A school-bus-yellow excavator breaks the bones of the Orion Pictures Building on an overcast late-April morning. The digger claws the building's interior walls and nudges the ceiling, each blow releasing drifts of 57-year-old dust — final gasps from an architectural carcass.
By late morning, piles of mangled metal, brick and plaster litter the lot at the corner of 17th Street and Wyandotte, where the one-plus-story brick building once stood. From the 1940s until the late 1970s, the Orion was among 17 Kansas City outposts for Hollywood studios, including MGM, Fox and United Artists. Studios would send film prints to Film Row, and theater owners would travel from as far as 100 miles away to pick up and drop off reels. Publicity tours brought celebrities — Clark Gable, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry — to the studio buildings, linking Kansas City to the stars of Hollywood's golden age.
Shirley Helzberg owned the Orion Building. She directed the historic building's demise, and now she is orchestrating its future: a one-story retail structure with three floors of parking that she hopes will boost her Webster House restaurant and antique shop across the street. (She also owns Film Row's Vitagraph Film Exchange Building, home to the Kansas City Symphony's offices.)
Backlash to the Orion's demolition was swift on social media. "Nice one Shirley! Happy earth day!!!!!" one person wrote on the Save the Orion Pictures Building Facebook page. "Hey I thought they were going to salvage the materials...I knew that was a bunch of empty words...typical!"
Cyd Millstein says losing the Orion Building tears a hole in Kansas City's architectural fabric. Millstein, the owner of Architectural and Historical Research LLC, says the Orion was worth saving because it was believed to be the last Film Row building constructed. The Orion was also a departure from the district's squat, fireproof brick, utilitarian structures.
"That was a perfect example of the Art Deco slipping out and the Streamline Moderne coming into fashion," Millstein, who has worked in preservation for 30 years, says of the Orion's curved surfaces and metal accents. "That was the beauty of the Orion. It didn't just march off into another era without conforming to the buildings that were already there."
The Orion's final flicker has left neighbors, history buffs and preservationists scrambling to recognize Film Row's past and save the remaining buildings. But Film Row's future is in question without an organized effort and vision.
Crossroads developer Brad Nicholson says he had a plan for the Orion's future. Nicholson (who is The Pitch's landlord) says he wanted to make the building his office and home.
However, Helzberg convinced him, he says, to sell her the building, saying she wanted to convert it into the office of the Kansas City Symphony. In 2007, satisfied that Helzberg's cause was worthy, Nicholson agreed.
"I would not have sold the property if it was not going to be redeveloped for the symphony," Nicholson says.
Nicholson is still angry, two months after the Orion was turned into a crater. "The cut is deep, and I'm still healing now," he says. "I'm pissed off. I haven't been this mad in a long time."
Two years before Nicholson sold the Orion to Helzberg, Kansas City politicians were pushing to create a special district called "Old Film Row" in order to preserve and "enhance Kansas City's Hollywood Connection." The city commissioned a 23-page urban-design plan — the same month that ground was broken on the Sprint Center — that called for informational plaques, which would explain each studio's history and be placed in front of each Film Row building, plus informational kiosks, customized "Old Film Row" street signs and wrought-iron fencing around parking lots.