Even though the Kansas City Museum is devoted solely to local history, it has an opportunity to be world-class, says its director, Anna Maria Tutera.
Starting with public meetings next week, residents have a chance to weigh in on how such a vision might become reality in Kansas City — though it won't be the first time they've been asked to do so.
“I would hope that this would be one of the last comprehensive plans that we have to do for the museum,” says Northeast News Publisher Michael Bushnell, who has seen a lot of them. “We’ve got three or four file drawers dedicated to nothing but the Kansas City Museum, going back to 1987.”
Once the estate of lumber magnate and civic leader R.A. Long, the 1910 Beaux-Arts style mansion known as Corinthian Hall and its carriage house opened as a local history and science museum run by volunteers in 1940. The property earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and came under Union Station’s jurisdiction in 2001. In 2014, the Kansas City, Missouri, Parks and Recreation department took over operations and Tutera was named executive director.
A $10 million exterior and infrastructure renovation began in 2005. Museum staff emptied Corinthian Hall of exhibits and artifacts in 2008 and the entire property was a construction zone until 2011, while staff kept the visitor's center and other areas open for tours and events. Since the Parks Department took over management, the first floor of Corinthian Hall, the Carriage House and the grounds have been available to the public, with rotating exhibitions in the Carriage House.
Now it’s time to determine the best use of the property's interior spaces and make the institution sustainable, Tutera says.
A 21st Century Museum
“Over the past year and a half, I’ve been asked the same types of questions,” Tutera says. “‘Are you going to be a museum or have rental space? Are you going to be a museum, or have programs? Are you going to be a museum or have school-group visits?’ My answer is yes, yes and yes. That’s what museums in the 21st Century do.”
Community members were involved in the development of an "interpretive plan" for the museum that included design sketches back in 2010. That and other documents, Tutera says, allowed museum leaders to begin thinking more specifically about the next phase.
Since April of this year, Tutera and others have been working with Kansas City's International Architects Atelier to map out proposals for the museum's next phase.
“They’ve come up with ‘massing models’ for a museum of this size with this type of collection and this scope: Here’s the square footage that you need for the main components – a café, store, gallery space – and here’s what you actually have on that property,” Tutera says.
Museum officials unveiled their ideas for neighbors and community leaders at a Nov. 16 meeting attended by more than 100 people, according to the Northeast News. The public is invited to an open house to hear more about the plans on Dec. 9.
This time, says Bushnell, he has reason to be excited.
In September, city leaders announced a $30 million federal grant for the Paseo Gateway Transformational Plan to revitalize one corner of the neighborhood. In 2013, the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce established a community improvement district, and Cliff Drive recently reopened after years of restoration.
“The Historic Northeast community has waited quite a long time for the planets to align,” Bushnell says. “I had been very public about my stance that the museum needed to be separate from Union Station. Now Parks and Rec needs to develop its own strategy. The incremental work that’s been so incredibly slow finally has some momentum behind it.”
That neighborhood momentum is part of what’s fueling Tutera’s high expectations for the museum.
“It’s rare that you get an opportunity to rebuild a cultural anchor institution at the same time as the direct community that it represents is going through a renaissance,” Tutera says. “Now that it’s a municipal museum, there’s a different level of social responsibility to create that premiere city museum of the city’s history.”
Telling the Kansas City Story
The Kansas City Museum’s collection includes more than 100,000 items, many of them from Kansas City’s clothing, textile and railroad industries, and Native American tribes. It also has extensive photography archives.
Tutera says the museum will have a final planning document, complete with renderings and cost estimates by May.
“We’ll have institutional plans for how we are going to actually afford this entire restoration," Tutera says, "and make it sustainable.”
The museum’s 2010 interpretive plan had a budget of about $36 million, Tutera says, but that did not include the current space considerations, or parking.
“If we’re imagining that this will attract 100,000 people annually, we have to talk about parking," she notes. "So we’re talking about at least a $40 million project, with $10 million already spent.”
That's a daunting figure, considering the museum receives an estimated $1.5 million annually from the city's mil levy. The museum's operating budget is approximately $1 million, and $500,000 funds capitol improvements and renovations.
Museum docent Lisa Donnici believes the community will support the improvements.
Donnici lived in the Northeast as a child and returned 15 years ago when she married her husband, who has lived in the neighborhood for 44 years.
“At the time the Long family came to Kansas City, they could have built in Hyde Park, the Plaza, or any other neighborhood, but they chose here,” Donnici notes. “We have a chance now to bring it back. Not just restore it as a family home, because that would be dull – you walk around on tip-toes, you can’t touch anything, you tend to whisper – but as a public museum, showcasing all of these artifacts while highlighting this amazing house.”
The museum's first open house for preliminary design and space planning is set for Wed., December 9, 6:30-8:30 p.m. in Corinthian Hall at the Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 64123. Light refreshments will be provided, and Spanish translation will be available. RSVPs are requested at 816-513-7568, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.