Rally to save Orion Pictures Building is Sunday

The brunch crowd at the historic Webster House in the Crossroads Arts District will have an extra item on the menu Sunday, a rally across the street on behalf of the doomed Orion Pictures Building.

The “Save the Orion Rally” at 17th and Wyandotte streets is being billed as a last-ditch effort to save the 1940s era building at 118 W. 17th St., but plans for its demolition continue, according to architect Jay Tomlinson of Helix Architecture & Design.

Preliminary work has begun on removing asbestos and other hazardous items, but no hard date has been set for its destruction.

“There’s been no change in the demolition plan, but we have not gotten a permit,” Tomlinson said Friday. “The timing depends on the abatement work and how quickly we can get a permit from the city.”

Demolition is expected to begin no later than early April, he said.

In the meantime, David Johnson and Kirk Williamson have called for people to gather Sunday at noon for a peaceful, two-hour protest.

A “Save the Orion” Facebook page urges people to bring “clean and respectful” signs, suggesting messages such as “I am a Webster House customer and I don’t want this” and “Save Film Row!”

“We wanted to make sure the community had a chance to mourn the loss of this piece of history,” said Johnson, a resident of the Crossroads neighborhood. “We’re not trying to be confrontational, but it will be during the brunch time. It will be a bit like a funeral procession.”

Shirley Helzberg, the owner and developer of the historic Webster House, a former 1880s school, plans to demolish the Orion building and replace it with a $5 million parking garage.

Helzberg, who is known for her historic preservation work, said additional parking is needed to serve both the restaurant and antique businesses at Webster House and the nearby Vitagraph Film Exchange Building, which she also renovated.

The planned three-level garage would have 185 spaces and retail on the ground floor.

The Orion building opened in 1946 and was one of 15 buildings in the area that comprised Kansas City’s Film Row. From the 1920s through the 1970s, major Hollywood studios used the buildings to store and distribute films throughout the region.

It was one of about 30 similar districts around the country.

Several of the Film Row buildings have been renovated in recent years, but an effort to have the five-block area listed on the National Register of Historic Places a few years ago fell through.

The Orion building has no landmark protection, and since Helzberg is not seeking any incentives to pursue her garage plan, there is no city review required.

Tomlinson said that since her plan to tear down the Orion building and replace it with a garage was first publicized, Helzberg has received support for her plan.

“She’s been getting a lot of positive feedback about this next step too,” he said. “It’s something that will bring more life to the neighborhood.”

The demolition has been opposed by the Historic Kansas City Foundation, however. It urged Helzberg to explore alternatives to razing the Orion.

“The loss of the Orion Pictures Building would compromise the future of Old Film Row as a destination site, and Kansas City would no longer be able to proudly claim the last intact Film Row in the nation,” according to a statement from the historic foundation.