Steve Paul

Historic apartments in midtown deserve another chance

Updated: 2014-01-29T18:24:08Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

An architectural travesty is in the making in New York. The Museum of Modern Art, expanding again on its dense urban block in midtown Manhattan, has announced it will raze the vacated but distinctive and relatively young American Folk Art Museum building next door.

In Portland, Ore., the future of a 31-year-old, rickety municipal office building, designed by Michael Graves at the height of post-modern visual excess — it’s not well liked, that is, but remains historically important — is being debated and demolition is a possibility.

And in midtown Kansas City, a quartet of related apartment buildings, designed more than a century ago by a notable local architect, has been designated for extinction by a developer with an otherwise welcome record of renovation and rehab along Armour Boulevard.

The four local structures are in sad shape, and the developer has argued that to scrape the site and build a new and larger apartment complex would cost far less than the rehab it had originally planned.

That’s a shame.

The buildings, at 100 to 118 W. Armour Blvd., were designed by John McKecknie, a significant Kansas City architect of the first three decades of the 20th century. Among other buildings — from eye-popping mansions to the Tension Envelope headquarters near downtown — McKecknie created many small colonnaded apartment buildings that define great swaths of midtown. These four brick structures — three two-story duplexes and a three-story, 18-unit building — date to 1902-03.

The Historic Kansas City Foundation has tried to halt the demolition. Amanda Crawley, its executive director, testified at a Historic Preservation Commission hearing last fall that allowing the owners, Antheus Capital of New Jersey, to proceed would set a regrettable precedent of “demolition by neglect.” She argued that the properties were in reasonably better shape — 19 of the 24 units were occupied — when Antheus bought them in 2008, and their condition has declined ever since.

The Landmarks Commission denied the developer’s request to demolish the buildings and also denied the developer’s economic-hardship argument to proceed.

Peter Cassel, of Silliman Group in Chicago, the development arm of Antheus Capital, contended that renovation of the four buildings would cost far more than building a new, 40-unit complex.

“It’s just not possible to save these buildings,” Cassel said the other day. “We tried to finance them in 2009, we tried to finance them in 2011, we tried to sell them in 2012, and we tried to give them away. And so what we haven’t found is somebody who believes in these buildings enough that they’re willing to spend more money on them than they’d be worth.”

Cassel’s company and its local property manager, MAC Properties, have impressively renovated nearly 1,500 apartments in numerous buildings along and near the Armour Boulevard historic district. The group has lined up Hufft Projects, a Kansas City architectural firm known for a style of sleek, upscale modernism, to design a historically sensitive replacement project on the site.

Crawley and representatives of the Old Hyde Park Neighborhood Association maintain that doing anything but rehabbing the existing properties would tear at the fabric of the historic boulevard and district. And they maintain hope that “other opportunities for a different developer with a different business model” may yet arise, Crawley said this week.

The Board of Zoning Adjustment will take up Cassel’s appeal on Jan. 28.

Four small apartment buildings may not seem like much, measured against New York landmarks and a Portland office tower. But they represent a block’s worth of history and neighborhood identity in Kansas City’s urban core. Here’s hoping that neighborhood preservation can prevail and that these McKecknie buildings get another chance to live on. And maybe Kansas City can prove that we value historic preservation in ways that other cities don’t.

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/sbpaul.

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