Want to explore Waldo? Start with this beginner's guide to the neighborhood
Once prairie and then a major transportation hub, Waldo has transformed into a funky southern Kansas City neighborhood with a growing restaurant scene and a lot of local pride.
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.
Every city has its pockets of unique history and distinct personality. The southern Kansas City neighborhood of Waldo is one such place, a mix of residential and commercial areas with family homes, locally-owned businesses, and nightlife destinations.
Back in 1841, Dr. David Waldo, a land investor and freighter for the Sante Fe Trail, bought up a tract of prairieland right at the border of Kansas Territory. His heirs sold a portion of his farmland to developers in 1885 for $100,000 — the beginning of the neighborhood that now bears his name.
Waldo encompasses roughly four square miles of the city, centered on 75th and Wornall Road, stretching south from Gregory Avenue to 91st Street, west of Holmes Road to the border with Kansas.
Originally, it was outside the city limits: Kansas City annexed up to 77th Street in 1909, pushed the boundary down to 85th Street in 1947, and extended it to the Cass County line in 1963. As such, city laws did not apply, and Waldonians retain that independent streak.
If you’re not lucky enough to already live in Waldo, you’ll be sure to visit again and again.
Iconic Waldo locations
The railway and later the streetcar made Waldo a major transport hub from 1860-1957, with a stop at 75th and Wornall. It connected the area with the Country Club Plaza and from there to downtown. You can still see remnants of the track near the Waldo Walk of Fame on the southeast corner of 75th Street and Wornall.
Nowadays, the six-mile Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail runs the length of the old railway, terminating at 85th and Prospect. Runners, strollers, and bikers frequent the trail.
Each spring, the CCVI Trolly Run raises funds for Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired with a four-mile race that tours Waldo, Brookside and the Country Club Plaza. It’s now in its 35th year, and the next one is scheduled for April 30, 2023.
In 1856, Alexander Majors built his home right on the border to Kansas Territory (literally, the brick sidewalk in front is on the geographical stateline). He was one of the founders of the Pony Express.
The Alexander Majors House & Barn, part of the Wornall/Majors House Museums, presents three stories in one. It’s the story of life on the frontier as well as Majors himself. But it also speaks to the life of Major’s great-granddaughter, Louisa Johnston, whose efforts restored the house and transformed it into a museum.
The house is open seasonally Thursday-Sunday for self-guided tours, which take approximately 30 minutes to an hour. The barn can be rented out for events, and the site also hosts preschool story times, book clubs, and other events, like whiskey tastings. (You can buy a combo ticket to visit both Majors’ house and the John Wornall House or visit them separately.)
Travel on Holmes Road, to the east, and you can’t miss the Waldo Water Tower. The namesake for Tower Park, this 1919 structure is a landmark of the American Waterworks Association. No longer in operation, today the tower stands sentinel to dog walkers and summer softball games.
The world in Waldo
Waldo is a pretty self-contained community with just about any amenity, from boutiques to thrift stores, bike shops to tattoo parlors. Need pet grooming, car parts, hair braiding, a massage or groceries? You can get it here. According to the Waldo Area Business Association, there are over 300 locally-owned businesses in the area.
While the stretch of Wornall from 75th and 85th is not the most city beautiful part of Kansas City, the street holds a fair amount of surprises. Gregory Avenue is cuter, with short blocks of interesting shops. Ward Parkway mansions give way to the Ward Parkway Mall in the southwest corner of the area.
Waldo’s oldest continually operating establishment is Waldo Grain Co., which opened in 1916 back when the southern part of Wornall was still called Broadway. Today, the family-owned business, housed in a barn-like structure harkening to the area’s rural roots, specializes in pet food.
Restaurants, many family-owned, offer cuisine from around the world. Waldo Thai moved to Waldo in 2018, and chef Pam Liberda was named a James Beard Award finalist earlier this year.
McLain’s Bakery, founded in 1945, was bought by the Hirleman family in 2013, which expanded the business to locations around the region.
You can also enjoy Tasso’s Greek Restaurant, Taj Mahal Authentic Indian Cuisine, Kokoro Maki House, Boru Asian Eatery, Waldo Pizza, Cosmo Burger, Taco Cacao, Emilie’s French Teas, Betty Rae’s Ice Cream, and Jovito’s Italian Cafe & Deli, to name just a few.
If you know, you know
Waldo doesn’t reveal itself all at once, with layers of history, hidden gems, and Waldo traditions.
Betty Tillotson was Waldo’s historian, booster, and honorary mayor, as well as dance teacher to generations of Waldonians. In 1950, she opened a dance studio and she taught until 2017. She was integral to the preservation of Waldo’s remaining historic buildings and wrote “A History of Waldo” in 1999.
The oldest religious establishment in the area is Keystone United Methodist Church, originally called Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church in 1907. In its early days, the congregation met in Pitkins Hall, at 75th and Wornall. The church, now located a block north, contains beautiful stained glass windows in its sanctuary, installed in 1926.
The New Reform Temple, at Main and Gregory, was founded in 1966. The congregation bought the brick building at Main and Gregory, originally built around 1925. This progressive congregation has worship music provided by Becky and Nathan Bliss — who front the band Barnaby Bright, which debuted at Folk International Festival this year.
Kansas City has a penchant for gas station cuisine, from our enduring appreciation for QuikTrip taquitos to Joe’s Kansas City in Kansas. In Waldo, Papu’s Cafe has been operating out of a Shell gas station on 75th Street since 2010, feeding neighbors and busy commuters.
Waldo has a vibrant nightlife scene, with numerous bars and clubs. For over 10 years, the Waldo Jazz Collective has played Monday night jams at the Piano Room, which also hosts open mic nights and karaoke.
Need a cut of grass-fed beef? Try Waldo’s newest addition, a meat vending machine outside of Front Range Coffee and Provisions on Gregory, selling products from Weston, Missouri's Grass Green Cattle Company.
Love that Waldonian life
Waldonians are a creative bunch. KC Clay Guild, on 74th Street, offers classes for every skill level, as well as Family Fun Nights (advanced registration required). KC Needlepoint, on Gregory, sells supplies and kits and provides helpful tips for your needlepoint projects. Eclectics Gallery, an artists’ co-op, sells handmade pieces and periodically hosts Make & Take events.
KC Bier Co., founded in 2014, makes German-style beer, served in their Bierhalle and Biergarten on 79th Street and at establishments around the city. On Saturdays, they offer tours of the brewery at 1 p.m., with live polka 3-5 p.m; on Sundays, they have trivia at 1 p.m. and live jazz 3-5 p.m. They also host KC Oktoberfest in Crown Center.
Many Waldo locals work diligently to make the world a better place. Waldo’s Cornerstones of Care started out in 1870 as a home for destitute women. That institution evolved into the Gillis Home for Orphans, with the companion Margaret Klock Armour Home for Aged Couples. In 1929, the homes moved to the Waldo location, where they have been caring for children and families ever since.
Each August, patrons of Patrick’s Bar and No Grill raise money for KC Hospice with a .1K Run. Yep, that’s 100 meters. The run started in 2008, a year after Patrick’s opened, and the route takes racers around the parking lot on a fun “run” for a good cause. Last year, the fundraiser donated $61,000.
Each February, local businesses celebrate Waldo Week, with discounts at participating stores and a donation drive to raise funds for a local non-profit organization. In autumn there’s the Waldo Fall Festival, which celebrated 30 years last September, and, for the second year, the Waldo Spring Fling, to build community and support local businesses.
For a deep dive into Waldo’s history, check out LaDene Morton’s “The Waldo Story: the Home of Friendly Merchants.”