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Historic Midtown Apartments Coming Down After 40-Year Neighborhood Fight

KC Life Starts Demolition of Knickerbocker Apartments

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Above image credit: The historic Knickerbocker Apartments in Midtown are being demolished by Kansas City Life after a 40-year struggle with the neighborhood. (Kevin Collison | CitySceneKC)

The demolition of the historic Knickerbocker apartments, a premier address a century ago, has started, ending a 40-year preservation struggle between its Midtown neighborhood and owner Kansas City Life.

Fencing is up around the three-story buildings at 501-535 Knickerbocker Place west of Broadway and a firm hired by KC Life Insurance Co. obtained a demolition permit June 30.

While the buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they do not have local landmark protection and can be razed without City Council approval.

The Valentine Neighborhood Association, which has fought to save the buildings since 1981, had asked KC Life to delay demolition for 30 days in order to seek a potential developer, but that request was turned down Monday.

“If you are willing to do so, the neighborhood promises to work with you to enlist the help of the city, developers and others to make sure every effort has been made to save the Knickerbocker,” the association letter stated.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could jointly announce that we had found a way to save this valuable resource?”

Neighborhood residents have scheduled a Save the Knickerbocker rally today (Tuesday) at 5 p.m. at the corner of Pennsylvania and Knickerbocker Place.

Historic Kansas City, which has listed the buildings on its “Most Endangered List” since 2011, apparently has resigned itself to their fate.

“Historic Kansas City sadly acknowledges the intended demolition of the Knickerbocker Apartments,” according to a statement from the preservation group.

Kansas City Life headquarters
The Knickerbocker Apartments opened in 1904, 20 years before the completion of the Kansas City Life headquarters across the street. (Kevin Collison | CitySceneKC)

“The Knickerbocker Apartments is a unique and rare surviving example of the Kansas City Colonnaded apartment. Successful models for renovation historic Midtown apartment properties can be found up and down Armour quite nearby the Knickerbocker.”

The Knickerbocker is next door to the recently renovated historic Ambassador Apartments at 3560 Broadway and behind the $45 million Uptown Lofts apartment project going up at Valentine Road and Broadway.

In a letter last week to the Valentine Association, Phil Bixby, president, CEO and chairman of KC Life, said the buildings were damaged extensively in a fire last May.

“The company has determined that it is not safe or feasible to allow the property to remain standing in its current state,” Bixby wrote.

“Please know this determination was not arrived at lightly. We know this building has historical significance to many throughout the metro area including so many within the Valentine neighborhood.

“We have owned the property for more than 60 years, and over the past several years we have searched for a path that would result in the restoration of the structure.

“To that end, we have sought advice from some of the region’s most respected developers of historic projects. Unfortunately, these experts concluded that restoration of the Knickerbocker Apartments was not economically advisable.”

Attempts to reach the company directly for comment were unsuccessful.

Knickerbocker Apartments
The $45 million Uptown Lofts project under construction behind the Knickerbocker is part of the major reinvestments being made in the area by developers. (Kevin Collison | CitySceneKC)

The Knickerbocker demolition is the latest chapter in an often fraught relationship between the insurance company and its neighborhood.

KC Life owns substantial property in the Valentine area, and neighbors have often been impatient at its lack of redevelopment progress.

“There’s been some distrust between the neighborhood and Kansas City Life over the past 20- 25 years,” said Dana Meier, president of the Valentine Neighborhood Association.

Meier believes the company has been trying to work better with the neighborhood in recent years, praising its sponsorship of a community garden. He said it has also begun renovating some of the single-family houses it owns.

Meier personally believes KC Life has made a good faith effort to renovate the Knickerbocker. The buildings and their 28 apartments have been vacant since 2002.

“We’d like to see it saved, but at some point we understand in order for it to be saved it has to make economic sense for the owner,” Meier said.

KC Life demolished half of the Knickerbocker complex in 1982 after preservationists failed to have the apartments listed as a local landmark due to company opposition. The surviving buildings scheduled for demolition were listed on the National Register in 2003.

The once luxurious Knickerbocker project was built on what was then a private street in 1906. The larger apartments featured three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room and living rooms with fireplaces.

Knickerbocker Apartments advertising
The Knickerbocker was considered one of Kansas City’s premier addresses in the early 20th C as touted in this old advertisement. (Courtesy | Midtown KC Post)

“The elegance and prestige of the Knickerbocker was highly expressed in its design features and its private street status,” according to its National Register application.

“In 1942 it was still showcased in the Kansas City Social Register as a country house in the heart of the Broadway District.”

According to the application: “The Knickerbocker Apartments, with their prominent porches and wide expanse of front lawn, remained the largest apartment group in Kansas City until around 1921.

“Furthermore the building is a representative and rare surviving example of the work of (architect) L. G. Middaugh.”

The Knickerbocker predates the monumental headquarters of KC Life, which opened across the street in 1924. Its architect, Wight and Wight, also designed the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, City Hall and the Jackson County Courthouse.

In his letter to the neighborhood, Bixby said KC Life has no specific plan in place for the Knickerbocker property.

“Moving forward, we hope to breathe new life into this location for future generations to enjoy, while also improving the aesthetics of Knickerbocker Place,” he wrote.

Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is founder and publisher of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.

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