When one drives around Meyer Circle on Ward Parkway, the thought that usually does not come to mind is how our Kansas City forebears were for decades dusted, slowly and unwittingly, with toxic heavy metals.
Fortunately, the splendorous Sea Horse Fountain (especially when working) and the boulevard running off east are more pleasant reminders of August R. Meyer, who became Kansas City’s first parks board president in 1892.
So, too, is the bas-relief of his likeness found at East 10th Street and The Paseo, a premier green space we enjoy today, along with Penn Valley, both suggested by Meyer.
In 1896, Meyer gave us another monument of sorts, his 35-room mansion at 44th Street and Warwick Boulevard. Marburg, he called it, after a German university town.
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Today we know it as Vanderslice Hall, the nerve center for all that right-brained genius coursing through the Kansas City Art Institute.
Born to prosperous St. Louis Germans, Meyer studied in Zurich, picking up mining lore that served him well on raw, riddled Colorado mountainsides. He co-founded boomtown Leadville with “Silver King” Horace Tabor in 1877.
Four years later, Meyer tapped a second rich vein, so to speak, in the little Kaw-side settlement of Argentine. Buying a small furnace there, he grew it into the Kansas City Consolidated Smelting and Refining Co., considered then the world’s largest.
Hard to believe today that the riches of the Rockies, Mexico and Canada once came rattling all the way here to become bricks of gold and silver gobbled by U.S. mints.
And ingots of lead, nearly 40 tons worth in 1898, the year Meyer sold controlling interest. The furnaces finally cooled in 1901, and although one wouldn’t have noticed amid all the other smokestack emissions and coal soot, Kansas City’s air became significantly less lead-laden. The landmark was eventually demolished in 1958.
Far from this nitty-gritty, Meyer lived a, well, refined life as a neighbor of William Rockhill Nelson, another parks pusher and publisher of The Kansas City Star. Just as the city’s rich were roaring off east from uptown, Nelson and Meyer jerked the reins of development to the south with their residences.
Meyer died at only 54 in 1905. Howard Vanderslice paid $140,000 in 1927 for the eight-acre estate to give to the Art Institute. The widow Emma Meyer long supported the seminal Sketch Club, the early foundation of the school.
While some romantics see German Gothic whim in Marburg’s gables and dormers, designed by Van Brunt & Howe architects, it’s really classic Queen Anne, now captive to a surrounding mishmash of architectural whims.
Hike the neighborhood
As part of its Fall Heritage Hikes, Historic Kansas City will lead a walk through the neighborhoods of August Meyer and William Rockhill Nelson at 9 a.m. Nov. 10. Details at HistoricKansasCity.org.