August 15, 2010

Renewed Power

Kansas City’s Power & Light District is a destination that’s ready for a visit

This downtown district of restaurants, shops and theaters was on Kansas City's bucket list for more than a decade, but in the late 2000s, developers finally made it happen. It even won a gold design and development award from the International Council of Shopping Centers in 2009.

Shopping and live music events, both indoors and outdoors, are some of what the Power & Light District has to offer. And the Sprint Center Arena is a few blocks away. For those who know Kansas City, the Power & Light District is like Kansas City's Plaza — but with a fuse.

The name Power & Light evokes images of high-voltage electricity, spotlights and other futuristic technology.

It's all there, but three important buildings that were built in the 1920s keep it under wraps. The three jewels of the district — the Hilton President Kansas City hotel, the Midland Theater and the ultra-tech AMC Mainstreet — have period architecture but are alive inside with innovation.

Hilton President Kansas City

Originally opened in 1926, the Hilton President Kansas City is the only hotel in the Power & Light District. (However, there are other hotels nearby.)

The President, with an AAA rating of four diamonds, is a boutique hotel with 213 guest rooms and suites. The hotel has been restored to its grand days of glamour, service and attention to detail. The lobby, with its two-story columns, wrought-iron second-floor balcony, green palms and colorful fabrics, evokes the time-honored tradition of elegant hotels.

A complimentary Mercedes-Benz sprinter van transports guests within a three-mile radius. It's an opulent service, despite the fact that the President is within walking distance of the Power & Light shops and restaurants and the Sprint Center arena.

The hotel has two restaurants: the Walnut Room with its original stained glass windows and wood columns, and the Drum Room Lounge & Restaurant. The Drum Room originally opened in 1941 and featured the greats of that era, including Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.

To bring the President back to its original glory cost $45.4 million. The restoration of the President created some challenges. The original hotel had 453 rooms, but to meet modern standards, the rooms were enlarged. Also, there are eight fake doors on each floor to keep with the preservation requirements and to maintain the look of the original hallways.

Another fun fact: The President was the first hotel in Kansas City with the ability to make ice on the premise. It made 8,000 pounds of ice every day.

Because the name of the hotel is "President," you'd expect a president or two would have stayed here — and you'd be right. Sher Wolf, director of sales and marketing, said there were four: Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon all spent a night there.

AMC Mainstreet Theatre

Kansas City is AMC Entertainment's corporate headquarters, so it's not surprising that the Mainstreet is home to some of AMC's newest audio-video technology. It's one of the most advanced movie theaters in the country when it comes to sound, projection and atmosphere.

What is surprising is that the six all-digital movie auditoriums are built inside the theater's original 1921 shell.

When developers decided to rescue this theater, they learned that the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We had to preserve as much of the historical fabric as possible," said Greg Scovitch, construction project manager. That fabric turned out to be the bones of the building. "That's why you'll see glimpses of structure elements: brick, mortar, metal. We worked hard to capture and celebrate the juxtaposition of the old and the new. It's an old jewel."

The Mainstreet has two kinds of auditoriums — standard and Cinema Suites. The latter features dining. The standard auditoriums seat 93 to 283 and have high risers (no heads in the way) and footrests.

The Cinema Suites have red leather reclining chairs and seat 21 to 77. The highlight of these auditoriums is that you can order food and drink. A tray beside each seat rises to hold your food.

If you start to tingle, don't worry, it's just the "ButtKicker": a silent subwoofer installed under all seats to simulate vibration for some of the action sequences.

The cinema theme plays out everywhere, including the restrooms. The ladies' room is signified by a life-size Lauren Bacall motif, and Humphrey Bogart's image greets visitors to the men's room. Each well-lit stall has its own sink. And, although the technology isn't ready yet, Scovitch said the infrastructure is in place to scan your ticket's bar code and play your movie in your stall. He expects that to be installed in the next few years.

Scovitch said with old historic projects you have to treat them delicately. "Were there surprises around every turn? Absolutely."

Possibly the biggest surprise was the safe in the basement. "Everyone romanticized about what might be in the safe. It was rusted shut," Scovitch said.

When they opened it, did they find bones, cash, Al Capone? Scovitch laughed. "Nothing was in there."

The Midland By AMC

The Midland was built in 1927 and was a conventional live entertainment theater with rows of seating on an incline, a grand proscenium, balcony and lobby. Today, the theater has been renovated to keep the grand '20s feel but for modern use. The former incline has been cut into tiers for banquets and receptions, and the theater has state-of-the-art sound and lighting to enhance the existing majestic ambiance.

"Tony Bennett loved it so much that he put down his microphone and sang without it for two songs," Midland General Manager Larry Hovick said. "The natural acoustics in the room are really very good."

Hovick said the artists that perform at the Midland notice the painstaking work done to restore it.

"I don't know how many artists have said from the stage that they are honored to be in this historic building. Lyle Lovett said it just the other night. They are happy to see these old buildings being brought back to life," Hovick said.

What were traditional fixed velvet seats were pulled out and replaced by "flex-seating" — added velvet folding chairs. This allows the theater to use chairs for all or part of the ground floor and mezzanine, or to put up banquet tables or standup cocktail-style tables, depending on the event. (The Midland kept its fixed seating in the balcony.) Hovick said a wedding reception was scheduled for the next day. "We've done quite a few. That was our whole goal — to be flexible and versatile."

The restored ceiling took an artisan to repair and paint. "We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars ... a lot of it was water damage. We brought it back to its original 1927 look."

The Indie Bar is next to the Midland. "It had been the administrative office and the box office," Hovick said. It's open five nights a week or any night The Midland has an event.

Because there is an entrance from the bar into the theater, "you can go in the Indie and have a cocktail and then go directly to the show ... if you have a ticket," Hovick said.

But the Indie is more than a sidekick bar. There's karaoke every Wednesday night.

"We have quite the following now," Hovick said. "By having that, it made it more in line with the rest of the Power & Light District. Giving people more to do."

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