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Demolition work begins on NRHP-listed modernist building in Kansas City

Tearing down a Mies-terpiece

Demolition work begins on NRHP-listed modernist building in Kansas City

Formerly home to the board of education and central library, this downtown Kansas City modernist mid-rise was designed by the same architect responsible for much of the famed Country Club Plaza. (Google Maps)

Interior demolition work is underway at a Mies van der Rohe–inspired building in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The modernist mid-rise structure, formerly home to the city’s Board of Education and central library, will be fully razed in the coming weeks although the fate of the building’s colorful, beloved mosaic murals by prominent local artist, the late Arthur Kraft, remains murky.

Completed in 1960 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, the building was designed by Edward W. Tanner, an architect who left an indelible mark on Kansas City throughout the 20th century. Although another architect devised the site master plan, Tanner was intimately involved with the design of Country Club Plaza, a sprawling, water feature-studded shopping center—the first in the world to accommodate car-commandeering shoppers—opened by developer J.C. Nichols in 1923. An architectural fantasia leaning heavily on Moorish-inspired design, Country Club Plaza and its collection of Seville, Spain-inspired buildings is one of Kansas City’s most significant (and decidedly peculiar) architectural offerings. Tanner, who eventually established his own firm, also designed thousands of private homes in a variety of styles and numerous landmark buildings around town, most of them, unlike his work at Country Club Plaza, markedly modernist.

The old Board of Education building, per a statement released by Historic Kansas City and shared by local NBC affiliate KSHB, is “an outstanding example of the Modern Movement: International Style—specifically the influence of Miesian design.” In 2019, the same year that the building was acquired by local developer Copaken Brooks after a controversial plan to redevelop the site as a hotel property was ultimately yanked by Drury Hotels due to squabbles over the incentive plan offered by the city, Historic KC placed the building on its annual Most Endangered List.

As Historic KC noted: “Good public policy should not incentivize the demolition of historic buildings. Another low dollar hotel will add to the already saturated hotel market; threatening existing healthy historic and approved yet/unbuilt new hotels. Further, even if you don’t have affection for the modern architecture of the KC Board of ED Building, Drury’s proposal was an affront to the monumental civic mall plan across the street, that includes the three iconic art deco designed buildings: City Hall, Municipal Court and County Courthouse.”

The building also landed placed on the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation’s 2018 Places in Peril list.

As reported by Kevin Collison for the Flatland blog, the building has been vacant for four years and has become a “magnet for vagrants and vandalism” according to Jon Copaken. In addition to serving as headquarters to the Kansas City School District for decades, the building was also the longtime home to Kansas City’s downtown public library branch before it moved into a new, highly Instagrammable location at the old First National Bank building in 2004.

As for the circus-themed glass tile mosaic mural by Kraft, a renowned muralist as well as sculptor and expressionist painter, Copaken has pledged that it won’t be reduced to rubble although nothing, at this point, is definite.

“I have spent more time on the murals than the demolition itself,” he explained to Flatland. “We want to preserve them and have them open for public view.” He added, however: “The mosaics are affixed to a concrete wall. Cutting that out, removing it and preserving it in one piece is really expensive. We continue to work with groups, but we don’t have anything worked out with someone who can pay to get it down.”

Concludes the statement from Historic KC, penned by its executive director, Lisa Briscoe:

Recent changes to the federal and Missouri historic tax credit programs contributed to thwart several renovation proposals. The historic structure would be demolished in connection with a proposal at 13th and Grand, which thus far remains a proposal. Historic Kansas City recognizes the need for Downtown to evolve and adapt to a changing set of office, retail, and economic circumstances. Circumstances may be changing dramatically even at the present moment. We are not adverse to development but want it to proceed in a manner that reflects the historic and scenic nature of the Civic Mall plan, that includes the three iconic art deco designed buildings, City Hall, Municipal Court and County Courthouse. One of Downtown’s strongest cultural attributes. Whatever the future holds for this site, any infill development proposal must be compatible with the Civic Mall plan. Further the colorful historic glass mosaic tile murals should be preserved in consultation with the Kansas City Municipal Art Commission.