Kansas city historical sites and things to do if you like history

Kansas City, often referred to as the “City of Fountains,” is a vibrant destination with a rich array of historical attractions. Notable highlights include The National World War I Museum and Memorial, offering a comprehensive understanding of the war’s impact, and the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, showcasing diverse artworks spanning thousands of years.

The Kansas City Power and Light Building, a prominent Art Deco landmark, reflects the city’s architectural heritage. Visitors can experience European elegance at The Country Club Plaza, an outdoor district with fountains and stunning architecture. The Kansas City Union Station, a majestic train station turned cultural center, features captivating exhibits.

The American Jazz Museum celebrates the history of jazz, while The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures offers a delightful journey through nostalgia. Aviation enthusiasts will enjoy The National Airline History Museum, and The Arabia Steamboat Museum showcases artifacts from a sunken steamboat.

Whether you’re a history enthusiast or simply curious about the city’s past, these attractions are sure to leave a lasting impression. In this article, we will explore some of the notable historical attractions that make Kansas City a captivating destination. If you want to read about the historical churches of Kansas City, here is a separate article.

A short history of Kansas City

Kansas City has a rich history, with several notable landmarks and events shaping its development. Located at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, Kansas City is an ideal location for settlements. The area has been inhabited by various Native American tribes, including the Hopewell tradition, Mississippian culture, Kansa, Osage, Otoe, and Missouri.

The first recorded European visitor to the future site of Kansas City was Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, who explored the lower Missouri River in the early 18th century. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Lewis and Clark recognized the potential of the Kansas City area and noted it as a good place to build a fort.

In 1831, a group of Mormons led by Joseph Smith settled in the area, establishing the first school within the city’s boundaries. However, they were forced out by mob violence in 1833. In the early 19th century, Gabriel Prudhomme Sr., a Canadian trapper, purchased land along the Missouri River and operated a ferry. John McCoy, son of Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy, established West Port along the Santa Fe Trail in 1833, and later founded Westport Landing as a landing point for West Port.

The land was eventually divided and sold, leading to the incorporation of the Town of Kansas in 1850. Kansas City, Missouri, was incorporated as a town on June 1, 1850, and as a city on March 28, 1853.

During the Civil War, Kansas City witnessed intense military activity. While Confederate forces achieved some victories in the region, Union troops occupied the city and successfully defended it against major assaults. The war had a significant impact on the city, with General Thomas Ewing issuing an eviction order for residents in four western Missouri counties.

After the war, Kansas City experienced rapid growth. The construction of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad bridge over the Missouri River and the opening of the Liberty Memorial in 1923 contributed to the city’s development. The Country Club Plaza development by J.C. Nichols in 1925 and the extensive streetcar system also played a role in shaping the city.

Walnut Street, Kansas City in 1906 - colorized old photo transformed in painting
Walnut Street, Kansas City in 1906 – colorized old photo transformed in painting

In the early 20th century, political machines, led by Tom Pendergast, gained power in Kansas City. Pendergast’s alliance with criminals and his involvement in vice activities made him a controversial figure. However, his influence waned in 1939 when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

Following World War II, suburban development began, and many residents moved to the suburbs. Troost Avenue became a prominent racial and economic dividing line in the city, leading to urban decay and the rise of crime rates. The city’s population continued to grow, but the inner city declined, and the dominant ethnic group shifted from non-Hispanic whites to African Americans.

The Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in 1981 was a major disaster that resulted in the loss of many lives. In the 21st century, the Kansas City area underwent extensive redevelopment efforts, with improvements to the downtown area and the creation of entertainment districts. The city’s residential population in downtown has significantly increased, and transportation projects like the MAX bus rapid transit line and the downtown streetcar line have been implemented.

Kansas City has a vibrant and evolving history, with its growth and development influenced by various factors such as exploration, settlement, war, political machines, suburbanization, and urban redevelopment. Today, it continues to be a dynamic and culturally rich city in the heartland of the United States.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial

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The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, opened in 1926 as the Liberty Memorial. It is the official war memorial and museum dedicated to World War I in the United States.

Managed by a non-profit organization in cooperation with the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners, the museum focuses on global events related to the war, from its causes before 1914 to the 1918 armistice and 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Visitors enter the 32,000-square-foot facility through a glass bridge above a field of 9,000 red poppies, symbolizing combatant deaths.

The Liberty Memorial Association, formed by prominent Kansas City residents after World War I, spearheaded the creation of the memorial. Led by president Robert A. Long, the association raised over $2.5 million in 1919 (equivalent to $39.1 million in 2021) through a fund drive supported by 83,000 contributors. The memorial’s groundbreaking ceremony in 1921 was attended by notable figures such as Vice President Calvin Coolidge and General John J. Pershing. It was dedicated on November 11, 1926, by President Coolidge.

The memorial underwent various renovations and improvements over the years. In 1935, bas reliefs depicting important figures from the war were unveiled. Former President Harry S. Truman rededicated the monument in 1961, and in 1981–1982, new exhibits were introduced. In 1994, the memorial closed again due to safety concerns and was supported by local shopping malls to display parts of the collection. In 1998, Kansas City voters approved a sales tax to fund the restoration, resulting in a $102 million restoration and expansion completed in 2006. The memorial was designated a National Historic Landmark in the same year.

Further renovations took place in 2011, including energy efficiency upgrades and improvements to the flame atop the tower. An addition called the Wylie Gallery was planned for completion in 2018, and the site received designation as the National World War I Museum and Memorial in 2014.

The memorial’s design competition was managed by Thomas R. Kimball, and the contract was awarded to architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle. The memorial tower, standing 217 feet tall, is crowned with four 40-foot sculptures known as the Guardian Spirits, representing virtues of peace. The buildings feature classical Egyptian Revival architecture with a limestone exterior. The underground portion was designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates and expanded the original facilities.

The museum offers two main galleries displaying period artifacts related to World War I, including uniforms, vehicles, flags, munitions, maps, photographs, and international propaganda posters. Interactive displays, sound booths with period audio recordings, and replica trenches provide immersive experiences. The museum also houses two theaters, the Edward Jones Research Center with archival documents and library titles, an education center, an auditorium, a café, and a store.

On the North Lawn, a memorial tree called the Tree of Peace was planted to honor those who fought and died in World War I. The international project “Tree of Peace” represents Slovakia under the brand “Good Idea Slovakia—Ideas from Slovakia.” The tree planting was carried out with the support of the Honorary Consulate of Slovakia to the United States and the Consulate General of the Slovak Republic in New York City.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, is renowned for its extensive and diverse collection of art from around the world. Opened in 1933, it has more than 40,000 works of art, including a remarkable collection of Asian art. The museum gained recognition in 2007 when its new Bloch Building was ranked number one on Time magazine’s list of “The 10 Best (New and Upcoming) Architectural Marvels.”

The museum is open five days a week, Monday from 10 am-5 pm, closed Tuesday and Wednesday, open Thursday 10-5, Friday 10-9, Saturday and Sunday 10-5. Admission to the museum is free, allowing visitors to explore its wide range of art collections.

The ancient world collection includes artworks from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East, featuring notable pieces such as portraits of pharaohs and Egyptian queens. The European painting collection is highly regarded and includes works by renowned artists like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vincent van Gogh.

The museum’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is exemplified through its work with Nazi-era art pieces, often created by marginalized groups targeted by the Nazis. The museum conducts research and collaborates with descendants of the original owners or artists to determine the fate of these artworks, either returning them or displaying them based on the descendants’ wishes.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art boasts an impressive collection of Asian art, featuring works from countries like China, Japan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Indonesia, Korea, Pakistan, and various Southeast and South Asian nations. It includes Chinese antique furniture, Japanese screen and scroll pieces, woodblock prints by renowned artists like Katsushika Hokusai, and a range of sculptures, ceramics, and textiles.

African art is also prominently represented, with artworks from West and Central Africa, including countries like Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The collection spans wood, brass, beadwork, terracotta, ivory, and natural fibers, showcasing diverse cultures and traditions within the continent.

In addition, the museum hosts exhibitions and cultural performances that celebrate Indigenous cultures, primarily from the Midwest area. It collaborates with Native American communities and complies with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to ensure appropriate handling of culturally significant items.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art also features American art, including works by prominent American artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Thomas Eakins. It has held notable exhibits like “30 Americans,” which explores African American art through the perspectives of 30 different artists.

The museum’s collections extend to contemporary art, photography, and more recent artistic movements. The Photography galleries in the Bloch Building showcase the history of the medium from daguerreotypes to contemporary processes, including the renowned Hallmark Photographic Collection.

Overall, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art offers a rich and diverse cultural experience, showcasing art from various regions and time periods. Its commitment to inclusivity, historical research, and community engagement makes it a vibrant cultural institution.

The Kansas City Power and Light Building

The Kansas City Power and Light Building, also known as the KCP&L Building, is a historic landmark skyscraper in Downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Constructed in 1931 by Kansas City Power and Light, it was intended to stimulate job growth in the area. This Art Deco landmark has become an iconic feature of the city’s skyline. At the time of its completion, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, holding that title until the completion of the Space Needle in 1962.

Designed by the architecture firm Hoit, Price and Barnes, the building’s east façade faces the Power & Light District, from which it derives its name. The building’s distinctive lantern has become a symbol associated with the district and the city itself.

Initially, there were plans for a twin building on the west side, but due to the Great Depression’s impact on real estate prices, it was never realized. The absence of windows on the west side was intentional, serving as a firewall in case of a neighboring structure and housing the elevator shafts. Standing at 34 stories, the Power and Light Building held the title of Missouri’s tallest habitable structure until 1976.

In 1991, Kansas City Power & Light Co. vacated the building, and it underwent various considerations for redevelopment. In 2014, it began its transformation into an apartment tower led by NorthPoint Development. The completed project includes 210 apartments within the historic tower, accompanied by additional units above a new parking garage. The building lobby has been converted into an event space capable of accommodating up to 500 guests, making it the tallest residential-only building in Missouri.

The crowning feature of the Kansas City Power and Light Building is its ornate Art Deco lantern, which illuminates each evening with red-orange lights. Originally, the setbacks of the building housed flickering floodlights, creating the illusion of blazing flames. Today, LED floodlights rotate through a range of colors, captivating onlookers.

The Country Club Plaza

The Country Club Plaza, also known as The Plaza, is a prestigious shopping center located in the Country Club District of Kansas City. Established in 1923, it was the first planned suburban shopping center designed to cater to automobile-owning shoppers.

Designed by J. C. Nichols in the Baroque Revival and Moorish Revival styles, the Plaza features upscale retail stores, restaurants, entertainment venues, and office spaces. It spans 55 acres and comprises 18 buildings, offering 784,000 square feet of retail space and 219,000 square feet of office space.

Country Club Plaza - ink and watercolor
Country Club Plaza – ink and watercolor

Situated about 4 miles south of downtown, the Plaza blends harmoniously with the surrounding upscale apartment buildings, mansions, and the Country Club District along Ward Parkway. Its design draws inspiration from Seville, Spain, with more than 30 statues, murals, and tile mosaics adorning the area. Notable architectural reproductions include a half-sized Giralda Tower of Seville and San Francisco’s Path of Gold streetlights. The Plaza also features a stunning fountain designed by Henri-Léon Gréber, showcasing four rearing horses.

Unlike traditional shopping malls, the Plaza’s parking is concealed in multilevel garages beneath and behind the shops, maintaining the area’s aesthetic appeal. It was the first shopping center to introduce the percentage lease, a rent structure based on tenants’ gross receipts, now a standard practice in commercial leases.

The Plaza is renowned for its annual Plaza lights tradition, which began in 1925 with a single strand of colored lights. The display has grown over the years, and a lighting ceremony takes place on Thanksgiving night, attracting thousands of visitors. The lights remain illuminated overnight until mid-January, marking the city’s “Season of Lights” and initiating the Christmas season.

The area surrounding the Plaza is home to several notable companies, including American Century Investments, Russell Stover Candies, Inergy, and Gates Bar-B-Q.

The Country Club Plaza stands as a pioneering example of a suburban shopping center and a cherished cultural hub, embodying the elegance and charm of Seville while providing a unique shopping and entertainment experience for visitors and residents alike.

The Kansas City Union Station

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Kansas City Union Station is a historic transportation hub serving Kansas City and the surrounding area. Opened in 1914, it replaced an earlier depot and became a prominent landmark. After declining in the 1950s and closing in 1985, it underwent a remarkable restoration through a public-private partnership. In 1999, it reopened as a collection of museums and public attractions.

The Beaux-Arts architecture of Union Station features a stunning Grand Hall adorned with ornate ceiling work and three large hanging chandeliers. A central clock separates the Grand Plaza from the rest of the building. The restoration project, costing $250 million, was funded in part by a sales tax imposed in both Kansas and Missouri counties.

Today, Union Station is a vibrant destination offering a range of attractions. It houses Science City, an interactive science center with over 50 hands-on exhibits, the H&R Block City Stage Theater for live performances, and the Regnier Extreme Screen, the region’s largest 3-D movie screen. The station also hosts restaurants such as Pierponts and Harvey’s, and various shops including Rocky Mountain Chocolate and Parisi Coffee. The Gottlieb Planetarium, the area’s largest, is another notable feature. Temporary museum exhibits have included renowned displays like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Bodies Revealed, Dialog in the Dark, Dinosaurs Unearthed, and Diana, A Celebration.

The Science City at Union Station is an interactive science center which offers a variety of family-friendly attractions, including traveling exhibitions, The Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium, City Extreme Screen theatre, and over 120 hands-on displays. Opened in November 1999 as part of Union Station’s renovation plan, Science City became a prominent feature in the bi-state renovation vote of 1997.

The Kansas City Irish Center, formerly known as the Irish Center of Kansas City, is a non-profit organization also located in Union Station. It opened on March 17, 2007 (Saint Patrick’s Day). The center aims to promote Irish and Irish-American culture, history, and heritage in the greater Kansas City area through various programs and events. It offers educational programs, monthly music jam sessions, language and craft classes, genealogy workshops, and exhibits on the history of Kansas City’s Irish community. The center also houses the John Forest Resource Library, a collection of over 4,000 books focusing on Irish culture and history.

Renovations to the building will include the addition of a small pub and stage. Also, the Center utilizes the event space at Drexel Hall, which can accommodate up to 500 people, for concerts, speakers, theater productions, and other activities.

Additionally, the old Union Station Powerhouse building has been transformed into the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, serving as the new home for the Kansas City Ballet since 2011.

Union Station’s revitalization has made it a vibrant destination, attracting visitors from near and far to enjoy its diverse array of entertainment, education, and cultural experiences.

The American Jazz Museum

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The American Jazz Museum, situated in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine district, is a hub for preserving the rich heritage of American jazz music. The museum showcases exhibits dedicated to influential jazz figures like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. Within the museum, visitors can also experience the vibrant atmosphere of a 1930s jazz club at The Blue Room, which features live performances multiple nights a week. Notably, the museum houses the Graphon alto saxophone played by Charlie Parker during the renowned Massey Hall concert in 1953.

Adjacent to the museum is the Gem Theatre, a historic venue that further enhances the cultural experience. As a Smithsonian Affiliate, the American Jazz Museum offers educational programs, interactive exhibits, and listening stations to explore the diverse styles and rhythms of jazz.

The museum’s Blue Room replicates the ambiance of the Street Hotel’s famous Blue Room from the 1930s and 1940s. Jazz clubs during that era operated around the clock, and the interactive exhibits, bar, and live performances at the museum’s Blue Room capture that spirited atmosphere. The museum also organizes youth cultural programs, fostering an appreciation for jazz among younger generations.

The Gem Theater, with its modern 500-seat performing arts center, hosts jazz concerts, community events, and theatrical productions. Additionally, the museum presents changing artistic exhibits inspired by jazz, baseball, and African-American life throughout the year.

Established in 1997 in a building that also houses the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the American Jazz Museum is a testament to the indelible impact of this uniquely American art form. It celebrates the contributions of jazz legends and immerses visitors in the sights, sounds, and history of this musical genre. The museum proudly presents rare photos, album covers, personal items, and recordings of jazz’s greatest pioneers, while also highlighting Kansas City’s significant role in shaping the genre.

The American Jazz Museum stands as a dynamic destination for scholars, students, musicians, and jazz enthusiasts to appreciate and honor the enduring legacy of this captivating art form.

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, formerly known as the Kansas City Toy and Miniature Museum, is located on the University of Missouri Kansas City campus. Established in 1982, it houses the world’s largest collection of fine-scale miniatures and one of the nation’s largest displays of antique toys. With over 72,000 objects and 33,000 square feet of exhibit space, the museum attracts approximately 30,000 visitors annually.

The museum combines the toy collection of Mary Harris Francis with the fine miniature collection of Barbara Hall Marshall, who were both passionate collectors and lifelong friends. The toy collection spans from the 18th century to the present, offering insights into cultural beliefs, technological advancements, and the dreams of generations of children.

Notable exhibits, such as “Toys from the Attic: Stories of American Childhood,” explore the significance of toys in providing comfort and teaching skills, inviting visitors to reflect on their own toys and engage in conversations about childhood memories.

The museum’s fine-scale miniature collection includes architectural works, room settings, fine art, decorative art, tools, equipment, and meticulously crafted figures. These miniatures, often 1:12 scale reproductions of real-world objects, showcase the talents of master artists. Visitors can marvel at replicas of Louis XV’s study at the Palace of Versailles, an Italian Renaissance studio, or a Boston Beacon Hill mansion. Interactive areas like “In the Artist’s Studio” highlight the creativity and skill required to produce these intricately detailed works.

Over its three decades of operation, the museum has undergone two expansions to accommodate its growing collection and provide a captivating experience for visitors. With its diverse array of toys and miniatures, the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures offers a fascinating exploration of childhood, cultural history, and artistic craftsmanship.

The National Airline History Museum

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The National Airline History Museum, located at Kansas City Downtown Airport in Missouri, is dedicated to the history of airlines in the United States. Established in 1986 as Save-A-Connie by aviation enthusiasts Larry A. Brown and Dick McMahon, the museum has evolved to include both propeller and jet age aircraft. It aims to expand its collection of vintage passenger planes.

In 2000, the museum leased a hangar from Beechcraft at the Kansas City Downtown Airport. However, in 2010, the museum’s director was convicted of embezzlement. The following year, as part of its reorganization, the museum underwent a complete rebranding effort and was renamed the National Airline History Museum. It also partnered with Kansas City’s Roasterie Coffee Shop for promotional purposes.

Over the years, the museum has made efforts to restore and acquire various aircraft. The Martin 4-0-4, a rare model with only 103 built, is undergoing a maintenance program to return it to flying condition. The Douglas DC-3 is currently being made airworthy, with one engine overhauled and the other being rebuilt.

The Lockheed Super “G” Constellation, the first fully restored Constellation, is undergoing maintenance to become airworthy again. The museum also displays TWA’s corporate “Moonliner II” replica, which was originally located atop the TWA Corporate Headquarters’ Building.

In 2009, the museum acquired one of the few remaining operational Lockheed L-1011 Tristar aircraft. Although the engines were sold prior to the purchase, efforts are underway to source mid-life engines to make it complete and operational.

Despite facing eviction threats and an eviction notice in recent years, the National Airline History Museum continues its operations. The museum serves as a showcase for aviation enthusiasts, offering a glimpse into the rich history of airlines in the United States.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum

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The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is a renowned history museum showcasing artifacts recovered from the sunken steamboat Arabia, which sank in the Missouri River in 1856. Opening its doors on November 13, 1991, in the Kansas City River Market, the museum is operated by River Salvage Inc., the partners responsible for the excavation and preservation of the Arabia. With its vast collection, the museum boasts one of the world’s largest assemblages of pre-Civil War artifacts.

Visitors to the museum are treated to an immersive experience, beginning with a series of videos recounting the captivating story of the Arabia’s sinking and subsequent excavation. A theater also screens a 14-minute film titled “The Fall and Rise of the Steamboat Arabia.” The museum’s highlight is its remarkable display of artifacts, featuring a preservation lab where dedicated staff members work diligently to clean and restore the recovered items.

The meticulous preservation process can be demanding, with even a small nail requiring hours of work, while items like shoes and boots may take months to fully preserve. The museum offers a comprehensive insight into the Arabia’s history, allowing visitors to explore a full-scale reproduction of the steamboat’s main deck spanning 171 feet. Here, original components such as boilers, the engine, anchor, and even the skeleton of a mule can be viewed. Notable exhibits include the 6-ton stern and a meticulously reconstructed paddle wheel.

The museum’s collection represents daily life on the frontier, with hundreds of thousands of artifacts dating back to 1856 or earlier. These include over 4,000 boots and shoes, 247 hats, 235 ax heads, 29 jars of pickles, 328 pocket knives, and a unique children’s doll. Considered an “Aladdin’s cave of objects from the year 1856” by The Wall Street Journal, the collection provides a captivating glimpse into the past.

In addition to its impressive assortment of artifacts, the museum unveiled a new exhibit in 2013 featuring the engine of the Missouri Packet. This historic steamboat, which sank in the Missouri River in 1820, inspired the Hawley family to embark on their quest for sunken steamboats. The engine, excavated near Arrow Rock, Missouri, serves as a remarkable centerpiece and is believed to be the oldest surviving maritime steam engine in the United States.

Plans are underway to relocate and expand the museum, including the proposal for the National Steamboat Museum at Marshall Junction, featuring additional steamboat excavations.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum continues to captivate visitors with its immersive displays, remarkable preservation efforts, and extensive collection of pre-Civil War artifacts.

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