I was perusing the University of the Western Cape Library when I discovered a pair of books celebrating the architecture and arts of my home town, Kansas City. I felt so fortunate to have a taste of home, half a world away! I wanted to share a bit of what I learned from Fountains of Kansas City: a History and Love Affair, by Sherry Piland and Ellen J. Ugoccioni. Specifically, who are the Kansas Citians we celebrate with our most elaborate fountains?
Thomas H. Swope (1827-1909) and Alfred Benjamin (1859-1923)
I decided to group together Swope and Benjamin to reflect their shared resting place. When Swope Park was first dedicated as a public park in 1896, the land was four miles south of the city limits. Today, the park falls within the I-435 loop that surrounds the Kansas City Metroplex. The park has gradually gained more amenities over time. It is home to Starlight Theatre, the Kansas City Zoo, and the Lakeside Nature Center.
The area had only been a park for thirteen years, though, when the donor of the lands passed.
Thomas Swope came to Kansas City in his 30th year. He proved to be a very shrewd land investor. On April 16, 1857, Swope re-sold a valuable tract of land to the city (near 10th Street and Grand Avenue), one of the early expansions of the city’s original boundaries. Despite Swope’s involvement in large-scale land investment, he remained a very private man, eventually moving to occupy a room in a family mansion at Independence, Missouri. I am sure he would have been mortified that his death in 1909 became such a public scandal. Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, the husband of his niece, had served as Swope’s doctor in his final illness, and the man was brought to trial for the murder of Thomas Swope. Three trials for Thomas Swope’s murder followed. Thomas Swope’s body only arrived at its memorial in Swope Park in 1918, and the memorial construction continued in three different phases of construction until 1931. It incorporates a mausoleum and colonnade (begun in 1917), a fountain and balustrade (begun in 1922), and a gate and stairway (begun in 1930). Rob Scott‘s photograph of the memorial appears at the top of this post.
Alfred Benjamin came to Kansas City with his family in 1880 to launch a branch of the Abernathy Furniture Company. Benjamin rose to prominence, serving as vice-president of the company, and in 1905 he became president of the United Jewish Charities. Benjamin demonstrated a clear desire to help those in poverty, regardless of religion or race, and he donated a substantial portion of his own income to the cause. At his death in 1923, both Catholic and Jewish leaders spoke in his memory. Four years after his death, the memorial beside the road to Starlight Theatre was completed. The statue and fountain illustrate the principle he lived by, that those with much should contribute to the welfare of those who don’t have as much.
James F. Pendergast (1856-1911)
The Pendergast Machine dominated Kansas City politics for the first four decades of the twentieth century. “Alderman Jim” set the stage for his brother Tom’s domination, serving nine terms as alderman on the city council. His populist political style won him praise from the Kansas City Times obituary writer: “his generosity, his big-heartedness, his readiness to do favors for the ‘boys’…” By the time his memorial was dedicated in 1913, however, Prohibition had changed the appraisal of Jim Pendergast; his ownership of a saloon made him a participant in “an unnecessary business and a bad one” (Kansas City Journal-Post).
It may be unsurprising, then, that his memorial has had a checkered history. The monument shows him seated in a throne-like chair with flanking statues of youths with animals. The memorial started life in Mulkey Square Park, south of W. Twelfth Street, but the 1965 Crosstown Freeway project put it in storage for a while before it was replaced in the reshaped park. Whether James Pendergast was confused with his brother Tom or for another reason, the memorial has been a frequent target of vandals and thieves. Within a few years of its 1913 dedication, people had swiped the two flanking youthful figures (recast in 1916). In March 1933, the arms of the flanking figures were cut away. More damage followed, so that even the bronze panels showing the accomplishments of Pendergast were removed. Despite these challenges, the James Pendergast Memorial has been reconstituted. In 1990, the memorial was shifted to its current location at W. Ninth and Jefferson.
William Volker (1859-1947)
The vocation of William Volker would not seem hugely profitable, but his business in wholesaling picture frames led to a business selling window shades and soon other home furnishings. The Volker company eventually was able to open branches throughout most Western cities. Holding aside one million dollars for his wife’s benefit, he otherwise contributed tremendous sums of money to philanthropy on the large scale and to individuals. William Volker granted the land on which the main campus of University of Missouri– Kansas City was constructed, and he also launched the Research Medical Center.
Piland and Uggucioni spend twelve pages of their book describing the development of the ambitious fountain celebrating William Volker. The puzzling character of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles delighted me. The principal subject of the fountain is Martin of Tours on horseback; the saint is known for having sliced his cloak in half to help a destitute person. Milles’ sense of whimsy really comes through in his sculpting a wristwatch on one of the angels! Carl Milles died in 1955, so he was present only in spirit for the fountain to be inaugurated at Theis Park in 1958. I have frequently driven past this enormous fountain in its second location on the south bank of Brush Creek. You can be sure I will stop to get a closer look the next time I visit my home town!
J.C. Nichols (1880-1950)
I could have sworn that the last fountain in this post was simply “the Kansas City Fountain” or “the Plaza Fountain,” but this probably reflects just how important J.C. Nichols was to the development of our city’s design. Many architects in our area were influenced by the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s and 1900s. J.C. Nichols was a pioneer in designing urban projects that make room for automobiles. In 1908, the Kansas City Star gave a useful summary of his intent with what became the Country Club Plaza:
A general plan has been adopted by which boulevards, winding roads, stone walls, rustic bridges and circular drives, shelter houses, systematic planting of trees and shrubs, the creation of private parks, the treatment of running streams, work out into a harmonious whole. The old method of laying out in squares regardless of topography is abandoned and the property is so divided as to permit intelligent treatment of hillside or lowland, thus escaping any ugly unsightly cuts or fills.Kansas City Star, April 28, 1908, quoted in G. Ehrlich, KCMO: An Architectural History 1826-1990
The Plaza is an obvious place to visit for almost anyone who comes to Kansas City for the first time. Unlike most parts of the city, the Plaza has a very unified Spanish architectural style, taking its pattern from architect Edward Delk. The 1923 Tower and Mill Creek buildings set the stamp that would influence the design of all other commercial buildings nearby. By 1967, Kansas City had become “sister city” to Seville, and it constructed a small replica of the Giralda tower at the Plaza.
I was quite surprised, then, to discover that the iconic Plaza fountain celebrating the life of J.C. Nichols was in fact created for the Mackay “Harbor Hill” Estate in New York by Henri Greber in 1910! The vandalized and dismantled fountain was purchased by the Nichols family in 1952, just two years after the death of J.C. Nichols. A local sculptor, Herman Frederick Simon, created plaster models to replace the heads of the two children riding dolphins. A monument for the Daughters of the Confederacy was moved from the Plaza site to make room for the new fountain. Construction could only begin once the necessary funds had been raised, and so dedication of the fountain could not take place until May of 1960. In 2014-2015, the fountain was refurbished at the cost of a quarter million dollars. Two months after this blog was originally posted, the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Perry Floyd, Jr.’s death elevated public awareness of J.C. Nichols’ efforts to segregate neighborhoods, making his homes available only to white families. In June of 2020, the mayor of Kansas City and its Parks and Recreation committees were debating plans to rename this fountain!
Naturally, these are just a few of the 200+ fountains offered by the City of Fountains. I love that some of the people who shaped Kansas City have been memorialized in this way. I feel some embarrassment that I haven’t also highlighted memorials remembering women, such as the American War Mothers Memorial,the Women’s Leadership Fountain, the Jane Hemingway Gordon Fountain, or the Mary Fraser Memorial Fountain. Our city was shaped by many people, and the joyful splash of running water can help us to celebrate all!