Has the Plaza Lost its Charm?

I remember my first visits to the Plaza, back in the early 80s. My wife and I would drive up from Columbia and stay with my brother and sister-in-law in an apartment near the Plaza, and we would walk down Main to the most glamorous shopping district I had yet visited.

It was different then.

You couldn’t help but be impressed that Kansas City hosted a Saks – one of the snootiest retailers in the world – and that locally-owned Halls seemed just as elegant but twice as friendly. Saks has disappeared, with luxury-priced lawyers now serving as inventory in its former space. At the time, the retail felt like a piece of New York or London, right on the concrete shores of a trickle-sized Brush Creek.

Dining was different, too. Before Starbucks infiltrated the universe, Emile’s was a German deli serving perfectly crafted sandwiches with a pickle wedge. Ubiquity overcame uniqueness.

Downstairs in Seville Square was The Longbranch Saloon. (Can you even go downstairs in Seville Square anymore, except in Urban Outfitters?) Longbranch was a classic bar partially owned by Lou Piniella that was a landmark for celebrity sighting and ice-cold American beer. They had handwritten signs all over the walls with wry humor.

Upstairs in Seville Square was a group of small shops pushing trinkets, imports and jewelry. Not very high-class, but a lot of personality.

And that’s what’s changed more than anything. The Plaza has lost its Kansas City personality, and become a typical suburban mall without a roof. Even the tennis courts on the East side of the Plaza have become a “tennis complex”, and the Winsteads a block further East has drive-though instead of carhop service.

I miss the old Function Junction, and the chipwich cart at Seville Plaza. I miss Anne’s Santa Fe. Heck, I even miss the old traffic layout, when Main Street went straight through as a street, instead of part of that monstrous parking lot with traffic lights. I miss Fred P. Ott’s, even though I know it’s still there, serving great burgers all by itself on the lonely south eastern corner of the Plaza. I miss the adventure of intersections without stop signs or stop lights.

There was a time when the Plaza was the crown jewel of Kansas City spending. If you wanted to buy something or eat a fancy meal, you headed to the Plaza. If you wanted to show an out-of-town visitor something wonderful about Kansas City, you would drive them down Ward Parkway and wind up on the Plaza, and they were always impressed.

By all means, it’s still a great place to go. Some things are better – Classic Cup is an upgrade over the coffee house that preceded it, and sitting on the roof deck at O’Dowd’s is a joy unrivaled in Cupcake Land. Next week, the lights will come on and it will be a sparkly gem at night. It will be beautiful, and I look forward to going down there for at least one “Oh my gosh, Christmas is next week” visit. I still love the Plaza, but the charm has faded since it was at its peak.

16 Responses to “Has the Plaza Lost its Charm?”

  1. Dave says:

    Dan… say it isn't so! :)

  2. Xavier Onassis says:

    The Plaza has never held any charm for me. It always reeked of snootiness for the sake of snootiness. Nothing on The Plaza was ever higher in quality, it was just more expensive. Much like all of Johnson County.

  3. Karen says:

    Dan, Perfectly said. I loved Emile's.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree. The Plaza used to be a classy place where you could take a window shopping stroll and see some of the finest goods available.

    I think/hope it will someday be as excellent again, but I doubt it will be under Highwoods tenure.

  5. Melinda says:

    I remember the Fedora from my teens, when I came to visit with my school orchestra, and I had a berry cobbler that I can still taste. I moved to KC in 1999 and spent 8 years there, noting the comings and goings of certain shops (I liked Function Junction too). But now I'm away from there, and wonder if perhaps you're just too close to really appreciate it. I love the lights at Christmastime, though I never actually bought anything. If I were to see anything close to the Plaza, I'd have to drive over an hour away (and I'm not sure I'd find it). Perhaps your eyes are just a little tired.

  6. Anonymous says:

    On the $$, Dan. The obit for the Old Plaza ran when the doors at the original Grand Faloon closed. And even Putch's – barely a coffeehouse in today's parlance – had it's blue-haired charm from time to time.

  7. Al says:

    we should keep in mind the two factors that cause the changes in the plaza – #1 cause are the people that choose to, and not to, patronize the plaza, and the types of places we spemd our money. The market follows our preferences, and we put the safety plaza out south, zona rosa up north, and go shopping at these places instead and the fact that more people patronize Starbucks than Emile's, etc. etc. etc. People demand the GAP.

    We know the enemy here, and the enemy is us.

    #2 – Highwoods Property policy – they've driven people like Bristol out because they want ridiculous rent.

    #3 – Retailers go out of business and change their bus model

    #4 – General business conditions – as of late, notice all of the vacant space.

    People don't think too deeply, generally, and drive outcomes based upon their consumption behavior. If enough people cared about retaining the character of the plaza in the mid-late 80's – that would happen.

    Problem is, not enough people care enough. That's utimately the problem, the Plaza is not an entity with it's own desires and wishes, it is a reflection of the people of Kansas City, and what they want, ultimately.

  8. Dave says:

    Dan… Wait wait wait… it just hit me.

    When Rhodes coined the term "Cupcake land", he was indeed referring to johnson county kansas. He wrote the following:

    Cupcake Land is a metropolis built entirely according to the developer's plan, without the interference of angry proles or ethnic pols as in nearby Kansas City. Cupcake Land encourages no culture but that which increases property values; supports no learning but that which burnishes the brand; hears no opinions but those that will further fatten the cupcake elite; tolerates no rebellion but that expressed in haircuts and piercings and alternative rock. You know what it's like even though you haven't been there. Smooth jazz. Hallmark cards. Applebees. Corporate Woods. Its greatest civic holiday is the turning-on of the Christmas lights at a nearby shopping center — an event so inspirational to the cupcake mind that the mall thus illuminated has been rendered in paint by none other than Thomas Kinkade.

    The Kinkade painting is here:


    The shopping center in question is, of course, the plaza. The cupcake reference has thus come full circle.

  9. Waldo Willa says:

    The Plaza is one of the great urban spaces in America, a model for all those "New Urbanist" developments going up mostly in the suburbs(think Zona Rosa). It was built in the 1920's and is probably responsible for saving Mid-Town Kansas City from becoming a vast Linwood and Troost cityscape. The real problem with today's Plaza is Highwoods, which believes it is managing a suburban mall rather than a great urban destination. I'm told if it were up to Highwoods, they would get rid of the Plaza Lights and the Plaza Art Fair. Brilliant, give people two fewer reasons to drive beyond Oak Park Mall, "Towne Center and 291 & I 70. Replicating the Plaza today is financially impossible, we neglect it to our civic peril. Highwoods, please sell to a more enlightened and business savvy owner!!

  10. Dan says:

    Brilliant catch, Dave, and the Kinkade painting is comic genius. Of course, the new Plaza does have a Kinkade gallery.

  11. Anonymous says:

    A Chipwich cart? Damn, I would have loved that; wonder how I missed it?

    You all are making me feel old. Much of what you are nostalgic for is second generation Plaza to me. I remember, and miss, Putsch's cafeteria and 210, and the old Side Door bar somewhere in the Classic Cup/used-to-be Sharper Image space. The old Russell Stover store. Harzfeld's, Sears, Macy's, and the drug store. And the original Bennett Schneider, back before any of the big box book chains. (They even sold pens and stationery…imagine that…people wrote actual letters then!) Back in the 50s and early 60s the stores seemed nice, many of them upscale…but all were non-snooty and most were home town owned. Alas.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Dan- Normally I never agree with you. And I'm not even sure why I'm looking at this stupid blog.

    However it is true that the Plaza has seen better days. Of course, I'm of the mindset that local business is better business. That died a horrible death when a company from Chicago bought the property.

    The original idea was not to make a shopping center that people would drive to, but to create a central space for people living around it to walk to and get all of the things they needed for living.

    I watched the essentials slowly melt away (and all blamed a sudden and massive increase in rents after Highwood properties came in).

    Outside of the Plaza everyone things of shopping, the Plaza lights and 'that real city' feeling.

    But I left when Meiner's Grocery store left. To be honest, I left the Midwest at that point.

    Armani Exchange was a drug store. There was a florist, dry cleaner…hell there was a gas station there at one time.

    Well, there is no need complaining. Everything in the US is eventually bulldozed to make a better dollar.

    The final nail is being hammered right now (I visited recently) as I see the Plaza is almost not even recognizable for its original charm…Remember? It was modeled after Seville, Spain.

    Oh yes, and PS…Dan, you're an ass.

  13. Anonymous says:

    First, I enjoy your blog, unlike a previous commenter.

    Second, I just moved back to KC after 30 or so years spent on the east and west coasts. Just went to the Plaza for a booksigning at Unity Temple. Enjoyed that but did notice all the chain stores.

    Third, the Plaza IS unique and anybody who doesn't realize that needs to get out more. It is a piece of Europe in the heartland — and we could use more of that. And yes, we are the enemy, as one poster said. Why anybody prefers a mall to an open air shopping area is beyond me. Malls are so 70s and consumed way too much of my youth.

    Fourth, the Plaza was in awful shape right before the 1977 (was it 77?) flood. That insurance money brought it back. And do remember, a lot of stores died during the recession of the late 70s and early 80s. So it's been reborn before.

    Fifth, Mayor Cleaver (was it? I missed his tenure) really did a lot to beautifully landscape Brush Creek, which immensely improved the approach to the Plaza from the east.

    Sixth, Seville Square never worked as a mini-mall.

    Seventh, if the current management is managing it like a suburban mall, no wonder it's become chain heaven. And, yes, that will kill it.

    Which means that company should be tried for murder.

    And I am looking forward to my first Plaza lighting ceremony in probably 22 years (once my siblings started having kids, the every-other-year-Thanksgiving-night-visit to the Plaza went by the wayside).

  14. Kevin says:

    Lived in KC for 3 months in 85. Loved the plaza. Spent a disproportionate amount of time at the long branch.

    “Plastic wrapping is our enemy!!

    Sad about jjs.

  15. Harold says:

    I find it so equally interesting that many of these reply posts were left on and around my birthday as I do disappointing to learn that Emile’s is gone. I am much in agreement with Dan (and you, too, Karen) that “The Plaza” has lost much of it’s charm. I used to work at Hall’s and I remember the Sak’s and it really did have that New York/European feel. “If you wanted to buy something or eat a fancy meal, you headed to the Plaza.” This is exactly how I remember it. The plaza was food and fountains and culture and the museum (where I took weekend art classes at 12yo) and hand in hand with my girlfriend in the fall at Loose Park and and and… I was a young man and going to The Plaza was such a treat. I have so many fond memories there (wearing my Sunday best) including “the lighting.” In fact, in 2003, I booked a room and flew from the west coast just to experience a plaza lighting again. It was–just as I suspected it would be–spectacular. I have not seen it since then, but I would love to schedule a visit soon. Sigh…

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