In the late 1990s, photographer Mike Sinclair wondered: Why does Kansas City seem so much emptier than it did 60 years ago?
Payday loan stores had crept onto Main Street, once a bustling retail district. What was there before?
Stately apartment buildings along Armour Boulevard were slowly decaying. Would those buildings be there in another two decades?
For the next 10 years, he photographed buildings along Kansas City’s main drag to document his curiosity. He parlayed the photos into an exhibit called “Main Street,” on display at the Kansas City Central Library until July 3.
The displayed photographs — 41 in all — capture downtown, Main Street and Armour Boulevard before new construction, including downtown’s entertainment district, revitalized the area. They show a contrast between the sleepy city and the architecture’s timeless beauty, a disparity that fascinated Sinclair, who also works as an architectural photographer and as a professor in the University of Kansas’ School of Architecture, Design & Planning.
“Armour Boulevard was much more down on its heels than it is now when I took those photographs,” Sinclair said. “It’s been radically improved, but I thought it was sad. I thought it was really sad that there’s these beautiful apartment buildings, and yet they’re all kind of crumbling.”
Sinclair captured the contrast in his favorite photo, a shot of the Newbern apartments at 525 E. Armour Blvd., built in the 1920s. The ornate terra cotta entrance connecting the apartment’s two towers contrasts the brown patches of grass along the parkway and casually dressed men standing outside the building.
The neighborhood has changed significantly since Sinclair took that photo in 1998.
“Up and down Armour, if you go there in the evening, it’s parked with nice cars,” he said. “Before, it was parked with beat-up old cars that had been in wrecks. It’s a classic tale of gentrification.”
Sinclair used a view camera — the kind that requires a tripod and the use of a cloth over the photographer’s head. The view camera prevents the lines of a tall building from seeming to converge in a photograph.
When he started the project, Sinclair said, he wasn’t looking for anything specific.
“What I’m interested in is the exploring, the walking around. I try to not have a lot of ideas in my head. My most successful projects are the ones where I’m confused.”
He often set out on Sunday mornings, when there were few parked cars along the streets, aiming to capture the spot where the buildings met the sidewalk. And there are few people in the photos, though Sinclair admitted that “there weren’t people any day of the week.”
Destiny Badeaux, 20, viewed the exhibit on a recent afternoon. She moved to Kansas City four months ago, but said she could see downtown’s evolution when she looked at the photographs.
“The buildings themselves have a lot of history, just by looking at them and the details they have on them,” Badeaux said. “This city seems to progress pretty fast. They’ve built themselves up within just years.”
Viewers will recognize Kansas City’s icons: Liberty Memorial, Union Station, J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, the old Katz Drugstore on Main. They may contemplate downtown’s renaissance when they study “Main Street,” but Sinclair said that wasn’t necessarily his intention.
Sinclair, who grew up in Kansas City just west of Country Club Plaza, said he is more interested in what other people see in the photos. He regularly reads the guestbook placed outside the gallery.
“I’m interested in the questions. I’m not good at the answers,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed reading the comments, which are, ‘Beautiful, reminds me of an earlier time.’ I guess it’s the closest I can get to hearing people’s stories.”