When Midtown began to develop in the late 1800s, it was a posh residential area where well-to-do Kansas Citians built mansions to escape the crowded downtown. They settled along streets such as Broadway, Troost and Main. But by the 1920s, rapid development in the area and the streetcar lines along those major streets caused a rapid transition. Those streets shifted from residential to commercial areas, and the mansions along them were often destroyed to make way for “progress.”
With that backdrop, the story of one home known as White Gables has a unique twist. It went from being one the Midtown’s best-known luxury homes to being used as a commercial building – and in the process it was moved from its original site at 36th and Baltimore over to a row of shops on Main Street.
A charming mansion with “unusual privacy” in the heart of the city
The block where White Gables stood was originally part of the “Mastin tract,” known as a beauty spot in Kansas City and site of the home of Kansas City pioneer Thomas Mastin. Mastin sold the southern part of the block to Charles Campbell, owner of the Campbell Paint and Glass Company, who built White Gables in 1908. The Kansas City Star detailed its appearance in this Jan. 28 article:
“While the design of ‘White Gables’ is early English, it has been modified with a remarkable breadth of treatment, utilizing the natural outline of the slope and relaxing at times into an easy informality of the strictly American period. The principal entrance of the house faces east. It is of red brick, with white gables from which the name ‘White Gables’ is derived. The living porch and the grass terrace face toward the south. Broad steps lead to a charmingly arranged grass court to the lawns below, where the massing of trees about the border screens the adjoining street practically from view and affords a privacy that is unusual in the heart of the city district.”
Other newspaper accounts say people from Kansas City liked to ride the streetcar to the end of its line and then walk just to look at White Gables. It was especially popular in the spring, when a large display of lilacs bloomed.
In 1919, the Campbell family sold the estate. Contractor David Long bought it, apparently seeing the potential for the frontage on Main. For a while, a prominent doctor leased it as office space. On Nov. 23, 1924, the Star opined that the fate of White Gables signaled a turning point in Midtown development.
“It came as something of a shock to many persons that the much admired ‘White Gables’ should be regarded by real estate men not as a fine home but as a potential site for hotels and business buildings. Probably not until the last year has it been conceded on all sides that Main street is a business thoroughfare from Forty-third street north to the river.”
A “patrician among houses” become a commercial building
“’White Gables,’ a patrician among Kansas City houses, literally is going ‘into trade,'” The Star reported on Nov. 23, 1924. The “dignified residence,” it said, was being remodeled, its major entrance, porch and conservatory removed.
“Unlike most of the homes caught up in the steady southward advance of business, ‘White Gables’ will survive,” the newspaper said. “The sizeable structure of brick, cut stone and gabbled roof must withdraw, however, from its aloof position on a broad terrace, where it stands well back from Main Street and turning its face away from the traffic there to look southward. It must come down in a friendly fashion to the very property line on the Main street frontage and assume a demeanor consistent with the life of businesses it will lead.”
The house was being moved to Main Street, in line with other business buildings at the corner of Thirty-sixth and Main. The gables were removed and the rear of the house was turned to face the street. The former living room, hall and dining rooms with their mahogany paneling and painted friezes, were reused as a tea room, while the bedrooms were repurposed as studio spaces. Reopened as “Harmony Hall,” the building became an important meeting place for womens’ clubs and other groups as well as a dance and recital hall.
On the other side of the White Gables property, construction began on a new four-story apartment building called the Alps. The Alps is still standing, but the line of commercial buildings that included the White Gables is gone.
Last week, we looked at the Mastin mansion that stood north of White Gables. Next week, the rest of the block.
As part of our Uncovering History Project, the Midtown KC Post is taking a look at the 1940 tax assessment photos of each block in Midtown. (Many people seem confused by the tax assessment photos, which all include a man holding a sign. Here’s the story behind them).
Historic photos courtesy Kansas City Public Library/Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Do you have memories or more details about this area of Midtown? Please share them with our readers. Would you like us to focus on your block next week? Send us an email.
Our book, Kansas City’s Historic Midtown Neighborhoods, is available now. Let us know if you want us to come to your neighborhood association or organization’s meeting to share what we’ve learned about Midtown neighborhood history and tell your members how they can help preserve Midtown history. If you’d like to order the book, email Mary Jo Draper at email@example.com.