The Kansas City Public Library’s Westport Branch as it looked in 1995 — and still largely looks today
(Kansas City Public Library, Missouri Valley Special Collections)
Tucked inside the March 3, 1898, edition of The Kansas City Star was a brief item about the area’s newest library, opened little more than a week earlier in Westport.
It boasted “700 volumes, a reading room with table and chairs and a librarian,” the newspaper said. Its collection ranged from “standard books of fiction, travel, history and reference” to an assortment of government reports, and 50 were already in circulation. Westport’s board of education, which established and operated the facility then known as the Allen Library, had earmarked $500 to buy more.
The two-story, cut stone and slate building itself, The Star said, “is a cosy[cq] new one on Westport avenue.”
It still sits today at the corner of what’s now Westport Road and Wyandotte Street. And it’s still a library, the oldest and one of the most history-steeped branches in the Kansas City Public Library system — now celebrating its 125th year as an anchor of the Westport community.
The Library marked that anniversary with a week of remembrances, appearances and other special activities in February. Civil rights icon Alvin Brooks was to headline the featured event on Feb. 22 — 125 years to the day from the location’s opening — speaking to his personal affection for the branch. A former police officer and detective, city councilman, and mayor pro tem, Brooks became best known as a tireless champion of equal rights, violence prevention and criminal justice in Kansas City. He regularly stole away to the Library’s second-floor meeting room to work on his 2021 memoir, Binding Us Together: A Civil Rights Activist Reflects on a Lifetime of Community and Public Service.
Other quasquicentennial activities included musical performances, a youth/teen scavenger hunt, a trivia contest, prize drawings and other giveaways. Tours of the Westport Branch highlighted both its history and the resources it offers today. The festivities came in front of a systemwide celebration by the Kansas City Public Library, which marks the 150th anniversary of its 1873 founding in December and plans a year-long observance in 2024.
Bre Hansen, the Westport Branch’s assistant manager, sought with her staff to make its jubilee as much a community celebration as a Library commemoration.
“We are the heart of Westport,” she says. “We love the community. The community loves the Library.”
The community insisted on its Library back in the late 1800s. Former Jackson County Presiding Judge Arthur M. Allen, a member of the Westport School board, led the push after discovering $7,500 in leftover property tax proceeds. The money had been earmarked for a horse-drawn streetcar line between Kansas City and Westport, but the line was paid off.
Allen and his associates put together a bill in the Missouri General Assembly calling for the funds to be turned over to the Westport school district to build a “public school library and for no other purpose.” The measure passed, but Jackson County declared it unconstitutional and sued to overturn it. Allen continued fighting, and he and the school board ultimately prevailed.
The corner plot of land was purchased for $1,800. The building cost $5,012, with construction starting in 1896 and wrapping up the following year. Doors opened in 1898, on Washington’s Birthday, when schools, banks and most other businesses were closed for the holiday.
As The Star trumpeted, “Westport has a full-fledged library of its own.”
The new library’s accession register, or inventory list, included
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, two copies of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, four of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and three titles by J.M. Barrie: The Little Minister, Sentimental Tommy and A Window in Thrums. (Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, wouldn’t be released until 1904.)
The plan was to make the Allen Library — the name still etched in stone above the front entrance — part of the Kansas City Public Library system when Westport was formally annexed into Kansas City and the school district merged with it. That happened in late 1899. The building took on a one-story addition in 1915.
The branch survived a period of uncertainty as KCPL was struggling with 14 physical locations (four more than today) and an overstretched budget in the mid- to late 1980s. A decade later, the branch underwent extensive renovation.
Now, it fits comfortably and securely in the rich history of a neighborhood that arose from a trading post for 19th-century travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Westport’s Harris-Kearney House, built in 1855, is an almost a literal stone’s throw down 40th Street. The 1850 Albert G. Boone Store, now Kelly’s Westport Inn, is the oldest building in Kansas City and a three-block walk away up Westport Road.
“The historic value of this building . . . it’s a gem. It’s a treasure,” says Hansen, who became the branch’s assistant manager last August.
Of course, its real worth is in the services the Library provides — from the traditional lending of books and other materials to the availability of computers and internet access, passport processing, and vital connections to an array of social services. The Westport Branch attracted 15,241 visitors in 2022. It circulated nearly 22,000 items and logged an average of more than 22 computer sessions a day.
It continues to evolve. The branch inaugurated a series of exhibitions spotlighting the works of local and regional artists in conjunction with the 125th-anniversary celebration. KCPL, which has two formal galleries in the downtown Central Library, plans to extend the Art Reach initiative to each of its nine surrounding locations.
Hansen, a native of Blue Springs who joined the system after spending 22 years with the Johnson County Library, relishes her stewardship of a small corner of local history. “This is an exciting time,” she says.
“It brings me back to when I was young and my mom brought me to the library,” she says. “It has come full circle.”