Kansas City, MO

Historic Kirkwood Building built in 1920 on McGee Street was part of Kansas City's 'automobile row'

CJ Coombs

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Kirkwood Building, Kansas City, Missouri.Photo byMwkruse, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Kirkwood Building located at 1737-41 McGee Street, Kansas City, Missouri was built in 1920. It was designed by the architectural firm of Wight and Wight. The architectural design is Early Commercial style. The builder was R.A. Long Construction Company. In 2001, this building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The foundation of the building is stone and the walls are brick. The Kirkwood Building is named after a real estate developer, Irwin R. Kirkwood. The building is located in an area that used to be called Automobile Row. It was an automobile dealership in the early 1900s. The building was designed to take care of two dealerships.

The original tenants were the Gridley Motor Company and the Indiana Truck Company. For over two decades, automotive businesses occupied the building until the Kirkwood Building ceased being related to the automotive business.

The building represents the development of the automotive sales and distribution business. When the automobile was introduced, only the wealthy could afford it. By the end of World War I,1.5 million cars a year were being produced. As production became more streamlined, more people could afford to buy a car. Having a closed car with glass windows instead of riding in a carriage was a seller.

Between 1908 and 1923, the rise in automobile owners was apparent when you saw how many houses had garages. People were less dependent on the streetcars and were moving south of downtown with the building of new roads.

In 1912, Ford opened an automobile plant in Kansas City and a number of carriage manufacturing businesses in the West Bottoms began assembling automobiles. Automobile businesses were happening in Kansas City.

The 1919 Polks Directory lists 207 businesses under the heading of Automobiles and Supplies, indicating that a vast amount of automobile businesses were occurring.

According to a Kansas City Star article from February of that year, 'Fifty million dollars is a conservative estimate of the amount changing hands for motor cars, trucks and accessories here in a year.' (Source.)

This was a great opportunity for any local entrepreneur to open up their own auto dealership. Buildings were going up with storefronts to sell their vehicles as well as repair them and service them in the same building.

The Kirkwood Building

The Kirkwood building was four stories tall. The storefronts were large so people could have a good view of the cars being displayed.

By the first years of the post World War I period, the place of the automobile became entrenched in the middle-class lifestyle. Throughout the country, automobile dealerships were being constructed by the hundreds. (Source.)

Back in the day, if you wanted to attract an automobile buyer, then you retained an architect who could build a beautiful building. Having the best model showroom was a bonus. McGee Street, between 15th and 20th Streets, became part of Kansas City's Automobile Row.

The original owner of the building was Irwin Kirkwood, who was also the son-in-law of William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star newspaper. After Kirkwood arrived in Kansas City in 1905, he worked for a real estate company, and later with some financial help from Nelson, he opened his own business. After Nelson died in 1915, Kirkwood became involved with the city’s paper. In 19224, he was the managing editor.

Kirkwood was also involved with the construction plans of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, and Wight and Wight were chosen as the design architects. 

In 1926, no automobile dealerships leased the Kirkwood Building. That year, City National Bank (nka United Missouri Bank and then UMB Bank) leased the building as headquarters while waiting for their new building to be constructed. 

The City National Bank was criticized for having so many auto loans. By the time their new building was built, in 1931, a hole was cut in the rear door of their building to create a drive-through window. This was the first drive-through bank in the city and supposedly the first in the country.

After the bank moved out of the Kirkwood Building, there were auto-related businesses that moved in and leased the space for years, and there were some businesses not auto-related. 

It was convenient that the Kirkwood Building was located along a streetcar line, which stopped in front of the building. Imagine any first-time car buyer gawking at the display window.

Irwin Kirkwood died on August 29, 1927, at the age of 48.

Wight and Wight

Thomas Wight came to Kansas City in 1904 after working for a decade for the leading firm of McKim, Meade, and White. Wight and another former employee of this firm decided to start a firm in Kansas City called Wilder and Wight. They got their break from creating a preliminary design for the First National Bank. 

In 1911, Thomas’ brother, William Wight, came to Kansas City. With Wilder retiring, Wight bought out his share of the firm. The firm name changed to Wight and Wight and their firm continued to be successful for 45 years. 

The Kirkwood Building is a good representative example of Wight and Wight’s commercial designs. It compares with other examples of restrained classicism. Even though the First National Bank Building was designed in 1904, it wasn’t until the late 1920s and later that many of their larger formal buildings were designed.

Today, the Kirkwood Building after all these years looks like it still maintains its architectural exterior value. The building leases office space and the company, SMG, is located at 1737 McGee. A building that might have sold one of your grandparents a car at the turn of the century still stands with pride.

Thanks very much for reading.

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Multi-genre writer and indie author with a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. My working career has been in law firms. Thinker, giver, and lover of life and retired early to be a writer. Born into Air Force service life, life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, reading, history, true crime, travel, and research.

Kansas City, MO
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