When George Matthew Myers had his home built, at the corner of Armour and Holmes, it was the only structure around for blocks. That's the story told by 1905 photos of the property, kept in the Ryerson & Burnham Archives of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Designed by legendary KC architects Shepard and Farrar, 633 East Armour Boulevard has been vacant since last winter. Its latest owner, who had made significant progress restoring the three-story shingle Victorian, seems to be following in the footprints of others who have tried since 2000 to remake the place. About a year ago, he handed over the keys to his carriage-house tenant, Elizabeth Schurman, and said she could use the property "until the bank shows up."
A mansion to play with? She wasn't about to turn that down. (Meanwhile, the bank still hasn't initiated foreclosure.)
Schurman, a writer who teaches language arts at Hogan Preparatory Academy, and her younger sister, Valerie Schurman, a visual artist with an art history degree from the University of Kansas, started scheming. They say they "share two brains," and they were of one mind with their approach: Centering on Myers' life, they would mix history, whimsy and art. Then they would show it to their friends.
"I have an emotional attachment to abandoned places in the city," Elizabeth says. "This is a way to fill one up with happy people, laughter and dancing."
After what she calls a "montage day" of furious sweeping, replastering walls damaged by copper thieves, and moving piles of past tenants' discarded belongings into the defunct kitchen, the newly formed Krewe de Bastille put on a Mardi Gras ball. The sisters figured that a carnival season soiree was the perfect event for their project because Myers had been the treasurer for the Priests of Pallas for years. They filled the front parlor with paper hot-air-balloon sculptures, a tribute to the international balloon race that Myers brought to Kansas City in 1911.
Having spent 15 years or so enjoying Kansas City's art scene, Elizabeth says she wants to share Myers Mansion with other artists as a way to give something back to the community. So she and Valerie have collaborated with other artists to ready Myers Mansion Month of Muses: three days, three kinds of artistic experiences, one majestic home.
Events at 633 East Armour begin Friday, May 11, with the Tomorrow Land exhibition (coinciding with the Troost Art Hop, a few blocks southeast). Expect contemporary visual art on walls that are probably more used to displaying the Hudson River School, plus sound presentations by Audio Collective and screenings from Kansas City Women in Film and Television.
With Tomorrow Land (the name is indeed a nod to forever-KC-linked Walt Disney), the Schurmans mean to invoke the sense that the future is exciting. It is, among other things, an answer to the Hunger Games-style dystopia that's ascendant in the culture. It's also a personal reminiscence for the Schurmans, who liken the optimism of their 1980s youth to the ambitious civic leadership practiced by Myers and other Kansas Citians who raised money for convention halls and enjoyed a bold kind of leisure — celebrated fishing trips to Cuba, say.
The house has turned out to be in relatively good shape, with trim work unmarred by paint, undamaged Italian tile around the fireplaces, and unbroken lead-glass windows that recall at a glance the Gilded Age. Back then, the son of German and Irish immigrants could leave the family's Ohio farm, come to Kansas City at age 19 with a bit of telegraph-office experience under his belt, and rub shoulders with the likes of Jay Gould while amassing a small fortune in the communications business.
For May 18's "Triple Whip" (the name of both a tai chi move and a swing-dance step), Steve Grave leads tai chi exercises on the house's manicured lawn. After that, as many as 25 musicians plan to shake the walls to push a houseful of dancers across hardwood floors.
Finally, May 19, the Myers Mansion Arts Society sponsors a writers retreat. The idea is for people to experience the historic hush available in houses like this, with woodwork and natural light to inspire thought and creative industry — without the distractions of Wi-Fi or coffee-shop clatter.
There's a long tradition of artists using spaces that no one else wants. In this pocket of Hyde Park, two sisters and their allies have a good chance, Elizabeth says, to "turn a potential eyesore and crime magnet into a gathering place for Kansas City's thriving art community."