One Kansas City Man Made It His Mission To Dig Out This Forgotten, Buried Park

Sep 2, 2015

This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. Since it was first reported in September, Sean Owens and his group of volunteers have uncovered the entire staircase. 

West Terrace Park sits on the edge of a bluff on the west end of Kansas City's Quality Hill neighborhood.

It offers a scenic overlook of the West Bottoms, the Kaw and Missouri rivers, and downtown Kansas City, Kansas. 

In the 1960s, parts of the park — including a road, a grotto, and a staircase, were demolished for the Interstate 35 extension. Over time, the history and grandeur of what was left of the park was covered by mud, graffiti, trash and invasive bush honeysuckle. 

But Kansas Citian Sean Owens, who has admired the park since he was a kid, wants to uncover, cleanup and restore this park to its original beauty.

West Terrace is one of Kansas City's oldest parks dating back to the early 1900s, originally designed by landscape architect George Kessler to be a connecting point in the parks and boulevard system. From a stone retaining wall with towers on either side, the long staircase once took you down to a grotto and a scenic roadway along the bluffs called Kersey Coates Drive.

"When I was a kid it almost seemed like a mystical type place," says Owens. "Driving by on the highway you can see the stone towers and it looked like some sort of fortress up on the hill." 

This photo taken in the1940s shows the grotto and staircase that once led from West Terrace Park to Kersey Coates Drive. The street was a scenic highway along the bluffs that connected to the city's parks and boulevard system.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collection - Kansas City Public Library

Owens didn't know the park had a staircase until he saw a historic photo.

"Once I put the two together, that the stone towers that I loved as a child were the staircase, I was pretty depressed because I thought the stairs were definitely gone for good."

But Owens, an architectural designer who describes himself as an optimist, decided to take action. He started a Facebook group called Uncovering West Terrace Park. The goal: to raise awareness about the parks overgrown state and to mobilize a group of people to help clean up the park and see if any of the original staircase still existed.

After talking to the Kansas City Parks Department, Owens organized a cleanup day — mobilizing about 15 people to start picking up trash, clearing the overgrown brush and digging.

"It looked like a slope on the hillside basically, between two retaining walls." Owens says of the untouched park. But after shoveling up three feet of mud and glass shards, they finally hit concrete — the original stairs.

"It was really exciting," recalls Owens. "Especially once we got a few of the spans uncovered and saw how good of condition the concrete is in. If nothing else, the dirt may have helped preserve the stairs." 

Recent events like the Fourth of July and the Kansas City Airshow brought people to West Terrace Park. But they also left trash and a pathway completely covered with broken glass bottles.
Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR

Getting others to see his vision

On a recent trip to the park, Owens realized that getting the rest of the community to respect the park's beauty and history could be an ongoing challenge. Fourth of July and Kansas City Airshow  festivities left the park covered in trash. So much so, that Owens says it's nearly as bad as it was before they had done any of the cleanups. 

"This is a little depressing, but I'm not discouraged," he says.

Forest Decker manages the operations and  maintenance for all of Kansas City's 221 public parks. He's been working with Sean Owens at West Terrace Park. He even has Parks Department people help out on clean up days.

"I've worked with a lot of  community and neighborhood groups that have really helped us out, and also helped us to up our game and elevate the interest level in an area," says Decker.

Decker says he's committed to help clean up the garbage at West Terrace, but that park, like all the parks, has it's own unique challenges. For example, the stairs don't really lead to anywhere except for a highway. And the slope has erosion challenges — obviously enough to bury a staircase overtime with three feet of mud. It's not illegal for people to use the park, but the whole area has not been deemed to be completely safe. 

Sean Owens has heard this criticism before. He's happy to work with the Parks Department, but he would like to see more involvement.

"This is a very historic and important park in our city, who is supposed to be proud of our park and boulevard system? And to let it sit here like this, I think is unacceptable," says Owens.

Owens has big visions for the park. He'd like to see the stairs connect to a walking path that takes you to the 12th Street Bridge. He even mentions the idea that highways aren't necessarily permanent, and that maybe some day there could be a completely different design that utilizes the space below the stairs.

Owens knows these are big, expensive dreams. But as development continues around the Quality Hill neighborhood with more condominiums being built, he hopes that more people living and working downtown could be inspired to see the greater vision that he sees for West Terrace, which, until recently, was a buried piece of history.