By Kathy Feist
Waldo is a hot place to be right now. Its cute boutiques, trendy restaurants and new flats appeal to a new generation that prefers life in urban areas close to all necessities.
Much of the area’s renaissance is a product of developer Diane Botwin, whose father first invested in Waldo almost 50 years ago.
The Waldo Astoria
In 1924, just one year before Dr. Arnold Botwin was born, the Waldo Movie Theater was built at 75th and Washington. The building had all the latest amenities, especially electricity powering hundreds of light bulbs. It was a popular destination off the trolley car line.
By the ’60s trolley transportation had given way to automobiles, and most were passing by the old one-screen movie house in favor of the newer multiplex at nearby Ward Parkway Shopping Center. The Waldo movie theater closed in 1972.
Around that time, local theater actors Dennis Hennessey and Richard Carrothers converted a second-floor laundromat at 51st and Main into a wildly successful dinner theater called Tiffany’s Attic. They needed a second location and were looking for investors.
Ethel Botwin, who volunteered at a local children’s theater, was impressed with the two young actors. “My mom thought they were brilliant and clever and loved their ideas,” recalls their daughter Diane. “She convinced my dad to invest in their dinner theater idea.”
Raising $750,000 in capital, Hennessey and Carrothers reconstructed the Waldo Movie Theater into a dinner playhouse, complete with kitchen, stage, dressing rooms and new mezzanine. In 1973 it opened as the Waldo Astoria.
That same year, Dr. Botwin, already an investor, became their landlord when he purchased the aging building. It would be the Botwins’ debut into Waldo real estate.
Arnold was no stranger to property ownership.
“As was very common among Dad and his friends, they would own a piece of real estate here and there,” says Diane.
Arnold’s own father, Soloman Botwin, owned the apartment building at Armour and Gilham where he practiced dentistry and where he and his wife Dorothy raised their family..
Arnold’s first piece of real estate was a fourplex at 39th and Wyoming in the early ’50s. He and his young wife Ethel lived in one of the units and collected rent from the other three. It was their only means of support while Arnold completed his residency at KU Medical Center.
Ethel and Arnold had met in Boston in 1948 while he attended medical school at Harvard University and she completed her nursing degree. Both their families immigrated from Russia at the turn of the century to escape the racial violence against Jews. With much in common, the two wed in 1950.
After completing his surgical residency at Duke University in 1951, Arnold became a surgeon on a Navy battleship sent to Korea. In 1954 he and Ethel returned to his hometown of Kansas City where he eventually became Chief of Surgery at Baptist Medical Center. Together they raised three children: James (born 1954), Diane (1956) and Andrew (1958). In 1970 the family settled in at a home in Old Leawood. James would eventually follow his father’s footsteps into medicine, practicing psychiatry in California. Diane and Andrew remained in Kansas City where they helped manage the family’s real estate with Andrew eventually striking out on his own.
Botwin Commercial Development
In 1983 the Botwins were approached by Ed Nelson and James Taylor (founders of KC Hopps) with a unique business concept for their Waldo property: a brewery.
“Dad and I were sitting there and my dad said ‘Hmmm. Sounds like a good idea to me. Let’s do it.’” recalls Diane. “And I was like ‘What the hell is a brewery?’”
75th Street Brewery became the first brewpub in Kansas City, converting 7,000 square feet in the Waldo building into a 300-seat dining room and bar that circled the microbrew equipment.
Diane was enthralled with the renovation process.
“I decided I wanted to try my hand at redevelopment,” she says. When she approached her dad with the idea of renovating old buildings, he let her take it on. “He said ‘Okay. This is your deal, because I don’t have a clue how to do it.’” With both parent’s blessings and encouragement, the torch had been effectively passed.
Until then, the family’s real estate dealings were exclusively property management. Ethel was the “glorified” bookkeeper. Decisions were made around the kitchen table.
Diane had graduated from UMKC in 1981 with a law degree and was practicing real estate litigation at Field, Gentry, Benjamin & Robertson at the time. She and her husband, attorney Doug Alpert, had a young family of three boys, Solomon, David and Isaac. She needed more flexibility.
In 1986 Botwin Commercial Development was formed. Diane set up office in a renovated space at the Waldo Astoria building.
“Once I got engaged in that process, I decided I really enjoyed fixing up old buildings,” Diane says. “That was very fun for me.”
Thus began Diane’s crusade to renovate older buildings in the area, starting with the buildings at the northeast and northwest corner of 75th and Wornall. From there Diane’s investments expanded into the Kansas City Crossroads, Columbus Park, and even Topeka. With the help of architects and designers, old, dilapidated buildings were refreshed and made trendy.
In February 2007 a fire destroyed most of the Waldo Theater building purchased by her parents 34 years earlier. It had to be demolished. With both parents passed–Ethel in 1994 and Arnold in 2004–Diane felt anguish over losing their flagship property. Soon, though, she was doing what she loved to do best: problem solving.
Just as the original building was built to high standards for its time, so would be the new facility.
With the help of El Dorado Inc. architects, a two-story, glass-walled structure called the Botwin Building became a neighborhood showcase. It incorporated cutting edge techniques, such as natural ventilation, a central breezeway, and native grass planted on the rooftop that captured rainwater to avoid overtaxing storm sewers.
The experience inspired Diane to begin developing real estate from the ground up.
In 2015 Botwin Commercial Development partnered with reStart to build a14-unit property providing the city’s first living alternative for foster children who have aged out of the system.
In 2017 the company built an affordable housing duplex at 7509 Pennsylvania Ave., partnering with El Dorado Inc. and Kansas State University.
In 2021 Botwin went even bigger and built a four-story, 44-unit apartment complex at 222 W. 75 St. The mixed-use development replaced a former ice factory that housed several antique and flea markets that had become an eyesore in the Waldo retail district.
As a result of her work and vision, Diane’s new developments and redeveloped buildings have acquired over 20 design and architecture awards. Ironically, the building that received the most recognition and that started it all–the Waldo Theater/Botwin Building–was sold two years ago to restaurateurs Andy Lock and Domhnall Molloy, owners of Summit Grill which operates at the location. The building is still managed by Botwin Management.
Waldo is home
“Something that our parents instilled in us was the beautify of diversity and acceptance,” recalls Diane.
“Waldo is an eclectic and diverse place,” she says. “After the war, many subdivisions and new homes being built had restrictive covenants in ownership. Blacks and Jews were not allowed to own those homes. But that was not the case in Waldo.”
“Dad loved Waldo.”
Botwin Commercial Development continues to operate in Waldo at 7441-A Broadway.