November 18, 2007

KC comes alive

KANSAS CITY — Every kid who ever touched a basketball has lived this backyard
fantasy.

Final five seconds of the national championship. Score tied. The Kid brings the
ball down, dribbles to the top of the key. Nobody open underneath. He cuts to
the right, picks up a screen and gets off a shot. The ball arcs toward the rim,
the buzzer sounds. Nothing but net!

"Absolutely amazing," screams the taped announcer at the "Beat the Clock" court
of the College Basketball Experience, which adjoins the new Sprint Center in
downtown Kansas City.

A construction binge in the works for several years is beginning to pay
dividends for this Midwest city, and the early results are rewarding for
history addicts, art lovers and basketball junkies.

This city is celebrating the opening of the National World War I Museum at
Liberty Memorial and the impressive addition of the Bloch Building at the
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. And in the next several weeks, many of the
restaurants, bars and shops in the nine-block Kansas City Power & Light
District will be ready for business in what is being billed as a world-class
entertainment district.

The glass-encased Sprint Center, an 18,500-seat multipurpose arena, debuted
Oct. 13 with an Elton John concert that brought crowds into a downtown that had
been dormant after dark for decades. A few days later, the College Basketball
Experience opened next door, and a sign greeting visitors warned: "This is not
a museum. You may sweat."

The dramatically lit National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame is on the
first floor, along with a TV stage where you can read from a teleprompter and
watch your own newscast. But the perspiration starts once you enter the
elevator to go upstairs. The faces of players stare from the elevator walls and
an unseen coach gives his locker room pep talk: "Lay it on the line. Don't
leave anything out there."

The door opens and you walk through a tunnel lined by photos of cheerleaders
and screaming fans. At the end is a tip-off circle, and beyond that a full
basketball court with bleachers where you can shoot hoops. To one side is a
three-on-three court for street ball. The other side has a variety of skill
games, including the "Shoot from Downtown" court for three-pointers, "Step to
the Line," where you try to make free throws in front of a hostile crowd, and
the "Throw It Down" slam-dunk rims of varying heights.

After being humbled at the "Measure Up" feature, where my size 8 foot was
dwarfed inside an imprint of Shaq's size 23, I retrieved a bit of self-esteem
by slamming in a shot and hanging on the rim in exaltation. No matter that this
was the 7-foot rim.

A local TV news crew also was attending the opening and the camera-toters were
gone, leaving the sports anchor alone with a ball at the "Beat the Clock"
court. The guy took off his sportcoat, loosened his tie and began dribbling on
the maple floor. He must have had a little game in his background because he
nailed several deep shots, which the announcer proclaimed, "Absolutely amazing."

Kansas Citians were invited to pose for the public art video outside the new
Sprint Center, a multi-purpuse arena with 18,500 seats. -- PHOTO BY TOM
UHLENBROCK

 

Red in the face and out of breath, but smiling, he retrieved his coat and
caught up with the camera crew downstairs.

"We've been seeing a lot of that," said Reggie Hines, a former fair-to-middling
guard at Central Missouri State who manages the basketball operations. "They
come in with a suit on, but see all this stuff.

"Put a ball in their hand, they're ready to go. They're 17 again."

A NEIGHBORHOOD FEEL

The Elton John fans might have enjoyed a post-concert cocktail, but much of the
downtown area was closed for the night after the office workers went home. No
more. Cordish Co., the Baltimore-based developer that will build Ballpark
Village in St. Louis, is putting the finishing touches on the Kansas City Power
& Light District — an $850 million project on nine square blocks in the midst
of the downtown, with four underground parking garages.

Jennifer Brandt of Cordish led a hardhat tour of the area, which eventually
will include condo towers that will add up to 1,500 residents. "We'll have
close to 50 restaurants and bars, a hipster bowling alley, a brewery," she
said. "The tenants are pushing to open in time for the Big 12 basketball
championships, which will be held at the Sprint Center in mid-March."

Many of the bars and restaurants are clustered around two central features — a
European-style piazza with a water-and-fire fountain in the middle, and KC
Live!, which has four tiers of restaurants with outdoor dining around an
open-air stage under a canopy. "The back of the stage will be a waterfall that,
when the stage is not in use, will flow over the stage into a moat," Brandt
said. "We will have free events going on throughout the week, especially
Thursday through Sunday."

Visitors will encounter a row of retail boutiques, a strip of white-tablecloth
restaurants and a block of family friendly dining. An ultra high-end nightclub
will allow VIPs to enter through a glass elevator, while the rest of us take
the steps. Also planned is a Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, which will offer
beers from around the world, and a Maker's Mark Bourbon Lounge, where you can
sip whiskey.

"With the residential towers, we feel it will be more of a neighborhood than
just a destination spot," Brandt said. "Even though it's got modern elements,
we tried to make it feel like it fit into the downtown."

CHANGING INTERIOR

The public initially was bemused when the $94 million Bloch Building resembled
a prefab structure added to the classic Beaux Arts façade of the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art. But architecture critics loved the addition, and public
sentiment was won over when the lights were turned on and the translucent glass
walls glowed like a firefly at night.

And once inside, the interior space with its curving ceilings and frequent
windows offering generous peeks outside created a fresh experience, even in the
administration areas where artwork was absent.

Curator Gaylord Torrence, who led a tour of the new building, said public
sentiment began changing with the landscaping that joined the addition's five
large boxes, which architect Steven Holl calls "lenses."

 

The Aladdin Hotel is connected to the Kansas City Convention Center by a
covered walkway. - PHOTO BY TOM UHLENBROCK

"At night, people were dazzled," Torrence said. "The industrial quality that
people complained about fell away once these buildings were sited on the
landscaping. The glass is like water. The light changes outside as clouds go
over, and the experience in the building changes, moment to moment."

The slender, elongated building gave the museum 165,000 square feet of space in
descending galleries that hold African art, contemporary art, photography, the
Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Court and featured exhibitions. The improvements
extended next door where major renovations were made to the original 1933
building, and permanent galleries underwent a complete reinstallation.

"The exterior of the building was cleaned, Kirkwood Hall was brought back to
its original state and all of the galleries on the first floor are new, with
the exception of ancient," Torrence said.

Torrence is the museum's curator of American Indian Art, and his specialty will
receive a major boost in the renovation of the original building. A new gallery
will create a 300 percent increase in space devoted to American Indian Art,
establishing the Nelson as one of the pre-eminent art museums in this field.

A HELMET IN THE MAIL

The National World War I Museum finally got its tank.

The museum, which opened in December, has the country's largest collection of
memorabilia from the "Great War" that America entered in 1917. On display are
posters, uniforms, rifles, helmets, bayonets, artillery guns, mess kits — more
than 50,000 objects used to fight the war.

Many now are displayed in a $26.5 million museum designed by Ralph Appelbaum,
who also designed the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Clinton
presidential library. The WWI museum was created in 30,000 square feet of space
excavated beneath the Liberty Memorial, which was dedicated in 1921 and
features a 217-foot obelisk-like tower on a plaza overlooking the Kansas City
skyline, with two stone sphinxes standing guard.

Once inside the museum, visitors walk from the lobby into the main exhibit hall
over a glass bridge, with a field of 9,000 red silk poppies below. Each flower
represents 1,000 soldiers killed in the war from all nations. Through videos
and displays, the museum tells the story of how America was drawn into the war,
and the horror that followed on both sides.

Among the most compelling displays is a trench where visitors can eavesdrop on
the conversations of soldiers, a 15-minute wide-screen movie with bombs
flashing over a debris-filled battlefield and a walk into a giant crater that
shows the destruction of the industrial-strength weapons used in the war.

But the smallest of the artifacts also tell a poignant story. A favorite is a
German helmet with eight 5-cent stamps pasted to the outside. For 40 cents'
postage, a soldier sent this war souvenir back home with a tag attached that
said: Miss Lois Hodges, 640 Schaeffer Avenue, Kansas City, Mo.

Denise Rendina, marketing director for the museum, said it will greet about
160,000 visitors in its first year, well beyond projections. "People are
spending a minimum of 2 1/2 hours, and a lot are spending five to six hours,"
she said. "Some say, 'I need to come back, I've absorbed what I can for one
day.' "

And Rendina said the museum's collection is growing as old soldiers and their
families offer their coveted relics. "We're receiving things from all over the
country," she said. "Beautiful tunics, helmets, a handwritten letter that Gen.
Pershing wrote as he was leaving Europe."

The museum had left open a space for a tank, and announced early this month
that it had purchased from a Montana collector a French-made tank that had seen
action on the Western Front during World War I.

So what's the going rate for a battle-tested tank: $225,000.