In the stuffy upstairs of a stately, though padlocked, downtown brick building, silver serving trays and poker chips sit in the quiet dark, left behind by ghosts of men who built this city.
Going back to 1882, the Kansas City Club was the place our kings of industry, social elite and other big shots gathered for hard talk, hard liquor and cigars. They swung deals from fat leather chairs and back-slapped within the confines of fine wood paneling.
It was the den of the special few.
But now, not only can you finally see what’s inside this place, you can get something for your house.
The whole thing is up for sale. Bankruptcy auction. No irony there.
The big-ticket item may be a “well worn” poker table reportedly given to the club by Harry Truman. Or how about a 9-foot tall, “circa 1887 Walter Durfee Honduran mahogany tubular chiming grandfather clock with Elliott movement and mercury filled brass pendulum”? A glance may have hurried banker R. Crosby Kemper Sr., a board member in the early 1950s, to a meeting.
A bit much? Then a plain white coffee mug, perhaps. Who knows, boss Tom Pendergast could have sipped from it while choosing his next alderman.
The online auction, featuring furniture, hundreds of vintage china place settings, liquor, Ivy League yearbooks, cookware, fitness equipment, oil on canvas university banners and artwork, is very much an estate sale. An era has died.
Gentlemen’s clubs such as the Kansas City Club that started in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century have closed all over the country because of aging membership and changing times.
“I’ll always remember the tradition of the place,” longtime member Stephen Franke, president of MidWest Gloves & Gear in Chillicothe, Mo., said Thursday. “The holiday brunches, meeting friends there for lunch, father-son ties.
“It’s sad that it all ended. But everything changes.”
Today’s men on the move don’t need business tips over brandy and cigars — they have MarketWatch and Google Fiber. And just the term — “gentlemen’s club” — suggests a place you go with a pocketful of dollar bills.
Besides, guys now rush home after work to get a kid to soccer practice, or maybe it’s their night to cook dinner.
Neither would have kept away Gen. Omar Bradley. He needed a drink with the boys after invading Germany.
Same for Gardiner Lathrop, Yale alumnus, prominent railroad lawyer, co-founder of Lathrop & Gage. He was one of the early board members of the club and may have read beneath the brass and marble nine-light torchieres listed in the auction catalog.
Other notable members included a couple of presidents — Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ewing Kauffman belonged. So did U.S. Sen. Harry Darby; lumber magnate Robert Long; Thomas B. Bullene of Emery, Bird, Thayer Dry Goods; and former Kansas City Mayor Richard Berkley.
In 1987, the club had about 2,180 members. By 2001, the ranks had fallen to fewer than 900. In addition to the cultural changes, another factor came when the federal tax code was changed to no longer allow deductions for club membership fees.
“Things really started drying up after that,” Franke said.
Inside the double doors on Baltimore, it’s clear right off this is not the Elks Lodge.
There sit two high-backed Spanish Baroque revival-style armchairs that look like thrones. A sign directs members to the athletic club, where another sign asks, “Would you like your shoes shined?”
White tags hang from everything in the place, from the treadmills in the first-floor gym to the poker chips up top. The tag is the lot number for the auction, which is broken down into two parts.
The building will likely be sold, too, said Janice Stanton, the bankruptcy trustee. The club had moved there in 2001 when it merged with the University Club. For eight decades prior, the Kansas City Club occupied a 14-story building at 13th and Baltimore.
A possibly Denver buyer has emerged for the current site, but Stanton said she was not at liberty to comment on that.
“Right now, we are to liquidate assets and get as much money as possible,” she said.
In a reception area at the top of the stairs stands the big grandfather clock. Next is a “historic Chinoiserie style 9 Tube 60V radio receiver,” circa 1930. A Japanese dignitary gave it to Truman, who later donated it to the club.
The Truman poker table sits nearby. It comes with six chairs and an ash tray at each station.
“How often does an opportunity like this come along?” asked Robert Mayo, president of Mayo Auction. “We know Harry Truman was quite a poker player, and this table has seen a lot of games in its day.”
The club’s library has shelves of classic books, along with yearbooks from the Ivy League schools many members attended. The books from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell date from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
How about an eight-volume set of “Great Men and Famous Women”?
Bassett Brazilian leather club chairs sit about. Eisenhower could have settled in one and shared a story about his reservation in sending troops to Little Rock, Ark. The ash tray he might have used — it’s for sale, too.
Then there’s the huge banquet hall with tables covered with china, flatware and silver service. This is where the school banners, probably a remnant from the University Club days, hung from the high ceiling. Another room is filled with kitchen equipment.
A billiards room and bar take up the third floor. The sale includes lots of liquor, including many bottles with the Kansas City Club crest on the label.
Scattered throughout is artwork and historic items from Truman and Eisenhower. And even some from Kauffman, such as an autographed photo of the 1985 World Series trophy.
“Let us hope — the first of many! Ewing ‘Mr. K’ Kauffman”
How about it, Royals fans — care to court some serendipity?
Mayo said it took his employees months to catalog all the items.
“It’s rare for a club like this, one that has been around so long, to liquidate,” he said. “I would think a lot of members, or their family, would be bidding on some of these items.
“We are seeing bids from all over the country and a few from other countries.”
Franke, the longtime member, would like to see some of the more historical pieces go to a library or historical society.
“Especially the old university tapestries,” he said.
The men who brought those pieces are mostly long gone now. Some arrived before the automobile, and now the remnants of their gathering are being sold piece by piece on the Internet.
They were men of a different time. They came young and ambitious, filled with ideas and hope.
Like their city by the river.
To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two auction previews are scheduled at the Kansas City Club building, 918 Baltimore Ave.
▪ 1 to 5 p.m. Sept. 8 for the fitness and banquet equipment
▪ 1 to 5 p.m. Sept. 21 for the antiques, art and historic items
For more information: auctionbymayo.com