Simple, maybe ugly, but part of history

plaza-towersBy Joe Lambe

A bland 1950 Country Club Plaza apartment building got little love at a Friday meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission.

It seemed more duty than desire when commissioners voted to recommend national historic designation for the nine-story Plaza Towers at 209 Emanuel Cleaver Blvd.

Commissioner Doug Stone did support it as “a good example of crappy architecture.”

It was among buildings that Federal Housing Authority loans created as the feds promoted simple, cheap, cookie-cutter structures to fill housing needs fast, he said.

Commission Chairman Erik Heitman said he did not consider it good modern architecture. He compared it to similar buildings in notorious public housing slums like Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago, both now demolished.

Heitman said the application, which is supported by city staff, should explain why this building is a good example of its kind while the others were not.

The application is filed on behalf of a developer who wants to get historic tax credits for a renovation. It calls the 81-unit building a significant example of architecture’s “Modern Movement.”

As part of that, the application praises its simplicity, “absence of applied ornament,” and “inexpensive building materials.” Kitchens there even have the original metal cabinets.

It represents working class and moderate-income apartments in the city, the application says.

Kristen McSparren Ottesen of Rosin Preservation, who represented the developer Friday, noted that Plaza Towers stood alone as a private development, unlike the many such buildings that clustered at public housing.

Commissioner Mike Hardin urged tolerance: “Just because we don’t like it…doesn’t mean it doesn’t have strong significance.”

Commissioner Parker Webb praised its role serving working class people on the pricey Plaza but said historic tax credits could destroy that, turn it into expensive housing.

Ottesen said the developer planned only modest changes, like upgrading the kitchens.

In a Kansas City Star article this month, developer Sean Connelly of the real estate firm 33 Realty promised “condo-quality finishes with modern design.”

He said he expects the renovated apartments to rent for $945 to $1,200 a month.

The commission voted to recommend approval on condition the application be amended: It must explain the role of FHA loans and why this building is a successful example of its kind, unlike so many others.

The historic designation now goes to an advisory committee and then to National Parks officials for final approval.

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