The Historic Westside
The area came into being after the Civil War, when Kansas City spread atop and beyond the hills overlooking the Missouri River. A fish-hook shaped bluff runs along the river then south. The northern section was settled by the City’s new society and was called ‘Silk Stocking Ridge’ and later, permanently, ‘Quality Hill’.
Not far to the south, along the shank of the hook, lived William K. Mulkey, a rough-hewn North Carolinian, on land inherited by his wife, Catherine Dripps, daughter of Mountain Man ‘Major’ Andrew Dripps and his Oto Indian wife. Mulkey himself had been an Indian trader and later a horse trader. Dripps died in 1860 at the substantial brick Mulkey home. At that time, it was the only house of quality between Westport on the south and the City of Kansas.
In 1869, Mulkey platted part of his land as an addition to the city. It extended from 13th to 16th Streets along the bluff. North to south, the lots bordered Dripps (now Belleview) Avenue on the west, Catherine (Madison) in the center and Summit alongside the east side. They were sold for as much as $1,000 each.
A varied, typically early to late Victorian assortment of architectural styles developed. Examples of ‘eclectic’ architecture combining the best of classical designs could be found alongside brick houses with Italian bays and motifs. Lots were often quite narrow, and as a result some of the houses are less than twenty feet wide. There is a great variety of styles and although there are some similarities, there are no ‘row’ houses or solid blocks with the same façade. At the most, there are occasional ‘twins’, and a few double houses, but no more.
A great number of houses in the ‘Kansas City Peaked Style’ were built between 1875 and 1890. Generally, the most popular building material was brick, deep red Kansas City brick fired from local clays. Most of the buildings were all brick, some were frame and later a few stone. Cut stone was used primarily for trim above and around doors and windows. Ornately turned wood- porches abound. Builders often used the same brick façade, embellishing them with different porches, which like the other trim, was ordered from a catalog. The Victorian penchant for towers, turrets and bays is well manifest, all of them brick, often round, sometimes rectangular.
By 1880, the bluff was known as ‘Irish Hill and the census of that year indicate that the term was well chosen. Some of the Irish residents were immigrants but most were of second generation, moving here from the northeast. Others were West European: Swedes; Germans, British and Danes. Italians and other southern Europeans did not come into the neighborhood for another generation. Mexicans did not move here for some thirty or forty years or more. No African Americans lived here, except as domestics.
A large number of the houses were built as rental property. There were several boarding and lodging houses on the bluff, and a good many householders rented a single room or had a border or two. In a city going through an economic boom, lodgings were at a premium.
A great number of the population seem to have worked for the railroad, specifically the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad, the shops of which were immediately below the bluff. On Jefferson Street lived a different class in large houses: realtors; a streetcar line owner, business managers, a prominent architect, bankers and a foundry president. These people were mostly of Anglo-Saxon origins and their houses were individually designed by architects.
Living atop the bluff had its advantages. “The view was a scene you couldn’t compare.” Remembered one resident, “and if there was a breeze anywhere, boy, you’d get it,” In 1882, Mulkey presented a tiny triangle of land at 16th and Belleview to the City for a park. This was the first public park in Kansas City.
In time, children from families on the hill often left when they struck out on their own. Many families moved south to newer neighborhoods. An increasingly larger transient population developed. Even on Jefferson in near-mansions, families moved south to 35th Street, to Valentine Boulevard, and beyond. By 1914, the big homes had become rooming houses and during World War II, rooms were divided and re-divided to provide housing for war workers. In the post-war years loans were difficult to obtain to buy or repair the houses. Some owners tried to keep their houses in repair but without loans and insurance companies cancelling policies, houses fell into disrepair.
Many houses were subsequently demolished to make way for the interstate highways to the east, north and south. These, and the precipitous bluff above the railroad to the west, left Mulkey Square as an Island, physically separated from the rest of the City.
This separation has created a very individual neighborhood with a real sense of identity and community. The recent attraction of downtown living in Kansas City, the birth and ongoing growth of the Crossroads Arts District and the Power and Light District, and the close proximity to the newly developed Kaufmann Centre for the Performing Arts have made Mulkey Square and the Westside in general an extremely desirable and sought after neighborhood in which to live. Older properties have been redeveloped and restored and modern and individualistic architectural styles have been introduced. The mix of stylish shops, restaurants and creative industries, such as fashion, art and design, based primarily around 17th and Summit streets further enhances the turn of the century small town feel of the neighborhood.