Nearly two years ago, as rumblings about the impending death of Kemper Arena began to spread, its principal designer, Helmut Jahn of Chicago, gave a talk at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“Only the passage of time,” Jahn told the audience at a slide-show retrospective of his career, “shows the real value and quality of a building.”
Time has had its way with Kemper Arena. The bright white hulk of a building, with its defining trio of external braces, has made a striking stand in Kansas City’s West Bottoms since its completion in 1974. It serves as a kind of modern-American equivalent of the ancient Roman arena, versions of which still dot European landscapes as ruins or revived gathering places.
But 40 years is an eternity in modern-American culture, and Kansas City is poised to ink a do-not-resuscitate pact for this ancient asset. For numerous reasons, that would be a monumental mistake.
With the arrival of the Sprint Center in 2007, in the midst of a genuine downtown revival, Kemper Arena has mostly been out of sight and out of mind. It clearly proceeded to outlive its usefulness as a profitable and sought-after entertainment venue. Thousands of people may roam around its grounds during the American Royal BBQ weekend in October, but for the most part it is largely friendless and woefully underused.
A City Council committee has embarked on a serious assessment of the arena’s future. On Aug. 7, it is scheduled to hear a proposal from a development firm, Foutch Brothers, which has proposed a way to save and use Kemper. Foutch would convert the arena into a center for youth sports and recreation. It’s seeking a sweetheart sale from the city and vows to put together $21 million in private financing.
On Aug. 14, the committee will hear from the American Royal Association. Its principals want to demolish Kemper, replace it with a smaller multipurpose facility and also make major upgrades to the several nearby buildings that make up the American Royal complex. Its $60 million-plus vision includes private funding of $10 million, a city contribution of $30 million and $20 million from hoped-for state tax credits.
The Royal holds a favorable long-term lease on Kemper, which complicates matters, especially given that its chairman, the banker Mariner Kemper, adamantly rejects any idea of preserving the arena that bears his family’s name.
But none of this debate has much to do with architecture per se, and little time will be devoted to the landmark design and historical values of Kemper.
The fact that Jahn and his colleagues at C.F. Murphy Associates created an iconic, post-modern building that was technologically futuristic and a structurally expressive trend-setter will hardly carry much weight, though it should. Such points are made in architectural historian Elizabeth Rosin’s pending nomination of the building to the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s encouraging that Councilman Ed Ford’s committee will consider the competing arena plans in the greater context of development and enlivening the West Bottoms. Renovating and reusing Kemper seems to me to offer the best chance at connecting with and spurring further human activity in a district that’s gaining some traction.
Previous generations have discarded local history in the West Bottoms: the original Union Station, the stockyards.
Questions for this generation include: What does history value? What makes a city great? And how can historic preservation and its values sit at the same table with the bean counters, the self-interested and the arrogant wielders of power?
“We often think too much backwards and not enough forward,” Jahn told that audience in 2012. Moving forward should not mean wasteful destruction. It ought to include the best ideas about preserving our past — even a past as recent as the 1970s.