A President, a Church, and Trails West by Jon E. Taylor

by Brian Burnes

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

9 November 2008


Just what is too much Harry?

It’s a question that surfaces in Independence, Missouri. One example occurred in 1993, when city officials approved the demolition of a vacant gas station that Harry Truman, the 33rd president, sometimes frequented after returning from Washington in the early ‘50s.

cover art

A President, a Church, and Trails West

Jon E. Taylor

Competing Histories in Independence, Missouri

(University of Missouri Press)

After hearing the testimony of residents who believed Truman’s connection with the structure deemed it worth preserving as part of the built environment he once knew, the Independence City Council reversed its decision.

The gas station still stands.

The context for what may strike some as a trivial controversy occurred about 10 years before. That’s when the Independence City Council in 1984 voted to reduce the size of the city’s heritage district, following debate over the plans of the First Baptist Church of Independence to remove several residences near the Truman home so it could expand its building. In this instance, writes author Jon E. Taylor, those wishing to preserve Truman’s old neighborhood came into open conflict with church officials seeking to grow their own faith community.

And yet the First Baptist Church wasn’t the only Independence church wanting to tear down old structures near the Truman home.

If it sounds complicated, it is. The sheer amount of historic event per square foot in Independence may not rival colonial Philadelphia, but it’s plenty rich enough. The Truman preservation drama is only one piece of it.

That’s why Jon E. Taylor’s book, A President, a Church, and Trails West represents a public service. Anyone who may casually decide to drop in on historic preservation topics in Independence can feel like a tag-along guest at a family holiday dinner who innocently wanders into the middle of a dialogue that has been going on since sometime after the pumpkin pie. Consider Taylor the peacemaking uncle who declares a ceasefire and then summarizes the story so far.

Truman’s story is familiar. After returning to Independence in 1953, the former president built his library, dedicated in 1957.

But there’s also the 19th-century wagon-wheel legacy of those who traveled west on overland trails—Santa Fe, California and Oregon—many of whom outfitted themselves in Independence. Eastern Jackson County is studded with inscribed markers denoting the trails’ various paths.

Then there’s Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet who is believed in 1831 to have dedicated a location in Independence as the site of a future temple. Today the spiral-topped temple of the Community of Christ Church (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ) dominates the Independence skyline. The Mormon Church (or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ), based in Salt Lake City, maintains a visitors center just to its south.

All are reasons Independence may lead the Kansas City area in the number of granite markers planted by highways and bronze plaques embedded in sidewalks. And yet this enlightened regard for events long passed was a hard time in coming.

As Taylor points out, it was only in 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act into law, enshrining an emerging preservation ethic and establishing a federal government role in it. And, as Taylor also writes, when the National Park Service nominated the residential area around the Truman home in 1971 as a National Historic Landmark, it bequeathed a city planning challenge to area residents.

Previously, such “presidential” designations may have singled out one or two individual structures. The Truman landmark site contained an entire suburban grid full of structures ranging in age and degree of upkeep.

Taylor usually maintains a neutral tone in describing the challenges that have followed. But he can’t resist noting the irony when the former RLDS Church was tearing down structures in the mid-1980s near the Truman home in anticipation of building its new temple.

“The church was creating this park-like setting at the same time as (National Park Service) managers were commenting on the integrity of Truman’s neighborhood!” he writes.  Taylor’s book also includes an unexpected dividend. It documents just how an Independence residential district known as “The Neck”, home to many black families, largely disappeared from the map during urban renewal efforts of the ‘60s.

The district was just south of the new Truman Library. While the former president supported the “improvement” of the area, Taylor writes, it’s unclear exactly what path he thought such improvement should take. “Truman never publicly stated what he hoped to see constructed on the cleared land,” Taylor writes.

Nevertheless, other local officials emphasized that the area that included small apartment buildings and bungalows should be made “attractive.” Throughout the ‘60s, 167 residences and buildings were demolished, with 179 white and minority families relocated.

“In 1965 the focus of historic preservation was still on preserving the individual homes of important people,” Taylor writes. That focus contributed, he adds, to a difficulty that many shared regarding the value of some homes near the First Baptist Church.

Still others disagreed. To paraphrase one Independence resident quoted by Taylor following the First Baptist Church debate in 1984, “Once a thing is destroyed, it is gone forever.” And when a building is saved from demolition, it can live on in unexpected ways. Like the “Truman” gas station.

The modest structure not only still stands, but it also can be glimpsed in the 1996 film Kansas City in a scene in which actors Jennifer Jason Lee and Miranda Richardson flee a shootout.
As some local preservationists like to mention, director Robert Altman—when looking for period structures to invoke 1930s Kansas City—had to come to Independence for that gas station.

A President, a Church, and Trails West


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