The Pickwick Complex, also known as the Pickwick Hotel or Pickwick Plaza, is a historic early multi-purpose building in downtown Kansas City. Built in 1929-1930, its location near local and federal government buildings made it a popular place for visitors conducting business. In addition to a hotel, the complex also housed offices, retail space, a parking garage, and a bus terminal. In the early 1930s the Pickwick Hotel was a favorite retreat for future President Harry Truman, who stayed there while writing of memoir of his political thoughts later called the “Pickwick Papers.” The complex went through a period of decline in the latter half of the twentieth century as the hotel was converted into subsidized housing and other portions were left vacant. It was eventually acquired by Gold Crown Properties, and in 2017 was converted into modern apartments following extensive renovations. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Backstory and Context
The Pickwick Complex came amidst a high-rise construction boom precipitated by a period of prosperity and growth in Kansas City during the 1920s. Construction on the Pickwick began in 1929, continued despite the beginning of the Great Depression, and was completed in 1930 at a cost of $3.5 million. It was designed by the firm of Wight and Wight, notable for creating buildings such as Kansas City Hall and the Jackson County Courthouse. Made in the Art Deco style, it was designed to be similar to other Kansas City high rise buildings of the day (such as the Power and Light Building) but featured less ornamentation. The building was made of concrete and reinforced steel covered in brick and cut stone. It filled an entire city block between Ninth and 10th Street. The complex was also one of the first mixed-use buildings; in addition to an 11-story hotel, it also contained a six-story office building, a three-story parking garage, a six-story bus terminal, and ground level retail storefront space. The multiple services offered made it an ideal destination for visitors, commuters, and downtown residents.
The complex flourished during its first few decades of existence. A penthouse on top of the hotel housed the radio stations KMBC and WHB until 1968. The bus terminal, said to be the largest west of the Mississippi River, managed over 4,400 departures a month at its peak. Thanks to the complex’s close proximity to local and federal government buildings such as City Hall, the Courthouse, Post Office, and Federal Reserve Bank, the hotel was frequently patronized by people conducting business in town. One such visitor was future President Harry S. Truman. During the early 1930s Truman, then a county judge, stayed at the hotel regularly to enjoy the peace and solitude it provided. Truman took the opportunity to write (on hotel stationery) his political views and recollections of his life. These writings later became known as the “Pickwick Papers,” and included an entry from May 15, 1934, the night before Truman announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
Business began declining at the Pickwick in the 1960s as the city population migrated from downtown to more suburban areas. Many pre-WWII buildings were demolished at this time, but the Pickwick was among a few spared. In 1972, the hotel portion of the Pickwick was converted into subsidized housing and renamed Royal Towers. It provided homes for low income and elderly residents, but occupancy was often low and the building gradually deteriorated. The other portions of the complex became mostly vacant and remained so for years. A fire in 1996 damaged the hotel lobby and destroyed much interior ornamentation. The Royal Towers closed in 2009 and the fate of the entire complex, now in worsening condition, was uncertain.
In 2010 the complex was purchased by Gold Crown Properties, led by developers Thomas and Bryan Smith, who announced their intentions to save the Pickwick. Partnering with Helix Architecture + Design, Gold Crown began a two-year project in 2015 to redevelop the Pickwick into new downtown apartments. Renovations were completed in 2017 at a cost of $65 million, including $25 million in historic tax credits. The hotel portion, now known as East 9 at Pickwick Plaza, features 260 affordable apartment units and tenant amenities such as a wine cellar, fitness center, spa, and swimming pool (located in the former bus terminal). The complex also contains a parking garage and 35,000 feet of retail space. The redevelopment effort has been praised by many for being an ideal example of adaptive reuse and for spurring new economic growth in the downtown area.
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Eeds, W. Anthony & Claudia Alexander. "Pickwick Hotel, Office Building, Parking Garage and Bus Terminal." National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places. February 10, 2005. Accessed May 15, 2018. https://dnr.mo.gov/shpo/nps-nr/05000220.pdf
“History Behind Kansas City’s Pickwick Plaza – Opening Today After $65-Million Renovation.” Helix Architecture + Design. July 21, 2017. Accessed May 14, 2018. www.helixkc.com/historic-renovation/east-9-pickwick-plaza-celebrates-grand-opening/
Roberts, Rob. “Pickwick Plaza’s rebirth is a ‘great gift to Kansas City.’” Kansas City Business Journal. July 31, 2017. Accessed May 14, 2018. https://www.bizjournals.com/kansascity/news/2017/07/31/pickwick-plazas-rebirth-is-a-great-gift-to-kansas.html
Sayer, Jason. “Kansas City’s Pickwick Hotel undergoing major renovation.” Architects Newspaper. June 14, 2016. Accessed May 14, 2018. https://archpaper.com/2016/06/kansas-citys-pickwick-plaza-undergoing-major-renovation/
Stafford, Diane. “Major renovation begins in downtown KC’s former Pickwick hotel.” Kansas City Star. October 5, 2015. Accessed May 14, 2018. https://www.kansascity.com/news/business/article37853388.html
Stafford, Diane. “Pickwick Plaza shines in $65 million renovation in downtown Kansas City.” Kansas City Star. July 21, 2017. Accessed May 14, 2018. https://www.kansascity.com/news/business/development/article163011678.html
Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pickwick_Hotel,_Office_Building,_Parking_Garage_and_Bus_Terminal.jpg
Image 2: http://www.helixkc.com/historic-renovation/east-9-pickwick-plaza-celebrates-grand-opening/
Image 3: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri