Lee’s Summit Historical Society planning museum exhibits

rpulley@lsjournal.comAugust 28, 2013 

  • $660,000 Cost for renovation of WPA Post Office

The Lee’s Summit Historical Society is working through a myriad of details and decisions for renovating a depression-era post office that will be the new home for its museum.

Society leaders are discussing the move from a small corner of the historic train depot it shares with the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce and Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council.

In April Lee’s Summit voters approved a $660,000 bond issue for renovating the 1939 Works Progress Administration building at 220 SW Main Street. After being a post office it served as City Hall between 1969 and 2005.

Saturday Aug. 24 the consultants working on the project shared their ideas with society members and others.

They’re also inviting the public to learn more about the project and offer suggestions 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 7, at First Presbyterian Church of Lee’s Summit 1625 O’Brien Road.

The plan is, the city will lease the building to the society, for $1, after renovations to make it ready for exhibits. The historical society will supply the artifacts and documents from its collection, pay for ongoing operating expenses, while using volunteers and a part-time director to run it.

Finishing the proposal are volunteers, retired architect John Wisniewski of Hollis+Miller Architects and Art Davis, a former Lee’s Summit city administrator, and others like society president Kathy Smith. They are working with museum consultant Alisha Cole and other architects from Hollis+Miller.

The historical society has been working for several years to lay a foundation for a better museum, creating a strategic plan in 2008 and more recently a business plan to pay for its operation.

One of the tasks is to decide which items should be on permanent display, and which will be used for rotating exhibits.

“The single most important thing is the story,” Cole said. It is better to have one, exciting artifact or document that illustrates the story than 25 so-so pieces, she said.

She said visitors want to be able to relate to the exhibits, “They have some curiosity, but they’re also looking for themselves.”

Proposed permanent exhibits would have four themes significant to the town and region: railroads, Longview Farm, World War II and the Border Wars, the area’s bloody Civil War conflict between free-state Kansans and southern-sympathizing Missourians.

Within those broad themes the museum could portray the stories of Lee’s Summit founder William B. Howard or the infamous outlaw Cole Younger who rode with Jesse James. Or Loula Long Combs, who gained international fame for show horses bred at Longview Farm. Or how fire destroyed all of Lee’s Summit downtown in 1885.

The lobby could be restored to look like it did in 1939, with a grilled window for the clerk.

Ken Davis, a society member, and 7th-generation Lee’s Summit resident, said he thought the history of the city leadership should be included, because the building was for so many years the City Hall.

Farther inside, part of the former mail room will be remodeled for a 2,400-square-feet flexible space used for the individual exhibits, using moveable walls or panels.

That would allow special events and fundraisers, like rentals for weddings, to help with expenses.

Some of the current office space would remain for a research room – to be named for local historians Frank Graves and Don Hale. Downstairs would be storage for more of the society’s collection. There would also be room for dressing rooms, restrooms and rehearsal space for performers that would be using a festival space (a separate project approved by voters) in an adjacent lot.

One challenge is to make the museum appeal to different generations.

Flat-screen monitors could be used for object labels instead of plaques. They have the advantage of being flexible and easily changed, can also display added photographs, and can be interactive.

But the museum also could use old-fashioned docents, or recorded tours.

David Leyerle, a resident who has a master’s degree in military history, suggested the museum should include the story of Lee’s Summit’s connections to World War II manufacturing in Kansas City.

While discussing how much the museum should depend on technology, he noted that a majority of people under 40 have “smart” phones. He said the museum should create an “app” that can help explain exhibits.

“They have it in their hand and they know how to use it,” Leyerle said.

The more complete plan is to be presented to the Lee’s Summit City Council in October.

Art Davis said the society is grateful to the council for taking the political risk of putting the museum project on the ballot, as it is not a direct revenue-generating project.

He said the society’s business plan includes restructuring dues and increasing membership and finding donors for an endowment. The group is trying to decide whether to charge a small admission.

With the celebration of Lee’s Summit’s 150th year coming up in 2015, the society has a great opportunity to market itself and the museum during sesquicentennial events being planned, he said.

“It could be an incredible community celebration when we roll this out, but there are a lot of moving parts,” Davis said. “Now the impetus is on this group to perform.”

Exhibits could be organized that would appeal to wider groups of people and rotating exhibits to encourage return visits.

Smith said, for example, she is talking with the Negro Leagues Museum about cooperating on an exhibit, noting that the Kansas City Monarchs played in Lee’s Summit, which also had its own barnstorming baseball team. Several Lee’s Summit players advanced to the big leagues, she said.

“Sports is an important factor, people might not be interested in William B. Howard, but boy are they interested in baseball,” Smith said.

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