Situated in Penn Valley Park overlooking Union Station, the National WWI Museum and Memorial (previously known as the Liberty Memorial) stands as a testament to all those that served in the Great War and the Kansas Citians who rallied to build it.
Origins of the “Kansas City Spirit”
In the 19th century, city boosters were optimistic about the growing city’s potential, giving rise to what has been called the “Kansas City Spirit.” The city’s investment in railroads and cattle stockyards lead to the opening of Union Depot in 1878, the largest rail depot west of New York. Kansas City became a hub in the nation’s flow of commerce and a decade-long building boom followed that transformed the city into a metropolis in the region. Along with this economic boom came the City Beautiful movement, which sparked the creation of a scenic parks and boulevards system that remains a premier example of urban beautification in the United States. However, this movement also reinforced racial and economic segregation endemic of the era, a legacy which is today confronted around the nation. Overall the city was transformed, and with the completion of Union Station in 1914, a grand gateway to the city which replaced Union Depot, Kansas City had become a modern American city.
Like much of the United States, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 did not have an immediate impact on Kansas City. That changed in April 1917 when the U.S. entered the war. Due to its location and the newly-constructed Union Station, Kansas City was chosen as a central place for American troops to gather before being shipped off to France. The city flourished in its wartime role.
When the war ended in 1918, Kansas Citians reacted with both celebration and solemnity. Despite the global Influenza epidemic, between 60,000 and 100,000 people turned out for a triumphant Victory Parade through the streets of downtown.
Kansas Citians were also aware of those who would never come home, having lost 441 service personnel locally, including Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons, the first American officer to be killed in the war, Red Cross nurse Loretta Hollenback and Private Wayne Miner, possibly the final American fatality on the battlefield, killed just hours before the Nov. 11 Armistice took effect.
Building a Memorial
Kansas City residents collectively pushed the idea of a war memorial, with newspaper editorials calling to “Honor the regiments of youthful crusaders who gloriously asserted their manhood at Soissons and St. Mihiel and Sedan.” The memorial resonated in the hearts and minds of residents. Even after it was determined that a “fitting memorial” would cost a minimum of two million dollars, Kansas Citians remained committed. On October 25, 1919, Kansas City officially initiated its fundraising drive. The city achieved its fundraising goal in ten days, with major gifts from wealthy citizens and nickels collected by schoolchildren.
Construction of the Liberty Memorial (1923-11-20)National WWI Museum and Memorial
Directly across from the entrance to Union Station, Penn Valley Park was chosen for the memorial's location, where visitors to the city would be immediately struck by the scale of the planned memorial.
Harold Van Buren Magonigle of New York, one of the nation’s leading architects and designer of the McKinley Memorial in Canton, Ohio, was chosen to create the structure. His plans for a soaring memorial tower flanked by two halls and sphinxes drew on Egyptian Revival Style and Art Deco, gaining praise from national publications like the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.
The site dedication on November 1, 1921 coincided with the third national convention of the American Legion. Among 100,000 spectators, the five main Allied commanders of World War I—General John J. Pershing of the United States, Lt. General Jules Marie Alphonse Jacques of Belgium, General Armando Diaz of Italy, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, and Admiral Lord David Beatty of Great Britain—were in attendance, the first time the men ever gathered in the same place. Vice-President Calvin Coolidge was also present as an honored guest.
These international figures instilled in Kansas Citians’ the sense that their memorial was contributing not only to their city but to the nation. Over the next five years, objects from the war began to be collected for the on-site museum and the memorial evolved from architectural drawings to a tangible physical structure. Dedicated November 11, 1926, it became one of the leading WWI memorials in the world.
1926 and Beyond
The Liberty Memorial continued to be a fixture of of life in Kansas City through the 1920s and 30s.
During World War II, the Liberty Memorial became a popular visiting spot for the many servicemen passing through Union Station.
Visitors would explore the Memorial’s two exterior buildings, which housed exhibitions and events, and take the elevator to the top of the Tower.
In 1961, the Museum and Memorial received some much-needed restoration when several veterans’ organizations joined with the city in hosting a rededication ceremony. Former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman were invited to speak, and more than 50 diplomats also accepted invitations to the ceremony.
From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the Museum and Memorial was, as the Kansas City Star stated, “our neglected asset.” Despite work to revamp the structure, the area fell into decline with the closing of Union Station in 1989 and then the closing of the Museum and Memorial to the public in 1994.
Restoring a Landmark
Within just a few years of the closing, efforts were initiated to restore the Museum and Memorial. Again the community rallied with a major fundraising effort in the 1990s to reopen and improve this Kansas City asset.
In 2006, an 80,000-square-foot nationally-acclaimed Museum expansion opened underneath the existing Memorial, which has since welcomed more than three million visitors. That same year, the Memorial was designated a National Historic Landmark, a distinction awarded to less than forty properties in Missouri.
In 2014, Congress officially designated the site as the National WWI Museum and Memorial, recognizing its national importance.
In the years since its reopening, the Museum and Memorial has welcomed many, including then-candidate Barack Obama, Senator John McCain and the country’s final surviving World War I veteran, Frank Buckles.
It continues to be a community treasure and gathering place for all Kansas Citians, as well as for visitors from across the world.
Curator of Education: Lora Vogt
Digital Content Manager: Liesl Christman
Special Projects Historian: Dr. Jennifer Zoebelein
Senior Curator: Doran Cart
Registrar: Stacie Petersen
Director, Archives and Edward Jones Research Center: Jonathan Casey
Made possible in part by the generous support of the William T. Kemper Foundation, the Regnier Family Foundation and the David T. Beals, III Charitable Trust.