Re-imagining Union Station


Kansas City:



On the surface of things, Union Station would seem to have a whole lot going for it--a great location, a lovingly-restored edifice, beaucoup space, a residue of public good will, and a huge, if dwindling, bank account.

Alas, it is the stuff beneath the surface that Union Station lacks--heart, humanity, and ultimately a "story." And for lack of a story, the building remains unembraced by the public and ultimately unembracable. Let me explain.


Finding the story

A few years back KCPT-TV commissioned me to produce a documentary on historical buildings in Kansas City, a pledge-oriented formula that had worked well in other cities.

The only problem was that these were larger cities with lots of buildings to choose among. Boston, for instance, began its piece by showing a lyrical montage in which more buildings were blown up than we currently have standing. As to Boston's remaining buildings, they have had their stories long since encoded in the nation's DNA by folks like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and only needed the slightest amplification.

To make our documentary work we had to humanize our buildings, to strengthen the bond between viewer and viewed. This meant discovering the story within the buildings and dramatizing the lives of those people who exemplified that story. The buildings alone could not carry the tale.

We started with Kansas City's iconic building, Union Station, then a crumbling ruin about ten centuries shy of being interesting. After some research, it seemed that the person who best captured the station's sorry fate was Jackie Jensen, the former all-star right fielder of the Boston Red Sox.

The documentary centered on the day Jensen first arrived in town to play for the minor-league Kansas City Blues--August 7, 1951. Manning centerfield that summer for the Blues was the only American leaguer who would drive in more runs that decade than Jensen, an Oklahoma teenager name of Mickey Mantle. This may well have been the most legendary outfield no one has ever heard of.

Jensen's train was one of 200 passenger trains that pulled into Union Station that day. Incredibly, by decades end, that number had dwindled to 20. For Jensen the nation's switch from rail to air was not just a statistic. It was a tragedy. Air travel may have allowed Major League Baseball to move to Kansas City in 1955 and to California a few years later, but Jensen was deathly afraid of flying. American league MVP in 1958, he retired broken and dispirited in 1959. A story to be sure.


Telling the story

As it happened, a man of even greater renown first descended on Kansas City that very same August day. His name was Norman Rockwell, the famed illustrator. Hallmark founder Joyce Hall had invited Rockwell to town to capture on canvas the city's heroic response to the nearly apocalyptic Missouri River flood that had ravaged the city just a few weeks prior. Another story.

Prophetically, Rockwell flew in. He returned sometime later to present his much celebrated canvas, "Kansas City Spirit." {The painting, by the way, features a large prominent airplane and a tiny, irrelevant train). This may have been the last time Kansas City had the confidence and the unity of purpose to paint its own picture.

In the painting, a master builder stands astride the Kansas City landscape, his sleeves rolled up, his muscles taut, his gaze unflinching. He holds the blueprints of city's future firmly in his hand, and no one doubts his/our resolve to see the plan through. There is not a whiff of apology or irony about the painting.

Kansas City was once proud to tell its story. Indeed, no area beyond the heart of Revolutionary America has more real history than ours--the Mormon wars, the trails west, Quantrill, John Brown, the Pony Express, the Civil War, Jesse James, the trains, the cattle drives, the floods, the Pendergasts, Howard Hughes and TWA, the Jazz age, the Union Station Massacre, Harry Truman, even Jackie Jensen.

At the time of its restoration, Union Station management seemed almost embarrassed to share the city's tumultuous past. They rushed instead to embrace a dumbed-down generic future in the form of Science City, large format theaters, and visiting dinosuars. Current management inherited the unenviable task of making a bad idea work at least well enough to pay the overhead, admittedly no small consideration. Without a story to tell, however, Union Station was playing no better in reality than it would have on the screen.


Producing the story

When the Hawley and Mackey families unearthed the Steamboat Arabia in 1989, they came to an unexpected realization. The treasures they discovered were finally less valuable than the story those treasures told about life in frontier America. This story inspired them to create on their own and without subsidy what is arguably America's finest historical museum and one of the very few museums anywhere that makes a profit.

Across the river, in a hangar at the old downtown airport, an equally inspired crew of largely retired aviators have found another pioneer story, that of the early days of commercial aviation, and created their own museum to showcase it. Their loving restoration of a vintage Constellation--affectionaly known as a "Connie"--has captured public attention. But what makes their Airline History Museum so endearing is its very human presentation of the romance and excitement of early air travel. As at the Arabia museum, these folks tell this story from the heart.

The Connie and the Arabia deserve a wider audience, and Union Station is the ideal place to provide it. After selling Science City for scrap, management should lure them both into the building. The Truman Library should also have a permanent presence with rotating high-end presentations. So should the city of St. Joseph and the Pony Express Museum, the Jesse James and John Brown museums, and more.

The city's most courageous move will be to pull the plug on 18th and Vine, a good-hearted idea undermined by bad, exploitive politics. Some twelve years ago I wrote in Ingram's, "Even if located in an historic area, what good will an impoverished, second-class Jazz Hall do for cultural pride? And finally, what good will still another marginal entertainment area do for the city’s fragile core?" This prophecy took no great insight.

The city can then moves the whole jazz shebang into the ground floor of Union Station, throw in a couple of theaters to boot, and invite the Count Basie band in to manage the phenomenon and bring it to life.

There have to about a dozen or so good Hollywood-type movies about the area and an equal number of able documentaries. Right now, these pieces play nowhere. The story goes untold. The city goes unsung. Union Station is the perfect place to sing it.

In time, a local patron with the confidence of a Joyce Hall will realize that we don't need Hollywood or New York to tell our story, even if they cared to or knew how. This person will turn Kansas City into a mid-continent media mecca., capable of producing the story for the whole region, in all media, based on our own shared values, and showcasing it where we please, starting, of course, with the now much-used and much-loved Union Station.



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