Liberty Memorial: Remembering Then and Now


Kansas City's Liberty Memorial stood at its dedication in 1926 as one of the country's largest and most lavish monuments. During the late 1920s, it was praised as among the best. But time passes and even the most seemingly durable objects decay. The memorial's story over the next seven decades is one of steady decline punctuated by well-intentioned revival efforts. In 1994, after years of neglect, the structure was declared unsound and closed to the public. When it reopened in 2006 it had changed, but then so too had its audience.

Liberty Memorial postcard
Liberty Memorial postcard. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The Liberty Memorial arose during a period of widespread monument-building, one that ran from roughly 1880 to 1930. It was restored amidst a second such period, beginning in the 1980s and continuing to this day. Locally, these two eras correspond with Kansas City's emergence as a modern metropolis, and with its most ambitious program of urban redevelopment thus far. In each case and in different ways, residents framed the war and its remembrance as a means to future gains. These framings offer telling views of the city's history, its greatest monument, and the changing nature of memory.

R.A. Long
Memorial booster R.A. Long. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Of the nearly nine million soldiers who died in World War I, 441 hailed from Kansas City. Calls for a memorial to them came even before the war's end. The idea gained traction, meetings were held, and names were floated. By December 1918, the Liberty Memorial Association (LMA), led by real estate developer J.C. Nichols and lumber baron Robert A. Long, was formed. After much discussion of type, the LMA decided to erect “a monument plus a building, not for utilitarian purposes, but to house trophies of war.” A fundraising drive, begun in October 1919, netted more than $2 million in just 10 days, with over 83,000 people—in a city of 325,000—contributing. In January 1920, a site was acquired: 33 acres on a prominent hilltop across from Jarvis Hunt's imposing beaux-arts Union Station, gateway to the city since 1914.

That December the LMA opened a design competition calling for “a memorial that shall symbolize the dawn of a warless age, and do honor to those who died that such an age might be a human heritage.” They stressed memorialization over all other functions: “utilitarian features, if any, [should] be subordinate and incidental.” Eleven completed entries were submitted, including projects from such well-known architects as New York's Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and Philadelphia's Paul Cret. First place, by a unanimous vote, went to Harold Van Buren Magonigle of New York.

The earliest calls for a memorial in Kansas City had focused on the enduring significance of soldiers' sacrifices and the eternal debt of the living. Mayor James Cowgill's statement, published in the Kansas City Journal on November 18, one week after the Armistice, is exemplary:

Chisel it from the whitest Parian marble, you cannot make it whiter than their sacrifice; or rear it of the firmest granite hewn from the everlasting hills, you cannot erect a monument that will be more enduring than their memory should be in the annals of the Nation. That such a monument should be erected there can be no question, though but an imperfect expression of the Nation's gratitude, for when bronze and marble and even granite shall have crumbled into dust their memory shall still live so long as the human heart shall pant for liberty…
Liberty Memorial rendering
Architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle's proposal drawing for Liberty Memorial captured a sense of timelessness. Courtesy of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

More than the others, Magonigle's entry captured this sense of timelessness. In one drawing he showed the memorial at night, seen obliquely and from below. In the dark foreground sits a stone sphinx, veiling its face enigmatically. Behind this a hidden light source illuminates a high wall covered with inscriptions and reliefs; this wall is crowned by a soaring column from whose top white smoke twists against a cobalt sky. The scene is a solemn pageant of some sort. The diminutive scale of the figures conveys the immensity of the structure and the distance between those living and those elevated and expanded by sacrifice. One powerful figure stands with legs apart, hands on hips, boldly silhouetted beside the sphinx. Others ascend the steps to the creature's right. Most are not seen but merely suggested by the flags they carry. Without the English-language inscriptions on the wall, the location and era would be indeterminate. Ramses or Reagan could assume his place here.

The cleared and graded building site was dedicated on November 1, 1921. In attendance were Vice President Calvin Coolidge, the five commanders of the Allied forces (including Missouri's General John Pershing), and a crowd of 100,000. Construction, however, did not begin until 1923. Magonigle significantly underestimated costs, so substantial modifications were required. The design was scaled back and pared down. The memorial's central element, a great tapered limestone shaft topped by four guardian spirits, was shortened to 217 feet. The matching classical pavilions on either side (a “memory hall” to be filled with murals and a museum for war-related “trophies”) became severe, unembellished boxes. Originally set back from the shaft on a lower level, they now aligned with it on a single east-west axis, forming a “memory court” with the shaft at center. The once-elaborate north wall facing Union Station was made lower, longer, and almost featureless. It was to have accommodated a 400-foot-long frieze representing “the Procession of Civilization,” to be carved by Magonigle's wife, Edith. Instead, the wall stayed blank until 1934, when Edmond Ametais's more modest 144-foot relief of “the March from War to Peace” began. The two sphinxes (representing memory and the future) were moved from the north to the south side of the shaft and thus made invisible from Union Station. The north side's proposed grand staircase and circular fountain were scrapped. Even with the sculptures and landscaping added, the final product appeared far more spare—and more modern—than originally intended.

On November 11, 1926, the not-yet-completed monument was dedicated by Coolidge, now president, before an audience of 150,000. Local newspapers called this the greatest gathering in the history of the city and the largest crowd ever addressed by a president of the United States. Critical response to the memorial was immediate, widespread, and generally rapturous.

Scores of monuments were built across the United States during the first decades of the 20th century. Many of these were products of boosterism—a nationwide movement by which local elites promoted their towns and cities, emphasizing economic development, real estate opportunities, tourist attractions, and civic pride grounded in the recognition of local history, culture, and community spirit. Public monuments were major manifestations of this movement–both a symptom and an agent of the booster spirit–and at no time was their production greater than in the decade after the Great War. Across the nation, memorials arose to commemorate heroes, events, and ideals related to the war. Many were of grand scale, but size had little to do with the numbers of local soldiers lost. Civic pride, ambition, and economic competition were more significant drivers. The 1924 Indiana World War Memorial Plaza in Indianapolis, for instance, was among the country's largest, though that city's losses were not unusually high percentage-wise; it was built in part to lure the American Legion to establish its headquarters there, with all the commerce and cachet they might carry.

Kansas City's own booster machine had been gathering steam even before the war. Writing in 1908, local historian Carrie Westlake Whitney called it “simply the logic of destiny that Kansas City is to be the greatest metropolis on the American continent”— an overstatement, but it illustrated an ambition that many shared. In the years between the two World Wars, Kansas City did take on the signifiers of a modern metropolis. A new downtown skyline emerged, with 20- and 30-story office towers. Road and apartment construction surged. By the late 1920s, a municipal airport opened, the Kansas City Art Institute moved to its new quarters near the site of the future Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the University of Kansas City and the Kansas City Philharmonic were founded. In 1928 the city hosted the Republican National Convention, a sign of its new national prominence. Voters in 1931 approved a $50 million bond issue—the so-called “Ten-Year Plan”—for the city's continuing development. Projects completed included a 10,000-seat Municipal Auditorium, a Civic Center featuring skyscraper city hall and county courthouse buildings, sports and convention facilities, parks, playgrounds, schools, hospitals, and zoo and airport improvements.

Like many of their fellow citizens, the Liberty Memorial's planners anticipated and encouraged such achievements. They may have cast their work as a tribute to those killed in a war already receding, but what was sacrifice if not for the living and those yet to come? In honoring their dead, Kansas City's living gained many things, including one they sorely lacked. “There are few cities in America that are so devoid of emblematic and memorial statuary as this,” wrote LMA Secretary J.E. McPherson in 1921. “There is no conspicuous monument typifying the city's spirit and civic sentiment.” The Liberty Memorial would fill that void.

From the beginning the memorial was seen as an adjunct to future urban growth and glory. When Hunt's Union Station opened in 1914, its entrance faced not north toward downtown, but south toward the elite subdivisions then being developed by future LMA Vice-Chairman J.C. Nichols. Like other local boosters and area property owners, Nichols was troubled by the view from Union Station's front doors. Across 24th Street stood Signboard Hill, a popular recreation ground in the 1870's and ‘80s, now a cluster of billboards, shacks, and scrubby vegetation. Fearing the development of a larger and more entrenched slum, Nichols urged improving the site to benefit the new station and visitors' first impressions of the city. The site and the proposed memorial would be perfect for each other. Nichols and LMA Chairman Robert A. Long hoped that an adjacent cultural center—with museums, galleries, a concert hall and opera house, a library, and a university—would soon follow. “Artistic achievements are absolutely necessary to our city's proper development and we must begin to plan for them,” Long wrote. “The Liberty Memorial gives the opportunity to awaken all of our people to a realization of the need of this broader, more beautiful development.”

Liberty Memorial dedication
Crowd at the 1926 Liberty Memorial dedication. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.

Memorials, writes art historian Erika Doss, “are made because they correspond to immediate social and political needs.” Honoring soldiers, providing a place for mourning and remembrance, promoting cultural and economic opportunities: these were the evident social needs the Liberty Memorial addressed. Less overt were its political functions. Historian George Mosse has identified “the Cult of the Fallen Soldier” as part of a widespread “urge to find a higher meaning in the war experience, and to obtain some justification of the sacrifice and loss.” In its aftermath, the bloody war became a “sacred experience,” a cornerstone of nationalist ideologies and of programs designed to discourage unrest and promote unity. Memorials and the speeches given beside them were among the principal tools of this conversion process.

The effort was not a seamless one. Rifts appeared between those who fought and those who stayed home, between official rhetoric and private remembrance. With the signing of the Armistice, reported the Star, Kansas Citians were overcome with “the spirit of jubilation.” Talk of jubilation was commonplace and undoubtedly sincere for many, yet for those who fought in the trenches, a different mood prevailed. As former soldier R.H. Mottram recalled:

The news came. The enemy had signed our terms. I cannot speak for places in the rear, but, on what had been the battle-line, there was no glory, no jubilation. There was very little material for any festivity, and that little was hard to get, so bare and worn was everything and everybody.

More aggressive forms of dissent emerged and were met by still greater aggression. To question the war or the government's motivation in waging it was to risk charges of sedition, and more than one Kansas Citian faced this charge. In 1917, the federal government set in place the Espionage Act, aimed at preventing interference with the war effort, insubordination in the military, or the support of enemies. The Sedition Act of 1918 extended this, prohibiting “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government or its armed forces. In Kansas City in 1918, high-profile sedition cases ended with the jailing of three journalists: Carl Gleeser and Jacob Frohwerk, editor and publisher of the Missouri Staats Zeitung and Rose Pastor Stokes, editor of the Jewish Daily News.

Memorials, like the wars they mark, represent failure and the breakdown of diplomacy and of a government's charge of maintaining the peace. Traditional memorials recast conflicts in triumphant terms that obscure this failure. Much honest grief and gratitude undoubtedly fueled the building of the Liberty Memorial, just as virtuous feeling caused men and women to enlist. Yet by its end, this cataclysmic contest—resulting in more than 17 million soldier and civilian deaths and the wounding of 20 million more worldwide—was widely recognized as a catastrophe. Anti-government and anti-militaristic sentiments were rampant in the U.S. following the war. Huge numbers of veterans were out of work, without benefits, angry, marching, and making demands. In 1920, radicals bombed Wall Street, killing 38 and injuring hundreds. Nationwide, raids on meetings of socialists, anarchists, and unionists resulted in more than 10,000 arrests and numerous deportations.

New conflicts immediately followed the war. In 1919, political assassinations and revolt shook Germany; British, Indian, and Afghan forces skirmished, as did the U.S.S.R. and Finland, France and Syria, and Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Between 1920 and 1926, American forces were sent to Russia, Panama, Costa Rica, Turkey, China, Honduras, and Nicaragua; an invasion of Mexico loomed. At home, Americans faced political scandals, organized crime, and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. They clashed over Prohibition, women's rights, immigration, and evolution. Race riots hit Chicago, Omaha, Tulsa, and other cities. Labor activism and government crackdowns escalated, resulting in frequent violence. In Kansas City, a series of strikes between 1917 and 1920 rocked the city and captured national headlines. Dozens of union members were arrested in 1919 on espionage charges, tried, convicted, and sent to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. Between 1920 and 1926, when the Missouri Crime Survey was published, Kansas City laid claim to one of the nation's highest crime rates, its highest per capita murder rate, and one of its most corrupt and ineffective police forces.

None of this was made visible at the Liberty Memorial, although it might help to explain the site's grandiosity and the peculiarly wary tone of Coolidge's 1926 dedication address. The president was invited to Kansas City by Irwin Kirkwood, husband of William Rockhill Nelson's daughter Laura, and with her, owner of the Kansas City Star after Nelson's death in 1915. A presidential address, Kirkwood hoped, would lend gravitas to the new memorial and draw favorable attention to the troubled city. With “talking points” provided by Star editor Henry J. Haskell, Coolidge highlighted the government's new conscription policies (which now applied to rich and poor alike), its “boundless” admiration for its veterans and the generous support it provided them, the nation's ethnic diversity and peerless unity, and its lack of “imperialistic designs.” Repeatedly, he used the words “suspicion” and “distrust,” and he insisted that these must be combatted. The Armistice, he claimed, “did not mark the end of the war, for the end is not yet, it marked a general subsidence of the armed conflict.” The world remained a dangerous place.

Liberty Memorial
Looking north at Liberty Memorial, circa 1930. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Yet the Liberty Memorial, "raised to commemorate… the results of war and victory, which are embodied in peace and liberty,” gave proof of “the whole martial spirit of this neighborhood… [whose] divisions were serving with so much distinction on the battle fields of France [while] their fellow citizens were supporting them with scarcely less distinction in patriotic efforts at home…." Given "the present state of the world," Coolidge concluded, American responsibility "is more grave than it ever was at any other time." But the Liberty Memorial stood as "holy testament that our country will continue to do its duty under the guidance of Divine Providence." Embodying the nation's best instincts, the memorial was a beacon, modeling to all the virtues of unquestioning service and submission to authority. So much the better if it countered ongoing social unrest.

Memorials, historian Jay Winter writes, have a “half-life, a trajectory of decomposition.” Time passes, wounds close, memories fade, survivors die, new crises take precedence. By the 1940s, with the country involved in a new war, the Liberty Memorial faced the first of several budget cuts and closures. Maintenance was deferred. A cycle of neglect, deterioration, and half measures set in. Accompanying this was a shift in public attitudes toward memorials after World War II. With the rush to commemorate the previous war still fresh in the minds of many, a kind of fatigue set in. The preference now was for modest plaques, or functional “living” memorials such as stadiums and community centers. Traditional memorials like Kansas City's were now seen by many as useless or vulgar, imploring people to remember things they would rather forget.

Rededication ceremony
Former President Harry Truman and other dignitaries at the 1961 re-dedication ceremony. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The memorial's decline also mirrored that of the city surrounding it. Always linked to the nearby Union Station, the site's visitor numbers fell as rail travel plummeted—with local passenger numbers dropping from over 678,000 in 1945 to under 33,000 in 1973. Meanwhile, as automobile traffic grew and the city sprawled, its downtown became increasingly shabby and depopulated. Revitalization efforts were tried, but most had little real effect on the city's livability or image. Natural and structural disasters hit hard, the local economy sagged, newspapers closed, airlines and professional sports teams left town, racial tensions mounted. The civic pride and sense of unity the Liberty Memorial once represented ebbed. By the 1980s, the memorial and its surroundings were a dangerous place, hosting a string of robberies, assaults, and even murders. In 1994, following a suicide jump from its top and an engineer's report finding it in jeopardy of collapse, the memorial was closed.

Liberty memorial and Kansas City skyline
Kansas City skyline with Liberty Memorial in the foreground, 1980. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Calls to rebuild the memorial immediately followed its closure, but it was not until 2000 that work began on a comprehensive restoration and expansion. The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial opened in 2006, two years after its designation by Congress as the nation's official World War I museum. In 2014, President Obama signed legislation re-designating the site as the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Today the museum is one of Kansas City's top tourist attractions, a source of local pride, and a major economic engine. The travel website Tripadvisor twice named it one of the country's top 25 museums (out of more than 35,000 nationwide). But as the site's new name suggests, the memorial now plays a secondary role.

Completed in 2006, the $102-million project, overseen by Kansas City-based architects Abend Singleton Associates Inc., involved the restoration of existing structures, and on the memorial's south side, the construction of a terraced garden and reflecting pool. This provided the forecourt to a new, subterranean, 80,000 square foot study center and museum with exhibits designed by Ralph Applebaum and Associates of New York. With more than 75,000 artifacts, the museum aimed to present a comprehensive experience of the war, shown from a variety of perspectives, not just American or military ones. Interactive information tables, 360-degree and 3-dimensional images, soundproof listening rooms, wide-screen movies, a walk-through bomb crater, and life-size trench recreations with dramatic sound and light effects immersed the visitor in the war experience. A café and a gift shop stood by.

That any of this is now seen as desirable marks the fundamental distance between the early post-war era and our own. For soldiers and civilians who lived through the war, it would have been unimaginable that anyone should want to experience such horrors anew. That generation is now gone. By 2006, when the museum opened, only 13 American veterans of World War I remained alive. The last, Missouri-born Corporal Frank Buckles, died in 2011 at 110. Today's memorial and museum are not for them.

The Liberty Memorial's revival is connected to a post-Cold War surge of interest in memory as a field of study and of creative, political, and economic activity. Major historical transformations—the aging of the World War II and Holocaust generations, the fall of old nations and the rise of new ones, ethnic and racial conflicts worldwide, the emergence of social justice movements—have fueled this surge, along with expanded awareness of the stakes involved in controlling historical narratives. Who tells a people's story, how do they tell it, and to what ends?

In the arena of individual memory, vast sums are spent researching and treating the memory disorders that come with longer life spans, in overcoming traumatic memories, and in trying to enhance memory's capacity and agility. Changing technologies for data capture, storage, and recall promise to alter the very nature of human memory. Within popular culture, movies such as Memento, Total Recall, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind vie for audiences with online memory games and a tidal wave of memoirs. Meanwhile, a worldwide surge in museum and memorial construction and of efforts to preserve and capitalize upon historic sites has occurred. Packaged as tourist destinations, these feed our pervasive nostalgia and our hunger for authenticity, while promising jobs, revenue, and cultural cachet for the communities that build and maintain them.

Locally, the Liberty Memorial's revival was an early salvo in what has become one of the country's most ambitious urban renewal programs of recent years. In 1996, work began on a $250 million restoration of Union Station, which had been closed since 1985. The memorial's rehabilitation soon followed, and since 2000, upwards of $8 billion has been spent in Kansas City on restorations of historic properties, new buildings, and other improvements. Projects include the new downtown public library, the Sprint Center, the Power and Light District, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and many others. Since 2000 the number of people living downtown has grown by 50 percent to over 20,000, with plans to double that. Among the drivers of this growth are a robust regional economy and the political leadership and voter will necessary to approve bond measures and tax abatements. Low real estate prices and strong quality of life indicators, including high-quality cultural amenities, draw still more people to the area.

The Liberty Memorial, without abandoning its original goals, has positioned itself to aid and benefit from this growth. According to a 2015 LMA report, "Every great American city has a strong arts and cultural life. But only one has the National World War I Museum. This is a gift to Kansas City and Kansas City's gift to the nation." Today, the museum's stated aims include: being "the foremost interpreter and resource for insight into the Great War and its enduring impact"; providing "first-class visitor and virtual experiences… to diverse audiences"; and being "a 'must-see' destination, and source of civic pride." In contrast to the founders' conception of a towering memorial with a modest "museum for trophies," the site now showcases a world-class social history museum. And in this capacity, it aims "to positively affect social change" and encourage "informed decision making."

The memorial's historical and functional trajectories bear consideration, not least for what these indicate about our changing notions of memory and commemoration. During the first decades of the 20th century, most psychologists regarded memory as the direct, unmediated recall of past experience, not unlike a phonograph record issuing the same notes long after their recording. During the 1920s, however, a more dynamic view of memory was opened by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, and since the 1980s, scholars have followed him in treating memory as a force we possess and use to our own ends—something far more mediated and malleable than previously thought. It “is the very apparatus that enables change,” writes memory scholar Astrid Erll. “Memory studies is therefore not an exercise in nostalgia, but… a method to discover and reflect the mechanisms and potentialities of culture change and renewal.”

The Liberty Memorial, built to serve a narrow view of the war and its meaning, now faces a more diverse and fragmented audience than ever before. People want to tell their own stories and develop their own interpretations of events based on access to available evidence. Today's audiences, further, are generally less interested in collective duties than in individual and group rights, and memory has become an important tool for pursuing these. In other words, memorials today are less about the officially sanctioned pasts they mark than the individual and collective futures they might inform, enable, and activate. And unlike visitors of the 1920s or even the 1960s, no one going to the memorial today "remembers" the war. What we find there now is history, not the direct recall of lived experience, but stories handed down, told and retold.

Not everyone is happy about these changes. In 2000, local preservationists objected to the memorial's expansion, in part because it emphasized the museum and thus “denigrate[d] the memory of those who gave their lives.” But trying to hold on to those memories without their changing is like trying to capture water in a net.

Certainly, some future-oriented thinking informed the Liberty Memorial's conception, the boosterism that brought it to Kansas City, and the views of those who saw it as an amenity to build upon. But the recent shift in emphasis from memorial to museum reflects the new stress on individual affect and experience, on those living now and in the years ahead.

"War today is everybody's business," Jay Winter writes, not just that of cultural or social elites, veterans or survivors, architects or historians. "We need to acknowledge the messiness of remembrance, the absence of uniformity." If memorials are to survive beyond a generation or two as anything other than obsolete urban furniture, their sense of purpose must be regularly renewed and recast. We may say otherwise, but ultimately we build memorials not for the dead but for ourselves—for the living called upon to remember. If they do not speak to us, we are unlikely to listen to them.


Funding for this essay is generously provided by the Missouri Humanities Council with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.A longer version of this article is published in the book, Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era (University Press of Kansas, 2018), edited by Diane Mutti Burke, Jason Roe, and John Herron.