On a walking tour Saturday, leader Nancy Powell noted that when railroads replaced pioneer trails, the historic town of Westport lost its dominance as the outpost where pioneers, trappers and explores outfitted themselves before heading west.
Now another form of progress — redevelopment — is challenging what remains of old Westport in midtown Kansas City.
Only a handful of 19th century structures remain in what’s evolved into one of Kansas City’s best known restaurant, shopping and entertainment districts.
About two dozen people followed Powell, a local historian, on a 1 1/2 -hour tour that highlighted places where historic structures have been lost to time, places where some still stand and places that will be lost to wrecking equipment.
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Pausing at the terrazzo “Three Trails West” map embedded in a slip of parkland at Westport Road and Broadway, Powell talked about the heyday of Westport outfitters between 1845 and 1860. Then she directed attention across the street to a brick building that soon will disappear.
The Kansas City Council in June approved a 256-unit apartment development for the corner of Westport Road and Broadway. It will be a large, six- or seven-story building on the site where a smaller building, housing a Bank of America branch, now stands.
A second and much larger project is proposed for four acres generally bounded by Westport Road, Mill Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It calls for a 215-unit apartment tower, a 120-room hotel, and retail and office space, including the existing Manor Square and parking garage.
Help Save Westport, a coalition of residents and others who want to preserve the architectural character of Old Westport, lost in their attempt to have decisions delayed on the big redevelopments until after an inventory is taken of the area’s historic structures.
The nonprofit Historic Kansas City group this year led a GoFundMe drive to raise $20,000, and a city council committee added $5,000 to finance a study by Rosin Preservation. The study, expected to take about six months, is looking at about 400 structures, generally between 39th and 43rd streets, extending a few blocks east and west of Broadway, to determine historic status.
Councilwomen Katheryn Shields and Jolie Justus, who represent the Westport area, are intending to introduce an ordinance that would postpone further redevelopment decisions for Westport until after the study is completed.
Preservation groups recently discovered that no one had ever applied for or received historic designation for the entire Westport district. Any preservation protections to date depend on individual building designations.
Powell’s tour, sponsored by the Historic Kansas City Foundation, started at the Harris Kearney House at 4000 Baltimore Ave., now preserved as a small museum. Stops included the Westport branch of the Kansas City Public Library and at parking lots and street corners where homes of Westport founders and business leaders once stood.
The heart of the tour — what Powell called the “heart of Old Westport” — was at Westport Road and Pennsylvania.
In the days leading up to the Civil War, the currently popular restaurant and bar corner also served hungry settlers, traders and travelers. Powell told how today’s McCoy’s Public House stands on the former site of McCoy’s Trading Post and the Harris House, a hotel that served as a Union headquarters during the Battle of Westport.
Perhaps the best known historic structure in Westport dating to the 1850s is Kelly’s tavern. It’s early use included a trading post operated by the grandson of explorer Daniel Boone. Next door to the west on Westport Road was the grocery store operated by explorer Jim Bridger’s family.
The tour ended in “Nutterville,” a neighborhood of “painted lady” bungalows bought and preserved by the James B. Nutter Co. That preservation, Powell said, highlights the ongoing character of Westport as a place where people both live and work.
Nutter, who died July 7, was noted for his love of Westport and his many contributions to the community.