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Pieces from Kansas City’s historic Savoy Grill will end up in museum

Development firm 21C has expressed interest in refurbishing the Hotel Savoy into a high-end boutique. Part of the old main lobby (rear) now serves as a dining hall for special events. Mely Puente, 6, the granddaughter of owner Bill Lee, had it all to herself late Tuesday afternoon.
Development firm 21C has expressed interest in refurbishing the Hotel Savoy into a high-end boutique. Part of the old main lobby (rear) now serves as a dining hall for special events. Mely Puente, 6, the granddaughter of owner Bill Lee, had it all to herself late Tuesday afternoon. rsugg@kcstar.com

A table, four chairs, four sets of china and assorted tableware from the famous Savoy Grill — once touted as the longest-running restaurant in Kansas City — now rest in a storage room in Union Station.

The bits of history, along with menus, a busboy coat, escargot server trays, two lobster boxes and various bar and kitchen service items have been selected for preservation by the Kansas City Museum.

The fabled restaurant at 219 W. Ninth St., which opened in 1903 and closed last year after a fire in its kitchen, won’t reopen exactly as it was. And when a restaurant does reappear in that space, it’s not yet known if the Savoy name will return.

21C, the Kentucky-based hotel company redeveloping the Hotel Savoy, says the restaurant’s dark-paneled walls will be kept, along with its original stained glass, the bar and its famous front-room booths, but other things will change to a still undefined concept.

“We’re just not there yet,” said Molly Swyers, 21C’s vice president of design. Keeping the Savoy name “hasn’t been ruled out, but we still have a process we go through as we develop our restaurant concepts.”

That process will be watched closely by Dave Mecklenberg, a member of the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners, who, like many Kansas Citians, cares about the restaurant.

“The wait staff in their white jackets, the table service, all of that was part of the emotional attachment,” Mecklenberg said. “That’s where my wife and I, 47 years ago, had our engagement dinner and significant anniversaries since. The name Savoy is synonymous with so many memories. It would be greatly missed.”

The company had set an Oct. 1 deadline for preservationists to take what they wanted from the restaurant and hotel.

“We think aspects of the old Savoy will be preserved, but to develop the space into a 21C, there are modifications and updates to be made,” Swyers said. “We’re very excited to reinvent the Savoy and provide a great dining experience, but at this point we still have our noses to the grindstone about the design.”

A consultant hired by the hotel company, along with the collections manager from the Kansas City Museum and other archivists, have picked through artifacts from the storied past where Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers were once among notables signing the guest register.

“In the future, I can see what we chose as a nice display about restaurants from Kansas City’s past,” said Denise Morrison, director of collections for the Kansas City Museum. “The place settings from the Savoy could represent any number of historic hotel restaurants — the Muehlebach, the Baltimore, the Savoy — in a look back at a period of history.”

But when, where and how to get a glimpse of that past remains unknown at the moment.

“It’s likely to be in a temporary exhibit,” Morrison said, unable to predict if it would be situated in the museum in the Northeast neighborhood after its renovation is complete. “The important thing is that the items are being preserved for research.”

The 21C archival consultant, Jean Svadlenak, produced a 25-page inventory from the hotel and restaurant. She said 21C is keeping some “iconic pieces,” but most of the historically interesting material was offered to the museum and the Kansas City Public Library’s Missouri Valley Room.

The latter is taking the hotel’s and restaurant’s archival records such as correspondence, advertising, cash books and account ledgers dating as far back as 1907. The Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas in Lawrence also is taking a few things. Some photos were given to the American Royal.

From Svadlenak’s list, the museum mostly chose representative pieces from the restaurant.

From the hotel, which dates to 1888, the museum selected little. That included a wardrobe indicative of the era before guest rooms had closets, a coat tree and some room keys tagged Hotel Savoy.

“The hotel had been updated so many times, and it even had Section 8 housing at one time,” Morrison said. “There really wasn’t anything unique there.”

The museum did, though, take a pair of white vinyl go-go boots found in one of the hotel rooms, a fashion relic from a former tenant, Morrison surmised.

21C, a successful developer of an upscale boutique hotel concept around the country, said last year that it expected to invest $47.5 million in the Savoy property, which it acquired for $4.3 million.

The 21C concept treats public spaces in the hotel and restaurant as contemporary art museums with rotating fine art exhibits. Its elegant facilities have been rated among the best in the world by Conde Nast Traveler.

Swyers, the 21C design official, said the company intends to “make a concession to history” as it learns more about what the Savoy means to Kansas City.

“We want to celebrate its history while bringing in the new,” Swyers said. “But we’re still in the process of cleaning out the building and working on construction documents.”

Svadlenak, who evaluated the property’s contents, said she understands that memories are associated with the restaurant, but she believes 21C will do a good job restoring important aspects.

“I can’t wait to come back when it’s finished,” she said.

The developer intends to put the project out for construction bids this fall and aims to begin construction early next year. It hasn’t announced an expected opening date for either the hotel or restaurant.

21C completed the deal to acquire the hotel and restaurant in December 2014. It had first proposed the acquisition in the summer of 2013.

In earlier announcements, 21C said it intended to reopen the restaurant as a chef-owned or “chef-driven” concept. Swyers said the plan for a fine dining location remains, even if specific themes, menus or names have yet to be decided.

The Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners this past week accepted the Savoy donations on behalf of the museum. The reStart homeless shelter in Kansas City accepted donations of kitchen equipment that was in workable condition.

The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com. Follow her online at kansascity.com/workplace and @kcstarstafford.

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