When Aaron Neighbors’ kids go to school these days, they’re drawing pictures of the Power and Light Building. That’s because their dad is restoring the historical building – one of the signature pieces of Kansas City’s skyline – and even they can grasp its importance.
“My kids know what I’ve done before on other jobs but they really know this building,” Neighbors said. “They tell other kids where I’m working whereas they could really care less before.”
Neighbors is vice president of Neighbors Construction, a family-owned local contractor that’s tackling the historic renovation of the building that upon completion in 1930, served as the headquarters for the Kansas City Power & Light Company and remained the tallest skyscraper in Missouri for roughly 50 years.
In its prime, the building was a masterpiece of art deco architecture. And although it consists of a concrete structure and is clad with Indiana limestone, the building was built in just 12 short months. Now, the building will come back to life in April as its first tenants start pouring into the upper levels and soaking in incredible views of the city.
“This building is bigger than everyone: the guys that own it, the guys building it,” Neighbors said. “It’s a part of Kansas City.”
That’s why Neighbors has brought on an official photographer to document the process and capture the behind-the-scenes construction work.
“These buildings get built anonymously,” he said. “The contractor that built this originally did it in 12 months, and it’s taken me 12 months to even get to this point. It was the same guys that built Municipal Auditorium and City Hall, and you don’t even really know who that guy is. You see [construction workers] in the photos from 80 years ago and wonder who they were, what they were like back then when they were working for just pennies.”
Jacia Phillips, a local photographer specializing in art deco architecture, had grasped the significance of the project, but hadn’t ever captured photos of a building of this magnitude – especially while it was under construction.
“For years, I took it very personally that the building just sat vacant and unloved,” Phillips said. “I felt sorry for her. Why would such a beautiful building be so uncared for? Nearly every time I was downtown I would drive by the building to look at it and admire it.”
But today she dons a hard hat, roams through dark hallways and finds little treasures – like the rainbows of light pouring in through the lantern or the Sharpie signatures of everyone who has climbed to the top of the 34-story structure.
Other times, she’s asking questions of the 32 different subcontractors working on the site, whether it’s learning what it takes to retrofit a building and switch over power without taking the elevators out of service, or how the team has kept its sanity in working with 94 different floor plans.
So what’s her favorite story when it comes to the building?
“I think it is turning out to be mine and I’m living it right now,” she said. “I believe the best stories are yet to be made for the people who will call these buildings home.”
Phillips’ collection includes intimate shots of the workers in a vantage point that’s rarely seen in a construction site. Ultimately, the photo collection will be assembled and bound into a book for workers to remember the significance of the project. Phillips also plans to donate highlights of the collection with the local community archives to be a part of public record.
Despite the inevitable project hurdles that come with rehabbing an 86-year-old building, Neighbors said that documenting the process will be well worth it all.
“It’s been challenging but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Neighbors said. “These buildings don’t come along ever.”