Tucked away in Kansas City’s Northeast area sits a historic neighborhood that its residents call a gem.
Pendleton Heights, about two miles from downtown, was once Kansas City’s upper-crust neighborhood, serving the rich and powerful who began moving there in large numbers in the 1880s.
Bounded on the west and east by the Paseo and what’s now Chestnut Trafficway, it’s touted as Kansas City’s first suburb.
To the north is Cliff Drive, one of only two nationally listed urban scenic byways. To the south, Independence Avenue, which a century ago was home to some of the most luxurious mansions found anywhere in Kansas City.
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Sadly, virtually all those mansions are gone. The area fell prey to crime and blight after many of the established families left for newer suburbs and new owners carved some of the remaining Victorian, shirtwaist and other historic homes into apartments.
Today, though, the neighborhood is again moving in a positive direction. People are buying those old homes and renovating them, creating a diverse community that has gained national notice.
“It’s far from beige,” said Jessica Ray, president of the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association.
Last fall the online edition of This Old House magazine featured Pendleton Heights in its “Best Old House Neighborhoods 2013: The Midwest.”
“The neighborhood is filling up with artists, singles and young families leaving their converted warehouse lofts downtown for more breathing room,” the magazine said.
Kristin Johnson, who works in advertising, fits the profile. Johnson always wanted a neighborhood with “a sense of place,” something different from “Anytown, USA.”
She moved to Kansas City in 2003, living first in Quality Hill west of downtown and then on Wyandotte County’s Strawberry Hill before finding the magic in Pendleton Heights.
After six years in the Kansas City area, Johnson knew that the Northeast part of Kansas City was where she wanted to be.
“That scene (in the movie “Blues Brothers”) on Maxwell Street where Ray Charles breaks into ‘Shake a Tail Feather’ must have imprinted on me in a big way,” Johnson said. “I guess I’d always been looking for a neighborhood where that kind of magic could happen.”
She found her dream neighborhood before she found the house.
“I thought that I would have to flip my way up to Pendleton Heights and flip my way up to Olive Street and flip my way up to this particular block,” she said.
But in the summer of 2009, after a year of searching on her own and seeing offers on five different houses fall through, she bought a house in the neighborhood. It was on the street, and even on the block, she always wanted.
It was far from picture perfect, though. As some are in Pendleton Heights, the house was unlivable. It took Johnson a year to repair the mechanical systems, the walls and the roof before she could move in.
“It was really bad. It was an ugly house,” Johnson said, “but it was exactly where I wanted it to be.”
In fact, the home’s sorry shape gave her a certain level of comfort.
“It wasn’t scary, because it was the ugliest house in the neighborhood,” she said. “I couldn’t make it any worse, so I bought it.”
It wasn’t always the case that the houses in Pendleton Heights were dilapidated or downright ugly.
In its early days the neighborhood served as a haven for Kansas City’s bankers, lawyers, lumber barons and well-to-do businessmen.
A 2011 history, “Pendleton Heights: Then and Now,” lists many of the early homeowners: a coal company owner, a hardware magnate, a judge, a jeweler, a politician, a brewery agent.
One physician was described as a pioneer in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. Another, who used one side of his Wabash Avenue home as a medical office, specialized in “Home Treatment for Cancer.”
Pendleton Heights also claims baseball legend Casey Stengel as one of its own. He was born in 1890 and graduated from Garfield School.
Pendleton Heights was named for a landowner who farmed in the area before it was developed.
One of Kansas City’s most renowned homes, Tiffany Castle, is in Pendleton Heights, at 100 Garfield Ave. It was completed in 1909 by eye doctor Flavel Tiffany, one of Kansas City’s leading physicians at the time. The 4,282-square-foot stone structure sits atop the Cliff Drive bluffs and is listed for sale at $599,900.
The book makes clear that the assault on the old homes began early on.
A housing shortage after World War I caused some structures to be subdivided.
As early as 1920, one home on Independence Boulevard was taken over by a law school fraternity. It caught fire a few years later and became “the first architectural casualty of Independence Boulevard,” the book says.
Children’s Mercy Hospital once was part of Independence Boulevard, and today the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences anchors the west end of the neighborhood. Its presence in the area dates to the 1920s.
Although some of the grandest mansions once fronted Independence Boulevard, the most stunning architecture today is found in the neighborhood’s interior, away from commercial encroachment.
Ray said the 2010 census found the neighborhood had 1,505 housing units, including 566 single-family homes. Just over 1,200 of the housing units were occupied.
The destruction of homes tapered off in the second half of the 20th century, but crime became the new enemy.
Virginia Collura has been a resident of Pendleton Heights through the good, the bad and the ugly. She moved there in the mid-1900s. Back then the neighborhood was home predominantly to Italian families, and she married into one.
“I had Italians all around me,” Collura said. “but they took me in as if I was Italian.”
To Collura there was a sense of community, family even, that made the neighborhood feel like home.
“When I moved over here, we could walk down Independence Avenue with no problem whatsoever,” Collura said.
But that changed in the 1980s as the established Italian families started to move out.
The neighborhood started to see an imbalance in “rentership to ownership,” said James Schriever, a community interaction officer in Kansas City’s Central Patrol Division.
Schriever works directly with the community to foster a partnership between law enforcement and the neighborhood. He watched as houses were subdivided into apartments, and the neighborhood started to come apart.
“It was really bad,” Schriever said. “You went to that part of town for prostitutes and for drugs.
“The great thing about the people in Pendleton Heights, they understood the police alone couldn’t solve the problem.”
Schriever attributes Pendleton Heights’ renaissance to the “few die-hard people” who saw the history, the potential and magic in the neighborhood.
“It’s all about putting neighbor back in neighborhood,” Schriever said. “They want to be part of a neighborhood, not just have somewhere to live.”
Collura is a former board member of the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association. During her tenure, she said, the organization tried to encourage potential buyers of subdivided houses to turn them back into single-family homes.
The community-building has continued, with curbside glass recycling, compost pickup, a community garden, a holiday homes tour and community events such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties.
Last year Pendleton Heights was one of the first four neighborhoods honored by the city’s new KC Green Neighborhood Recognition Program.
“It’s been interesting to work on building that sense of community in a neighborhood that’s so diverse,” said Ray, the neighborhood association president.
In some cases it took outsiders like Johnson — who were less influenced by memories of the worst times — to appreciate the neighborhood’s cachet.
“You see it and you say, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to buy a house here?’” Johnson said. “Everybody knows each other, the houses are gorgeous, and it’s dirt cheap.”
Tate Williams, originally from Chicago, and his wife, Abby, moved to Pendleton Heights after searching for a neighborhood with a little grit that didn’t skimp on community.
“I was looking for something even a little more gritty, but my wife spoke wisdom to that,” said Tate, 29. “We were craving something more challenging and diverse in an environment than both of us grew up in.”
Tate and Abby found themselves in a similar situation as Johnson on their first walk-through of what’s now their house. They knew they’d have to completely gut and renovate it.
Renovation and construction work wasn’t unfamiliar to him, but the process was more complicated in Pendleton Heights.
“Because it’s a historic neighborhood and home, we had to get approval for anything that can be seen from the outside,” Tate said.
Eric Bellamaganya and his wife moved from a downtown loft to Pendleton Heights as they started their family. As a real estate agent, he has seen the housing market rebound.
Tiffany Castle is certainly on the upper end, but Bellamaganya said prices generally vary anywhere from $10,000 for a fixer-upper to $190,000 for a house that has been fully restored.
“Home values have risen considerably in the past 10-plus years, as many previously vacant homes have since been restored and sold at market rate,” Bellamaganya said. “Moreover, many investors have purchased homes that were once divided into apartments and restored them into beautiful single-family homes.”
According to the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors, the average sale price in Pendleton Heights last year was $89,420, compared to just under $169,000 for resale homes in the metropolitan area.
Ray said the neighborhood has seen 25 full restorations in the last five years, and 10 more houses are getting the same kind of love now.
Moreover, she said, four century-old homes have been saved from demolition in the last year or so.
“Our goal is not to lose any additional historic structures or density,” she said.
Meanwhile, efforts are being made to bring a similar sense of momentum to the larger Independence Avenue corridor.
Well over a year ago the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce started planning for a community improvement district along Independence Avenue, including Pendleton Heights.
The focus of the district, led by chamber president Bobbi Baker-Hughes, is to improve safety, cleanliness and the businesses along the Independence Boulevard/Avenue corridor.
The community improvement district, which will generate more than $200,000 in its first year, is funded by a 1 percent sales tax increase in the area and a property tax that the residents petitioned for, Baker-Hughes said.
The chamber has collaborated with community members to voluntarily pick up trash. It’s offering marketing and merchandising classes for business owners and has even implemented patrols, called the Avenue Angels.
“We’re trying to make people feel safer,” Baker-Hughes said. “So much of the crime part of the problem has been the perception.
“This CID is just another piece of the puzzle that puts the historical Northeast back together.”
As for Pendleton Heights, the mantra is that people moved there for the houses but stayed for the community.
“I almost hate to overuse it, because it starts to sound contrived,” Johnson said, “but it’s true in so many cases.”