For generations, the “White Elephant” has held a special place in our family. This is the tepidly affectionate name given to an old farmhouse that sits on the corner of 60th and Charlotte, in Kansas City, Missouri’s south urban neighborhoods (an area typically referred to as “Brookside”).
It is no longer painted white, but the name has stuck. No one in our family can recall when it was divided, but it now contains three dwellings, though by all accounts exhibits the outward appearance of a house. The upper back studio apartment is accessed by a concealed rear stairway, and the upper front one-bedroom unit and the spacious lower level three-bedroom unit share a set of twin doors with access to the prototypical front porch. It’s a great neighborhood setting.
I first occupied the one-bedroom unit in October of 1994, nearly a year before I was to begin law school at nearby University of Missouri-Kansas City. Since my uncle was the owner, the rent was “right” – as family discounts were routine.
I was the fourth family member to live in the White Elephant and three others have lived there since. I was already well-attached to the neighborhood and the building, as my grandmother lived in the lower three-bedroom unit for years prior to her death in 1989. Her home held many great childhood memories. She was famous for late-night poker games with all of our cousins, aunts, and uncles. No age limit and no experience necessary – she would teach you all of the great poker games. She would even sometimes fund your ante but didn’t tolerate crying when you lost a nickel or dime on a particularly risky bet – good times and good lessons.
In the four years I spent in the upper front apartment, I grew even more attached to the house. The simple accommodations gave me all I needed while in law school and working part time. It also provided access to all the amenities of the Brookside neighborhood that my extended family had called home for three generations. (My mother once lived three houses up from the White Elephant as a child, and my dad grew up four blocks away. Many of my cousins, aunts, and uncles remained just blocks away.)
This same neighborhood hosts conventional apartments, small houses, pleasant duplexes, and a wide variety of larger single-family homes – from modest to million-dollar mansions. The diversity mixes and transitions across the compact block structure which is common to most streetcar suburbs. All of these are “Brooksiders”: and I was one of them in my sparsely sufficient apartment. It was a bonus that I was just the next family member to live in Gam’s house (my Grandmother’s acquired name).
During my residence in the upper front apartment, I graduated law school and got engaged. A running joke was this unit was the “engagement suite,” as several occupants prior and a few after me moved out due to marriage. My wife and I made our first home as a married couple in one of those pleasant duplexes just a few blocks away, and that soon led to our first family home, a house a few blocks in the opposite direction.
Ironically, as I stumbled through a few career decisions, and wound up using my law degree to write better development codes, the patterns and observations of this neighborhood became crucial to the insights I now have into the complicated world of city and neighborhood building. Even amidst the complexity, productive and human-scale patterns remain pretty simple concepts. The White Elephant and its neighborhood give again in new ways.
As our family needs and means changed, we elected to expand within our existing home rather than search for a new house. We did this for two reasons – we loved our location and we had become attached to our own home (truth be told, it was primarily me, and primarily my attachment to our comfortable front porch). Our construction began in October 2019 and as the schedule neared completion we were to vacate the house to allow the floors to be refinished. This was planned to happen while on spring break in March of 2020. Like any construction activity, especially a major home renovation, schedules are crucial yet tenuous. Remarkably, it seemed like it was going to work out perfectly.
As fate would have it however, this week became less than perfect. Our spring break plans took us (me and two of my three sons) to Eagle County, Colorado to visit my brother and his family and to ski a bit. My wife, who works in the healthcare field with older populations, needed to stay home to work and help manage our house project. The details of what went wrong from there are well known and experienced by all at this point, but Eagle County, as an international destination, became one of the first “hot spots” of COVID-19. Our ski trip became a camping trip in the desert areas of western Colorado as resorts closed. While camping, I received a call from my wife that our home’s construction schedule was not going as planned and that we needed to return home.
We then became aware that the boys and I would likely need to find a different place to stay for at least 10-14 days, since we had been in Eagle County.
I quickly texted my cousin, who manages the leasing of the White Elephant. Serendipitously, the bottom unit – my grandmother’s home and place of so many memorable family functions – had just opened up and would likely be open for the next 6 to 8 weeks. I quickly jumped at the chance to stay, knowing it was far from ideal, but in the time of a global public health crisis, ideals are quickly cast aside. The White Elephant was ready to go with water, heat, electricity, gas, and a refrigerator – all we needed were our air mattresses, daily supplies, and entertainment. Plus, the White Elephant is a mere three blocks from our house, and the boys are free to roam the neighborhood, social distancing included. I believe this is offering them some familiarity and comfort in a particularly confusing and trying time.
I just finished a Gould Evans conference call on the logistics, challenges, and some benefits of our current and temporary “work from home” scenario. I will soon have a wi-fi hot spot connected that will give me access to everything I need to continue doing the job I love – helping communities all over the country make decisions, plans, polices, and codes that help them be more valuable, loveable, walkable, and resilient – including advocating the patterns that create neighborhood contexts for missing-middle housing. I have three projects going on right now that are addressing this exact issue.
During the call, it hit me that “working from home” has taken on a particularly poignant meaning for me. And the White Elephant, this multi-family home in a diverse neighborhood, which has accommodated residents in so many different situations and states of life, has come to the rescue yet again!
Chris Brewster is an Associate Vice President of the Gould Evans Studio for City Design.
The Gould Evans Studio for City Design, based in Kansas City, Missouri, consists of professional planners, urban designers, architects, and development finance experts committed to making it easier to build great cities. For more information, please visit https://www.gouldevansplanning.com/.