Published May 1st, 2019 at 12:39 PM
A giraffe couple, necks wrapped like vines, peer over the storefronts. Hippos, one with its mouth agape, rise from the tiled pond between shops. A lion and a zebra are roommates on an animal-filled ark in front of Macy’s.
In the 1960s, 30 life-sized sculptures stood at the entrance of a once-popular Kansas City, Missouri, mall—The Landing Shopping Center on Troost Avenue. Shiny, cement animals punctuated the outdoor mall and converted an otherwise ordinary shopping place into an extraordinary child’s playground.
But why do people – almost 60 years later – keep asking each other or writing about it in local history Facebook groups?
“This was one of the first malls in Kansas City south of the Plaza and extremely popular in its day,” Richard Miller wrote in an email to Flatland.
Miller is one of three Kansas Citians that asked curiousKC about the sculptures. He wanted to learn more about the history behind the art, while the other two (who wish to remain anonymous) wondered where they are today.
“It’s something that really meant a lot to people,” said Ann McFerrin, who was once one of those kids at The Landing and is now an archivist at the Parks and Recreation Department. “They were meant for kids, created to have interaction with the kids.”
A Pioneer on The Plains
Kansas City-area artist Jac T Bowen wanted to make sculptures that kids could climb.
J.C. Nichols Co. had commissioned the renowned sculptor and painter to create something for a new mall slated to open in 1960. Bowen sketched. And sketched. Then he bent pieces of wire into shapes of animals and smattered the frame with paper mache. But paper mache isn’t for climbing.
Cement and fiberglass proved sturdier. Bowen added wire, deer hair and finished it all off with paint.
“Whimsical, colorful and humorous, the animals provided high adventure and the thrill of exploration for a generation of little ones,” reads a note in “Jac T Bowen: A Kansas City Artist,” a book penned by his niece, Marybeth Lake.
Bowen was a jack of all mediums—paint, mosaics, sculptures and more. He was perhaps most famous for his iron relief ‘Sheaves of Wheat’ on the Board of Trade building. A 1961 article in The Kansas City Star describes Bowen’s work as more “true-to-life than Walt Disney’s creations, but they are no less whimsical and appealing.”
The animals were almost life-sized, so in many cases – cue the giraffes – the artist had to move the sculptures from his home studio to an underground studio that had once been a nightclub on 48th and Oak.
The overarching theme paid homage to the historical significance of Westport Landing, where settlers met to buy and trade. The boat in the sculpture, carrying the Missouri Tiger and the Kansas Jayhawk, was a reinterpretation of Noah’s Ark as a Missouri paddle boat.
The Sculpture Plot Thickens
The sculptures were removed during a remodel in 1970 and thought to have been donated to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The plan was to ship them off to the Kansas City Zoo. That day came and the colorful animal sculptures were given a colorful adieu.
Balloons dotted the skies as kindergarteners waved “bye” with one hand and held their chocolate chip cookies and popcorn in the other. The children looked on as the sculptures rode away in the large trucks.
But then the sculptures disappeared.
Kansas City Zoo officials say that despite the ceremonial adieu, the sculptures never arrived. The Star did report that some of the animals made guest appearances during Easter events.
“‘Where are the animal sculptures?’ is a recurring (question) because they were ‘crowd favorites’,” Kenneth Lee, docent and the Kansas City Zoo’s unofficial historian wrote in an email. Lee added that Bowen’s niece searched for them some years ago without success.
Lee said he only knew what happened to the ark. It was in such bad condition that it was destroyed. Ann Day, the education reservations and resources supervisor at the Kansas City Zoo, confirmed what Lee told Flatland.
Flatland tried to find clues by rummaging through three boxes full of letters, photos, biographies, newspaper clippings and old pamphlets at multiple libraries and archives in town. We popped in the Kansas City Art Institute where Bowen once taught, the State Historical Society, and gathered tips from one of the anonymous question askers. She was hopeful we could find their whereabouts.
But the Parks and Recreation Department’s McFerrin isn’t so sure the animals are still with us.
“Considering the age they would have been, they’ve probably gone to animal heaven. Not real animal heaven. Fake animal heaven,” McFerrin said.
Will we ever see the animals from The Landing again? We turn to you, dear Flatland readers.
Any inkling as to where the animal sculptures might be? Any animal sculpture sightings? Whatever hint you might have, drop us a line.
As far as Flatland is concerned, the case is still open.
—Vicky Diaz-Camacho is the community reporter for Kansas City PBS and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported that Warren Watkins Jr. is Bruce Watkins’ son. This article has been updated to reflect that Warren Jr. is Bruce Watkins’ nephew.