Looking Back to the Future


WRITTEN BY: Sheila Vemmer

Starting in 2015, the city’s Historic Preservation office began identifying, documenting and researching more than 3,000 structures designed and constructed in the years following WWII through the 1970s, also known as the “Modern” era. Teams of volunteers, assisted by city planning staff and the city’s Historic Preservation Officer, Brad Wolf, set out on foot, by car and even bicycles to photograph Modern buildings throughout the city – from the Northland all the way down to 147th Street. More than 10,000 digital photos were taken and returned to the historic preservation office to be cataloged for the next step in the KCModern survey.

What is “Modern?”

Not sure what Modern buildings look like? If you have ever been to Arrowhead or The K, you have experienced Modern architecture. Got your driver’s license downtown? You have experienced Modern architecture. Drive-thru restaurants, drive-in movie theaters and drive-up banks are all examples of architecture influenced by 20th century progress and the concept of Modernism.

Kansas City is home to some stunning representations of “Mainstream Modern,” a style favored by architects, as well as Mid-Century Modern (mid-20th century) and “Banker’s Modern,” a mostly-residential style that was considered less ornamented than traditional but not starkly modern enough to be considered trendy and ultimately a long-term financial risk.

Defining Modern architecture is not easy, but Wolf boils it down to at least one visual cue – lack of ornamentation.

Local architects who designed many of our Modern buildings include Kivett & Meyers, Herbert Duncan, Jesse F. Lauck & Associates, Neville, Sharp & Simon, Voskamp & Slezak, Manuel Morris and Bloomgarten & Frohwerk. And national firms were represented by such names as Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill and Harry Weese & Associates.

Why do this? Does it matter? What are we going to do with the information?

According to Wolf, “This project supported the city’s preservation plan goal number one: to accelerate the identification and evaluation of historic resources to facilitate planning and compliance with federal, state and local regulatory processes.” The goal of the survey is to define the expression of the Modern Architecture movement in all but single-family building types. The survey will define individuals who contributed to the movement and develop criteria to assist the City and the public in determining the significance of these buildings and structures.

Simply put, surveys are conducted to prevent the loss of important structures or the history embedded in them. “We do this so we know what we have in the way of history, especially of our built environment,” Wolf said. “It is important that we maintain a ‘sense of place.’ We have evolved over time and so have our cities. Our built environment is a record of that evolution. The Livestock Exchange building (in the West Bottoms) is a record of Kansas City’s history in early American agriculture. The Hallmark Cards offices are a visual representation of our more recent history in the creative industry. These significant buildings have become a record of history that doesn’t sit on a shelf. We interact with them every day, whether we work in them, walk by them or live in them.”

What is the process?

Conducting a large-scale survey requires teamwork and coordination. Volunteers were deployed to collect and catalog data – a process that took nearly three years. This was Phase 1: Reconnaissance Level Survey.

Phase 2: Historic Context began on March 1 by reviewing the collected data and identifying significant properties requiring further research. Since this work can’t be done in a vacuum, several more meetings were held in March with smaller groups of residents eager to work on specific categories of building types.

Finally, staff will craft a written summary and make recommendations on further research. Input will be gathered from the Historic Preservation Commission, Historic Kansas City, KC Modern and the Kansas City Chapter of the AIA volunteers and the general public.

If you would like to participate in the KCModern Survey, please contact bradley.wolf@kcmo.org or (816) 513-2901, or check the survey’s web page at kcmo.gov/planning/kcmodern-survey.

You can also follow @KCMOLandmarks on Instagram and @KCMOPlanning on Twitter for public meeting dates.