Built to impress nearly a century ago, this former bank building’s profile is probably even more formidable in its latest incarnation as the home of Kansas City’s Church of Scientology.
Proudly sitting on the corner of Grand Avenue and 18th Street, at seven stories tall and capped with the church’s moniker glowing in large white letters, the approximately 67,000-square-foot structure was built by the Kemper banking family in 1926. At the time, the location was considered Midtown. Now, it’s firmly ensconced in the Crossroads Arts District.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places, the building was designed in the 1980s by the architecture firm Holden, Ferris and Barnes.
“No expense was spared to insure [sic] that the banking floor fulfilled a traditional banking ethic of restrained grandeur,” the National Register documents read. “Five sorts of marble were used. A beamed ceiling was painted in an ‘Aztec’ pattern and all lighting fixtures were of massive proportions, forged in brass and wrought iron. Marble tellers’ cages arranged in a U-configuration ended in ornate brass and iron grillwork. A brass drinking fountain and paneled cigar stand in the vestibule added to the sense of aristocratic wealth.”
The lobby was impressive then, and through years-long restoration efforts by the church, which bought the building in 2007, it remains so.
“The building sat vacant for a while, and there was a lot of preservation work to be done, a lot of cleaning,” says Bennette Seaman, a Church of Scientology spokesperson. The church hired a local artist to repaint the lobby’s beams and an industrial cleaning company to restore the bank’s massive “steelcrete” vault—a unique and complex system of interwoven steel that was patented in 1923. Only two hundred of these vaults were built in the United States, and the Grand Avenue vault was the only one built in Kansas City. It is currently being used as an executive meeting room, Seaman says.
The grand main floor, encircled by a mezzanine level, is open to the public and attracts visitors. “We had one person come to take a look that remembered coming to the bank as a child and seeing men with guns on the mezzanine level watching over everyone,” Seaman says.
A gang of “bandits” had robbed the bank and gotten away with around $50,000 shortly after it opened, according to historic documents. After the robbery, a reinforced steel gun turret was installed on the mezzanine level. A guard sat equipped with a Thompson submachine gun like the one the robbers used.
The building has gone through several tenants over the years, including several different banks and an engineering and architecture firm, as well as a brief stint as the office of the Kansas City Star. The Church of Scientology held its grand opening in 2019.