Cities of the Heartland

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Friday, November 19, 2010

In his preamble to the Fall 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly Lewis Lapham writes, “Pericles conceived of ancient Athens as the expression of man’s humanity to man.” Though this notion seems a far shot from today’s Midwestern cityscapes, a recent battle over an old building in the heart of Kansas City shows that people feel a definite, human connection to our city’s defining places.

Juxtaposing texts from history and literature over the centuries with essays by contemporary thinkers, the Fall LQ (most of which is readable for free online) explores the evolution of the city in civilization – and our relationship to it over time. From expressions of the greatness of gods and kings in ancient times to today’s sprawling conduits of commerce, cities have shown the aspirations and limitations of society – a constant push and pull between higher ideals and economic expediency.

This Wednesday, November 17, Lapham will visit the Kansas City Public Library for a conversation with Library Director Crosby Kemper III about what makes a city great. Anyone who’s interested in Kansas City’s ever-changing landscape, from downtown redevelopment to suburban expansion, would do well to join the free discussion, which starts at 6:30 p.m. (RSVP to reserve your place.)

The Balcony Scene

Like many American cities struggling with the dueling forces of preservation and practicality, today’s Kansas City has its share of fights. This reality was keenly felt in the recent struggle over one of the Country Club Plaza’s defining, Spanish-style properties built by J.C. Nichols in the 1920s.

When plans were announced this past August for the demolishing of the “balcony building” at 47th and Broadway and the raising of a sleek, blandly modern, eight-story law office building in its place, anger erupted across the city.

The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects released a statement describing the 90-year-old Plaza as “one of Kansas City’s great treasures” and called the proposed new building design “not good enough.”

A Friends of the Plaza group formed and set up a Facebook page that has gained nearly 9,000 fans. Even two former executives of both Nichols Co. and Highwoods Properties (the group that owns the Plaza), spoke out against the plan. People argued that the proposal violated the Plaza Urban Design & Development Plan, which was established in 1989 to preserve the Country Club Plaza’s architectural uniqueness and cultural significance to Kansas City.

The developers heard the outcry. Their latest plan has the new office tower moving farther north and the balcony building staying where it is – that is, still standing.

Why is the balcony building so beloved? To answer this question, we must take a look back at the principles that guided Kansas City’s early growth and development.

As Warren Breckman notes in his essay for LQ focusing on the visual aspects of cities over history, the turn of the 20th century saw planners in America’s major cities reacting to the “grievous problems of hygiene and overcrowding that had accompanied the dizzying growth of the industrial cities of America and Europe during the 19th century.”

In many American cities, this reform movement came to be known as City Beautiful. It placed an emphasis on the creation of green spaces, monuments, classical architecture, and other evocations of the past – “sacred sites” as Breckman calls them. It was a movement Pericles would’ve endorsed.

Many of Kansas City’s most famous landmarks can trace their origins to the time of City Beautiful. In the early 1890s, August Meyer, president of the park board of Kansas City, and landscape architect George Kessler together laid out a plan for parks and boulevards that would prefigure the later beautification efforts in places like Chicago and Washington D.C.

Though it came after City Beautiful, Nichols’ Country Club District was a natural extension of this aesthetically oriented urban-planning philosophy.

And even if the vast majority of the people who are now rallying to save this corner of the Plaza have never heard of this era in American architectural history, they nonetheless feel an emotional bond to the parks, boulevards, fountains, monuments, and buildings left behind by our city’s early shapers.

Indeed, if it weren’t for visionaries like Meyer, Kessler, and Nichols, Kansas City’s heart might very well be stocked with disposable structures in various states of decay and replacement. But places that speak to the hearts of people in the community – places like the balcony building – are, by their nature, built to last.

Join the larger discussion of the life of the city in human history when Lewis Lapham comes to the Kansas City Public Library on Wednesday, November 17.

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-- Jason Harper