Catholic Center brings new life to the old New York Life Building

The streets in front of the building were bustling, even in the days before automobiles and paved roads. (Missouri Valley Special Collections, KC Public Library, KC Mo.)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY —Picture a crisp morning in 1890, bright and sunny. Horse-drawn street cars clatter up and down Main Street between the market near the river and the city limits at 31st Street. At Ninth Street, Charles Burnham gets off the horse car, snaps his copy of the Kansas City Journal-Post shut and tucks it under his arm. As he strides toward the new brown brick building at 20 West 9th, he meets other men in dark suits and bowler hats heading in the same direction. Charles Burnham, William Sloan, John Sullivan and others climb the steps to the great open marble and terrazzo tiled lobby of the 10-story New York Life Insurance Building, and enter a gleaming wood and brass elevator in the lobby’s center between the offices of New York Life Insurance Company and the Merchants National Bank. Sloan exits at the second floor, where his real estate firm was located. Several Kansas City School of Law instructors, carrying massive legal tomes, get off at the same time. They are eager to receive their charter so that degrees can be awarded. Burnham exits on the fourth floor, where his law office is. Sullivan rides up to the 10th floor, where he has his law office, and reminds himself to get a haircut later at the barbershop at the north end of the floor.

On a bright morning 120 years later, Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph announced the purchase of the familiar landmark building as the new home of the diocesan administrative offices and Catholic Charities.

The old New York Life Building has seen a lot since the last terra cotta lion was mounted on its roof. It was built when Kansas City was just entering its adolescence.

The first plat of the “Town of Kansas,” called Westport Landing by local folks, was filed in 1839, just 50 years earlier. The Town of Kansas was incorporated by the County Court at Independence on Feb. 4, 1850, and a special Act of Legislature three years later reincorporated the town as the City of Kansas. Very shortly, people began calling it Kansas City. The name stuck, and became official in 1889.

Following the Civil War, Kansas City had gone on a building spree. The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad hired a French engineer, Octave Chanute, to build a bridge across the Missouri River. The Hannibal Bridge was completed in 1868 and the resultant improved shipping and transportation attracted businesses, industries and families to the city on the bend of the Missouri River. In the 1870s, elegant mansions rose across the bluffs on the city’s west side in a new residential section called Quality Hill. Construction was started on the stockyards in the West Bottoms, at the foot of the Quality Hill bluff. The Union Depot, also in the West Bottoms, was completed. The Diocese of Kansas City had been established in 1880, and in 1883, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was completed at 12th and Broadway, east of Quality Hill. At the time, the three-story domed cathedral was the tallest building in Kansas City.

Kansas City was not alone in its building fling. The mid-1880s were building boom years in the United States, and the New York Life Insurance Company was quick to see the potential profit in real estate investment and the advantages of decentralization. Kansas City looked promising as a regional center; it was growing rapidly — the population would soon reach 132,000. In January 1887, the company announced a design competition for the new regional center in Kansas City.

Four architectural firms, George B. Post; Babb, Cook and Willard; and McKim, Mead and White all of New York, and Van Brunt and Howe of Kansas City, were invited to submit designs and specifications for an office building, estimated to cost about $800,000. McKim, Mead and White were awarded the commission for the Kansas City office and an almost identical building in Omaha, two of the six the New York Life Insurance Company planned to build across the country.

The company had looked at several sites for their new regional center, and had finally selected the corner of Ninth Street between Amarette Street, (now Baltimore Avenue) and Delaware (later merged into Baltimore at Sixth Street), known to the locals as The Junction. The location was considered the entry into the city. The land was purchased for $373,000 in December 1886, the money being the first New York capital invested in Kansas City. When the city charter was obtained in 1853, two strips of land had been added: a quarter mile wide strip west of Broadway and another lying between Independence Avenue and Fifth Street on the north, just east of Holmes Street on the east, Broadway on the west and Ninth Street on the south. The section was mostly bluff and ravines, and some had not yet been graded in 1888. A photograph of the New York Life Building, taken in 1896, shows the building facing bluffs across Ninth, with still unpaved Baltimore cut through it.

The drawings McKim, Mead and White submitted were for an H-shaped building of a practical yet elegant Italianate design. The H-shaped plan allowed the building to rise to heights unusual for the time period. A 12-story square tower links two 10-story arms. The use of a “forced perspective” (making the upper level windows smaller), gave the building the appearance of added height. It was to be a state-of-the-art building, Kansas City’s first “skyscraper.”

According to carpenter boss James H. Knapp, who signed on the first day of construction, “Everyone was excited, it seemed, to know how they would get up and down in a 10-story building, as the largest building in Kansas City at that time was three stories, and they used stairways to ascend and descend.

“It seemed that the walls of the building would be of great thickness, and it seemed that no one could tell how high a building of 10 stories would be,” Knapp’s recollection, written in 1936, continued.

In the late 19th century construction machinery was virtually non-existent, so large numbers of mechanics of various lines were employed, Knapp said. “Our instructions were to go down to bedrock for the foundation. We encountered bedrock at 56 feet below the level of Ninth Street. We excavated five feet in solid rock and then commenced to construct the foundation proper.”

Several obstacles were encountered while they were excavating for the footings, especially “one of the largest springs in Jackson County, outside of the spring at Fairmount (near Independence). It gave us lots of trouble until finally the water was turned into the main sewer of the city.”

The large limestone footing stones used to form the base of the foundation were quarried behind Walruff Grove, at what is now 31st Street and Southwest Boulevard. Four large mules were needed to haul each stone through the mud roads, since street paving was still some years away. A “good many teams of mules” were necessary to bring the rocks to the construction site.

Once the foundation was laid, the president of New York Life Insurance Company, accompanied by the chief architect and designer, Stanford White, arrived by train from New York to inspect it.

Knapp recalled that all the stone for the first three stories was shipped to Kansas City from Vermont. Before shipping from the quarry, each stone was dressed to size and numbered. Iron, possibly even an early form of steel, I-beams were used for the first time in Kansas City, placed four feet apart throughout the building. The spaces in between the I-beams were filled in with terra cotta blocks, which made the building virtually fireproof, “an unheard of thing at that time.” Fire was a constant worry in taller buildings in the late 19th century.

Knapp wrote that when it was time to start the superstructure, no suitable brick could be found. Norcross Brothers, probably a building supply company, built a brick plant at Third and Broadway, and made every brick there. The bricks were fired in kilns belonging to the Stumps and McClellan Company, set up almost in the shadow of the building under construction.

The window frames and interior finish wood were milled and cut in Boston, then shipped to Kansas City, ready to be nailed together. Window and door casings, and doors were cherry, and according to Knapp, the finest material and workmanship ever seen in this part of the country at that time.

Given that there was little construction machinery, other than four small hydraulic elevators to raise mortar and brick to succeeding levels, it’s not surprising to read in Knapp’s memoir that it required four weeks of hard work, and a large crew, to raise the building one story, and about 40 weeks to build a 10-story building.

Accidents can and do happen on construction sites, but there were few at the site of the New York Life Building. Two stood out in Knapp’s memory. When “we got to the top of the second floor on the Ninth Street frontage, the ropes broke and the largest block of stone in the whole building went to the basement, but it was dug out and brought back and there wasn’t a blemish on it. And that stone stands today over the windows on the Ninth Street side.”

A tragic accident occurred about six months into the construction. Four bricklayers were killed at the same time, when the scaffolding on which they were working, about five feet above the fifth story, broke and they plummeted to the ground. All four were buried the following Sunday. Four horse drawn hearses were driven abreast from Twelfth and Grand Avenue to the Union Cemetery, just outside the city limits, followed by some 2,000 union men as mourners. The New York Life Building was the first union job in Kansas City.

“When we started this building,” Knapp wrote, “we made a little short history saying that the city limits of Kansas City on the south was 20th Street (it was extended to 31st Street in 1885); on the east was Woodland Avenue. I believe we had four policemen. There were three fire departments. Two large cisterns were constructed, one at The Junction (Ninth and Main) and one at 12th and Main, which furnished the water in case of fires. There were four city aldermen representing the four wards. We wrote this on paper and put it between glass and put it in the building. So if the building is ever taken down they would find out who built it and how big the city was when it was started.” That history has not been located, but a number of workmen inscribed their names on bricks inside the tower above the roof, and those are still visible.

The tower, which rises more than 200 feet above street level, originally accommodated the machinery for a steam-powered elevator located in the center of the lobby atrium, the first elevator in an office building in Kansas City. Sometime around the turn of the century, the steam elevator was replaced by four bronze and polished cherry, mirrored electric elevators at the front of the lobby. Electric elevators had been invented in 1887, but the introduction of the electric gearless traction elevator in 1903 enabled passengers to ride to the top floors of high rise buildings in comfort. The tower eventually became an observation lookout.

The south and west sides of the building are classically ornamented in terra cotta, while the north and east sides are not decorated, so that other buildings could abut it. The terra cotta is the work of Joseph Morrill Wells, the principal draftsman of McKim, Mead and White. The use of terra cotta was daring, for at that time it was considered suitable only for southern climates.

The building stands at the foot of Baltimore Avenue, dominating a vista of more than a mile to the north and west. The interior was one of the most spectacular in Kansas City, and remains so today. On Ninth Street, the polished Vermont red granite column screen was originally open. Behind it is a double height vestibule, of pink Tennessee marble. Huge Ionic columns and pilasters lead the eye upward toward a copper plated, cast-iron barrel vault ceiling which forms a canopy over the main lobby. Leaded glass in the center filters daylight through the ceiling. A broad marble stairwell leads down to the first lower level, or ascends to a classical doorway. The lobby’s mosaic floor, which contains 160 marble tiles per square foot, was painstakingly laid by hand, a few square feet a day. The installation was overseen by Antonio Rosa, whom Stanford White imported from Italy a few years earlier to oversee the installation of a similar tile floor in the Vanderbilt mansion in New York. Rosa’s descendants, and those of his artisans, still live in the Kansas City area.

An article in the Kansas City Star, dated March 21, 1889 about the New York Life Building, said that, “on going into the main entrance one finds himself standing upon a mosaic floor of such beauty that it seems like wanton extravagant luxury that it should be trodden underfoot.”

Stanford White, probably the best known of the firm’s architects, also designed Madison Square Gardens in New York, where he was murdered by a jealous millionaire husband in 1906, as he attended a musical revue with the man’s wife.

The signature bronze eagle was designed in the New York studio of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts-trained sculptor Louis St. Gaudens, younger brother of Augustus St. Gaudens. It was cast in a single piece by the Henry Bonnard Bronze Company of New York in 1891. Later that year, “with block and tackle, a team of strong horses and half a dozen strong men, an immense eagle was induced to perch upon the arch over the entrance to the New York Life Building.”

The two-ton eagle, wings outstretched protecting her young symbolized the security the New York Life Insurance Company offered its clients. The bronze sculpture originally cost about $20,000.

The massive sculpture, like its twins in Omaha and St. Paul, is unsigned, presumably because of its commission to symbolize the aim of a corporation. This may be the reason why the eagle was erroneously credited for years to Augustus St. Gaudens. It wasn’t until 1934, when Kansas City architect Giles C. Mitchell was researching local architecture and sculpture for his book, There is No Limit, that he came across estimates and correspondence regarding the eagle, addressed to McKim, Mead and White and signed by Louis St. Gaudens. Mitchell contacted Louis’ widow and son, who confirmed that the eagle was a work of Louis, not Augustus, St. Gaudens.

A 1908 history of Kansas City, compiled by early librarian Carrie Westlake Whitney, described the modern office building, the prototype of which was the New York Life Building: “With its own fire department, its own water and sewerage systems, cleaning department, heat, lights and police force, the modern office building is a condensed city. The elevators are its street cars.”

Such was the excitement generated by the condensed city that was the New York Life Building it inspired a media frenzy when it opened in 1890. Harpers Magazine, in reporting on the building, announced that, “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City,” a still oft-quoted phrase 120 years after it first appeared in the magazine.

Commercial tenants moved in and out of the building. The Kansas City School of Law, which received its charter in 1895, merged with the University of Kansas City School of Law in 1938. It is now part of the University of Missouri Kansas City Law School. Law offices, real estate firms, even a book making concern were all tenants at one time or another. Burnham retained his office until his death in 1907. Sloan and Sullivan kept their offices in the New York Life Building at least until 1936.

The New York Life Building was purchased in 1924 by New York investors. The speculative owners lost their equity in 1931, and the building’s ownership returned to the New York Life Insurance Company. Then in 1944, it was purchased by Granthurst Realty Company of Kansas City. As the city stretched southward, and businesses followed, the building suffered loss of tenants. In 1970, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. By 1988, however, the starship of Kansas City’s skyscrapers was all but abandoned, its tenants being the elements, vermin and birds, and the homeless. The building was deteriorating: freezing and thawing water damaged the tile floors and marble walls. Transients lived under collapsed ceilings, piling trash up against peeling walls. The eagle became coated with grit and filth, and many of the copper, brass and bronze handrails and light fixtures were stolen by “recyclers,” — transients who steal copper or brass articles and sell them.

In 1994, UtiliCorp United, later renamed Aquila, Inc., purchased the property and spent several years and $35 million restoring and renovating the building to be a model of energy efficiency.

Although now 175,000 square feet of high tech, Class A office space, the restoration retained the original terra cotta tiles in the design crowning the building; the textured brownstone blocks on the front three stories; the marble tiles used in the mosaic floors in the entry and lobby; the barrel vaulted ceiling with its original glass panels; the 22 bronze-plated cast iron fireplaces, bronze elevator doors, cast iron and cherry staircases, and an intricate bronze mailbox in the lobby. Many of the light fixtures are either original or replicas.

The huge bronze eagle was cleaned, stabilized and given a coat of protective wax by metals conservator Jonathan Taggert. He also set up a maintenance program to protect the eagle in the future.

Once again, the historic building, restored by Raphael Architects, Inc., was state-of-the-art and up to date. Gastinger, Walker, Harden Architects, was in charge of the renovation. Some of its key elements include an energy efficient electric chiller that makes an ice solution during the night to cool the building during the day. A computer adjusts lighting levels — artificial light will dim on a bright day and increase after dark or on cloudy days. It also turns lights off when it senses that the last person has left the room. The building is equipped with a noise muffling, white noise system and a fiberoptic telephone/data system. It also boasts a central recycling system for cardboard, paper and aluminum.

In 2008, Aquila was sold to Great Plains Energy Inc., the parent company of Kansas City Power and Light. The building was largely vacated as Aquila employees relocated to the Great Plains’ regional headquarters a few blocks away. The building at 20 West Ninth was put on the market, along with its parking garage and an adjoining office building.

A number of years ago, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had outgrown its chancery offices, housed since the late 1950s in a 1913 mansion at 36th and Gillham Road in Hyde Park. Administrative office space for many of its ministries was leased at a neighboring office building, but it was outgrowing that too. Bishop Finn and his advisors had begun the process of “house hunting,” for a new home for the diocesan offices and Catholic Charities. In October 2010, it was announced that the Diocese had purchased the New York Life Building for $11.7 million, which included a 565 space parking garage and an adjoining office building.

“Over time and as our ministries have expanded, we have struggled with issues of limited space and barriers in collaborating as staff and with volunteers,” Bishop Finn said then, in a written statement regarding the purchase. “We are pleased that our diocesan center will contribute to the ongoing revitalization of downtown Kansas City and will ensure that we capably serve our Catholic people and the broader community.”

All Chancery and Catholic Charities employees, about 180 people, were moved into the newly redecorated and repurposed structure by March 28, 2011. The building anchors a block of historic structures that have remained virtually unaltered since the 19th century, including the Bunker Building, the Dime Museum, the Lyceum Theater Building and the New England Life Insurance Building. The old New York Life Building was rededicated in April as The Catholic Center. The bishop plans to eventually move his residence to the Catholic Center, which will unify all Diocesan offices under one roof.


  1. February 13, 2020 at 10:03 pm #

    This was an amazingly comprehensive article and so interesting to read! Thank you for sharing. I cited it on an Instagram post that I just posted, for anyone who’d like to learn more.

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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph