Webster School

The Webster School from the lawn of the Kauffman Center.

General Info:

  • Also known as: Webster House (current business name)
  • Built: 1885, addition in 1887 or 1888
  • Location: 1644 Wyandotte, Kansas City, Missouri.
  • Architect: Manuel A. Diaz (original), William F. Hackney (addition)
  • Size: Two stories and a basement; 76′ x 80′ (original building), 76′ x 36′ (addition); all on a 22,995 square foot lot
  • Listed on NRHP? Yes
  • Listed on Kansas City Historic Registry? Yes
  • Current Uses: Antique shop and restaurant, since 2002
  • Prior Uses: Public school (1886 – 1932), vacant (1932 – 1938, 1977-?), State of Missouri Social Security offices (1938 – 1945), Midland Radio School/Central Institute of Technology/Missouri Institute of Technology (name changes) (1945-1977)

History and Features:

While it may now be known as Webster House, the building formerly known as Webster School spent much of the past 125 years as an institute of learning.

Webster School was created to fulfill a need for schools in a growing city. Apparently, this is the Webster that the school was named after given the naming scheme used for schools in KC built around the 1880’s.  The school board paid $6,000 for the site the school sits on in April 1885 and spent somewhere between $14,975 and $29,966 to build the original building – the documents are pretty vague. The construction was completed very quickly; it started in July and was ready for pupils by November of 1885. The construction wasn’t shoddy either – the brick walls are 16 inches thick.

The original structure apparently wasn’t enough, and an addition was built in 1887 that was connected to the original structure on every level – even in the attics. The addition originally had two rooms on each floor. The two buildings are practically indistinguishable now as they feature identical architectural elements, even down to the same stone treatments around the windows.

The small hallway connecting the original building (right) and addition.

After serving as a school for almost half a century, a shift in demographics away from a residential neighborhood made the school a candidate for closure – and thus it was closed in 1932 and would remain vacant for the next six years. Views of the building as a public school can be found on the Kansas City Public Library’s website here and here. It looks like they were taken at the same time and before 1938, as playground equipment is on the east side of the building.

After housing the Social Security Administration for a few years, the Midland Radio School moved into the building.  Apparently it was a place that offered college classes for a time, as my dad took some classes there in the  early 70’s. Midland modernized the interior of the building during their tenancy, probably hiding/preserving some stuff for many years (more on that later). They also painted the brick a buff color, and the paint was peeling by the time they left in 1977. The entrance was modified significantly too, but was removed a few years after the building became vacant. Other modifications were relatively minor to deal with architecturally – some of the original rooms were partitioned, and some windows were bricked.

The Webster School from about a block away.

After the Missouri Institute of Technology moved out, the history of the building becomes much harder to find. The NRHP listing shows the condition of the building in 1982, after a few years of vacancy, and a picture from the Missouri Valley Special Collections shows the condition in 1989. The condition looks better in 1989, yet there were apparently holes in the floor and leaks everywhere.

After setting vacant for some time, the school was bought by Shirley Helzberg around 2001 to be home to the displaced  Crestwood Galleries Antiques  & Cafe. To prepare the buildings for the new business, they underwent a multi-million dollar restoration . For the larger building, the first floor was reconfigured to hold offices and four large gallery spaces.  The restaurant and other galleries were placed on the second floor.

A view of the south side of the original building.

The restoration of the school held some surprises and challenges. Behind plasterboard were old chalkboards – probably unseen for 70 years. More notably, there was a photograph found showing the school with a bell tower while historical research was being conducted. The tower had apparently been removed fairly early in the history of the building after a bell tower had fallen and killed several students at another school in Kansas City. The restoration including rebuilding the tower, which now serves as one of the defining architectural features of the school. A major challenge was the paint – as they weren’t allowed to sandblast away the paint covering the brick and instead had to use a chemical peel that preserved the integrity of the bricks. Since 2002, when the antique shop and restaurant opened under the “Webster House” moniker, the building has been continuously occupied as business has flourished. It has also received a new neighbor that is very renowned architecturally –  the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The "front" of the original building.

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