by SUSAN RICHARDS JOHNSON | photos courtesty of KC LIBRARY ARCHIVES
I had the fortunate opportunity to become involved with one of my favorite historic buildings while practicing as an intern architect at the firm of Solomon, Claybaugh, and Young Architects in the early 1980s. I was assigned the honorable task of working with the one and only Charles N. Sharpe, the founder and owner of a highly successful life insurance business: Ozark National Life Insurance Company. As insurance sales prospered, the need for a larger building to accommodate the company’s growth became a necessity.
Mr. Sharpe was particularly fond of beautiful historic buildings. An opportunity came up to explore the vacant Old Public Library in downtown Kansas City for a potential new home. The library had undergone several adaptive reuses upon closing in 1959. The original facility closed to the general public when a more modern facility was constructed at 12th and McGee streets. The historic library sat vacant for many years before becoming the unique home for the U.S. Trade Schools, a business model not particularly suited for this remarkable tribute to beautifully designed architecture. If it had not been for the Trade Schools’ president, Ms. Ilene Latrell, a much different outcome for the building would have taken place. She demanded that her students be extremely protective of the existing building.
My first visit to the Old Public Library was on a cold winter day in December 1981. This forgotten building was for sale on the “courthouse steps” due to unpaid taxes. Ozark National Life had retained the services of a general contractor, Thomas Dunn, of K.C. Heritage Construction Company. Mr. Dunn found the building during an exhaustive search for a new home for the insurance company. His construction company was responsible for the extraordinary rehabilitation work required by the building’s new owner.
Our host for the building tour (the-then owner of the building) led the interested party down a narrow flight of basement stairs, into the lowest depth of the building. There, we were introduced to the original boilers and an antiquated, enormous electrical panel. It was dark and damp, not a good way to begin our expedition to find a new home for Mr. Sharpe’s insurance company. After several hours of trudging around in the poorly lit and unheated building, we left with Mr. Sharpe stating, “This is one building I am definitely not interested in pursuing.” I was crushed. Several hours later, though, I received a call from Mr. Sharpe stating that he had thought again about the building and fallen in love with it. He decided to buy it that very afternoon.
The Old Public Library building is sited on the northeast corner of 9th and Locust streets, a once blighted area of northeastern downtown Kansas City, Missouri. It has been occupied by its newest tenant as of 1984, Ozark National Life Insurance Company. The building is enormous. It occupies one entire city block in length and one-half city block in width. The original architects for the building were William F. Hackney, with assistance from Adriance Van Brunt Architects. The structure was constructed in two phases: the original south portion was built between 1895–’97, and the north addition in 1917–’18. The current building is filled with original plaster moldings, ornate plaster ceilings, and column capitals (column heads). The majority of the millwork is comprised of circa 1890s quarter-sawn white oak that presents itself in elaborate paneled doors, wainscoting, and entrances. There is an abundance of beautiful marble and granite detailing, a total of seven different varieties as found in marble wainscoting, columns, and flooring. There is an original terrazzo floor in the main entry rotunda on the first floor, edged with small ceramic tile mosaic banding. The existing brass door and window hardware are original and quite decorative. There are five fireplaces, two of which are constructed of highly detailed marble mosaic and granite. The other three fireplaces are constructed of white oak and display ornate, hand-carved details above the original firebox, hand carved from a single piece of wood. There remain seven original skylights, with one above the library’s original checkout counter.
Over the years, the insurance company has chugged along as a highly successful business. Another preeminent tenant was added to the building in the later ’80s, the Fairbanks Morse Scale Company. This tenant took over the original Western Gallery of Art area, which was located on the second floor. This use represented an art gallery that housed the private collection of William Rockhill Nelson,prior to his involvement with the development and construction of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the museum we all know and love today. Based upon this original use of the second floor, Mr. Sharpe began collecting large, original pieces of artwork, which he had placed throughout the building. The Kansas City, Missouri, school board also had its offices within the building from 1897 through 1959, when the school board also moved its offices to the new library.
The history of the Old Public Library remains one of the most interesting stories Kansas City has to offer. My memories run deep as I remember the myriad of decisions that had to be made in order to retrofit the building for an adaptive reuse from a public library into an insurance company. Revitalizing older historic properties is one of my favorite roles I have taken on as a practicing architect these past 40 years. I love my job, and I am proud to have been an integral part of this truly important and engaging rehabilitation project. Congratulations and thanks are due to Mr. Sharpe for having the foresight to understand the potential opportunity the Old Public Library had to offer.
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