August 17, 2007

Lighting the way in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Reed Cordish has watched one city center after another make a comeback over the past two decades. Indeed,  his family's firm, the Cordish Co., is credited with reviving several of them, including downtown Baltimore, where it developed  the now-vibrant Inner Harbor.  
But he has never seen a city blossom quite like this one.“What’s remarkable is it’s all happening  so quickly,” says Cordish, looking across a sea of  construction cranes from his company’s 30th-floor offices. “What you see happening this year in  Kansas City is what you’d see happening in other cities over 20 years.”  

Early next year, the Cordish Co. will cut the ribbon on the Power & Light District, a massive redevelopment of a nine-square-block chunk of Kansas City’s long-dilapidated downtown. Like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, it will feature restaurants, bars, shops and live entertainment.   

But the $850 million project is only one piece of  a citywide makeover that is adding to the allure  of a destination already well known for jazz clubs  and barbecue.   

Not far from the nearly complete Power & Light District, Cordish points out a major construction site that will house the $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, scheduled for  completion in 2009. Off in another direction is the $276 million Sprint Center, an 18,500-seat arena for concerts and sporting events opening in October with a concert by Elton John. And next door is the new College Basketball Experience, including the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, also opening in October.   

Still, one of the most notable additions in the city is a recently opened $200 million expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.   

Heralded by The New Yorker as “one of the best (expansions) of the last generation,” the new Steven Holl-designed wing  cascades down the side  of the museum’s sloping  sculpture gardens.   

Even before the addition, the Nelson was highly regarded for its collection of Asian art and Henry Moore sculptures.     

But the semi-subterranean new wing, topped with glass-walled “lenses” on the sky that The New York Times described as “breathtaking,” cements the city’s art standing.   

The light-filled expansion adds 65% more exhibit space in a succession of soaring galleries — no two alike — filled with post-World War II and contemporary art, African art and photographs.    

There are noteworthy pieces by the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, as well as a whole room for the museum’s famed collection of Isamu Noguchi sculpture.   

“There are cities three times our size that would kill for something like this,” Marc Wilson, the museum’s longtime director, says of the new building. “It allowed us to do many things that the community has wanted.”   

The Nelson expansion is just the newest art-related site in the city, which also is home to the nearby Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the growing, gallery-rich Crossroads Arts District. In October, yet another art museum, albeit a smaller one, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, opens in suburban Overland Park, Kan.   

Kansas City, despite its modest size (metro population: 1.97 million, making  it the 28th largest in the USA), lures nearly 17 million visitors a year.   

Among the more established draws  is  the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District, home to the American Jazz Museum and night-spots such as The Blue Room. But tourism also has gotten a boost from another significant new museum that opened in December, the National World War I Museum.   

Built underground at the site of Kansas City’s iconic Liberty Memorial — a 22-story obelisk-like war monument that is one of the city’s most imposing structures — the new museum offers a comprehensive history of the Great War, with thousands of rare historical objects ranging from battle flags to biplanes.   

“I can guarantee that this is the only place where you can touch the tube of a Bavarian field howitzer,” says curator Doran Cart, rubbing  his hand along one of half a dozen howitzers on display.    

The designer of the $26 million museum, Ralph Appelbaum, is  perhaps best known for his work on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. And like that museum, the new World War I museum is a reminder of the man-made horrors of the last century — and a not-so-subtle plea not to repeat them.   

“The war was an awful thing, but it’s part of history,” says Cart, crossing a glass bridge entryway built over 9,000 silk poppies — one for every 1,000 of the 9 million soldiers and sailors killed  in the war (there were also an estimated 5 million civilians killed). “And you can learn from history.”   

Despite such new museums and other attractions, the city’s core area has continued to struggle — at times almost appearing abandoned. But that, too, is changing, Cordish says.    “This time next year, it’s going to be so active and full of life, you won’t believe it,” says the developer, pointing out everything from historic theaters under renovation to the site where his company is building a hipsters’ bowling lane. “It’s going to feel like  a big city should.”

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