'Legacy of Design' traverses parks, boulevards Book pays tribute to system, encourages preservation.
Author: E. CRICHTON SINGLETON; Contributing ReviewerEdition: METROPOLITAN
Estimated printed pages: 3Article Text:
A Legacy of Design: An Historical Survey of the Kansas City, Missouri, Parks and Boulevards System, 1893-1940, Editors: Janice Lee, Deon Wolfenbarger, David Boutros, Charlotte R. White, Julie Stockmann and Beth Skelley (272 pages; Kansas City Center for Design Education and Research and Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City; $24.95) In 1917 the American Institute of Planners called Kansas City's system of parks and boulevards “... perhaps the most complete and well organized system existing in America today.”' The report noted that Kansas City enjoyed nearly one acre of park space per 100 persons, “a showing equaled by hardly any city in the country, except Washington, D.C.” A Legacy of Design pays homage to that system and aims to “... encourage informed decisions and continued preservation activity ... and assist decision-makers in our community in achieving a better understanding and appreciation of the significant and historic quality of the legacy entrusted to them.” The profusely illustrated book makes use of two recent surveys, one in 1989 by Deon Wolfenbarger covering most of the boulevards and parks from the original 1893 plan, and one in 1991 by Anthony Walmsley, Cydney Millstein, Linda Becker, Frank Theis and Kristie Hatley, which extends the earlier survey up to 1940.
It presents the mammoth undertakings of these surveys, covering 34 parks and 33 boulevards in terms of description, history, integrity and significance.
Many important Kansas Citians are there: Kersey Coates and William and Catherine Mulkey were early supporters of a parks concept. William Rockhill Nelson used The Kansas City Star to raise public awareness and support. August R. Meyer was chairman of the initiating park board, whose members included meat packing executive Simeon B. Armour and Architect Adriance Van Brunt, designer of the Union Station.
Landscape architect George Edward Kessler planned and designed the now fabled system and remained the director for some 30 years.
He was a remarkable man who complemented his visionary stature by staying on to work out the details of his designs, overseeing construction and planting activities, and personally taking the plans through several subsequent extensions.
At his departure, he left in charge protégés like landscape architect Sid J. Hare, so that maintenance and improvements of the masterpiece were well cared for into the 1940s and 1950s.
The description of Kessler Park makes passing mention of the impact of Dutch elm disease, noting that “ ... not all have been replaced with a comparable species.” This is a rather understated reference to the devastation of the disease and the lack of response to address its effects, not just in replacing dead trees, but also in calling for a more intensive effort to find a cure. The arched effect of the American elm as a street tree is unequaled, and its loss in Kansas City's park and boulevard system is particularly destructive.
The Paseo “... has lost integrity of materials and workmanship due to roadway upgrading and maintenance ... (N)ot all of the original, specific site detailing has survived ... (M)any of the original trees and formal garden areas no longer remain ...” These phrases do not adequately describe the need for attention to this queen of the boulevards, whose maintenance has suffered terribly, and whose alignment changes have served automobile movement at the expense of some of its notable historic elements.
No mention is made of the controversy surrounding the widening of Ward Parkway at Meyer Circle, which reduced the size of the grassy area around the Sea Horse fountain. When one compares the original with the revised plan, or compares historic photographs with the condition today, it is clear that our commitment to automobile accommodation has overridden our concern with preserving this “legacy of design.” Similarly, the descriptions of Cliff Drive and the Liberty Memorial fail to point out the kinds of deterioration we have allowed to overtake these treasures.
While the surveys on which the book draws predate the discovery of the structural failure of the Liberty Memorial observation deck, the deferral of maintenance on this focus of civic pride has been apparent for years, and the cost of its renovation now needs a broad circle of support. Cliff Drive is separated from neighborhood view and support and betrays a lack of concern for maintenance, with unauthorized dumping and huge, ungainly limestone boulders serving as guardrails.
A straightforward, factual comparison of Kansas City's with other systems at 1893 and today would have been useful. Such a comparison could serve as a source of pride and a stimulus to yet more improvements.
These criticisms notwithstanding, this new volume is a worthy endeavor. Anyone interested in the history of our park and boulevard system will find a thoroughly detailed and illustrated compilation of a surprising number of magnificent public amenities, judiciously and beautifully spread through this town.
E. Crichton Singleton is a Kansas City architect.
CAPTION: Municipal Rose Garden
Copyright 1996 The Kansas City Star Co.
Record Number: 348759