A Tour of Space(s) between Chicago and San Francisco

The first stop on DAY 5 was the recently renovated and reopened Liberty Memorial Museum on a hill overlooking downtown Kansas City .

The Memorial Museum is housed entirely within the plinth of an enormous, Late Beaux-Arts monumental building ensemble, which along with McKim, Meade and White’s Union Station at the foot of the hill, constitute the monumental civic “core” of Kansas City.

From here I could see S.O.M.’s Banker’s Trust tower in the near distance. The building has an expressed exterior structural grid and recessed glazing, which are separated by deep overhanging/balconies from which the windows can be cleaned on foot.

The original memorial Museum takes the form of a single columnar tower, a competition winning entry from the early 20th century, clad in limestone and with an appealing stripped classicism characteristic of many buildings in Washington D.C. of the period. The tower is topped at night by a “flame effect”, of which more later. It really looks like a flame. The column is set as the centerpiece of a long civic scaled “mall” and is flanked by a pair of symmetrical memorial chambers accessed from the roof of the plinth.  A pair of weeping sphinxes rest on either side of the approach to the memorial column. Frankly, they steal the entire show. Approaching them, one searches for their visage only to discover that their faces are entirely concealed beneath their wings.

The new museum occupies all of the space within the enormous plinth, which visually and structurally supports the buildings. The plinth, needed to cover the extensive amount of substructure required to support the tall tower, was only a shell containing the structural columns and beams. The museum grew throughout the 20th century to such an extent that the collection was well beyond being able to be contained within the two smaller flanking buildings. In an effort to rescue the surrounding park from the retail narcotics and prostitution businesses, the city embarked on a program to fill the plinth with a series of carefully considered exhibits designed by Ralph Applebaum of New York, which document the history of the war: its beginning in Europe followed by America’s later involvement and culminating in the treaty of Versailles.

Architecturally subdued, but carefully considered, the museum is well worth the $10 admission price, which includes a quick elevator ride to the top of the tower for a panoramic vista of Kansas City , as well as visits to both of the smaller flanking buildings atop the podium. On my way back down from the top of the tower I asked about the “flame effect” and was told that it is achieved through the use of colored lights and steam, which is conveyed through pipes clearly visible in the elevator shaft. This effect occurs on a daily basis for the princely sum of $7000/month, which even the city declined to pay. The expense is covered by an anonymous donor through the remainder of the year. For what its worth, I recommend keeping it.

It was difficult to get through this museum by noon, given the level of attention to detail paid by the exhibition designer, and to a lesser extent, the architectural design of the museum itself. The capo lavoro is a glass bridge spanning a field of (fake!) poppies lit from above by a dramatic fan shaped clear glass skylight that provides an unexpected worms eye view of the tower/column above reflected on the surface of the glass bridge.

I then went back across the city to Steven Holl’s Bloch building addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum. Holl’s entry, which bested those from Machado and Silvetti, Tadao Ando, and others, was predicated upon the architect’s proposal to situate the addition to the east entirely outside the existing footprint of the main building. As a result, favorable views of the main building are maintained, but the addition is quite elongated and must provide an excessive amount of circulation space even if admittedly dramatic, and compelling.

The project was built in two phases, the first of which was an underground parking structure to the north. The centerpiece is a fountain designed in collaboration with Land Artist Walter deMaria. This garage is probably the second most beautiful museum parking structure in America , after Calatrava’s garage beneath his addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin. The structure of Holl’s garage is a continuous series of tapered precast concrete “U” shaped beams supported on precast columns. The dramatic interior space is highlighted by a series of circular holes topped by a black fountain. These holes are illuminated at night by circular fixtures, causing them to glow from within. During the day, they admit light to the garage through the plane of the water above. The result–around noon is a good time to arrive–is a series of hyperactive, dancing pools of sunlight on the garage floor. Several people were in the garage photographing this phenomenon as I pulled in. I soon joined them.

The new museum addition is beautifully detailed and unfolds as a series of galleries organized by the glazed “lenses” which admit light into the spaces below. Of particular note were: the white venetian plaster walls throughout the public spaces, the custom door handles (shown below), and the organization of the ceiling plane so that little else than the recessed sprinklers was exposed. The handling of the required emergency exit signs and the faithfulness of the overall project to Holl’s initial watercolor sketches were also remarkable. I was told that the toilet rooms in the farthest travelling exhibition gallery were not to be missed, but miss them I did.

Nearby, Kyu Sung Woo’s Nerman Museum of Art in Overland Park , is a striking departure from the ubiquitous brick sprawl of the surrounding Johnson County Community College to which it is appended. Clad in limestone and projecting itself outward towards the nearby major intersection, the building is begging for attention, and frankly deserves it.


Leaving the Nerman around 4:30, I drove 184 miles to Omaha . Upon checking into my hotel, I asked the front desk staff for the name of the steak house, which Warren Buffet, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway (based in Omaha ), rents out annually for his executive committee meetings. Gorat’s was the answer, and within an hour I was en route to my seat at a table in a dining room covered with wood paneling that could have been a set for any Quentin Tarentino or David Lynch film. Slightly unnerving (but perhaps necessary?) was the security guard at the door with a sidearm. Mr. Buffet’s tastes are legendarily modest, and I now understand why. This is not the steakhouse of capitalist titans and expense account executives, but of regular suburban folk in search of value and friendly service.

1 Response

  1. Bob Collins says:

    Loved this post. This is a trip I must take.

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