Jonathan Kemper of Kansas City is chairman emeritus of the National Trust Council, a business and philanthropic arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and chairman of Commerce Bank, Kansas City Region. Kemper will introduce Kansas City developer J.C. Nichols as portrayed by historian Bill Worley in an installment of “Meet the Past” with Kansas City Public Library director (and Kemper’s second cousin) R. Crosby Kemper III at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Plaza Branch; RSVP at KCLibrary.org. This conversation took place in Jonathan Kemper’s office.
Why are you introducing a program about J.C. Nichols and the Country Club Plaza?
J.C. Nichols was a client of my family’s bank, Commerce Trust, in the 1910s and ’20s when he was creating the Country Club Plaza. We helped finance him, and the Kemper family eventually became shareholders in the Nichols Company, and the Nichols Company owned shares in Commerce Trust Company, so it was a very close relationship.
We were the first bank on the Plaza, and our family has been living in the area developed by J.C. Nichols since my great-grandfather built his house on Westover Road in, I want to say, 1905.
What preservation issues are facing the Country Club Plaza today?
There is always the question: What preserves what we love about the Plaza? The question got pushed to the forefront when the current owner, Highwoods, proposed putting up a building for the Polsinelli law firm pretty much in the middle of the Plaza and tearing down the Balcony Building and the Neptune apartments behind it.
So suddenly you had this very large, looming building and the first rendering of it was not particularly artfully done. It had a happy ending, I think, in that the law firm stayed on the Plaza, the Balcony Building was preserved, and the Neptune Apartments were sold. But there is still the larger question of what is to save us from the next “Perils of Pauline.”
The thing about preservation is, it’s not about stopping change. It’s about stopping to think twice and being sure. Because once you tear something down, it’s hard to replace it. Preservation is more about being thoughtful and intentional about keeping what’s good.
Tell us about the library program.
This installment of “Meet the Past” is going to be exciting. The William T. Kemper Foundation is helping with the costs for KCPT to do the taping, because I thought it would be a neat thing to do. A group of really interesting people from the National Trust Council will be in town and attending the program.
Historian Bill Worley, who is channeling J.C. Nichols, and Crosby, who is channeling Crosby, will do the schtick of jumping back 100 years in time to have a lively conversation.
What’s cool about J.C. Nichols is, he was a leader nationally and internationally. He founded the Urban Land Institute, which is kind of a big deal. A lot of people don’t realize what a theoretical guy he was.
He gave a speech to the National Society of Realtors in 1948 and it’s a playbook for development. The speech was called “Planning for Permanence.” He was not talking about preservation as some sort of aesthetic; he was talking about maintaining land values.
It’s very timely with the city redoing the area plan for the Plaza. There is a chance now for people to come together, not with concerns but with vision.
What are some preservation projects you are working on locally?
We are working with John O’Brien, who sold Dolphin Gallery and has a studio in Independence now, to help us design a technology center at Downtown Library where people can use computers.
We are also working on a design that would turn an unused area below the Lewis and Clark statue in Case Park into an off-leash dog area. That is an example of rethinking existing places. The park has a beautiful observation point built by WPA around 1943, so we are keeping the best and building on it.
Have you spoken with your second cousin, Mariner Kemper, about his proposal to tear down Kemper Arena?
Yes. He asked me to support his plan and I said, “I don’t think that makes sense,” but that we won’t oppose him. Although now that (Steve) Foutch has come and said to the city, “I will take it off your hands, you won’t have to pay for demolition, and you’ll have a great use that will bring young people to the West Bottoms” — boy, that sounds good to me.
So I definitely don’t support Mariner’s plan, but I don’t want to create a public row over something where, by his lights, he’s doing good by trying to help an institution that both branches of our family have ties to. When they built the Governor’s Building (for the American Royal), our branch of the family made the lead gift of $2 million.
The preservation community is very interested in Kemper Arena because it is not from our pioneer days, but it is part of our recent past. It received a lot of attention when it was built and it held the Republican National Convention. It is historic. And it was designed by Helmut Jahn, a very flamboyant guy. He did the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and it looks like something out of “Bladerunner” — it’s fantastic.
What is it like having your family’s name on an arena?
I have a funny story about that. Back when the roof fell in, my sister Laura got a call from New York asking if she was OK. They thought since it was called Kemper we must be living in it.