Tom Pendergast hasn’t run this city in eight decades, but his memory still captivates. Kansas City finds itself in the midst of a speakeasy-style bar revival — a message that spoke loud and clear enough to reach David Epstein’s ears in New York.
David was wooed from careers he knew, doing ad agency work and serving as an Off-Broadway actor, to a new trio of roles just as dramatic: bar owner, restaurateur and distiller. But the career path is in the family: his grandfather, who died at the height of the Great Depression, was a rival bootlegger to Pendergast, although without the fame and glory.
Inspired by KC’s thriving cocktail culture, the Prairie Village native felt called to move back to the Midwest and open Tom’s Town Distilling Co., named after Pendergast, in the Crossroads Art District.
“If you would have told me I’d be doing this at age 50, I would have laughed… and taken more tranquilizers,” he says. “It’s like theater every night, except no one applauds you.”
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Now David and his husband Wade Tajerian are building a life and a business in Kansas City in the spirit of that era. Their historic home is a Georgian Revival just off Ward Parkway, down the street from where Pendergast once lived in luxury.
A classic home with ties to Kansas City’s storied past was the only housing option in David’s mind.
“We immediately gravitated to a historical location,” says David, who zeroed in on what he calls SoLoPa — South Loose Park.
The house was built in 1912, but the couple refer to it as “the house that booze built.”
When they purchased it three years ago, it was in top condition, just not styled to their liking.
David removed the exterior awnings and halved the plantation shutters to allow more light through the leaded glass windows.
“Any room that was painted dark, we painted light, and we stripped all the wallpaper,” he adds.
The couple’s chosen palette of grays, blues and greens emits a cool tone.
“That comes from living by the Atlantic for as long as we have,” David says.
Their biggest alteration was converting the formal dining room to a den that opens to the kitchen.
“In doing that, we essentially turned this space into our old Greenwich Village apartment, in terms of the layout from the kitchen to the fireplace to the TV,” David says.
They kept the essential footprint of the kitchen, altering only the island to better suit how they live, and repainted cabinets and installed new pendant lighting.
Though formal dining is not part of the couple’s lifestyle, David, a self-described “Paul McCobb freak” has a dining set by the midcentury designer in a former porch.
The adjacent parlor has become a cocktail lounge, where a bartender regularly parks himself in the corner during parties.
Entertaining has always been a part of the couple’s lifestyle — they just didn’t always have space for it. They spent most of the last 18 years living in roughly 800-square-foot apartments.
“I never dreamed I’d be living back in Kansas City or in this size of space ever again,” David says. “It took some getting used to; it can feel lonely sometimes.”
The upgrade in housing was a giant leap for the couple, although it wasn’t an insurmountable design challenge. Astoundingly, they already owned 90 percent of the furniture seen here, including the grand piano.
“This is it, just spread out,” David says.
The couple’s designer furnishings transitioned beautifully to the grand home. In the living room, a Paul McCobb sideboard resides near a Paul Frank cork coffee table, a Dunbar couch and Milo Baughman side chairs.
In the more casual den, David loves the mix of a Paul Evans Brutalist buffet opposite one of his newest acquisitions, a Gilbert Rohde cabinet that he picked up in the West Bottoms.
“It didn’t cost a lot, but it gets so much attention,” he says.
The couple’s favorite relaxation spots are the vintage reupholstered Edward Wormley cocktail chairs and a decade-old Steven Gambrel deep couch that seems to improve with age.
Art has been collected along the way and from around the world, while clever knick-knacks play an important role, as well.
“I’m often criticized for having too much whimsy,” David says, motioning to an upstairs console. “Cue a meerkat wearing Elton John concert glasses.”
While on the topic of odd pairings, David enters “The Cher of Master Bedrooms,” so called for its numerous surgeries that, in David’s opinion, have not made a harmonious whole. The disjointed room features moved doors, a closed-in sleeping porch and David’s ultimate bugaboo — an off-center fireplace.
“I’m learning to live with it, but I constantly debate why it’s here,” he says.
The other bedrooms don’t cause much, if any, angst and provide crash spots for the couple’s nieces and nephews from New York and Los Angeles.
Of all the couple’s decisions, the best was to install a pool.
“It’s a blast and the most unexpected element of coming here,” David says. “There’s nothing like a little bit of earth to change your mindset. We have this whole other element we didn’t have in New York. We no longer have a Chrysler Building view, but we have outdoor space.”
The pool certainly fits with the lifestyle of bar and distillery owners. In the summer, friends are always popping by for refreshing drinks and dips.
“We definitely don’t live a quiet life, much to Gus’s chagrin,” David says, referring to the couple’s dog.
Even if silence isn’t golden here, something else is — a sense of home, stability and permanence.
After flipping several residences in Manhattan while moving jobs, they have a new outlook on a life in a city that feels just big enough.
“I love KC,” Wade says. “It feels like Brooklyn 20 years ago. The energy feels like something is about to happen.”
Adds David: “I don’t mind if we stay here forever. I’ve fallen in love with the city and come to embrace it.”