"The Frank Lloyd Wright of Kansas City"

Louis Curtiss Studio, 1989
Louis Curtiss Studio, 1989

Louis Curtiss, a Kansas City architect best known for his innovation in the "curtain wall" construction of buildings, was born on July 1, 1865, in Belleville, Ontario. During a 37-year career in Kansas City, he left his mark with the government buildings, railroad stations, restaurant, hotels, and residences that he designed. Rivaling his architectural accomplishments were his eccentric personality and several mysteries that captured the public's attention.

Little is known about Curtiss's personal or professional background. According to years of conjecture, Curtiss studied at the University of Toronto and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. Authors Wilda Sandy and Larry K. Hancks, authors of Stalking Louis Curtiss, however, could find no surviving records at either institution to confirm that Curtiss ever attended. Curtiss himself preferred an air of mystery. His first will (but not his final one) requested that his personal papers be burned upon his death. Whether or not they were burned, the papers have never been found. As a lifelong bachelor, he never had children who could fill in the details for the curious public. Furthermore, he never gave interviews to explain his artistic inspirations or even his technical background.

What is clear is that Curtiss arrived in Kansas City in 1887 and formed a partnership with Frederick C. Gunn in 1889. The pair designed a dozen buildings, including the Hotel Baltimore (finished 1899, razed 1939) and the Progress Club (1893, still standing). In 1898 or 1899, Curtiss started his own firm and began experimenting with new designs that would eventually lead to a distinguishable style that was sometimes called the "Louis Curtiss style." His work with Gunn had produced buildings styles that were modern, yet still possessed distinctive classical elements. Once on his own, Curtiss experimented with a variety of artistic elements and more unusual designs. The Folly Theater (1900, still standing) and the Willis Wood Theater (1902, destroyed 1917) had a classical European style of columns and arches. On the other hand, Mineral Hall, a private residence finished in 1905 and now a part of the Kansas City Art Institute, was much more contemporary.

Curtiss is best remembered as the designer of the six-story Boley Building at 12th and Walnut in downtown Kansas City, Missouri in 1908. Still standing today, it was one of the first buildings in the world that was designed with a so-called "curtain wall" construction. "Curtain wall" refers to an exterior wall that hangs on the building rather than being a supportive part of the structure. This allowed the outside walls of the building to be encased in glass, letting in sunlight for a more open feeling. This type of construction became prominent in the skyscrapers of the 1950s and still dominates the skylines of most cities today. When the Boley Building opened , the design was so unique that a large sign on the site read; "Only Building of Its Kind in the World."

It is not clear whether the Boley Building was truly the first example of curtain wall design. A department store in Berlin, Germany, designed in 1898, had a similar construction and clearly predated Curtiss's design. An 1899 building in Cleveland, Ohio may have had a similar design, but it collapsed in 1903 and little is known about it. Curtiss himself never revealed his source of inspiration, but the curtain wall design became associated with him nonetheless. He is often credited with its creation, and the modern, open look of many his subsequent designs became known collectively as the " Louis Curtiss style."

One of these memorable buildings was Curtiss's own studio building and apartment (designed 1908, still standing) at 1118-20 McGee St. Curtiss set up his apartment on the third floor and a courtyard on the roof (accessible from his bedroom). He decorated with bookcases and a pipe organ. According to legends perpetuated by his visitors, he built a private entry from his apartment to the nearby Empress Theater, a former vaudeville theater that had since begun hosting burlesque shows. No physical evidence of this secret passageway has been discovered.

Louis Curtiss remained an enigmatic figure for the rest of his life. In 1918, a man sued Curtiss for allegedly convincing his wife, an artist, to leave him to pursue her artistic career. The law suit was dismissed, but Curtiss was held liable for the court fees nonetheless. It was just one of several such affairs that Curtiss may have had. When Curtis died, in 1924, he was buried at Mount Washington Cemetery, in an unmarked grave. While it is not clear why the grave remains unmarked, it was a fitting tribute to such a mysterious person. Curtiss left a more tangible legacy with the 216 buildings he designed (not all of which were completed). More than 30 of them still stand today, with the majority in the Kansas City area. His influence locally and nationally was significant enough for Trudy Faulkner, a preservationist with the American Institute of Architects, to refer to Louis Curtiss and the "Frank Lloyd Wright of Kansas City."

 

Read a biographical sketch of Louis Curtiss and profiles of some of the buildings he designed, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images relating to Louis Curtiss that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books and articles about Louis Curtiss, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching Louis Curtiss using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Brian Burnes, "Contractor May Have to Sell Curtiss Studio," The Kansas City Star, June 28, 2005, quote from Trudy Faulkner.

Brian Burnes, "Curtiss a Father of Modern Skyscrapers," The Kansas City Star, September 16, 1991.

Brian Burnes, "Stalking Louis Curtiss: Flamboyant Turn-of-the-Century Architect Left Few Tracks for Biographers to Follow," The Kansas City Star, September 16, 1991.

George Ehrlich, Kansas City, Missouri: An Architectural History, 1826-1990 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1979).

Susan Jezak Ford, "Biography of Louis Curtiss (1865-1924), Architect," the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.

Wilda Sandy, Stalking Louis Curtiss: A Portrait of the Man and His Work (Kansas City, MO: Ward Parkway Press, 1991), 12.

"Designer's Work Still Dots Midwest," The Kansas City Star, September 16, 1991.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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Comments:

Thanks for the great

Thanks for the great information! I happened across his death certificate on a cemetery site and it reads that he was born in 1866, not 1865. Has any information surfaced that the year was written down incorrectly on the certificate? I know that can happen as it was with one of my great grandparents. Sometimes the person providing the information has incorrect information. Just curious, thanks!

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