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Backstory and Context
City Hall stands as a monument to Kansas City’s early history, notably one dominated by the Pendergast family political machine. In 1880, Irish-immigrant James Pendergast moved to Kansas City and used gambling winnings to open a bar, which afforded him a chance to make political connections, leading to nine straight terms on the city council. Following in his lead was his younger brother, Tom, who was elected for three more terms before becoming chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Club. During their tenure, the brothers and political friends built a machine that controlled prosecutors and police through bribes, had ties to the mafia, and used the government to benefit their private businesses.1
Kansas City, Missouri flourished as a spot for taverns when Kansas enacted statewide prohibition in the 1880s, and then the city all but ignored the federally imposed Prohibition resulting from the enactment of the 18th Amendment in the 1919 -- much of it due James Pendergast's bars remaining open and having and Kansas City's federal prosecutor on Pendergast’s payroll.2
In 1925, Tom Pendergast benefitted from a vote that changed Kansas City’s government from with 32 city councilors in two chambers to 12 council members in one chamber, led by a city manager. The Pendergast machine easily achieved a voting majority and subsequently appointed a weak city manager and mayor. 3
During the Depression when President Roosevelt routinely provided funds to urban centers for city projects, Pendergast was able to gain more power (and riches) through a ten-year plan he conceived building civic structures, most of which were were built with concrete supplied by Pendergast's Ready-Mixed Concrete company and other companies that provided kickbacks to Pendergast. One of those buildings was the City Hall tower that stands today.4
Intriguingly, just as the tower was near completion, the Pendergast machine was coming to an end, notably when Tom pleaded guilty to tax evasion on May 24, 1939, partly due to the Federal Government’s actions towards cleaning up local political corruption..
City Hall now enjoys an observation deck, which is open weekday mornings and afternoons, and a statue of Abraham Lincoln reading to his son Tad in the south plaza.
2 Ibid., 61-62.
3 Theodore A. Brown, The politics of reform;: Kansas City's municipal government, 1925-1950 ( Kansas City: Kansas City Community Studies, 1958),
4 Larsen and Hulston, Pendegrast!, 85-86, 91-99.