If you didn’t know of Columbus Park — nestled between the Heart of America Bridge, I-29 and the Missouri River — you’d likely never stumble upon the quiet and quaint neighborhood, one of Kansas City’s oldest.
After World War I, Italian immigrants cultivated the area, building everything they needed in a few-block radius: restaurants, drug stores, bakeries, breweries, barber shops and the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, the heart of this close-knit community. In addition to baptisms, weddings and funerals, residents gathered there for dinner and conversation, sports, and annual carnivals.
Though the neighborhood is now home to diverse populations, the Italian history remains. The church bells still ring on the hour; you can see the Italian pride in the red, white and green-painted fire hydrants and in the 100-year-old buildings that, on the outside, have not been updated.
One such building stands at 815 East 5th Street. Now a private residence, the building once served the community as J. Vaccaro Bottling Works Co., the name still carved above the windows; a dance hall and speakeasy, where even police indulged in an illegal beverage during Prohibition; and, for nearly 90 years, LaRocca Grocery.
Joe Mike Mesh, a lifelong Columbus Park resident, still remembers the smell of the grocery. “[Owner Frank LaRocca] had everything from the old country — every kind of salami and cheese.” Joe Mike and his mother would shop there, and then walk down the street for a fresh loaf of Italian bread with olive oil.
Shon and Carol Hall, the building’s current owners, were looking for an historic firehouse or church to renovate when they found this “secret gem” in Columbus Park, or aka the North End, if you grew up in this little city within a city.
When they first opened its doors, the Halls found many of the building’s original elements remained: The pulleys to raise the orange, grape, strawberry and cream soda hung from the ceiling; the decorative blue stenciling up the staircase to the speakeasy was untouched; and the dance hall’s pristine maple wood floors hid beneath years of debris.
“They were so worn down, you couldn’t tell what they looked like,” said Louis Pisser, project manager for Jamie Jeffries Construction, the Hall’s contractors. Once uncovered, it was “one of the most beautiful floors [he’s] ever seen.”
To preserve the integrity of the building as much as possible, the construction team repurposed materials — not only from the space, but also from other buildings throughout Kansas City.
“Every day, we would have to make a new decision: how can we make this work with what we have available, while making sure it’s structurally sound,” Pisser said. They used a floor grate for a chandelier adorned with wine bottles, an old steel beam for the downstairs bar’s footrest and the speakeasy’s porcelain sinks for the master bathroom.
They also built closet shelves from a local high school’s bleacher seats — after scraping off the chewed gum — and a staircase to the new rooftop patio from wood from the original Boulevard Brewery warehouse. “The space is really a combination of three or four different buildings structured around the same time period.”
Almost every piece of the Hall’s home tells a story, dating as far back as 1919, when Joe Vaccaro began construction for J. Vaccaro Bottling Works Co. He quickly outgrew the space, and in 1921, construction began on the Joe Vaccaro Soda Water Manufacturing Company Building at 922 East 5th Street, one block east (now the Soda Lofts).
Back then, everyone knew each other and took care of each other. Mary Argento, licensed funeral director and owner of Sebbeto Funeral Home at 901 East 5th Street, recalled when sugar was in short supply between the world wars, the neighborhood would donate theirs to Vaccaro to help his business stay open.
Because Vaccaro’s second location operated longer and received the National Register of Historic Places designation, the history of his original building is all but forgotten. There are few records and even fewer living residents in Columbus Park to pass on its memory.
But, Shon and Carol are writing a new chapter for the building. Every Third Friday, April–October, their home becomes 815 Gallery, a space for local artists to display their talents. “I used to show my work in malls, and it tore away at my soul,” Shon said. “We wanted to give local artists a better opportunity.”
Following the inclusive spirit of the neighborhood, all artists and styles are welcomed. If you would like to be featured at 815 Gallery, contact Jody Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org.