Friday, December 23, 2011

Ephemeral city: streetcar transfers

Found recently at an antique mall: Early-morning, holiday-season transfers from two Kansas City streetcar lines, dated December 25, 1927, and January 1, 1928.

The Prospect Avenue line served the city's east side along Prospect Avenue and 15th Street (now Truman Road). The Brooklyn-Sunset line connected the east side's blue-collar bungalows to the opulent mansions of the Country Club District, working a horseshoe-shaped route from Brooklyn Avenue to Ward Parkway. You could transfer from one line to the other at 15th and Grand.

To help imagine the Prohibition-era world of these transfers, two downtown scenes from these dates:

Christmas. High on the west-side bluffs overlooking the stockyards, a lone pine tree. Neighborhood schoolchildren have decorated it with stars, silver tinsel, electric lights of many colors. A band is playing carols. A few hundred celebrants. The tree, visible from afar in all directions.

New Year's. Revelers bundled against below-zero cold. Six inches of fresh, drifting snow. The Jazz Singer, first talking picture show, playing at the Globe, 13th and Walnut. Near the corner of 9th and Wyandotte; a basement cafe known as the Blue Goose. Federal agents escorting the Blue Goose proprietor and two employees up icy steps to street level. Busted; liquor on the premises.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Looking for the wreath

The former H.D. Lee headquarters, 20th and Wyandotte streets.
A reader in the U.K. recently wrote to ask about a passage in Paris of the Plains: Kansas City from Doughboys to Expressways, a mention of the H.D. Lee Company. That got me thinking about an obscure POTP anniversary of sorts.

Eighty-six years ago today – November 28, 1925, a cloudy, chilly Saturday – a few hundred manufacturing workers assembled for a company portrait in what is now called the Crossroads District. They sat or stood in tiers along 20th Street near the plant entrance, beneath an ornate canopy identifying the H.D. Lee Mercantile Co.

Today, of course, the company known as Lee Jeans operates from offices across the state line in Merriam, Kansas. You won't find mention of it on the website, but the Lee Company started as primarily a wholesale grocery business – coffee, spices, canned fruits and vegetables and other foods. (Denim work clothes were a sideline.) It began life in Salina, Kansas, in 1889, but in 1917 the company opened this new Kansas City headquarters at the corner of 20th and Wyandotte streets: 225,000 square feet, nine red-tapestry brick stories of office and factory space.

The Piper Apartments occupy the building today, and the old four-sided water tower on the roof shows four blank circles that look as if they were made for clocks. In November 1925, as the Lee employees – and their boss/founder, Henry David Lee – sat for their panoramic photo down on 20th Street, each circle on the rooftop water tower framed the company logo –

As an old newspaper ad said: Look for the LEE WREATH.  When it appears on can, carton, bottle or jar of food products – it is a mark of highest quality ingredients.

By the early 1950s, jeans having eclipsed jellies and jams, Lee sold off its foods division to a Chicago conglomerate, and the colorful mark of highest quality ingredients eventually disappeared from can, carton, bottle and jar, as well as the downtown skyline in Paris of the Plains.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Ephemeral city: the Snooker Club

Detail, matchbook cover, ca. 1935.
In the early spring of 1935, during the wide-open heyday of the Pendergast political machine, Future, a local anti-machine weekly newspaper, described one aspect of Boss Tom's town:

"Gambling is one of, if not the most, profitable side lines of the political machine here," the article said. "Probably in no other city is gambling so wide open. Games are in most every downtown block; in night clubs and in the residential sections. Suburban shop centers all have their gambling places."

The suburban shops along the Prospect Avenue streetcar line near 31st included a neighborhood movie theater, a five-and-dime, several grocers and – tucked between a dry cleaner and a barber shop – a pool hall. It was the pool hall that concerned one reader in the same 1935 issue of Future

If you do not know, this will advise you that one of the largest gambling casinos in Jackson County is located at 3037 Prospect – known as the Snooker. This place also has a large sign out in front to this effect ...

The letter writer said the Snooker Club also was connected to a neighborhood dance hall "where patrons may drink, dine, and dance to their heart's content," and attributed its continued success to management handpicked by "Mister Jimmie Pendergast," nephew of the Boss.

At the time such establishments had, according to Future, "No doorman to identify visitors; no curtains make any sham at concealing the joints. They are as open as the flowers in spring."

According to city directories, the Snooker Club's life spanned a few years in the late Thirties. By 1939, the year Boss Tom Pendergast was convicted of tax evasion, it was gone. Today a contemporary strip mall occupies the site.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Limestone cowboys

I can't pay homage to "The Scout" (see previous post) and ignore his adversarial brothers-in-sculpture. If the bronze Indian on horseback is this town's most recognized art piece, these bas-relief cowboys on horseback might be among the least. At treetop height on the limestone exterior of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, riding north from the museum's southwest corner, they're easy to miss. 

Sculptor Charles Keck created them in 1933 as one of 23 historical panels representing, in the words of The Kansas City Star, "an allegory of Civilization's conquest of this section of the West." (I'm guessing "The Scout," if he could protest, would put it differently.) Keck, who also gave us the Andrew Jackson on horseback outside the County Courthouse downtown, described this panel as "An incident from the great early cattle drives." 

But, like "The Scout," Keck's cowboys incited controversy among fastidious Westerners. The details were all wrong, they said – bedroll too neat, bridle too British, stirrups misaligned, posture too relaxed. "Like mail-order catalog cowboys," said the governor of Oregon when he saw photos of the then-new Nelson museum. Keck's response: He had researched cowboys at a rodeo in his native New York City. Which, of course, confirmed the Western suspicions. "Rodeo cowboys," wrote one Nevada editor, "play the cowboy role to the public's taste. Life on the range is not a rodeo any more than it is a picnic." 

Probably not, I was thinking the other day as I squinted at Keck's limestone rodeo cowboys high overhead. And just above them, one of those quotations that ring the museum's walls: Art still has truth. Take refuge there. It was early autumn, the breeze was cool, the sun warm, the sky a deep blue. One of those painfully gorgeous days, actually, that give life the feel of a picnic.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Back in the saddle again

OK, true to his real-life Sioux ancestry, "The Scout" doesn't use a saddle. But I do, figuratively, and I'm back at work here after a six-month hiatus. Thought I'd reboot by revisiting the bronze icon on the limestone pedestal. 

The unofficial face of KC, he's been here since 1916 when his creator, sculptor Cyrus Dallin, dropped him off for a visit on the way home to Boston from an award-winning gig at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. The familiar narrative says "The Scout" was so well-received here that citizens raised the $15,000 purchase price so he could gaze forever northward from a grassy hillside in Penn Valley Park, near a branch of the old Santa Fe Trail. 

Actually not everyone loved him at first. A bunch of art critics gathered round his pedestal one day in 1916 and complained to a Kansas City Star reporter that he wasn't sufficiently muscled, that his horse looked too well-groomed, that the whole thing seemed, well, lifeless. "I think he's a drawing room Indian – little more," sniffed one expert. Still, the same issue of the Star carried a letter to the editor advocating civic-symbol status for "The Scout." 

Oddly, for a beloved symbol, he has suffered repeated acts of cruelty during his 95 years here – thefts of his feather, arrowheads, bow string, reins, etc.; graffiti galore; and last spring someone decided his horse ought to be a paint, emptying a gallon of gray Benjamin Moore satin Impervo across his backside. (At least it wasn't cheap vandalism.) 

"The Scout's" resume includes having his image appear on the sides of our long-lost streetcars and on the chests of our long-lost National Hockey Leaguers. That's work experience that qualifies him, I think, to help relaunch a wistful blog about his adopted hometown. When I visited him the other day he was stoic and clean, save for a crushed Heineken can wedged in his limestones. At least it was a premium beer.