Monday, January 19, 2015

Past life on the Boulevard

In the summer of 1940 windows at 2860 Southwest Boulevard showed the place was empty and "For Rent."

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Eighty-seven years ago today, in the early hours after midnight,  a small group of regulars were minding their own business at the bar of a "soft drink" place at 2860 Southwest Boulevard when the door burst open and five men wearing dark overcoats, caps and handkerchiefs over their faces crashed in and raised sawed-off shotguns at the startled imbibers. One of the intruders actually shouted Stick 'em up! before forcing the owner, Eddie Nettle, to open a safe; the bartender, Frank Addy, to open the cash register; and the eight customers to empty their pockets. Then they piled into a black Buick and laid rubber with about $900 and change.

That was 1928, deep in the dark heart of Prohibition, when pouring corn whisky in a so-called soft-drink place was, of course, against the law. So Nettle and Addy had to tidy up the joint before reporting the robbery to police. It was sort of routine for Nettle, then 30 years old. His place had been robbed before, and it would be robbed again in years ahead.

Then came repeal, and many of the dives and joints that had operated as soft-drink parlors or drug stores or cigar stands or other types of speakeasies transformed themselves into legitimate night clubs. Or legitimate clubs that operated illegally, in violation of gambling and liquor laws the state passed when Prohibition ended. Eddie Nettle's place became the Sportsman's Club, known as a gambler's haven.

In February 1934 Nettle's former business partner and the croupier of his crap game were found dead on the floor of the Sportsman's Club, both shot in the head. "They were going to kill me," Nettle reportedly told the cops. "But a man has to defend himself, doesn't he?" He was charged with second-degree murder, but the case was dismissed when the only witnesses asserted it was self-defense.

At the end of the Thirties, after Nettle ran afoul of tax laws, the place became the Perkins Club:

Alas, the state finally got tough on clubs in 1939, closing down several of the worst offenders. The Perkins Club, after being fined for gambling and for selling liquor after legal hours, had its liquor license renewal refused.

For several years, until he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 53, Eddie Nettle ran another business out of his building on the Boulevard, the Music Service Company, which leased and serviced juke boxes and pinball machines and other barroom paraphernalia. Later it was home of something called the Industrial Abrasive Company, and the old memories began to fade.

Today, however, a little imagination and tequila will provide access to the dark past of 2860 Southwest Boulevard. The place still exists – since the 1970s it's been part of Ponak's Mexican Kitchen – and you can go there and pull up a bar stool, order a margarita and conjure this town's wide-open days of bootleg liquor and armed robberies, dice and violent death.

For the last 40 years it's been the home of Ponak's.
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Friday, December 19, 2014

Ephemeral city: Christmas card, 1937

 It's another small treasure recently discovered in a West Bottoms shop, labeled a Photogravure Etching from photograph used by courtesy of T.W.A. Airlines.  One – the first? – in an annual series of Christmas cards featuring city landmarks, produced by and for the Siegrist Engraving Company (founded 1902, still at 924 Oak today), this arrived in mailboxes in December 1937.
Here at the end of 1937, we're looking back at a year of the Hindenburg and Amelia Earhart and civil
war in Spain. And in this card we're looking over a nighttime Kansas City skyline made brighter by a new 30-story City Hall building, part of what The Kansas City Star calls "The new order at Twelfth and Oak Streets ... something new in bright lights, more tranquil and more impressive than the night scenes on 12th Street to which Kansas Citians are accustomed." The Star might get an argument from patrons of nearby 12th Street joints like the Reno Club and Dante's Inferno and Bar le Duc, where the jazz music and the floor shows and the alcohol create heat that lasts all night, every night.

But it's Christmastime and all light seems heavenly, no matter the source. Down there in Union Station some of the glow in the windows comes from the huge chandeliers, some from the lobby's Christmas trees, some from the continuous hum of life within: overcoated travelers with leather suitcases weaving through clusters of folks awaiting trains delayed by subzero cold; the MU football team returning from a 13 - 0 loss to UCLA out on the coast; "Black Jack" Pershing, World War general, 77 but fit in pin-stripe suit and spats, en route to Tucson for the winter; shoppers perusing the best-sellers on the shelves of the Fred Harvey Bookstore or buying gift baskets in the Fred Harvey Fruit and Candy Shop or picking up a fruit cake or a sliceable cylinder of ice cream – green pistachio with a red bell-shaped center of strawberry – in the Fred Harvey Pastry Shop. From on high come carols sung by choirs of the eight city high schools, perched in the balconies surrounding the lobby. The all-black Lincoln chorus delivers a spiritual, "Wasn't That A Mighty Day." Seasonal warmth fills the cavernous room.

Outside in the parking lot a shadowy form with a pistol relieves a railway clerk of $60. Here or elsewhere a society matron also suffers loss and places a classified ad: MUFF – genuine mink, large flat style, between Union Station and 58th/Ward Parkway, reward.  Meanwhile the downtown skyline of the town owned by her neighbor, Thomas J. Pendergast, shimmers and pulses with the sounds of clicking dice and clinking glasses and jazz music. Somewhere out there a 17-year-old named Charlie Parker smiles and wraps his lips around a reed. Lights dance in the brassy curves of his saxophone, pointed toward the future.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Digging up Savoy history

Days after a recent fire in the historic Hotel Savoy I hurried down to the corner of Ninth and Central to have a look. Several doors stood lashed open with cautionary yellow tape, so I walked right in.

I'm ashamed to admit it was the first time I'd set foot inside the old place in probably thirty years. Apart from the spent-campfire smell and the workers cleaning up, nothing had apparently changed. The 19th-century time warp was intact: well-worn floor tiles, Art Nouveau stained-glass dome and windows, wall sconces and heavy oak paneling all seemingly undamaged. I wandered through the lobby and down a dark hallway to the oldest and – judging by longevity and historical significance – most famous restaurant in Kansas City. I wanted to check the condition of the Savoy Grill.

What most people mean when they say they've been to the Savoy is not the tired hotel, a section of which has operated for years as a bed-and-breakfast, but the grill. Over generations the grill's reputation was built on fresh Maine lobster and American Royal champion beef served by very old black waiters in white jackets. I'm afraid I hadn't been to the Savoy in so long mainly because I'd heard the food was no longer a reason to go.

Actually, quality has been suspect at least since the 1970s, when a Kansas City Times critic wrote of "messy salads, mushroom caps stuffed with what seemed to be ground onion and little else, and lobster broiled to a mush and burned around the edges." A current check of online reviews suggests the few good ones are heavily influenced by the old-school atmosphere, unmatched anywhere in town: Pre-prohibition bar; a dark-leather booth favored by Harry Truman; deep-green subway tile and white tablecloths; a dozen panels of romantic scenes on the old Santa Fe Trail, painted more than a century ago by muralist Edward J. Holslag. At least, it was that way before the fire shut everything down.

Now the hotel and its grill await renovation by prospective buyers 21c Museum Hotels. Here's hoping the deal still goes through and the Savoy gets some expert tender-loving care and a long-overdue 21st century makeover that somehow preserves the ancient otherworldly charm. And updates the history.

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The Savoy is proud of its past, as evidenced by a plaque on the brick facade at the corner of Ninth and Central streets. "The Hotel Savoy was constructed between 1890 and 1906," it begins, before describing its architectural significance. According to the hotel's current website the hotel was built "in 1888 by the Arbuckle brothers of the Arbuckle Coffee Company" and "In 1903 it was remodeled and the west wing was added along with the Savoy Grill dining room." Turns out the plaque, the website and the sign hanging out front – "Since 1903" – are incomplete at best, inaccurate at worst.

A little independent archival digging unearthed different details. Yes, the hotel began life in 1888, not as the Savoy but as the Hotel Thorne, named for Dr. Joshua Thorne, its builder and one of Kansas City's first physicians. Four years later Thorne sold the hotel, but the deal wasn't completed until 1894 with different buyers, William Jamison and John Arbuckle, partners in Arbuckle Coffee of New York. The hotel had been closed for some time, but after repairs it reopened at the end of 1894 as the Savoy.

In July 1905 The Star noted a six-story brick addition was going up at Ninth and Central "to double the size of the Hotel Savoy." Then in December that year the paper reported on "the grill room of the addition to the Hotel Savoy," being designed by the architectural firm of Howe, Hoit and Cutler. "The new grill room will be opened in March," the article said. In other words, though a restaurant surely had operated elsewhere in the hotel, the Savoy Grill that exists today dates to 1906.

A century ago this month the Savoy marked 20 years under that name and advertised directions from Union Station, which had just opened:

It's interesting that for a time in the 1930s the grill was called the Pioneer Grill, known as a good choice for a turkey dinner:

The Depression brought a brief closure before new owners reopened and the Savoy Grill name really took root. The new owners obviously recognized the value of history:

Which brings me back to that newspaper story of late 1905, the one about the design for the new grill. The architects had decided that the room would have a theme based on the Santa Fe Trail and that an artist, as yet unnamed, would be hired to paint a series of Western scenes. One of them revealed the inspiration:
"In digging the excavation for the addition to the Savoy the workmen unearthed a pair of wheels such as were used on the ox wagons years and years ago. They were fifteen feet below the street level. This really suggested the idea of the Santa Fe Trail pictures."
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And so I was happy to see, as I squeezed past the stacked tables and chairs in the Savoy Grill after the fire, that Edward Holslag's murals were still there, looking fine. Still the inspired legacy of a pair of old wagon wheels dug up more than a century ago. May they live for a new century of diners.

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