Kansas City: The Heart of America

Kansas City. Known as the Heart of America, I’ll always think of love and marriage when I think of my time spent there. I was anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court of the United States to rule on the topic of same-sex marriage while I was visiting Kansas City in June of 2015, just before coming back to Minneapolis for our own Twin Cities Pride celebration. Such a lens of love colored my view of the place in a romantic, rose-tinted hue. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway or midwest honeymoon, consider Kansas City, Missouri. Here’s a weekender package to put into your planner.

The Raphael Hotel. Photo by Andy Lien
The Raphael Hotel. Photo by Andy Lien

It’s often referred to as the City of Fountains, as it is home to more fountains than other city in the world, except for Rome. The history is deep and the culture is diverse. And while many different interests can be piqued in KC, from sports to barbecue to war to family-friendly attractions, I think back on my time spent there that was framed by art, parks, food, community, music, and architecture, which would all have plenty to do with how I’d choose to spend a romantic getaway or honeymoon of my own. What I found was a bit of opulence and grandeur grounded in modern-day trends and amenities.

No place was this more obvious than my hotel, The Raphael. Originally constructed in 1917, The Raphael Hotel is Kansas City’s best-known example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture. The Raphael features 126 guest rooms and suites with amenities and comforts designed for the modern luxury traveler. My suite was where I retreated at night in a three-room space which rivaled the square footage of my loft in St. Paul. The mornings were light and bright as I padded through the suite in my white terrycloth robe and slippers, sipping local coffee from The Roasterie before going for the chef’s special dish at the hotel’s restaurant, Chaz on the Plaza: Lobster Benedict with fried green tomatoes and caviar. It’s the perfect setup for a day of shopping and art. 

The Plaza in the evening, perfect for a stroll hand-in-hand. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
The Plaza in the evening, perfect for a stroll hand-in-hand. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
Day 1 – Thursday – Fine Arts

Kansas City is a particularly navigable city to drive and walk, with pockets and neighborhoods that make for easy activity planning. Out the front door of The Raphael is a picturesque view of Country Club Plaza, just across Ward Parkway and Brush Creek. Country Club Plaza, also referred to as The Plaza, has been called the “Rodeo Drive of the Midwest” and is a Spanish-inspired shopping district with a number of fountains and statues, restaurants, and close proximity to both the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

At the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, you will find works by modern and contemporary artists from around the world. The Kemper opened in 1994 and its permanent collection is rotated year-round to give people an opportunity to see “what’s new” at the Kemper at various times during the year. The museum is free and easily locatable by the giant “Spider” sculpture by Louise Bourgeois at its entrance, with works by artists such as Damien Hirst, Andrew Wyeth, Fairfield Porter, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Robert Mapplethorpe as part of the permanent collection. It’s a small but mighty museum that also holds an award-winning restaurant, Café Sebastienne, which comes highly (let me say highly again) recommended for lunch before progressing to an afternoon of art at the Nelson-Atkins.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is recognized internationally as one of the finest general art museums in the United States, and currently maintains collections of more than 35,000 works of art. While I was there, I toured the current exhibits and left plenty of time to see the 22-acre sculpture garden.The lawn of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art resembles a badminton court with 18-foot tall sculptures, titled “Shuttlecocks.”

For a fun relationship challenge and a nod to our dearly departed David Bowie, wander down the lawn to the “Glass Labyrinth” by Robert Morris. The difficulty is in being able to see through it, but not be able to walk through it. Find each other. Kiss in the middle. Wander back out, hand in hand.

The "Spider" at the entrance of the Kemper. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
The “Spider” at the entrance of the Kemper. Photo courtesy of Visit KC

After a day of fine art, enjoy an evening of seafood and take a stroll along Brush Creek near The Raphael; a winding waterway surrounded by lush greenery, with gondolas to rent for an additional air of romance. Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar is a quick jaunt away from the hotel and serves up some fresh and sustainable seafood for a landlocked city. The fried calamari was light and accented by a dollop of lime aioli. The blue crab cakes were grilled and served with a light lemon sauce. I slurped down an oyster which, in coastless Missouri, was not necessarily part of the local fare, but what topped it was Missouri Hackleback caviar. I enjoyed an entrée of heritage bone-in pork loin from local Missouri vendors after which I devoured a dessert of a decadent dark chocolate s’mores torte accompanied by Jax ‘Flying Fish’ Blend Coffee by The Roasterie of Kansas City. A lovely end to a day of decadence.

Day 2 – Friday – Community and Culture

Kansas City is a place where minority culture and community flourished and I invite you to partake in some of its greatness. The 18th & Vine historic district was the center for black culture and life in Kansas City from the late 1800s–1960s. It was the hub of activity for homeowners, business, jazz music, and baseball enthusiasts, and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. At 18th & Vine, the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are housed in the same building, connected by a gathering space and small theater that plays an introductory film about the 18th & Vine neighborhood. Please watch the film. As I sat there, watching and learning about how the black community in the area formed its own community with its own rules and mores and culture within the larger context of Kansas City and the United States during a time when racism was the rule, I felt a great sense of pride on their behalf, not dissimilar to how I feel when reading about GLBT history. It expanded my empathy and interest in this place and these people with a very remarkable history that I gleaned as I toured the other two museums.

The American Jazz Museum is an interactive and attractive experience that makes my heart beat faster. Whether it’s a flashy dress worn by Ella Fitzgerald or Charlie Parker artwork or President Clinton’s sax or one of the many listening stations, I was enchanted at every turn. The spaces in the museum are designed with jazz instruments in mind and the educational opportunities include being able to build your own jazz song by changing the drum beats or guitar sounds at the touch of a button on a mixing board. Artifacts such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet can be visited and revered. Also deserving of reverence is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Founded in 1990, the museum is dedicated to preserving the rich history of African American baseball. The first professional Negro Leagues were founded in Kansas City in 1920, just two blocks from the museum. The tour, exhibits, photos, sculptures, and artifacts chronicle the history and heroes of the Negro Leagues from their founding after the Civil War to their demise in the 1960s. The appearance — and disappearance — of the leagues are significant to our history, both as Americans and as members of minority groups in America.

The Cubano with pork belly at Ophelia's. Might have been the "best bite" of the trip. Photo by Andy Lien
The Cubano with pork belly at Ophelia’s. Might have been the “best bite” of the trip. Photo by Andy Lien

For food options in the area, I present three very different options that also speak to community and culture in Kansas City. Just down the street in the 18th & Vine neighborhood is Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue. Kansas City is known for barbecue and barbecue is known by Arthur Bryant. Grab your lunch there and get busy with the barbecue.

Your evening dining options can be paired with what you choose to do with your nightlife. At some point, a trip to the Crossroads Arts District is in order, and I recommend Affäre, a contemporary German restaurant using all natural, farm fresh, seasonal food, and supporting local producers as much as possible. The menu is both surprising and comforting. I ate octopus bacon. And liked it just fine. There was a light, delectable tomato bisque with fennel and house-made cheese cracker. My entrée was a humble sandwich with a nice tang: German sausage burger topped with cheese, sauerkraut, and Düsseldorf mustard. I was fortified and ready for some gallery hopping.

Home to more than 400 local artists and 100 independent studios, the Crossroads Arts District is one of the most concentrated gallery districts in the nation. If you’re lucky enough to be there on the “First Friday” of the month, be sure to go there in the evening during their monthly open gallery event. One of my favorite letterpress studios (I buy their goods at I Like You in Minneapolis) is Hammerpress, and going to their store made something of a fangirl out of me. Nearby is gay-owned Mid Coast Modern where the modern, handmade movement also reigns supreme with design-centric goods to buy from decor to apparel to Kansas City mementos. I love finding the local-made wares wherever I travel. Then, close the evening with some jazz within the red velvety walls of the Green Lady Lounge…the drinks and ambiance make for a sultry end to a day that filled the senses.

After dining at Cleaver & Cork, a stroll in the Power & Lights District is swoonworthy. Photo by Andy Lien
After dining at Cleaver & Cork, a stroll in the Power & Lights District is swoonworthy. Photo by Andy Lien

If you’d like a night on the town in the Power & Lights District, I’d steer you to Cleaver & Cork, one of the newest restaurants to come to downtown Kansas City, which is a gourmet, butcher-driven gastropub featuring Midwestern-influenced offerings. I devoured a beautiful braised pork jowl with jalapeño and fried grits cake. My entrée was the most luscious smoked ribeye with potatoes and asparagus. After dining, go ahead and explore the $850 million Power & Light District, which is the largest new development project in the Midwest and features eight blocks of dining, nightlife, and entertainment venues. And check out the gay nightlife at any of the handful of gay bars: Sidekicks Saloon, Missy B’s, Sidestreets Bar, and Buddies. For more information, go to Camp Kansas City at www.campkc.com.

Day 3 – Saturday – History, from Frontier to Fancy

There are a couple different day trip options for Saturday, depending on what strikes your fancy. About an hour north of Kansas City is St. Joseph, on the way to which we stopped and took the North KC and St. Joseph Harley Davidson factory tour. St. Joseph not only has the Jesse James Home Museum (where they’re almost 100 percent certain the outlaw was killed…there’s a sign that says “SEE THE BULLET HOLE”), but it’s also where the Pony Express Museum can be toured. Starting at the Pikes Peak Stables in St. Joseph, the Pony Express riders, with their saddlebags, traveled 2,000 miles west to Sacramento, California. If you’re like me and watched the deliciously awful Young Riders show as a kid (which may have been my first exposure to a primetime character cross-dressing as Louise turned into Lou to be a rider for the Pony Express) or are just fascinated by that short time in our country’s communications history, it’s a museum that is worth the visit.

Badminton, anyone? We can play a couples tournament at the Nelson-Atkins. Photo courtesy of Visit KC
Badminton, anyone? We can play a couples tournament at the Nelson-Atkins. Photo courtesy of Visit KC

Just east of Kansas City is the town and day trip I’d likely choose for a romantic day with my beloved: Independence. Not that I find President Harry S. Truman to be particularly swoonworthy (his home, the courthouse, and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum are open for touring and very interesting for a glimpse into Missouri’s presidential past), but Independence is a town of many attractions for couples looking for a day of hand-holding and history. Start with a mule-drawn wagon tour via Pioneer Trails Adventures that begins at Independence Square and get a narrated history of the town as you clip-clop along its streets. After the fun and funny ride, grab lunch at Ophelia’s Restaurant & Inn, which offers an infusion of cultural flavors in an eclectic American menu. I had a light salad followed by a ridiculously good Cuban sandwich with pork belly, which may have earned my “Best Bite Award” of the trip, no lie. I would have stayed for dessert if there hadn’t been history to be had across the street: President Truman worked at Clinton’s Soda Fountain as a lad, so I did my patriotic duty and had myself an ice cream cone. ‘Atta girl.

While romance may not be apparent while touring Independence Square and the town’s historic jail, what is sure to be fraught with drama and heartbreak is the visit to the National Frontier Trails Museum. Not only does the Trails Museum tell the story of the exploration, acquisition, and settlement of the American West, the interpretive exhibits guide visitors along the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California Trails. Quotations from trail diaries are extensively used, allowing pioneer travelers to tell of their experiences in their own words. Adding my own tale to the mix, I would definitely check in on Facebook from the start of the Oregon Trail saying that the love of my life had died of dysentery. What’s more romantic than a white-lying virtual widow?

Okay, that’s not that romantic. But I’ll tell you what is: the Vaile Mansion. Independence has a number of lovely homes and estates (another tour-worthy visit is the Bingham Waggoner Estate); the Vaile Mansion is the crown jewel of the town. Built in 1881, the Vaile stands as one of the nation’s premiere examples of Second Empire Victorian architecture. It has been featured on A&E’s America’s Castles, and on HGTV’s Christmas Across America. The home has had a number of owners and uses, but its current state of elegance is due to a labor of love and money. The tour guides dressed as maids will explain all of the luscious architectural details as well as a few of the lascivious historical details such as how the erotic painting above the bed in the husband’s room got the wife ostracized by the women of Independence because she allowed it to exist. What’d I say? ROMANCE.

Kansas City A dark chocolate S'Mores Torte is the way to my heart at Jax. Photo by Andy Lien
Kansas City A dark chocolate S’Mores Torte is the way to my heart at Jax. Photo by Andy Lien

Return to Kansas City, get gussied up, and end your day with fine dining at Pierpont’s at Union Station. Built in 1914, Union Station fell to the same state of underuse and disrepair as St. Paul’s Union Depot, and also saw a similar revival and renovation, which was completed in grand fashion in 1999. Within Union Station, Pierpont’s has been called the “culinary jewel” of Kansas City, with food and service as memorable as the historic setting. Named for railroad baron J.P. (Pierpont) Morgan, Pierpont’s turn-of-the-century decor provides an elegant backdrop to casual, yet elegant dining. The aged steaks are not to be missed and the bartenders sling drinks from a sexy 30-foot-tall mahogany bar. Go back to the hotel happy and fat after a day of history and food.

Whenever you take a trip to Kansas City, whether for romance or not, explore and enjoy what it has to offer as the Heart of the Midwest. Find out more information at www.visitkc.com and www.visitmo.com.


Resources:

The Raphael
www.raphaelkc.com

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
www.kemperart.org

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
www.nelson-atkins.org

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar
www.jaxfishhouse.com/kansas-city

18th & Vine Jazz District
www.kcjazzdistrict.org

American Jazz Museum
www.americanjazzmuseum.org

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
www.nlbm.com

Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue
www.arthurbryantsbbq.com

Crossroads Arts District
Affäre
www.affarekc.com

Mid-America Arts Alliance
www.maaa.org

Hammerpress
www.hammerpress.net

Mid Coast Modern
www.squareup.com/market/midcoastmodernkc

Green Lady Lounge
www.greenladylounge.com

Cleaver & Cork
www.cleaverandcork.com

Pony Express National Museum
www.ponyexpressjessejames.com

Ophelia’s Restaurant & Inn
www.opheliasind.com

Vaile Mansion
www.vailemansion.org

Pierpont’s at Union Station
www.pierponts.com
www.unionstation.org