Historic Kansas City buildings are being demolished—can we do more to save them?

Anne Kniggendorf

Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

In December, Kansas City lost one of the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places with the demolition of the old Board of Education building on McGee. Local architect Edward W. Tanner designed the building, which opened in 1960, in a mid-century modern style that was inspired by the iconic Mies van der Rohe.

It was a demolition long in the works, ever since the city’s school district abandoned the property it had once shared with the public library system. Interior demolition was completed in the months before the facade finally fell, according to developer Copaken Brooks.

The building had been listed as among the city’s most endangered by the non-profit Historic Kansas City, but the new buyers were looking to raze it and start fresh. The decision to let a historic building go is always a “multi-million dollar question,” according to local preservationist Elizabeth Rosin. “With enough time and enough money, anything can be saved,” Rosin says, “but you always have to look at the economics as well.” Rosin was personally “gutted” by the news that the nine-story structure would be destroyed. However, she and other preservationists temper their emotions with an understanding of how big rehab projects really work—or don’t.

In the case of the Board of Ed building, Rosin says the rehab would have been challenging even though federal and Missouri historic tax credits are in place to encourage developers to find a way to save the city’s most interesting structures.

The federal program offers twenty percent of qualified rehab expenses, and the state offers twenty-five percent. Combined, the two programs create real incentives for saving buildings like the one that was on McGee.

But it takes interest from a buyer to push a project forward. Twice, potential buyers passed on saving the building. And although it had been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2017, that alone offered no protection.

Architectural historian Cydney Millstein says that when we’re considering the loss of a landmark, it’s also important to remember that, in many cases, the building we’re sad to see go was not built on an empty lot.

“As we move on through the ages, we’re tearing our historic legacy down to develop for the future,” Millstein says.

Millstein urges those who are interested in preserving the city’s most beautiful and interesting structures to look beyond hotspots like the Country Club Plaza, where a recent battle played out over a new parking garage for Nordstrom. Preservationists and developers both focus on a narrow section of town, but eastside neighborhoods like Pendleton Heights and Lykins also have beautiful buildings that need attention.

“It takes an individual with a lot of foresight to go into areas of Kansas City that may be beyond that comfort zone to redevelop and repurpose it and pour their heart and soul into it—and their finances,” Mill-stein says.

And, Rosin adds, even if some buildings are lost from time to time, since the early 2000s, Missouri has consistently been one of the top three states making use of the federal tax credits. “We would not have the downtown that we have today if it were not for historic tax credits,” she says.

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