Standing 32-stories, Commerce Tower was the largest and tallest private office building in Missouri when it was completed in 1964. Designed by architecture firm of Keene, Simpson and Murphy, it embodies tenets of functionality and reduced ornament that distinguish the Miesian style. The open plaza in front of the building and the sunken garden to the south integrate the building into its surroundings within the downtown Kansas City environment. The building embodied the ideals of a modern office building as a symbol of progress and urban vitality that American cities sought during the 1950s and 1960s. On the interior, offices of varying configurations, free from structural columns, ringed the central circulation core. The twelve elevators were regulated to respond to peak periods of traffic; state of the art mechanical systems allowed tenants to control temperatures in individual offices; and enhanced load-bearing floors accommodated new data-processing equipment. All of these features distinguished Commerce Tower from older office buildings downtown and placed it at the forefront of Modern Movement office design.
In 2013, Commerce Tower Group acquired the property with an ambitious plan to rehabilitate the entire building with mixed use, including commercial on the lower floors and residential on the upper floors. Rosin Preservation was hired to facilitate the historic tax credit applications and process and to consult on design items that impacted the building’s historic character. A Modern Movement office tower presents challenges that are very different from a traditional turn-of-the-twentieth century office building. We have been rehabilitating turn-of-the-twentieth century buildings for decades and generally understand the issues that are inherent to stone, terra-cotta, wood and steel windows, and traditional systems. We are just beginning to grapple with these more modern designs and materials.
One of the unique aspects Rosin helped the owner and design team navigate was fenestration. Early in the project the team evaluated whether to replace windows. Because the windows are an integral piece of the curtain wall assembly, replacement of windows involved the entire system. Furthermore, the original windows had an applied film that created a certain tint to the glass. After much evaluation it was decided to rehabilitate the existing curtain wall construction and windows, rather than try to design a new system that exactly replicated the dimension and profiles of original. However, once construction began, the contractor uncovered a structurally compromised system at the two glazed entrances on the front elevation. The underlying steel structure was so deteriorated that it couldn’t be salvaged or retrofit to salvage the existing glazing. The large expanses of glazing above the doors was character-defining but modern code-requirements wouldn’t allow for a similar structural system or matching large expanses of glass. Rosin worked with NPS, the contractor, engineer, and architect to come up with an innovative solution that met the requirements of all parties.
Another unique aspect of this project was the sunken garden to the south of the tower. Landscape features were often purposely incorporated into corporate/commercial mid-twentieth century designs. In this case, the sunken garden was in relatively pristine condition. However, the previous owner was taking a sculpture that was a prominent feature of the fountain basin. One of the new tenants, a daycare, had a need for outdoor play space for its children. Again, Rosin helped negotiate a solution with NPS and the architect that created a plan to retain the character-defining hardscape elements and the design with modifications to create a safe play area.
Today, Commerce Tower provides some 350 residential units for Kansas City residents and it contains commercial space for multiple tenants including classrooms for Park University and daycare space in the lower level. Located on the new streetcar line, it retains its vibrant presence in downtown Kansas City.
911 Main Street Kansas City, MO