Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City, Missouri, would seem to have been one of the least-likely spots for the construction of what is undoubtedly the nation’s grandest memorial to Americans who served in World War I. The mass militarization of Europe, the intrigue of secret treaties, and the struggles of monarchies to maintain power in the face of rising nationalism could not have been farther from the attention of the people living at the crossroads of the nation. Yet during the war, something ignited their passions. Perhaps it was the deaths of nearly 500 Kansas Citians during the conflict, or the 7,300 casualties taken by the 28,000-man-strong 35th Division, made up of Kansas and Missouri National Guardsmen, during the first five days of the battle of Meuse-Argonne, France, less than two months before troops laid down their arms. Immediately after the armistice was signed, a group of locals formed the Liberty Memorial Association, and organized a design competition, while it began amassing what would become the finest collection of World War I artifacts in the U.S. In 1919, a 10-day subscription drive raised $2.5 million, roughly $40 million today. In preparation for the contest, the group consulted the American Institute of Architects. H. Van Buren Magonigle, FAIA, the institute’s competition adviser, not only gave advice on it, but ultimately won it.

The association purchased a prime piece of ground that overlooks downtown Kansas City, and Magonigle’s spare, Egyptian-influenced monument makes the most of it. A 1¼-mile-long allée is terminated by a podium that supports a fluted, 271-foot-tall, steam-and-flame-spewing gun barrel. It is flanked by a pair of pavilions and two sphinxes whose faces are shrouded by wings. Future, the west-facing statue, looks toward the years ahead, which cannot be seen; Memory, the east-facing sphinx, is covered to protect it from seeing the horrors of war. The site is oriented 11-degrees off true north, a reference to the signing of the armistice at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. Magonigle may have promised more than he could deliver, because he was fired before the project was completed. The scaledback complex has his allée, tower, and pavilions, but a museum and theater were never realized.

The problem with memorials that are long on symbolism and short on storytelling is that the power and meaning of the events that inspired their construction fades as the generation of people who built them pass on, and over the years they frequently suffer from neglect. Such was the case here, and by the mid-1990s the condition of the memorial had deteriorated so severely that it was considered a danger to the public and fenced off. Then, the citizens of Kansas City did an extraordinary thing: They voted a tax on themselves to fund its complete reconstruction, and started a separate fund-raising effort to build a National World War I Museum to display the collection.

ASAI Architecture, led by Stephen Abend, FAIA, won a competition to reconstruct the memorial, starting with its deteriorated concrete frame, and to build the new National World War I Museum beneath it. He reversed the slope of the mall in front, bringing it three stories down, to expose the foundation wall that had covered the memorial’s basement. A 40,000-square-foot addition to accommodate a new entry, lobby, gathering spaces, and auditorium was built in front of this. The new museum was carved out of the undercroft beneath the memorial, and a research library and storage for the collection placed in a new basement below it. The original pavilions, now called Memory Hall and Exhibit Hall, and the murals inside them, were lovingly restored. They can now be reached from the museum level via new elevators.