A love of the theater leads to a second home that’s a star of Kansas City’s architectural history.
THE PLAY’S THE THING
The Gates family were important developers in 19th-century Kansas City. Marvin Gates was a decorated colonel in World War I and continued in the family real-estate tradition. His wife, Medill Smith Gates, was a lifelong devotee of the theater. Medill Gates used to say she was “born on Broadway,” since she was born in the Smith family home at 1204 Broadway Boulevard. Her mother and father were early performers and members of the Kemble Club, the dramatic society of their day. From her childhood on, Mrs. Medill Smith Gates was the leading lady in Kansas City theater. The Smith family home was the first location of the Barstow School for Girls, and a young Medill Smith helped create the Pretenders—the theater group that still exists at the school today. She helped launch the Comedy Club, which later became the Kansas City Theater. When it was time to design and build a second home in the country, the Gates knew they had to find a unique visionary to achieve their goal of incorporating family life with their passion for the stage.
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BREAKING THE STEEL CEILING
In 1900, women were not allowed to pursue many professions, including architecture. Mary Rockwell Hook, daughter of Junction City, Kansas, businessman Bertrand Rockwell, was definitely progressive. Her parents raised her to not be deterred or intimidated. After traveling abroad with her parents in 1902, she returned to study architecture at the Chicago Art Institute, where she was the only female student. She then attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, becoming the second woman ever to take the French Beaux-Arts examination. Despite getting her architecture degree, the American Institute of Architects would not admit her in the then all-male professional association.
When her family moved to Kansas City in 1906, she had difficulty getting a job with a firm, so her father decided to take matters into his own hands, purchasing lots around town so she could design houses, including buying the very first lot offered by J.C. Nichols in his new residential development. So began the pioneering career of the first female architect in Kansas City. Her early homes are architectural wonders, incorporating native stone, wood and other local elements, all with porches and balconies to incorporate indoor/outdoor living. Rockwell Lane, in Sunset Hill south of the Plaza, was named after her. She designed many of the houses nearby for family and friends, with a distinct blend of Italianate revival and neoclassical motifs. The highlight is an 11-room mansion built for her parents. It was the first home in the city to incorporate an attached garage, which caused a controversy at the time but was soon accepted as a major convenient innovation for the wealthy.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE THEATER
Rockwell married attorney Ingram Hook in 1920. Because she didn’t need to practice architecture for financial reasons, the homes and projects she designed were a labor of love rather than necessity.
Rockwell Hook was also very involved in many civic organizations and causes. One of her passions was the theater, serving on the Municipal Arts Commission for many years and performing as an amateur actor. She incorporated stages and balconies for performing in the design of many of her homes.
It’s no surprise that Rockwell Hook and Medill Smith Gates became close friends and colleagues. When Marvin and Medill Gates decided to build a country weekend retreat, Rockwell Hook was the obvious choice to design it. Encompassing more than 110 acres just outside of Kansas City, Four Gates Farm is certainly one of Hook’s most beautiful productions, a testament to the two women’s talent and friendship.
The property included several structures and outbuildings, including a water tower, a conical cistern, the original caretaker’s cottage and swimming pool, as well as rows of walnut trees, formal gardens and a small creek. Sitting atop the crest of a hill with commanding views of the entire valley, the 14,000-square-foot limestone, masonry, and exposed wood-beamed main house stands as a powerful example of Rockwell Hook’s signature style.
The home contains wide, arched doorways, metal casement windows imported from Europe, thick walls, hand-forged iron railings and elegant stone fireplaces. The enormous living room contains complex period molding, onyx terrazzo flooring, detailed Italian plaster and a huge stone fireplace. But the highlight is the generous platform stage built overlooking the entire room, complete with cabinets for props and costumes.
The second floor embraces six bedrooms, with beautiful sleeping porches with three exposures at each end of the long, center corridor. For many years, the Gates country house was often filled for weekends of friends, family and amateur theater.
The current owners recently completed a wonderful, historic restoration of Four Gates, keeping the original acreage intact.
Mary Rockwell Hook died at the age of 101, with nine of her houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1973, Barstow School named and dedicated its stage to Medill Smith Gates. Both women boldly influenced the history of Kansas City and left a lasting legacy in both theater and architecture.