The graceful curves of this classic streamline moderne home heralded Kansas City’s entrance into 20th-century architecture
Walter E. Bixby Sr. was feeling pretty good about himself in the early 1930s. A decade earlier, he was a clerk at the Kansas City Life Insurance Company when he married the chairman’s daughter and spent the next 10 years building K.C. Life into one of the most successful insurance companies in the country. Now chairman himself, Bixby wanted to make a bold statement. He decided to build a new, cutting-edge modern home in the exclusive Country Club District of Kansas City. Bixby, however, had a problem. Modernism was in its infancy with very few houses built in the U.S., and virtually none in the Midwest. The current styles of homes in the area were in the more formal traditional, Tudor and Spanish vernaculars, and Bixby was committed to using a local architect. But who?
The Dream Team
Edward Tanner was, by the 1930s, established as the J.C. Nichols Company’s principal designer and considered one of Kansas City s most prestigious and celebrated architects. Tanner designed hundreds of homes in the area and received much acclaim as the primary architect/designer of the Country Club Plaza. His repertoire focused on the traditional styles of the times, but he was beginning to feel creatively uninspired.
In 1932 he traveled to New York for the first exhibition of modern architecture, which featured designs from the top European architects including Van der Rohe, Gropius, Breuer and Le Corbusier. This exhibit was influential and exciting for Tanner. He longed to break out of his repetitive cycle and design a modern, groundbreaking building. The age-old problem for an architect who has passion to do something daring and unconventional is finding a client with the guts to fund it.
When Walter Bixby commissioned Tanner to design his new home, opportunity finally met desire. Since Tanner had not designed a modern house, both men realized it would be helpful to add someone with great expertise and experience in modernism. They brainstormed to find a collaborator for the project.
Kem Weber was the head designer for Los Angeles-based Barker Brothers, the largest furniture retailer in the U.S. In the 1920s, Weber began to design streamline-moderne furniture and accessories using new materials and production methods. Weber started designing furniture and interiors for additional companies and private clients, and by the early 1930s he was considered a pivotal part of the introduction and establishment of modernism.
But Weber longed to translate his work into a fully realized project that included architecture, furniture and furnishings. He was the perfect partner for Tanner. They settled on the state-of-the-art International Streamline Moderne genre, which combined a relaxed, unconventional style with simple, elegant curvilinear lines. They agreed that Tanner would concentrate on the home’s exterior design with Weber consulting, and Weber would design all the interiors and furniture. Off they went into the future.
The Dream Realized
The Bixby house was designed and built over a three-year period as both men labored to find the right balance of design, functionality and execution. Tanner and Weber knew they were creating something new, exciting, singular and absolutely unique, so they wanted to get it right. They did.
The tour de force 15,000-square-foot home is widely recognized as a significant architectural and design achievement. The commanding, two-story streamlined stucco home—with its curved lines, flat roof, tubular steel columns and aluminum alloy windows—sits atop a majestic knoll, looking for all the world like the deck of an iconic 30s ocean liner. The dazzling two-story grand staircase highlights the entry of the house as it winds around from the complex, geometric-patterned marble foyer up to the second-floor balcony, complete with curved aluminum alloy railings inset with Baccarat glass posts. Weber designed an infamous “rumpus room” with a circular bar, noted for its whimsy and spontaneous elegance and the scene of many parties. He designed all the custom furniture, which was also streamlined and curvilinear, that added to the informal, yet exceedingly sophisticated, charm of the house.
Upon its completion, the Bixby house was met with critical acclaim and lavish praise. The Kansas City Star heralded the home as a triumph of modernist principles in domestic design. It has been lauded as a modern architecture landmark. The still powerful exterior exists intact today, although the Weber-designed custom furnishings are gone, and most of the interiors have been redone. The amazing original entry and staircase remain intact.
The house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. In 2001, the University of California Santa Barbara, Museum of Art and Architecture featured the house in its exhibit: “Designing the Moderne: Kem Weber’s Bixby House” to rave reviews.
The Walter E. Bixby House, designed and built in the 1930s in our city, not only reaffirms that everything was up to date, it established Kansas City as ahead of the curve in world-class modern architecture.