Up-to-Date in Kansas City

The Liberty Memorial as modern architecture.

Liberty Memorial, Circa November 1999–May 2000

“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.

Liberty Memorial, Circa November 1999–May 2000

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.

Harold Van Buren Magonigle, Liberty Memorial [Courtesy of Avery Library]

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.

Elevation and Site Plan of Liberty Memorial

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

Liberty Memorial, 2009. [Image Credit: Keith Eggener]

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

Liberty Memorial [Image Credit: kcphotos via Flickr]

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.

  1. Nicolai Ouroussoff, “A Translucent and Radiant Partner with the Past,” New York Times, 6 June 2007 (accessed June 9, 2009).
  2. An editorial in the Kansas City Journal called for a memorial on November 9, 1918, two days before the Armistice was signed. Derek Donovan, Lest the Ages Forget, Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial (Kansas City: Kansas City Star Books, 2001), 18.
  3. Ibid., 20. Along with Donovan’s book, other good sources of information on the memorial are: J.E. McPherson, The Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri (Kansas City: Liberty Memorial Association, 1929); Sarajane Sandusky Aber, “An Architectural History of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, 1918–1935” (M.A. Thesis: Univ. of Missouri, Kansas City, 1988) (accessed June 9, 2009); and Cydney Millstein, “Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri, Historic American Buildings Survey Report,” 2000 (accessed June 9, 2009).
  4. Program: Competition for the Selection of an Architect to Design and Supervise the Construction of a Memorial at Kansas City (Kansas City: Liberty Memorial Association, 1920), 6.
  5. Ibid., 8, 15, 21.
  6. All of these are illustrated in Donovan, Lest the Ages Forget, 32-49.
  7. H. Van Buren Magonigle, “Description of the Memorial,” in McPherson, The Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, 25.
  8. Quoted in “Shaft Designer Inspects Sphinx,” Kansas City Post, 6 January 1926, n.p. Found in the Press Clipping Books, Liberty Memorial Museum Library and Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.
  9. This paragraph draws on several Kansas City newspaper articles found in the Press Clipping Books, Liberty Memorial Library and Archives.
  10. Mt. Rushmore sculptor Borglum criticized the Liberty Memorial repeatedly in Kansas City newspapers between 1925 and 1932. See for example, “Put Life into Memorial,” Kansas City Star, 31 October 1929, n.p., in Press Clipping Books, Liberty Memorial Library and Archives.
  11. Quoted in McPherson, The Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, 23.
  12. Millstein, “Liberty Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri, Historic American Buildings Survey Report.”
  13. Quoted in McPherson, The Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, 23.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Talbot Faulkner Hamlin, The American Spirit in Architecture (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1926), 229.
  16. This story was reported in several Kansas City newspapers (and at least one from Seattle), as found in the Press Clipping Books, Liberty Memorial Library and Archives. The above quote comes from “Strictly Modern to Him,” Kansas City Times, 19 October 1926, n.p.
  17. For a good overview of this period in American architecture and Americans’ developing ideas about modernism, see Anthony Alofsin, The Struggle for Modernism: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and City Planning at Harvard (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002).
  18. H. Van Buren Magonigle: “The Upper Ground,” originally published in September 1934, reprinted in Pencil Points Reader: A Journal for the Drafting Room, George E. Hartman and Jan Cigliano, eds. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), 364; and The Nature, Practice, and History of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), 300.
  19. Magonigle, The Nature, Practice, and History of Art, 306.
  20. One disparity worth noting: in 1923 there were more automobiles within the single rural state of Kansas than in all of France and Germany combined.
  21. Magonigle: “The Upper Ground,” originally published in 1935, reprinted in Pencil Points Reader, Hartman and Cigliano, eds., 392-95.
Keith Eggener, “Up-to-Date in Kansas City,” Places Journal, September 2009. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/090913

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Past Discussions View
  • Joe Moran

    11.11.2009 at 18:20

    The memorial was designated the National World War I Museum by Congress in 2004. It was rededicated on Dec. 2, 2006.

    The "subterranean" museum redesign was done mostly by Ralph Appelbaum Associates under the direction of Josh Dudley (at least he's the guy who gave a presentation here in 2006 on the whole process).

    Thanks for the article Mr. Eggener. And happy Veterans Day!

    Very Respectfully,

    Joe Moran

  • Nola Devitt

    11.12.2009 at 11:16

    As a former Kansas Citian now residing in New York City, I was pleased to see the Liberty Memorial so thoroughly examined and valued. Kansas Citians seem to have a love-apathy relationship with the Liberty Memorial, as evidenced by the city's willingness to allow its decline and then restoration. I really appreciate your interesting and enlightening historical perspective to a memorable piece of architecture I had not fully appreciated previously. And the humor throughout added to an enjoyable read.

  • Sluggo

    11.12.2009 at 13:11

    I love this era of modernism and have long considered it neglected.
    Look at the Sepulveda flood dam for another reinforced concrete structure from slightly later.
    Paul Cret's buildings in Philadelphia are great and were a major influence on Louis Kahn, also a students of Cret.
    The sometimes different philosophies of the architecture contributes to the discarding of the past rather than perceiving it as a continuum.
    Think of how reviled Gehry was at one point and how lionized he is today, this may shift again.

  • ChrisM70

    11.13.2009 at 02:15

    Nice article.

    If anyone is interested in seeing more of the Liberty Memorial, here is a link to some of my photos:


    and here is a link to pictures I took during the dedication of the official World War I Memorial Grand Opening:


  • DJG Design

    11.13.2009 at 12:53

    Thank you for the great article on Liberty Memorial and my town. -djg

  • LoCascio

    11.13.2009 at 12:54

    I visited the memorial a couple times will living in Kansas City, and it's a moving experience. I've been there on a blindlingly hot July afternoon, when the limestone glowed white in the midday sun. One can ride up the tower for a 360 view of the city. I've been there on a late winter afternoon, when the shadows were very long and the city ruddy with the setting sun. I've been there on a summer evening when couples were strolling by, enjoying the evening.

    Driving past, one doesn't sense the scale, or the beauty, especially as famliarity makes it invisible, but up close, it's grand and emotional.

  • Tobias Wolf

    11.14.2009 at 09:35

    For another take on the meanings of "modern" in architecture in the early 20th Century, check out David Brownlee's _Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art_ (out of print but worth finding).

    Brownlee argues that modernism was understood in the 1920s to be about program and planning rather than formal vocabulary. Looking at two buildings that employed classical forms and details, he explains that Cret's Free Library was seen as modern, because its exterior form arose from the rational arrangement of the spaces inside; while Horace Trumbauer's Philadelphia Museum of Art was not, because it was composed first for scenic value, with the relationship of interior spaces subservient to the exterior expression.

  • Cydney Millstein

    01.01.2010 at 19:57

    Please note the following correction/addition: The black and white archival photographs were taken from November 1999-May 2000, not 1936 as stated in your article. The later date refers to the HABS official numbering system (MO-1936). John W. Gutowski (1948-2001), was the photographer.

    Cydney E. Millstein
    Author of the National Register of Historic Places Nomination, the National Historic Landmark Nomination and the HABS Documentation for Liberty Memorial

  • Nancy Levinson

    01.04.2010 at 01:56

    Thanks for the correction! We're glad to get this information and have corrected the dates in the captions.

  • Cydney Millstein

    01.07.2010 at 14:46

    I would also like to point out that due to the architectural classification guidelines as set forth by the National Park Service, The United States Department of the Interior (see "Bulletin 16A"), preservation consultants are limited to NPS stylistic terminology (standardized) in documents prepared for the National Register, National Historic Landmark Nominations and mitigation. In the case of the Liberty Memorial, the SHPO and NPS staff felt that Beaux Arts Classicism best described the memorial and it's relation to the City Beautiful Movement. Of course, the document's narrative further indicates that there are other styles that influenced the design and this point should have been noted in your article.

    Cydney E. Millstein