Renovation of Pendergast’s old HQ is almost done

The old Missouri capitol is being renovated.

Not the one in Jefferson City.

The one in Kansas City. At 1908 Main St.

The former Jackson Democratic Club building — from which machine boss Tom Pendergast influenced politics in Kansas City and much of Missouri during the 1920s and 1930s, and which many referred to as the state’s unofficial capitol — is getting a $1.5 million makeover.

“This is personal for me,” said Wit Solberg, the building’s owner and head of Mission Peak Capital, the financial services firm whose 10 employees are scheduled to move into the building next month.

Solberg represents the third generation of his family to have owned the building. His grandfather acquired it from a Pendergast relative and ran a barber supply business there for more than 30 years.

“Only two families have owned this building,” Solberg said. “And my grandfather operated his business here longer than Pendergast did his machine.”

The restoration will include a first-floor gallery space, allowing public access to the Crossroads district landmark on a scale not seen since machine operatives filled its second-floor meeting room during Boss Tom’s time.

Last October, the property was entered in the National Register of Historic Places, an honor the Kansas City Landmarks Commission first tried to arrange in 1978. That effort ended when Tom Pendergast Jr., who often worked to safeguard his father’s memory, objected, calling the effort “a bunch of foolishness” and threatening litigation if it went forward.

The younger Pendergast died in 1990.

The nomination documents prepared last year by Cydney Millstein, a Kansas City architectural historian, detailed the two-story brick building’s construction for $15,000 in 1926 and summarized how it had been “purpose-built by Pendergast as the headquarters of his political machine.”

The project also represents a local use of state and federal historic tax credits. The Pendergast project, Solberg said, would not have gone forward without them.

But the Pendergast project is almost complete.

Workers have found no, uh, anomalies.

Although Doug Stockman, a principal with El Dorado Inc., an architecture firm, was alert to the legends of Pendergast Ready-Mixed Concrete, a Pendergast family company, he came across no irregularities when inspecting the building’s foundation.

“I was worried about finding bodies,” Stockman said, smiling.

There were none, he added.

“I was thinking more of gold,” said Solberg.

A few relics of the Pendergast era did remain. At the upper floor’s western end, workers removed a nest of old electrical wiring. It’s possible, Solberg said, that some of these wires had been installed as part of the “wire” that Pendergast had ordered so he could receive timely horse racing results.

This wire contributed to his ruin, as it enabled Pendergast’s gambling obsession, leaving him vulnerable to the payoffs from insurance industry executives that ultimately attracted federal investigators.

Pendergast pleaded guilty in 1939 to income tax evasion charges and received a term in the Leavenworth federal prison.

Part of that plea agreement prompted a specific change to 1908 Main St.

Three years earlier, Pendergast had suffered a heart attack and battled other serious health problems. That December, The Kansas City Star noted that a doorway had been opened in the second-floor common wall between 1908 Main St. and the adjacent building to the north, the Monroe Hotel, which Pendergast had acquired in 1924.

The doorway allowed Pendergast to ride the hotel elevator to the second floor and then walk into his office.

Part of the 1939 plea agreement, however, directed that Pendergast could not return to the 1908 Main St. building, and the doorway was ordered sealed. Today that doorway is almost impossible to discern on the 1908 Main St. side, as workers have added a veneer of plaster to the wall.

However, the second-floor office space — with its oak window trim, transom windows and wall-mounted coat hooks — remains evocative of the Pendergast era.

Also, Solberg said, the windows retain original glass, and it remains possible in two of the windows — when the sun strikes the glass just so — to discern the faint outlines of letters spelling out “Jackson Democratic Club.”

State and federal historic tax credits can be used for up to 45 percent of eligible costs, Solberg said. Eligible costs on this project included roof replacement, new electrical wiring and facade restoration. Such credits are subject to government approval, so Solberg remains uncertain as to the amount that will be approved.

The renovation also has included new air conditioning and heating.

“I was cooling much of Main Street with our old air conditioning system and our historic insulation,” Solberg said.

The project met mandates monitored by local preservation representatives.

“It’s a local landmark and we approved all the changes to it,’ said Brad Wolf, Kansas City historic preservation officer. “They did a great job.”

Some decisions were challenging, such as the decision to not go with exposed brick on the second floor. But the plaster that long ago had been affixed to the brick would not come off in an attractive way.

“I struggled with that,” Solberg said.

“I know it would have made it real Crossroads-y. But this had not been a loft space. It had been an office with plaster walls.”

The large upstairs meeting room, what Solberg calls the “bullpen,” in which political operatives strategized about 80 years ago, will be retained.

Solberg’s grandfather Frederick Solberg Sr. acquired the building in 1967 from a sister of the former boss. He ran his barber supply business from the building until his death in 2000.

His son, Rick Solberg, a former Kansas City Star photographer, inherited the building with his sister. Solberg bought out his sister and, later with his wife, Betsey, installed gallery space on the first floor. For several years Kansas City Art Institute students exhibited work on occasional First Fridays.

Their son, Wit, returned to Kansas City about four years ago after working in Hong Kong and New York. He moved his business to 1908 Main St. in 2009 and acquired the building from his parents earlier this year.

“Before this, I had never worked below the 35th floor of an office building,” Solberg said. “My children will probably just sell it.

“But hopefully not.”