Thursday, November 29, 2012

Louis Curtiss: architect and man of mystery

Is the building at 3240 Main the work of architect Louis Curtiss?

Posted By on Thu, Nov 29, 2012 at 1:00 PM

Did Louis Curtiss design this 1914 building on Main Street?
  • Did Louis Curtiss design this 1914 building on Main Street?

The three-story building at 3240 Main has been the subject of a mystery for years: Was it designed by Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss (1865-1924), whom some have called the Frank Lloyd Wright of Kansas City? The building, completed in 1914, looks like a Curtiss design - compare the structure with the 1908 building that he designed as his studio and apartment, at 1118 McGee. (The bar Social is on the ground floor of that structure today.) Or compare it with his most famous structure in Kansas City, the former Boley Clothing, at 12th Street and Walnut (now occupied by Andrews McMeel Publishing), which was a landmark design when it was completed in 1908.

"The Boley Building was a major work for its time, constructed in a 'curtain wall design' - an exterior wall of glass that hangs on the building rather than being a supportive part of the structure," says architectural historian Keith Eggener, professor of American art and architecture and director of graduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Eggener gives a lecture on the work of Louis Curtiss at 2 p.m. Sunday, December 2, at the Kansas City Central Library, 14 West 10th Street.

Eggener thinks the building at 3240 Main could be a Curtiss design: "It sure looks like it. If not, it's someone channeling Louis Curtiss."

According to the Kansas City Public Library's Missouri Valley Room website, the architect's first will mandated that all of his personal papers be burned upon his death. (No one knows if his wish was carried out; reportedly, the personal papers were never found.) Curtiss was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Washington Cemetery.

Best known in Kansas City for his designs of the Boley Building, the Folly Theater, the 1905 mansion known as "Mineral Hall" ("a flamboyant Art Nouveau creation," Eggener says - it's now part of the Kansas City Art Institute), and the long-razed Baltimore Hotel, Curtiss never married but was reportedly a ladies' man in his day. In 1918, he was sued for "convincing another man's wife to leave him to pursue an artistic career." There were also rumors that there was a secret passage from his apartment to the Empress Theatre, a burlesque operation, to the south of his building on McGee.

"Curtiss designed buildings around the United States," Eggener says. "One of the greatest was the train station in Joplin, Missouri. It's still standing but a magnificent wreck. He designed structures in West Virginia, Illinois, Texas. But the greatest concentration of his work is in and around Kansas City."

That brings us back to 3240 Main. The current owner of the building is Richard Kappa, of the A-B-C Business Records Center, who has owned the building twice. (He bought the building back from a developer in 2010.) Kappa has done a fair amount of research on the building without finding much but a reference to an architect named Sullivan. "He was supposed to have been a protege of Louis Curtiss," Kappa says. "There's not a lot of historical documentation on the building."

Eggener has never heard of Sullivan and questions the validity of the story. "Louis Curtiss was known for preferring to work alone," he says. "He had draftsmen working for him, but he never took on student architects or apprentices."

Kappa uses the three floors of 3240 Main as a storage facility, which is adjacent to his corporate storage facility. But he's interested in finding an architect to help him turn the top floor into two loft apartments, including one for Kappa to use himself.

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