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.