Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The lost trees of the Country Club Plaza

Once upon a Christmastime, when the American President was a local-boy-made-good, and the war-of-the-moment was in Korea, and the multicolored light bulbs were still incandescent and numbered only 20 thousand or so, the rooftops of the Country Club Plaza were decorated with fir trees. The fresh-cut trees, painted white and studded with lights, served as yuletide complements to the Spanish-motif towers and cupolas of the shopping district.

Since then, Harry Truman has left the planet; wars have not. The multicolored lights are now 200-some-thousand light-emitting diodes and the rooftop Christmas trees have moved on to wherever the 1950s-era Country Club Plaza went.

Recently the Plaza was put up for sale. People have been wondering whether a new owner would seek to keep the existing emphasis on high-end, corporate-chain retail stores and restaurants, or perhaps try to restore some of the shopping district's original home-grown flavor. The importance of that question to any one person apparently depends on their age and their Plaza experience.

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Anyone old enough to remember the rooftop Christmas trees might envision something like this:

Let's say it's Christmastime 1951, the year after the death of the Plaza's creator, J.C. Nichols. His real estate company still owns and maintains the property from its Plaza offices on Ward Parkway. Although it's grown considerably in its first quarter century, the Plaza remains true to Nichols' dream, blending fine retail stores with neighborhood services for the residents of nearby apartments, duplexes and single-family homes.

In other words, you holiday shoppers can choose among several jewelers and fine clothiers and shoe stores and other specialty shops. You can do your banking and see your doctor or dentist or interior designer. Have a good meal at a nice restaurant.

But you can also fill your gas tank and have your windshield washed at one of a half dozen service stations. And shop for groceries at Muehlebach's or Wolferman's. Pick up a prescription at one of two Watkins drugstores. Drop off laundry at Monkey Cleaners. Bowl a few games and have a cocktail at Plaza Bowl. See a movie at the Plaza Theater. The 1951 Christmas week feature is An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

You can buy stocking-stuffers at Woolworth's or take the kids to see Santa at Sears. (Sears also has an auto service center and a farm store.) There are barber shops and beauty salons, florists and tailors, liquor stores and paint stores and a locksmith. There's the Plaza Fix-It Shop, the Melo-Tone Bird Shop, Wynne's Household Hardware. You can mail packages at the Plaza branch of the Post Office.

Then, in the midst of your nostalgic Plaza reverie, it's instructive also to recall other realities of the times you're revisiting. Specifically, it's a time when a Plaza business owner – let's just offer restaurateur Jud Putsch as an example – can get away with running a classified ad seeking "Counter women; white; must be alert and have pleasant smile," for his cafeteria. And one for a "Bus boy – colored, for one of Kansas City's finest dining rooms," that being the much-revered Putsch's 210.

Which is another way of remembering a certain ugliness of the past. Some things change; some things stay the same. Food for thought as you're gazing up at the brightly lighted Christmas tree atop the Plaza Time Building.

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There were 50 of those white-flocked trees atop the various buildings, each one lifted to its perch by a crane and ridden into position by a workman employed by the Nichols Company. They must have been fire hazards, perhaps potential lightning rods in the rare December thunderstorm. In which case the lighting display would have been unusually spectacular, if not disastrous.

Still, the rooftop trees, seen from from this distance in time, seem to represent some earth-bound spirituality, something simple and decent that's been lost.

Maybe there's a way to adapt their spirit to the 21st century Country Club Plaza.

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