One of Kansas City’s most iconic buildings was a diamond in the rough
By Diane Euston
Once upon a time, Kansas City featured an iconic building in the heart of the business district. The V-shaped space where Delaware and Main streets converged at 9th St. was once the beginning of an old Indian trail, the vision of one of our city’s finest early architects, the home of a growing newspaper, and the site of one of the busiest–and most dangerous– streetcar lines.
Kansas City’s Move South
When Kansas City was platted to 5th St., its future included carving out the streets from the bluffs. With the business district originally on the levee for easy access to riverboat traffic, the Town of Kansas was trapped by the hills around it. In the late 1840s, the Elijah Jackson farm was at the future site of what would be known as the “Junction” at 9th St. According to his daughter, it was surrounded by dense forest.
Some accounts state that a natural spring was at the heart of the Junction when Main St. was an old Indian trail. Near this spring was a lone oak tree where trailblazers heading west would rest along their journey.
Jackson’s farm was isolated from activity. If traveling to Westport, only two houses– one at current-day 11th and Main and the other at 19th and Main– could be spotted on your journey.
In 1857, William H. Ross and Nathan Scarritt took 21 acres of farmland and platted out Ross & Scarritt’s Addition. Included in this was the strange plan that had Main and Delaware streets, both originally traveling southeasterly, converging at a point. Due to the water runoff from Main and Delaware (Delaware still had not been graded), the area in front of what would be known as the Junction was an “unpromising mudhole.”
At the southernmost boundary of this new tract of land was a narrow, diamond-shaped piece where the two streets came to meet. On paper, the lots didn’t look desirable, but one man had a vision of how to capitalize on it.
Vaughan’s Diamond Building
In 1866, Delaware-born real estate investor Samuel D. Vaughan (1819-1874) bought the narrowest lots 1-4 for $1,150. This odd piece of land would need the vision of someone special. In 1868, Vaughan hired Asa Beebe Cross (1826-1894), a St. Louis transplant who got his start by opening a lumber yard in the 1850s. His ability to design was quickly noticed by residents of the booming city. Cross designed the Wornall House, Union Depot, the Seth Ward Home and Vaile Mansion in Independence.
Because of the odd-sized lots that gradually widened, the best way to capitalize on the topography was to build in a diamond shape. For two years the-four story building was under construction, and noted for its height and architecture. Completed in 1870 for a whopping $33,000, one of the first tenants was none other than Vaughan’s real estate office. A sign on the front of the beautiful building fronting 9th St. announced it as “Vaughan’s Diamond.” Just two years later, Vaughan got into some financial difficulties and was forced to sell the building at a loss to Howard M. Holder.
The Kansas City Times
It wasn’t long before the center of the business district had moved to 9th St. right in front of the Diamond Building. The “Junction” in the 1870s and 1880s was no longer a mudhole. It was a popular meeting place with traffic swirling around it.
Opened in 1868, The Kansas City Times was then a booming newspaper operation on 5th St. with the need for more space. The owners had their eyes on the Diamond Building for several years, but Holder wasn’t interested in selling it. In turn, the Kansas City Times bought lots 5-6 to the north of the building. After long negotiations, the newspaper was finally able to purchase the Diamond Building for $85,000–the most ever paid per square foot in the city.
Construction in the summer of 1884 began behind the Diamond Building so the newspaper would have the space they needed. The newspaper ensured that a tower on their building, completed with a “T” in the roofing, would be taller than the Diamond Building in front of it.
When the Times building was completed in 1886, the paper wrote, “The beauty of its architecture challenges at once the admiration of the city.” Colorado red sandstone and red brick accented with columns of Missouri red granite contrasted the light colors of the Diamond Building. Even with all the extra space, the Kansas City Times outgrew their new building and sold it in 1886 to Nathaniel Thayer for $300,000. The iconic building then became known as “The Junction Building” and the First National Bank moved into the space.
With a growing city came growing problems, especially when it came to traffic management. The Junction, due to the massive hill at 9th St. and the joining of two thoroughfares, became a magnet for traffic accidents.
In 1872, the first railroad company opened in front of the Vaughan Diamond Building, operated by the Jackson County Horse Railroad.
From Woodland, the first cable cars in 1883 would run west on 8th St. to Grand Ave., head south on 9th St. and go west on a two-block steep hill. Then, the cars would travel to Quality Hill.
It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Any busy or dangerous intersections at the time were required by the city to have a watchman, also known as a flagman. Because 9th St., Delaware and Main all had streetcar lines and the streets were congested with pedestrians, the intersection had to be monitored by someone from the streetcar.
For many years, flagman Michael Tuite (1836-1913) was tasked with this job. Known as “Wide Awake” or “Old Wide Awake” by Kansas Citians, the “raspy-voiced” Irish-born man saved the lives of aloof passerbys every day. After serving in the New York infantry during the Civil War, Tuite spent some time in St. Louis working for the railway and then moved to Kansas City.
Few knew his real name; he was simply “Wide Awake,” the watchman at the Junction who was one of Kansas City’s first traffic directors. Tuite would yell “Wide awake!” to pedestrians on cable cars as they zoomed haphazardly down the hill from Walnut toward Main or when cars came down 9th St. from Wyandotte. “He ruled the Junction district like a czar,” the Kansas City Star reported.
Truth be told, the early cable cars weren’t the safest vehicles on the road and likely had a zero-star safety rating. A ride down 9th St. was described as “rollicking, rattling” and “nerve-wracking.” Charles Dudley Warner wrote in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1888 of Kansas City cable cars, “They climb such steeps, they plunge down such grades, they penetrate and whiz through such crowded, lively thoroughfares, their trains go so rapidly, that the rider is in perpetual exhilaration.”
As Old Wide Awake carried his cane in the intersection, he screamed at patrons as these cable cars barreled down the hill, and sometimes these cars could not stop. The brakes operated by a brakeman would sometimes fail, causing a jolting ride that certainly felt like a rollercoaster and endangered those crossing the streets. These dangers are the very reason why flagmen like Tuite were critical to the success of the cable cars.
Old Wide Awake was so famous on the 9th St. cable car line that Harry Truman recalled an incident with his mother when Tuite was manning the line. When a westbound car flew around the corner, Tuite “pulled my mother back from the curb.” The jolt from Wide Awake’s cane wasn’t welcomed at first by Truman’s mother; his response, according to Truman, was simply “Only saving your life, madam, only saving your life.”
The End of the Junction
After being purchased in 1911, the Diamond Building, a landmark for over 40 years, was purchased and torn down in 1915. The West Gate Hotel went up in its place. In 1939, the hotel, after years of rough times, was purchased and remodeled. Opening as the Hotel Kay, times were short-lived for the new, not-as-glamorous building.
Urban renewal plans oftentimes include removing landmarks from locations. This was the case for the Junction. In 1945-46, the hotel was sold to the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority of Kansas City; in 1956, the last of the Junction was torn to the ground in order to straighten out the roads and redesign that side of the city. Today, the old Junction is only recognizable at the intersection at 9th and Main.
Saving our History
It is not a surprise that so many past landmarks have been leveled in the name of progress. It is estimated that Asa Beebe Cross helped design over 1,000 buildings in Kansas City, including Vaughan’s Diamond Building (the Junction). Only a few of his incredible designs stand today.
What was once the heart of Kansas City’s bustling downtown district now stands, due to progress, as concrete, steel structures and skyscrapers and is absent of a building that once stood as an ornate, unique landmark on a diamond-shaped lot. The beauty of the architecture that once was can now only be seen in photographs and the former memories of those that remember what once was there.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com