The old brick building run by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios — the one with the roaring lion — used to house film reels and movie salesmen.
Now it’s a vacuum warehouse in the Crossroads with a line to Kansas City’s Hollywood past, back when MGM was one of the major cinema shops moving movies on Film Row. Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios also set up shop in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood, along with similar Film Row neighborhoods in about 30 cities nationwide, was home to more than a dozen film distribution centers established after World War I to serve increasing demand for movie theaters and entertainment.
Mehdi “Dave” Daee bought the MGM building at 220 W. 18th St. in 1992. Daee runs American Vacuum Co. and uses the place to store his merchandise.
The owner hasn’t planned a sale or a teardown, but the organization Historic Kansas City says “the MGM building is threatened by owner neglect,” which preservationists fear might lead to its condemnation and demolition. The historic preservation group has put the building on its “most endangered” list two years running.
The preservation group aimed to save a similar building on Film Row a few years ago, but it was unsuccessful. The Orion Pictures building was demolished in April 2013 and replaced by a parking garage.
The group also wants a strategy that protects the building and the entire Film Row area. You only need two hands to count the number of cities with intact historic film distribution districts, and Kansas City is one of the fingers.
A historical survey of the MGM building noted in 1982 that brewer George Muehlebach used to live on the land and piped well water to his brewery two blocks away. Muehlebach’s home was knocked down in 1929, and MGM got the first lease of the current building.
It could hold 15,000 reels of film, it included a small theater and, like other buildings in the area, it was built in the late art deco style, according to the survey.
Bill Sebring bought the building in 1969, said Dave Edwards of drapery retailer Sebring and Co.
Edwards said he worked in the building after returning from military service in the fall of 1969, setting up shelves and painting the interior. Some of the cement film vaults were knocked out to free up room for inventory, and a partial second-floor expansion was done in the 1970s, he said.
Sebring and Co. moved out in 1990, Edwards said. The MGM building sat vacant before being sold.
Jerry Fogel of commercial real estate firm Kessinger Hunter handled the sale of the MGM building and the nearby United Artists building. He recalled the sales hitch posed by the MGM building’s “dungeons” — the fireproof, concrete vaults, fortified with steel, that stored potentially explosive film.
“It was fun to be challenged by them, but they didn’t sell for big dollars because of the fundamental obstacles inherent in the buildings,” he said. “That’s what they were used for: things where you could compartmentalize your inventory and do your picking in an efficient manner.”
Edwards, now president of Sebring and Co., said the building’s appearance has changed some since the company moved.
“It looks terrible,” he said. “Real shame.”
The building has been scarred since 1982, when surveyors noted that its exterior was in “good” condition and wasn’t endangered. Some patches of brick show where graffiti has been painted over. Elsewhere, as with the planters out front, bricks are missing or cracked. The windows have been blacked out.
A lack of upkeep has concerned Historic Kansas City and other advocates of historic preservation such as David Johnson, who lives in the Crossroads and is the president of the Crossroads Community Association.
“We want the building to be saved and preferably restored,” Johnson said.
Worried that the building would be neglected beyond repair, he asked for the building to go on the group’s list of endangered buildings.
Stephanie Frank, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, shares the concern that the building might be neglected into condemnation. She said the effort by Historic Kansas City to formally establish a protected historical district — “a really difficult process” — has been placed on hold.
Part of the preservation push notes the building’s history of property code violations: graffiti, overgrown weeds, broken window panes, loose bricks. Daee paid any fines and fixed the reported violation in every case, according to the city.
Johnson said he was among those to report the warehouse to the city. He hasn’t spoken with Daee, but he has talked with people who have tried to buy the property.
Butch Rigby, a developer and owner of Screenland Theatres, said he would consider turning the place into offices or a restaurant, perhaps with a rooftop deck.
Rigby said he wouldn’t tear down the MGM building, but he would upgrade the windows, restore the bricks and install a new roof while maintaining the building’s appearance.
“We’re never going to have a building in place that looks like that one,” he said.
Cydney Millstein, an architectural historian based in Kansas City, said the building had “a lot of character for a modestly designed building.”
The windows, the brickwork, the stone at the base and top of the exterior wall — they need repair, but they are originals, she said.
Millstein said maintenance was “critical to keeping the historic integrity of the building.” She doesn’t think the building is endangered at this point but acknowledged its importance.
“If you start erasing individual buildings from a larger district, you’ll lose the historical and architectural context,” she said.
The building may be historically significant, but two men who used to work in the film industry said it was a pretty plain place to be.
George Kieffer remembers walking past the bronze MGM logo out front into the studio offices.
“It was a working facility,” he said. “It wasn’t a lavish deal.”
Film seller John Shipp used to work for MGM, though he started after the company left the 18th Street location. He’s familiar with the process and the history.
The big open space after you walk in the door would have been the booking area, he said. A theater owner would sit down with a salesperson and work out showtimes and terms.
Shipp said that during the heyday of the mid 20th century, “MGM had the biggest stars in Hollywood,” including Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, two actresses with Kansas City connections. Other big names were Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
“They were head and shoulders above every film company at the time,” Kieffer said.
Kieffer came up under Stan Durwood, inventor of the multiplex theater and founder of the company that became AMC Theatres. Stan’s brother Dick Durwood remembers Film Row as “kind of a quaint little area. … It was a fun place to work and the people were fun to get along with.”
Dick Durwood recalls that the MGM building was bright, busy but not noisy, clean and not ornate.
For a building full of vacuums, it’s awfully dusty. The only argument against roof repair is that rain might clean the floors. Clearly, it’s used for warehousing and not for any administrative purposes.
Daee said part of the roof on the second floor would be fixed before the fall, but he has no other definite maintenance plans.
“We do try to keep it halfway clean, but the problem is we’re not there,” he said.
Still, something about the space pulls you in. When the lights come up, the view is striking: vacuum cleaners, as far as the eye can see.
Some stand in neat, regimented rows. Others sprawl willy-nilly, as if a cargo plane ditched its load above the warehouse.
Daee, the owner, said he was aware that the building has some connection to MGM, but he wasn’t aware the building was historic when he bought it. He just thought it was a convenient place to house vacuums for his eight stores.
He’s had to deal with some drama. Thieves once broke in through a window and took off with more than 100 vacuum cleaners. Graffiti pops up “constantly,” he said.
That hasn’t stopped him from keeping the place jammed with vacuum cleaners from front atrium to movie vault.
The film reels are long gone, but Daee has a collection of classics in its own right. Walking through the maze, fans can see all the big names: Dyson, Hoover, Dirt Devil, Bissell, Oreck.
Daee stores some new vacuums, but the vast majority of his stock is used. He has mostly uprights, with some canisters and central units. People with old vacuums come to him in search of parts no longer in production, he said.
Daee owns the MGM building because it’s convenient for his business, he said, not because he wants to flip it.
He doesn’t think the building is endangered. He hadn’t considered the building as something to be preserved.
“I’ve never looked at it in that term,” he said. “I use it as a warehouse.”
Rigby, who once owned the parking lot adjacent to the building, said he thought it might be bought for $400,000 to $500,000. He’s tried four times since the 1990s, he said, but not in the last decade.
The interest is there, but Daee said the building isn’t for sale. It may be “a junkyard of vacuums” as he puts it, but it’s his junkyard of vacuums.