Monday, March 5, 2012

Kansas City Design Week -- part 2: The West Bottoms

In the interest of getting something posted, this is going to be a picture-heavy, text-light entry about the walking tour of the West Bottoms neighborhood that I went on yesterday, led by the very knowledgeable Cydney Millstein, an architectural historian and preservation consultant who works in Kansas City. The vast majority of the information in this post came from her talk.
Sketched this while sitting in my car and waiting for the talk to begin. Not my best sketch, especially given that the wall actually said "STANDARD SEED CO./GRASS FIELD AND GARDEN SEED" rather than what I drew it as. . . . There's a monument to the railroad on the left and a monument to slaves who escaped through this neighborhood to Kansas just out of the frame on the left of that.
The West Bottoms is akin to Omaha's North Downtown or Old Market -- an industrial neighborhood with close ties to the river and the railroad, originally a home of factories, warehouses, and stores (and in both cases, one of the major train stations), which since the height of their commercial importance have fallen into disuse. In Omaha's case, the Old Market has largely been revamped into a trendy area of restaurants, boutiques, and expensive housing, while the North Downtown remains in a state similar to the West Bottoms -- a few artists' studios, a few stores, and a lot of buildings that are either abandoned or appear disused. (Unlike Omaha, the biggest stockyards in Kansas City were also found in the West Bottoms, whereas I am pretty sure Omaha's stockyards were mostly in the southern part of the city.)

1895 birdseye view of West Bottoms
1895 view of the West Bottoms

You can see in this map (which sadly I have not yet found in a larger size) the way the whole neighborhood was organized inside a triangle of riverfronts and split by a huge number of railroad lines. Many of the important buildings on this map -- like the Union Depot, which was at that time the major train station in Kansas City and one of the major hubs in east-west rail traffic -- have been torn down, many after the big 1903 flood that inundated the area. The vast majority of the buildings are masonry brick buildings of Romanesque inclinations but overall very utilitarian designs.

Mainly I'm including this photo to show how dominated by rail lines the neighborhood is even now, and most of them have been torn out. The Brutalist-looking building at the end was actually kind of an Arts-and-Crafts building by an architect named McKeckley (the correct spelling of which I cannot seem to find with Google), that was later covered in cement. Because that's always a good idea.
Many of the buildings have also gone through various additions and alterations, some more obvious than others. Like many railroad communities, the West Bottoms saw sort of a long slow decline from the 1940s-50s to now, when they are trying to redevelop it into a new and interesting neighborhood. The bones of a great area are there, though I sort of wonder how they are going to deal with the always-present threat of flooding, especially since the high-water mark in the 1950 flood in this neighborhood was about twelve feet up (as evidenced by little plaques put up in commemoration.)

The West Bottoms are at the bottom (thus the name) of the tall bluff that the rest of Kansas City sits on. For a large part of the neighborhood's history, it was an ongoing problem of how to get people, cars, and horse teams down into the bottoms for trade and commerce. The first solution was a cable car, built in 1888 at an 18.5% grade (more or less like a ski lift.) It was abandoned in 1905 because people hated it because it was scary. Then came the 8th street tunnel, which started 900 ft back from the bluff and moved down at a much gentler slope. This fed into the Union Depot. (One of the guys who talked to us was about seventy, and he said he remembered riding the train down over the West Bottoms and trying to hold his breath the whole way because the smell of the stockyards was overpowering.) This tunnel is still there, though blocked off to pedestrians. In 1907, the only way to get horse teams down into the Bottoms was a two-ton elevator that cost 15 cents to ride that a branch from the viaduct fed into. The current bridge, a double-deck concrete bridge with an arch over the train tracks that run below, was designed by J.A.L Waddell and John Lyle Harrington and completed in 1915. Originally there was an electric tram, a walkway for pedestrians, and a street for cars on the top deck, and a street for horse teams and heavy traffic on the lower deck. 

There's a lot of advertising still visible, though most of it is no longer accurate and heavily layered from multiple repaintings over the years. There are a couple family businesses that are still down there after three or four generations, such as Faultless Starch, which makes, as you might have guessed, starch.

The aforementioned 12th Street bridge. It's very pretty.

A former grocery distributor, I believe.

More 12th Street Bridge. 

I wanted to show the loading platforms that a ton of these buildings had -- many of the streets had  spurs from the railroad running down them right next to the buildings, so these were on level with the cars and/or trucks. 
Thus, the waking tour tour of the West Bottoms.

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