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Westwood Hills seeks rare citywide historic designation

Updated: 2013-08-06T16:18:14Z


The Kansas City Star

George Washington didn’t sleep here. Harry Truman didn’t live here. And the Constitution wasn’t drafted here.

But that doesn’t mean Westwood Hills — the self-described “most beautiful little city in Kansas” — isn’t historic.

One of the first suburbs developed in Kansas by urban planning pioneer J.C. Nichols, this city of 51/2 blocks wants to establish its historical importance by getting listed on the state and federal registers for historic places.

“There is something so distinct and unique about this city,” said Karen Shelor Sexton, president of the Westwood Hills Historic Foundation. “It should be preserved.”

No other Kansas city has been placed entirely on the national list, state officials say, and there are only a handful of similar instances across the country.

A state review board is scheduled to consider the city’s request on Saturday. If the board signs off, it will go to the National Park Service for approval. Chances of getting on the national register are strong if it’s endorsed by the state.

The listing would be noteworthy because it would put the city of 359 people with its 1920s and ’30s architecture, winding streets and tall leafy trees on the official inventory of historic places worth protecting.

The designation would provide heightened protection from unwanted projects that could break up the continuity of the community’s architecture. It could also make available tax credits and grants that can be used to help refurbish aging properties. As an added bonus, it might boost property values.

The Westwood Hills initiative reflects an increasing trend of protecting suburban developments that are more than 50 years old.

Two years ago, a northern Overland Park subdivision of ranch homes was placed on the national historic register because it represented the “distinctively homogeneous appearance” common for homes built after World War II.

And in 2005, a downtown Overland Park theater built in 1946 won a spot on the national register as a prime example of the type of theater built in Kansas and throughout the United States in the first half of the 1900s.

While historic preservationists say it’s easier to write off suburban development in the last 50 years as insignificant because it’s still relatively new, it’s different for places that evolved in the first half of the last century.

“There is a lot of resistance to recognizing things from post-World War II as being historic,” said Chris Morris, senior program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s so recent that a lot of the people who are alive today don’t necessarily look at that as history.”

Westwood Hills residents think they have something special, and historical experts tend to agree.

They believe the city illustrates the residential design concepts that Nichols employed in other subdivisions in Missouri and Kansas. Those attributes included winding streets that followed the area’s topography, residential construction that conformed to deed restrictions and an active homeowners’ association.

While Westwood Hills was Nichols’ second development in Kansas, it was the first to integrate a commercial strip, which became a signature of his 1920s projects, according to the city’s application for the historical register.

“Listing Westwood Hills on the national register is a no-brainer,” said Jacob Wagner, associate professor of urban planning and design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It’s a great example of that particular era of suburban development.”

The city’s 175 homes, many constructed from 1923 to 1943, reflect a wide range of shapes and sizes that aren’t seen in newer suburban housing tracts. Built tightly together, many homes have an English influence, most notably in the Tudor Revival style that features brick and stucco siding with windows projecting from steeply pitched roofs.

The development of the city was influenced by two prominent female architects of the era, including Elizabeth Evans Rivard, the first woman to earn a bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Kansas.

Residents say the city has a sense of place, marked by a nearby stream and homes with cone-shaped roofs and red-brick walkways. “When you look at the community as a whole and the physical structures that are there, they are all so appealing,” said resident Mel Creveling. “We love living here.”

Experts say history isn’t confined to the idea that a building or an area is notable because it’s associated with a famous person or event. They say it’s as much about the collection of buildings that tell a story about how we live.

Morris said that Westwood Hills’ efforts are similar to what the Village of Riverside did in the Chicago suburbs, earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places as one of the country’s earliest planned communities.

“That model of the planned community is still being played out today,” Morris said. “It’s telling you something about our culture and the ways that we live.”

Morris sees Nichols’ role in shaping Westwood Hills in a similar historical context.

“He was testing out something there from a planning perspective that in many ways was shaping the way Americans lived their lives,” she said.

The drive for historic designation in Westwood Hills is fueled as much by an effort to save a suburb closer to the city as it is by the desire to save a piece of history.

There’s always the threat of tear-down nuisances where someone wants to replace a home with something bigger that may not be compatible with the neighborhood.

But historic preservation brings tighter controls aimed at keeping out development or construction that doesn’t reflect the atmosphere of an area.

Establishment of a historic district could have affected development in neighboring Westwood because it would have subjected to state review any project built within 500 feet of the district — in this case, 187 Westwood properties near the border with Westwood Hills.

But the Kansas Legislature this year eliminated the historic buffer in response to a dispute that bubbled up from another part of the state.

Westwood Hills has already passed a new building code aimed at protecting its character. The city will apply the building code to new construction regardless of whether the historical district is approved.

“Each house is different. It’s not like the cookie-cutter (houses) you see out in Overland Park,” said resident John Pahlmann, who moved to Westwood Hills less than a year ago.

“If you’re moving into a community you need to honor the group norms. The values of the house are based on the historic nature of them. It’s good to keep that consistent.”

To reach Brad Cooper call 816-234-7724 or send email to

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