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Liberty Memorial in Kansas City: The Country’s First World War I Monument

Updated on February 10, 2016

Liberty Memorial, Kansas City

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The Monument in Kansas City

Kansas City has long been a popular destination among residents of the Great Plains. People from smaller cities and farming communities in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa often travel to Kansas City to enjoy holidays or long weekends. However, people outside of the Midwest tend to overlook Kansas City as a travel destination. Because of this, many U.S. citizens are unaware that some of the most important patriotic sights in our country can be found in Kansas City. In fact, the country’s only World War I monument, Liberty Memorial, was built here beginning in November of 1921, a mere three years after the close of the war.

Although the beautiful monument was celebrated by the entire United States as well as those living in the Kansas City area when it was first built, over time the structure deteriorated. By 1994, the building was closed due to safety concerns, and when I first moved to Kansas City in 1995, only the grand exterior of the Liberty Memorial could be enjoyed by the public. However, Kansas Citians had not forgotten the sacrifice of the 441 locals who gave their lives for our country during the Great War, and we voted to raise money for the renovation and reopening of the Liberty Memorial and an accompanying museum. Recently, for the first time, I had the opportunity of visiting the interior of the Liberty Memorial. The experience helped me more fully understand the Great War and the sacrifices made by men and women who fought on the Western Front and who sacrificed on the home front.

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The Liberty Memorial

The original above-ground portion of the World War I memorial in Kansas City was designed by architect H. Van Buren Magonigle in 1921. It features an obelisk topped by an eternal flame. The obelisk or Memorial Tower features four 40-foot-tall Guardian Spirits representing the virtues of Honor, Courage, Patriotism and Sacrifice. The tower is flanked on either side by an Assyrian Sphinx. Memory faces east and covers its face to keep the horrors of war from view. Future faces west and likewise covers its eyes in fear of coming unknowns.

Memory and Memorial Hall

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Memorial Hall

Also above ground are two original buildings that held the original museums. Today, Memory Hall houses bronze tablets memorializing the 441 Kansas Citians who perished in the Great War. Computer kiosks in the hall provide interactive details concerning these local heroes as well as about the memorial and special exhibits. The building also contains a large segment of the Pantheon de la Guerre, a French painting that has been rejuvenated by a Kansas City artist.

Claudine's Commentary on Pantheon de Guerre

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Exhibit Hall

Once the primary museum gallery, exhibit hall, located to the west of the tower, now operates as housing for limited-run exhibits. In addition to these exhibits, the Exhibit Hall features building elements that spark the imagination and memorialize the lives of those lost in the Great War. The bronze doors feature ornamental designs in the Art Deco style that graces most Kansas City structures built during the 1920s. The interior walls feature more segments of Pantheon de la Guerre, including the faces of many French heroes who gave their lives during the war.

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The Subterranean Museum

More sobering but just as important as the grand spectacle of the above-ground memorial is the new subterranean World War I Museum, first opened in 2006. Visitors are cheerfully greeted by volunteers, mostly veterans of various wars and police actions—as my new friend Bob announced, “But not of World War I.” (I promptly assured him he was not nearly long enough in the tooth to have fought in the Great War.)

Poppies Far from Flanders Fields

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In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

After purchasing tickets at the kiosk, guests enter the museum by crossing the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge. The bridge lies over a field of 9,000 poppies, one to represent each 1,000 deaths. It is a sobering reminder of the 9 million casualties of World War I, as are the poppies worn on the lapels of each museum worker and volunteer.

The first stop inside the museum is a video presentation introducing the Great War. After viewing this presentation, guests will have some context in which to place the things they will see in the coming exhibits. In the main gallery, a Chronology Wall complete with dates, photographs, original documents and silent movies from the period further assists guests in coming to an understanding of the causes, outcomes and repercussions of the Great War.

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Life in the trenches was one of the most terrifying realities of World War I. The museum shares the story of soldiers who lived and died in these pre-dug graves. The life-sized trenches complete with objects from the time period and recordings of letters from soldiers brings the reality of the war home.

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Exhibits of weapons from the war, including firearms, cannons and tanks document the impersonal nature of mechanical warfare. For the first time ever, in World War I, combatants could kill without looking their enemies in the eye.

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As guests continue through the gallery, they enter the Horizon Theater, which provides a presentation on the reasons that the United States entered the war. In the theater, a landscape depicting scenes from a British patrol adds to the sobering aspect of the presentation.

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Throughout the gallery, posters and propaganda items from WWI can be seen. Just beyond the Horizon Theater is a collection of U.S. wartime posters, including recruiting posters and posters advertising war bonds among other things. Music played a huge part in the war effort, and the museum has several pieces of sheet music on display as well as songbooks containing patriotic songs and songs of the soldiers.

While the weapons of World War I were far more advanced than the weapons used in previous wars, medical science was also much more advanced. For the first time, medical science played a huge part in helping the wounded recover. Kansas Citians working at the Carnes Artificial Limb Company helped wounded soldiers by providing prosthetic limbs. Also during World War I, shell shock, the condition now referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first recognized as an effect of war.

Memorabilia from ceremonies at Liberty Memorial
Memorabilia from ceremonies at Liberty Memorial | Source

Interactive tables and sound galleries also provide learning opportunities to visitors at the World War I Museum. Guests can create patriotic posters like those they have seen in the gallery and design a monument. They can also listen to speeches and entertainment from the World War I era.

Understanding the reasons and effects of World War I doesn’t come easily. Personally, I applaud Nico Crisafulli’s description in “If World War One Was a Bar Fight.” However, beyond a cursory understanding of which country did what to whom, this explanation doesn’t provide a true understanding of the egos, the humanity and the results of the Great War. The great volunteers at the World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial will be happy to fill in the details. Why don’t you stop by sometime, view the collection, strike up a conversation or two, and learn some things for yourself?

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