A Childhood Spent in hectic Kansas City Hotel Triggers Memories
Published July 5th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
The motorcycle trips run together for Della Reynolds.
It was around 1997 — or perhaps closer to 2000 — at 1019 East 12th Street in Kansas City.
Looking back, she didn’t really want to be there.
But what if her return triggered a memory? Plus, she’d already stopped to survey a city map and locate the old block. The kickstand was down and Colorado could wait for a few minutes. This was her first trip back through Kansas City and to her childhood home since her family left for Florida more than 30 years ago.
Reynolds knows why she hesitated to make the pit stop that day, not even halfway to the mountains from her place in Illinois. Memories of the old place came in fleeting, half-dream-like reminders of what might have happened during her childhood years. Many of the recollections ranged from unpleasant to unthinkable.
She stood there and none of it looked familiar. Just like growing up in The Dean Hotel, any sense of home hung by a thread.
The block where the Dean Hotel once stood was unrecognizable. Nothing from her few memories. Nothing out of the old photos. There was no 1019 E. 12th Street. None of the three-story brick buildings were there. In its place was a bus stop, some sort of community center and a sign that read ‘Paseo West Business Park.’
Up the embankment, not even a block over, cars buzzed on U.S. Highway 71.
It was about time to get back on the road.
That’s when she noticed the clover.
Della Reynolds was born Della Hagerty at General Hospital in Kansas City in 1958.
That same year, her parents Joseph and Margaret Hagerty took a job managing The Dean Hotel, a 34-room hotel at 1019 E. 12th St., with apartments available to extended-stay renters. By the time the Hagerty’s ran the joint, The Dean was a borderline flophouse, smack dab on 12 Street, between Harrison St. to the west and Troost Ave. to the east.
That’s where Reynolds spent the first four years of her life and where her father spent the final four of his. Hagerty passed away three weeks before his youngest daughter turned five. His death came not yet a year after the family left Kansas City for Florida in late 1962.
Reynolds, now in her 60s, has pieced together bits and pieces of her own origin story through photographs, old newspaper clippings, a few family stories that stuck around, plus those pesky, and flashes of the past.
What may have happened to that child who spent formative years in the seedy hotel?
Twenty years after she stopped in front of where The Dean Hotel once stood, Reynolds reached out to Flatland and the curiousKC team to find out anything she could about the place where it all started.
The Dean Hotel
The earliest newspaper mentions of The Dean Hotel appear in the early 1900s.
A classified advertisement from the May 10, 1907 edition The Kansas City Times lists an everything-must-go auction and residence sale at 1017-19 E. 12th St.
Following the 1907 sale, newspaper databases reveal decades of classified apartment listings at the hotel with 34 rooms, many of them available as apartment spaces with their own toilets and small kitchenettes.
Situated on Kansas City’s main drag for most of the 20th Century, between downtown’s roaring stretch of 12th Street, further west toward Main Street, and the jazz clubs to the east, near Vine Street, The Dean Hotel welcomed guests through the region’s heyday.
The three-story Dean Hotel stood over 12th Street through prohibition and the city’s “Pendergast years,” when hotel guests would have been able to enjoy a drink out on the town under Kansas City’s loose liquor laws. Through the 1920s, Great Depression and into the 1940s, the hotel was likely an affordable landing spot for out-of-town guests, vagabonds, folks on business, or perhaps visiting the city for any number of conferences or the renowned jazz clubs.
While a good night’s sleep in the cheap hotel never made the news, several reports of crime and other strange instances were recorded well before the Hagerty family called the hotel home.
In June 1924, two men were arrested for the theft of $700 and a wristwatch off of a man who died of heart disease in one of the hotel rooms. One of the accused men, John Buszkos, lived in The Dean Hotel.
On January 8, 1928, a bachelor farmer posted a classified ad in The Kansas City Star hoping to meet a “housekeeper who was neat, clean and a good cook” at the hotel.
In 1938, The Kansas City Times reported a 19-year-old woman hanging out one of the hotel’s second-story windows. “She declined to explain her actions,” according to the article.
By the time Mr. and Mrs. Hagerty took over management of the hotel in 1958, 12th Street was changing. While artists like Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Fats Domino would play shows at the Orchid Room, just down the road from the hotel, the street was entering its twilight years.
Transients, drifters, drunks and prostitution became more common in and around The Dean Hotel.
City planners were already busy drawing up plans to “revitalize” a large portion of the neighborhood.
“I’m not even sure if they knew what they were getting into when they started at the place,” Reynolds said, stepping into her parents’ more than 60-year-old shoes.
She imagines it was an opportunity to have a place to stay and earn money before moving on to Florida. Mrs. Hagerty, 43, and Mr. Hagerty, 63, just needed work.
“I don’t really remember my father,” Reynolds said. “My mother told me that he was basically a dreamer and moved around a lot, so they moved around a lot. He’d do odd jobs here and there.”
Joseph Hagerty became the stubborn old man standing behind the welcome desk when his family checked in to The Dean Hotel. Born in 1895, Hagerty fought in World War I, spent time as a coal miner and carpenter, but most of all he was a dreamer, living out his own ‘On The Road’ story.
By the late 1950s, working odd jobs and life on the road was becoming difficult. Up in age and with small children at their side, sacrifices were made. As a result, Reynolds and her brother George came away with childhood memories fit for a Hollywood script.
Two of Reynolds’ famous foggy memories from The Dean Hotel days start with her mother searching the hotel for her small children.
In one instance, her brother George left a toy in a hallway, where a guest stepped on the toy and stumbled. Not long after, the smell of gas led Margaret Hagerty to one of the rooms. She let herself in to find that the man had captured her son and strapped him to a chair in front of the gas stove.
Another time, an intoxicated woman pulled Reynolds, who was just a toddler, into her room for a haircut. When Hagerty found her daughter with most of her hair chopped off, the woman defended herself.
“She said something like, ‘Oh, I just wanted to cut her hair. She’s the prettiest girl in the world. I wanted to cut her hair like my daughter.’ Apparently, her daughter was long gone and she was a drunk old lady,” Reynolds recalled.
“They were trying to keep out as much riff-raff as possible,” Reynolds said, recalling a sign at the front desk that banned visitors to rooms after 10 p.m.
“He didn’t put up with much. When things happened to me or my brother, people that were involved were basically evicted,” Reynolds said. “There was so much bad stuff going on in the area.”
Keeping trouble out of the hotel became more and more difficult.
Reynolds has a story about her mother letting herself into the room of a man who was late on rent. She found him passed out on the bed with his pockets cut out.
Then a fire in 1959 – caused by careless smoking – racked up $1,100 worth of damage to the hotel.
In 1961, Reynolds’ half-brother Lester Hagerty stopped by the hotel to visit the family. That’s when, according to reports from The Kansas City Star, two thieves smashed out his rear window and made off with clothing and camera equipment valued at $128.
That same year, a St. Louis man by the name of Walter Frank Ford was brought down by police at the hotel after he stole an electric fan, clock radio and razor from one of the hotel apartments. He was already on the run for lifting $1,900 from a St. Louis bank to pay an overdue kennel fee for his cocker spaniel named Beauty.
Reynolds only half-remembers a few instances even worse than a drunken stranger snipping at her hair, memories that can be painful to dig for.
Occasionally, young Della and George, who was two years her elder, got in on some trouble of their own.
One of Reynolds’ earliest memories involves a time she and her brother found their way into a nearby shed, where they discovered several boxes of small silver bells. To this day, Reynolds has no idea who the bells belonged to or why they were there. But they must have been important because the pair were swiftly punished.
She’s been told the story of when the kids were standing on the 12th Street curb in front of the hotel, timing the perfect chance to cross the street.
Cars rolled past the block, which featured a sandwich shop, pharmacy and Seal Test Ice Cream stand.
George zipped across the street, instructing his sister to follow.
“I ran and I got hit by a car. My mother was constantly chasing after us, trying to find out where we were,” Reynolds said.
“I don’t even know how we lived. It’s unbelievable.”
Home Sweet Hotel
It wasn’t all bad, growing up in The Dean Hotel.
Reynolds can still hear her mother singing Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City,” which references her childhood street. She sang the tune even long after leaving the hotel.
The Hagerty’s never had a television, only radio. Of course, where there was music, there was dancing.
“I remember my mom always trying to teach me different dances like “The Charleston.” She taught us how to do “The Twist” and dances like that,” Reynolds said.
Later in life and looking back at the fun times with her mother, who was busy running around the hotel, keeping track of kids, trying to save money and occasionally talking to the police, Reynolds reflects on how challenging it must have been.
At times, Margaret Hagerty ate crackers with peanut butter to be sure there was enough food to go around.
One of her sweetest memories of growing up in the hotel is accompanied by the ghost fragrance of sour milk, the result of hot summer days when she and George would play on old ice cream-stained pallets in the back alley, behind the ice cream shop.
Every so often someone would come out and give them ice cream.
In late 1962, the Hagerty’s checked out of The Dean Hotel.
The plan was to head to Florida, where savings would have eventually become a piece of land or property. But the family never settled in.
In 1963, Reynolds’ father became ill and the family moved to Illinois. Shortly after, Joseph Hagerty died. Over the next decade or so, Margaret Hagerty raised the kids on her own because remarrying as a woman in her 50s with two young children was unlikely during that time.
Ten years after her husband’s death, Margaret became disabled and was no longer able to work.
Reynolds was married and had her first child at 17 years old. She took work in a factory for several years until her kids were in the process of moving on in their own lives.
“I had a pretty rough time growing up, let’s put it that way,” Reynolds said, considering her parent’s decision to make the sacrifice of taking over The Dean Hotel and calling it home for their small children.
She says it’s bittersweet, in a way, well aware that the decision in 1958 was rooted in love and the best her parents could have done at the time.
“People that are in that position, they need to know that they are not victims if they don’t allow themselves to be victims. You can pull yourself out of it. It’s hard. It’s tough. It takes a lot of work,” Reynolds said. “There are people that are unfortunate and face challenges they can’t necessarily control.”
The Dean’s Fate
A 2018 curiousKC piece by Flatland’s Vicky Diaz-Camacho and former Flatland reporter and current contributor Mike Sherry sums up how Kansas City’s 12th Street lost its luster during the back half of the century.
“Over time, 12th Street lost steam along with other parts of downtown,” Diaz-Camacho and Sherry wrote. “As was happening elsewhere around the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, City Hall tried to revitalize the area by tearing down old buildings through the controversial urban renewal policies established by the federal government.”
This was the case for The Dean Hotel, which stood in the middle of a cluster of city blocks deemed one of the city’s General Neighborhood Renewal Projects (GNRP) by the redevelopment authority, according to maps held in the Missouri Valley Collection at The Kansas City Public Library.
The controversial projects aimed at revitalization coincided with the construction of Kansas City’s “downtown loop” of freeways that circle the Central Business District.
Whether the Hagerty family realized it or not, the ongoing construction of U.S. Highway 71 during their time in the late 1950s and early 1960s at The Dean Hotel was a sign of the change that was headed for the neighborhood.
Jackson County deed records indicate that the property at 1019 E. 12th Street changed hands, back and forth between a few different owners and Triple E Investment Company throughout the 1960s.
In 1975, a building code inspection declared the former The Dean Hotel “a dangerous building.”
Fifteen years earlier, four-year-old Della Hagerty would have agreed.
On April 7, 1975, a Certificate of Existence of a Dangerous Building was filed, confirming the owner had been notified and ordered to repair, vacate and repair, or demolish said building.
Miles to go
There she stood next to her motorcycle, surveying an alien city block.
“Let’s put it this way, I had no desire to be there,” Reynolds said, remembering her pass through Kansas City back in the late 1990s.
It may have been that Reynolds didn’t need another reminder that we have no say in how or where we come into the world.
But there was a clover, near an embankment that led up to the U.S. 71 guard rail.
This time, it was one of the good memories. As restless children growing up in the city, Reynolds and George would spend time sitting and playing in the clover while nearby construction workers built the highway.
That’s all there was — a memory to file alongside learning The Twist, sneaking off into the neighborhood and singing “Kansas City here I come..”
Reynold’s ride to Colorado came during a crossroads in her life. In the late 1990s, Reynolds went back to school and eventually left the factory for an accounting position. She’s spent hours away from the office riding her motorcycle through 46 of the 48 contiguous states, seeing the country. She’s slept on beaches in Galveston, Texas, and curled mountain roads for miles.
The living, breathing and riding proof of “it’s where you go from here,” Reynolds enjoys life on the road, a trait she attributes to her mother and father.
In all of her travels, Reynolds does what she can to avoid staying in shady hotels. Though, she’ll occasionally stop at a mom and pop motel — especially if it’s on Route 66.
Reynolds recently retired and has plans to move into an RV and hit the road with the motorcycles for retirement.
That way, if she doesn’t like where she is, she can just keep moving.