Steve Paul

Modernism struggles for respect in the Kansas City streetscape

The former Board of Trade building is becoming a glass-walled headquarters for the Populous architectural firm.
The former Board of Trade building is becoming a glass-walled headquarters for the Populous architectural firm.

When the Historic Kansas City Foundation last week issued its annual most endangered list, the lamentations included “modern architecture” as a single threatened species.

That threat stems at least in part from the requirement that historic buildings, as designated by the National Parks Service for the National Register, generally have to be at least 50 years old. So today, say, anything built since 1965 would not qualify for the tax credits and protection that National Register status might bring.

Witness the very real recent discussion over the possible demolition of Kemper Arena. An application for historic status has been submitted, returned and resubmitted, and a potential developer awaits a decision. The relative young age of the building (1974) means that the applicants must prove “exceptional significance,” says Elizabeth Rosin, the architectural historian whose firm prepared the application. That’s no slam dunk.

In recent years, the local landscape has lost several notable modern structures, including the tentlike B’nai Jehudah synagogue. Another loss was a brutalist state office building that made way for the Power & Light District with hardly a peep; it was the kind of concrete-heavy, 1960s and ’70s civic structure that has come under the gun elsewhere.

A local modernist success story is the restoration of the sleek TWA headquarters building, complete with replica rocket, at 18th Street and Baltimore Avenue.

Renovation and redevelopment are currently transforming two highly visible, late-modern buildings on or near the Country Club Plaza. Both projects raise questions about what makes a building “historic,” what’s worth preserving and whether such a thing as evolutionary modernism (I think I just made that term up) can also be acceptable as a sign of progress and/or societal change.

The foundation is alarmed over the major remakes of the Halls department store building and garage (1965) on the Plaza and the Kansas City Board of Trade (1966), at 4800 Main St., just across Brush Creek from the Plaza. Both structures are being reskinned, and the removal of aggregate panels and decorative elements, the foundation says, “forever alters the original design of these structures, eliminating from the visual landscape their contribution to the post-war and suburban development of Kansas City.”

The foundation’s expression of urgency over the issue involves the need to take inventory and establish criteria for the historic nature of the modern movement, which “has not been surveyed broadly” here.

That’s an important and laudable effort. But historic preservation can’t be so narrowly stuck on a principle without discussing bigger pictures. Private owners can do what they want with buildings, though we hope and urge that they embrace a sense of community, history, landscape and architectural integrity when they do it. Some do that better than others. I have reservations, for example, about the altered scale and profile of a prominently placed modernist office building currently being expanded at State Line Road and Shawnee Mission Parkway.

Yet, the Spanish-tinged Plaza lost much of its originalness years ago, and despite decades of clumsy change, disappointing trend-hopping and, yes, some doses of evolutionary modernism, it remains, if not wholly inspiring, largely a place of human scale. And it will survive the alteration of what was in essence a late-model, big-box store made up with Moorish appliqué.

And Populous, the architectural firm reimagining the Board of Trade into its new headquarters, will undoubtedly prosper within its day-lit, newly glass-walled home, a far cry from that wild trading pit of yore, which was hidden by its solid but bland box of an exterior.

Preservation is one thing, but a carefully considered permissiveness might not be so unappealing. The question that ultimately has to be asked is whether buildings can be made better with modern alterations — better for their users and their neighbors and the visual and social landscapes. I think so.

Reach Steve Paul, editorial page editor, at Twitter: @sbpaul.