1016 Paseo holds onto ghosts but not owners
A question lingers over the diminished but still regal mansion at 1016 Paseo. Those who are intimately familiar with this house — with the wrought-iron fence around it, the crumbling cut-stone terraces, the Ionic columns that hold up a lonely front porch — agree that many questions haunt this house. But a particular unknown has resonated for 33 years: Did Johnny T. Howard know the man who killed him on August 21, 1978?
Howard, a youthful-looking 51-year-old, held a little party — seven friends sharing drinks and listening to music — in his part of 1016 Paseo on that hot summer night. There had been bigger, wilder parties in the house over the years, but this was a modest gathering, and it had started before sundown. It was only a few minutes past 8:30 p.m. when the guests in Howard’s two-room flat heard the sound of glass breaking.
Howard looked out his front window but saw nothing. Excusing himself, he stepped out of his apartment and walked through the front hall, past the grand mahogany staircase that led to the upper floors, and into the tiled foyer. Before him were glass-paned double doors leading to a partially recessed porch at the front of the house.
The glass on one of the doors had been shattered, and an assailant — later described by a witness as a young man with blond hair — shot Howard in the face, point-blank. His guests heard the noise and ran from Howard’s apartment to chase the killer — Howard was already dead — who dashed south on the Paseo.
The shooter was “last seen running west on 11th Street,” according to The Kansas City Star, which reported that the police had no clues. “Right now,” Sgt. Charles Finlay told the paper, “all we have is a dead body.”
Howard’s wasn’t the only death at 1016 Paseo that night. His killing also triggered the end of the mansion’s life. Its remaining few tenants wasted little time moving out, and in the three decades since then, the striking property has been passed from one set of owners to another. Each buyer has arrived with big ambitions. None have had enough cash. With each transaction, 1016 Paseo has become a larger project, a place less likely to ever again be a home.
Until someone shot him to death, Howard had a pretty good deal at 1016 Paseo.
As the resident manager for what the house had become — the five-apartment Chinn Hotel — Howard had a living space that included the two biggest rooms on the first floor: the original front parlor (called “the piano room” in the 1900s) and a smaller parlor, set off with handsome pocket doors. The rooms echoed under 12-foot ceilings, and he had his pick of two beautiful fireplaces.
Owner Isadore Chinn lived in Higginsville, Missouri, and let Howard pick his own tenants and rent out the rooms. Chinn wasn’t interested in further dividing the three-story house into kitchen-equipped apartments, so it remained a boardinghouse meant for those who weren’t putting down roots.
The house was one of the first private homes built along the northern stretch of what was once Kansas City’s most glamorous parkway. The Paseo, long beloved for its landscaped gardens and splashing fountains, had reached a low point by the 1970s, with its northern stretch distinctly shabby. Several buildings stood vacant, and the once chic New York Apartments, at 12th Street, had been razed.
“In the 1970s … the Paseo was realigned and much of the garden space was eliminated,” historians Jane Flynn and Dory DeAngelo write in the 1990 book Kansas City Style. “Urban renewal has taken most of the grand old buildings that lined the boulevard … only one house (built in 1899) remains at 1016 Paseo.”
More than a century after its construction, 1016 Paseo is somehow still there, the last house on the left, the last Second Renaissance Revival house in the city.
And it’s for sale. Again.
The real-estate agent who has listed the property since it returned to the market last November is Audrey Elder of Reece and Nichols. She says there’s a buyer — “a unique buyer” — out there. The main problem? As Elder puts it: “Not everyone wants to live at 10th and Paseo.”
Perhaps more to the point, not every buyer has $445,000 to spend on a house these days, especially in a neighborhood that hasn’t had serious cachet as a residential community in some seven decades (or been a safe place for families in almost half that long).
But this is a landmark first and a house second, so the real-estate listing for 1016 Paseo runs to 10 illustrated pages. Even at that bulk, the property’s MLS sheet doesn’t do justice to the building’s details and complex history.
For one thing, as an unabashed Elder admits, 1016 Paseo was once a brothel. It’s the house that sex built.
Annie Chambers was Kansas City’s most famous prostitute, and she plied her trade in this town’s first red-light district, in the neighborhoods surrounding what today is the City Market. The newly constructed suburb at 10th Street and the Paseo was just a couple of miles away. But at the turn of the last century, its gentility was a universe removed from the silt and sin near the water line.
Still, there was an unexpected link: sexually transmitted disease. Not many physicians in Kansas City openly treated it, but Generous Henderson was one — he proudly advertised his services in local publications as early as 1893. The language in those ads was slightly coded: “chronic, nervous and special diseases.” What drove his practice, though, was word-of-mouth. By the end of the 19th century, Henderson was a very wealthy doctor.
Treating varicocele (enlargement of veins in the scrotum), phimosis (inability to retract foreskin) and the other ailments that his ads called “private diseases” wasn’t the most glamorous practice for the Chicago-born Henderson, especially during a prudish era. But it allowed him to leave Quality Hill and strike out for the rapidly developing East Side, where he spared no expense building his showcase home on the Paseo.
Named for Mexico City’s famous Paseo de la Reforma and planned by legendary landscape architect George Kessler, the street was something really dazzling in 1900: a cross between a boulevard and a park. Among its formal gardens, directly across from the Henderson home, was a pergola. Dozens of shabby frame houses and lesser shacks were torn down on the stretch between 10th and 11th streets in 1897 so that the Paseo could rival the era’s classiest neighborhoods of Independence Avenue and the “Millionaire’s Row” of Troost Avenue between 26th and 32nd streets.
It didn’t work out that way. This section of the Paseo was destined to draw apartment buildings and hotels rather than impressive mansions. But in 1899, Henderson and his wife, Catherine, were willing to bet on the thoroughfare’s promising future, with a mansion designed for large-scale entertaining.
“They were very social,” says historian
Liana Twente, who researched the Henderson home for Elder. “That’s why there’s a musician’s gallery on the landing between the first and second floors, and a ballroom and billiards room on the top floor.” (Twente is compiling a book about the mansion, which she hopes will be privately published after the house’s eventual sale.)
But the couple’s ambition outpaced their reputation. Heather Paxton, senior research editor at the local society journal The Independent, says Henderson and his wife never made it into the pages of that publication, even after they moved into their showy house. “I think Dr. Henderson’s area of practice might have made them difficult to be accepted into real society,” she says.
The smart set further shunned Henderson after his indictment by a federal grand jury in 1913. In addition to his successful private practice, Henderson had been operating a mail-order business promoting his ability to “cure certain diseases.” The side venture probably didn’t fix anyone’s broken plumbing, but it was a moneymaker. The government took notice and charged the doctor with fraud.
Unwanted federal attention and public disfavor might have been lively topics of conversation between Henderson and his most notorious client. But did Al Capone really, as the story goes, first learn in Kansas City that he had syphilis?
This is where a lot of famous patients came to be treated,” says William Poole, the current owner and resident of 1016 Paseo. As talk turns to Scarface, KC’s mobbed-up past, and murder, Poole stands barefoot in the house’s sunny front parlor, puffing on a cigarette.
This was Johnny Howard’s apartment in the 1970s, and it remains one of the prettiest rooms in the house. The original plaster cornices have recently been repainted, and the room’s showiest feature, an elaborate fireplace mantel that’s covered in iridescent porcelain tiles imported from Holland in 1899, is in remarkable condition.
It’s unlikely that Henderson ever saw a patient in this room. City directories report that his practice was always in downtown office buildings. But the legend persists that Capone was diagnosed here with the syphilis that killed him in 1947.
The gangster was officially diagnosed with the disease in an Atlanta penitentiary in 1932, almost a decade after Henderson’s death. Jonathan Eig, author of the 2010 book Get Capone, says, “Capone almost certainly knew he had the symptoms of syphilis before he was diagnosed in prison. He didn’t know it had gone into the tertiary stage. But, yes, there are reports that he was treated by other doctors for the symptoms of the disease.”
He goes on: “The question is, why would he have a doctor in Kansas City? There are no reports that he was treated there, although I suppose he could have seen Dr. Henderson.”
Capone stars in other stories connected to 1016 Paseo — using this address as a safe house to hide from cops, and his gang disposing of bodies in the crawl space.
Eig dismisses the rest of the rumors. “It’s very unlikely that the house on Paseo was ever a safe house for Capone,” he says. “For one thing, Al Capone was not Bonnie and Clyde. When he traveled to Kansas City, he wasn’t on the lam. He didn’t need to hide out. He probably checked into the best hotel in town.”
And the bodies?
“They didn’t hide bodies,” Eig says, chuckling. “They dumped them in the river or along a railroad track. So many stories have gotten conflated and inflated over the years.”
For Poole, who has owned the property since 2006, the stories — conflated, inflated and even occasionally true — are part of 1016 Paseo’s allure. “There’s no way of knowing what really happened in this house,” he says. “I think all the stories about things that happened in here are amusing and interesting. Are they true? Probably not.”
What is certain is that Henderson died in 1924. Catherine stayed in the house only a few more years, and the crowd whose approval the Hendersons had sought moved south of Linwood Avenue. Like many lumbering estates built before World War I, 1016 Paseo would find new use — and begin its long descent into decay — as a boardinghouse. The call buttons for some early tenants are still in the foyer.
By World War II, the place had found yet another calling, as a bawdyhouse. During this incarnation, which amounts to a cosmic joke at Henderson’s expense, sinks and toilets were installed in odd spaces throughout the house, even in a corner just outside the grand third-floor ballroom. In those last days before penicillin, a sink was a lady of the evening’s best friend. One former sex worker recalls: “That’s the first thing I did for my clients — I washed their private parts. That way, I could see if he had any diseases.”
The fortunes of 1016 Paseo have shifted no less dramatically since Howard’s 1978 shooting, a crime that remains unsolved.
In 1985, the Historic Kansas City Foundation stepped in to save the home when its owners at the time, a couple who had set out to restore it, said they planned to sell the house piece by piece.
“Down would come the cornice stones,” reported the Star, “out would go the mahogany mantelpieces, torn apart would be the front porch with the first line of Sam Walter Foss’s poem, ‘The House by the Side of the Road,’ painted on a stair.”
The foundation optioned the purchase of the Henderson mansion, but new buyers
arrived to save the day: John William Crocker and his wife, Anita, who planned to turn part of the house into an art gallery. Anita Crocker was an artist.
“By October,” the Star reported at the time, “she [Anita Crocker] expects to have completed six 8-foot-by-3-foot panels depicting the creation of the world. Mrs. Crocker is amused that the creation will adorn the walls of a house built for a doctor who specialized in curing sexual dysfunction and was later a home for prostitutes. She delights as much in the history of the house as she delights in its present and future.”
The future, however, did not include the Crockers, who sold the house before anyone could feel any delight.
Another owner left the house uninhabited for nearly five years before, in a flurry of publicity in 2000, the property was sold to Pioneer Group Inc. The Topeka development company proposed a renovation of the entire surrounding neighborhood, now known as Jazz Hill. The Henderson mansion, according to news reports at the time, was to serve as management offices and a meeting space.
That plan, too, went nowhere.
Poole says the house was in “horrible, decrepit, rotting condition” when he purchased it. “The roof had rotted, and there were holes, giant holes, through the ballroom floor, through the bedroom floor, right down to the first floor. You could have driven a car through one of those holes. I’d sit on the first floor during a rainstorm and watch the water rush through the house. It was like a waterfall.”
There’s no evidence of this damage today: The new floors are solid, the ceilings restored. Poole estimates that he has spent more than $200,000 repairing the historic house.
“Why would I even buy it? It’s what I’ve always done,” he says. “I’ve always had great appreciation for good architecture and old buildings. I just couldn’t turn away from it after I saw it.”
There’s a modern kitchen in the house today, and Poole has installed new floor tiles in the former solarium. It’s still not a very sunny solarium. The original bank of windows in that room, which once looked out on a garden that sloped gracefully down to the corner of Paseo and 11th Street, remain boarded up. A couple of those cathouse sinks remain, and there’s still plenty of cosmetic work to do. Some of the original embossed leather panels in the foyer need repair, and the master bathroom, with 111-year-old imported glazed tiles on the walls and ceiling, is in a fixer-upper category unto itself.
The legendary basement-level tunnel, which leads from the main building (past the space where Poole insists Capone “hid the bodies”) to the carriage house at the rear of the property, is still in good condition. Inside that smaller building, a young artist named Christopher Vest was, until a few weeks ago, painting a portrait of Poole in exchange for living in the old garage.
A little more than a quarter-century after Mrs. Crocker proposed turning part of 1016 Paseo into an art gallery, history would perhaps repeat itself. “We’re going to have a grand unveiling of the painting,” Vest said last month. “We’re inviting a lot of people.”
The painting — like 1016 Paseo itself — remains a work in progress.
“It’s not finished yet,” Poole says. “And Christopher took the painting with him when he moved back to Phoenix. He’s supposedly taking the painting to an art gallery in Seattle.”
Meanwhile, Poole tinkers with his investment, and Elder continues to vigorously promote it.
“It gets a lot of hits on our Web page,” Elder says, “but not so many showings lately.” At Elder’s recommendation, Poole has lowered the selling price from $550,000 to $445,000.
Long before 1016 Paseo was listed in 1979 on the National Register of Historic Places — which doesn’t ensure preservation without the backup of local laws — it was a local landmark. On hundreds of postcards depicting the Paseo in its early 20th-century splendor, the Henderson mansion is visible in the background, the kind of distinct structure meant to lure outsiders to Kansas City or remind its natives of home.
But landmarks disappear every day, even those that could be saved for far less than a half-million dollars.
“I have three different scenarios that I see for the house,” Elder says. “The first is, ideally, it could become a private home again for someone who loves rare and unique historic properties. Second, it could be used as a community center or a dance studio. And third, it could be used as a business location, even a restaurant.” The latter solutions would require a buyer to alter the interior of the house, permanently dislodging the last of 1016 Paseo’s dust and deep secrets.
“But why would anyone want to do that?” Elder wonders. “Besides, the walls are 3 feet thick.”