Remembering Kansas City’s Homes to Literary Dreams and Dreamers

The Writers Place (photo by Laura Spencer)

Revisiting the Shuttered Buildings of the Writers Place and University House

In 2019, I took my Chevy Silverado pickup to haul from the building that had housed The Writers Place — a grassroots literary organization at 36th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue — stackable chairs, filing cabinets, a podium, boxes of books and folding tables to the group’s more efficient office in a conglomerate of other nonprofits, on 31st Street. Then, in 2022, after rust had practically consumed the body of my Chevy truck, I drove a new, aluminum-hulled F-150 Ford pickup to University House, at 51st Street and Rockhill Road, and hauled away stackable chairs, filing cabinets, a wood magazine stand, boxes of books and folding tables to other campus buildings and to area bookstores.

University House (photo by Laura Spencer)

University House had been home to a magazine, “New Letters.” The rooms formed a kind of “rabbit warren,” as one editor, the nimble-witted James McKinley, had called it, a meandering that included space for the magazine’s public-radio series, plus BkMk Press, volunteer offices and more.

Only the magazine survives within the university, under valiant editor Christie Hodgen, with reduced publishing schedule, down a hallway in a building with other faculty offices. Both the shuttered buildings had been homes to literary dreams and dreamers. We had, in each of those houses, visual art on the walls, in-person readings by writers, and, necessarily, community meals.

Mary Bell and Clarence Decker in University House, 5101 Rockhill Rd., which was their private home in the 1940s. The room in the picture became the main administrative office for “New Letters” and BkMk Press. (UMKC University Archives)

In the 1940s, when University House was the private home of Mary Bell and Clarence Decker — Clarence, then-editor of “The University of Kansas City Review,” the predecessor journal of “New Letters,” and simultaneously president of the University of Kansas City — the house hosted such famous visitors as Robinson Jeffers, Frank Lloyd Wright, and, in close proximity, at least, the journalist Martha Gellhorn and her husband at the time, Ernest Hemingway, on their visit here in 1940. The couple stopped by to see another guest of the Deckers’, the Spanish muralist Luis Quintanilla. Other visitors to University House included Thomas Hart Benton, who lived nearby and who brought along Grant Wood to see Quintanilla, followed in more recent years by visual artists Renée Stout, Robert Stackhouse and Kansas City-based Shea Gordon, who had, in the 1990s, molded an eight-foot-tall sculpture called “Dead Sea in the Rainforest,” on the Island of Outeiro, on the banks of the Amazon River. Her “Dead Sea” imagery — her prayer for the health of the climate —would twice appear on the cover of “New Letters.”

Visiting poet B.H. Fairchild at an informal lunch at University House in March 2005 (photo by “New Letters” staff)

In the early 1990s, people waited shoulder to shoulder in the house called The Writers Place, on Pennsylvania, for the arrival of the writer William S. Burroughs, whose visual art was being exhibited on the walls. At some point, Burroughs called to say he had decided not to come in from Lawrence, Kansas, because the roads were getting snow covered. Bill Hickok, the great “Wild Bill,” cofounder of The Writers Place, with his wife Gloria Vando, would have none of it. He told Burroughs, I’m sending a limo to pick you up, and I want you on it. The limo arrived at the house on Pennsylvania, and Burroughs was on it.

Give credit to the likes of Bill and Gloria and to the legend Charles Ferruzza, who served simultaneously from 2004 to 2006 as president and executive director, without pay; praise also the incandescent Ann Slegman, muse and associate of the parent foundation, Midwest Center for the Literary Arts, inspiring Judy Ray, the first director, and lyrical Patricia Cleary Miller, former board president, likewise the transcendent Tina Hacker; credit also the essential one, Greg Field, and especially Maryfrances Wagner, the most stout-hearted of them all.

In the time after 2018, especially, something called a land-grant university experienced post-idyll cramping, bruising, and release of former aspirations. At the top of the hill at Rockhill Road and 51st Street, I can stand and look into the empty windows of University House, the former offices of not just the great fiction writer and editor James McKinley, but all the others in the editorial tradition, Glenda McCrary, Betsy Beasley, the great book and poetry editors Dan Jaffe, Ben Furnish, and broadcasters Angela Elam, Rebekah Presson Mosby, and the indispensables Ashley, Jamie, Cynthia and Giuliana.

It didn’t take much. Footing broke through the crust. Dumpsters appeared. University House, extraneous to science, technology, engineering and machinery, had to shut down. Both this house and the former Writers Place house still stand, for now, as monuments of stone and brick, not as houses for literary and visual art. Perhaps families will return to fill the empty rooms, eventually, bringing life and feast-day meals.

Robert Stewart

Robert Stewart served as editor of “New Letters” and BkMk Press from 2002 to 2020, and as managing editor of the magazine for many years prior; he was a founding board member of The Writers Place from 1992 to 2003 and served as president of the board for three years.  His latest books include “Working Class” (poems, Stephen F. Austin State University) and The Narrow Gate: “Writing, Art & Values” (essays, Serving House Books).

Leave a Reply