The Kansas City Institute of Chinese Language & Culture

If you’ve been around local Chinese New Year celebrations, you’ve probably encountered students from The Kansas City Institute of Chinese Language & Culture either performing traditional folk dances or waiting to best competitors in a variety of Chinese board games.

A student playing Wei Qi, a traditional Chinese board game in 2011. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

The Kansas City Institute of Chinese Language & Culture was founded in 1998 by local Chinese immigrants who sought to ensure their children felt a connection to their Chinese heritage through language and cultural practices. From their group, they asked Lihui Xiong, who immigrated to Kansas City from Changchun, China with her husband and son in 1992, to organize the classes because of her degree in Chinese Classical Literature from Jilin University. Xiong first invited children to her house to learn the language in an informal setting, but interest in language classes exceeded her household’s capacity so a school was formed by Xiong with Xuelin Li, Yuai Li, Zhuang Li, Ji Ji, et al using donated space from a church in Mission. The first day had about 25 children, but by the end of the second semester, over 50 children were learning Mandarin. The school has moved multiple times over the past 20+ years as it has steadily expanded its offerings and student body. The school’s longest tenure was at the Indian Creek Community Church from 2009 to 2019. The pastor at the time often took mission trips to China so the school helped teach church participants some of the language and culture they would encounter on their trip in exchange for using the space.

Students of the Chinese school in the class taught by Lihui Xiong. JoCo History

One of the most memorable events happened in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Chinese women’s soccer team was scheduled to play an international tournament in Chicago in September 2001. Because of the terrorist attacks, the games were canceled, but the team could not fly home as so many flights were grounded during that time. They were able to come to Kansas City and spent some time interacting with the students, presenting about their lives in China, assisting classes with their language practice, and demonstrating their world class soccer skills.

After many years at the Indian Creek Community Church, and a brief time at the KU Edwards campus pre-pandemic, they currently hold classes at Mid-America Nazarene University on Sunday afternoons. After moving to online classes during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the school now offers hybrid classes that reach a wide international audience online. They are the largest Chinese language school in the Kansas City metro area, and in 2020 joined the Chinese School Association in the United States.  The move to online has also increased their access to professional development opportunities for their instructors to attend conferences and consult with professionals in China about teaching techniques and classroom management.

A 2014 teacher training with Dr. Sheree Willis from the University of Kansas. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

The school offers Chinese language and cultural classes for students aging from kindergarten through high school. They teach simplified Chinese characters based on the Latin alphabet and Pinyin romanization system. In addition to practicing reading, writing, and speaking Chinese, the school teaches traditional Chinese cultural elements such as folk dance, ink painting, board games, and more. Students learn about traditional Chinese holidays such as Chinese New Year and the traditional celebrations including food, dress, and activities in different parts of China.

A classroom celebrating Chinese New Year in 2011. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

While the school is mostly comprised of ethnic Chinese heritage students, they also teach children interested in learning the language from other cultures. Many of the students who graduate from the program return to volunteer with younger classes, helping the younger students to develop their language skills. The program also has a symbiotic relationship with Blue Valley School District’s Chinese immersion program that began in 2017. Both teachers and students have come from the Blue Valley program. This provides the language school with experienced classroom professionals to teach classes and gives children enrolled in the immersion program supplemental practice for their language skills.

Recent graduates of the program help younger students with their language skills. Photo courtesy Lihui Xiong.

The school has contributed to the cultural diversity of the Kansas City metro area for the past 24 years, and with over 160 students currently attending, there’s no doubt they will continue to do so for many more years in the future.

-Amanda Wahlmeier, Johnson County Library

A special thanks to Lihui Xiong for speaking with me about the Institute. To learn more about her story, read this interview conducted by the Johnson County Museum in 2009.

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The FHA and Suburbia

In 1934, the Roosevelt Administration launched the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The agency insures mortgages made by private lenders, protecting those lenders against losses. The agency was designed to promote home ownership during the Great Depression. Private lenders, including suburban developers here in this region, helped inform the policies the FHA would use to guide its lending, transforming private practices of exclusion into the federal policy of redlining. While suburban communities around cities across the nation were built up through the FHA, people of color and those living in integrated areas were overwhelmingly denied access to FHA programs. The FHA’s lending practices changed with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, but the legacies of the policy continue to shape realities today. The history of the FHA, which is inextricably intertwined with the history of redlining explored in the Johnson County Museum’s new special exhibit, REDLINED, reveals both the value of investment in communities and the long-lasting consequences of disinvestment.

A 1959 view of the Westbrooke subdivision in Overland Park. The area was built by Sturgeon and Taylor, prolific builders in Johnson County, during the 1940s. Johnson County Museum.
A 1959 view of the Westbrooke subdivision in Overland Park, Kansas. The area was built by Sturgeon and Taylor, prolific builders in suburban Johnson County, during the 1940s. Johnson County Museum.

An Era of Turmoil

When the Great Depression began in 1929, most Americans were concerned about affording food and rent, finding work, and making ends meet. Few considered buying or building a home. The real estate industry, through its national membership organization, the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), lobbied the federal government to help the struggling industry. NAREB leaders believed that two million of the 12 million unemployed people were in the building trades – by putting them back to work, the government could jump start the economy.

But homebuying was unattainable for many Americans prior to the Great Depression. The typical terms were 50 percent as a down payment with the other 50 percent of the home cost paid off over the next three to five years. Interest rates were high, there were no lines of equity, and often balloon payments drove homeowners out of their home in the final months of repayment. But NAREB had a plan to transform home buying. They just needed the federal government to help.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a home loan bill in 1933. Library of Congress.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs a home loan bill in 1933. Library of Congress.

The Government Lends a Hand

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Administration launched the New Deal programs after 1933, one of those programs was meant to help current homeowners in default. Called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), it purchased mortgages in default to make the banks whole, and then extended new mortgages directly from the federal government using U.S. Treasury funds from taxpayers. This unprecedented intervention into the private real estate market came with unprecedented mortgage terms – low monthly payments, low interest rates, and longer loan terms.

The HOLC program was so popular, and the mortgage terms believed to be so accessible, that the federal government launched the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934. Through the FHA, the government sought to extend homeownership to as many white Americans as possible by extending unprecedented mortgage terms: 10 to 20 percent down payments, 20-year loan terms, low monthly payments, low interest rates, and amortization (equal payments with a portion going to the principal loan amount and a portion going to interest), as well as the potential to access equity as a line of credit. The FHA backed the mortgages by covering the insurance on the loan, taking all the risk off of the banks. The FHA made the threshold to buying a home so much lower, thereby making owning a home more accessible to far more Americans.

The mapping division of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. The HOLC was the first federal intervention into the real estate market and set revolutionary home mortgage terms later copied by the FHA. Library of Congress.
The mapping division of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. The HOLC was the first federal intervention into the real estate market and set revolutionary home mortgage terms later copied by the FHA. Library of Congress.

The FHA Builds Suburbia

The FHA program’s results speak for themselves. Suburbs across the nation exploded with new home builds and populations as young families bought or built their first homes. Following World War II, the Veterans Administration (VA) adopted the FHA’s policies and procedures to help place white veterans in new homes for zero money down. This aid helped the Greatest Generation become homeowners, something that their parents’ generation could rarely afford. By 1950, the FHA and the VA were backing 51 percent of all home mortgage loans. New housing starts reached 1.7 million in that year alone.

The FHA helped launch the idea of home ownership as the American Dream. Because mortgage payments were low ($39 per month in the 1940s, less than $700 in 2019 dollars), young families had more money in their pockets each month to save up, or to spend. The postwar era was known for consumerism, as Americans purchased second cars, washing machines, took vacations, saved up for college funds, and built additions to their homes. Most homes that received FHA-backed mortgages were new, and owners could be reasonably sure they would earn a profit if they sold their homes. Additionally, homeowners could access lines of credit through their equity to help maintain or enlarge their homes.

An image of the American Dream: a new Prairie Village home with a car in the driveway. Johnson County Museum.
An image of the American Dream: a new Prairie Village, Kansas suburban home with a car in the driveway. Johnson County Museum.

The investment in white suburban homes was massive. Historians and sociologists estimate that 11 million households purchased a home through an FHA-backed mortgage by 1972. One researcher estimated that the federal government extended mortgage insurance for over $120 billion in home purchases in the 1950s – or more than 1.239 quintillion 2019 dollars. This unfathomable number represents just the initial injection of money into suburban communities. The long-term consequences of this federal investment is incalculable. 

In the Kansas City area, between 1934 and 1962, experts estimate the FHA extended more than 77,000 government-backed mortgage loans (this number does not include any VA-backed mortgage loans). Homebuyers in Johnson County received 16,624 of these mortgages. The county’s population skyrocketed, growing from 33,327 in 1940 to 143,792 by 1960.

Aerial view of Prairie Village Shopping Center, planned and built by J.C. Nichols. Prairie Village was built to meet FHA loan requirements and was Nichols’ first suburban community for the middle-class. Johnson County Museum.
Aerial view of Prairie Village Shopping Center, planned and built by J.C. Nichols. Prairie Village, Kansas was built to meet FHA loan requirements and was Nichols’ first suburban community for the middle-class. Johnson County Museum.

“Federally Mandated Segregation”

Only some Americans were able to realize the benefits of the FHA and VA backed loans. This is evident by the growth in Johnson County’s population during the first decades of the policy – it grew by 110,000 white residents between 1940 and 1960, the Black population grew by just 150 residents. The growth in Johnson County’s white population stems from the FHA’s racially discriminatory lending practices. The FHA’s 1938 Underwriting Manual, the guide on how to work with the FHA, stipulated that eligible homes were required to have restrictive covenants (lists of rules governing how the property was used), including racially restrictive covenants to ensure a “prohibition of the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended.” The FHA manual went on to explain that “if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally contributes to instability and a decline in values.”

This property deed abstract contains a list of restrictions for the property’s use, including a racially restrictive covenant outlined in red. Homes in Roeland Park, built by Charles E. Vawter, were built to meet FHA requirements. Johnson County Museum.
This property deed abstract contains a list of restrictions for the property’s use, including a racially restrictive covenant outlined in red. Homes in Roeland Park, Kansas, built by Charles E. Vawter, were built to meet FHA requirements. Johnson County Museum.

Th assumption that Black people and other communities of color devalue not only their own property but all the homes in the neighborhood surrounding them was rooted in NAREB’s policies and practices that had been honed for a generation prior. This belief, however, had no factual basis. No report or statistical analysis was ever produced to prove it. Still NAREB members worked as advisors to the federal government when the FHA was created, bringing their private discriminatory practices to the table as federal policy was being shaped. The FHA refused to work with Black Americans (and often Latinos, Asian Americans, and other communities of color) and explicitly required developers to exclude African Americans from their subdivisions. Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, characterized the FHA’s discriminatory requirements as “federally mandated segregation.”

By 1947, 96 percent of suburban developments in Johnson County (148 out of 154 neighborhoods) were racially restricted. This means that Black families and other people of color were prohibited from owning, leasing, renting, or occupying homes there. Of the 77,000 FHA-backed loans in the Kansas City area between 1934 and 1962, less than one percent (770 at most) went to Black families, and often for older homes in segregated neighborhoods.

These informational signs were created by the FHA to promote the accessible terms of the FHA program. While they advertised that “your rent money will buy a home,” the federal home mortgage program required segregation and promoted discriminatory lending practices. Library of Congress.
These informational signs were created by the FHA to promote the accessible terms of the FHA program. While they advertised that “your rent money will buy a home,” the federal home mortgage program required segregation and promoted discriminatory lending practices. Library of Congress.

Changing the System

The homebuying system has changed today. First, racially restrictive covenants favored by real estate developers and required by the FHA were deemed unenforceable (not unconstitutional) by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Shelley v Kraemer decision in 1948 (the FHA permitted filing them through February 15, 1950). Additionally, Congress passed the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which made redlining – both the private practice and federal policy – illegal. Subsequent legislation, such as the Community Reinvestment Act, the addition of a presidential cabinet position for the director of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and other federal regulations have worked to make home lending more equitable and accessible, especially for communities of color. The FHA continues to provide accessible mortgages to hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.

The FHA’s history is complex, full of incredible stories about launching homeownership for millions of families across the nation. Yet it is also a history full of heartbreaking stories of loan denials, exclusion, and discrimination. As a social program born out of the Great Depression, the FHA was integral to creating suburban communities like those located in northeastern Johnson County and around cities across the nation. Yet it shaped who could enjoy the benefits of more accessible home loan terms, who could enjoy the newly built suburbs, and who could realize the American Dream for decades.

For more information about the FHA, redlining, and related history, view the Johnson County Museum’s newest special exhibition, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation. Included in Museum admission, and open for viewing Monday through Saturday, 9am to 4:30pm. Learn more: www.jcprd.com/Redlined.

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An Accomplishment 55 Years in the Making: Celebrating the Johnson County Museum’s First-Ever National Accreditation

by Dr. Mary McMurray, Johnson County Museum Director

Have you heard the amazing news from the Johnson County Museum? If not, please let me be the first to share with you that the Johnson County Museum earned national accreditation for the first time ever!

Accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums is the highest recognition museums can earn. It signifies quality and credibility and brings national recognition to the museum for our commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement. Of the nation’s estimated 35,000 museums, just 1,095 are accredited – and only two in the Greater Kansas City area. The Johnson County Museum is one of 11 accredited museums in Kansas.

Achieving national accreditation is not  something that can be done alone. It requires a broad network of people working together to do something that can seem impossible: joining the ranks of the 3% of  museums nationwide who have earned this high honor.  

More than three years ago, the Johnson County Museum and our partners started a journey to national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The path took many unexpected twists and turns as museum staff navigated through a global pandemic, temporary museum closure, and staff transitions (including me joining the team as Museum Director on April 6, 2020), but the team never gave up. We faced the process just like we faced the challenges: with a commitment to serving the public and the highest professional standards. I am so proud of the resilience, perseverance, and dedication of the team that made this huge honor possible.

As a historian, I often find myself reflecting on the past to find meaning in the present. As I reflect on this tremendous achievement for the museum today, I cannot help but think there is something so beautiful in the fact that we earned national accreditation during a major anniversary – our 55th. That is because accreditation is a reflection not just of the work we do today, but the work that brought us to this point. Today, I want to take a few minutes to share with you four reasons we are celebrating this huge first in the Johnson County Museum’s history.

Accreditation celebrates generation’s of service to the community

Members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society Board of Directors (the predecessor of the Johnson County Museum) in 1949. Johnson County Museum.


The Johnson County Museum traces its roots to community service, when a small group of dedicated volunteers had the forethought to know that collecting, preserving, and sharing the history of our county was important to the fabric of our community. Today, you see their legacy in the Museum’s collection, but also in our visitor first philosophy. Because this organization was formed with a service mindset from the outset, today our staff views visitors not as an interruption of our work, but the reason for it. This focus on service to our visitors and community was critical to earning national accreditation, and it was woven into our DNA by the decades of volunteers who poured their time, energy, knowledge, and passion for community history into the museum from the beginning. As we celebrate our national accreditation today, we also celebrate the community volunteers who started it all.

Accreditation is a testament to the professionalism of the Museum’s staff

Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, Ed Eilert, makes remarks at a celebration of the Johnson County Museum’s first-ever national accreditation.

In 1986, the Museum became part of Johnson County Government and hired its first professional staff. Beginning with Janet Campbell (the Museum’s first director who accepted the All-Electric House into the Collection) through Mindi Love (who led the museum through the move to the fantastic  Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center and began the accreditation process) and now me, each Museum Director has had the opportunity and honor to hire and lead professionally trained people who, like the volunteers on whose shoulders we all stand, are dedicated to serving our community. Our national accreditation today is the outcome of nearly four decades of working toward the highest standards for museum work. We literally could not have achieved this high honor without the hard work and dedication of the Johnson County Museum staff past and present. Thank you all.

Members of the Johnson County Museum staff and volunteers celebrate accreditation.


Accreditation is a reflection of the excellence we strive for each and every day here at Johnson County Park and Recreation District
Five years ago, the Johnson County Museum became part of JCPRD and, eventually, the Culture Division. During that time, we also moved to our stunning new location at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center. In this incredible building surrounded by the talented, innovative, and creative talents that work here (and throughout JCPRD), the Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary. For those of you who know JCPRD well, it will be no surprise that shortly after that milestone, the team here set their sights on accreditation. This effort is, after all, just a reflection of the environment in which we work – one that is dedicated to the highest standards of excellence and service; one that is always striving to improve.

Don’t take my word for it. The accreditors praised the placement of the museum in Parks and noted that we are “supported in ways most museums do not have the luxury of,” including working for an executive director who “fully understands the value the museum brings to enhance the quality of area residents’ lives.” We are so grateful to JCPRD leadership and our colleagues for the standard of excellence they set – and the robust support they offer to help us meet our lofty goals.

Members of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners, Johnson County Park and Recreation District Board of Commissioners, JCPRD and County Leadership, Museum Advisory Council, Johnson County Museum Foundation, and The Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County joined in celebrating the Johnson County Museum on this honor.

Accreditation would not be possible without the support of our outstanding partners
Since its inception, the Johnson County Museum has benefitted from a strong relationship with Johnson County and our colleagues in it. As part of the accreditation, we went through a two-day site visit during which the peer reviewers examined all of our spaces (including maintenance closets, behind doors, and more!) and assessed our operations. One key thing they were looking for was that we maintained optimal conditions for collections storage. During their visit, the peer reviewers crossed paths with our partner in County Facilities who was very new on staff and began peppering him with questions about humidity and temperature levels where collections items are stored. Although our Facilities partner was very new to the team, he expertly responded to all of the questions. This is but one of many examples of how the Facilities team helps the museum operate both our main location in Overland Park and Lanesfield Historic Site in Edgerton. From maintaining optimal humidity and temperatures for locations where we store artifacts and providing security for those spaces to maintaining historic buildings and transforming others, our relationships with Johnson County facilities, planning, sheriff’s department, communications, leadership, and more are also part of this huge accomplishment as well.

Joan Barkley Wells and Nancy Wallerstein, who have served in board leadership roles in both the Museum and JCPRD celebrate together.


The Johnson County Museum is also lucky to have excellent partners around our community. From the collaborative museum community in the region to our membership base, from area chambers of commerce to our donors and volunteers, community partners make us better, help us serve, and help us grow. For example, for the past 35 years, the Museum has benefitted from the guidance, support, partnership, and collaboration with not one, but two volunteer boards: the Museum Advisory Council and the Johnson County Museum Foundation. Members of each board dedicate numerous hours to helping the museum with everything from evaluating climate reports in museum spaces to raising nearly a million dollars to help the museum move to the Arts & Heritage Center. For accreditation, specifically, we had to develop, review, and approve policies for conducting museum business and a strategic plan. Like the campaign to raise funds to move to this location, the Museum staff did not do this alone. We did it alongside and with those who choose to volunteer their time and talents on behalf of the mission. In this moment of accomplishment, we want to thank all of the members of the Johnson County Museum Foundation Board of Directors and Museum Advisory Council who were a major part of the museum’s accreditation.

Public service, professionalism, excellence, and partnerships. Each of these were critical to the Johnson County Museum earning is first-ever national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. From this incredibly strong foundation, the Museum worked for three years to earn this recognition. Through changes in staff, a global pandemic, and a host of other obstacles, the work continued. And that really is a testament to the environment in which we work. We stand on the legacy of those who came before us in this institution, emboldened by the high performing and mission-driven work found throughout Johnson County and JCPRD, and empowered by our teammates and community partners to become one of the fewer than 30 county museums in the United States with national accreditation. We are so proud. And we hope you will join us in celebrating the Johnson County Museum. To learn more, visit www.jcprd.com/museum.

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Go West Young Man

This post coincides with a library programming series around the book “Go West Young Man: a Father and Son Rediscover America on the Oregon Trail” by B.J. Hollars. The first program is on March 22 with “Make Every Mile a Memory: A Reading and Presentation with B.J. and Henry Hollars,” then on March 23 “Travel Writing for Dummies: On Rattlesnakes, Wagon Ruts, and Making the World Feel Like Home with B.J. Hollars,” and finally on March 26 “The Story of Your Life: Writing Your Forgotten Past Workshop with B.J. Hollars.”


During the mid-nineteenth century, an estimated 250,000 – 500,000 emigrants made their way through Johnson County to the Pacific Northwest via the Oregon Trail. The trail spanned 2,000 miles from Independence and Westport, MO, with the Santa Fe Trail before splitting off southwest of present day Gardner.

Travelers on the trail managed only 15 – 20 miles a day, meaning they needed to start the trail in late spring to make it past the mountains, both Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, before the first snow six months later. Johnson County offered multiple campgrounds for people to rest as well as graze and water their animals. Sapling Grove in Overland Park, Flat Rock Creek in Lenexa, and the Mahaffie Farmstead and the Lone Elm Campground, both near Olathe, proved popular stops for the first night of travel. Read below for first hand account of travelers who passed through Johnson County.

Sar-Ko-Par Trail park. Covered wagon and team of oxen facing right in picture. Pics courtesy of Norman/Carolina Keech family. JoCoHistory

“I then emerged into the open prairie and…I began to suspect I had lost my way.  To add to my discomfiture, I had forgotten to put my compass in my pocket, and there were so many different paths leading in all directions towards the different Indian villages along the frontier, and intersecting each other continually, that it was almost in vain trying to keep to any one, and I became completely puzzled.”
William Fairholme, 1840.

“Our long journey thus began in sunshine and sun, in anecdote and laughter; but these all vanished before we reached its termination.” Peter Burnett, 1843.

The vast prairie itself soon opened before us in all its grandeur and beauty.  I had never before beheld extensive scenery of this kind…The view of the illimitable succession of green undulations and flowery slopes, of every gentle and graceful configuration, stretching away and away until they fade from the sight in the dim distance, creates a wild and scarcely controllable ecstasy of admiration.”  Edwin Bryant, 1846.

“There is no other tree or bush or shrub save one Elm tree, which stands on a small elevation near the little creek or branch.  The travelers (sic) always (sic) stop where there is water sufficient for all their animals.  The grass is fine every place, it is so tall in some places as to conceal a man’s waist.” Susan Magoffin, 1846.

My horse, not satisfied to stand on the brink, walked into the water, and forthwith began to sink in mire.  In my endeavor to extricate the animal I found it necessary to dismount, and in doing this, by some mischance, leapt into the midst of the pond.  Scrambling out, I had considerable difficulty in getting the horse to follow; and when he did so, discovered that he had lamed himself in his left thigh so that I could use him but little afterwards.  This occurrence eventually led to the use of my own legs in crossing the continent, instead of those I had calculated upon, and I thus became an expert pedestrian ever after.” William G. Johnston, 1849.

“The country passed over to day (sic) is apparently very productive & the soil good.  Plenty of good grass for stock & water in abundance, at respectful distances, from each watering place.  The face of the country is now level & now very good & made 13 miles today Camp(ed) on ‘Bull Creek’…” Jackson Thomason, 1849.

Marker for the Oregon and Santa Fe trails near Gardner, Kansas. JoCoHistory

-Amanda Wahlmeier, Johnson County Library

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3 Impactful Moments in the REDLINED Exhibit

The Johnson County Museum’s new special exhibition, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation, opened on Kansas Day (January 29) last month. The exhibit is extensive, chronicling more than 175 years of history related to redlining, its foundations, and its continuing legacies. Redlining – the system of disinvestment that went from a private prejudicial practice in the early 20th century to a federal policy during the Great Depression and was outlawed by the 1968 Civil Rights Act – shaped and continues to shape daily interactions, neighborhoods, cities, and the nation.

The Johnson County Museum’s REDLINED exhibit occupies the special exhibit gallery through January 7, 2023.

Some visitors have told us they’d like hours to fully read and immerse themselves in the exhibit content, including a mini art exhibit from the African American Artists Collective. We realize not all of our visitors will have that amount of time, so here are three high impact moments from the exhibit that help tell the overall story on display.

1 – Shaping Communities Through Exclusion

A deed restriction is a rule for how to use a property. Individual sellers, and later real estate developers, applied them to city and suburban lots to do things like prohibit chicken coops or require a minimum home square footage. These property rules – later transformed into a list of rules governing entire neighborhoods by Johnson County’s own real estate developer, J.C. Nichols – also controlled neighborhood exclusivity by setting minimum construction costs for homes, restricting to single-family residential structures, and prohibiting the purchase, lease, rent, or occupation by non-white individuals. Called racially restrictive covenants, these rules most often read “Sale to Negroes Prohibited” in the property deeds, although Jewish families were occasionally restricted, and elsewhere in the region and around the country racially restrictive covenants included Asian, Latino, and World War II refugee populations such as Turks, Armenians, and others.

A wall listing neighborhoods that bore racially restrictive covenants is one of several large-scale visualizations in the REDLINED exhibit.

We may be aware of our own home’s deed, but we don’t often think of the larger context. Every home in the nation has a property deed. If your home had a racially restrictive covenant applied on it in the past, it is likely all the others in your neighborhood did as well. In the exhibit, there is a moment to consider a single property deed in a display case. When the viewer looks up from the case, they are presented with a massive list of neighborhoods. This is a partial list of suburban developments from four Kansas City area counties (Johnson in Kansas, and Jackson, Platte, and Clay counties in Missouri) that contained racially restrictive covenants. Each listing might have had four homes or 400 homes. If we consider Levittown outside of New York City, that development had 17,000 homes, and all were covered by racially restrictive covenants. The exhibit wall represents suburbs around one major metropolitan area – viewers are then asked to consider the number of restricted communities around the nation.

2 – A National Story with Local Impacts

The national scale of the federal redlining policy is evident in this U.S. map. In the foreground, republished articles from the Kansas City CALL, a historic African American newspaper, show the local impacts of this federal system.

A second key moment in the REDLINED exhibit is viewing a national map containing examples of city-based Residential Security Maps, commonly referred to as Redlining maps. The federal government (through the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and later the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)) worked with local real estate agents, real estate developers, and mortgage companies to create a visualization of risk for cities across the nation. Green and blue were considered the least risky neighborhoods for the federal government to offer FHA mortgages (and therefore private mortgage lenders), while yellow and red presented risks in the forms of decreasing home values, dilapidated conditions, and substantial non-white residents. The prevailing assumption at the time was that the very presence of African Americans and other communities of color decreased home values and therefore made for risky investments. Not every person living in a redlined neighborhood was Black, but nearly every Black person living in urban America when these maps were made in the 1930s was living in a neighborhood that was redlined. Redlined neighborhoods were considered too risky to work with, so FHA mortgages and private mortgages were usually denied to the entire area.

Redlining maps are a snapshot in time, visually representing assumptions and policies in action. Once an area was redlined, disinvestment began. FHA and private mortgages were funneled to white populations buying or building homes in suburban neighborhoods. By 1950, 51% of all homes purchased were done so with either an FHA or VA home loan. Because both programs required the exclusion of African Americans and other communities of color from obtaining their loans, the suburbs became an overwhelmingly white place while urban neighborhoods became increasingly segregated.

The 1939 Residential Security Map for the Greater Kansas City Area shows the extent of the redlined areas in the region.

Redlining maps were made for more than 230 cities across the U.S. The 1939 Residential Security Map for the Greater Kansas City Area is on display in the exhibition. Blown up to a massive scale, it is possible to locate specific streets and city blocks on the map. Finding the color-coding applied to familiar neighborhoods or key landmarks in Kansas City might be surprising to visitors. The mapmakers also wrote descriptions for each neighborhood that explained why they were shaded a particular color. These are accessible through the digital project, Mapping Inequality.

3 – The Continuing Legacies of Redlining

One common misconception is that these issues are in the past. It is easy to understand why that misconception exists. Racially restrictive covenants were deemed “unenforceable” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, and the last were legally filed in February 1950 (although they were filed in the Kansas City area as late as the early 1960s). The practice of redlining – both private and federal – was explicitly outlawed by the 1968 Civil Rights Act. And yet, as a massive wall of reprinted media headlines from 2020 and 2021 reveals, redlining and its legacies are still very present in society. Lending denial rates for communities of color remain higher than for white homebuyers. The assumption that Black and minority homebuyers present an increased risk remains strong, as evidenced by the onslaught of subprime mortgages loaned in the early 21st century (largely the cause of the 2008 economic recession).

Modern headlines about redlining and its legacies bring the topic to the present-day.

In addition to ongoing inequities in homebuying, there are numerous legacies impacting previously redlined communities. From food desserts, lack of bank access, and lack of healthcare access (grocery stores, banks, and hospitals often moved to suburbs) to the lack of trees, lack of public transportation access, and increase in economic hardship (due to continuing disinvestment), redlining’s legacies are present in communities across the nation. When confronted with modern-day headlines and ongoing legacies that impact lifestyle, quality of life, and even life expectancy, we hope the exhibit makes visitors consider this integral history, its impacts on our communities, and how we can work toward a better future for all.

This web-like wall graphic shows the complexity of the legacies of redlining in communities across the nation today.

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The REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation exhibition is in the Johnson County Museum. The Museum is open Monday – Saturday, 9am – 4:30pm and is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children. The Museum offers quarterly Free Days, with the next happening on March 17. For more information about the exhibit, the programming slate being offered this year by the Johnson County Museum, and the program partnership spanning the entire Kansas City region in 2022, visit www.jcprd.com/Redlined.

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REDLINED: CITIES, SUBURBS, AND SEGREGATION

REDLINED: CITIES, SUBURBS, AND SEGREGATION, the Johnson County Museum’s newest special exhibition, opens this Saturday, January 29th. The exhibit explores the history of redlining and how it both shaped and was shaped by Johnson County and the Kansas City region. Visitors will learn about the 19th and 20th century foundations of redlining, how the private practice became federal policy during the Great Depression, the expansion of the practice during postwar suburbanization, attempts to dismantle the system during the Civil Rights Era, and how the legacies of redlining continue to impact communities around the nation today.

“This important exhibit is the product of hundreds of hours of staff research,” said Museum Director Mary McMurray. “Our team reviewed more than 120 books, scholarly articles, media coverage, dissertations, and literally thousands of primary source documents housed here at the Johnson County Museum, as well as at regional and national archives in order to understand the full history and many legacies of redlining.”

“The research process revealed to us just how massive the history of redlining is,” said the Museum’s Curator of Interpretation and exhibit project lead Andrew R. Gustafson. “In fact, we told this story in just 1,200 fewer words than the story of Johnson County in our main exhibition.”   

This Residential Security Map, commonly referred to as a “redlining map,” was created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a program of the federal government, in 1939. It depicts the Greater Kansas City Area. It uses four colors to communicate the investment-worthiness of neighborhoods, rating them from green (best) to red (worst).

What is redlining?
Redlining refers to the systematic disinvestment of some neighborhoods and populations. This means that private industry and later the federal government chose to fund and support home purchases for some people and neighborhoods over others, often on the basis of race. Redlining was integral to the build-up of the nation’s suburban communities to the detriment urban neighborhoods and communities of color. Although the policy was outlawed with the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, the legacies of the system continue to impact our community and the nation today. 

Visualizing an Abstract System

The Museum called on Tim Bair, Producing Artistic Director for Theatre in the Park, to design the exhibit. “I wanted to use design to help people digest the important history in this exhibit, but also to create a moving experience for the visitors,” said Bair. Drawing on decades of experience with theatre and graphic design, Bair infused the text with recurring graphic elements to highlight key information as well as massive graphic elements that visually tell both the local and national story. “The design is truly stunning,” said McMurray. “We are so fortunate to work alongside creative and talented colleagues in the Culture Division of Johnson County Park and Recreation District!”  

The exhibition will remain on view through January 7, 2023. It features a mini exhibit of artwork by Black artists, large-scale visualizations, a video showing interviews with cultural leaders from previously redlined communities, and a touchscreen exhibit comparing historic and modern maps.

The exhibit includes more than 120 images and ten display cases with historic objects and documents. Large-scale visualizations of redlining, restrictive covenants by neighborhood, and media coverage will move visitors. A video featuring Dr. Carmaletta Williams, Executive Director of the Black Archives of Mid-America, Gloria Ortiz Fisher, Executive Director of Westside Housing Organization, and Marvin S. Robinson II, Quindaro historian and advocate, highlights voices and experiences from inside previously redlined communities.

An Exhibit Within an Exhibit
A unique feature in the exhibit is a micro art exhibit made up of several new pieces that members of the African American Artists Collective created in response to the topic of redlining. Their works offer opportunities to learn about the history of redlining from the artists’ perspectives and to reflect on the historical content provided in the exhibit. “Partnerships are critical to achieving the Museum’s mission,” said McMurray. “Partnering with Sonié Thompson-Ruffin and the African American Artists Collective made the exhibit – and us – better. We are grateful to them for sharing their talents with us.”

A Year of Programming at The Johnson County Museum
The Johnson County Museum will offer public programs designed to complement the exhibit throughout the year. The first program, held on February 19, is a one-of-a-kind experience that explores the history and legacy of redlining in our region. The program begins with a scene study from A Raisin in the Sun, followed by a tour of the museum’s newest exhibit and exploration of the systemic roots of housing inequality and segregation. The experience then culminates in a mixed-media art project where participants can create visual art that reflects their experience with this complex history. Additional programs include history talks with Dr. Carmaletta Williams, Dr. Bill Worley, and Dr. Edgar Tidwell, as well as panel discussions about the legacies of redlining featuring The Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County, Blue River Conservation Collaborative, Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, United Community Services, and the Health Forward Foundation. School-based offerings are also available.  

A Convening of Partner Sites Throughout the Metro
Programs will also take place at partner sites around the metro. “We quickly realized that the history of redlining was too big to be told by a single institution,” said McMurray. “So, we reached out to sites throughout the region asking them to help us extend the conversation beyond our walls.” More than a dozen partners agreed, including the Johnson County Library, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library, and Kansas City Public Library, Black Archives of Mid-America, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Kansas Studies Institute, Kansas City Museum, and more. “The collaborative nature of the cultural community in Greater Kansas City is one of our region’s greatest strengths,” said McMurray. “We are grateful for these amazing partnerships and cannot wait to see the programs our partners host!”

REDLINED: CITIES, SUBURBS, AND SEGREGATION will be on exhibit through January 7, 2023, and is included with regular museum admission. For more information, follow the hashtag #RedlinedKC and visit: https://www.jcprd.com/Redlined

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Farming in January? The History of Hotbeds

January is here, and so is the start of the growing season. While the idea might seem strange to most today, Johnson County farmers like the Verhaeghe family of southern Johnson County used hotbeds to seed starter plants as early as January for more than a half century. The history of the Verhaeghe family farm was one of the subjects of a new “History in the Park” (HIP) interpretive sign, which you can see alongside the agriculture-themed playground at Arthur and Betty Verhaeghe Park near 167th Street and Switzer Road. So, how did they do it? Read on for more of Johnson County’s rich agricultural history.

Hotbeds consisted of a 6 -foot x 16 -foot wooden frame on the ground. Four window sashes were laid across the frame of each bed, creating a greenhouse. The sashes were adjusted to control the temperature in the bed. Weeding and transplanting was done on the knees on top of a board laid across the frame, so as not to compact the soil and crush the new plants. The Verhaeghe family had sixty or more hotbeds in operation. A single bed could hold nearly 1,000 starter tomato plants.
Hotbeds consisted of a 6 -foot x 16 -foot wooden frame on the ground. Four window sashes were laid across the frame of each bed, creating a greenhouse. The sashes were adjusted to control the temperature in the bed. Weeding and transplanting was done on the knees on top of a board laid across the frame, so as not to compact the soil and crush the new plants. The Verhaeghe family had sixty or more hotbeds in operation. A single bed could hold nearly 1,000 starter tomato plants.

Growing Bedding Plants in Hotbeds

The Verhaeghe farm grew fruit and vegetable starter plants, also called bedding plants, in small, low greenhouses called hotbeds. Wooden frames on the ground covered with glass sashes (windows with many panes) allowed in sunlight and held in heat so that they could seed starter plants in the winter. The Verhaeghes sold tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries on consignment to stores located on the Olathe town square, in Spring Hill, and in Paola and Louisburg in Miami County. By mid-June, the bedding plant season was over.            

Hotbeds required constant attention to maintain an ideal climate. If the hotbeds were too hot, tall, spindly plants would grow. If they were too cold, the young plants would die. In order to control the temperature, the Verhaeghes would layer wooden boards and plastic sheeting over the glass sashes to insulate the beds. The boards also protected the young plants from one of the main threats to a farmer’s livelihood: severe weather. A hailstorm could break the glass sashes and ruin the soil and manure mixture below. Verhaeghe family members remember running to cover the hotbeds in the middle of the night for fear of hail.            

A Hotbed Timeline:

January – February                         

Prepare soil mixture: manure, sand, topsoil (always new dirt); insulate around the hotbeds with hay.

February                                             

Plant seeds, especially for hardier vegetables like cabbage.

March – April                                    

Start selling starter plants; transplant some for the vegetable stand business.

April – May                                        

Sell plants on consignment: drive to grocery and hardware stores throughout the area. Group 13 starter plants (a “baker’s dozen”) to a bundle, in a clump of watered soil, tied up in newspaper.

Mid-June                                            

Hotbed season is over; on to field and row plants, such as corn, sweet potatoes, and other crops.                 

Alphonse Verhaeghe, a Belgian immigrant, started farming this land in 1919. Later, two of his sons, Arthur and Kamiel, entered a partnership with Alphonse, while another son, Aime, farmed nearby. Following Alphonse’s death in 1956, the brothers continued their partnership until 1979. The third generation of Verhaeghes was the last to grow up in the family farming business. In this photo, Arthur is driving, Alphonse is on the truck with baskets of vegetables, and Kamiel stands at the tailgate.
Alphonse Verhaeghe, a Belgian immigrant, started farming this land in 1919. Later, two of his sons, Arthur and Kamiel, entered a partnership with Alphonse, while another son, Aime, farmed nearby. Following Alphonse’s death in 1956, the brothers continued their partnership until 1979. The third generation of Verhaeghes was the last to grow up in the family farming business. In this photo, Arthur is driving, Alphonse is on the truck with baskets of vegetables, and Kamiel stands at the tailgate.

A Fully Functioning Family Farm

From 1919 until 1979, the Verhaeghe family grew bedding plants in hotbeds. The family tended fields of sweet corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and wheat. They also raised beef cattle and hogs; geese, ducks, and chickens; and sold eggs. The Verhaeghes even tried dairy farming.

Arthur and Betty Verhaeghe on their farm.
Arthur and Betty Verhaeghe on their farm.

From Family Farm to Family Park

By the 1990s, suburban expansion began to reach the Verhaeghe family’s farm. Neighbors who once worked the fertile soil sold their land to developers. As one Verhaeghe family member said, the land “sure grows good houses.”                

In the 21st century, the third generation of Verhaeghes donated land for a park in honor of their parents – Arthur and Betty – who loved the land and all that grew on it. Verhaeghe Park opened in October 2020, with walking trails along Coffee Creek connecting to nearby Heritage Park, both Johnson County Park and Recreation District facilities. Although farms have given way to suburban neighborhoods, agriculture-themed elements throughout Verhaeghe Park are reminders of the area’s rich and important farming history.                 

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A Brief History of Metcalf South Shopping Center: An Interview With Brad Moore

A view of the west side of Metcalf South Shopping Center from the late 1960s. Photo provided by Brad Moore.

I’m a mall enthusiast. There aren’t a lot of us left these days, but those who remain have enough passion to fill the Mall of America twice over. When we’re not at whatever malls remain within fifty-mile radiuses of our homes, we’re vacationing to more distant malls. And when we’re not doing that, we spend our time frequenting websites and social media pages dedicated to documenting mall history and sharing mall memories. Nobody knows quite what drives us, least of all ourselves.

Last year I wrote a seven-part history of The Great Mall of the Great Plains for this blog, and when I heard that Brad Moore was writing a comprehensive history of Metcalf South Shopping Center (1967-2017), I knew I had to get an interview. Brad was kind enough to grant me one. We chatted for about an hour and he shared his extensive knowledge of the mall’s history with me, along with plenty of other interesting tidbits.

Brad is 56 years old and was born and raised in Overland Park. He’s spent all his life there except for nine years when he lived one block into Prairie Village. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the Overland Park Historical Society, having previously held the positions of Vice President and President. He’s an architect by training, and he joined the society about ten years ago when some architectural models of iconic Overland Park buildings he had put together as a hobby caught the eye of the society.

Now, you might be wondering: What kind of historical society allows a person who spent nine whole years in another city gain such a foothold in their organization? But worry not. For even when Brad was residing many meters outside of the Overland Park city limits, he was still appreciating Overland Park history. “From my bedroom window,” he told me, “I could look right on a ranch house that was on the south side of 95th [which is the Overland Park border]. It always struck me as an odd-looking house, certainly compared to those around it. And it wasn’t until I got a little older that I learned that house used to sit on the Metcalf South property and was physically picked up and moved as part of the redevelopment.”

Truly it was fate that he would become the world’s preeminent Metcalf South scholar.

Growing up so near the mall in its heyday, Brad spent a lot of time there. He said that by the time he was in junior high in the ‘70s, his mom would drop him off there for the afternoon with a pocketful of change to burn. He would meet up with his friends and together they would explore the mall and see if perhaps there were any girls they knew there. He told me that parents generally felt the mall was safe enough and didn’t worry too much about dropping kids off, and that the kids didn’t usually get into too much trouble.

“I would always hit up the two record stores,” he told me, describing an average visit to the mall. “One was called Record Bar, and the other was called Berstein-Applebee, which later closed and became Music Land. Teens would hang out in the record stores flipping through the albums. We would go to the one main arcade that Metcalf South had – it was originally called Red Baron when it opened, and a number of years later became simply Nickelodeon. But it was easy to drop a few dollars there. There was another store that us boys would always go to called Hobby Haven. We were into remote control cars or planes or model railroading and that store had all of that.”

“So those were the big draws for me personally. When I was in high school, I worked at three different businesses there in the mall: Charlie Chan [a fast-food Chinese restaurant], Hobby Haven, and another eatery called – longest store name in history – The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Company, which later simply shortened its name to Cookie Company. When I worked there, we had to answer the phone, ‘Hello, thank you for calling The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Factory at Metcalf South, this is Brad. May I help you?’”

Brad has a tremendous amount of personal history with the mall, and it was easy to see how that had inspired him to go back and research the place and write his book. He was lucky enough to get to experience the mall in some of its finest years. However, he was only a toddler when it first opened, so to get the full story and find out the early history of the mall, he had to consult old newspapers, city records, original architectural designs, and even conduct interviews.

Brad told me that before Metcalf South was anything, it was farmland. “It was owned by two families. There was a ranch house, there were a couple of lean-tos, but for the most part, it was an agricultural use corner – all four corners at that intersection were. By the mid-1950s, this whole trend of large, enclosed shopping malls was beginning to sweep the country from coast to coast, and it became very clear that that intersection at 95th and Metcalf was perfectly suited to receive such a mall concept.”

A rendering of Louis Moses’s proposed Johnson Hills Shopping Center from the 1950s. This mall would have gone in the northeast corner of the intersection at 95th and Metcalf, where the French Market eventually went. Image provided by Brad Moore.

In 1955, a Tulsa businessman named Louis Moses proposed a mall to go at the northeast corner of the intersection. Brad told me that local opposition to the plan was fierce. Moses spent five long years battling the Mission Urban Township Board. (Overland Park was not yet incorporated in 1955, and so was under the control of the Mission Township.) The board’s main priority was to protect the merchants in downtown Overland Park, and they felt a mall ten blocks to the south was a substantial threat so they took every opportunity to block Moses’s plans.

Moses eventually took them to court and won an appeal with the state of Kansas to build his mall, but after five years of fighting he was over it, so he sold the northeast corner of the intersection to Frank Morgan, who was the head of a team of local investors. Morgan used that land to build the French Market (1963-2019), which was a variety of shops attached to a very large (for its time) food and drug store.

Shortly after the French Market opened, Morgan and his business partners (which included his uncle, Sherman Dreiseszun) determined that a large, enclosed mall more like what Mr. Moses had proposed was still a highly desirable prospect. They bought the property in the southeast quadrant of the intersection, and the stage was set for Metcalf South.

“By the time [Morgan] proposed what we call Metcalf South,” Brad said, “the city was incorporated. He didn’t have to fight the [Mission Urban Township Board]. He was dealing with the city and they were receptive. They recognized: ‘It’s fate. It’s going to happen.’ So, he had a relatively straightforward and seamless process of getting through the zoning changes and approvals he needed compared to what Mr. Moses went through. The mall ended up in the southeast corner and it ended up being a bigger mall than the one Mr. Moses would have built in the northeast corner, so I tell people, everything happens for a reason. And maybe the Mission Township creating the problems for Mr. Moses actually worked out best in the end, because we got a bigger mall as a result of it.”

As far as what we think of as the “classic mall” today – with everything under one roof and most of the shops accessible from inside corridors – Metcalf South was the first one we had in Johnson County. “Johnson County did have what we call the Mission Mall [at Roe and Shawnee Mission Parkway],” Brad explained, “but it wasn’t a true enclosed mall. It had a Macy’s tenant, and then it had two strips that angled off of that tenant, but it was all outside entrances. Metcalf South was the first opportunity people had to come to a thermally-controlled, 72-degree year-round, humidity-controlled space.”

The crowd outside of the mall on its opening day. Photo provided by Brad Moore.
The Mayor of Overland Park (Duard Enoch Jr.) and Miss America 1966 (Deborah Bryant) cut the ribbon. Photo provided by Brad Moore.

Metcalf South opened with a boom in August of 1967, benefitting from busy back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons. However, after the holidays reality set in quick and retailers had to compete to survive, just like businesses anywhere else.

The mall boasted two anchors when it first opened in 1967. The first was Sears Roebuck and Company, which at the time was the largest retailer in the world. “Sears was then what Walmart is today,” Brad told me. “It was quite a coup to land a Sears store in Overland Park at Metcalf South.”

The other anchor was The Jones Store, part of a one-time chain of department stores in the Kansas City area “which was a highly-regarded, classy general merchandise store that really catered to women and children’s fashions.”

“The owners were able to court and secure and lease tenant spaces to high-quality stores. The whole idea of an ‘Everything’s $1 Store’ never would have even been considered by Metcalf South in 1967. Instead, you had highly-respected, classy, quality clothiers – stores that, a lot of them had their origins down on the Country Club Plaza. Jack Henry, which was a wonderful store catering to men’s clothing. Other stores like Chasnoff’s, Adler’s, Harzfeld’s. Helzberg Jewelers even made the decision to go into a mall.”

“Another thing that Metcalf South was very proud of originally was it had everything you could possibly need under one roof. So, in addition to a lot of high-dollar clothiers, it had a Woolworth’s, you know, a five-and-dime where you could get a toaster and a lawn chair. [Metcalf South] had a sporting goods store, it had a wig store, and it had a grocery store inside of it. They boasted that whatever you were looking for, you should be able to find it under one roof at Metcalf South.”

A view of the fountain and several stores from the lower level of the mall. Note the original color scheme and polished concrete floors of the mall. Photo provided by Brad Moore.

The first big change to the mall came in 1972. When the mall opened, it contained a Safeway grocery store which had signed a 25-year lease. Brad said that within six months of opening, Safeway realized they had made a mistake: demand simply wasn’t that strong for a grocery store in a mall. It was rough from the start, but they didn’t officially pull out of their lease until 1972.

“That freed up 25,000 square-feet of space, which the mall owners recognized, ‘Well, yeah, we’ll just create an additional mall in that 25,000 square-feet, chop it up into fourteen new tenant spaces and get more in lease revenue than we were ever getting from the Safeway store.’ So the owners were willing to let Safeway break their lease. And in the end, that’s what gave us the Record Bar and the arcade and Eddy’s Loaf and Stein, just a lot of the more memorable places ended up taking over where that Safeway had been located. That was the first big change.”

Some husbands and boyfriends rest during a busy holiday shopping season in the 1970s. Photo provided by Brad Moore.

The next big change came a couple of years later when they expanded the meager third level to make room for more tenants. “There was always a third level,” Brad said. “The upper level originally was very stunted, it was not very large, and that was by design. It was always envisioned that the third level would be expanded to the south. They just wanted to wait until they – you know everything’s about business and the bottom line – so if the mall performed to the level that they expected, then they would be in a position to go ahead and extend that third level further to the south. All of the engineering was done upfront with that in mind, so they were able to add that third floor extension relatively quickly. That opened in 1974.”

Throughout the 1970s, Overland Park expanded further south and west, and in 1974 Oak Park Mall opened three miles away. It was competition for Metcalf South, but interestingly Oak Park Mall was co-developed by MD Management, which was run by Frank Morgan and Sherman Dreiseszun, who had also developed and owned Metcalf South. Two years later, they opened Metro North Mall much further away in north Kansas City, Missouri.

Brad said that he never met the duo (Morgan passed away in 1993, Dreiseszun in 2007), but has met a lot of people who worked for them or otherwise knew them. “They were uncle and nephew. Sherman was Frank’s uncle, and there’s only four years difference in their ages.” He said peers described Morgan as a busy, no-nonsense kind of guy who was very private, yet cordial, and both men were described as supportive of business owners they believed in. “They were very good at basically allowing people who could not get loans from banks… they could go to Frank and Sherman, and if Frank and Sherman believed in what they wanted to do, they would help them. They would fund them.”

He added that, “they were very private people. They preferred not to be in the paper. You won’t find many pictures of Frank Morgan – they’re out there, but you won’t find many. He didn’t like to discuss money. He didn’t like to share facts and financial figures with anybody if he could possibly avoid it. We know the mall cost about $9 million to build in 1967 – there was no way he could hide that – but for the most part, they were just quiet people. Very, very well-respected.”

More shoppers in the 1970s. Photo provided by Brad Moore.

Continuing on the history of the mall itself, Brad said that by the late 1970s, the interior of Metcalf South was starting to show some age, so in the early 1980s management decided “to go ahead and do a remodel that basically was new flooring. It originally had polished concrete floors. They decided to put down decorative tile. They put in more planters – just something to make the mall area itself a little more inviting and lively. But the trend in the ‘80s was earth tones, so the mall had a little bit of a homogenous generic look through it. A lot of the color went away, but it reflected the trends at the time… That was what I call ‘the beige era.’”

A picture of the mall in the early 1980s after its first major remodel. Photo provided by Brad Moore.

Brad’s book will contain a full list of tenants and tenant changes over the mall’s lifetime, but when I asked him what stores from the later era of the mall he either remembers best or hears about the most aside from Sears and The Jones Store, he mentioned Jack Henry, Frederick’s of Hollywood, Spencer’s Gifts, Gifts and Accents, Waldenbooks, and B. Dalton Booksellers. He said there was a tremendous number of shoe stores over the years: Thom McAn, Kenny’s, Steve’s Shoes, etc. He also noted a cinnamon roll store called Cinnamon Sam’s.

Business declined throughout the late 1980s due mostly to shifting demographics and southward expansion of the city. “They remodeled again in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, and I think it surprised a lot of people. People interpreted that remodel as the last attempt to try to save the mall. Some would argue that the traffic had already left the mall, and so some were surprised that they were willing to invest the money they did in the remodel. But they brought color back in that final remodel.”

The food court as it appeared in 2014, having been empty for well over a decade. Photo provided by Mike Keller.

From what I understood, the food court on the east side of the mall by the theater was actually part of that final remodel. I had assumed it was either always there, or that it had at least been in place by the late ‘70s, but Brad explained that food courts were more of an ‘80s concept and came to Metcalf South as part of that late ‘80s/early ‘90s renovation. Before that, eateries like Charlie Chan, Eddy’s Loaf and Stein, L&M Steakburgers, and others had just been scattered throughout the mall.

Longtime tenant Topsy’s was on the lower level of the mall on the west side. Photo taken in 2014 and provided by Mike Keller.

By the mid-to-late ‘90s, the writing was on the wall for Metcalf South, but Brad told me that “before Sherman passed away [in 2007] he wanted to do a major overhaul of the mall and totally remodel, reconfigure, turn it into the showplace of the metropolitan area.” Dreiseszun died before he could put any plans into action, but Brad said one such plan floated out was to leave the Jones Store and Sears in place, but tear down everything in between and replace it with a Lowe’s. “They explored several concepts for keeping the mall alive, but ultimately I think they just figured it wouldn’t pencil. So now all we have is the Lowe’s.”

John’s Tailoring and the Glenwood Theatre were two of the last remaining tenants in the mall before it was closed. John’s Tailoring was a longtime tenant, and was run by Sonia Warshawski after her husband passed away. Sonia was the subject of the 2016 documentary “Big Sonia.” The Glenwood Arts Theatre was in the spot of the former Metcalf Theatre, and salvaged much of its décor, seating, and equipment from the former Glenwood Theatre at 91st and Metcalf. Photos provided by Mike Keller and from 2010 and 2014, respectively.

After many years of dwindling business, Metcalf South Shopping Center was sold and closed in 2014. The entire structure was slowly demolished over the summer of 2017, except for the Sears, which technically was its own building. Sears remained in business until late 2017, and that building’s future remains to be determined. As of this writing, the former spot of Metcalf South is a Lowe’s, a handful of restaurants, an empty Sears, and a whole lot of parking lot.

The mall being demolished in July of 2017. Photo provided by Mike Keller.

There were many reasons for the decline of Metcalf South, but the final nail in its coffin was probably online shopping. Some malls have survived it so far, but with all of the other factors going against it and its decline already pretty sealed by the late ‘90s, online shopping made a revival of Metcalf South even more unlikely. It’s a shame, because it was one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever been in and even as a “dead mall” felt like it was brimming with potential.

“I can still smell Metcalf South,” Brad told me. “I can smell the food tenants. I can smell the water in the ponds and the fountains. With online shopping, it’s just not… unfortunately, we’ve become too invested in the bottom line. ‘Yeah, if I can save seven cents. I’m going to shop online.’ The whole cultural aspect of shopping has been negated. [But it’s] bigger than you and I combined. There’s nothing we can do about it. Just be thankful you and I both lived in a time where we could have that cultural experience.”

To shake off the grim mood that had settled on our Zoom chat as we mourned the mall, I asked Brad to tell me some more about his book. “I’m working on it as we speak! It is a book designed mainly for nostalgic reasons – it’s not a technical book.” He said that he suspects it will be the most definitive history of the mall that will ever be produced, and I suspect he’s right. “I’ve invested six months of my life in researching it so far. I have all the research done. Now it’s creating the book, which will be a coffee table book.”

“When it’s done, it will be a definitive history going month-to-month, year-by-year of everything that happened of interest, really focusing on all the promotional events, some of the quirky things that happened, businesses closing – who came in and who left in any given year. A lot of the original architectural drawings will be in there.”

He talked about how emotionally invested he got during his research, somewhat to his own surprise: Watching all of the excitement surrounding the opening of the mall, reading about the openings of various stores, etc. and then feeling the sadness of the downward trend of the mall as time went on. “I think people who buy the book and actually sit down and start looking through it, they will experience a full range of emotions.” As a fellow mall enthusiast, I’m extremely excited to check it out.

The mall’s fountain, still standing in 2014. Photo provided by Mike Keller.

To finish up our interview, I had one more question for Brad. I asked him, “If you could get one ride in a time machine and go back to the mall for four hours, what date would you set the time machine to, and what would you do?”

He smiled wide and said, “It’s gonna sound crazy, but I would love to go back in time and work an afternoon or an evening back at Charlie Chan. There were the friendships I had with the employees, and Dick and Gay the husband and wife owners. They had a prime spot in the mall where we saw people walking by, coming up the escalator, throwing the pennies in the fountains. We were a fast-food place where the counter was right up at the front. We were right there where the action was, so we got to know so many employees that would come by. I just loved working there. I loved the food. I’ve never found an egg roll or a chicken-on-a-stick that tastes anything like Charlie Chan. I’d be willing to go back and work for four hours at Charlie Chan again, it was that much of a good experience for me.”

I asked him if his teenage-self would believe his adult-self’s answer. “If somebody told me in the ‘80s, ‘Brad, 45 years from now, you’re going to wish you were back here working for four hours.’ I probably would have said ‘Ah, you’re probably right.’ I knew a good thing, and that was a good thing.”

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Brad for the great interview and all of the photos! If you’re interested to see some great Metcalf South and Overland Park memorabilia (including many of Brad’s architectural models), be sure to check out the Overland Park Historical Society’s room at the Johnson County Museum at 89th and Metcalf. And if you would like, leave us a comment below telling us what you would do if you had a time machine that would take you back to Metcalf South for four hours.

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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History of the Central Resource Library

Library Origins

In the early 1950s, the libraries of Johnson County were run by community volunteers. Some housed small libraries in their homes, some worked out of local buildings – barbershops, schoolhouses, and shopping centers – and others operated traveling bookmobiles. With support from the community, an official Johnson County Library was established in 1953 with funding and a permanent location in Merriam, Kansas. Three years later, the library moved to the location at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Antioch (the current Antioch Library) and designated this the Headquarters Branch.

The exterior of the temporary headquarters for Johnson County Library in Merriam, Kansas. Signs hang outside promoting the open house on February 5-6th, 1956. Source: JoCo History

In 1968, a Central Reference Department was created at Headquarters to provide reference services to the county. Two years later, the Kansas Room opened and the library gained a Local History and Genealogy collection at this location. The Johnson County Genealogical Society agreed to house its collection at Headquarters in 1973, further expanding the collection of historical reference materials. Online resources were introduced in 1976 and the library gained a Business Specialist. In 1979, as the Central Reference Department expanded, the decision to combine the public library branch services of Headquarters with the Central Reference Department was made, and the location was renamed the Resource Library – a library location designed to provide access to specialized reference and advanced research collections.

Exterior of the Antioch Library, new headquarters of the Johnson County Library. Source: JoCo History

Building a New Central Library

Preliminary planning for a larger building began in 1985 under the direction of County Librarian Roy Fox. The Resource Library was renamed the Central Resource Library and negotiations began to construct a building at College Boulevard and Quivira, on property owned by the Johnson County Community College. After Fox’s retirement in 1988, newly appointed County Librarian Mona Carmack hired Lawrence-based architecture firm Gould Evans Architects, Inc. to design a building at this site. Negotiations soon faltered and a new site at College Boulevard and US-69 was selected. These plans were redirected in 1992 toward a location at 9875 W. 87th St., in the former Best Products retail building. On November 3, 1992, a $12 million bond issue for the purchase and renovation of the Best Products building was passed by 72% of county voters (100,475 – 39,928). Gould Evans Architects, Inc. developed the plans for the renovation. The building was purchased in 1993 and the groundbreaking occurred in 1994.

  

Central Resource Library pre-1994. Source: Johnson County Library

Relocation and Opening

Hallett and Sons Expert Movers of Chicago and Seaton Van Lines of Olathe were chosen to move collections and office space from the Antioch location to the new library at 87th and Farley. Antioch closed its doors in early August and the move was carried out from August 11th – 17th.  August 29, 1995, the Central Resource Library opened its doors to the public. The final cost for the Central Resource Library was $12,719,000, funded by 12 million from the bond, $450,000 of allocated funds, and $269,000 in interest income. Building renovation costs were $2 million less than previous ground-up construction plans.  

Housing over 500,000 materials, the library constituted the bulk of the Johnson County Library’s nearly 750,000 materials. Many behind-the-scenes departments, including Administration, the Business Office, Technical Services, Collections, Acquisitions, and Library Information Technology joined public service staff in the new building.

More than 750 people visited the library in its first four hours on opening day and circulation shattered previous records when 7,396 items circulated. In its first month, an average of 1,000 people a day visited the new facility asking nearly 1,110 reference questions. The highest number prior was a 5,439 record established at Antioch Library on July 6, 1993. Statistics reported 75% more user visits, 34% more circulations, and library card registrations increased by 165% with the opening of the new facility.

The Circulation Desk at the Central Resource Library ca. 1995. Source: Johnson County Library

Today’s Central Resource Library

Since its opening, the Central Resource Library has continuously been re-envisioned by library staff. In its first 25 years, it has seen the creation of an art gallery, children and teen services space, and the addition of more than 100 public use PCs. In 2008, the large meeting room was named the Carmack Room in honor of the Johnson County Library’s fourth County Librarian Mona Carmack. In 2016, the Black and Veatch Makerspace was added, granting patrons access to 3D printers, laser cutters, a sound booth, and more. The latest remodel includes a new children’s area, more conference rooms, and a brand new dedicated teen space. Even with all these changes, specialized librarians continue to provide the same expert services they did in 1968, and public services staff are always on hand to answer questions and help locate materials.  

We look forward to welcoming everyone back February 22, 2022!

The new drive-thru window at the Central Resource Library. Source: Johnson County Library

By the numbers (2018)

Visitors: 453,750

Items circulated: 736,977

Square footage: 90,547

-Johnson County Library Staff

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Fashion Lights Up the All-Electric House: Holiday Style

The Johnson County Museum and Johnson County Community College Fashion Department have joined forces to create a Midcentury Modern holiday party-themed exhibit in the All-Electric House. The exhibit features 1950s-era women’s fashion from the JCCC Historical Fashion Collection that highlight what Johnson County women wore to holiday events of the era. Accessories are featured in the pop-up exhibit space outside of the home. JCCC students are curating the exhibit, which will run November 20, 2021 through January 8, 2022.                 

A selection of elegant overcoats—light pink silk satin by Scassi, red heavy silk satin without designer label, and cream or gold demask by designer Pierre Cardin for Neiman Marcus stores.
A selection of elegant overcoats—light pink silk satin by Scassi, red heavy silk satin without designer label, and cream or gold demask by designer Pierre Cardin for Neiman Marcus stores. From the JCCC Historical Fashion Collection.

After World War II, many white American families purchased homes in the suburbs. Johnson County’s population exploded during this period. More houses were constructed between 1946 and 1951 than had been built in the previous 120 years of Johnson County history. The nuclear family home was a centerpiece for postwar domestic and social life.  

The 1954 All-Electric House, the Johnson County Museum's largest artifact and home to the collaborative exhibit with JCCC Fashion Design Program from Nov. 20, 2021 to Jan. 8, 2022.  Credit: Courtesy Bob Greenspan Photography.
The 1954 All-Electric House, the Johnson County Museum’s largest artifact and home to the collaborative exhibit with JCCC Fashion Design Program from Nov. 20, 2021 to Jan. 8, 2022. Credit: Courtesy Bob Greenspan Photography.

Cocktail parties were common in suburban homes. Housewives carefully curated guest lists and sent invitations via the mail. Guests donned their best attire for these often-formal soirées, including fashionable coats and coordinating cocktail jewelry.

Party dresses were special event attire for women in the 1950s. The dresses frequently came down to the knee and were often made of silks, taffeta, lace, and rich jacquards featuring embellishments like beads, bows, and embroideries. Mid-Century coats were meticulously constructed and coordinated with the rest of a woman’s ensemble. These coats were often accented with decorative buttons, belts, or fur accents to add a glamour to an otherwise simple silhouette. Whether worn for a Christmas cocktail party, a formal Hanukkah gathering, or a New Year’s Eve celebration, the incredible pieces in this exhibit were sure to make a splash.

This bright green silk satin jacquard with white fur ermine cuffs was designed by Helga for the Swanson’s department store in Kansas City. From JCCC Historical Fashion Collection.
This bright green silk satin jacquard with white fur ermine cuffs was designed by Helga for the Swanson’s department store in Kansas City. From JCCC Historical Fashion Collection.

“This is an exciting opportunity to showcase our Historical Fashion Collection,” said Britt Benjamin, Associate Director of JCCC’s Merchandising & Design Department. The JCCC Historical Fashion Collection tells a story of fashion history, Kansas City women, and the artistry of apparel design. The collection houses 1,600 apparel pieces dating back to the 1850s. It includes notable American designers like Adrian, Irene, Norman Norell, Pauline Trigerie, Geoffrey Beene, and Bill Blass. French fashions can be found with exquisite designs from Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and Pierre Cardin. The collection advances the understanding of history through a lens of fashion and serves as a valuable resource to students in the Fashion Merchandising and Design Department. 

“Partnerships are important to the work we do at the Johnson County Museum,” said Johnson County Museum Director Mary McMurray. “Not only do partnerships help build community, they also help us interpret the museum’s largest artifact in new ways. I can’t wait to see the fashion and history JCCC’s Fashion Merchandising and Design Department faculty and students bring to the All-Electric House!”

In concert with this display, the Museum and JCCC are joining forces for “Mid-Century Holiday Party Fashion,” an evening program on Thursday, December 2, 2021. Guests will learn about the Mid-Century cocktail dresses and winter coats in JCCC’s Historical Fashion Collection from students in JCCC Fashion Merchandising & Design. This program is for adults 21 and up. Registration is $6 and includes beer and snacks. Reservations can be made by calling 913-831-3359 or registering online here.

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