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Central Standard

What is that? Kansas City's Vine Street Castle

Esther Honig

Built in 1897, the four-story structure made out of yellow limestone can be seen around the historic 18th & Vine neighborhood in Kansas City. But it didn't exactly house royalty.

If you’ve ever driven around the historic 18th & Vine neighborhood in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, you might have noticed what looks like a castle.

It appears as though it housed Missouri royalty, but in fact this four-story structure, chiseled out of yellow limestone, was originally designed as the city jail.

Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
City Work House, Frontal and Side View. 1900

Built in 1897 with the title of “workhouse castle,” it held mostly petty offenders, vagrants and debtors. As a part of their sentence these inmates were required to work. Female prisoners sewed prison uniforms and the men labored for the city’s Public Works Department.

Designed by Kansas City architects A. Wallace Love and James Oliver Hog, the Romanesque revival style was in vogue at the time, inspiring this peculiar castle design for the project. The prisoners quarried the limestone used to construct the building on site. However, they did not assist in the actual construction of the jail for obvious reasons.

After the jail closed in 1924 it was repurposed a dozen times over the past 100 years. Uses included everything from a city storage facility, a Marine training camp and a dog euthanization center.

Ultimately, the building was abandoned in 1972. Today the castle is a shell of it’s former self. The roof has long collapsed gutting the building of its four floors. Over the ensuing 42 years the site sat vacant, collecting weeds and garbage. That is, until Daniel Edwards and his then fiancée, Ebony Burnside chose the castle as the site for their summer wedding. Having grown up in the area Edwards was familiar with the castle, for him this was a chance to give back to the local neighborhood.

“We had a vision and an idea of something that we wanted to do,” says Edwards. “The main purpose of this was to help with alleviating blight of abandoned buildings in the neighborhood.”

Edwards contacted the Kansas City Business Center For Development, the current owners of the castle, and offered to clean up the space in exchange for holding his ceremony there. With a grant from the Community Capital Fund of $12,000 Edwards put a call out for help from the community — 350 volunteers, six weeks and tons of garbage later, he had a clean space.

On June 8 of this year, Edwards and Burnside were married inside the castle walls in the presence of some 200 guests. The couple is ready to start their lives together, but this project has gone beyond their initial plans and developed into a serious long-term commitment.

“People’s ideas are what is required to finish building this space out,” says Edwards. “We’re doing a call to action for everybody’s ideas to figure out how we can make a space that everybody can use.”

An architectural engineer by trade, Edwards is just the guy for the job. With full permission to renovate the castle, he has plans to make it into a community space and a headquarters for his non-profit 2orMore. So far he’s mapped out designs (as seen below) for an event space, a stage for live performances and even an Internet café.

Credit Daniel Edwards
Digital designs for the renovation of the workhouse castle

Edwards envisions this space becoming a recourse that will pull the local community together — help rejuvenate the 18th and Vine neighborhood and provide a space for young adults to develop powerful ideas and collaborate around new projects.

“I think our generation is ready for something that’s going to build us up and bring us together,” he says. “And I think this is like the catalyst for that.”

Of course before any major remodeling takes place, Edwards is looking for the monetary means to install basic infrastructure; i.e. a transformer for electricity, plumbing for sewage and water and an evaluation of the castle’s structural integrity. The estimated cost is around $30,000, which is why Edwards plans to launch a crowd-funding campaign in October.

For now he’s preparing to host a series of events that will take place at the castle throughout the remainder of the summer. Plans include concerts, a graffiti exhibit as well as making it available for music video and film shoots. All in all he expects to draw a couple thousand to the castle, which will be great exposure.

For Edwards, drawing in the local community is important. He wants everyone to know that they have a say in how this space is repurposed.

“We’re here,” says Edwards. “We planed here we’ll build here, invest our money and time here so come help us and come join us, there’s a lot of stuff to help out with.”

For anyone interested in volunteering their time to help in the renovation of the castle or for those with ideas for events they'd like to see happen in the space, Edwards is open to suggestions. 

You can see renderings of the castle community garden and internet café in these videos:

What Is That? is a regular series on Central Standard in which we investigate odd storefronts, architectural oddities and other mysterious landmarks around the Kansas City area.  Do you have a suggestion of a spot you’d like us to investigate?  Email us at centralstandard@kcur.org