They nag at you. The little things you notice in your neighborhood. The details around the city that don't add up. The bothersome questions to which you once knew — or believed you knew — the answers.
Well, we know they bother us. We've driven by a misspelled street sign and wondered: How? We've slurped down that last-call Jäeger bomb at 1:30 a.m. and wondered, "Why must we shuffle down the street to a 3 a.m. bar?" And nearly every Kansas Citian, hearing about another homicide, has wondered just where our epicenter of violent crime really is.
The Pitch's Answering Machine is here to help. We've pestered officials, scoured historical records, and earned a few strange looks while undertaking the quest to address some of these lingering questions. We've looked at budget line items, studied architecture, and picked at the seamy side of local history. We went and looked for the metro's richest resident, chatted with the guiding voice inside our Garmin GPS unit, and tried to figure out whether there's a stadium jail cell that can hold us after a game-day riot.
We couldn't answer every question we had about Kansas City, but we got a decent start. You'll find new messages from the Answering Machine in issues to come. Meanwhile, here's some of what we've learned so far.
What was "Western Auto" before it was just a sign atop a condo building?
Even lifelong Kansas Citians sometimes forget that the giant illuminated sign adorning 2107 Grand was a trophy for a major retailer's corporate headquarters. The Western Auto chain began in 1908 as a mail-order parts company. As cars skyrocketed in popularity, the business grew, becoming a brick-and-mortar mainstay nationwide. By the 1950s, the store had achieved Sears-like success, and it sold a similarly wide range of merchandise. After decades of success, Western Auto returned to its car-centered roots in the 1980s and 1990s, but business by then was lagging. In the early 2000s, the company merged with Advance Auto Parts, which began converting Western Auto stores. There are still a few holdouts in small towns in the South and in Puerto Rico, but here the name lives on as a skyline beacon to better times — and a handy nostalgic selling point for the building's not-cheap condos.
Was Missouri really once called "the Puke State"?
Missouri has had plenty of nicknames since it became a state, in 1821. It has been the Bullion State, the Lead State and the Cave State. But for a stretch before Missourians settled on calling their home the Show-Me State (at the end of the 19th century), one of the nicknames was rather awful: the Puke State. The roots of this gross historical footnote aren't clear. According to the 1938 book State Names, Flags, Seals, Songs, Birds, Flowers and Other Symbols, the phrase was coined during an 1827 meeting of Missourians in the Galena lead mines in Illinois. The book speculates that somebody at the gathering observed that the patch of land where they were standing looked like Missouri had puked on it, and the name stuck. Less apocryphal etymology: The word puke is probably just a bastardized reference to Pike County, on the state's Illinois border.
Is Kansas City's City Hall the tallest in the United States?
This impressive-sounding claim to architectural fame is commonly tossed off to visitors, but it isn't true. The 29-story beaux-arts building, erected at a cost of $5 million, was the tallest in Missouri upon its 1937 completion. And it remains the most visible symbol of "Boss" Tom Pendergast's political machine — his concrete company had the contract for its construction. But it wasn't even the tallest U.S. city hall back then. Philadelphia's stood 548 feet tall (including its tower) when it was finished in 1908. And even if you disregard that tower, Los Angeles completed its 453-foot city hall in 1938, keeping KC's claim to skyscraping short-lived. Our 443-foot building is still the third-tallest in Kansas City, though, so that's something.
What's the story with the Spaceship House at 1102 Valentine Road?
First, let's get the name right: It's the Yanda house. But, yeah, it's a monument to another era's idea of futurism, the DeLorean of Kansas City home architecture. It was attention-grabbing and completely different from its contemporaries, this house, designed by architect Albert Yanda, built in 1966 and known for its distinctive dome. Shrouded by dozens of trees and sunken away from the street, the house is easy to miss from a passing car. Observed from the rear, the home appears almost to float, its huge, pyramid-shaped features pointing to the ground and seemingly ready to launch skyward at any moment. (Old photos show that a satellite dish once perched on the roof, only adding to its Millennium Falcon allure.) The 1,700-square-foot structure occupies an awkward strand of land surrounded by much grander homes and stands in the shadow of one of KC's most famous former residences: the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio, a state historic site. The two-bedroom, two-bath spaceship may be historic, but the last time it changed hands, it was quite a steal. Jackson County real-estate records show that it was sold in 2009 for $89,900.
Do local stadiums have jail cells?
The "stadium jail" — a drunk tank for sports rowdies — is a commonly held truth among tailgaters. And Jim Rowland, executive director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, says Arrowhead does indeed have holding cells for misbehaving tomahawk choppers (as most major American stadiums do). "I believe there are two, three or four," he says. They're not hidden away deep within the stadium's recesses, though. "It's certainly not in the bowels," he adds, noting that they're just part of the team's security office. Rowland says Kauffman Stadium has "procedures" for dealing with unruly fans, but it lacks a dedicated pokey.
Although soccer has long been associated with hooliganism, Sporting Kansas City's Livestrong Sporting Park, which opened in 2011, has no detention area for disruptive supporters. Team communications manager Kurt Austin says: "In the rare event that someone needs to be taken into custody, KCK police transport them as necessary."
Who was Annie Chambers, where was her infamous brothel, and what stands there today?
Annie Chambers opened her house of ill repute north of downtown in 1872. As Kansas City grew, becoming a rail hub full of cattlemen and laboring dudes, so did the demand for prostitution. Chambers, who moved to Kansas City three years earlier, filled the market with a two-story, 25-room brothel at Third Street and Wyandotte. There was no organized police force, and the city's population was 50,000; 40 bordellos operated at that time, according to research materials in the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Driving Chambers' success as a madam was the opulence of her house. This wasn't a shady sex shack. The rooms had fine decorations and chandeliers, expensive furniture and erotic art. The business thrived, despite being mere blocks from City Hall and what would eventually become police headquarters. Eventually, social pressure squeezed the sex trade out of Kansas City. Chambers, whose birth name was the much more harlot-sounding Leanna Loveall, died in 1935, at age 92. Today, an office building occupies the southwest corner of Third and Wyandotte where the gilded cathouse once stood. Among its tenants: stadium architecture firm Populous.
Street signs with typos? Really?
Kansas City spokesman Dennis Gagne says staff cuts and human error mean that we're seeing more glitches than before on signage. (The city doesn't keep figures on bad signs, but we're sure there are more of them.) "There's one person working in a sign shop," he explains. "We've trimmed to the point where there's not a second set of eyes on them. When you see one, it's huge to you. Every day you drive by it, it registers."
True! But Gagne says help may be on the way. "Call 3-1-1 [to report incorrect signs]," he says. "It's my understanding that money was shifted to this."
Why does former Mayor Richard Berkley still dye his hair black?
It's possible that not even Berkley knows the answer to this question, but he can probably apply a box of Just for Men without even reading the directions.
The Royals? The Kings? What's with all the sovereign-named sports teams?
The reason for our blueblood team names is due not to nobility but to steer. The Royals are named for the American Royal rodeo and stock show. The city's erstwhile NBA squad, the Kings, originally was called the Rochester Royals, and then the Cincinnati Royals, before moving to town, and that was the result of a naming contest. The team rechristened itself the Kings in order to avoid confusion with the baseball club.
How much does the city spend each year to operate its fountains?
It's no secret that Kansas City loves its fountains. The city flag even pays homage to water blasting through the air. The city manages 48 of an estimated 200 fountains, ranging from huge, ornate jobs to discreet, out-of-the-way gurglers. According to the Parks and Recreation Department, the city budgets $167,000 a year to maintain them.
Why are some bars open until 1:30 a.m., while others close at 3?
We asked Gagne about this, too, and he says the standard closing time for bars has been, and remains, 1:30 a.m. He reminds us, though, that state officials 20 years ago feared that the relatively early lights-out was keeping conventions away from Missouri. So, with that in mind, Kansas City relaxed its laws to allow bars that might reasonably expect convention business to stay open till 3. Those late-serving bars had to be within 1.5 miles of a hotel with at least 40 guest rooms and had to report annual sales of $100,000. Gagne says those basic guidelines remain in place.
What's the latest on the goofy liquor laws in Kansas City, Kansas?
The state has a history of draconian blue laws. According to one old story, when airlines began slinging in-flight drinks, they wouldn't serve while in Kansas airspace. But if you're a fan of guzzling booze or you make your living selling it, the current Kansas Legislature is working for you. Earlier this year, the state legalized happy hours (following more than 25 years of only moderately pleasant hours). A bill that passed last session also allows microbreweries and microdistilleries to give out product samples. At the retail level, the rules are still pretty strict: Liquor stores must close before 11 p.m. (8 p.m. Sunday), and grocery stores and convenience stores can sell only 3.2 beer. There was some movement to update those laws in the last legislative session, though, and the issue is almost certain to come up again when the new session starts in January.
Does the female voice on my old Garmin GPS belong to a local woman?
The woman's voice on all Garmin units prior to 2009 was local actress Cathy Barnett, seen onstage this year in Sweeney Todd and Hairspray. "I was the voice in the Garmin GPS machines back when they were only in Hertz rental cars," she says. "And then when the general public could buy them, I was still the voice of Jill for a long time." (Jill — the dulcet, disembodied female voice offering directional assistance — is today played by a Boston voice-over professional named Jill Jacobsen.)
Barnett remains the longtime voice of Hallmark's crusty "Maxine" character, and she still lists the Garmin gig among her credits in theater programs. "Maybe I shouldn't," she says. "People see that and come backstage and they don't give a shit about the show. They just want me to say, 'Turn left. Turn right on Cherry Street.'"
Who is the metro's richest resident?
The highest-ranking local person, according to the Forbes list of the 400 richest people in the United States, is Garmin co-founder Min Kao. His estimated worth of $2.3 billion is good enough for No. 188. The 63-year-old lives in Leawood and still serves as chairman and CEO of the company that he and Gary Burrell started in 1989. Kao lives on a country-club golf course in a $3.3 million, 6,580-square-foot home. Burrell, who retired before his partner, is worth an estimated $1.4 billion (No. 330) and lives in Spring Hill, Kansas.
Do the mounted police keep a regular schedule?
Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department spokesman Darin Snapp says no: "The Mounted Patrol Unit does not have a set schedule, and regularly 'flexes' their schedule to accommodate community events, patrols, special events, youth programs, and training," he writes in an e-mail. "We not only handle crowd control, but we provide various youth riding programs through Parks and Recreation and Police Athletic League, attend various community and special events (Rockfest, All Star events, Big 12 Tournament, several concerts at the Sprint Center, American Royal BBQ, and parades, etc.)."
And that's not all. Snapp adds: "We also conduct patrols in the entertainment districts and in higher-crime neighborhoods, to include the 'hot spots.' We write citations, handle calls for service, and make arrests. Only our unit does this from the back of a horse. We currently have nine officers and 10 horses in our unit. The Mounted Patrol Unit is located in Swope Park at Camp Lake of the Woods at 7331 Oakwood Drive."
How much does the KCPD spend on fuel?
The cops don't just have their own gas stations (a setup most cities use for reasons of efficiency and accountability) — they have their own lower gas prices. While funded by the city, the police department has its own bidding process. The KCPD's 2012–13 budget lists $3.51 million for fuel, based on a projected use of 1.17 million gallons of gasoline — a bit less than what the rest of us pay at the pump.
What 1 square mile in the city logs violent crime more often than any other?
We asked Snapp about more than mounts, and he didn't shovel any horse manure. "The 1-mile grid with the most violent crime in 2011 was roughly bounded by Roberts Street and 17th Street, Olive to Norton, an area under East Patrol. It had a count of 198 violent crimes: four murders, 78 aggravated assaults, 91 robberies, 15 forcible rapes and 10 arsons."
OK, where is there the least violent crime?
As bad as crime is in some neighborhoods, statistics show several areas that reported no violent crime last year. The KCPD maps the city into 1-square-mile grid pieces, and among those last year, Snapp says, there were 67 with no violent crime in 2011. Ten of those were south of the river, and 57 north of it.