The Roanoke Historic District is a midtown neighborhood tucked into the Southeast corner of Roanoke Park, at 39th Street and Southwest Trafficway. A review of its rich history holds something for everyone:
Kansas City history buffs will recognize the names Abernathy, Jarboe, Pearle, Muehlebach, Holmes, Helmers, Agee, Volker, Benton, Sondern – prominent families building homes here. Students of architecture will know the names George Mathews, Shepard, Farrar and Wiser, Henry Hoit, Nelle Peters, Jesse Lauck, Frederick Gunns, Ernest Brostrom, and Frank Lloyd Wright – noted architects commissioned for this original work.
These owners and their designers built homes in styles popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They valued the wooded nature of the properties, and accommodated the buildings to the natural terrain. They blended elements from different architectural styles, combined unusual materials, and constructed buildings of such scale and quality a concentrated eclectic collection of some of the city’s most distinctive and unique homes was created.
The Roanoke neighborhood began when the Roanoke Investment Company bought 188 acres from the Kansas City Interstate Fair in 1887, and filed the plat for development. The lots and winding roads are essentially the same as first platted– with one major exception -- when filed; the area was outside the jurisdiction of either independent municipality of the City of Kansas or the Town of Westport. Roanoke was one of the very first planned suburbs!
Only three houses were built prior to 1900, but the annexation of Westport by Kansas City in 1897 and the subsequent availability of city services sparked a building boom. Forty homes were built between 1900-1910, representing almost half of the entire neighborhood.
The South Highlands Land and Improvement Company enlarged the neighborhood in the 1900s, and contributed acreage that became Roanoke Park, under the direction of George Kessler. Over the next few decades, Roanoke residents bought and contributed additional acreage to the city for park use.
The Roanoke Protective Homes Association was organized in 1921. At the time, there were no city zoning codes governing the use of the properties. So, one of their first tasks was enacting and enforcing a set of regulations to guide and protect development. The “single-family residence” designation is considered key in protecting many old homes from being divided during the housing shortage of the 1940s. Today, the Roanoke Protective Homes Association remains strong, organizing neighborhood events and leading the Roanoke efforts to protecting and promoting midtown and Westport communities by partnering with the neighboring neighborhoods of Valentine, Coleman Highlands and Volker.
Kansas City designated Roanoke a Historic District in 1985, placing it under the protection of the Landmarks Commission. Any changes to building exteriors must meet standards for appropriateness, preserving the historical significance.
Today as you wander the winding roads of Roanoke, you can imagine how the neighborhood looked in earlier times. Not much has changed. Many homes are a century old – some trees even older! Homes have been maintained, restored and renovated, and the trees maintained and replanted. The quality of the housing stock, along with initial and continued neighborhood activism, the natural beauty of the surrounding area and historic preservation protection has sustained the community. Beginning as a suburb, Roanoke now serves as a model for urban living.
The following history of the birth of Roanoke was provided by Mr. Lyle Kennedy, Professor Emeritus of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, historian, and gentleman.
On June 11, 1833, a Richard W. Cummins obtained by patent, the 160 acres of the NE1/2, Sec.19,T49,R33. By 1849, the entire tract had passed to Allen B.H. McGee, and included all the land between 35th St. and 39th St., Broadway and approximately Holly. The “high” ground became mostly crop and orchard land. In 1868 McGee sold 10 acres at the SW corner to J.G. Hamilton, and the 9 acres just east of that to Wm. R. Bernard, and by 1877 had sold three small tracts in the N.E. corner. The 1877 plat shows only 6 farmhouses in the entire tract. In May 1882, McGee, together with Kersey Coates, T.B. Bullene, S.B. Armour, Wm. R. Bernard, and several others, formed a corporation under the name of “Kansas City Interstate Fair” with Col. Kersey Coates as President, so McGee sold the Corporation 92.3 acres, reserving for himself the tract between 36th, Summit and Broadway. The Corporation then purchased the 36 acres in the valley to the west. So Kansas City and Westport had a fine fairgrounds. An advertisement in 1885 offers “Excellent Music” by Prof. Huletts Band, fireworks, a balloon ascension with a trapeze performance, horse racing on the ½ mile track, and picnicking in the “shady woods upon velvety lawns.” The Ft. Scott and Gulf ran trains “every few minutes” and the streetcars increased their facilities. But by 1887 the land “boom” for development purposes brought them an offer of $606,337 for their original 92.3 acres (less the right-of-way granted to the K.C. Memphis & Mobile R.R.) from the Roanoke Investment Co. Since they had paid less than $40,000 for the tract, this much gain was irresistible, so they sold and the first plat of Roanoke was filed, approved by the Common Council of the City of Kansas on October 7, 1887, and attested to the H.P. Langworthy, City Clerk. None of the stockholders of the Fairground Co. were involved in the Roanoke Investment Co.
Lyle Kennedy – October 1974
A century ago, Kansas Citians came to Westport’s horse track to enjoy a day at the races. And it was all perfectly legal.
Kansas Citians who have been observing the recent controversy surrounding the issue of pari-mutuel betting in Missouri may be surprised to learn that legalized horse racing was a popular entertainment in the Westport area a little more than a century ago.
In fact, it was a large scale operation that drew well-known horses, riders and trainers from all over the country. Enthusiastic crowds, aided by friendly bookmakers, wagered on the equine talents of Daisy D, King Lyon and Gold Dust.
In what is now the Roanoke district of Westport, the race track was part of the Kansas City Interstate Fairgrounds which covered the area between 38th Street and Valentine Road, Pennsylvania and Roanoke Road. And the heart of the fairgrounds was the race-track at 38th Street and Summit.
On August 22nd, 1883, a two-column advertisement in the Kansas City Times read: “Go to the Greatest of them all...The Kansas City Interstate Fair…an aggregation of Fleet Footed Horses…and the Most Interesting Races Over THE BEST RACE TRACK IN THE WORLD AND FROM THE FINEST GRANDSTAND IN AMERICA!”
This kind of hype worked, even in 1883, and thousands came to the fair. But the ad also contained elements of truth. All through the summer, construction crews had labored to complete the buildings and grounds. First, there was the grading and filling of the track.
Then, 50 feet back, a three-deck grandstand, surmounted by a cupola, was built. So care-fully was it engineered that the lowest seats, elevated 15 feet above ground level, permitted spectators on the ground to watch the races without obscuring the view from the grandstand.
On opening day, September 17th, 1883, a variety of conveyances carried the public to the fairgrounds. Residents of Westport were lucky. They lived close enough to walk. However, those from Kansas City and visitors who had come into town by boat or rail had to cover the four miles by various means. Some rode on the Kansas City and West-
Port Horse Railroad that traveled between the two points on a regular basis. Others paid fare on the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad special excursion trains that ran from downtown depots to the fairgrounds every half hour. Still, others came by wagons, carriages, mule and horse trains.
At post time that September day, all seats in the grandstand were filled. Judges and timers were in their respective places, and bookmakers fingered stacks of bills. Jockeys, wearing bright colors, rode their nervous mounts in the exercise area while drivers in the trotting and pacing events harnessed their horses to buggies. Then, the cry of, “They’re off!” brought the crowd to its feet. By day’s end, Daisy D, the favorite, had not disappointed her fans. She took all the pacing heats while Vallet won the $400. purse in the mile dash and a local boy claimed a $5 prize in a pony race.
Business boomed during the six-day fair. Westport’s Harris House Hotel as well as Kansas City hotels were full. A large delegation from Joplin, Mo., came to the races as well as people from Leavenworth and Lawrence, Kan. Even folks who lived as far away as Arkansas were visitors.
The Kansas City Times noted that the fairgrounds had “no flies, no mosquitoes” and were an excellent place to spend a holiday. “The exposition grounds are covered with the fine trees of the Roanoke Woods which are excellent shade for picnic luncheons, and the lemonade sold is kept in the shade and under the grandstand beer is available.” The newspaper also proclaimed that the grandstand and field “have no superior in the country.”
The following year, more than 200 horses were brought to the Westport fairgrounds to compete. A downpour on opening day turned the track to mud, and the races were cancelled. The second day was bright and sunny, and 10,000 fans packed the grandstand to capacity to see the Ladies Riding Race. In this event, ladies riding side saddle jumped over gates placed at intervals on the mile-and-a-quarter course. Betting among the female spectators also was at a fast pace. According to The Kansas City Times, “The betting among the fair ones in the grandstand made the demand for small change very great. The popular escort was the gentleman with a pocketful of nickels.”
That same year, Matt Calvin, a veteran rider, had two of his fingers bitten off by his mount, but that didn’t prevent him from racing. Later, Calvin acknowledged that the accident might have affected his performance. He came in last.
Not satisfied with the scheduled races, a man named Butler who ran a saloon at Mill Street and Westport Road, imported chariots and drivers to race in Roman fashion. The chariots rumbled and kicked up a lot of dust. As an oddity, they attracted attention, but folks really were interested more in the traditional races.
Attendance continued to build at the fair each year. By 1886, it was drawing crowds of 25,000.
In the fall of 1886, a military parade, the forerunner of the Priests of Pallas Parade, was held downtown. Complete with bands and fireworks, it was a huge success. Visitors came and money was spent.
Then came the announcement that “The land at 38th and Penn was too valuable for development to remain a fairground.” The fair relocated to the area of 15th Street and Prospect where the Kansas City Exposition Building, modeled after London’s famous Crystal Palace, was built. To match the grand scale of this fairground, stakes went as high as $10,000 for one race. By the 1890’s, however, the races were not well attended.
The Interstate Fair was neither the first nor the last fair in the Kansas City area. A predecessor of this event was a fair in 1871 at the McGee farm at 15th Street and Campbell which featured “slow mule and fast horse racing.” An estimated 20,000 persons, more than half of the city’s population, flocked to that fair. They came to view exhibits, including the first sewing machine in these parts that made buttonholes, as well as to watch races and wager on horses.
That fair was such a success that city fathers, including Col. Kersey Coates, decided to make it an annual autumn event. The fair moved to 97 acres between 12th and 17th streets, Charlotte and Campbell. By 1874, this track was nationally known and attracted some of the big names in speed horse racing. There was big money in winning, too. In 1877, Goldsmith Maid, a trotting mare, took the $2000 grand prize. Kansas City now was a member of the Great Western Fair Racing Circuit.
In August 1881, a lighted cigarette dropped into the hay and straw under the grandstand started a fire that destroyed the fair. Afterwards, the organizers moved the fairgrounds south to the Westport location.
There were other racetracks in the area after the turn of the century. One was located on the Paseo between 59th and 63rd streets and was known as Elm Ridge Race Course. Later, the Riverside Race Track, just across the Missouri River flourished during the Pendergast era.
But for a time, the place to go to the races was Westport. There, a person could see colorful jockeys, watch fashionably-dressed spectators, here the excited cries of book-makers and listen for the announcement, “There off and running at Westport!”
By Dory DeAngelo
This page was last updated on 02/11/09.
Copyright © 2008 Roanoke Protective Homes Association