Monday, April 30, 2012

The 1940 project

Longtime readers with good memories might recognize this photo from a September 2010 post about what today is "an old movie house, long-shuttered and streaked with graffiti like countless other east-side structures" – the Colonial theater, on Woodland near 39th street. The photo was snapped in the spring or summer of 1940.

That was the year the Nazis marched into Paris and later began bombing London, even as some people here at home worked to keep the United States out of the war.  President Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term. Harry Truman was re-elected to the U.S. Senate and his old mentor, Tom Pendergast, was released from the federal prison in Leavenworth.

In 1940 Kansas Citians finally ran the Pendergast machine out of power, electing John Gage mayor, and a reform-minded city council hired a new city manager, L.P. Cookingham. Besides cleaning up the machine's financial mess at City Hall, civic leaders were hot to tackle a growing problem: traffic congestion.

It was the year the City Market and the Kansas City Museum opened. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a new church at 46th and Main. Charlie Parker left for New York, then briefly returned. Barbecue king Henry Perry died, leaving his restaurant to his employee Charlie Bryant, who worked alongside his  brother, Arthur. The Winstead sisters from Sedalia opened a drive-in restaurant just off the Country Club Plaza. Workers demolished the still-grand Hotel Baltimore.

In April 1940 two sets of government employees fanned out across the city. One canvassed for the National Census. The other, largely made up of pool laborers from the Work Projects Administration, began a months-long effort to produce Jackson County's first systematic property tax reassessment.

Part of their job was to photograph every taxable structure in the county, residences and commercial buildings. WPAers methodically walked each street of every neighborhood, posing for their photographers in front of each address while holding a signboard with numbers that would identify the property.

The photos were then made into tiny prints and glued to cardboard sheets, simple illustrations to accompany the extensive data gathered on each property. Late that year the reassessment was completed and presumably the photos and data began gathering dust somewhere inside county courthouse file cabinets.
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Decades later, the story goes,  the cardboard photo sheets were found in a dumpster. A few entire  neighborhoods were missing – as if someone perhaps "saved" them for personal use  –  but overall the photos were in decent shape. Many represented the only surviving images of long-lost buildings.

For some time the tax photos were available to the public through the Landmarks Commission. Recently they've been moved to Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library, where staff members are working to catalog and upload the photos to their website.

Today begins a new series here at POTP: the 1940 project. Each post will feature a separate image from the 1940 tax photos and tell a story about that place. The hope is that the stories and photos will eventually create a mosaic of a moment in time: pre-war, post-Pendergast, Paris of the Plains.
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So here is the Colonial theater, once again open for business along the Woodland streetcar line, tucked between the Home Bakery and the neighborhood Mobil filling station. In 1940 the Flathers boys lived two blocks down Woodland. It was here to the Colonial that young Walter Flathers, age 8, came with his older brothers Bobby, 9, and Raymond, 13, one Sunday in October.  It was a triple feature, including Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes.

On Sundays, if you wanted, you could sit through the movies several times. After a while you might get drowsy and fall asleep. Often this happened to the Flathers boys, and occasionally someone would wake up in a closed theater. This time when Bobby tired and got up to go home, he warned Walter to keep his eyes open. Walter could not.

When the police found him fast asleep inside the locked theater at 2:30 a.m. they took him home. Walter went to bed without a word. His mother thanked the policemen. Usually when this happens, she said, they wake up and go out the exit door.