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Arts & Life

Explore Kansas City's iconic Art Deco architecture with this self-guided tour

Kansas City skyline
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR
The Kansas City Power and Light Building is just one of the iconic Art Deco-style buildings located in the metro.

You can see the sleek, intricate designs of Art Deco style at these iconic buildings in downtown and midtown Kansas City, dating back to the 1920s and 30s.

This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

Look around Kansas City and odds are you might spot a building or artwork inspired by Art Deco, even if you don’t realize it. To take notice of Art Deco is to travel through time nearly 100 years ago when civic and economic leaders and architects made a concerted effort to establish Kansas City as a modern city.

Art Deco, or style moderne, takes its name from Arts Décoratifs and emerged from the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, France. This movement spread across Europe and the U.S. through the 1930s. Art Deco style represents extravagance, modernity and the bold, fast-paced spirit of the early 20th century manifested through technological progress.

The Industrial Revolution introduced a shift from agriculture to manufacturing and mass production in factories. A period of austerity during World War I led to an architectural revival upon the war's end. By the mid-1920s, the highly decorative and sleek aesthetic of Art Deco emerged and encompassed architecture and visual design.

Art Deco-inspired designers and architects used a combination of man-made and machine-made materials, including chrome, stainless steel, stucco, terracotta and opaque plate glass. The style is famous for its use of ivory, jade, limestone and marble, arranged into simple shapes with sharp angles and lines, geometric patterns and repetitive designs.

You can explore the intricate designs of Art Deco style at these iconic buildings located across Downtown and Midtown Kansas City.

Municipal Auditorium

Municipal Auditorium Little Theater
The DLC
Municipal Auditorium opened in 1935 as a definitive statement of Kansas City’s emerging status as a modern 20th-century city.

Municipal Auditorium opened in 1935 as a definitive statement of Kansas City’s emerging status as a modern 20th-century city. The massive structure replaced a large convention hall destroyed in 1900 by fire. Hoit, Price & Barnes was one of two architectural firms that developed the plans. The firm also designed the Kansas City Power and Light building.

Constructed of steel and reinforced concrete, the auditorium presents a spartan, bulky canvas adorned with ornamental flourishes. Walk around the auditorium’s exterior and observe the linear geometric design. Bas-relief medallions featuring classical figures grace the expansive limestone facade. Other interior Art Deco touches include lighting fixtures and geometric tiled floor designs, which you can see for yourself in this virtual tour of Municipal Auditorium.

Kansas City Power and Light Building

Roy Harryman - Flickr - KCPL Building.jpg
Roy Harryman
Constructed in 1931 in the midst of the Art Deco movement, the Kansas City Power and Light Building is an easily identifiable skyscraper along the city’s skyline.

Constructed in 1931 in the midst of the Art Deco movement, the 36-story Kansas City Power and Light Building is an easily identifiable skyscraper along the city’s skyline. The building is now Power & Light Apartments, a luxury apartment community next to the Power and Light District.

Art Deco elements include detailed artwork engraved in elevator doors, use of cut glass and usage of the sunburst motif — a signature Art Deco pattern. A 21-foot Art Deco lantern on the highest floor is perhaps the crowning touch. Supplemented by exterior lighting, the lantern serves as a beacon that glows red and orange to create a warm, flame-like effect when lit.

Stepbacks that recede from the building’s footprint in graduated stages emphasize the verticality and geometric form typical of Art Deco buildings. Stylized architectural details along the building’s facade also display the ornamental look associated with Art Deco.

Jackson County Courthouse

Jackson County Courthouse
Carlos Moreno
Completed in 1934, the Jackson County Courthouse features Art Deco design elements on the interior and exterior.

Jackson County Courthouse is yet another building constructed in the early 1930s with liberal use of Art Deco and Neoclassical design elements. Completed in 1934, the 28-story building incorporates approximately 90,000 cubic feet of limestone, a commonly-used material of the time.

Prominently on display in the lobby, the marble used in columns, walls and counters was mostly sourced from Missouri quarries. Elaborate metal ornamentation covering windows and above the courthouse entrance, plus a magnificent chandelier, further showcases the opulent style of Art Deco.

City Hall

Noah Jeppson - Flickr - City Hall Elevator.jpg
Noah Jeppson
The sculpted brass elevator doors at City Hall illustrate the four major modes of modern transportation (railroad, airplane, automobile, steamship) available in Kansas City.

Kansas City architectural firm Wight and Wight developed plans for City Hall, a 30-story building with an observation deck completed in 1937. The firm also worked on the design for the Jackson County Courthouse. To split hairs, the design incorporates elements of Neo-Classic and Beaux-Arts architectural styles. The revivalist design of Beaux-Arts, sometimes found in Art Deco, is a separate but similar movement that also signified a break from the Industrial Revolution.

Similar to other downtown structures, City Hall features exterior use of limestone sourced from Indiana. Pyrenees marble imported from southwestern France, travertine marble from Tivoli, Italy, and Verde antique marble from Vermont were all used to beautify the interior.

Other Art Deco-style elements include stylized light fixtures on the lobby’s ceiling, geometric tile patterns, sculpted brass elevator doors that illustrate the four major modes of modern transportation (railroad, airplane, automobile, steamship) and custom brass door knob plates.

Exterior sculptures on the building’s facade depict people and places of note in the region, such as U.S. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, D-Missouri, Benoist Troost, Lewis and Clark, the Chouteau trading post and the Santa Fe Trail.

Fidelity National Bank and Trust Company Building

Fidelity National Bank and Trust Company Building, 909 Walnut
Carlos Moreno
Now known as 909 Walnut Apartments, the Fidelity National Bank & Trust Building was built at the peak of Art Deco in 1931.

Built in 1931, the Fidelity National Bank & Trust Building’s footprint is within the boundaries of 9th and 10th, Walnut and Grand streets. The 35-story structure underwent several ownership changes and renovations. The building was converted into apartments and is now known as 909 Walnut.

Designed with an Art Deco-Gothic Revival architectural motif, the Fidelity Building’s most distinguishable feature is its twin spire design. Architectural elements of Art Deco include the use of geometric forms, overall symmetry, verticality and stepbacks to emphasize the building’s grand height and geometric profile, as well as decorative ornamentation.

Union Carbide Building

Union Carbide Building
Michael D Morse
Classic Art Deco designs can be seen on the exterior of Union Carbide Condominiums.

Now developed as Union Carbide Condominiums, the building displays rich Art Deco details including stylized metalwork and geometric symmetry of the doors at the front entrance. On the front facade, it also shows off geometric light fixtures and classic Art Deco terra cotta panels below the building’s name and brickwork.

Southwell Building

Southwell Building Midtown
Loopnet
The richly detailed panels along the second story of the Southwell building are examples of polychromatic terracotta ornamentation in the style of Art Deco.

You may have driven past a prominent but less obvious display of Art Deco at the intersection of Main Street and Westport Road a zillion times. Look above the lower-level storefronts of the Southwell Building, built by McKecknie and Trask architects in 1929, on the east side of Main.

Midtown music fans might recall heading to Harling’s Upstairs, a defunct classic bar and grill where Mama Ray and her backing band once hosted a weekly blues jam on Saturdays. Geometric light fixtures along the roofline were designed to flood the sidewalk with light. The richly detailed panels along the second story of the commercial building are examples of polychromatic terracotta ornamentation in the style of Art Deco. It’s an understated treasure that’s worth slowing down to behold.

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