Sunday, May 27, 2018

Elegy for Elmhurst

Etched in stone on Pennsylvania street, near Valentine road.
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The old stone wall looks like others around town, low barriers built long ago to encircle institutions or cemeteries or private estates. This one, with crowned pillars and rusting ornamental ironwork, is a remnant running along two sides of the Broadway-Valentine shopping center, north of the Uptown Theater. Its unique feature is the ghostly name cut into a limestone slab on the less-traveled Pennsylvania street side: Elmhurst. And its story originates in loss and sadness.

History-minded midtowners might know Elmhurst, built in 1898, was the home of Joseph T. Bird, president of the iconic Emery Bird Thayer department store downtown. Newspapers described it as a "five-acre estate with a huge southern colonial house" and "one of the show places of the town, which is in the midst of a large lawn shaded with massive trees." Bird was said to enjoy walking the three miles from home to work, where he kept a picture of Elmhurst in his office.

Elmhurst as it appeared in the 1930s.
Bird died in 1918 while on vacation in Colorado. His widow, Annie, carried on the store's business and lived at Elmhurst until her own death there in 1937. The Birds were prominent philanthropists, and early benefactors of Children's Mercy Hospital. They adored their leafy estate, and filled the large house with collected antiques and artwork. Their memorial services were held there.

Annie and Joseph Bird, top, and their store.

But the story of Elmhurst predates the Birds. It was the dream of one John Perry, a native of England who in the late 19th century became "one of the wealthiest men in Kansas City," according to news accounts, by selling coal. Perry and his wife, Kate, had four children and lived in a grand house of their design at 27th and Troost. Elmhurst would be an even more palatial home to grow old in. Each of the children would have a room, bearing their name.
John Perry.
By late June 1898 the foundation for the new house was in and contracts let for the frame construction. The two oldest Perry daughters were graduating from a convent back east and the parents and their young daughter and son traveled to New York for the ceremonies. They intended to return to Kansas City, but while in New York the family decided Kate and the four children would sail to Europe for the summer on the French liner La Bourgogne. John Perry came home alone.

Just before dawn on July 4, La Bourgogne collided with an English ship in a thick fog off the coast of Nova Scotia, and quickly sank. More than five hundred people drowned, including John Perry's entire family. It was thought they probably never escaped their quarters.

The sinking of La Bourgogne.
Perry went east and made arrangements to sail the waters near the wreck in a futile search for the bodies. Back home by August, he attended a requiem mass for his lost family at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, then carried wreaths to decorate empty graves at St. Mary's cemetery.

The thought of living at Elmhurst was too painful for Perry. The project languished until he decided he would build it as a home for orphan boys. That plan was scuttled by deed restrictions, but by spring 1899 he was building the orphan home at the corner of 43rd and Westport (site of today's Westport Landing shopping center). It would be a memorial to his family. 

He also renewed his building permit to finish Elmhurst as a private home. Then he sold it to Joseph T. and Annie Bird.

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In May 1937, a few months after Annie Bird's death, the Birds' daughter made the decision to have Elmhurst demolished and make the property available for business development. More than twenty years later, the city approved rezoning from apartments to retail. And in late 1960 the Broadway-Valentine shopping center opened, retaining a remnant of stone wall with its reminder of what had been lost all those years ago.

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Friday, April 27, 2018

A hard and brutal business

Centennial Methodist Church, 19th street and Woodland avenue.
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It was a fair and cool Tuesday morning, seventy years ago today, the last time Jackie Darthard went to church.  For some in the 18th and Vine neighborhood April 27, 1948, was a day of anticipation. That afternoon the Blues were to play their home opener in the ballpark up the hill at 22nd and Brooklyn. That evening Sarah Vaughn and local product Charlie Parker, rising stars in the jazz world, would be performing downtown at Municipal Auditorium. But for those who showed up that spring morning at Centennial Methodist, corner of 19th and Woodland, it was a day of sadness.

Nine days earlier Darthard, just a couple weeks shy of his 19th birthday, had attended Sunday services here with his young wife, Ernestine. The pastor, Rev. E.L. McAllister, had called him to the front of the congregation that day and praised his strong faith and clean living. Some in attendance remembered Darthard as a Boy Scout. Or they knew him as hard-working bootblack with a stand on 18thstreet, shining shoes and flashing an easy grin. Some knew he hoped to go to trade school to study the tailor’s art. That would come in due time, after he retired from the ring.

Because they knew him best as a fighter, a two-time Golden Gloves champion here in Kansas City and now a promising professional, a national contender for the middleweight crown. In two years he had lost just one fight and won thirty-five, most by knockout.

Jackie Darthard
His next fight was on the Wednesday after Rev. McAllister singled him out in church. The opponent was a veteran, Bert Lytell, recognized as a strong and hard-hitting middleweight. The two had met in February at Municipal Auditorium here, slugging to a draw. The rematch would be in Milwaukee.

Kansas City fans who watched him train at the gym on 18th street described Jackie Darthard as tough, vicious, a terrific puncher who never backed away from an opponent. His trademark was a little blue baseball cap he wore to the ring for good luck.

Bert Lytell
Good luck deserted him that night in Milwaukee. Bert Lytell pummeled him in the third round and again in the sixth. Lytell’s manager tried to get the referee to stop the fight, but rules prevented handlers from speaking out during a match. In the sixth a brutal right to the head sent Darthard staggering to his corner. He complained of a headache, said he couldn’t see, then passed out. There was a rush to the hospital, surgery to remove a huge blood clot from his brain, but he never regained consciousness. He died the next morning. Bert Lytell wept. 

The news made the front page of the Kansas City Star at a time when sports stories, let alone about African-Americans, seldom did. It was the third death in a U.S. boxing ring in 1948, the sixth worldwide. The next day the Star’s sports editor recalled an earlier fight, “the agonizing minutes” he had spent watching another boxer die in the ring. “Death was not intended, of course, but where the main objective is the rendering of a boy or a man into a state of unconsciousness, death is just a step or two beyond. It’s a hard and brutal game, the prizefight business.”

So that following Tuesday Jackie Darthard went to church a final time, lying in a box carried by fellow fighters, including Bert Lytell’s brother. A thousand mourners packed Centennial Methodist’s auditorium and balcony and vestibule. Another fifteen hundred stood outside in the street. There were flowers and songs and tears. “He always fought the good fight; he neither asked nor gave quarter when in the ring. Prizefighting is hard business,” said the Rev. McAllister, echoing the Star editorial.

“But the most astonishing thing is that grown people will go to such fights and stand and cry for blood and not be satisfied until one or the other of the participants is knocked down and out.”

Jackie Darthard and Bert Lytell after their first fight.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ephemeral city: Night club matchbooks

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One of the two matchbook covers.
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The two matchbooks, dating to the 1930s, came from a downtown supper club near 14th and Baltimore that advertised itself as “famous for foods” served “in the atmosphere of the old South.” This was a time when the dominant cultural imagery of “the old South” was not brutal slavery but lovely Southern belles and gracious plantation houses (served by happy Negroes).

A newspaper ad from 1934.
The Southern Mansion was its name and it opened in the early Thirties, just as Kansas City’s jazzy night club scene was swinging into high gear. A dine-and-dance club, it occupied the street level of a lonely two-story brick building flanked by a parking lot on one side and a used-car lot on the other. But it had white table cloths, a formally dressed wait staff, decor that might be called colonial deco, and a floor show. The kitchen used Southern recipes; the bar used T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor.

The Southern Mansion “from its beginning was a class place,” in the words of one reporter who years later recalled being there. Run by a couple of Italians who had a speakeasy restaurant on the North Side during Prohibition, it was popular among Chamber of Commerce types, like the members of a luncheon group called the Pompano Club. They were, according to the same reporter, “good-time Charlies and men-about-town in those days that had to christen each new night club.”

The bar area of the Southern Mansion.

Out-of-towners liked it, too, as it was a block or three from most high-end hotels. Late one summer night in 1934 a small group of visiting Elks, staying at the Hotel President a half block away, stopped in for sandwiches before hitting the road back to St. Louis. One of them, a young doctor, complained to the waiter about the small size of a cocktail glass. Soon, according to one account, “a big, swarthy man stepped to the table, shoved the doctor’s shoulder and told him to get up and leave.”

There were words, and more shoving, and “five other big fellows appeared from nowhere,” said the witness. “One grabbed the doctor’s right arm, another his left; one took one leg, another the other; and the fifth clapped his hand over the doctor’s mouth. Right in front of everyone there they carried him through the crowd to the front door.”

One of the proprietors later told police he noticed a crowd gathering outside, around a man lying on the sidewalk. It was the young doctor, who was taken to General Hospital with a fractured skull. The Southern Mansion’s head waiter and a bartender were charged with assault. Weeks later the victim was able to return to St. Louis. Charges were dropped when the doctor failed to appear in court.

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The Southern Mansion stayed in business into the 1950s, and except for a little issue with a bridge club renting the upstairs space for illegal dice games, appears to have stayed out of trouble. Subsequent owners changed the concept and the name several times – Dixie Manor, Playboy’s Playground, Jungle Club, Play-Mate Club – before the building was demolished in 1963 to make way for the crosstown freeway.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ephemeral city: Transit map

The map was hanging in a local antique mall, framed and priced appropriately for an 80-year-old artifact of this town's golden age of mass transportation. It shows no date, but there are clues among its "Points of Interest."

Municipal Auditorium exists (opened late 1935) as does the old city hall at Fourth and Main. The county courthouse is at 12th and Oak, across from "site, new city hall" (dedicated 1937). And the ballpark at 22nd and Brooklyn is Muehlebach Field (its name until 1937). So the map would appear to document the system of 1936-37, complete with its golden-age statistics:

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I had to have it, of course. It provides a nice contrast to a map I already own that shows the five remaining streetcar lines of 1951, six years before busses began a reign of nearly sixty years. Tracks then vanished. Most were ripped up, but not all.

Every so often, usually during the freeze-and-thaw of pothole season, the old system arises here and there. Recently a remnant of rusty rail found sunlight at the corner of 43rd and Warwick, near the Kansas City Art Institute. 

My new 1930s map places this on the Independence Avenue–Rockhill–Swope Park line. Back then this route covered more than 13 miles, from the corner of Independence and Hardesty west into downtown, south along Walnut and Main to 43rd street, then east and south to Swope Park.

It's worth contemplating the "points of interest" along this route in today's Kansas City: the zoo and Starlight Theater, UMKC, the Nelson-Atkins Museum and KCAI, Liberty Memorial and Crown Center and Union Station, the Crossroads and P&L District, a variety of world-food restaurants along Independence Avenue, and an amazing array of residential neighborhoods overall.

Meanwhile, workers have spread a fresh patch of asphalt at 43rd and Warwick, putting that rusty old rail back to sleep for now. Even as streetcars have found new life in Kansas City.

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