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A House for the Boss

The first house built for the infamous Tom Pendergast announced his rise in Kansas City politics

Photographed by Aaron Leimkuehler Photographed by Aaron Leimkuehler

Tom Pendergast was one of the most powerful and controversial men in the history of Kansas City. Pendergast controlled a corrupt machine that ruled politics and business in Jackson County for almost four decades. His vice-like grip on all commerce in our town, including liquor (even during Prohibition), construction and gambling was legendary. Even more astounding was Pendergast’s control of the political system and police force, ruling the city as chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Club from his modest, two-story building at 1908 Main Street. Pendergast bribed and rigged local and state elections, securing elected politicians as his advocates and puppets for decades, including Senator Harry Truman, who was often referred to as “the Senator from Pendergast.” Pendergast’s rise to power started in his brother James’ tavern in the West Bottoms. James Pendergast was a powerful alderman in the city council, and he trained young Tom in city politics. When James retired in 1910, he named Tom his successor as alderman. When Tom Pendergast married in 1911 and began to accumulate powerful resources and allies to run the city, it was time to build a proper house for his growing family.

Gunn for hire

Kansas-born Frederick C. Gunn idolized his father, Otis, a major in the Civil War and chief engineer for the railroad. Otis Gunn played a leading role in building Union Depot and construction of the Hannibal Railroad Bridge across the Missouri River. Frederick Gunn became an architect, studying and practicing briefly in New York before partnering with Louis Curtiss, another celebrated architect in Kansas City.

Gunn and Curtiss designed many well-known buildings together, including the Missouri State Building for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893 World’s Fair), the Progress Club House, and Oak Hall for William Rockhill Nelson.

After 10 years with Curtiss, Gunn began his own practice and was involved in the design of numerous buildings including the Jackson County Courthouse, the courthouses in Lawrence, Emporia and Salina, the National Fidelity Life building, the City Market, the Mercantile Building and many of the buildings that comprise Hospital Hill.

Most importantly, Gunn was a loyal Democrat. He was very involved in Democratic Party politics as an alderman for the city council in the 1890s, when he became a close friend and ally to James Pendergast. When Tom Pendergast took over after his brother’s retirement, Gunn’s architectural practice skyrocketed. Much of the development of Kansas City’s downtown in the early 1900s occurred during Democratic administrations—of course tightly controlled by Pendergast. It’s no coincidence that Pendergast entrusted his first family home to his friend and Democratic ally Frederick Gunn.

On his way up

Pendergast chose a location in the now National Historic Registered Simpson-Yeomans Countryside Historic District near 54th Street and Wornall Road, which then was considered the southern suburbs. Gunn designed a three-story home with beautifully crafted wood, brick and stucco in the foursquare Prairie style.

The home has an imposing presence from the street with a graceful, long lawn and walkway to a large front porch supported by prominent, stately columns. The entry vestibule has stylized, stained-glass sidelights and decorative quarter-sawn oak woodwork that continues throughout the entire house. The home has elegant, detailed moldings, fireplace mantels, decorative trim and ornate light fixtures. One of the many custom features of the house is an oval-shaped room off the living room where Pendergast held important meetings. Conversations echoed off the curved walls and could be heard everywhere in the house. Two underground tunnels were assumed to have been designed as a getaway for Pendergast and his family. The Pendergasts lived in this example of early Kansas City wealth and status until the late 1920s, when they moved into a larger mansion on Ward Parkway.

The current owners recently completed a sympathetic restoration, securing the first Pendergast house as one of our city’s most colorful and notable examples of landmark architecture.