New KC Library Bridges Centuries, Riles Historians | KCUR

New KC Library Bridges Centuries, Riles Historians

Apr 28, 2013

The Woodneath Estate will be part of the new library in the Shoal Creek area of Kansas City.
Credit Alex Smith / KCUR

Say you’re researching for a book report. Or looking up local history. Maybe you want to learn to some do-it-yourself home repair. Chances are good you’ll log on to the internet and get your answers in a few minutes without leaving your chair.

This leaves old-fashioned libraries with a problem: how to get people back to the stacks.

One local library has a unique solution for facing the future by embracing the past. The new branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library literally joins a 21st century building with a pre-Civil War home.

But not everybody is happy about it.

Almost everywhere you go in the Shoal Creek neighborhood, you can hear the sounds of construction. During the past few years, this area west of Liberty has seen new subdivisions popping up everywhere.

The Mid-Continent Public Library staff knew they wanted a to create branch in Shoal Creek, but realized they needed something unique to appeal to the area’s young families. 

In the middle of the new cul-du-sacs and strip malls, they found an old property that seemed to offer something different: a rich history.

The Woodneath Library Center will be one of Kansas City’s biggest and most unconventional library buildings. 

"It's a brand-new 35,000 square foot, state-of -the-art library that's being brought together with an adaptive re-use of an 1850s Antebellum farm home," says CEO and director Steven Potter.

The Woodneath estate was originally a farm which used slaves to produce corn and hemp before the Civil War. The Woodneath house, which lies in the middle of a 33-acre estate, was built in 1855 – 56. Although it was still occupied just a year and a half ago, the pre-Civil War red brick house, as well as a couple of the other estate buildings, have remained mostly unchanged for over 150 years. 

Potter says when the Mid-Continent Public Library bought Woodneath and decided to create its new branch on the property, it had originally considered preserving the estate and turning it into a museum.

But after consulting with local historians, like Steve Noll from the Jackson County Historical Society, the Library leaders changed their minds.

"One of  things that Steve [Noll] told me really early on was that we should avoid making this into a museum house," says Potter.

"I think he was  speaking to me from his Jackson County Historical Society hat at that point, because they run the Wornall House, which is a museum house."

Potter says Noll told him the model for that is really hard to make work, and they should try to do something a little outside the box.

In order to create a library building that would be relevant in the 21st century, Potter and his team also needed to figure out how they would make a 19th century house appealing to young library users.

Rather than create a museum, the Library has decided to use the old building as a center to instruct the tech-infused public in the lost art of storytelling.

"We are going to create a story center here," says Potter. "The idea is, you've got this story within you and what you'll do is bring it here.

The  Woodneath Library Center will have classes to help people develop stories and characters.

"And to understand that punctuation matters," says Potter with a laugh.

The old house will contain audio and video production studios as well as a book binding machine to allow patrons to publish their stories in multiple formats.

The new Woodneath building, which is currently under construction, will be physically attached to the back of the old house. Once completed, visitors will be able to walk from the 21st century library through a door into the 19th century home.

Potter admits that he’s heard from people who don’t like what’s happening with the historic property.

Among the critics is Gary Fuenfhausen, founder and head of Missouri’s Little Dixie Heritage Foundation. The cover of his 1996 book A Guide To Historic Clay County, Missouri features a photo of the Woodneath estate. The property is currently on four different historic registers, including the national register, and Fuenfhausen is concerned about the Woodneath losing that status.

He says that the library development, with its big new building and parking lot, is destroying a valuable artifact of Missouri history. And,  part of the reason the home has register status is because of the agrarian setting.  

"It goes on to say that the farm outbuildings are part of that original settings," he says. "When they went in and they totally destroyed that whole setting, it also destroyed the significance of the property."

"Each time one of these sites are compromised or lost then that is another piece of evidence and information that we've completely lost," he says.

Potter says that the Library is committed to keeping Woodneath’s Historic Register status and has been working closely with the Kansas City Landmarks Commission to do so.

Historic property owners are allowed to physically modify buildings as long as they preserve the essential historic qualities of the property. Potter explains that the new library maintains the original Woodneath landscape, and the new building is set lower than the house, in deference to it.

However, Gary Fuenfhausen believes that, with so few remaining traces of its pre-Civil War heritage, especially its Southern heritage, Missouri can’t afford to alter a site like Woodneath.

But just as libraries need to change, Potter believes Woodneath preservation efforts need a different approach.

He says that re- purposing the old estate is the only way to save it from encroaching suburban development.

"There are going to be times when you have to do certain things to ensure that other things exist," he says. "And that is basically what has happened here."

The new building of the Woodneath library will open on June 22.

The Library is still working out the details of re-purposing the old house, which will open later.