Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Steam dreams on Walnut

If you're walking on Walnut between Seventh and Eighth streets, you might notice – pedestrians see so much more, no? – a small building on the east side of the block. The one with the pre-Prohibition-era second story and the Jetsons-style street facade. A building angled slightly to allow for northbound Walnut's dogleg right, toward the City Market.  

Flanked now by surface parking lots, this structure is all that remains of the block where Kansas Citians bought train tickets in the time of Harvey Girls and steam locomotives. 

In 1916, when it was built, this was an annex to the newly renamed Railway Exchange Building at Seventh and Walnut, previously the Midland Hotel. Together with a smaller existing building near Eighth, they presented a string of storefront ticket offices for 11 different railroads, from the Burlington at one end to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific at the other. 

In between, this building housed four roads: the Missouri, Kansas & Texas (better known as the Katy), the Chicago Great Western, the Chicago & Alton, and perhaps the most famous (or at least the most lyrical), the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. The Santa Fe occupied the south end, at the angle in the street.

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Today, the strolling time-traveler might pass this way and imagine a visit to the Santa Fe office in, say, the late 1920s. Inside, pick up a few brochures and begin dreaming. Perhaps a West-Coast vacation ...

Or a tour of the Southwest ...

Fred Harvey busses will meet the train.

Either way, book the newest, fastest conveyance ...

Chicago to Los Angeles – just 63 hours.
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In the mid-1930s, with the advent of diesel-powered trains, most of the railroad offices moved to new locations around town. Soon all the Walnut Street ticket offices were vacant, and stayed that way until World War II. Then an old Kansas City general store moved into what had been the four offices in this building. Racket Merchandise, founded in 1891, relocated from its longtime headquarters near the City Market.

Today the company remains here on Walnut, sharing the building since last year with the American Black Hereford Association.

The Racket Group's website says the company has evolved from general store to restaurant supplier to "a global leader in the travel industry." Its products: pillows, trays, earphones, etc. for the airlines. (Perhaps explaining the street-level windows on this building.)

And so the story for this surviving building on Walnut – putting aside the Herefords –  arcs from rail travel to jet travel. Chicago to Los Angeles: from just 63 hours to four and a half.

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