IT HAS BEEN ALMOST A HALF-CENTURY since college students roamed the hallways of the imposing building at 39th and McGee streets. But now, as guys in hard hats turn the old school into office space for budding entrepreneurs, a classroom on the fourth floor reminds all who enter of the creative pursuits that went on there.
Trudge up three flights of stairs and down a dim, dusty hallway lined by blue-green lockers and you’ll finally come to the old Room 402. Inside this former art classroom illuminated by big windows, a series of murals — from the past, about the past — fills much of the wall space.
The developers of Plexpod Westport Commons are calling this found artwork “The History of Kansas City,” a pictoral story complete with Indians, settlers, buffalo, covered wagons, stagecoaches and steamboats. More modern scenes depict the Liberty Memorial, Union Station and what appears to be Municipal Auditorium.
The artists signed and dated their work in various spots. The murals, painted high up on three walls of the room (including a half-wall descending from the ceiling), were started and probably completed in 1948.
For 27 years, from 1942 to 1969, this building was home to the Junior College of Kansas City, later Metropolitan Junior College. Before and after, it was Westport Junior High/Westport Middle School. (Starting in the fall of 1969, the college now known as MCC would expand to three new campuses: Longview, Maple Woods and Penn Valley.)
The art discovered in the old school evokes the familiar look of famed muralist Thomas Hart Benton, so when a local innovation-news website called Startland wrote about the murals in August, there was talk that surely Benton — a Missouri native who taught at the Kansas City Art Institute from 1935 to 1941 — was somehow involved.
But what some didn’t realize was that in 1948, 3845 McGee St. was home to a college, not a junior high school. The signatures on the walls were not those of Benton’s Art Institute proteges painting murals in seventh-grade classrooms; they were Junior College students.
We know this because MCC archivist Janice Lee has researched this topic before. The MCC Archives, on the MCC-Penn Valley campus, includes two articles from the Junior College student newspaper detailing the mural projects of art instructor Mary E. Moulton and some of her students. (See those articles at the bottom of this post.)
The first newspaper story, from April 1, 1948, begins:
Although they make no definite promises, Miss Mary E. Moulton, art instructor, and the 15 members of her Design II class hope to have a mural covering the walls of their classroom completed by the end of the term.
The mural will depict Kansas City in the days of the early traders, in the 1840’s and as it is today. Miss Moulton explains that the different eras will be painted so as to merge with each other in orderly sequence.
That article included the names of the student artists — the very names that can be seen on the murals.
News of the discovery also reached the son of one of the student artists, who produced a great find: a photo of the murals being painted. Edward Chambon, his dad, is up on the scaffolding.
And here’s the same view today:
Brad Chambon of Mission, son of the former Junior College student (and later Art Institute student), says he first saw the old picture of the murals when he was a kid. He wanted to view them in person, but his father told him they were probably “long gone through many years of remodels.”
Edward Chambon worked as an architect for more than 50 years. He died in 2013.
Chambon was a gifted artist and a huge fan of Thomas Hart Benton, his son says, and might very well have been influenced by his work.
[ Update, 9/26: Brad Chambon had told us he thought that old photograph was part of a newspaper story. He and his brother got out a scrapbook of their dad’s and discovered the picture and article appeared in The Kansas City Star on May 9, 1948. A couple of tidbits: “Art pupils not only have a project in history, but also the problem of fitting their murals around ventilators and adapting them to the room structure.” And: “College kibitzers gather in the art department to watch and advise the student painters, as shown here. They have pointed out several errors.” The completed murals were scheduled to be unveiled to the public at an open house on May 24, 1948. See the entire story at the end of this post. ]
The owners of Westport Plexpod Commons were kind enough to let us drop by the building recently to take pictures of the old murals. As you can see, they’re in decent shape overall — less vivid than back in the day, no doubt, but still impressive.
Other murals in the building were likely painted over at some point. We found a picture of a Junior College art classroom in the 1963 yearbook that appears to show part of a mural done in a similar style — an airplane is obvious.
That mural is not, however, in Room 402.
It seems likely it was in the classroom next door. Here’s how that classroom looks today:
In April 1949, a year after the first article, the Junior College student newspaper reported that another class of Moulton’s was working on murals in adjoining Room 403:
The scenes on the front panels depict the wealth producing activities — industry, transportation, merchandising, both retail and wholesale. The side wall will include scenes of the Plaza, Quality Hill and the old market section. The back wall will have scenes of outdoor recreational activities, such as picnics and horseback riding.
As the current photo of the room shows, however, there’s no evidence today of any additional murals. Chip Walsh, one of the partners in Sustainable Development Partners Kansas City, says that unmasking the building’s history “requires a little detective work.” (SDPKC and Plexpod are partnering on the project.)
The massive renovation of the old school will result in what its developers are calling the largest co-working facility in the world, “the next generation of office space,” with more than 50 open “team spaces,” 40 offices, 200 flexible desks for rent, an event space, maker’s studio, coffee shop and multiple meeting rooms.
From the sound of things, the former Room 402 will be the star of the building. The murals will get some repair-and-protect TLC, and the room will become a dramatic meeting space with wood paneling and a bar. It will be available to Plexpod member companies as well as outside firms for an hourly fee.
“I can imagine anyone hosting a client or guest from out of town wanting to book that room for special meetings,” Plexpod founder Gerald Smith says. “It should be awesome.”
THE MURALS IN ROOM 402
Individual scenes in sequential order:
A few of the artists’ signatures: