by Colleen Cassidy
The ‘Super Flea’ building is a lost gem in the midst of Kansas City. It has intrigued me through its social context and its extreme shift in uses from past to present. Upon seeing it, I could not look past the stained concrete, rusting metal, and blue tarp hanging in the broken windows. I saw barbed wire, cinderblock walls, and fenced in doors pushing out all opportunity of human interaction. I questioned why a building like this even continued to stand.
Yet upon closer observation, I realized this building once had a beautiful life of its own. Its value was legendary in its prime. It was a brand new, 2 million square foot department store full of possibility for both workers and shoppers alike. Vast amounts of windows allowed light to flood in while people bustled about the many floors. The facade was clean, white and crisp, and a breath of fresh air in the turn of the century. Fancy, circled designs crowned this massive, majestic structure beckoning for all to enter Montgomery Ward.
In 1914, it was the largest building West of the Mississippi and was home to over 3,000 employees. It was once a face of promise, growth and glamour. It is now the epitome of ‘form follows function’. Square footage and sheer size were obviously valued over intricate detailing and extensive material use. The repeated grid pattern between the building and windows allows an overemphasis on the vertical and horizontal, a key principle of design during this time. The building is true to its materials and is not trying to achieve anything other than a space for a department store. Land around the building was used to continue this movement. Grain silos sit off in the distance and a sturdy, red-bricked building stands across the street. It was the turn of the 20th century, new architecture was developing, and the machine aesthetic of industry brought hope and promise.
When it was first built, it was a feat of size and industrial power that I’m sure was a gloating accomplishment for all architects and builders involved. A marvel of their careers. A piece of architecture that was clean, and industrial, and exciting to newcomers. And now - a decaying mass that has been reclaimed by locals as an open space for a weekend flea market. The space was inhabited due to a need, not because it was a thriving architectural space. While the outside may have lost its identity, the local thrifters have given it a second chance at survival, even if it’s only a couple days out of the month. They have given it new meaning, a redirected function.
The message here - architects strive for an innovative form that pleases a client in its function. However, none of us can predict the life of our buildings and the functions they may serve, even long past our own time. Our structures may outlast us, but there is no telling how they will be re-appropriated, re-inhabited or the ways in which they will evolve through the test of time. Is it the form or the function that allows a building to dive or thrive? Or is it ourselves that lose interest in finding a new function for an existing form and need others to give it new life in an unexpected way?