Marianne Noll calls it “the creep.”
Hundreds of boxes brimming with Kansas City-themed postcards, ashtrays, plates, paintings and more began to creep outside their regulated zones.
First, Marianne allowed her husband Steve, an avid collector — perhaps a borderline hoarder? — to have the basement of their Prairie Village home to store his treasures. But soon it filled, and boxes crept up the stairs. Then Marianne ceded his office upstairs, and quickly it too was filled to capacity and the boxes moved into the hallway. The garage was next.
“Finally, the guys next door moved out and the creep moved there,” said Marianne, laughing. About a year and half ago, they purchased that house, and the massive collection moved in. Recently, they purchased a midtown mortuary that houses their biggest collection yet: 1 million KC film negatives.
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After 12 years as executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society, Steve plans to retire at the end of the year. But he hopes those negatives will be his lasting legacy.
At the house they’ve turned into a museum. Steve throws open the screen door, sweeps his arms and says, “Welcome to the History House, or One Door West.”
He flashes a grin, a slight gap between his two front teeth. “Want the grand tour?”
He’s been collecting since he was a kid, starting with postcards. Now he has an entire closet filled with them.
“People might say they don’t care about history, but they don’t understand that history is all about stories, and everybody loves a good story,” Steve says.
Every piece in the collection has a story, and he easily describes the smallest piece in incredible detail.
He turns to a poster on the wall, an illustration of the old River Quay near downtown. “Right about there was where I celebrated my 21st birthday, and of course that entire area was owned and operated by the mob, which they blew up. Did you know that? The mob blew up the entire area in the ’70s,” Steve says.
Then a notebook with Union Station architectural drawings grabs his attention, and he’s on to describing visits with his grandmother while she volunteered with the USO.
On the main floor, most rooms feature a few curio cabinets. Each cabinet is themed by shelf and includes souvenirs from the opening of Union Station, the now-demolished Hotel Baltimore and the Kansas City Zoo.
Steve is most interested in Kansas City businesses, especially hotels and restaurants. He always wanted to own his own club — he named the house he lives in “Club 4500,” after the address, and even has cocktail napkins and swizzle sticks printed with a custom logo. He spent most of his professional career working in business logistics and economics. After he retires, he wants to write a comprehensive book on bygone restaurants in Kansas City.
Every glass shelf is meticulously organized. It’s crowded, but not haphazard. Steve grabs a lead ashtray or a crumb plate, he doesn’t know which, and knocks over its small plastic stand. He gasps, but everything stays in place.
The main floor feels a bit like a Kansas City museum, but the basement feels like a collector’s man cave. An entire wall houses a colorful patchwork of matchbooks from Kansas City businesses; one corner holds a shrine to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer — his favorite — and another features stacks of paint cans from his grandfather’s business, Minnesota Paints.
Marianne patiently listens to each story, but you can tell she’s heard them before.
She didn’t know about Steve’s collecting itch when she met him more than 30 years ago — when he was drunk and waiting to compete in a midnight chili eating contest. Over the years, she’s fallen in love with Steve’s desire for knowledge and their shared hunt for artifacts.
They’ve been to more thrift stores and estate sales than they could count. They just got back from an antique show in Walnut, Iowa, and they’re headed to Minneapolis later this summer for a postcard festival. Most new collections start with one piece that catches Steve’s interest, and he builds around it. The artifacts have never been appraised, but the couple doubt anything would be worth much.
Most of the items were purchased for a few dollars online or in second-hand shops, but together the collections might be worth more.
“I have this pipe dream of having a public museum one day. I don’t know if that will ever really work, but I think people would enjoy seeing all of this,” Marianne says.
The couple plan to leave the massive collection to their daughter, Courtney, who jokes that’s her biggest fear. She says it’s a more interesting inheritance than most.
She calls her dad “the most interesting man in Kansas City.” When she was little she would point at buildings as they drove downtown to test his knowledge. He would jump into a story about its architecture or a historical event there. Back then, she dreaded the weekly antique shows, but now loves to go with her parents.
Her gifts from her father reflected his interests — and hers. In college she would come home to a small treasure trove of University of Kansas artifacts.
When she heard her parents bought the second house, she just laughed.
“It’s such a Steve Noll thing to do,” says Courtney, 31. “I didn’t know they had all that stuff before. It just seemed to magically appear.”
Now the couple’s biggest project is housed in a different basement, one that held dead bodies for decades.
Steve walks down the steep basement stairs into the underbelly of the DeLeon Event Space and Chapel off Gillham Road. The space is dark and has a distinct smell of wet cardboard. At the bottom of the stairs, a large white door reads in black letters, “Dark Room Please Knock.”
“It’s not that kind of dark room,” Steve says. Opening the door, he reveals several body-shaped slots carved into the walls — a sign of the building’s past life as a mortuary. Steve seems unperturbed and launches into a story about the building’s history.
Farther into the basement, dozens of rusted filing cabinets brim with hundreds of envelopes. They contain the estimated 1 million negatives the couple bought from local photographer Chris Wilborn, and they’re sorting through them here.
Wilborn’s father founded Wilborn and Associates Photography and shot Kansas City commercial photography since the early 1900s.
“Steve wanted the collection, the history, to stay in Kansas City, and I am very happy people will get to see my work, my father’s work for generations,” Wilborn says.
The negatives tell a pictorial history of the last century of Kansas City. There are team photos for the Kansas City Athletics, outdoor shots of the construction of Union Station and portraits of past mayors.
The couple are organizing and labeling the negatives to eventually be digitized by the historical society. They estimate the process will take close to two years, but eventually most of the photos will be available online for public viewing and research.
Steve sees these photos as an invaluable look into the past, and even if his museum house is never seen by the public, says these photos will be the couple’s biggest contribution to Kansas City.
“We have tens of thousands of books, maps, diaries, almost every form of media that records history,” Steve says. “But history comes down to retelling a story, and pictures go so far in accomplishing that.”
Jacob Gedetsis: 816-234-4416, @jacobgedetsis