Created By: David
Kansas City at the close of the 19th century was beginning to shed its cowtown image and assume an urbane character. Dramatic physical and architectural growth in both the city’s urban core and in neighboring residential communities brought about stunning changes. With a marked shift in the location of the central business district to the area south of 5th Street, heralded by the construction of the New England and New York Life buildings, Kansas City declared its commitment to building an impressive skyline.
Postcard, Library district
At the time, Kansas City also boasted of having the third largest cable car system in the country and had become a national center for manufacturing and shipping, livestock sales and transportation.
Kansas City’s commercial neighborhood was first established along the south banks of the Missouri River. The business district, concentrated along Second and Main streets, was little more than a steamboat landing, a few stores, several warehouses, and a two-story log hotel. Frequent flooding and changes in the river’s course forced the early settlers to move their homes and businesses southward to the top of the bluffs overlooking the river. As the city expanded southward, Second Street lost its influence as a commercial center. The new downtown, extending along Grand and Main beyond Ninth Street, was carved out of bluffs, many sixty feet or higher graded to street level. The homes of early settlers that dotted the hills and ravines were demolished to make way for the expanding commercial district. (See note 1.)
An event that attracted major attention of capitalists to the promising downtown core was the construction of the second Kansas City Board of Trade Building, located at 210 W. 8th Street. (See note 2.) After a nation-wide competition, the firm of Burnham & Root, Chicago, was awarded the contract. The boldly scaled Richardsonian Romanesque building (razed in 1968), heightened the interest of architects, law firms, banks, real estate firms and insurance companies from Chicago and the East to invest in the area. (See note 3.)
Several commercial buildings (no longer extant) located in and around the vicinity of the burgeoning commercial center included:
Postcard, Library district
Vaughan’s Diamond, designed by the pioneer architect Asa Bebee Cross in 1869 in what was known as The Junction at the convergence of Ninth, Main and Delaware streets; the Broadway Hotel (later the first Coates House Hotel); and Coates Opera House located on opposite corners at Broadway and 10th Street. (See note 4.) Although business was thriving, it wasn’t until the 1880s that a building boom launched Kansas City into a first class metropolis.
Growth in the area continued. Hotels, theatres and amusement ventures gave prominence and new life to the district, while two major building campaigns announced the city’s shift in architectural style: the New England Building (1886-1888) designed by Bradlee, Winslow and Wetherall, Boston and the New York Life Building (1888-90) designed by McKim, Mead and White, New York City. (See note 5). Kansas City’s most desirable business location was now centered on 9th Street.
Printing companies, social clubs and smaller industrial concerns were introduced to the district in the early decades of the 20th century, adding to the spectrum of architectural styles. As the city’s concerns shifted southward during the later part of the 20th century, many of the area’s buildings were abandoned. However, with the rehabilitation of the New York Life Building, the First National Bank Building and many other landmark properties, the Library District has become, once again, a thriving community of mixed use. (See note 6.)
The Walking Tour
The self-guided walking tour begins at the parking garage steps at the center of the 10th Street facade. Established in partnership with the Downtown Council of Kansas City and the Missouri Development Finance Board, the playfully executed, 500-car facility, completed in 2004, was designed by a team of Kansas City architectural firms: 360 Architecture and BNIM. The south façade of the garage displays a series of book spines, spanning significant titles of literature, while photographs of the historic district, enlarged from c. 1910 postcard images, line the west face of the garage.
The Library District is comprised of twenty-two commercial buildings, dating from 1881-1950, in the vicinity of West 10th Street, Baltimore Avenue, West 9th Street and Central Street.6 The architectural vocabulary of these prominent buildings range from high style designs spanning Neo-Classicism to Modernism, and to the classic two and three-part vertical block, with conformity in articulation, size and scale.