The large stone building in Gillham Park just south of 39th Street that has sat vacant and neglected for five years will soon be put to good use again, and in a way that honors its historic function.
Just as 100 years ago, the building will become a setting for horses that contribute to the vibrancy of the community.
The Kansas City park board has just approved a two-year lease for use of the building, plus several other smaller structures, by Danelle and Bobby McGee, whose Kansas City Carriages company operates the horse-drawn carriages on the Country Club Plaza.
“It’s such a cool place,” said Bobby McGee, who is excited about restoring the buildings as a daytime setting for horses. “The idea is to get them back to the original sense.”
According to a nearby historical marker, the main barn was built in 1905 of native limestone to house a dozen horses plus mowers and other parks equipment that the horses helped pull. Eventually, the site became a maintenance facility that housed mechanical equipment until 2010, when the central maintenance staff relocated to a more modern building in the West Bottoms.
The department then explored various options for the Gillham building, including a proposal by Paul Mesner Puppets, but that plan turned out to be too expensive and was abandoned in 2013.
McGee said he originally had approached the parks department several years ago about Kansas City Carriages doing programming for children and adults in the parks. But when he realized the Gillham Park buildings were available and needed a viable use, the McGees and parks staff began negotiating in earnest.
The McGees had hoped to be in the buildings last year, but the parks department took extra time to vet other ideas and make sure nearby Hyde Park residents approved.
At a recent neighborhood meeting, residents voted overwhelmingly for the McGees’ plan, according to Denise Phillips, contract administrator with the department. The park board then unanimously approved the lease, which begins June 1.
Phillips said a wonderful aspect of the plan is that the McGees will provide public programming and opportunities for children and families — in the neighborhood and beyond — to visit the horses and enjoy other activities. Carriage rides will be provided in at least four locations per year, including Shoal Creek, Swope Park, Gillham and other parks as arranged.
For Santa’s Wonderland events this year and next, Santa will be driven in a horse-drawn sleigh to the events instead of on a tractor, as has been the case in recent years.
A small pumpkin patch/fall festival experience is planned in Gillham Park and possibly elsewhere this year and next, with details to come.
The McGees have been trucking their horses in from the Northland every day to a warehouse building at Troost Avenue and Brush Creek Boulevard, before walking them to and from the Plaza. The horses return to the Northland at night.
Housing more than a dozen horses during the day at Gillham Park instead of on Troost Avenue will give them higher visibility, and people will be able to see them move every day to the Plaza. The carriages will also be stored at the Gillham facility.
The main Gillham barn requires significant work. The parks department will provide water and electrical service and pay to put on a new roof. The McGees are responsible for cleaning out the interior and figuring out how to put it back into use in a historically appropriate way.
Bobby McGee said the horses should start to appear on the site in June or July. They will originally be housed in one of the smaller buildings and in portable stalls.
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.