Monday, July 26, 2010

History and Homes and 18th and Vine

You’re headed east on 18th Street and cross The Paseo.

As you cross, on your left, you see an outdoor pavilion. When jazz thrived here, that was the site of the Street Hotel, 1508-12 E. 18th Street. It extended from the corner to maybe the end of what most recently was the Peachtree Restaurant. This was the hotel for black patrons in Kansas City. Inside, at 1508 E. 18th, was the original Blue Room night club (and the Rose Room, a popular restaurant).

Now look to your right, at the building labeled Paseo Bootery, 1513-1/2 E. 18th Street. That structure housed offices of the Kansas City Monarchs baseball club.

Down the street a bit, on your left, the door with Jazz District Apartments, 1514 E. 18th Street, was the address of Jones Recreation Parlor. It was still in operation when museum construction began. A barber shop in the front operated since 1920, while pool tables in the rear dated to 1911. Jones patrons included Count Basie, Bennie Moten, Lester Young, Satchel Page, Joe Louis, countless others.

Next door, 1516 E. 18th Street, today is the address of the 18th and Vine Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation. But once that was the address of the Subway Club, managed by Piney Brown, of Big Joe Turner’s Piney Brown Blues fame.

Glance down Vine Street. In the last post (here) I discussed the fabulous history of the Eblon Theater/Cherry Blossom club. Did you know that the building adjacent to it, still standing, was the first car dealership in America owned by a black man?

Now continue east on 18th and cross Vine. The Lincoln Building, built in 1921 and renovated in 1981, anchors one corner. Across from it, at what was 1610 E. 18th Street and is now about the rear half of The Blue Room, was El Capitan, another well remembered club. The building which housed it was demolished for the museums.

Further east, the restored Gem Theater is a district highlight. But stand in the adjacent lot and gaze across the street. Today you see the museum’s changing exhibition space. Once, at 1616 E. 18th Street, you’d have seen Bennie Moten’s home.

Cross Highland Street. At the corner is the former National Guard Armory, its facade now boarded. I recounted its history in this post.

Continue to the last boarded front before The Kansas City Call, 1713 E. 18th Street. This was Lucille’s Paradise Band Box, a club where Charlie Parker played. In 1987, the city started demolition of the building as a dangerous structure, before the process was halted by protests and the district’s historic status. A city department head later said he made a mistake.

Now back up a bit, back to Highland. Turn south on Highland. Jazz fans know this street. At 1823 is the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Built in 1906 as a duplex, it was purchased in 1928 by Black Musicians Local 627 for use as a union and recital hall. In 1982 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. If you haven’t been to a weekend late night jam session here, why not?

(Many of the above facts are from the 1982 18th and Vine Walking Tour map and brochure published by the Kansas City Landmarks Commission.)

Look next door to the Foundation. That was the Rochester Hotel. Today boards cover windows, graffiti mars its front, the frame which held its name hangs empty. Across the street, clapboard houses, boarded and numbered one through six, survive, barely, behind a chain link fence.

These are not proper surroundings for a landmark.

Plans exist to change that. An article in The Kansas City Star details how the city needs to decide whether the homes and hotel merit its priority list for state and federal tax credits. If they do, money will be available to renovate them into 22 apartments for senior housing at a cost of $200,000 per unit.

The Star editorially supported the project. The issue was also discussed on KCPT’s opinion show Ruckus (here; the topic starts at 17:36).

Initially, I was skeptical. We’ve already lost more important homes. Try to find, for instance, 1516 Olive. Today it’s warehouse grounds. But it was the address of the home where Charlie Parker grew up. I remember Eddie Baker, of the Charlie Parker Foundation, describing how he lobbied city councilmen to spare the house. He said they told him it was just another old home to be razed.

Meanwhile, Lucille’s, where Parker played, was nearly destroyed. I don’t know what shape it’s in behind that boarded front. Is it secure? And the Eblon/Cherry Blossom burned 26 years ago. Do we leave that weed-backed facade as is for another quarter century? Aren’t these structures more historically significant? Shouldn’t these be saved first?

But then I walked the district. So many of the historic addresses are gone. New buildings are nice, certainly, but they’re new buildings. They’re not the Subway Club. They’re not Bennie Moten’s home.

The homes across from the Foundation were built for the black middle class, circa 1920 and before, with original occupants like a real estate agent and a civil engineer. They’re the last remaining example that Kansas City’s jazz district boasted not just businesses and bars, but family homes, too.

These houses are not, by themselves, historic. Twenty years ago they would never have been my priority for saving. But today, so few of the jazz district’s original buildings remain that, in a broader context, their survival has become crucial to understanding and experiencing the character of the area where our internationally renowned reputation lived.

I’m dismayed by many of the choices made in the district over the decades. But those are done. The focus now must be on not losing anything more. One article says the homes and hotel are “shovel ready.”

If they’re ready to be saved, save them. Now.

Then focus on the rest of the district’s fragile history. More stands ready for the salvation queue.


  1. We ate at Danny's the other night before the Blue Room. (Carol Comer - great! Danny's - decent chow; noisy) And my Dad said it was once Matlaw's Clothiers, where zoot suits and hats were sold.

  2. That space was Matlaw's. I remember, as a child, being in there with my father while he bought a hat.


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