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.