By Paul Thompson
The eternal home of some of Kansas City’s most famous residents has a 14-foot-tall problem.
At the 145-year-old Elmwood Cemetery – where ornate gravestones and historic mausoleum’s bear ubiquitous Kansas City names like Armour, Bloch, Loose, Hardesty, Askew, Gregory, Helzberg, and Meyer – a 14-foot concrete wall spanning an 180-foot stretch of the western property line at the 43-acre cemetery is in danger of collapse.
“It’s over a century old,” said John Weilert of the Elmwood Cemetery Society Board of Trustees. “The trees growing on the other side have pushed the wall to the point where we consider it to be a dangerous situation.”
There is a plan in place to save the wall, but as with all historic preservation efforts, there’s a significant cost associated with it. Instead of tearing it down, Weilert and the rest of the board hope that they can raise roughly $100,000 to buttress the wall from inside the cemetery.
The collapse zone is currently closed off with orange fencing, but the risk is perceptible to the human eye; it leans precariously inwards, hovering ominously over some of the cemetery’s century-old gravestones.
“They’re all gravestones of young children who died in the 1920s,” Weilert said. “If the wall collapses, it would jeopardize those monuments.”
The non-profit organization is currently working to create a fundraising program targeted specifically for the repair of the western wall. While the cemetery has received some personal donations from individuals with strong relationships to Elmwood, much more is needed to finance the repairs.
Weilert is hoping that renewed interest in the historical value of the cemetery can help the board identify donations to buttress the concrete wall. With that in mind, the volunteer-led 501(c)(13) realized that it needed to increase its digital presence in order to reach a broader audience.
Enter Sarah Foltz, an employee at the World War I Museum and a member of The Modernists, a group of local history buffs billed on its official Twitter profile as “Young Friends of @TheWWIMuseum and #KansasCity’s finest (boozy) history club.” The connection between The Modernists and Elmwood Cemetery stems from a private tour that the group took in November of 2017. During the Elmwood visit, The Modernists took notice of the unstable western wall of the cemetery.
“They came out and had a private tour, and they were very enthusiastic about it,” said Weilert, who noted that Elmwood is well-suited for tours because of the high-profile Kansas Citians buried there. “In particular, they’re interested in the approach we want to take for the wall.”
Foltz in particular took an interest, going as far as to join board meetings and volunteering to help the Board of Trustees join social media platforms and revamp its website. In a conversation with the Northeast News, she explained her interest in the cemetery.
“It’s amazing; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cemetery with that huge range of headstones,” Foltz said. “It’s this huge part of Kansas City history that I don’t think anybody knows about.”
Seeing the sagging western wall – and the children’s gravestones that could be endangered by a collapse – had a profound affect on Foltz.
“You’re looking at something that really is irreplaceable,” she said.
In addition to the web site and social media work, Foltz said that she plans to do some strategic planning for the cemetery. That work could include re-tooling some of the events that Elmwood Cemetery has hosted in the past.
The first step, Weilert and Foltz say, will be to update the web site so that it can handle a targeted capital campaign and appeal a younger audience. From there, they hope to begin soliciting donations for the cemetery in the near future.
“The advantage we have is that a lot of Kansas City’s oldest families are buried there,” said Weilert.
At least for Foltz, touring Elmwood Cemetery provided a special feeling. She hopes that by working with Weilert and the Board, she can preserve that special something for others, as well.
“Even though it’s in the middle of the city, it just feels so peaceful,” Foltz said. “It almost feels that you’re infringing on people, but not in a bad way.”
To learn more about Elmwood Cemetery, visit http://elmwoodcem-kc.org/.