Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Novelty Club

The second story of 406 E. 18th street, in the East Crossroads.

The other day I went down to the Crossroads, looking for the spirit of Boss Tom Pendergast.

One of the things I like most about visiting the Crossroads district, where plenty of fresh creative energy percolates, is that I'm never far from the Pendergast era – for better or worse the most colorful years of this city's political and cultural history. The district is still chock-full of low-rise brick buildings that date to that era in the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

There's 1908 Main, of course, the former upstairs headquarters of the Jackson Democratic Club, where Pendergast ran his political kingdom and doled out favors. There's the former T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company building at Twenty-first and Central, one of his numerous business interests. And there are numerous places with forgotten stories to tell about Tom's Town.

The place I was looking for stands near the corner of 18th and Oak, in the heart of the relatively gritty East Crossroads where industrial suppliers share their neighborhood with metalsmiths and glassmakers and traveling musical acts who perform in an outdoor venue. 

Diagonally across the street from Grinders pizza is the new home of the Border Brewing Company one of two craft-beer operations soon to open in this area. The folks at Border may or may not be aware that they occupy what for many years was home to several auto-service businesses. Or that the stairs next door at 406 E. 18th street lead to a second-floor space that was once a Prohibition-era speakeasy known as the Novelty Club.

The Novelty Club had a very short life and was notable for three things: Its ornate bar came from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair; one of its employees (though he later claimed he had owned it) was a young man named Milton Morris, who would eventually become a minor legend among Kansas City nightclub owners; and after being open just a few brief months, the place was raided in a citywide sweep of speakeasies by federal prohibition agents in the early-morning hours of September 28, 1932.

The building in 1940.

According to the Star's reporter, the agents broke in the front door with an ax and ran upstairs, where "The orchestra just had begun a snappy tune and the floor was filled with dancing couples, some of the women in evening dress, others in street and sports wear, and men in dress and business suits."

After the raids of several clubs, government moving vans hauled away tables, chairs, rugs, curtains, slot machines, glassware and liquor as well as the entire 1904 World's Fair bar. All of it was stored away to be auctioned.

And that's the story of the Novelty Club. Not particularly exciting, unless you appreciate long-forgotten stories, as I do. And the fact that the place still exists, to date under-appreciated as a remnant of the city's colorful past.

The day I visited I saw that the upstairs space – or rather, part of the original 4,000 square feet of the Novelty Club – was for lease. A real estate flyer showed photos of a rather bland office – carpet, mini-blinds, florescent lights – that required imagination to envision a speakeasy.

Outside, however, around the corner and across a parking lot, peeking over the top of a portable outhouse from the wall of a neighboring building, Boss Tom Pendergast smiled back at me in assurance. He's still around.

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