Watch: "Designs on creating a cultural hub" | 1:41
The grand, classically inspired stone building began life in 1910 as part of a private estate befitting the family of lumber baron Robert Long, who at one time owned hundreds of thousands of acres of pine forests. The building was named Corinthian Hall after its ornate columns borrowed from ancient Greek architecture, a style popular for banks and courthouses of the same era. Inside the imposing exterior, the 72-room mansion was designed as if for royalty, with no expense spared from sumptuous carpets to gilded scrollwork on the ceilings and every ornate tapestry, piece of furniture, and china plate in-between.
Behind the main house on the estate, which displaced other grand houses to occupy a square city block, were five other buildings, including a stable that held 10 champion saddle and harness show horses.
In its second life, starting in 1940, Corinthian Hall was converted into a quirky natural history museum, beloved by generations of school children for its displays of insects, stuffed bears and an igloo to explore. During this phase, the building was stripped of much of the original interior architectural detail, and the space was used in a somewhat haphazard way to accommodate the Kansas City Museum’s growing, if eclectic, collection.
Now, the building is undergoing its most dramatic transformation yet. It is in the midst of a deliberate, intentional redesign process that has led to it being closed for three years, but will result in a space that pays homage to its beginnings, but also works as a truly functional museum space for the first time.
When it re-opens in 2020, the estate will begin a new phase, and the Kansas City Museum will be able to fulfill the promise of its name, providing the city with a state-of-the-art center for regional history and cultural heritage. Through an objective telling of the story of Kansas City, community members will gain a better understanding of the strengths and deficits of their city over time and will be better able to have conversations that move it forward.
"From the construction side, knowing that we've made choices to produce the highest quality restoration is really exciting and I'm very proud to be a part of that process. On the program side, I'm very proud of the vision, which is to really create an environment, a learning environment, where people come together. And where people are inspired to be more deeply engaged in their neighborhoods and in the Kansas City community," said Anna Marie Tutera, executive director of the museum.
The balancing act that has driven the redesign of the space has been to restore period details of the original house, while at the same time accommodating the needs of a modern museum – all within constraints of space and budget. The Kauffman Foundation was one of the funders of the schematic design process, which has informed everything from how planners blocked out the learning objectives for each floor and room, to what graphic style and color palette would be used for exhibits in the restored Corinthian Hall. The schematic design carries into design development, during which exhibit designers will make decisions about which of the items in the museum’s collection will be displayed.
Designers had to consider the needs of a range of potential audiences, from educators and student groups learning about regional history, to tourists, to architecture lovers interested in the house, to residents who want to explore cultural topics. And do that while making sure the space worked for community engagement, collaboration, and educational experiences.
"The spirit of the home will really come through in this restoration, and be complemented by 21st century museum amenities and features and designs, to really make this a fully functioning museum environment," Tutera said.
"The Kansas City Museum is uniquely positioned to serve an unmet need in the cultural fabric of Kansas City," said Gloria Jackson-Leathers, the Kauffman Foundation’s senior director of Kansas City Civic. "The museum’s collection is unparalleled in its potential to convey the rich history and relevance of the Kansas City region."
While Corinthian Hall may appear more like a building than a house, it wasn’t designed to be a museum. For example, the space designers couldn’t do the work needed to make the first floor of the house into the kind of climate-controlled space that modern museums require, without destroying the plasterwork and other architectural details that remain there. So, that floor will serve to inform visitors of the history of the home and the Long family, and will be used in more multi-functional ways for programs and events.
For the rooms on the first floor, "you'll have a really deep understanding of how those rooms were used. They will look the way that they did, by-and-large, when the home was built, the structure, the main architectural design, especially for rooms like the salon and the library where so much original architectural fabric was already there," Tutera said.
In addition, given a billiard room on the lower level, staff decided to bring this space back to its original use. "We've selected a billiard table from the early 1900s that's going to be restored and you'll be able to play pool in that room," Tutera said.
The upper floors, while not requiring the same kind of restoration, present their own challenges. This is where the serious museum space will take over to display some of the nearly 100,000 items in the museum’s collection in a meaningful way while taking care of the needs of visitors. Designers now had to consider the flow of visitors through exhibits, the HVAC system that would preserve the collection, a secondary staircase to create the additional required egress, modern bathrooms, and an upgraded elevator.
A recently awarded follow-up grant from the Kauffman Foundation is designated toward helping the museum fabricate and install the exhibit spaces for the collection. The Kauffman Foundation is one of many private and public funding sources Tutera must bring together to ensure a wide base of support for the museum going forward.
Beyond making the space functional, the design process has been about bringing into reality a new role for the museum.
"The vision is really about civic unity and that's stated in our vision. So, we're working really hard to create a very inclusive, welcoming environment that explores many histories in Kansas City. That explores many stories of Kansas Citians. And looks at Kansas City past, present, and future."
For Tutera, this vision speaks to her personal experience. Her father’s family emigrated from Italy and settled in Northeast Kansas City, the same area as the museum. Her mother’s family came from Yugoslavia and lived in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. "Both of these families were great storytellers, and both families are pretty large families, so there was a lot of opportunity to learn about Kansas City's history, and to grow up with that knowledge and that interest in Kansas City. So, it was really great to become the executive director of this museum because of its tie to the Northeast – and because we are creating a multicultural museum, and intergenerational museum with the sharing of stories."
A chronological history of the area will start with regional Native Americans, to Kansas City as a river town on the second floor, and move visitors through to the present on the third floor. Rotating exhibits will allow deeper looks at neighborhoods and cultural topics.
"This is all being designed to be a very narrative-driven and dialogue-driven environment. We want to be that institution, where if there needs to be a conversation on race and equity in Kansas City, we can hold that at the Kansas City Museum, in this environment."
With inclusiveness as one of its core values, the museum seeks to give an "honest and authentic" picture of the region and its people, according to the vision stated in the schematic design document.
"It really does inform all of the decisions that we make, even in schematic design, because we are constantly thinking about different perspectives, interpretations, the types of stories that we're going to tell. Many of them can also be untold stories that really get at the heart of Kansas City's cultural diversity: the people who live here, and where they've come from," said Tutera.
Kansas City is a very different place now from when Corinthian Hall was built. While Robert Long was not exactly a man of the people, having been born into a comfortable family and subsequently building an empire, he was a man who felt civic responsibility. He put his wealth toward churches, hospitals, and public buildings, advocated for a water works system, and promoted Kansas City as a center for the arts. And, through his leadership, funds were collected in record time to construct Liberty Memorial – the official memorial to World War I in the United States – another of the key civic assets for which Kansas City is still known.
Given Long’s civic-mindedness, it seems somehow fitting that his mansion, which spoke then of his power and wealth, will now instead speak to making the community a better place.