The Kansas City Colonnaded Walk-up Flat
A History and Homage
As a native Kansan transplanted to San Francisco, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Kansas City. That the city has “more boulevards than Paris and more fountains than any city other than Rome” is a saying locals know well, and I’ve always loved its richness of historical architecture and urban planning. In 2009 I wrote about one Kansas City architectural darling, the six-plex Kansas City Colonnaded Walk-up Flat. With the article no longer available online, I’ve been meaning to republish on my own. With my hometown Royals making it to the World Series this year, it seemed a good time. Enjoy.
In Kansas City at the turn of the 20th century, when cars were still a luxury and the Bible was the only book read more than the Sears catalog, a unique breed of apartment was springing up throughout the city: the Kansas City Colonnaded Walk-up Flat. With hundreds, maybe even a thousand, built from 1905 to 1930, this apartment style is a Kansas City original that still leaves its mark on the cityscape.
Recognizable for four stately columns supporting six units in three stories, the Colonnade apartment helped define both the look and the culture of the young and growing city. Inspired by Kansas City’s innovative parks and boulevards system, the buildings were born of the idea that bringing fresh air and green grass to urban dwellers would make city life more appealing. Before then, apartments were dark, cramped and only for the poor — there was no such thing as a luxury condo. Businesspeople needing a downtown address chose to live in hotels.
The Kansas City Colonnade apartment, with its spacious layout and signature porch, provided the perfect alternative for both the middle and upper classes.
“The development of this style, specifically in Kansas City where the buildings were located along boulevards, was in stark contrast to the tenements,” said Michael Bushnell, author of the book Historic Postcards of Old Kansas City and publisher of The Northeast News community newspaper. “You all of a sudden had people wanting to live in colonnaded apartments on boulevards.” Many who fit this profile were young singles who worked downtown, commuting by streetcar.
“These were quality spaces that people lived in because they didn’t want a house,” not because they had to, said Stephan Zweifler, who rehabbed a Colonnade apartment on Gladstone Boulevard in the Historic Northeast. “These were luxury apartments.”
The Colonnade apartments’ most distinguishing feature is their set of four front columns, usually supporting stacks of front porches, one for each unit. They have large living and dining rooms designed for entertaining, two to three bedrooms and a narrow rear kitchen. Large windows let in lots of natural light, including a unique skylight-topped shaft in the center of each building with windows opening into each of the apartments, allowing light and ventilation into central rooms. Many have friendly building names posted above the front doors, like “Madison” or “Libbie.”
The interiors and exteriors of Colonnades can vary significantly, thanks to the 30-year period over which they were built. “A lot of architectural styles happened during that time: Arts & Crafts, Colonial Revival, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco,” said Zwiefler. In the Colonnade he was restoring, built in 1912, the exterior was Arts & Crafts but the interior had Colonial Revival elements. “They just put in what was popular,” he said.
Of the Colonnades’ signature columns, some are white and square or round, some are brick and some are a combination. Some are topped with ornate Corinthian capitals. “It was a sign of class — the more ornamentation that your column had, the higher up you were,” said Bushnell.
Many have rear entrances originally intended for hired help, as well as butler’s pantries and live-in maids’ quarters. Zweifler’s had a metal plug in the middle of the dining room floor that powered a maid’s call button from the dining table. Also in his home, a surprisingly modern feature even by today’s standards: the closets had light switches that turn on automatically. “Anytime the door is open, the light is on — and they still work,” he said.
A storied past
History tells us a lot about how the Kansas City Colonnade came to be.
In the late 1800s, the only apartment buildings in America were tenements, unglamorous and unhealthy living spaces for the lowest classes. One of the first luxury apartment buildings was built in 1884 in New York City — The Dakota, best known as the place where John Lennon lived and was assassinated.
In Kansas City in 1887, budding urban planner George Kessler was commissioned to turn a rugged hollow in Hyde Park into an appealing park. He encircled it with a road, encouraging builders to build homes to face it. It worked: Stately homes sprung up along the park, and it was a success for both the neighborhood and the industry of urban planning. Kessler soon became Kansas City’s first landscape architect, and in 1893 he developed Kansas City’s great parks and boulevards system as part of the city’s street grid.
Largely in response to Kessler’s influence, the City Beautiful movement took off across the country from the 1890s through the 1920s, promoting urban beautification for the sake of healthy living and civic pride. Working in multiple cities after Kansas City, Kessler is considered one of the fathers of urban planning in America.
But back to the Colonnade. In 1905, developer William H. Collins and his architect, J.W. McKecknie, pioneered the columned building style on Armour Boulevard between Central and Wyandotte streets. The word “colonnade” is defined as a series of columns set at regular intervals, and the genre took its name from there.
“(Collins) wanted to design an apartment for middle- and upper-middle class people that was not a tenement; flooded with natural light, with good ventilation,” said Bushnell. “He wanted to make apartments more upscale for the people of Kansas City, and developed this specific style.”
Of the six-plex Colonnade apartment style we’re familiar with now, that first one was the length of five buildings, with 30 units, five entrances and the span of a city block, all of which overlooked a well-landscaped “deep front yard.” It was known to be on the higher-class end of the Colonnade spectrum and was home to then-mayor Henry M. Beardsley and James M. Kemper, brother of the namesake of Kemper Arena and uncle of that of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
“I think we just had that good combination of architecture and development and growth, before the Great Depression,” said Denise Morrison, Director of Collections for Union Station and the Kansas City Museum. “There was a huge growth of young professionals in the middle class in Kansas City in the 1920s. The Colonnade was the perfect stopgap before buying their first home.”
The city’s relationship with its indigenous apartment style has been a rocky one. Following Kansas City’s building boom throughout the 1920s, Colonnades were no longer built after about 1930. The Great Depression hit in 1929, and World War II came around a decade later. Following WWII, young people started marrying younger and moving farther out of the city, to their “American dream” single-family homes, as enabled by the availability of FHA loans. As the middle class left the city, urban apartments once again became relegated to the lower classes, and this time the Colonnades were on that list.
Collins’ grand original Colonnade Apartment was sold and razed in 1963, and an insurance building was built in its place. Progressively, and with incentives from federal programs in the 1970s, more Colonnades were torn down after becoming abandoned and run-down to make way for new needs in urban housing.
In the early 2000s, the Colonnades’ knights in shining armor came along in the form of Jeff Lemley and Larry Parker of Heritage Construction. They were rehabbing a Colonnade in the Historic Northeast and looked to local government for tax credits to help pay for the fix-up.
With the help of other Kansas City architecture advocates, they assembled a package of one hundred local Colonnades for review of the Historic Registry. When it went through, the apartment buildings became the first non-contiguous historic district on record — a testament to their ubiquity in Kansas City architecture as a whole. Since then the Colonnade style has seen a revival, as any owner can register their building with the Kansas City Landmarks Commission to be eligible for tax credits for rehabbing the historic properties.
About 500 Colonnades remain throughout Kansas City today, spanning from the Missouri River on the north to 63rd Street on the south, and from Van Brunt Boulevard on the east to State Line Road on the west. They are still most prominent along the city’s boulevards — those boulevards outnumbering Paris’s, as the saying goes.
Cover photo: A Kansas City Colonnaded Walk-up Flat located on the corner of East 37th Street and The Paseo.
Photos by Steve Hebert/Re:form
Originally published December 2009 in the now-defunct KC Free Press