For a short time when I was in elementary school, my family lived in Middletown, Rhode Island. True to its name, Middletown sits in the middle of Aquidneck Island, with Portsmouth on one side, and Newport on the other. You may have heard of Newport. During the Gilded Age, all the best robber barons owned cottages in Newport.
I have vivid memories of touring the Newport mansions: The Breakers. The Elms. Marble House. Rosecliff. I adored the majestic architecture, ornate interiors and seaside views.
Our tour guides told stories of yachting parties and balls, dignitaries and eccentrics. The Vanderbilt children owned a playhouse that I gladly would have lived in. The grand staircase at Rosecliff became a waterfall one winter when a pipe burst. Everything that happened there seemed larger than life. Well, larger than my life, anyway.
Most of all, I loved to stand inside those houses and pretend it all belonged to me.
Parts of Kansas City make me feel the same way.
Roughly a hundred years ago, real estate genius JC Nichols, together with landscape architect George Kessler, platted the Country Club district and named its centerpiece Ward Parkway. Today, a drive along Ward Parkway affects me the way Newport’s Bellevue Avenue did as a kid. (Ward Parkway is better, actually, because all the houses can be seen from the street.) I’m still fascinated by the architecture, and the stories behind the structures. If those walls could talk!
I no longer want to own one of those behemoths, though. I’ve got a better grasp of the upkeep they require, and how hard it is to get good servants these days.
The Symphony Designers’ Showhouse was custom-made for a gawker like me. Sponsored by the Kansas City Symphony Alliance, this ambitious fundraiser allows the public to tour a mansion that needs a little TLC, and tour it again a few months later, after it’s been fixed up. A simple concept. Simple, and yet so very complicated.
I saw my first Showhouse the year my oldest was a baby. It had last been redecorated in the 1970’s, and oh my, wasn’t it fun to see the orange shag carpet replaced by hardwoods! The following year I invited my mom and Great-Aunt Helen along. I don’t remember the house so much as the lunch we had afterward on Country Club Plaza. My toddler daughter threw up at the table, and a dapper waiter gave me a cloth napkin to help with clean-up. When I tried to give it back, he said, “Oh no, honey. That’s yours now!”
For years I was a Showhouse regular. I wore out several companions, and finally reach the point of saturation myself, when I could no longer tell the houses apart. But this year, when I saw the preview ad in the paper, I could not resist. A 1911 colonial revival house with a wide front veranda sounded like just the ticket for a few hours of fun. I talked my mother and sister into accompanying me, this time a bit north of the Plaza to to exclusive Janssen Place in Hyde Park. We paid our five bucks, picked up the House History paper, and started the tour.
It was amazing. Beautifully proportioned rooms boasted mahogany trim. Leaded glass windows flooded each room with light. The swimming pool, bath house, and three-car detached garage were to-die-for.I can’t wait to see what the designers will do with each room.
I’ve never seen anything like it, I thought. But I was wrong.
The house history sheet, when I bothered to read it, noted that the same house was the Showhouse fifteen years ago, in 2000.
I was there. I just don’t remember it.
Ah, well. If you’ve seen one mansion, you’ve seen ‘em all.