Few things say “I’m here” quite like parking a cherry red Rolls-Royce convertible in a storefront window in a small town.
That’s what Del Dunmire did when he arrived in Harrisonville. Folks sat back and watched the bank robber-turned-millionaire pour a fortune into old brick buildings on the town square. His dream was to recreate a pre-Civil War charm that would draw the Kansas City crowd to bars and restaurants on the historic square.
The car is still there. Dusty now, its hood ajar.
Dunmire is gone. The man who redid this town like he was decorating his own house recently put all 52 of his properties up for sale.
It’s over. The years, the money, the fights, the dream.
Now, at age 77 and living in Texas, Dunmire, according to his son, worries about his legacy in the Cass County seat. He isn’t sure he’ll even be remembered.
That bothers him.
Here’s saying he shouldn’t fret.
Once you buy up a town’s square, spend millions to save it and keep pieces of a serial killer’s house in the old Wal-Mart you call “Del’s Toy Box,” your name will likely ring a bell for years.
And he didn’t exactly hit town as an unknown. Dunmire arrived with a résumé laden with eccentricity. He had bankrolled a Caribbean cruise for his entire 1952 high school graduating class, and hired Evel Knievel and Fabian to perform at his Kansas City wedding extravaganza.
With a gray ponytail and booming voice, he set about turning Harrisonville Square into a Westport-style entertainment district.
For years, white tablecloths, china place settings and floral centerpieces sat on tables in restaurants that weren’t open. Dunmire fought with city officials and frustrated locals who wanted their square back.
He made enemies. Somebody even torched his 30-foot-tall Santa Claus.
Now, “For Sale” signs line the square like light poles. The sale also includes his personal 20,000-square-foot mansion, the one where faux polar bear rugs completely cover the floor of the master bedroom. Except where a large, ornate white marble tub rises from the middle of the room.
“Call before the first Hollywood star sees it,” the real estate ad says.
On a tour of the properties, his son said the decision to sell hurt his father, particularly knowing that someone else may take what he has done and fulfill the dream that was his.
“That’s what he would love to see happen, but it absolutely saddens him that he won’t be the one doing it,” said Mark Dunmire, an attorney and chairman of the board of Growth Industries, the Grandview-based company founded by his father.
Del Dunmire could not be reached for comment, but on Friday told his son to tell The Star that “the work should be done by somebody who is there, by someone who loves it like he does.”
It could happen. Because even detractors commend the work Dunmire did to restore the historic square. Workers stabilized buildings down to bedrock. They gutted interiors. Craftsmen worked thousands of hours restoring old brick and wood. They tuckpointed stone. New tile, new plaster, new flooring. Upgraded electrical and plumbing.
Bars and restaurants were decorated like places Dunmire had seen on his travels. After returning from a trip to Miami, Key West, Texas or the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., he would tell employees, “Here’s what I want...”
A chandelier in a second-story banquet room is from the old President Hotel in Kansas City.
“Many of these buildings would not be standing today,” said Harrisonville Mayor Kevin Wood, who clashed often with Dunmire. “There is no question he did a very good job of preserving the square.
“He fell short of expectations. But now we have something to move forward with for the next generations.”
Gary Hosack, a broker-principal for Crown Realty, said two groups had already visited Harrisonville to look at the properties.
One from New York is considering the square for possible development of an arts community.
“The other is from Las Vegas who is looking at a Westport-like district,” Hosack said.
The ads say the package deal presents “the opportunity to be named along with visionaries like Hughes, Disney, Barnum and Dunmire.”
No offers yet. And if one doesn’t come in, Mark Dunmire said he would continue the work himself.
A buyer could get a bargain. It’s unknown how much money Dunmire sank into the Harrisonville project.
“He spent a fortune,” Hosack said. “No rhyme or reason why he did it. He’s eccentric as hell, but I love the guy. He just had a grand dream that didn’t work.
“I’ve not talked to anyone who’s not excited about what’s going to happen next here. A lot of people still can’t believe he’s actually going to sell.”
Mark Dunmire chuckled at the question about his father’s financial investment.
“Quite frankly, it’s just not something he even thought about,” he said. “But it would be accurate to put it in the tens of millions.”
And now somebody can buy the whole thing for $8 million.
Doesn’t exactly sound business savvy.
Mark Dunmire shrugged.
“We thought we were going to be running it.”
If not for a dead-end road, Del Dunmire, raised in Punxsutawney, Pa., may never have arrived in Harrisonville.
It was an October day in 1958. Dunmire, an airman based at Schilling Air Force Base (now closed) in Kansas, drove to Abilene, robbed a bank and got away with a little more than $2,000. But during his getaway, he made a wrong turn and drove down a dead-end road.
A state trooper simply waited for him to head back his way and then shot out a tire on Dunmire’s rented Chevy.
Dunmire went to prison. It was there that he decided he wanted to be rich, the legitimate way.
He went from prison to college. He studied engineering. Then he started a machine shop that eventually turned into Growth Industries, which makes parts for aircraft — components for landing gear, cockpits and lavatories.
He got rich and didn’t hide it.
He crashed Kansas City in high style with his 1987 million-dollar wedding at a Downtown hotel. Knievel rode, Fabian sang and the groom gave his bride a merry-go-round worthy of any carnival midway. Dom Perignon champagne. Guests ate caviar like it was bean dip.
In years to follow, Dunmire wrote fat checks to politicians, visited the White House and armed the Missouri Highway Patrol with assault rifles. He contributed big to Kansas City’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
And somewhere along the way, he discovered the town square in Harrisonville. It had survived the Civil War and the so-called “Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse” in 1972 in which a Vietnam protester opened fire, killing two police officers and a businessman and wounding the county sheriff before killing himself.
Would it survive Dunmire?
An old drugstore, that’s what he bought first. Then he got rolling, a dream building in his head that people in Kansas City would drive to wine and dine in his Harrisonville bars and restaurants.
What a great idea — Harrisonville loved it! The square hadn’t been the same since Simpson’s rampage. Many buildings sat rundown and empty.
Dunmire’s project went along fine. And then it didn’t.
He began to fight with city officials. He accused them of working against him, trying to block his work with silly codes and rules.
They countered that his work was too slow; that he wouldn’t complete anything or open anything and that they couldn’t do anything with the square because he had it all locked up. They accused him, too, of trying to bully City Hall.
Townsfolk complained there were no businesses where they could shop.
Eventually, after years and millions, Dunmire shut the whole thing down, including the Pearl Street Grill, the only business that operated for any significant time at all — and where he liked to hold court.
Today, the restaurant on the northeast corner sits just as it did the day it closed. Place settings waiting. Upstairs is a fancy banquet hall, long tables still adorned with poinsettias. The adjoining Leather Room, with dark paneling and plush leather sofas and chairs, cries out for brandy and cigars.
Across the way, Younger’s Bar, too, looks as if it could open tonight. Three levels with a horse-drawn medicine wagon parked at the door.
Next door, the elegant Galvez restaurant just needs to fire up the stove.
“Some of these places could be open within days,” said Pat Thomas, Dunmire’s director of real estate.
And the new owner of it all could live in Dunmire’s house. Two houses, really. When he filled the first one with stuff, he bought the place next door and connected the two with a skywalk. Nine bathrooms and an ex-wife’s shoe room that’s bigger than most people’s living room.
The décor is anything but subdued. Gold statues, Roman pillars, skulls on the mantle. Bugles and swords.
“This is Caesar’s Palace, circa 1975,” Mark Dunmire said.
The real estate sale includes about 20 properties on the square. The rest are homes, vacant lots and the old Wal-Mart where Dunmire stored parts of Kansas City serial killer Bob Berdella’s house.
A fleet of Dunmire vehicles, including an antique fire truck, sit outside.
In taking summary of it all, Mark Dunmire said his father turned Harrisonville into a blank canvas.
“Now, the right artist needs to come along,” he said. “It’s all here just waiting.”
And his father’s legacy?
The son shook his head.
“Yet to be written.”