Arts News: A Kansas City Landmark Returns

The Nelson Memorial Chapel, Mount Washington Cemetery (Mount Washington Cemetery Historical Society / photo by Bruce Mathews)

William Rockhill Nelson (State Historical Society of Missouri)

On Memorial Day 2022 an important historical landmark opened to the public in Mount Washington Cemetery for the first time in nearly a century.

Located in Independence, the cemetery is the final resting place for many prominent Kansas Citians, including William Rockhill Nelson, owner of the Kansas City Star and founder of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

After Nelson died in 1915, his wife, Ida, and daughter, Laura Nelson Kirkwood, hired Jarvis Hunt, a Chicago-based architect, to design a family chapel/mausoleum in the cemetery. At the time, the 400-acre burial ground was within the city limits of Kansas City, but it has since been reclassified as Independence, Missouri. Hunt was well known to Nelson, as he had designed the Kansas City Star building in 1911 as well as other local landmarks, including Union Station in 1908 and the Commerce Bank building in 1907.

In their 2020 book, “Mount Washington Cemetery: In Search of Lost Time,” local historians Judith King, who died in 2023, and Bruce Mathews recount how the site of a former public park was converted to an oasis of natural beauty and burial place for the city’s distinguished citizens. Photographs by Mathews accompany his detailed discussion of the Nelson memorial chapel and its historical significance.

As Mathews relates, Hunt was joined on the project by two notable contributors from New York. George A. Fuller was a leading builder who had worked on numerous important monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court Building. The tile work in the vaulted ceilings of the chapel was created by Raphael Guastavino, known for his work in Carnegie Hall and the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal as well as some 200 other buildings in New York.

Together, Hunt, Fuller and Guastavino created an impressive Tudor Gothic structure to provide a burial place for William Rockhill Nelson and his family.

The interior of the mausoleum is a single long room where Nelson’s wife, daughter and son-in-law are interred. At the far end of the space, a balcony overlooks the room below, which contains the two-ton granite sarcophagus of William Rockhill Nelson. Different types of local limestone were used for the interior and the exterior. According to Mathews, “When it came to selecting the stone which was to be used, there was only one choice: Nelson’s favorite. Family, friends and associates all knew of his affinity for native stone quarried from a lot at the southeast corner of 50th and Cherry Streets. He had used it in the construction of homes in the Rockhill neighborhood and in his own home, ‘Oak Hall.’”

Nelson’s wife, Ida, died in 1921, as did his daughter. His son-in-law died in 1927. In little more than a decade, Nelson’s entire immediate family had ceased to exist. Although Laura Nelson Kirkwood’s intent was likely to have the mausoleum open to the public so that people could pay their respects to her father, her unexpected and early demise complicated that desire.

Laura’s trust was to provide for the chapel in perpetuity, but as time went by and the funds dwindled, a new arrangement was needed. The land, chapel and remaining funds were given to the Mount Washington Cemetery Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) created in 2019 for the purpose of restoring and preserving the chapel. Since its founding, the society has replaced the roof and improved security and is now working on conservation of the exterior walls. All proceeds from the King and Mathews book are supporting these efforts. Mathews is also donating half the proceeds from his most recent book, on Janssen Place, to support the chapel.

Following the chapel’s public opening on Memorial Day 2022, the program was repeated last year and will happen again this Memorial Day. Those interested in a tour may do so between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. May 27. The cemetery is located at 614 S Brookside Ave. in Independence. No tickets or reservations are necessary.

Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm is an art consultant and appraiser of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. After a long association with Sotheby’s, she founded her own business in 2003. She has appeared as a fine art appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” since its inception in 1995.

Leave a Reply