Kansas City, Part III: The National World War I Museum
My final day in Kansas City, following on the heels of Kansas City, Part II: Wandering Downtown and the River Market. This day saw me learning history at the National World War I Museum, wandering through Country Club Plaza, and partaking in some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had in my life.
Today was heavier on searching for apartments for myself, so these posts will be shorter. However, I did take the time to check off one of the top things on my list, and something that I recommend everyone to do: The National World War I Museum. I also stopped for dinner at a legendary Kansas City eatery.
The National World War I Museum and Memorial
For some reason, World War I has always fascinated me. In fact it interests me as much, if not slightly more than, World War II.
“Interests” is of course an odd word to use about wars that claimed millions of lives in gruesome ways, but it is what it is. World War I was just such a clash of the old and the new. It was a major turning point in the way wars were fought, being the first large-scale mechanized war. It ended four separate empires (British, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman), some of which had stood for centuries. Of course, it also set the stage for the Second World War.
In a way, it was almost a sort of karma: after waging wars on other people’s soil, and colonizing most of the world, the war finally came home to Europe.
The Liberty Memorial
I started with the 217-foot Liberty Memorial, also called the Liberty Tower. I was itching to take the elevator to the top and snap some awesome photos of the skyline. It can be a long wait, but getting to the top is worth it:
The National World War I Museum and Memorial is an incredible complex, full of artifacts and replicas, including an actual Renault FT tank. There are exhibits on news stories that show how the war came about, how it progressed, and how it was perceived across the world.
I really respect this museum because they got the context right: we, the Americans, were not the heroes of World War I; we were a bunch of johnny-come-lately’s. The European forces had been slogging it out for over three years before the American Expeditionary Force even landed on their soil, and then we fought for less than a year. With absolutely no disrespect to the brave American men who died fighting in that horrible conflict, we were only a small part of it, and the museum makes that clear.
Constructed in 1914, Union Station is what in my mind a train station should be: a functional work of art. The stately station serves the Missouri River Runner going to St. Louis, and the Southwest Chief running between Chicago and Los Angeles. It is also the current southern terminus of the streetcar.
The beautiful, ornately detailed interior of the station is used for exhibits, and part of the building even houses the kid-friendly Science Center at Union Station.
For those traveling with kids, the LEGOLAND Discovery Center is a short walk from Union Station, in Crown Center. It is just one more of the city’s very many family-friendly attractions.
After several hours of walking around, I was getting pretty hungry. And there was only one place I could stop at…
Arthur Bryant’s BBQ
There seemed to be no end to the adulation Kansas Citians will heap upon Arthur Bryant’s. Photos plastering the walls of the unassuming diner show Barack Obama and other celebrities bearing trays of food.
One of the most important aspects of Arthur Bryant’s success seems to be nostalgia. Arthur Bryant took over the company from his brother in 1946, and in 1958 moved to its present location on 17th & Brooklyn, just a few blocks east of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Back then, the Kansas City Royals played at Municipal Stadium, which was only about five blocks away. Many people would come to Arthur Bryant’s before and after the baseball games. The guy in front of me in the line said he would come here with his parents when he was a kid. He recommended the open-faced burnt end sandwich to go (“open-faced” means the meat’s on the side).
“It’s pure heaven,” he said, miming licking his fingers.
Which is why it pains me to say I wasn’t impressed. Perhaps I just came late in the day, or was expecting something closer to what I had at Q39. But the open-faced burnt end sandwich was very underwhelming.
The sauce is very different. It’s red, instead of the rich dark brown of Q39’s sauce. I later read that their sauce contains a lot of vinegar and paprika, making it more similar to St. Louis-style instead of the traditional Kansas City-style sweet sauce. The brisket itself was good, but it wasn’t great. After everything I’d heard about Arthur Bryant’s, I was expecting great.
I will be back, in the future, and I’ll be sure to get something different. Their brisket sandwich looks amazing, so maybe I’ll try that.
Alas, here it was: the morning of the last day.
After meeting with some real estate agents and touring some apartments, I had time for one last stop. I drove down to Country Club Plaza, the nation’s first automobile-centric shopping and entertainment district.
Country Club Plaza
Opened in 1922 and covering 55 acres, Country Club Plaza ushered in an era of massive commercial zoning that catered to owners of the relatively new automobile. It’s a popular place to go in KC, as I would hear many different people walking around on the street talking about “going to Country Club.”
I have to admit, it’s kind of neat. The architectural style borrows heavily from Spain, in particular the city of Seville. There is even a half-size replica of the tower named La Giralda.
It’s a pretty neat place to walk around, although I do feel apprehensive about its provenance. This plaza, like a lot of public areas around the city, was designed by a man named J.C. Nichols. He was, in many ways, the Robert Moses of Kansas City: he did a lot to shape what the city is today, for both good and bad.
J.C. Nichols was a flagrant racist. He was a huge proponent of restrictive covenants and the notorious practice of “red lining” that kept African American residents sequestered in less desirable areas. In fact, he is in many ways responsible for the “Troost Wall” that persists even today.
There could be no Country Club Plaza, and Kansas Citians would not suffer for it. But many Kansas Citians do suffer because of J.C. Nichols and what he and people like him did.
For me it puts a bittersweet twist on things, even as I pause by the fountains and take in the beautiful architecture and of my surroundings.
The good news is I learned about various organizations that are fighting to end this legacy. Non-profits like Connecting For Good provide computers, cameras, and digital literacy classes to their clients. Operation Breakthrough has literally made a bridge across Troost Avenue, and offers guidance to many at-risk youth.
It impresses me that there are so many people doing grassroots work to tear down the walls built by hateful people in power in years past. It also depresses me that the local government doesn’t seem capable of solving such glaring issues; they’ve had more than enough time.
For Next Time…
As I left the main branch of Q39 in Westport, three bottles of their delicious sauce in my bag, I reflected on all the sites I didn’t have time to see. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the 18th & Vine Jazz District are two glaring omissions. Unfortunately, I don’t like baseball nor jazz, but they really are part of the soul of Kansas City, and so I should absolutely do them the respect of visiting when I’m back in town.
For getting your culture fix, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art offers a world-class exhibit of contemporary masterpieces.
As far as barbecue goes, Kansas City really is a wonderful town for it, definitely on par with Austin. Along with Q39, I’ve heard the other best place in town is Joe’s Kansas City BBQ, so definitely give that a try.
Unfortunately, I am a 9 to 5 Voyager, and I had to drive back to Austin and get back to work the next day. With a squall line approaching off in the distance, I got into my Equinox, put on some driving music, and hit the highway.