“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City. . . They went an’ built a skyscraper seven stories high, about as high as a building orta grow.” So sings the awe-struck Will Parker in Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma. If farm-boy Will’s critical aperçus did not go much beyond this, he was correct about the city’s modishness. In the realm of architecture and urban design, the self-proclaimed “Paris of the Plains” has at times seemed not just up-to-date but at the leading edge. Recently, for example, the New York Times, with that air of Olympian astonishment with which they announce grand discoveries in far-flung places, all but demanded that the Nelson Atkins Museum’s “breathtaking” new Bloch Building, by Steven Holl Architects, “be studied by anyone who sets out to design a museum from this point forward.” 1
Yet the Bloch is only the latest in a series of Kansas City archetypes. During the 1920s, before its long, slow rust-belt decline began, the city’s architecture and planning projects no less than twice stood at the forefront of American design. Developer J. C. Nichols’s improbably Moorish-themed Country Club Plaza, opened in 1923 and still lively today, became famous as the world’s first automobile-oriented suburban shopping center — the Ur-mall, great godmother to a thousand Baby Gaps. Less seminal but more celebrated then was the Liberty Memorial, dedicated in 1926. Little known outside of the city now, it was identified by architectural writers in the late 1920s as the best modern monument in the country, one of its preeminent modern buildings, a prime exemplar of an emerging American style. None of this is immediately obvious today and so one might well ask: What did people see then that we do not?
Of the nearly nine million soldiers who died in World War I, 441 hailed from Kansas City. Even before the Armistice was signed, Kansas City papers were calling for a war memorial. 2 The idea caught on quickly. Soon public meetings were held, names were floated, and by December 1918, the Liberty Memorial Association (LMA), led by J. C. Nichols and lumber baron Robert A. Long, was formed. There was much discussion of type: a utilitarian building, a non-utilitarian monument, a monument and a building, etc. By April 1919, the LMA decided on “a monument plus a building, not for utilitarian purposes, but to house trophies of war”; many expected that a cultural center — with a university, art museum, concert hall and library — would later rise around the memorial (it did not). 3 A fundraising drive begun that October netted more than $2,000,000 in just ten days, with over 83,000 people contributing. In March, 1920, AIA President Thomas R. Kimbell signed on as “professional advisor” to the project and a site was acquired — 33 acres on a highly visible hilltop directly across from Jarvis Hunt’s imposing beaux-arts Union Station, gateway to the city since 1914.
A competition open to all “bona-fide practicing architect[s]” in Kansas City and to five prominent firms invited from outside was announced in December 1920. The program called for “a memorial that shall symbolize the dawn of a warless age, and do honor to those who died that such an age might be a human heritage.” 4 Portentously (and quite vaguely) noting “conditions of instability and change unprecedented in building history,” the program advised competitors not only “to give the widest range to their imagination[s],” but also to break with the past, to proceed “unmindful of what has been inherited” and so create “a masterpiece at the moment.” 5 The jury — architects Henry Bacon, James Gamble Rogers and Louis Ayers of New York, John M. Donaldson of Detroit, and W. R. B. Wilcox of Seattle — received eleven completed entries. 6
The most unusual was Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s elaborately scenographic design — a walled and almost ruined-looking acropolis with an immense blocky tower and a round-arched bridge linking the site to a neighboring hill. Unlike his much-admired Nebraska State Capitol complex — a commission awarded in a 1920 competition again overseen by Thomas Kimball —Goodhue’s design for Kansas City did not soar heavenward from the prairie but collapsed back down toward it. Having eschewed the future-oriented optimism called for by the program, Goodhue received a politely dismissive fourth place. Third place went to Greenbaum, Hardy and Schumacher of Kansas City for a giant fluted column rising from terraced gardens — the only local entry to place in the top four and the one most like the winning submission. Paul Cret of Philadelphia, whose design consisted in the main of a high wall topped by a statue of Lady Liberty looking like she’d exited the wrong station and was now searching for the harbor, earned second place. The jury’s unanimous choice for first place went to Harold Van Buren Magonigle of New York.
Magonigle described his design as a “Flame of Inspiration . . . a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.” 7 I tend to think he got the nod mainly because of one spectacular rendering. In this the memorial is seen at night, obliquely and from below. In the dark foreground sits a stone sphinx, veiling its face enigmatically. Behind this an unseen light source illuminates a high wall covered with inscriptions and reliefs; this wall is crowned by a soaring column from whose top white smoke twists into a cobalt sky. Many of the competing images included figures. One of Cret’s showed a mustachioed man before a wall, pitching woo to his coyly seated sweetheart. Others showed people standing about doing little more than pointing or lending human scale. Magonigle’s drawing is unique in that it actually shows something going on, something, that is, apart from pointing or wooing. The scene is a solemn pageant of some sort. The smallness of the figures conveys the immensity of the structure and the distance between those still living and those elevated and expanded by sacrifice. One figure stands with legs apart, hands on hips, boldly silhouetted beside the sphinx. A few others ascend the steps to the creature’s right. Most are not seen but only suggested by flags of many colors and unspecified nationality. Aside from the English-language inscriptions on the wall, the setting is impossible to identify. One wouldn’t be surprised to see Ramses or Reagan taking his place atop the wall. Magonigle shows his concept not as the other entrants did theirs — as more or less attractive and commodious urban furniture — but as an object assuming a sacred and central role in the community, its timeless forms capable of bearing their messages and authority for generations to come. A few years later, with construction of his reinforced concrete, limestone-clad monument underway, Magonigle told a reporter he saw no reason why it should not stand for 5,000 years. 8 This, evidently, was the kind of optimism that the jury could sink its teeth into.
The building site was dedicated in a grand ceremony on November 1, 1921. In attendance were Vice President Calvin Coolidge, the five commanders of the Allied forces (including Missouri’s own General John “Black Jack” Pershing), and a crowd of 100,000. Construction, however, did not begin until 1923. As architects now and again do, Magonigle significantly underestimated construction costs, and so substantial modifications were required to meet the budget. The entire design was scaled back and pared down. The memorial’s central element, a great tapered shaft topped by guardian figures, which at one point was to be raised on its own platform and stand more than 400 feet high, was halved. The platform was abandoned. The matching classical pavilions on either side (a “memory hall” to be filled with murals and a museum for war-related artifacts) were converted to stark boxes almost devoid of exterior ornament. Originally set back from the shaft on a lower level, they were now aligned with it on a single long east-west axis, placed on the same level around a “memory court.” The elaborate north wall (facing Union Station) was made lower, longer and almost featureless. It was to have been filled with a great 400-foot-long frieze carved by Magonigle’s wife, Edith, representing “the Procession of Civilization.” In fact, the wall remained blank until 1934, when Edmond Ametais’s much shorter (140 foot) relief of “the March from War to Peace” was begun. The two veiled sphinxes (carved by Robert Aitken and representing memory and the future) were moved from the north to the south side of the shaft and thus made invisible from Union Station. The north side’s grand staircase and circular fountain were shelved. Even after the sculptures and landscaping (by George Kessler and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.) were finished, the overall design appeared far more spare — and consequently, far more modern — than originally intended.
On November 11, 1926, Magonigle’s “timeless” and not-quite-finished monument was dedicated in a ceremony marked by its size and modernity. Coolidge, now president, returned to address an audience of 150,000. Kansas City newspapers called this the greatest single gathering in the history of the city and the largest crowd ever addressed by a president of the United States. This was also the first time a sitting president had visited the city. People motoring toward the site caused one of the city’s first and worst traffic jams. Airplanes circled overhead before the speeches, dropping flowers on the congregation massed below. Several distinguished guests were in attendance, including Queen Marie of Romania, whose travel expenses were underwritten by the Ford Motor Company. She too addressed the crowd (and though I haven’t seen a transcript of her talk, I can’t help wondering if she plugged her sponsors). Loudspeakers carried the ceremony to the furthest reaches of the throng, while radio broadcasts carried it further still. The memorial’s design was copyrighted so it couldn’t be commercially exploited, or rather, so its commercial exploitation could be controlled: Souvenir ashtrays were nixed; postcards and advertisements for Kansas City tourism and the Missouri Pacific Railroad were allowed. The ceremony was filmed and the reels carried by plane to New York so that theaters could show it there the following day. Klieg lights lit the memorial that night, making it visible from a great distance. Twenty-five miles away, in Olathe, Kansas, the intellectual kin of Will Parker reportedly thought a new star had appeared in the night sky. 9
Critical response to the memorial was immediate, widespread, and — apart from Gutzon Borglum’s churlish call to tart it up with “giant figures” dangling from the shaft — rapturous. 10 The jury, gushing as juries often do when speaking of their own selections, called it “an architectural masterpiece, a design of commanding dignity, power and beauty. . . . There has never been anything undertaken in America of such a nature as this Liberty Memorial.” 11 Historian Cydney Millstein recently described the memorial as an exemplary work of “Beaux Arts Classicism.” 12 Maybe, but this is not how it impressed observers in the 1920s. “The art of architecture in America,” said an editorial in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects (which by this time was also publishing the work of Mies and Le Corbusier), “has made a momentous stride.” Historians might one day see the memorial as a “turning point. . . . In the Kansas City Memorial Mr. Magonigle has risen to the heights of genius . . . there have been few to compare in modern architecture.” 13 For Frederick Irvine, editor of the journal American Stone Trade, Magonigle’s design caused Kansas City to “sweep past and ahead of all the cities of the world . . . [the memorial] is truly all American. . . . There is no slavish adherence to any school of the past. Perhaps it will be the first worthy model of the new American type that has been prophesied from time to time.” 14 Architect Talbot Faulkner Hamlin, later head of Columbia’s Avery Library, called it “the climax of modern American memorial design,” a structure bearing ‘no academic scholarly re-creation of the past’.” 15 Closer to home, Kansas City school teachers told their students that the memorial was “neither Grecian art, nor Roman art, but modern.” 16
Veiled sphinxes, guardian figures, paired temples: the Liberty Memorial’s mix of reductive classicism, axial planning and figurative sculpture doesn’t exactly scream “modern” to today’s viewer. In fact, the advent of European rationalist-functionalist modes, particularly as these were funneled through Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s books and International Style exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, caused Americans after 1932 to see modern architecture far more restrictively than before. Yet prior to this not just Chicago skyscrapers and Prairie Style houses, but a host of less formally adventurous — yet often technologically and programmatically advanced — buildings were called modern. 17 In the 1920s Magonigle called his own work modern, and few in America would have disagreed. By modern he meant not just contemporary, but a deliberate move beyond the past. This former employee of McKim, Mead, and White urged architects to “lock up the bookcases” so as to keep from “doing” historic styles. “Unless an art has its springs in the life of its own time it is dry, juiceless, barren.” 18 Like H.H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan before him (whose work he disparaged as too personal and undisciplined), he sought to employ the principles of the past without reviving past forms. “When the American architect has passed the architecture of the past through the crucible of his native genius, has learned to utter his own message eloquently and grammatically, there will arise on this continent an architecture thrilling in its dramatic quality, noble in its restraint and vigor.” 19
For many this is what emerged in Kansas City. The Liberty Memorial was a native modern architecture. In 1926, European modernism was not yet perceived as a rival species, but its differences were already starkly evident. Modern European buildings took their formal cues from machines and new structural technologies. American buildings might be loaded with technological advances, but in a country still working to define its national image, they bore the look of hard-won traditions, however updated. European moderns aimed to inject change — radical formal change that might indicate or incite radical social change — into cultures they saw as moribund. American moderns sought to foster continuity and stability in a country where change was a pervasive fact of daily life. 20 The victors write near-term history, and it almost invariably becomes less complicated and less interesting in the process. So did a building once regarded as among the country’s most advanced come to seem a fusty, provincial relic. Its slide into oblivion was already commencing when Magonigle sneered at the “arbitrary and inexplicable” California houses of Schindler and Neutra, a “modernistic” and “aberrant” architecture unsuitable for American people and settings. 21
As Magonigle hoped it would, the Liberty Memorial may yet stand 5,000 years, although it almost didn’t last 75. Like the city around it, the memorial during the final 70 years of the twentieth century experienced long periods of decline punctuated by brief bursts of renewal. Budget cuts and fear of air raids led to its being briefly closed during the 1940s. Further cuts in the 1950s resulted in reduced maintenance and deterioration. In 1961 Hallmark Cards president Joyce C. Hall (whose operation was headquartered across the street at Crown Center) led an effort to refurbish and rededicate the memorial, with advice from architect Edward Durrell Stone. The work was piecemeal and further repairs were soon needed. Over the next two decades visitor numbers dropped as the war receded from memory and the city sprawled. The decline in rail travel and the closing of nearby Union Station in 1989 further isolated the site. During the 1980s the Liberty Memorial developed a reputation for seediness — under-policed, under-lit at night, unsafe most anytime. Towers are so routinely called phallic that it is strangely satisfying when one comes to advertise a gay cruising zone, as this one did. Unfortunately, drug addicts and thugs soon crashed the party, and assault, robbery and murder followed. Meanwhile, the memorial’s structural fragility became increasingly apparent (the great shaft flagged?). In 1994, not long after a man jumped to his death from atop it, the memorial was closed. A few years later, talk of fundraising and rebuilding began anew. Extensive renovations were eventually carried out, and in 2002 the Liberty Memorial reopened. In 2006, with a spacious new subterranean museum by Abend Singleton Associates in place, Congress designated the site the nation’s official World War I museum and the memorial a National Historic Landmark.
The museum is superb, the memorial bright and sound again, the views over the revitalized Union Station and the resurgent city splendid. But there is another reason to visit the Liberty Memorial. This may not be modern architecture as we understand it today, but it’s not run-of-the-mill historicism or modernistic superficiality either. Think of the Liberty Memorial as a sort of corrective lens on the past. Long after other astigmatisms of the modernist era were corrected, we still see modern architecture as looking much like MoMA told us it looked in 1932. Informed Americans before then saw a broader range of possibilities for the architecture of their era. As we seek to envision our own environmental future, a clearer view of the past’s rich complexity is a valuable adjutant.