As Shirley Helzberg’s third big production in 10 years, the historic Vitagraph Film Exchange Building at 17th and Wyandotte proved to be her most challenging. Fighting through city reviews, permits, and TIF financing approval, Shirley persevered to create a true work of art in Crossroads. The call sheet included a utility pole disappearing act, new set lighting, and a long scene where a very cool parking garage just seemed to emerge from nowhere!
This is not the Vitagraph’s debut appearance. It has been associated with the film industry for years as a Warner Bros. warehouse/distribution facility. Today, however, the building’s leading anchor tenant role will be played by the Kansas City Symphony. Helix’s Trudy Faulkner and Jay Tomlinson who have worked with Shirley on prior productions will once again be added to the credits of another successful preservation of Kansas City history.
Philanthropist Shirley Helzberg has revived another historic building, and its anchor tenant, the Kansas City Symphony, says she’s done a virtuoso job.
The symphony relocated to its new space in the restored Vitagraph Film Exchange Building at 17th and Wyandotte streets on May 1, and executive director Frank Byrne is savoring the view of the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts from his corner office.
“It’s wonderful to animate a historic building and do it in such a tasteful and respectful way,” Byrne said. “I think the community and the Crossroads in particular owe her a great debt of gratitude.”
The $24 million redevelopment project not only restored the art deco allure of the 80-year-old Vitagraph, where Warner Bros. once stored and distributed movies, but also dramatically improved the streetscape for a half-block around it.
Ugly wooden utility poles and transformers were removed, crumbling sidewalks and curbs were replaced, and new streetlights were installed.
All this to provide an attractive connection between the Crossroads Arts District and its massive new neighbor rising on the hill, the Kauffman Center.
“I wanted it to be pedestrian-friendly, like in New York, from Union Station all the way to the performing arts center and then on to downtown,” Helzberg said during a recent tour of the building.
Besides restoring the original four-story Vitagraph building, the project included construction of a two-level, 40-space garage with a rooftop garden and deck.
The deck, which will be used primarily by tenants, offers a panoramic view of the Crossroads, including a view of the TWA Moonliner atop its namesake building, as well as the performing arts center.
The only big element missing from the project as envisioned by Helzberg is a two-level penthouse she wanted to build on the Vitagraph roof. The National Park Service, which reviews for accuracy all historic preservation projects using tax credits, balked at that proposed alteration.
“It was so disappointing,” she said. “It would have been unique and augmented this area.”
Architect Jay Tomlinson of Helix Architecture & Design said the main challenge was transforming what was basically an attractive warehouse designed to store reels of celluloid film into a modern office environment.
“It was built very stout and certainly wasn’t in any danger of falling down,” he said.
The environmentally friendly design, including the rooftop garden, is allowing the project to seek LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Harris-Wilson Construction was the contractor.
This is Helzberg’s third big historic renovation project in 10 years.
In 2002, she completed the renovation of the historic Webster House school, kitty-corner from the Vitagraph, and five years ago she restored the Blossom House, a 120-year-old mansion in the Quality Hill neighborhood.
Helzberg said the Vitagraph project proved to be the most challenging.
She struggled to win approval for the $6.7 million in tax-increment financing for the project — about $3 million went to rebuilding the public infrastructure and burying the electrical lines. she endured a cumbersome city review and permitting process.
“I didn’t understand all the intricacies of the street system, burying power lines, moving sewers, moving fire hydrants … to even get approval on the streetscape, which was a process that surprised me,” she said.
“It seems everything took more time and was very costly.”
The symphony occupies part of the first floor and all of the second. The first level includes a spacious boardroom with a flat-screen television that can provide live video feeds from inside the performing arts center. A room with a separate entry from Wyandotte can be used for ticket sales and symphony social functions.
Glossy terrazzo floors provide a deluxe touch throughout the restored spaces.
The elevators, paneled in rich rosewood, lead to the main symphony offices on the second floor. Visitors then enter the office suite beyond a frosted glass wall etched with “Kansas City Symphony.”
Byrne said the new space was 30 percent larger than the symphony’s previous quarters in the Central Exchange Building.
“Like all the projects Shirley has undertaken, she’s done a magnificent job of creating a space that’s comfortable and spacious with a great deal more natural light,” he said.
For the first time, the symphony has a room large enough to not only hold board meetings, but also to bring the staff together for larger gatherings. There also is space for donor receptions and other events.
The third and fourth floors are raw space awaiting new tenants. Helzberg said she hoped to attract single users on each and has had a couple of law firms express interest. Waterford Property Co. is handling the leasing.
There also is a 1,000-square-foot space on the first floor with separate access from 17th Street for a potential retail use.
Suzie Aron, president of the Crossroads Community Association, praised the project and its impact on the neighborhood.
“Shirley, as usual, has gone up and beyond the call of duty and has done a wonderful job,” she said.
“The streetscape is a big part of it. It’s not only what’s going on inside the building, but what’s going on outside to dress up our neighborhood.”
For Helzberg, the project was more a gift to the city than anything else.
“I love urban and all architecture, and I have this desire to make things more beautiful and more usable and functional,” she said. “I believe in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s been very good to Helzberg Diamonds and I wanted to give back.
“If you can take these buildings that have been neglected and restore them and encourage others, it’s like a ripple in a pond. I want to help people see what can be better.”
– Article Written by Kevin Collison, The Kansas City Star