Until recently, you could have shot the next Saw movie here. But even at its most decrepit, beauty was hiding in the decay of the Cosby Hotel. Now this neglected, once beautiful 1881 building — abandoned in 1995 — is coming back, the object of a history-minded restoration.
On a cold late-January day, the place's old splendor peeks out, visible in glimpses. The original mezzanine ceiling, tin with painted canvas and moldings of cattle skulls, is untouched in a first-floor crawl space. The tile in the building's upstairs entryway still announces, "Hotel Cosby." A grand staircase leads to a check-in booth and skylight-illuminated atrium. Cracks in the panes splinter the light coming down. A pigeon can be heard fluttering through a maze of third-floor rooms.
Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty answers the bird, croaking from a worker's boombox. After years of inactivity, the building is on its way back from the dead.
Architect Lon Booher and developer Jason Swords have teamed up to refurbish the three-story, 15,000-square-foot building at Ninth Street and Baltimore, two years after it was scheduled to be toppled and turned into a parking lot. They bought the building in July 2011 and began a $2.88 million mixed-use redevelopment of the historic site.
"The idea for the second floor is to restore it to how it was originally as a hotel but convert it to office space," Booher says. "And then the first floor — just commercial, maybe some retail."
Booher and Swords, of the Sunflower Development Group, previously collaborated on renovating downtown historic buildings, at 1520 Grand (the Luna nightclub and the Terrace on Grand event space) and 1531 Grand (which now houses the bar called Czar). This project — a bigger building, part of the Ninth Street Historic District, and potentially full of untouched treasure — is different. And saving the Cosby hasn't been easy.
In July 2010, city officials declared that the building's west-facing brick wall had become weak enough to put the whole structure on KC's dangerous-buildings list. The city ordered an emergency demolition, despite the Cosby's place on the National Register of Historic Places.
With less than 24 hours to spare — and thanks to efforts by the Downtown Council and a Facebook drive to "Save the Cosby" — those officials called off the wrecking crew and agreed to spend the $4,000 necessary to keep the west wall from falling. But the building still needed new ownership.
Sean O'Byrne, vice president of business development for the Downtown Council, asked Booher and Swords if they wanted to tour the Cosby. They took O'Byrne up on the offer.
"Of course, we loved it," Booher says. "I think we were pretty lucky with all of the stuff that was intact. It hasn't been bastardized horribly over the years."
The first-floor storefront and tile entries remained, and all of the original woodwork was still on the second and third floors. Booher and Swords believe that they'll be able to save old tapestries and a lot of the ornate plasterwork and original painted crown moldings.
"Really, outside of the hotel desk, everything else is there," Booher says. "We still have parts of a certificate of occupancy from maybe the mid-'20s up there."
And they're not done spelunking the building for more of its secrets. Booher and Swords have enlisted the help of Rosin Preservation to help identify the building's original features, including four painted canvases of women that were attached to the ceilings.
The Cosby was first known as the Woods Building, one of the first multistory commercial buildings in downtown Kansas City and home to several prominent physicians, including one of the city's first female doctors, Martha Dibble. In 1899, the building was converted into a hotel by Joseph Cosby. Its upper floors were closed off in 1964. The building has been vacant since 1995, when Lane Blueprint moved.
The first phase of reconstruction is nearing completion, Booher says. In the past three months, the west-facing wall has been shored up, stabilized and rebuilt with the original masonry. The building also has a new roof. Mark Moberly, who works for Sunflower, says workers found 30 layers of roofing.
"Every time there was a problem with the roof, they'd just go over it. They wouldn't pull it up," he says. "We put a whole new roof on this thing. It was one of the first things that we had to do. If it rained, it'd just be standing water everywhere."
Booher says he and Swords are now in discussions with the National Park Service about reinstalling the building's windows. Sometime in the past 15 years, when the Cosby seemed destined to come down, the building's owner called Architectural Salvage, which saved the original windows and doors.
"We went down to Architectural Salvage and actually bought them back," Moberly says. "All of the windows, they have little prisms in the windowpanes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The design was his original." The windows now sit in the Sunflower Development Group's offices at 1520 Grand, waiting to be returned. "We're going to put them back in there," Moberly says.
Last week, the Cosby's developers were awarded a 10-year property-tax abatement from the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority. Here's how the money breaks down: $493,025 in state historic tax credits; $335,498 in federal historic tax credits; $150,000 in developer equity; and a $1.9 million loan. (Removing lead-based paint and asbestos has already cost the developers around $130,000.)
Booher says he and Swords hope to have the building finished by the end of the summer, with first-floor tenants moved in by early fall.
"If we have tenants, we could be 100 percent by October," Moberly says. "They can do the work that quick. The big work to stabilize the building has been done. Now it's a lot of cosmetic things."
The developers are reluctant to name their prospective tenants, but they say they're in talks with a couple of restaurants for the first floor and office tenants for the second and third floors.
"We're kind of at a standstill right now on the first floor, waiting to see what tenant we get," Moberly says. "We don't want to knock down a wall that they may want. We think that within a week, we'll have those tenants signed and we'll be able to move forward."