Published October 7th, 2020 at 11:30 AM
Smack dab in the middle of downtown Excelsior Springs, it’s hard to miss the stone tower with shining glass.
The edifice that serves as City Hall looms over the rest of the town’s small businesses. Its stone walls are etched with symbols of Aztec water gods, a fitting touch for a building named the Hall of Waters.
From a distance this building looks like a monument that has stood the test of time, and in many ways it has. On closer inspection, though, the broken glass panels and rusting metal beams on the tower reveal a more troubling truth — the Hall of Waters has seen much better days.
At one time, people flocked from around the country to experience the purported healing properties of the mineral springs in this community about 30 miles northeast of Kansas City. Notably, President Harry S. Truman spent the night at the nearby Elms Hotel the night before he was elected president in 1948 in a huge upset of Thomas Dewey. He would make Excelsior Springs a frequent getaway destination.
The Hall of Waters is far from a vacation destination for travelers in 2020. What once was an old spa room now is used for storage of city files. The old indoor pool is out of use, and has been for years. You’ll find more people in the basement searching for scares on a Hall of Waters Ghost Tour than looking for a little rest and relaxation after a long week.
The current condition of the building — designed by the architectural firm Keene & Simpson and built as a Public Works Administration project — has landed it on the 2020 edition of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 most endangered historic places in America. With an estimated $16 million needed in repairs, it’s going to take a large effort to get off of that list.
Taking a stroll through the Hall of Waters, one might not suspect this is one of the 11 most endangered historic buildings in the country. The main floor looks like most city halls, and the wide open solarium that is home to the world’s longest water bar looks far from old and decayed. But the deeper you stroll in the building, the more apparent the damage becomes.
“There are parts of the building that are underutilized or not utilized at all,” Excelsior Springs Mayor Pro-Tem Sonya Morgan said. “When you get into the basement areas of the building, you can see we are getting a lot of corrosion on some of our supporting walls. We are only as good as the base that we are sitting on.”
The well room, the location of the original well that Excelsior Springs was founded on, is experiencing significant decay. The well room lies beneath the north courtyard of the Hall of Waters, which once was used for large gatherings. Now, though, the risk of the courtyard collapsing into the well room is so high that the city does not let large groups onto the lawn.
It’s like that all over the building. Underneath the indoor pool in the basement of the building, concrete columns are chipping away from years of water damage that the city can’t do much about.
When construction started on the Hall of Waters in 1936, the East Fork Fishing River was redirected to make way for the new building. The river remains susceptible to flash floods, and it tends to follow its original, natural path, right into the Hall of Waters. Because of that, the building continuously confronts water damage that has eroded the base, walls, windows and pipes of the building. The flood of 1993 knocked the indoor pool out of commission, destroying all of the mechanical systems and pipes keeping it operational.
In several rooms, water damage from rainfall can be seen on the floors and walls, and the city is constantly fighting mold accumulation in the building.
The Hall of Waters is owned by the city and used as City Hall as well as the visitors center. That means rooms that were formerly meant for spas and water treatment, are now office spaces for city officials.
“I work in an office that’s an old sun porch, so I have no heat,” City Manager Molly McGovern said. “I’m dependent on a small electric heater that can plug in. Everybody has a window air conditioning unit.”
In August of 2018, the city put a proposed museum tax on the ballot. That measure failed.
“There’s kind of a mixed message here,” Morgan said. “Everybody who we talked to has fond memories of the building. But there wasn’t enough incentive among them to pass the tax to help support this. So when it came to putting that money on the line, we didn’t have that same support.”
Morgan believes one reason the measure didn’t pass was because it was put on the ballot late, and the city didn’t do a good enough job educating people on what it would actually be doing for the city. Uncertainty about the full extent of the damage in the building, and what it would take to preserve it, also are challenges.
“I think that the general public in our community just always assumed this building will be here,” Economic Development Director Melinda Mehaffy said. “They don’t stop to think about the cost of an 80,000-square-foot building being preserved. This is not like building your house. It’s not like reroofing your house or paying utility bills, none of these things are normal. You can’t fathom it if you’ve never lived it, and that’s probably the biggest challenge we face.”
The city has taken initial steps to save the building.
This year the city won a $500,000 Saving America’s Treasures grant from the National Parks Service. The money will be used to address structural damage at the south end of the Hall of Springs (where the world’s largest water bar is located), rehabilitate the glass and metal that is damaged on the building’s tower, and some exterior repair on north and west faces of the Hall, to prevent additional water damage in the building.
According to Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer for the National Trust of Historic Preservation, this grant is a big step in the right direction.
“The biggest challenge is getting the first phase of work started, so that people and potential investors, just the community in general, can start to see the potential of a place to be revitalized,” Malone-France said. “I think this Save America’s Treasures grant is just going to help really jumpstart that initial phase of work.”
When the grant money was announced, the first reaction from the community was curiosity about the state of the indoor pool.
The city also has purchased another building downtown to renovate. The hope is to move into the new building, and move out of the Hall of Waters to make way for its ultimate revitalization.
For the past five years the city has been working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on how to move forward with the building. Excelsior Springs officials are encouraged by the National Trust’s involvement, especially now that the Hall of Waters is included on the list of the 11 most endangered historic places.
“It draws attention to this building on a national level,” Mayor Sharon Powell said. “The people with deeper pockets that might be interested in this building might be in California or someplace else. So it draws attention to people with deeper pockets that might be able to have some creative ideas. We’re open to all kinds of ideas about how to use this building in a public way.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been compiling the list of most endangered buildings for 33 years. More than 300 properties have made the list in that time, and just 5% have been lost to the wrecking ball.
“I would say generally preservation gets done through partnerships,” Malone-France said. “I think the city of Excelsior Springs is a great partner, and would be a great partner for anybody considering how to bring this really remarkable place back to life.”
The city’s hope is that the building can be used in a way that is similar to the original purpose for the Hall of Waters. A place for health, wellness and calming waters.
“So often, the key to a building’s new use is in some way carrying forward the legacy of it’s past,” Malone-France said.
Jacob Douglas reports on rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.