Greetings from Crown Center at 40: Hallmark’s island of misfit ideas

Santa Claus is coming up Grand Boulevard.

Two horses are pulling St. Nick in a yellow carriage. White hybrid SUVs, piloted by Crown Center’s security force, are protecting Santa’s fore and aft.

It’s the day after Thanksgiving. Midmorning sunshine warms the families who wait outside the Crown Center Shops for a glimpse of the man in the red suit. Barricades are striped like candy canes.

The procession stops at the shopping center’s glass entrance. A pair of horn players riding in Santa’s carriage blast “Joy to the World.”

Some Santas take pride in their ability to deliver a hearty “ho, ho, ho!” The Crown Center Santa takes a folksier approach. “Good morning, Kansas City!” he announces after being handed a microphone. “How are you all?”

As Santa enters the shops, his white gloves touch small heads and hands. Santaland is on the ground floor, beyond the food court. In the crowd, a mom says to a friend: “This is where I eat every day.”

The day after Thanksgiving is one of the biggest of the year at Crown Center. When night falls, Mayor Mark Funkhouser and Eric Stone­street, a TV actor (Modern Family, CSI) who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, will flip a novelty switch, lighting the mayor’s Christmas tree.

Hallmark Cards broke ground on this “city within a city” on September 16, 1968. Company founder Joyce C. Hall had spent the previous decade meeting with architects, industrial designers and real-estate men. Walt Disney, a friend, had even contributed a few ideas.

Hall envisioned Crown Center as a sort of monument to corporate benevolence. “We intended for Crown Center to stand as a prime example of how private industry can contribute to the rebirth of this nation’s inner cities,” he wrote in his autobiography, When You Care Enough.

The development remade 85 acres into a vision of tomorrow — what tomorrow looked like in the 1960s.

Crown Center is perhaps the most audacious commercial venture in the city’s history. The Country Club Plaza covers less ground. Adjusting for inflation, the Sprint campus in Overland Park was cheaper to build. “I think it’s an incredibly ambitious project,” says Josh Shelton, a principal at the Kansas City architectural firm El Dorado.

Ambition does not equal success. For most of its existence, Crown Center has operated at a loss. Intended to cost $115 million, it had grown into a $400 million development by the time Hall got around to writing his 1978 autobiography.

A mixed-use development before the term had cachet, Crown Center is partly a victim of bad timing. It was built in an era when planners operated under fairly dumb ideas about cities and how people relate to them. The activity at Crown Center takes place behind blank walls and in between escalators. It’s introverted. The Plaza and neighborhoods like the Crossroads show that people prefer something a little more outgoing.

Still, for more than 35 years, it has been a spot where Kansas Citians go to live, work, see a show and watch a sheet of fudge get poured. “You could do so much in one place,” says Janet Bloom, who in 1990 started d’Bronx deli and pizzeria at 39th Street and Bell with her husband, Robert.

The Blooms opened a second location inside Crown Center in 1998. Janet had family ties to the city within a city: Her father used to run the apothecary at Crown Center. She says it was the first place in Kansas City that sold Lancôme products.

Bloom loved to visit Crown Center with her children, who are now grown. She says her kids may hold the record for hours spent at Kaleidoscope, the Hallmark-sponsored workshop for children.


Of Crown Center, she says, “There was a time when it was just hustle and bustle, and it was really busy.”

Kids still go to Kaleidoscope. But Bloom’s use of the past tense can’t help but worry the folks at Hallmark.

Greeting cards took J.C. Hall from east-central Nebraska to Fifth Avenue.

Hall was a man of simple origins. He dropped out of high school. When he arrived in Kansas City in 1910, the young postcard salesman took a room at the YMCA, where he kept his inventory under his bed.

When it came to the built environment, though, Hall was anything but old-fashioned. In 1964, Hallmark opened a showcase for company merchandise in New York City, and he enlisted Edward Durell Stone — a modernist architect who had appeared on the cover of Time magazine — to design the store.

Hallmark moved into its new Kansas City headquarters in 1956. The architect was Welton Becket, who is best-known for the circular Capitol Records Building in Hollywood. Less well-known but nearly as eccentric, Hallmark’s HQ is an inverted pyramid constructed against a rock hillside near 26th Street and Gillham. If the building is not easy to picture, that’s partly because its main entrance fronts a roundabout closed to traffic.

The same spirit that led Hall to seek out men such as Stone and Becket guided the development of Crown Center.

Wanting control of its surroundings, Hallmark began to acquire property around its main plant in the 1930s. The company shared a neighborhood with warehouses, brake shops and diaper-delivery services. Hall especially detested Signboard Hill, a billboard-festooned limestone outcropping opposite Union Station.

On January 4, 1967, Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. filed a plan to redevelop 25 blocks of Kansas City. A study of the area noted the substandard buildings, the dangerous intersections and the falling rocks.

Victor Gruen, the Viennese émigré who invented the shopping mall, contributed some ideas about land use. A New York-based architect, Edward Larrabee Barnes, developed the master plan.

Barnes studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, a reductive movement that considered ornamentation bourgeois. The movement left a profound mark on 20th-century architecture. Critics blame Bauhaus for the fact that so many junior-high schools and office buildings in the United States look like German shoe factories.

Barnes designed five stark, interconnected office buildings south of Hallmark’s headquarters. Harry Weese, who designed the Metro system in Washington, D.C., created what is now known as the Westin Crown Center hotel. The Architects Collaborative, a firm started by Gropius and his acolytes, sketched Sante Fe Place and San Francisco Tower, the residential components.

In the early 1970s, Kansas City aspired to greatness. The city’s football and baseball teams moved into new stadiums. Professional hockey and basketball were on their way. A new airport, unconventional in its design and remoteness, opened in 1972.

Not everyone was impressed, however. In 1974, native son Calvin Trillin described his visit to Kansas City in The New Yorker. The writer compared his hometown with an old acquaintance “who suddenly turned up in a bushy mustache and bell-bottom hip-huggers and a buckskin jacket: There is a terrible temptation to say, ‘Oh, come off it.'”

Crown Center seemed especially unreal to Trillin. He made fun of the hillside that had been preserved inside the lobby of the Westin. He suspected that the goods in the stores reflected what Joyce Hall “believes people in Kansas City ought to want rather than what they really do want.”

Trillin was skeptical about Crown Center’s future as a hub of commerce. “[S]o far people have to come to Crown Center mostly to look rather than buy,” he wrote.


Sarah Crawford settles in her seat in the fifth row of the Off Center Theatre, a performance space at Crown Center. The director of Musical Theater Heritage’s A Spectacular Christmas is about to watch a dress rehearsal.

Opening night is in 24 hours. Crawford is dressed like a college student during finals week. The production has been a strain. During rehearsals, illness resulted in two cast changes. “This is our nonstop,” she says. “This is our now or never.”

The show’s first act resembles a Judy Garland special. The second half is more concertlike. “Actors, please take 10 but don’t change,” Crawford calls out after the cast completes the Garland portion of the show; she wants to see it again.

Musical Theater Heritage used to perform on a makeshift stage at the Belger Arts Center. The troupe moved to Off Center in 2007, after Crown Center’s marketing division carved out the space from a bank of movie theaters that had closed. (The six-screen cinema had become associated with unruly behavior. In 2003, speaking to The Kansas City Star, a Kansas City police major described an occasion when a group of preteens left the theater and “were just wild.”)

Crown Center goes though such revisions periodically. The six-screen cinema opened in 1984 as part of an effort to make Crown Center seem less hoity-toity. “What we have added is attractive, fun things to do at the request of the people who use the center most often,” a marketing vice president said at the time.

Before putting in the movie theater, Crown Center had scrapped West Village — the original vision for the retail portion of the complex. Designed by a hotshot French Canadian, West Village was an attempt to present an old-world bazaar, authentically staffed by lace makers, goldsmiths and other tradespeople drawn from distant lands. Hall had gone so far as to purchase the Siamese Pavilion from the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. But the artisans didn’t come, and visitors found the angular network of shops weird and confusing.

The food options also changed. The International Café became the Heartland Market to better reflect Midwesterners’ gastronomic ambitions. Today, the main attraction in the food court is a café
built around crayons. (Hallmark acquired the Crayola brand in 1984.)

The first children to laugh along with the animatronic Santa Claus, which Crown Center drags out of storage each November, now have children of their own.

Crown Center is old enough that some of its reinventions look dated. The pink paint scheme and curvy typography in the shops’ parking garage evoke the early 1980s (and a Pepto-Bismol bottle). The Hallmark Visitors Center shows a film in which men are dressed and groomed like Jerry in Seinfeld‘s early years.

Other adaptations have fared better.

In the 1980s, Crown Center officials decided to focus on entertainment. The American Heartland Theatre opened in 1987. The Coterie, a well-regarded children’s theater, is now in its 30th year.

The Off Center Theatre deepens the commitment to live performance. At Halloween, the space provided a home for
Maul of the Dead
, Ron Megee’s pansexual take on vintage zombie movies.

The cast and crew of Musical Theater Heritage are grateful that Crown Center found a new use for the movie theaters. “They take good care of us,” associate producer Chad Gerlt says.

It wasn’t Joyce Hall’s intention, but Crown Center is the closest thing to a theater district that Kansas City has had since the 1930s.


In 1994, parts of Crown Center lost their tax breaks.

Hallmark had developed Crown Center with the help of a state statute passed in 1945. The Urban Redevelopment Corporation Law established incentives for private developers who ventured into blighted areas. The program freezes property taxes for 10 years and then asks developers to pay half the taxes on the land and the improvements in years 11 through 25.

With the law’s passage, huge swaths of Kansas City fell off the tax rolls. In 1989, The Kansas City Star determined that $1 billion worth of property had received the benefit, which is known as Chapter 353. (Later, developers would tap into an even more lucrative public subsidy: tax-increment financing.)

In the late ’80s, Crown Center buildings started to be taxed at the 50-percent rate — and Crown Center officials began to question the yearly appraisals. In 1991, Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. successfully argued for a lower assessment and received a $1.2 million refund.

Later, the company tried to suggest that the Westin had a market value of negative $4 million. Company officials based the minus sign on the fact the Westin and the Hyatt Regency were part of a mixed-use development and could not stand on their own.

Taxes were only part of the story. In 1993, Hallmark acknowledged Crown Center’s unprofitability and wrote off $150 million.

Unable to recoup Hallmark’s original investment and facing an ever-increasing tax burden, Crown Center Redevelopment looked for new opportunities. It ended up chasing a project that a neighbor, Union Station, was also pursuing.

Philanthropic support and a communitywide sales tax had restored the station to its Beaux-Arts glory. But in 1999, when the renovated station opened, it became apparent immediately that its main attraction, Science City,
was a dud.

At around this time, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a law firm best known for defending the tobacco industry, was looking for a new home. Union Station officials offered a site next to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield building on Main Street, hoping that SHB’s lease payments would help pay for station operations.

Crown Center made a stronger pitch. In 2003, SHB moved out of a downtown skyscraper into a 24-story office tower that Crown Center Redevelopment built on ground south of the Halls department store.

Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. sold that building in 2008 for $155 million. Its full tax abatement expires next year.

Children clamber about the wooden tractors and farm animals below the mayor’s Christmas tree. The Doulgas fir reaches 100 feet above Crown Center Square, a public space along Grand Boulevard.

“I kind of think of it as Kansas City’s attempt to build Rockefeller Center,” Mike Sinclair says, taking in the scene on a gray afternoon.

Sinclair is one of the city’s top photographers. A specialist in architectural photography, he appreciates modernism. One of his favorite buildings in Kansas City is Brush Creek Towers, a public-housing project at Woodland Avenue and Cleaver Boulevard that goes unmentioned in most sightseeing guides.

Standing on the square, Sinclair can see the upper stories of San Francisco Tower. He likes the view of the building when he approaches Crown Center from the south. (His mother, who is in her 80s, lives at Sante Fe Place.) Sinclair says the condominium tower has a sturdy elegance. “It was built like a rock,” he says.

Sinclair has taken pictures of Crown Center at the company’s request. When he has explored the development on his own, however, Sinclair has been impressed — and unnerved — by the swiftness of its private police force. “If you put a tripod up, there’s a security guard in about five minutes.”


Sinclair’s artist friends tell him that they don’t like Crown Center. “It does have that corporate feel to it,” he says. But he takes a softer view. He likes the minimalist architecture and the quality of the construction. “These steps are just wonderfully made and designed,” Sinclair says, moving toward Barnes’ chain of office buildings. “They’re made of such solid materials.”

Crown Center’s weightiness can be off-putting, too. Sinclair notes the lack of street life. “It’s so car-focused,” he says.

Sinclair wanders over to Hallmark’s headquarters. Through the glass, he admires the artwork in the lobby. It reminds him that sculptures by Alexander Calder and Kenneth Snelson adorn the grounds. (Donald Hall, Joyce Hall’s son, is fond of modern sculpture.) “Where else in Kansas City can you go, besides a museum, and see a Calder sculpture?” Sinclair asks.

He boards an elevator to the American Restaurant, which sits atop Halls. Warren Platner, who died in 2006, designed the original American Restaurant before he completed Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. On this day, servers are preparing the room for a private party. Sinclair moves to the window to take in the view. “It looks like a city, right?” he says.

Along with the downtown skyline, Sinclair can see the entrance to the Crown Center Shops. The sight moves him to wonder about Crown Center’s audience.

“People from the suburbs are going to find Crown Center too much like the suburbs,” he says.

He and his wife lived in a downtown loft before it became fashionable. He used to come to Crown Center on Sunday mornings to buy a New York Times and watch hockey teams use the Ice Terrace. It was a place to feel connected to the city at a time when downtown felt cold and empty.

Inside the shops, there’s a model of Crown Center. Sinclair stops to identify the buildings that were completed and the ones that never got beyond the scale-model stage. The buildings and the greenery reflect the modernist belief that cities — chaotic, dirty, unsafe — could be cured with efficiency and planning.

The reality is more complicated.

“I think it’s a really interesting place,” Sinclair says. But Crown Center fills him with a sense of unrealized potential. “There’s always kind of a sadness about it.”

Waiting for the “all rise” in a Jackson County courtroom, Mary Merola uses small talk to pass the time. Merola co-founded Function Junction, a store that sells kitchenware. An experienced traveler, she describes to her lawyer, Kevin Mason, the expertness with which she can pack a bag for a trip to Italy or the Pacific Rim.

Function Junction is the debtor in a debtor’s exam scheduled for this morning. Merola incurred the debt when Function Junction left the Country Club Plaza last year. In February, Highwoods Properties, the Plaza’s landlord, obtained a judgment against the store for $183,374 in unpaid rent, fees and costs.

At one time, Function Junction reached into Omaha and St. Louis. Founded in 1977, the business is down to one location — at Crown Center.

Though they were unable to remain on the Plaza, Merola and a new partner recently doubled the size of Function Junction, which is on the third level of Crown Center Shops, next to Victoria’s Secret.

Retail at Crown Center, which Has never been a big moneymaker, is in a period of struggle. Crown Center and Hallmark are extremely protective of their financial information, but according to reports obtained by The Pitch, overall sales in August were down 9 percent from a year ago. Waldenbooks is set to pull out after the first of the year.


When spaces open at Crown Center, they tend to be filled by existing tenants, who receive discounted rent. “They are making deals like crazy,” says one individual with knowledge of Crown Center’s operations.

Departed retailers grumble about the lack of effort that Crown Center management makes to promote its merchants. It’s not possible, for instance, to buy a gift card that can be redeemed at any store inside Crown Center, an option that’s available at the Plaza and at Leawood’s Town Center Plaza.

Janet Bloom, however, says Crown Center was a “wonderful” landlord. The Blooms sold their majority interest in d’Bronx in 2005. But recently, Rick Schroeder, the project manager at Crown Center, and Pat Monson, the leasing manager, took Bloom to Benton’s Steak and Chop House for lunch.

“You can’t get any classier than that,” she says.

Esther Rudnick ran a fabric store with her husband, Cy, at Crown Center for 30 years. “Crown Center never said no to us,” she says. “They were amazing.”

Rudnick says she appreciated the twice yearly meetings that Crown Center officials held with merchants. She does not believe that Cy Rudnick’s Fine Fabrics would have received the same attention if it had been a tenant at a mall owned by a real-estate conglomerate.

“They really acknowledged we were a community,” she says.

As the original buildings took shape, Crown Center officials began to put out a newsletter. A 1970 edition of this newsletter noted the formation of a crack security force. In the pictures, the guards wear beige blazers and Smokey Bear hats.

The newsletters suggest Kansas City leaders’ desire for the city to excel at commerce and culture. One brochure contains a chart showing that if it’s noon in Kansas City, it’s 1 p.m. in New York and 10 a.m. on the West Coast. Apparently, time zones need demystifying.

Crown Center was supposed to help Kansas City stand above its peers in flyover country. The development remains an option for business travelers, ice skaters, and law firms looking for office space. But as a model for urban renewal, Crown Center seems to have fallen short of the expectation that Joyce Hall set for it. To be sure, no rival city would choose it over the Country Club Plaza.

Lacking imaginative leadership, Crown Center still appears to rely on Hallmark as much as it did when Hall huddled with Disney and the star architects of the day. Worse for Crown Center,
Hallmark isn’t the company was then.

Crown Center officials did not respond to several requests for interviews for this story.

The closest a Pitch reporter came to Bill Lucas, president of Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., was during the lighting of the mayor’s Christmas tree.

Lucas, wearing a leather jacket and olive-colored slacks, appeared on the stage. He used his turn at the microphone to note that the shops would be open until 9 p.m.

“Silent Night” closed out the caroling. Before they could start the countdown, Funkhouser and Stonestreet, the actor, had to wait for the oversized switch to be hoisted to the stage. Once the mighty fir turned white with light, fireworks shot from the roof of one of Barnes’ office buildings.

Lucas remained in his seat, banging on a piece of gum.

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