Kansas City’s most iconic brands, from Western Auto to Town Topic | KCUR 89.3
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If you think the Western Auto sign hovers above Kansas City’s Crossroads neighborhood like a delightful, less evil version of the Eye of Sauron, you’re not wrong. The multi-story monument can be seen from all angles, its glow flashing off windows along Oak Street and windshields on Interstate Highway 35. In a word: iconic.
While the sign and its looping spire have long been staples of our (underappreciated) cityscape, Kansas City’s aesthetic has a history dotted with symbolic insignia — some of which occupy lesser-known spaces. Big or small, everything is important.
Ultimately, we’re a city of artists, and with our growing population of murals, our signs – neon or not – give the city its vibrant personality.
Believe it or not, a Coca-Cola sign once stood atop the Western Auto building.
After securing the recipe for the drink in 1892, Georgian business magnate Asa Griggs Candler needed a good distribution point. He chooses the strange triangular ground of the Grand Boulevard. The building itself was designed by architect Arthur Tufts.
After noticing the demand for Ford Model T parts, an accountant named George Pepperdine rented the fourth floor of the building as the headquarters of Western Auto in 1928.
“By June 1952, the company had invested over $300,000 in renovations and additions, including a new 30-ton, 70-by-73-foot sign displaying its name in massive red letters surrounded by an arrow,” reads -on in a 2020 article written by Michel Wells.
In 2000, after Western Auto was taken over by Sears – which in turn was consumed by Advance Auto Parts – the sign was extinguished. It remained that way until condo renovations took place in the coming years and the Western Auto Lofts Homeowners Association decided to fund the big relight.
Using 2,500 incandescent bulbs and 1,000 feet of neon tubes, the Western Auto sign was lit up again on July 13, 2018, Friday the 13th. Talk about a bright idea.
Not to be outdone, the Firestone Building and its giant blue “Abdiana” sign can be seen one block north of Western Auto on Grand. They just don’t make fonts like they used to.
Although Abdiana Properties now owns the building, the original sign read ‘Firestone’, the letters mimicking a blazing fire.
Built in 1916 for the famous tire and rubber company, some of the letters from the original sign are visible today through the windows of the terracotta-clad structure. Inside, you’ll find event space available for rent.
18th and Vine
Known for jazz, soul food, the Gem Theater and multiple museums, the Historic 18th and Vine neighborhood typifies Kansas City’s black art and cultural richness. And the “18th & Vine” sign — which features a treble clef symbol in place of an ampersand — speaks to the area’s musical history.
The colorful sign sits above a building that once served as a “Street” hotel. According to the American Jazz Museum, “the hotel on Reuben Street was the most luxurious hotel available to African-American travelers” in Kansas City.
Hotel Street has hosted Negro League baseball players and jazz artists, including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who “could all enjoy the dining experience denied them in all-white establishments elsewhere in the city”.
Today, visitors to the neighborhood can see originals and replicas of some of the historic 18th and Vine signs inside the American Jazz Museum.
We’ve written about it before, but thought it was worth mentioning again – the pale green mid-century sign at 10th and Broadway is simply photogenic.
According to Missouri Preservation, the brick building that housed Seiden’s Furs was first built as a pharmacy in 1874. It’s also the oldest existing structure in Kansas City’s central business district, as seen in a architectural survey of 1980.
While we’re glad faux fur is now all the rage, we can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to walk under Seiden’s neon sign and matching orange fox. Much of downtown Kansas City lends itself to nostalgia – a sense of the past, even as similar structures are given modern touches.
Now, the Seiden’s Furs building has been designated by the city as an unsafe property, primarily due to a roof collapse in 2021. Artists hope to one day renovate it into an affordable studio.
The milk jug
This eye-catching sign on a busy road in Independence, Missouri, once referred to a small store or convenience store. It emphasizes a milk bottle on top and bold white letters below.
The original milk jug no longer exists, although we wish it did. Fortunately, local photographers with a sense of sentimentality have ensured that his image lives on.
And like Seiden’s Furs, the Milk Jug sign speaks to a Kansas town we rarely see these days. It exemplifies the evolution of marketing and art, as well as the focus on mom-and-pop style businesses. Check it out for yourself if you’re ever in the area.
hotel chair and drum room
You’re in for a treat if you decide to stay at Power & Light’s famous Hotel President, whose white rooftop sign is also part of the Kansas City skyline.
The hotel was built in 1926 by Frank Alonzo Dudley, a lawyer and hotelier with businesses in Niagara Falls, New York. The Drum Room, the President’s beautiful retro lounge and restaurant, has been open on and off since 1928, featuring big-name artists like Frank Sinatra and Patsy Cline.
Although the President closed for renovations in 1980 and again in 2017 – at one point it was saved from the brink of shaving – it still retained its characteristic 1940s style. And the Drum Room sign, clad in letters reds and yellows and a drum kit, is an ode to an era. Look for it at the corner of Baltimore and 14th Street.
Ahh. Air roasted coffee. That’s why The Roasterie sports a giant airplane atop its Southwest Boulevard coffee factory. She goes by Betty. (The plane.)
Caffeine-lovers should have no problem locating the Roasterie, as Betty’s wings stretch above the buildings and streets, peeking out from behind a tree near the cramped café building and its drive-thru. adjoining.
One of the Roasterie’s goals is sustainability, which is why they invest heavily in mutually beneficial relationships with growers, in addition to practicing water and soil conservation.
Find more photos of Betty the plane on Instagram.
Some say eating Town Topic’s hallowed food is a rite of passage in Kansas City. In other words, you know you’re a local when you’ve stood in line late at night at the burger joint.
Arguably the epitome of Kansas City’s burger house, Town Topic and its glittering array of fin-like signs have led many hungry bar-goers to salvation. We can all thank Claude Sparks for opening the first downtown restaurant in 1937, where he sold burgers for only five cents each.
One of Broadway’s current iterations is open 24/7, meaning you can sate your burger cravings any time of the day. There are two other locations – one at 1900 Baltimore and the other in Mission, Kansas.
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