A Seattle resident's pilgrimage to the Midwest

First you get lost in Kansas City. But eventually you find your way to its history, its meats, its bars. And best of all, the extraordinary beauty of a museum designed by Steven Holl.

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The Nelson-Atkins Museum, with Bloch building and the old main building.

First you get lost in Kansas City. But eventually you find your way to its history, its meats, its bars. And best of all, the extraordinary beauty of a museum designed by Steven Holl.

I have a fine friend who has often raged about the Midwest. He is from South Dakota and schooled in the Midwest and with all his heart, he will declare, we are a divided land until the Midwest regains its strength and leadership and dignity. That much of America's design has come from this belly of the country and that it is only a fashion to imagine the coasts are the sole proprietors of our innovation and momentum, only slurring to imagine the Midwest is doomed to lost industry and lost time.

Now even a Missouri native would check the sense of visiting Kansas City in August, no matter the height of the corn, but the Sounders were headed there to play Sporting Kansas City, so off I went. It is not easy to fly to Kansas City from here. You can go past to Chicago and fly back, or stop in Denver and catch a one-hour shuttle. And if it was 73 degrees in Denver, it was 93 in Kansas City — and that was a cool streak, for the previous two weeks had buckled even the locals with 105s and 110s and no wind, ever.

Kansas City is called the City of Fountains and it has more of them than any other city in this land and in the summer, certainly this summer, it needs them, to keep the very surface from baking over. You will rent a car when you get there, everyone rents a car, unless you rent a driver, and all the rental car agencies are in a kind of rental car food court. There are a lot of automobiles: the airport is 30 miles north of town, and most shuttle and bus service was scuttled in the last economy.

It is an interesting place to drive in. A lot of people had a lot of say in how to make it complicated, so even the trip to City Center involves I-29S, I-70S, and I-35S. It would help if you took an old school map and figured all the states in every direction from Kansas City and got it, like a clock face, clear in your mind. Rattling south at 70 mph in truck traffic and seeing signs for Wichita, Iowa, and St. Louis may not otherwise help your cause. And if you take St. Louis, you are then headed to St. Louis.

There is no straight highway spine. this city is, back to its very beginnings, a highway hub, even if the transport was wagon or flatbarge. Add to all that, there are of course two Kansas Cities, in two different states, next to each other, both calling themselves proudly Kansas City. I went to Kansas, the state, four times, only once intentionally.

You do get the hang of it after a bit, but if you are hellbent on it making sense, then get up at 5:30 Sunday morning and give the whole thing a practice run and it will start to make sense. It is the rivers that keep the boundaries and everything takes its rightful place from them. When you ask directions, you will get a handful of "it's over by..., up by....out by....down by..." and it will be, but it may not be what you are used to. Roads change names after a couple blocks (like stadiums after a couple years). The locals are used to it. But even Google is still working on it, for no one thought Google had the right way to the airport, Google's was three pages long, and those are difficult details to follow on the car seat.

I wanted to get down to West Bottoms.  People recommended a several places there, but they all warned that it was a little gnarly to find. I went to Kansas, the state, twice on my first whack at the Bottoms, then forged north uphill, figuring, fine, just go the long way, only to be stopped in the traffic of too many pedestrians. It was the Friday night Art Walk. It had been so hot, for so long, everyone was out, on every corner of 19th and Main — this was the new gallery section for the city and it was booming. Cars and kids and music and restaurants and a wonderful Mexican food truck.

I got out, just to look. When you get out of the car in August in Kansas City, you cannot see, for your glasses fog up in the humidity and your Seattle skin gets glossy. I asked someone for help to West Bottoms, they gave me the "well, it's up by..." and so I went the long way, through the center of downtown, then left downhill toward the edge of the Missouri.

West Bottoms is a new life to the city. Warehouses were abandoned and retired when the Kemper Arena was built and when it did not take off, the old spaces did. Kansas City loves it bars, and always has and expects them to lead the way in drinks and food and music. They will send you to a bar for its food. The R Bar had a fine dinner and a wonderful jazz quartet and most of the people ate at the bar. West Bottoms was the stockyards but all of Kansas City loves its meats, its beef and pork, now rabbit, duck, and lamb. but the whole thing is complicating, widening, evolving. For every place had wonderful tomatoes, August tomatoes, and hauled them out front on the menus. I asked, does Kansas City have some particular affection for tomatoes? Turns out, they do; as one fellow proudly declared, " our tomatoes are the tits!" and they were!

And the meats are first rate. I asked where the best butcher was and the next day drove four miles into what looked like Mount Baker or Leschi to McGonigle's Market, right on the corner of 79th. It is a neighborhood market, with pretty good wine and no more than four kinds of mustard but when you get to the meat department, it goes right to the top: four butchers cutting, two clerks and a manager and lovely meat. Ribeyes four ways, cutlets, roasts, stacks of filet or dressed strips, pork in the same detail. And prices at $8-10/pound.

Outside, outfront, are two hickory barbecue roasters, burning and smoking like 80-year-old greased-over trains, with a fine young fellow tending them, checking the whole chickens, the pork and beef briskets, the baby rib slabs, the long Italian sausages, all rolling around in a circle inside the six foot barrels on a ferris wheel of trays, rotating around through the smoker. He said they keep the fire going every day, hickory only, he said idiots use gas but maybe they can't taste a damn thing anyway. People come for lunch and sit at picnic tables out in the grass with the crickets. But mostly they make a combination of stuff for dinner, get four levels of sauce, and head home.

I had a couple people tell me about barbecue in Kansas City, Kansas, saying that Okie Joe's had the longest lines, even though it was inside a gas station. But my ribs at McGonigles were wonderful, pink, sharp, soft, sweet and the sausage and brisket were wonderful and it was now 97 degrees and I was not driving, at that moment, intentionally to Kansas City to stand in line.

I had an appointment at the Nelson-Atkins Museum for 10 a.m. my first day in town. Kansas City has a remarkable history of arts investment, and no city in this country has a higher per capita record. Some comes from the proud citizens of the Hallmark legacy and some is simply a tradition. The museum was built in 1930, with money from a widow and from the founder of the newspaper, William Nelson, who had declared Kansas City "ugly and commonplace" and determined to fix it. The building is a massive Beaux-Arts  fortress, limestone clad, marble interiored, commanding the hill, with a 40-foot-tall central hall and gallery rooms at each flank, 22 landscaped acres of order.

Imagine if SAM had not determined to open a second museum, downtown. If, instead, they had determined a different course, a course to involve the Volunteer Park neighborhood, to buy the adjacent perimeter of historic houses for administration and boundary. And to landscape a long Versailles swath, terraced west down toward the city. Imagine further that SAM spliced its Sculpture Park around the new addition and down through its landscape. That is the Nelson-Atkins, a very proud Art Temple on a hill.

Ten years ago, needing room and feeling the original building to be dowdy and dated, the trustees of the Nelson-Atkins determined to add a modern element, both for their collection and for their very lifeblood. There was a long design process for architect selection and some controversy until the very end. Steven Holl, born and raised in Kitsap, educated at the University of Washington and now with his office in New York and Beijing, was one of the finalists. His Kiasma Museum in Helsinki was already completed, the committee had already visited it, and, like the Seattle Library committee, had noted its difficulties, particularly of construction.

Holl kept to the Nelson-Atkins program. His final presentation, his final round, skipped boundaries and jumped borders — all to such an effect that, as one of the judges said later, in the end, it was no contest. The new addition, named in honor of Henry Bloch and his wife, was completed in 2007 and within a year was declared the best new piece of architecture in America. It was a very brave shot by Holl, for he ignored the notions of a massive new building on the north side and, instead, slid a series of translucent buildings along the east boundary. All in all, the Bloch building is the length of a 70-story skyscraper, laid gently on its back and spaded over with landscape, save for the bumps.

The new buildings are counterpoint to massive: five light-box lenses of buildings, connected beneath the landscape. From its orginal brooding form, now, as you drive or walk at night, the museum is irresistibly apparent, even very late (when it is not open but on) alive and breathing and alert, a wonderful and visible assurance of matters and art. In a recording for the Bloch, Holl noted, "when the snow is on the ground, that kind of gloomy winter night where there is snow and it begins to rain... when these lenses come on, it becomes a kind of joyful glow in the snow."

It was a very busy day for the Museum. Their exhibit of Monet's triptych Water Lilies was closing the next day. It had been a phenomenal success and now the crowds were coming for its last breath. Steven Waterman, the presentation director, proudly took me through. The exhibit had itself dared defy some traditions and, like Holl's addition, the daring had been a wonderful success.

They did not present the triptych as a solemn Impressionist icon; they gave it, instead, a gaiety, a pleasure, and even an involvement. There were three large sitting pods almost in front of the painting, the lighting was carefully soft but almost as if outside, nearby were computers and even pencils at tables for the children to try colors and impression, and there were x-ray graphics of the Monet brushstroke and details of the painting's evolution, as it was being painted. The effect was a commotion, but an easy, stirring one, and the people milled about, moving across and then back to the painting. It was a pleasure to hear Waterman talk of how long and how happily people would stay.

We walked out to the other four buildings of the Holl addition, which unfold together, though they are each unique. The sense is of always entering a new and other space — white, folded, lofted, one wall in daylight, one washed in flourescent, two walls in halogen. Much like the Louisiana Museum, outside Copenhagen, you are enroute and then you are somewhere quite wonderful and of itself. The translucent walls are adjustable to the sunlight, open more for one and closed more for another. Or the path might lead outside to the Sculpture Park, that winds around and across the buildings, down the eastern edge.

The Nelson has collected the largest holdings of Isamu Noguchi sculpture outside of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. It is a very important part of their collection, a vital impulse for the new building and, coincidentally one of Holl's most revered artists. It is perhaps the Noguchi Court that shows perfectly how the art and the architecture have unfolded into such a brilliance. The floor is stone, the fountain piece sits on rock where the water comes down, and the rock continues out into the Sculpture Garden. It is Steven Holl for Isamu Noguchi, a pure tribute.

I needed lunch, so we crossed into the original building, down the lovely marbled gallery into the central hall in its 15th century Italian courtyard style, arched balcony encircling the 40-foot-tall piazza. Something there is about Kansas City, or perhaps the Midwest, but they do not think a thing about waiting in line and even less about waiting in line for a buffet. Similarly, it would be a fine place to learn to pause, a sort of look first/then speak, a kind of manners, it may be that they have the time and room to keep such a dignity alive.

My day at the Nelson was done. I had not even yet seen their Caravaggio, "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness," a painting the Italians had honored by making it the cover of their new Caravaggio catalog, a point of some pride on this hill in Kansas City. I walked back to my hotel, The Raphael, just across the canal. It had really gotten the hang of being hot by then but the hotel was having none of it. It is a lovely '30s brick boutique hotel, a folded triptych that looks back to the City, and a classical music trio was setting up behind a sun screen at the entrance. Even a sustainable God orders air conditioning in August in Kansas City, but no one seems to pay any attention to the heat when they walk about.

Just across from the hotel is the Plaza, this nation's first shopping center, a notion imported in part from Europe in 1922, all the shops and cafes and restaurants together, in this case in a 15-block Spanish revival style. Its official name was  the Country Club Plaza, and that may still be accurate but less correct so they all call it simply the Plaza. It has evolved into a presentation of regulars, Williams Sonoma to AX to PF Chang, over a hundred shops, Betsey to Ann, Kate to Max, Sperry to Victoria, a handsome presentation, four miles from the working, banking, skyscrapered downtown.

Just north of the Plaza is its primal opposite, Westport, a district grown from the very bones and loin of Kansas City, a strip first famous in the 1830s as the confluence of the four trails, the Santa Fe, Lewis and Clark, California and Oregon. Pioneer outfitters all passed through Westport for wagons, horses, packs, food, shovels, directions, and dreams. The purveyors now are food and drink, wonderful bars at both sides of the street and lovely restaurants, and, on a weekend night, long swathes of people.

I never did get much better than knowing how to drive Main Street in Kansas City, but it is the spine and gets you north and south, from the Plaza up to the new Performing Arts Building and the Financial Section, from 60th Street to First Street. Waterman had given me many fine suggestions, and I had one left, a bar called Manifesto, he said you had to practically text it to get in. It was early evening, so I headed up Main, down in numbers, to 19th. Kansas City had many stories and tales from Prohibition, and Manifesto is an homage to that secrecy. You enter through an alley, past the metal buckets and brooms, past a very tall young woman who was not yet ready for me and down the back, inside stairs to what should have been the storeroom. All the lights were off, three candles were on, and the joint was packed, subdued, but packed.

They love mixed drinks in KC, the bitters, the Benedictine, the syrups and exotics, the drips from ancient monks; and, like coffee in Seattle, all the bars are in a duel to be perfecto. And Manifesto is certainly right by the top, every drink made in bent attention and freshest makings. There may not be another city in the world with proportionally as many people shaking cocktail shakers as Kansas City. At Manifesto, you get a bartender, you order a drink, he takes that drink on until you have it in hand. By the time it comes, your eyes have sort of adjusted.

There are some difficult parts of Kansas City, some sorrows of misfortune and judgment and time. As the parking attendant said one night, "Listen, pal, it was the internet ruined it all. Took all the shops, city lost money on the buses and took all of them, and now my kids don't even look up or know a damn thing about this town." There are long forces of politics strangling each other for direction in the state and with its neighbors. But there is nothing finer, nor more worth a pilgrimage, than the Nelson-Atkins, and it may well be art, literally, that, like the architecture, brings some light. And brings this Kansas City to its new life.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.