By Diane Euston
It takes one look at Kansas City’s skyline and the older neighborhoods nestled nearby to know that there has been a lack of historic preservation over time. Brick structures have been replaced by parking lots and high-rise buildings. Other places where grand homes once stood became nothing more than vacant lots with remnants of staircases leading to nowhere as the mansions which once stood there are long gone. Some of Kansas City’s oldest neighborhoods such as Quality Hill are a skeleton of their prior glory.
The Quality Hill neighborhood on the west side of downtown was one of the first “suburban developments” originally platted by Kersey Coates, an anti-slavery businessman who coerced his Kansas City friends originally from New England states to move to this 200-foot bluff with gorgeous views of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers in 1857.
The real estate boom of the 1880s led to the expansion of the suburbs on the east side as real estate in Quality Hill became limited; they simply ran out of land to develop.
Some lucky landmarks of our history have escaped the bulldozers over the years, and some surnames are familiar to us because of local preservation efforts. The name “Scarritt” may be recognizable due to a subdivision, school, a building, and a street all bearing the name.
This neighborhood platted by Nathan Scarritt and called Scarritt Renaissance in the historic Northeast neighborhood has, in so many ways, had its own renaissance over the past 20 years. And, on Oct. 15, the Northeast Kansas City Historical Society will launch their Fall Homes Tour where six private homes, one impressive apartment complex and a church – all located in the historic Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood – will open their doors to the public.
This neighborhood also has an upcoming event on Halloween that gives a fun, safe opportunity for children to trick-or-treat in the midst of some of Kansas City’s “scariest” houses.
The Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood has a rich history that tells the story of residential development and how even one of Kansas City’s oldest neighborhoods have maintained the architecture and charm of the past.
The Man Behind the Neighborhood
Scarritt is synonymous in our city’s history, and it all started with a preacher, teacher, and missionary to the Native Americans named Nathan Scarritt (1821-1890) who over the course of the early city’s history morphed into a real estate developer, banker and early millionaire.
Rev. Scarritt came to the Kansas City area in 1848 to teach advanced classes, including “the Latin and Greek languages” at the Shawnee Indian Mission, led by Rev. Thomas Johnson. There, he worked for about four years before moving to Westport to take over two congregations- Westport Methodist Church and the 5th Street Church. The house where he lived until 1862 is still standing at 4038 Central.
Rev. Scarritt could see there could be a bright future for the “City of Kansas,” incorporated in 1853. He began buying up portions of real estate in the town that would later earn him a substantial amount of money.
In early 1862, Nathan purchased 40 acres overlooking the Missouri River a few miles past Kansas City’s limits. The Border Wars and later the Civil War erupted any sense of peace throughout the area, and the town of Westport was a hotbed of hostility.
Although Rev. Scarritt was part of the Southern Methodists whose sympathies leaned pro-slavery, he was not in favor of secession nor did he own slaves. Afraid for his family, Scarritt moved into a log cabin he constructed on his newly-acquired land in what is now Northeast Kansas City.
In 1872, they decided to upgrade their log cabin in the Northeast after it burned. In its place was a stately, Victorian brick mansion overlooking the Missouri River that had “a magnificent view of the river valley and surrounding country.” The house stood near present-day Gladstone Blvd. where Scarritt Point is now located.
Platting Today’s Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood
Kansas City saw tremendous growth in the 1880s, and the city was becoming crowded. What were once fashionable neighborhoods were now full of aged homes whose once-expansive views were tainted by the construction of taller structures nearby. As the city limits crept closer to the Scarritt homestead in the Northeast and eventually reached the property, Nathan used his extensive knowledge of real estate to plat subdivisions around his home.
In 1886 – the same year Nathan Scarritt’s extensive land was annexed to Kansas City- he platted Melrose subdivision followed by East Melrose just a year later. He advertised that “no stores and no cheap tenements” would be allowed, and “only first class residences will be permitted.” Appropriately-named Scarritt Ave. ran through the subdivision, and since the land sat at the top of one of the highest bluffs in the city, the views of the Missouri River were impressive. All six of the Scarritt children were able to secure their own lots within this newly-formed neighborhood. It became the city’s newest suburb for the elite.
The land around Scarritt’s homestead was partially sold to the city in 1895 in order to create North Terrace Park and Cliff Drive. The park has been renamed Kessler Park in honor of landscape architect George Kessler.
The expansion of the parks and boulevard system into this area in the 1890s ensured that those building in the subdivision would have a parklike setting that can still be seen today. In addition to Cliff Drive and Kessler Park, parks nestled in the subdivision include Concourse Park and the Colonnade. The park features picnic tables and a panoramic view of the Kansas City skyline.
The expansive parks snuggled near these impressive homes is one of the neighborhood’s charming details that has likely continued the prominence of the community. Cliff Drive, currently closed to all auto traffic, is the country’s only urban scenic byway that stretches over four miles on bluffs above the Missouri River. It stretches around subdivisions such as Pendleton Heights, Scarritt Renaissance and through Indian Mound.
The Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood is located between Cliff Drive south to Independence Boulevard, and from Jackson Avenue to the west to Chestnut Trafficway to the east. The architecture that is a part of this subdivision is just as eclectic as Kansas City’s history. From 1887 to the 1910s, a significant portion of the lots were sold and built on, and “these homes embody a wide variety of architectural styles, including Beaux-Arts, Chateauesque, Queen Anne, Mission Style, Georgian Revival, American Four Square, Shingle Style, and Victorian Eclectic, as well as Kansas City Shirtwaist and Bungalow.”
Those from the middle to upper class of society found the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood as a perfect place to settle long-term and build homes that range in style but all ooze class. The largest home in the neighborhood was built in 1910 by lumber baron Robert A. Long and was named Corinthian Hall. In 1940, the sprawling mansion became the Kansas City Museum.
In addition, apartment complexes were dispersed throughout the neighborhood along the main streets such as Gladstone Blvd., Benton Blvd. and St. John Ave. This mixed use of residential real estate was mirrored throughout the city as expansion pushed east and later south.
So many of these homes, a mixed bag of Kansas City’s finest architectural styles, still remain today and have been carefully preserved. The preservation efforts in the neighborhood are due to a strong community that has been fostered over the years. The Northeast Kansas City Historical Society (NEKCHS) has worked to combine historical preservation and educational outreach activities to enhance the community. Activities such as the 9thAnnual Historic Homes Tour on October 15 from 10am to 3pm offer everyone a chance to see all that this neighborhood has to offer.
Six homes, one church and one historic apartment complex in Scarritt Renaissance will open their doors so visitors can explore this beautiful area of the city while seeing the incredible interiors of privately-owned homes.
A Look at Four Stops on the Homes Tour
Houses on tour include the 1895 mansion once owned by Michael George Heim (1865-1934). This three-story all-brick home at 328 Benton Blvd. was finished in rich cherry and oak woodwork. Michael Heim was one of the founders of Heim Brewing in Kansas City, and it was his vision that built Electric Park in the East Bottoms – Kansas City’s first amusement park- that was later moved to 47th and The Paseo.
The home is a twin – the house next door, built by his brother, Ferdinand Heim, mirrors the architecture. The brothers shared a circular driveway with an island in the shape of a heart that still exists today.
In 1925, the house was sold and was donated by its second owners to the Church of the Assumption across the street who turned it into a convent in January 1932. It remained a convent until 1972. The current owner bought the property in 2010 and has worked diligently to restore the home and update it. The interior continues to showcase the same architectural details as it did in 1895.
The home at 316 Benton Blvd. was built in 1890 by James H. Veitch (1859-1895) and his wife, India. The couple came to Kansas City from Chicago when James was transferred by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. James’s life was cut short when he died of typhoid pneumonia on his 37th birthday in 1895.
Even though his wife and daughter returned to Chicago, the home remained in the family until it was sold in 1941.
This brick and sandstone Queen Anne style home contains some incredible features not seen in houses built today. A massive Tudor fireplace and a carved staircase with a stained-glass window are beautiful details still present in the home.
Besides a few alterations and a new, updated kitchen, the home remains identical to what it did when it was built before the turn of the century.
At 444 Gladstone Blvd., people will walk inside an impressive Carthage-cut stone home with a tile roof that dates back to 1901 when Dr. Oliver Price Coats (1841-1905) built his grand residence there. Dr. Coats moved to Kansas City in 1888 and specialized in the field of opium and morphine-addiction treatment. Although his time inside the house was short-lived and subsequent owners came and went, the house remains largely in-tact from when it was built.
The house, once converted into six apartments, has been painfully restored to its original glory. “I feel the same way a lot of my neighbors have said they feel about their historic homes,” current owner Shane Wilson explained. “We’re just next in line to be the caretakers. It’s our responsibility to do what we can to preserve the historic character while we make it our home.”
At 300 Gladstone Blvd., visitors will get a firsthand glimpse of historic preservation in action. Built in 1912, the St. Francis was originally seven, well-appointed apartments, complete with their own maid’s quarters. In 2011, just months before the building was to be demolished, Michael Stringer and Jason Milbradt saved the St. Francis. The brick structure features elegant, rounded porches on the front of the building that offer some of the best views in the Northeast neighborhood. The property was strategically placed with some of the best views of Concourse Park and the Colonnade.
One of the first buildings to be constructed with concrete and reinforced steel, the St. Francis is being carefully restored by its current owners as a single-family home and mixed-use space. Most of the pieces to the original white marble staircase, once removed, have been recovered in the building and will be restored as renovations continue.
The building still has five original Rookwood tile fireplaces. Over the past 10 years, the current owners have worked tirelessly to strip the several layers of white paint that has hidden their beauty for decades.
Seeing the St. Francis in its current renaissance showcases the efforts of historic preservation and the impeccable detail that these apartment complexes had over 100 years ago. The day of the homes tour, the St. Francis will have live music and artists.
Homes Tour and Scare-It Halloween
All of the homes located on the tour are a walkable distance from each other. A sales tent where visitors can check in and purchase tickets will open its doors at 9 AM. Tickets for $16 each can be purchased through a link at NEKCHS.net. A full list of homes on tour can be found on their website.
Part of what makes this neighborhood so unique is that so many organizations work together to build a community everyone can be proud of. For 27 years, the Scare-It Halloween event in the Northeast creates a safe, fun, car-free environment for trick-or-treating.
From 5:30-8:30 PM on Halloween night, eight blocks of the neighborhood will be car-free and feature music, food trucks and a haunted house. On average, between 6,000 and 8,000 people flood the neighborhood for plenty of tricks and treats. The event is open to the public.
Events such as the Homes Tour on October 15 and Scare-It Halloween in the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood showcase the beautiful, historic neighborhood that is, in many ways, undergoing its own renaissance. What makes this place so special isn’t just its history – it’s how a community has continuously come together to promote and maintain a beautiful environment that will live on for years to come.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com