Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kansas City Bed and Breakfast - History of Southmoreland on the Plaza



SOUTHMORELAND ON THE PLAZA, AN URBAN INN opened as an Inn on July 3, 1990. The original house had about 4400 square feet and was built in 1913 for a man named Leo Snider. He and his young wife lived here for about one year. Mrs. Snider died in childbirth and Mr. Snider sold his home immediately thereafter.

From about 1914 until 1998, the house and property were titled in women’s names, an unusual phenomenon for the time. Among those to own the property were Emma Kirkpatrick, Lydia Craig (known for her wedding cakes), and Agnes and Evalina Buis.

The Buis sisters purchased the property in 1948. They were school teachers at E.B. White Elementary School which sat at the current location of the Plaza Branch of the Public Library. (You can see a picture of the school on the collage which hangs in the hallway by the back door of the Inn). They could not afford to live in the house as a single family dwelling, so they turned it into a duplex, taking out the central staircase, reconfiguring the downstairs rooms into an apartment, adding a staircase from the driveway to access the second floor and adding a kitchen in the area on the second floor which is now the hallway to the Loose room.

They lived on the second floor (and their brother, the ne’r-do-well Uncle Sandy, sometimes lived on the third floor) until 1989 when Agnes sold the property to Susan Moehl and Penni Johnson, the founders of the Inn. Evalina was known to have been a huge K.C. Royals fan who, in her later years, occupied the room that is now the William Rockhill Nelson room, sitting by the open front window with the games blasting on the radio. She had passed away by the time Penni and Susan met the remaining Miss Buis, Agnes.

Susan (an MBA with ten years at Hallmark) and Penni (a Partner at Blackwell, Sanders law firm) had been looking for Inn properties on the coast of Maine for two years. They had wanted to purchase a turn-key, seasonal property. While their search netted properties that could be purchased, the short season in Maine would not provide a living income, even for two hardworking women who were going to “do it all” themselves.

They decided perhaps they needed to build their own place and, if that were the case, they should do so in an area with which they were familiar. So, the two women returned to Kansas City, took stock of their home from the standpoint of the locations they felt could support sufficient business, and began to poke around the Plaza for historic properties that might be candidates for purchase and development.

Susan and Penni are fond of talking about the serendipity that surrounded their discovery and the development of Southmoreland. They were north of the Art Institute one day, waiting for a realtor to look at a property, when a gentleman from the neighborhood walked by. His name was John Harris, a retired accountant who had lived in the area for years. He had played in the house as a child. He struck up a conversation with the women and, ultimately, told them of a property on 46th street that he knew to be for sale. They drove down the hill, pulled up in front of the house and thought it looked just like an Inn. They took down the number on the sign, called the realtor, and made an appointment to see the property the next day.

Meeting the 94 year old Miss Buis was a thrill. Penni and Susan would later hear many tales about all of the developers who had been trying (for almost 30 years) to get there hands on this property. When the women first saw the property, the Ritz Carlton group was interested in purchasing it for a five story parking lot should they decide to develop their hotel on the properties across the street. When Miss Buis learned of the idea to turn the property into an Inn, it meant her home would be saved and her little blue-eyed face lit up like a Christmas tree!

Though structurally quite sound, the property hand not been updated in years. Miss Buis was living in “decayed elegance” with original Bingham paintings of her grandparents in her living room, now the Kathryn Winstead and Thomas Hart Benton rooms. (She would later allow the women to have professional photographs made of these Bingham paintings so they could continue to hang in the house. They are upstairs in the George Caleb Bingham room).

It was while visiting with Miss Buis in her dining room, now the Colonel Robert Van Horn room, that Susan learned that Miss Buis’ family was from Dallas, Texas and had been playfellows of Susan’s mother’s family for two generations! Serendipity! Miss Buis and her other sister, Ms. Tate (wife of Winston Tate who started the Country Club Bank) would make a daily pilgrimage to Leona Yarboroughs, then in Fairway, for the daily blue-plate special, and then to Ms Tate’s house to watch the soaps. She had not lived in the Fairway house for years---she lived at the Raphael Hotel---but this was their habit.

Thankfully, Miss Buis had the original blueprints of the house so blocked staircases were re-discovered, the original central staircase could be replicated, the plumbing could be found, and the original identity of all the rooms could be determined since so much had been changed in 1948. For example, the August Meyer room was the original kitchen and the public bath downstairs was the butler’s pantry.

Renovation and building of the Inn began in October 1989, but not until Susan and Penni marched their loan application dog-and-pony show to nineteen banks to fund the project. The house looks pretty much the way it did when Susan and Penni first saw it, at least from the front. The Inn now has over 11,000 square feet in the main house and the carriage house is a new structure. The kitchen and everything above it is the new part. Of course, a total renovation of the original structure was done, eleven bathrooms were added, some rooms reconfigured and all of the utilities and services were redone. The back deck, pond and barbeque were built in 1993. The veranda dining room was originally an open air space, but was enclosed in 1993. The addition of this space has facilitated the Inn’s growing corporate retreat business.

Nancy Miller and Mark Reichle, MBAs from Syracuse University and Vanderbilt University, respectively, met in 1990 living outside of Detroit, Michigan, where they worked as human resource managers for Ford Motor Company. They were married in 1996 and very soon afterward began considering ways to spend more time together. They sat down independently and generated lists of what they might do if they left the corporate world. Most items focused on entrepreneurial forays in the human resource field and other more traditional business ventures. However, they had one outlier on each of their lists: to own and run a bed & breakfast.
They had never discussed this possibility in the past and it became a bit of a joke between the two. The fantasy soon took root as they spent all of their free time investigating the industry, taking innkeeping classes, and reading everything they could get their hands on about financing and identifying appropriate properties.

They generated a second list, the “If we are going to leave it all” list. Mark and Nancy knew they would be gaining a much desired way of life, but they would be giving up a lot, too. If they were going to make such a radical shift, the property had to fit the bill. Their property would have to be in an active, vital urban area with plenty of happenings and attractions available to their guests, as well as to themselves. According to their calculations, at least ten rooms were required to support them. Since they intended to make a clean break of things, the inn would have to be a turn key operation with pleasing aesthetics and d├ęcor. Most importantly, they wanted a location in the middle of the country. They knew they would no longer have the opportunity to travel much, so the Inn had to be conveniently located for both sides of the family. Mark is from Holtville in southern California and Nancy is from Cheektowaga, New York, just outside of Buffalo.

The “plan” was to stockpile funds, continue to research properties, and make a purchase in 2007. While reviewing properties in 1997, they saw an ad in Country Inns magazine for what turned out to be Southmoreland. The magazine had incorrectly located the Inn in Mississippi, so Mark and Nancy were surprised to find out it was actually in Missouri when they first made contact. The “plan”, it seemed, might be pulled ahead a decade!

Initial information was sent to Cincinnati, their home at the time, for review and a decision was made to come to Kansas City to see the property in May of 1998. The anticipation that all four people felt cannot be described. Penni and Susan were ready to sell the Inn, but only to someone who would treat it the way it should be and carry on the tradition of excellence they had attempted to establish. Mark and Nancy had been disappointed for two years with the responses they had gotten when making inquiries of other properties. Coming to look at Southmoreland was a “lark” on the one hand, but with the added excitement and anticipation of a possible new life in a new city. After months of conversation on the phone, when the day finally came to meet, all were thrilled and none were disappointed. It truly was a match made in heaven.

After days of touring both the Inn and the city, and hours of conversation over breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Mark and Nancy returned to Cincinnati to assess their visit and see what the future might hold. Serendipity would once again show its hand. While on a visit to Detroit for Ford, Nancy came across a single page in a newly published book that discussed taking assets held in retirement accounts and rolling them over to fund the purchase of a new business enterprise, without the typical penalties for early withdrawal. The possibilities of such a financing arrangement made purchasing Southmoreland more plausible for such a young couple.

So, Mark and Nancy decided to return for a second visit, that time with Nancy’s folks, Norma and Roy Miller; and then a third visit in October, marked by an incredible rain storm and the last Plaza flood. Despite the lousy weather and the great adventure of navigating a flooded Brookside Boulevard, Mark and Nancy decided that life at Southmoreland was part of what they wanted in their future. Back to Cincinnati they went to resign from jobs, sell their home, pack up the dog, Phantom, and find their way to Southmoreland by November 1998! Meanwhile, Susan and Penni moved out of the carriage house so it could be painted and made ready for Mark, Nancy and Phantom.

Southmoreland thought it was in heaven with four owner/innkeepers in place from November 1998, though the closing in December all they way to Valentine’s Day of 1999. Penni and Susan were sincerely generous when sharing their knowledge of the Inn and Kansas City, and made great efforts to serve as tour guides for restaurants, points of interest, and regional locales. Some might think this sort of overlap and training time to be overkill, but more than one long standing guest shared their appreciation for the seamless nature of this ownership transition.

Mark and Nancy have not only continued the fine tradition of outstanding service to both leisure and business overnight guests, but have increased the volume of weekday corporate retreats. They have added nightly homemade sweets to the menu of amenities for guests. In 2000, they moved out of the carriage house and into the main Inn in order to convert the space to luxury guest quarters, the George Kessler Carriage House Suite. They are also growing a lively special occasion business that caters to small groups and allows Mark to expand his gourmet cooking beyond breakfast.

Southmoreland continues to be among the premier Bed and Breakfasts in the country. It was voted as one of the Top Ten Small Businesses of the Year in 1998 by the Chamber of Commerce and has been a member of the Select Registry (formerly the Independent Innkeepers Association) since 1992. The Midwest Travel Writers Association named Southmoreland “A Gem in the Travel Industry”. It has been featured in locale and national press, including The New York Times, Gourmet, Southern Living, Country Living, Better Homes and Gardens, Midwest Living, Travel and Leisure, and has twice been showcased on The Food Network. The Inn has been an urban oasis for thousands of guests, providing service, respite, and many fond memories. Mark and Nancy look forward to offering the hospitality of Southmoreland for years to come.

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