new vision entails a museum that is “a hub of learning, creativity, and collaboration where individuals and communities innovate and inspire engagement and civic unity.” When the museum reopens in 2019, general admission will be free for all residents of Kansas City, Missouri.

But perhaps Honorary Chairs Edward Matheny and Bill Dunn have put it best. On the museum’s website, Matheny has said, “This is a very historical building built in 1910 that needs to be publicized and more people need to know about it.” Bill Dunn has commented, “I can assure you that when this program is put into place and opens up in a year or two … the history of Kansas City will … become available to every student … and visitors that come to this area are going to have the opportunity to learn about the history of Kansas City where this has never been emphasized before.”

Indeed, this has been “a long time coming.”

NOTE: While under construction, the Kansas City Museum, which now owns more than 100,000 artifacts and archival materials, will continue to host events on the museum’s grounds, in Kessler Park, at the museum’s Historic Garment District site at 8th and Broadway and at Union Station. For more information, including updates on construction, visit: www.kansascitymuseum.org or www.MakingAMuseumKC.org

About The Author: Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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