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How Kansas City Became Home To The Nation's Official World War I Memorial

The National World War I Museum and Memorial
A large crowd gathered for the dedication of the Liberty Memorial on a cold grey day on November 11, 1926. President Calvin Coolidge addressed the crowd.

Of the 40 million people who died in World War I, only 441 were from around Kansas City. With so few casualties from this area, how did the national museum and memorial for this war end up here?Mike Vietti, the museum's marketing director, hears this question a lot.

"This really was, in many respects, a crowdsourced National Museum and Memorial," Vietti says.

To understand why Kansas City was up to that challenge requires remembering what the city was like a hundred years ago.

1918 in Kansas City

The first two decades of the 20th century were a good time economically for Kansas City, which had a strong community of entrepeneurs and a growing middle class.

The city's slogan at the time was "Make Kansas City a good place to live in."

Credit The National World War I Museum and Memorial
Construction for the Liberty Memorial Project started on July 5, 1923.

This concept was championed by a group of civic leaders who were in prime position to improve Kansas City's quality of life and make some money in the process: real estate developer J.C. Nichols; the livestock industry's Armour family; the bankers of the Kemper family; and regional lumber baron R.A. Long, among others.

Agriculture was booming and Kansas City had become a shipping and railroad transportation hub.

In the summer of 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the rest of Europe broke out into war, Kansas City was gearing up to celebrate the opening of the newly built Union Station.

Three years later, when the U.S. entered the war, Union Station became a central location for soldiers passing through for training and then shipping off overseas. Men enlisted, women entered the labor force, heartland-grown corn and grain were sent to feed troops abroad. Kansas City's garment district cranked out long johns for soldiers. Liberty bonds were sold.

On November 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed, Kansas City was in the midst of an influenza epedemic. Still, nearly 100,000 people flooded the streets of downtown for a victory parade.

"The city was primed to do something big," says historian Bill Worley.

Crowdsourcing, 20th century-style

Credit National World War I Museum and Memorial
An estimated 100,000 people gathered for the opening celebration of the memorial on November 11, 1926. President Calvin Coolidge arrived by train at Union Station and made a speech dedicating the memorial as the national monument to the Great War.

Within a couple of weeks, Kansas City's civic leaders met to organize a way to memorialize those who served, including the 441 local soldiers who died.

They started the Liberty Memorial Association. And in 1919, over the course of a 10-day fundraising campaign, 83,000 Kansas Citians collectively raised $2.5 million for the project. Today, that would be equivalent to about $35 million. 

Even school kids pitched in their nickels, says the memorial's education curator, Lora Vogt.

"It's a tribute to Kansas City and the Kansas City spirit," she says.

World War 1 memorials were going up around the world. But what made Kansas City's monument unique was the quick, community-driven financing and the scope of the design.

Organizers held a national architecture competition, and in 1921 the land was dedicated. It was chosen for symbolic reasons: to be across the street from Union Station. The grand opening celebration was in 1926, when President Calvin Coolidge addressed 100,000 people and called the memorial the national monument to the Great War.

The symbolism of the tower

The Liberty Memorial Tower is 217 feet tall and has one of the best views in the city. Around the top of the tower are four "guardian spirit" sculptures, and from the top emanates a steam and light display that looks like a flame. At the base of the tower are two exhibit halls. Two Assyrian sphinxes, wings shielding their faces, sit on either side of the tower.

Credit The National World War I Museum and Memorial
A crowd gathers again for a rededication ceremony in 1961.

Shielding its face from the horrors of war, the sphinx facing east symbolizes memory. The sphinx facing west symbolizes the future.

"Even the architects and designers recognized that we don't know what the future holds," says Vogt.

Not long after Kansas City's memorial opened came the Great Depression, an economic crisis that impacted the progress of other memorial projects across the country. Then World War II. Democracies rose; so did fascism, revolutions and genocides.

"The entire world was reshaped by what happened in World War I," says Vietti.

That's why Vietti believes the memorial is so important. There was a rough time in the 1990s when the museum had to close in order to address long-needed renovations. A new sales tax and fundraising effort paid for updates to the memorial and a museum expansion.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Architect H. Van Buren Magonigle and sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken collaborated to make four 'guardian spirits' near the top of the 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial Tower.

In 2004, Congress designated it the National World War I Museum. Then in 2014, Congress declared it would be America's World War I Memorial. Meanwhile, plans for another National World War I Memorial in Washington D.C. are still in the works.

Last year, the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City had 600,000 visitors from all 50 states and 75 countries. Visitors can see old artillery equipment and propoganda posters, as well as experience what it was like to live in a trench. A glass bridge extends over a field of poppies and an elevator takes people to the top of the tower.

Vietti says he hopes it will continue to be a place for people to learn about the war and its lasting impacts.

"So that we can ensure that a travesty like World War I never happens again."

Suzanne Hogan is a contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can email her at suzanne@kcur.org

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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