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.