Arts News: New Book Traces Architectural History of KCAI

Photo of Marburg, the home of August and Emma Meyer in 1903. The residence became known as KCAI’s Vanderslice Hall in 1928.

Photo of Marburg, the home of August and Emma Meyer in 1903. The residence became known as KCAI’s Vanderslice Hall in 1928. Published in “The American Architect,” Aug. 8, 1903 (“The American Architect,” August 8, 1903)

Architectural historian Cydney Millstein agreed to write what would become “The Kansas City Art Institute: Architecture & Innovation 1885-2020” not knowing what she’d uncover in the necessary research.

One big surprise, which the book opens with, is that Kansas City Art Institute was nomadic for its first 42 years; it moved from one building to the next, 12 in all, over those four decades.

“It’s amazing to me that they held their existence throughout all of these years,” Millstein said. “They were able to keep moving forward, carry through with their staff, the faculty, all of that, and then they ended up at 44th and Warwick Boulevard intact.”

In the glossy, coffee table-style book, Millstein details not only the buildings on the campus as Kansas Citians know it today, but also each of those temporary structures it called home. She said only four of those early buildings remain, but each was an extraordinary example of the era it represented.

The Pepper building, later the Studio building, at 9th and Locust, is long gone, but one of her favorites. KCAI used that space, designed by Burnham & Root out of Chicago, in 1894 while it was still the Kansas City Art School.

Her description of the design is poetic: “The five-story brick Two-Part Vertical Block commercial building, with its decorative canted entry bay, featured three ornate entries, arched windows at the second story, and heavy piers adding to the verticality of design,” she wrote.

But what makes it one of her favorites is that the interior was built around a light court with balconies on each floor. She wishes she could find a photo. “That must have been quite the building to be in,” she said.

The institute wouldn’t get its permanent home until 1928, when Howard Vanderslice bought Emma and August Meyer’s Queen Anne-style patterned masonry home and immediately gifted it and eight-and-a-half acres as the start of a campus.

Vanderslice Hall, once known as Marburg, is unusual in that only 5% of Queen Anne-style homes in the United States are patterned masonry; they were very expensive to construct.

As the campus has grown, the new buildings are significant as well, many reflecting the craft being taught within, like the Foundations Studio Building.

Completed in two parts, in 1965 and 1975, it’s an example of Pre-Engineered Building (PEB), made by the Butler Manufacturing Company. Millstein said that to this day, the building matches the mission of the department it houses.

“You’ve got a large warehouse, and inside this warehouse, depending on what’s being taught, they can rearrange the interior, they can put up partitions. It’s flexible, it’s wide open,” Millstein said.

The 95-page book was funded by the William T. Kemper Foundation, and Millstein thinks it will appeal even to those not connected to KCAI.

She said, “I’ve been in Kansas City all my life, and as an architectural historian I’m certainly familiar with the campus, but the surprises that I uncovered, the leaps and bounds of information that were uncovered to tell this story, hopefully will be interesting not only to the current faculty and students, but the broader Kansas City base.”

“The Kansas City Art Institute: Architecture & Innovation 1885-2020” can be purchased for $29.95 at the KCAI Underground Art Store, located on campus on the lower level of the Tony Jones Studios, or from the online store at  artsupplies.kcai.edu. 

Anne Kniggendorf

Anne Kniggendorf is a writer and editor at the Kansas City Public Library, author of Secret Kansas City, and co-author of Kansas City Scavenger. She has local, national, and international bylines, and produces the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast for Literary Hub.

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