The legacy of early Rockhill neighborhood resident Laura Nelson Kirkwood

(The latest Rockhill Neighborhood Association newsletter contained two articles with some interesting neighborhood history, and they’ve given us permission to reprint them. Today, Rockhill resident Todi Hughes profiles Laura Nelson Kirkwood. Tomorrow, the link between President Theodore Roosevelt, race relations and the Kirkwood house in Rockhill.)

Reprinted with permission from the Rockhill Neighborhood newsletter by Todi Hughes

Courtesy Kansas City Public Library - Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Courtesy Kansas City Public Library – Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Laura was the daughter of William Rockhill Nelson and Ida Houston Nelson. Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star and the Nelson Gallery of Art, became a powerful leader in the early development of Kansas City. He lent the strong support of this paper to those things that made Kansas City unique – the boulevards, parks, and residential areas. A man of strong convictions and determination, Nelson felt that Kansas City should develop a beautiful city with cultural advantages and turned his efforts to achieve them.

Laura was born February 14, 1889 at 218 West 11th  Street, then known as Quality Hill. While Laura was still a small child, the Nelsons acquired the land two miles from the limits of the city and in 1887 built Oak Hall, now the site of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Nelson adored his daughter and gave her every advantage. Laura was a small, attractive young lady and very close to her father, sharing his interest in the arts. She attended Barstow school for only a few years, being educated in private boarding schools in the East and traveling extensively in Europe.

Laura was an interesting personality and a strong individualist, once taking a steamer on impulse and traveling with her teacher to Egypt. Upon her return to Spain, and without funds, she wired her father for money to return to Paris. While in Paris, it was the responsibility of the Star’s Paris editor to keep an eye on Laura and provide whatever help she might need.

When she returned from Europe, Laura met Irwin Kirkwood of Baltimore, who was in Kansas City working as a realtor and developing the area that is now the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Kirkwood was a very handsome and charming man and Laura fell in love and accepted his proposal of marriage. Her father did not approve of the match and again Laura was sent to Europe hoping to discourage the romance. Upon her return to New York, Laura wired her father that she and Kirkwood were to be married there and that she would never return to Kansas City. Nelson relented and wired her, “Come home, baby”.

In 1905 Nelson had established the Rockhill Reality District and built a number of homes rented to mostly Star employees. Laura and Irwin Kirkwood moved into Storehouse Stonehouse, a three-story home (later the Rockhill Tennis Club) that they occupied for 12 years.

The Kirkwoods were active in many affairs of Kansas City. Laura was the first president of the Kansas City Chapter of the American Red Cross and during one bitterly cold winter she established a soup kitchen for the poor. Kirkwood was interested in cattle breeding, thorough-bred horses and the American Legion. Many visiting dignitaries were entertained by the Kirkwoods.

After the death of Nelson in 1915, Laura often visited the Star and joined in meetings to determine policy, a very unusual procedure for a woman in those days. It was at Laura’s direction that the Star magazine was published and the cover each Sunday was a reproduction of a famous work of art.

Laura’s health was poor and after her mother’s death in 1921, the Kirkwoods moved across the street to Oak Hall  and Storehouse was sold. Laura became more of a recluse and was seldom seen out in society. In February 1926, Laura returned to Baltimore for medical treatment and there on February 27, 1926 she died alone in a hotel.

Laura left her estate to her husband, stating in her will her personal property and that of Oak Hall were to be sold at least 250 miles from Kansas City. Laura was buried in the Nelson mausoleum in Mt. Washington cemetery.

Very little personal history can be found about Laura, the Nelson’s records having been either lost or destroyed.


2 responses to “The legacy of early Rockhill neighborhood resident Laura Nelson Kirkwood”

  1. […] and they’ve given us permission to reprint them. Yesterday, Rockhill resident Todi Hughes profiled Laura Nelson Kirkwood. Today, UMKC Professor Emeritus Robert M. Farnsworth shares a story that occurred at the home of […]

  2. I’m coming across this well after it was posted, but notice a misspelling – the Kirkwoods’ home was Stonehouse – for its stone construction – not Storehouse.

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