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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