It was a dreary, rainy and dark Tuesday evening in early October when I parked my car next to the 12th street viaduct in the West Bottoms of Kansas City. A freight train rumbled down the tracks in the switch yard as I walked through the non-descript entrance of the brick and timber warehouse. Only a small sign by the door which stated “KC Auction Co” gave a hint of what was happening inside.
Fortunately, a friend of mine notified me of the auction advertisement. He knew of my architectural interest in Kansas City and the Plaza, and he had discovered an ad while perusing the Sunday classifieds in the Kansas City Star:
Fine Art and Antique Auction
60+ Architectural Books from the closed JC Nichols Plaza
50+ Paintings or artwork…
Antiques: Clocks, 1820’s Boston Banjo…
I walked into the large vestibule on the main floor of the building, and found myself in the middle of a festive atmosphere with a crowd surrounding a food vendor. People of all shapes, sizes and attire stood in line to purchase greasy sandwiches and brats. Some read the auction catalog and discussed the auction listings while the vendor flipped the steaming meat on the portable grille.
Walking past the food, I wandered into the main floor of the auction. It was a scene from “Antiques Roadshow,” with lamps, rugs, antique chairs, tables, artwork and glassware scattered around the space. People milled and chatted; they pointed and poked at the merchandise. I tried to stay focused on my mission to find research material regarding Edward Buehler Delk, a well-known architect in Kansas City during the early 20th century. I knew of Delk’s involvement in the master plan for the Plaza, the first planned suburban shopping district in the U.S. which was designed to cater to the automobile. Some of the buildings on the Plaza were designed by Delk and built for J.C. Nichols in the 1920’s, so I thought there might be a publication at auction related to his work.
After viewing the books on the auction table, I knew they were rich in historical significance and of archival quality. Of local importance were the myriad details and designs shown in the different volumes. They provided the inspiration for architects who designed the Plaza and other residential and commercial projects for J.C. Nichols in the Kansas City region. Some of the books captured the essence of the design styles used in his developments:
1921 – English Homes, 6 volume set
1914 – California Gardens
1914 – Architectural Terra Cotta Standard Construction
1925 – Italian Brickwork
1921 – Country Residences in Europe and America
1924 – Spanish Farm Houses and Minor Public Buildings
My heart began to pound when I discovered what I considered to be the “crown jewel” of research material on Edward Buehler Delk. During his career, he commissioned a New York printing firm to publish an architectural catalog of his extensive works for use as a marketing tool and as a gift to his clients. Two copies were in the auction! The only other copies I had seen were at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, and in the library at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Inscribed in one of the copies up for auction was a personal note from Delk to Nichols stating his gratitude that many of the projects shown in the catalog were made possible by Nichols. The tight fountain-pen script included Delk’s signature. At a later date, Nichols passed the copy on to another architect with a note on the front of the catalog, including his signed initials, “JCN”.
I immediately decided that I would bid for one of the catalogs, and quickly needed to develop a strategy. I was a bit unsure how to proceed, since I’d never participated in an auction. The unsigned copy would be auctioned prior to the signed copy. I assumed the signed copy was of higher value due to its historical significance. With a self-imposed limit of $200 on the maximum amount to spend, I decided to bid on the unsigned copy. If the bidding was within my limit, then I would be assured of one of the volumes to use for my research and safekeeping.
I registered at the counter where they handed me a bid catalog and a numbered bid card to raise when placing a bid on an item. During the few minutes prior to the bidding, I found a seat and began to “people watch” to try to rid myself of nervous energy. The man wearing a polyester suit (which was two sizes too small) and a bowler hat won my vote for the most unusual character in the crowd. The attire varied from sport coats to denim jackets, and from designer shoes to hiking boots.
A woman brushed against the two catalogs of interest to me, and then she plopped her big purse on top of them as she looked at the other books. Oh my, I thought, I’d like to go up and ask her to be careful with “my” books. I also wondered how much brat juice had dripped on the items while the public munched their food as they pored over the tables.
The seats began to fill, including the three large antique wooden benches on a platform at the rear of the seating area. The auctioneer walked up to the podium, tested the microphone and checked with his assistants, including the women receiving the telephone and online bids, to make sure they were ready. The tension mounted while he made a few brief announcements. He looked toward the people sitting on the benches at the rear of the crowd and commented, “Are those benches comfortable?” The people sitting there nodded, and he continued, “Just a reminder, those benches will be auctioned later, so we’ll have to ask you to find different seats at that time!”
The auctioneer began the bidding process with speed and precision. The lot numbers and the bids rolled off his tongue while he pointed to the individuals who raised their cards. Every once in a while I heard a “ding” from the laptop receiving the online bids, whereupon a woman would yell out the bid. With three hours of bidding ahead, the auctioneer’s goal was to move through the items as efficiently as possible, while the assistants brought each item to the front podium.
It was almost time for Lots 54 and 55, the two Delk catalogs to be auctioned. My pulse quickened and I reminded myself of the bid limit I had imposed.
“Lot 54! 80! Bidding 80? Bidding 80?…80! Bidding 90?...90! Bidding 100?” barked the auctioneer as he began to point to the bidders.
I raised my bid card.
“100!” the auctioneer yelled as his eyes focused in my direction and he pointed to me. Then he pointed to the other bidders, and with continued urgency, he shouted, “Bidding 110? 110?”
It appeared there were three of us competing for the catalog. I hoped the price wouldn’t run up too high. With little time to think, I raised my card two more times during the process.
“150!” he yelled as he pointed to me with my card raised for the final time. Then he pointed to the other bidders, “Bidding 160? 160? …160? Sold to number twenty-eight for $150!”
Interior title page of Edward Buehler Delk's self published catalog
(scanned from Greg Larson's copy)
Immediately, an assistant brought the catalog and carefully handed it to me. My strategy had worked! I then listened to the bidding on the signed copy, even though I had no budget to purchase it. The auctioneer worked the price to $110, and the bidding slowed, but he did get the bidders to finally run the purchase price up to $140. I was miffed. If I’d known that the signed copy would have sold at that low price, I would have bid on it instead.
I continued to watch the auction as the artwork began to sell. The most expensive piece of artwork was a signed Salvador Dali print (10” x 13”) which sold for $550.
Chandeliers, door hardware, vases and urns…the auctioneer droned on. Before half the lots were auctioned, I got up and paid for my catalog at the cashier. I slid the purchase into my leather pouch and held it close as I ran through the rain to the car. Although I was elated to have the catalog of the extensive list of Edward Buehler Delk projects, it saddened me to think that the architectural material that had provided the inspiration for many Plaza and Kansas City projects had just been parceled and scattered, no longer remaining as a group of books used for research material. I wondered how many people had used them. What were their names? How many times had Delk used the books for research? I could only imagine. I started the car, turned on the windshield wipers and drove off into the darkness.