Development

Next at 18th & Vine: International artists to transform defunct school into cultural center

The historic Crispus Attucks Elementary School at 18th Street and Woodland Avenue has been vacant for at least 15 years, but two internationally-acclaimed artists plan to redevelop it into a cultural center.
The historic Crispus Attucks Elementary School at 18th Street and Woodland Avenue has been vacant for at least 15 years, but two internationally-acclaimed artists plan to redevelop it into a cultural center. akite@kcstar.com

With cultural centers planted in Chicago and Beijing, two internationally renowned artists have set their sights on Kansas City's historic 18th and Vine jazz district for a music, dance and art facility officials hope will help revitalize the area.

ShanZuo and DuHuang Zhou, or the Zhou Brothers, purchased the former Crispus Attucks Elementary School in the heart of the 18th and Vine district for just $100 and plan to invest $2 million to remove blight in the first of a three-phase plan, according to the city. The completion of the project will bring a contemporary face to the building and include art galleries, dance spaces, a recording studio and a cafe.

The Zhous moved to the U.S. from China in 1986, founding their first cultural center in Chicago in 2004. In a statement celebrating its 10th anniversary, they said it was important to create a space where artists could "gather and foster each other's creativity."

"This kind of special atmosphere seemed like a rare commodity in a world where commercial developers make many areas in modern cities too expensive for artist communities to thrive," the brothers said. "We imagined an environment created and kept solely for artists and decided this would be our dream."

Kansas City spokesman Chris Hernandez said the city expects the Zhou B Art Center Kansas City will pay homage to the history of the boarded-up Attucks school at 1815 Woodland Avenue. The school was built in 1905 and expanded in 1922. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was described as the "oldest continually occupied school for city black students."

The Zhou brothers' center will sit just over a block from the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Hernandez said the district attracts international travelers, though the city approved $225,000 in expenses to support the museum late last year.

City Councilman Jermaine Reed has helped spearhead an effort to support 18th and Vine, which he represents as part of the 3rd District, and called the recent private spending on the district "unparalleled." Reed said his friends and neighbors near the 18th and Vine area are excited about the project.

“I believe that this is going to be a very unique partnership that will allow for them to be a huge anchor within the district itself – one that certainly comes with a great deal of excitement," Reed said.

Reed said the addition of the cultural center complements existing sites in the 18th and Vine district, which he called "hallowed ground."

In a press release announcing the sale of the school, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said the new center would enhance the city's stature for international art.

"The presence of the acclaimed Zhou Brothers and their sincere desire to work with visual and performing artists will augment the cultural renaissance already underway in our city," James said.

Former President Barack Obama commissioned a painting from the Zhou Brothers in 2011 as a gift for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The brothers' initial concept for a cultural center began when they asked how they could give artists an environment for creating.

"In the river of human history, in every generation, the artist belongs to a special niche of fantasy and creativity," they said. "Their poetic creation and expression enriches the human spirit, adding richness, wisdom, and color to our history."

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