August 5, 1901: A suspicious fire destroys Kansas City’s Crystal Palace, once a prime tourist attraction, only five days before its scheduled demolition.
In 1887, a new main pavilion for Kansas City's annual industrial exposition opened to throngs of visitors, including President Grover Cleveland. Dubbed "the Crystal Palace," the building enclosed more than 740,000 square feet of exposition space and contained a remarkable 80,000 square feet of glass roofing. When completed, it was among the grandest structures in the mid-western United States. Just 14 years later, though, the Crystal Palace lay abandoned, awaiting demolition. In a suspected but unproven case of arson, the building burned to the ground before it could be demolished.
For Kansas City residents in the 1870s and 1880s, no autumn amusement could surpass the annual industrial and agricultural expositions. They showcased agricultural and industrial technology, artwork, horse races, livestock, public dances, and musical performances. This entertainment attracted up to 60,000 visitors per day, which was then nearly double the population of the city itself.
The fairs began in 1871 after a committee of businessmen and city leaders, including Kersey Coates and Theodore Case, organized the Industrial Exposition association to bring the nationally-popular tradition of industrial fairs to Kansas City. Originally named the Grand Industrial Exposition, it was housed in four temporary buildings on 40 acres of farmland between 12th and 16th Streets, near Troost Avenue. The second exposition unwittingly hosted an infamous event; a robbery of the ticket office by the Jesse James gang. The robbers only made off with $978, but the audacity of the crime, witnessed by some 10,000 fairgoers, ensured it a prominent place in local lore.
Several other noteworthy, if less exhilarating, events occurred during the expositions. The 1874 exposition featured a race with some of the fastest racing horses in America at the time. A keynote speaker in 1875 was Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States of America. This seemed a controversial choice just 10 years after the end of the Civil War, but Davis was greeted by the largest crowd for a speaker at the exposition to that date. In 1877 a nationally-famous harness racing mare named Goldsmith Maid won a purse of $2,000 at the fair. The horseracing tradition officially sprung up in Kansas City the following year, when the exposition joined the Great Western Fair and Racing circuit. By 1883, the exposition moved to 38th Street and Summit Street of Westport, Missouri, where permanent buildings were constructed. Among these buildings were a grandstand and racetrack, valued at more than $75,000.
The fairground's final move was to 12th and 15th Streets, near Kansas Avenue, on land that is now occupied by a portion of Interstate 70. By then the National Exposition (it had changed names several times since its inception) had grown from a one-week event to a 45-day extravaganza. A network of cable cars and horse-drawn carriages claimed to transport guests between the exposition and any other point in the city in less than 20 minutes.
The most elaborate new attraction was conceived of by James Goodwin, a local entrepreneur, who planned to build a new main exposition building that was modeled after the Crystal Palace exposition building in London. At a cost of $200,000, Goodwin constructed Kansas City's own 740,000 square-foot Crystal Palace, just 250,000 square feet smaller than the original in London. It opened on October 6, 1887, with the capacity of 50,000 visitors per day. Famous guests to the fairgrounds that year were President Grover Cleveland and his wife, as well as wealthy railroad tycoons Chauncey M. Depew and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
That same year, the first Priests of Pallas parade was held as a part of the exposition. The gaudy procession went on to become a major attraction in its own right, and over the next several years its popularity gradually eclipsed that of the annual expositions. After the grand opening of the Crystal Palace in 1887, interest in the fair unexpectedly waned, leading to a significant decline in attendance and profits. The 1892 exposition actually recorded a net loss of $12,000. The last of Kansas City's industrial expositions was held in 1893 as a nationwide economic depression took hold.
The Crystal Palace still served as the major focal point in 1893, but after the expositions ended, the building fell into disuse. At just six years old, it was an abandoned building. Its 80,000 square-foot glass ceiling was soon riddled from hail and wind storms, and the inside of the building was exposed to the elements. On August 5, 1901, just five days before its scheduled demolition, three seemingly separate fires broke out in the building, simultaneously. Fortunately the blaze was contained before it spread to the crowded tents of the Ringling Brothers circus that were set up nearby. Arson was soon suspected on the part of neighbors who had feared that the planned use of dynamite in the demolition could possibly damage their homes, but these allegations were never proven. With the destruction of the Crystal Palace, the last major remnant of Kansas City's great industrial expositions had vanished.
View images of the Crystal Palace that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Drawing of Crystal Palace, 1890
- Interior view of the Crystal Palace, 1887
- The Crystal Palace under construction, 1887
- Crystal Palace, 1887
- Crystal Palace, 1890
- Crystal Palace, with soldiers and tents in the foreground, 1890
Check out the following books and articles about the Crystal Palace, held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930, by Felicia Hardison Londre, pp. 109-111.
- Kansas City Then & Now, by Monroe Dodd, pp. 28-29.
- The Early History of the Lumber Trade in Kansas City: The Prophetic City, by Charles P. Deatherage; describes the Crystal Palace, pp. 16-19, 26.
Continue researching the Crystal Palace using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Microfilm: Native Sons Scrapbooks, Roll 24: Crystal Palace
- Souvenir of Kansas City and Her Fire Department, by T.R. Tinsley; contains an illustration of the Crystal Palace, 1893.
- "The Gateway of Kansas: A Supplement to Harper's Weekly," by William Willard Howard, in Harper's Weekly, September 15, 1888, pp. 702-704.
- Bird's Eye View of Early Kansas City; includes an advertisement for the National Agricultural Exposition, featuring the Crystal Palace, 1887.
- Microfilm: Native Sons Scrapbooks, Roll 24, Kansas City Industrial Exposition
- National Agricultural Exposition
- "Exposition Flats," in Kansas City Architect and Builder, April 1901; describes plans to raze the Crystal Palace before its accidental destruction by fire, pp 4-23.
- "Kansas City Industrial Exposition Reflects a Century of Progress," Kansas City Centennial Souvenir Program, 1950; describes the history of industrial progress in Kansas City, starting in 1850.
- Vertical File: Residential Districts--Dundee Place; this one-time residential district went on to serve as the site of the Kansas City Industrial Exposition.
By Jason Roe, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, University of Kansas.
Carrie Westlake Whitney, Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1808-1908, Vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: The S.J. Clarke Publishing, Co., 1908), 221-225.
Felicia Hardison Londre, The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 107-111.
Sherry Lamb Schirmer, At the River's Bend: An Illustrated History of Kansas City: Independence and Jackson County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982), 150-152.