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KC Symphony Moving to Webster House, New Movement for Old School

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3 minute read

By Kevin Collison

The historic Webster House at 17th and Wyandotte will be the new headquarters of the Kansas City Symphony, returning music and life to the building closed by philanthropist Shirley Helzberg last summer because of the Covid pandemic.

“We are delighted that our Symphony will have a new home and will be able to welcome the people of Kansas City back to a space they know and love,” Helzberg said in a statement.

The move will be a friendly one for the symphony, which currently has its offices at another building redeveloped by Helzberg, the historic Vitagraph Building across the street at 1703 Wyandotte.

It also brings the symphony a few beats closer to its performance home at Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“The Webster House building will be the front door to the Kansas City Symphony, where we will provide new ways for the community to interact with use through recitals, educational programs, events and opportunities to meet our musicians,” Danny Beckley, the symphony executive director, said in a statement.

The plan calls for the 135 year-old former school house to create an outdoor courtyard, and reconfigure its first floor for public gatherings including recitals, classes and events along with art and historical displays, according to a press release.

The Symphony’s new offices and recital spaces at Webster House are steps away from its home at Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center. (Image from KC Symphony website)

The upper two levels also will be used for office space, as well as performance, meeting and event spaces. Almost 20 percent will be used for practice space.

Helix Architecture + Design is the architect for the renovation plan. Helix was the designer of the original restoration of Webster House 20 years ago.

“The process will be a collaborative effort with our engineers, Avant Acoustics and Lankford Fendler, to carefully address the acoustics of the building,” Alissa Wehmueller, a principal at Helix, said in a statement.

“Whether its isolating noise between practice rooms or transforming a dining room into recital space, we want every musician, symphony employee and community member to appreciate the beauty of the building and truly enjoy their experience.”

The Helzberg family’s restoration 20 years ago of what may be the city’s only surviving Richardson Romanesque Style buildings from the 1880s came at pivotal time early in downtown’s revival.

In a previous interview, Helzberg said the old school building was in terrible condition. It had been vacant since 1977. The building was renovated and a new bell tower had to be fashioned from metal.

The building reopened in 2002 with a renowned restaurant upstairs and high-end antique shop and boutique below. A 182-space garage was built to serve the Webster House and other tenants in 2014.

But the dramatic slowdown in business caused by the Covid pandemic proved the undoing of the original business concept.

The Webster School building was in poor condition when this photo was taken in 1981. (Photo from National Register of Historic Places application)

Helzberg announced last April she would be closing the operations there, bur vowed at the time there would be a new future for her labor of love.

“The Kansas City Symphony is a leader among American orchestras,” she said in her statement.

“This move will enable the symphony to continue to build on these strengths. It will also further the symphony’s role in the community, guaranteeing sustainability and vitality for years to come.”

Beckley said the symphony’s new facility at the Webster House will augment its offerings at the adjoining Kauffman Center.

“This will be a perfect complement to our main stage performances just next door in Helzberg Hall,” he said. “This historic space will help us provide context to the art of symphonic music, which will deepen our engagement with the community.

“Our musicians will gain individual and small group practice space accessible 365 days a year.”

Michael Stern, music director for the symphony, noted the Webster House already had a strong bond with the orchestra and its audience in its previous life as a restaurant and bar where people would go before and after performances.

“It has been a place for countless musical gatherings, celebrations and events in which the symphony and the community could come together,” Stern said in a statement.

“Webster House was always a labor of love for Shirley Bush Helzberg, and she remains at the heart of our symphony family.”

The cost of the renovation to accommodate the symphony was not disclosed, but records at City Hall show an application was made late last year for construction and related permits totaling $665,000.

One of the lead funders of the project is the Sunderland Foundation.

“The availability of the Webster School property presents a unique opportunity to once again transform this special building, this time into a hub of artistic activity for our outstanding symphony,” Kent Sunderland, foundation chairman, said in a statement.

The Kansas City Symphony said a new name for the building is expected to be announced in the coming months.

“All of us at the Kansas City Symphony are so grateful to Shirley Bush Helzberg for the opportunity to call the historic Webster School our new home,” Pat McCown, symphony board chair, said in a statement.

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