40 Years ago, the collapse of one of Kansas City’s most iconic buildings shocked the architecture world

On June 3, 1979, the Kemper Arena hosted a convention of America’s top architects. The group gathered inside the West Bottom’s sleek modernist arena, a structure it recognized as “one of the finest buildings in the nation.”

One day later, it didn’t have a roof.

It was an event that shocked the architecture world 40 years ago, drawing worldwide attention to Kansas City.

The Kemper was the first major project by German-born architect Helmut Jahn, who had been honored inside his masterpiece just hours before the disaster. The Kemper’s column-less design offered prized sightlines that led to it being tapped to host the 1976 Republican National Convention.

But, the night after America’s top architects left, a storm struck.

Several inches of rain poured down in less than an hour. Around 7:10 pm, whipping wind and a deluge of rain caused the center of the roof to collapse onto the arena’s floor.

“The arena’s cool white exterior was largely intact,” the New York Times later reported. “But the interior was a mass of rubble, with the bright Missouri sun shining through a hole almost 200 feet square onto the twisted remains of a scoreboard, ceiling trusses and bright yellow insulation panels.”

Luckily, no one was hurt in the implosion of the arena, which was renovated in 2017 and is now known as Hy-Vee Arena. But at least one man who was among a handful of security guards and maintenance people in the building narrowly escaped death.

“An employee of the Kemper Arena present at the time stated that he saw water falling near the scoreboard,” reads a 19-page report commissioned by the city. “He went into the rink area to investigate the problem and then heard a loud noise and ran from the area. As he ran into the south tunnel, the collapse occurred.”

The structural engineer from California who came out to survey the rubble and identify the culprit found that the collapse was caused by the failure of the hanger bolts, which bound the roof’s steel trusses to its hangers. Specifically, he found one large bolt fatigued as the structure moved in the wind, leading to its failure and the eventual collapse.

The bolts were replaced and more rainwater drains were added. The Kemper was re-opened within the year. It went on to host major college basketball games for a decade. Sadly, the roof’s collapse was not the last high-profile disaster it saw. In 1999, professional wrestler Owen Hart was killed during a pay-per-view event while attempting to rappel from the Kemper’s rafters.

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