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Passing of Armour Boulevard's Social Glory PDF  | Print |

The Star, August 9, 1931, By M.K.P

Like many another high-stepper, its mettlesome days over, Armour Boulevard has been harnessed to the plow of business. Beautiful French chateaus that housed so much gayety in the 90s and the two decades thereafter have been replaced by apartment houses or put to work as office buildings. Life insurance companies hobnob with funeral homes. Persons who never aspired to acquaintance with the exclusive residents of Armour now mount with assurance the steps of mansions, that once were barred against them.

The kitchenette has taken the place of the proud and stately butler and his competent corps of assistants. The parlor, bedroom and bath has succeeded the elegant privacy that reigned for a quarter century in the first few squares east of Main street on the boulevard that took its name from the wealthy Armour family.

Even the cocky little 1931 Ford coupe has invaded a thoroughfare once sacred to the matched team hitched before the graceful landau and the expensive Victoria, Stenographers and salesmen dash up and down East Armour with the same confidence once enjoyed only by scions of the rich and powerful.

Once Called Commonwealth Avenue

It was not until the late 18902 that Armour Boulevard was born. When the Hyde Park addition was platted, the street was called Commonwealth avenue. At that time, it was outside the city limits. Then, when the boulevard system was planned by the park board, the name was changed to South boulevard—a tentative name only. Kirkland B. Armour built his home on the new boulevard where it crossed Warwick boulevard in 1893, and soon after the street took his name.

Hyde Park was a rural neighborhood then and Warwick boulevard has the only asphalt pavement in Kansas City, according to Dr. A. Comingo Griffith, who was a youngster when his father, Dr. Jefferson D. Griffith, built the residence diagonally across from the Kirkland Armours, now occupied by the Order of De Molay.

“Warwick boulevard was nice and smooth,“ related Dr. Griffith. “We boys used to ride our bicycles on Warwick, then over to Main and down to the old Central high school at Eleventh and Locust, hanging onto the cable car for a lift coming home. It was a grand way to mount the long hill for the cable cars didn’t go very fast. They ran out as far as Thirty-ninth street, where there was a turntable.“

Dr. Griffith says there wasn’t a house between their home and Troost avenue at the time his father built at Warwick and Armour. Armour was a narrow macadamized street with a brick curbing against the gutter. But the lawns that bordered it were wide and the triple row of shade trees that lined the boulevard grew from cuttings planted in the ‘90s. The outer row was removed three years ago to widen the street.

In two of the yards were marvelous play houses, one of them belonging to Mary Augusta Armour and the other to Elizabeth Hull, daughter of Dr. Albert G. Hull, whose architecturally beautiful barn is now a clubhouse for the university Women’s Club. As Laura Nelson had her own theater on an upper floor of her father’s barn, with an underground passage from the house, so did “Mary Gusts“ and Elizabeth have their own domains, in which they kept house for their dolls, with midget furniture, miniature divans, mirrors, tiny pianos and bedchambers with real beds.

Elizabeth Hull’s fairy palace was finally acquired by the Haywood Hagermans for their children, and it still stands in their yard.

Produced Their Own Plays

It was an older crowd that helped Laura Nelson produce plays and danced at her parties and the parties of young Dr. Comingo Griffith, Theo Mastin (now Mrs. G. Edgar Lovejoy), young Watson Armour and other young people who were the darlings of Kansas City society in the first years of the century.

“The young people of today don’t love dancing as we used to,” said Mrs. Lovejoy, 5500 Central street, the daughter of Mr. And Mrs. Thomas Mastin, whose home at 3500 Main street, designed by Stanford white, was a masterpiece of the French chateau style of architecture. It had a dancing floor of mosaic and Mrs. Lovejoy wonders now that nobody complained of its lack of resilience.

“I don’t think they love dancing at all,“ she continued, “or they wouldn’t be constantly cutting in. Girls aren’t popular unless they are continually changing partners. But it wasn’t so a quarter century ago. If a girl was popular and a good dancer, a boy was not satisfied with one dance or several isolated dances. He would put his name down for two dances in succession, so as to prolong the pleasure.

“Cotillions still were danced occasionally by my set, but I did not care for them. They were entirely too formal. The waltz, with it graceful, gracious rhythm, and the lively tow-step, were the dances we liked. Sometimes I feel sorry for the young people now, for I know they experience little of the pleasure we knew in dancing.

“Why, on the day there was going to be a dance, I would lay my dress out on the bed in the middle of the afternoon, get everything ready, and long for evening to come. It wasn’t long in coming either, for our parties began early. At 7:30 o’clock it was time to start and two boys would come in a carriage to take Anna Keith and me.

“Sometimes the party would be quite a large one at the old Casino at 1023 Broadway, downtown. On summer evenings we would begin dancing in broad daylight. Often, all our dances were taken beforehand—sometimes weeks before. I hardly like to think of what would have happened to a boy in those days who dared to cut in.”

Other ballroom floors, including that of the Griffith residence, were there were innumerable parties, were of hardwood. Dr. Jefferson D. Griffith and his wife, the former Sallie Comingo of Independence, Mo., were very hospitable. They entertained a great deal, particularly for their son, Dr. Comingo Griffith, who was keen about dancing.

When Young Armour “Reversed.“

Young Watson Armour had slight confidence in himself as a dancer. He was calling on Theo Mastin one day and mentioned his difficulty with the waltz. “I cannot reverse,” he told her. “And what girl wants to go around always in one direction?“

“I’d teach you,“ she told him, “if only we had someone to play the piano.“ There were no phonographs in those days. The piano was the only dependence.

“We have a music box at home,“ suggested Watson.

“But what good will that do? I can’t go over.“

Mrs. Lovejoy explained that in those days girls never went to the homes of boys—never. While today it would be quire simple and natural for a girl to go to a boy’s home and teach him anything she knew about dancing, it was out of the question in the closing years of the nineteenth century.

“I’ll bring it over,“ said the boy and with the help of the coachmen he did bring it over. A waltz was put on and the boy, who was two years younger than his instructor, mastered the trick of reversing.

“We used to stream out of Oak Hall on moonlight nights into grounds that seemed to be enchanted,“ relates Mrs. Lovejoy. “Of all the good times we had when Armour boulevard was young and gay, the best were at Laura Nelson’s parties. She didn’t live on Armour, of course, but the Armour crowd went to her parties, which were the gayest of all.

“I recall a very cold night in winter when we were all dancing at our house. The musicians had been engaged to play until midnight, but bather asked me if I would like to have them remain another hours. I joyously assented and we danced on. At 1 O'clock father again extended the house for &‘Home, Sweet Home.’ But before 2 O'clock mutterings of discontent were audible from the coachmen waiting on the side porch and I told father I didn’t think we had better dance any longer.“

The good angle of the Mastin home was Harriet, who had been a slave in the Harris family. Mrs. Mastin had been one of the Harris girls and her wedding was one of those celebrated in the famous home, at Main and Westport. Harriet was black, but she was a lady if ever there was one, and when she died a few years ago all her pallbearers were white men, who had loved her from the time they were children. Her mourners were white women whose childish prayers had been said at Harriet’s knee.

When the Tea Set Thrived

Ten inseparable friends of that time and place were members of an organization known as the Tea Set, but in their sub-deb days they had a still more exciting band known only as the Q.O.C.’s. No boy ever knew that Q.O.C. stood for the queen of Clubs. The boys resented such secrecy, and one of them, John Townley, who afterward married Prue withers, a loyal Q.O.C., went so far as to address an anonymous rhyme to the secret ten.

The receipt of these lines by each of the ten created intense excitement in sub-debdom:

Ten maids petite of high degree have formed a club called G.O.C.,
Their lips are sealed, they will not tell, so let the meaning go to h—l.

Among the members of the club were Theo Mastin, Anna Keith, Sydney Holmes, Julia Wood, Prue Withers and Florence Lowe, afterward Mrs. Hughes Bryant.

Before her own marriage, Theo Mastin was twelve times a bridesmaid. She used to say that weddings were easy and she had become so accustomed to them that she did not dread her own. But, when the time came for her to be a bride, her hand trembled so that she would have dropped her bouquet had it not been for the watchfulness of her brother.

When Armour boulevard became the street of swagger homers and smart entertainments, its houses were built to endure at least a century, for it didn’t seem probable then that Kansas City could spread very much farther south. Mrs. Peter H. Tiernan recalls that a small club of matrons used to go out to the end of the street car line, where they were met by Mrs. Nelson’s wagonette and driven through a rural landscape to Oak Hall.

Among the early memories of Armour boulevard are the spans of handsome matched horses driven by the Burnhams and the Armours before stylish victories. Fancy parasols carried by fashionable women in their carriages went locally by the name of “Mrs. John Rosses” because Mrs. Ross, who wore charming clothes, carried extremely pretty sunshades with an inimitable air.

Tandems and traps, landaus and pony phaetons were the vehicles of transportation, but Armour boulevard was not very old when the pampered carriage and riding horses were shocked by the advent of two motor drawn buggies. They were owned by Watson Armour and Dr. A Comingo Griffith and today they would look decidedly queer, for they were boarded by means of steps leading up from behind. Mrs. Mary Dickerson, widow of Dr. D'estaing Dickerson, owned one of these contraptions, housing it in her barn at 6 West Armour.

Young Abby Staunton Hagerman (now Mrs. Morrison Shafroth of Denver) divided her youthful affection between a pony and a pair of roller skates, sometimes wearing the skates noisily up and down East Armour with her arm tightly clasping the pony’s neck. She was given to exploring the roofs of all the houses in the neighborhood, none proving too steep for her courageous feet.

Modernism had another pioneer—a young man just home from college, who, at a dinner given by his parents for Bishop and Mrs. Sidney C. Partridge, addressed the reverend visitor all through the meal as “Bish.”

In another Armour boulevard mansion there was a large reception one afternoon, with the drawing rooms, hall and dining room full of elegantly gowned guests, when two workmen suddenly appeared to remove the house telephone. The telephone bill had not been paid for months. Whether the telephone men purposely timed the visit during the party will never be known.

Among the gayest affairs on Armour boulevard were the garden parties given b Capt. And Mrs. Charles Webster Littlefield at the Armour residence (Mrs. Littlefield was “Kirk” Armour’s widow), with every tree bright with electric light. Mrs. Littlefield’s sister, Mrs. Edward W. smith, gave a brilliant ball which she called a “coiffure D'epoquos” ball. Fancy headdresses belonging to curious epochs were worn, Mrs. Victor B. Bell winning a prize with a ship on her head. E.M. Clendening was made up to resemble Mark Twain, and he achieved such a close likeness to the popular humorist that he startled the company.

During the years she lived in the Thomas Mastin residence at Armour and Main, Mrs. William B. Thayer had a gifted butler. He had a manner that other butlers tried vainly to imitate. That his distinguished bearing was the result of an inborn desire to give perfect service was apparent when he fell on his knees one day beside Mrs. J. V. C. Karnes’s chair. Mrs. Thayer was giving a luncheon and the mannered butler was serving an entrée. He was tall and for this reason Mrs. Karnes experienced difficulty in wielding the service spoon. So the butler fell on his knees beside her as it she were a queen. When she had been served, he rose, still with the tray intact, and completed his round of the table.

Armour boulevard may be said to have spread eastward and westward from the Kirkland B. Armour residence, socially speaking, and also northward and southward, for the Armour set was naturally not all on the boulevard. Mr. And Mrs. Walton Holmes lived (still live) at 3510 Warwick, the John H. Thachers at 3434 Main, the Harry T. Fowlers built the residence at 3 East Armour. The four corners at Armour and Warwick were occupied by the K. B. Armours, the Phil Tolls, the Griffiths and the George T. Moores. Also nearby were the residences of Jacob L. Loose, Edward W. smith, Theodore Winningham, Luke F. Wilson, Henry B. duke, E. H. Leo Thompson, Andrew Drumm, Donald F. Downing, George M. Myers, Conway F. Holmes, Judge Joseph Lowe, Joseph H. Harris, Bishop S. C. Partridge, Frederick A. Hornbeck, John R. Foran, Edward R. Perry, Rees Turpin, J. G. Peppard, Frank Hagerman, John G. Groves, James K. Christopher, Mrs. Frank J. Hearne, William L. Hearne, O. H. Dean, a. W. Childs, Joseph T. Bird, Henry Van Brunt and Ford Harvey. The old Morse residence is now occupied by the Black Friars theatrical club.

In the gatherings known as “conversation” parties, were many smart bachelors capable of holding their own. Instead of contract bridge, 6-hand euchre was the favorite card game. Every child had a governess. The future looked bright indeed for the wonderful new boulevard, where everybody knew everybody else and life had not quite lost its Victorian romance and simplicity.

The First Boulevards

The entertaining description of life along Armour boulevard at about the turn of the century, which appeared in The Star Sunday, recalls the tentative designation of this street as “South boulevard” in the original park and boulevard program for Kansas City. This program, submitted in 1893, provided for both a South and an East boulevard. This latter eventually became Benton boulevard, as we know it, and the former turned out to be a combination of Armour and Linwood boulevards. It as also proposed at that time to create an Independence boulevard over a route which now includes Gladstone boulevard, a segment of the Paseo and a grand boulevard, now lost in Broadway.

The program was remarkable in several respects. Although it suggested the construction of only about ten miles of boulevard, they were so laid out as to form a connected system, resembling the outer circle of boulevards in Paris. In the second place the first board of park and boulevard commissioners blithely went outside the city limits and their jurisdiction in locating both South and grand boulevards. And in the third place their program was completely realized and now forms the basis of a system ten times as extensive. The vision and competence of the men involved, in this project, including George E. Kessler, their brilliant engineer, has been of lasting benefit to the city.