The old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City

I remember the old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City. I spent plenty of time in the sprawling complex at 6200 St. John Avenue in Kansas City near the intersection of Belmont Boulevard.

When I was growing up, the three most dreaded words in my (and my cousin’s) vocabulary were “Ward’s over town.” That was what our family called the monstrosity, which was home to a regional distribution center, an outlet store, a catalog store, and corporate offices in a mere 2 million square feet.

When we were eight years old, this store was where Saturdays went to die. I don’t know how many of its 2 million square feet were open to my mom, aunt, and grandmother to look for bargains, but there was plenty of room for bargains to hide, and if there was ever anyone willing to spend the whole day in that store stretching a dollar just as far as it could go, it was my aunt.

old montgomery ward building in kansas city
When I was 8 years old, this 2 million square foot monstrosity was the very last place in the world I wanted to be. It seemed like six floors and a basement of nonstop girls’ clothes to me.

And we really did make a day of it most of the time. Shortly after breakfast, we’d pile into a car (or two cars) and drive to the old store just south of the Missouri River. We’d pause for a fast-food lunch somewhere nearby, then we’d go back. I don’t remember us ever doing a two-meal marathon at that store. Maybe that’s because they wouldn’t have been able to endure our whining if they had. Maybe two meals out would have cut into the savings too much. Or maybe it was because it wouldn’t have been especially safe.

I’m not completely sure where “over town” came from. Today that phrase means the worst part of town, in reference to Overtown, allegedly the worst part of Miami. I don’t know if that’s what it meant in the 1980s, but the name fit at least somewhat. The area was inner city and certainly in decline in the 1980s. It got worse later, after Ward’s left. Probably its large number of jobs were helping to prop up the area a bit.

It sold the same kind of stuff the Ward’s anchor stores at the malls in the suburbs sold, but there was a lot more of it. And, at least in the outlet store part, the prices were lower. But, since it was an outlet, it was leftover type stuff. The kind of stuff that would hold an 8-year-old’s interest probably wasn’t at the outlet. That’s why I didn’t relish the trips there.

The store was a throwback, in a way. Inner-city department stores used to be a thing. They started moving to suburban malls before I was born, but Montgomery Ward tried to buck that trend. That was one of the contributing factors to its decline. By the time it got to the suburban malls, it had to fight for space.

In talking to my mom, the old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City had more family history than just the dreaded shopping marathons that interfered with playing Matchbox cars, or Atari, or Wiffle Ball, or anything else we would have preferred to do. (Honestly, I probably would have chosen homework over those shopping trips.) Mom bought her wedding dress there. My grandmother worked there. Some of Mom’s cousins worked there. Mom lived scarcely two miles from there until she was in the second grade.

The building, from what I can tell, was built around 1914, at one time employed a total of 3,000 people, and once was the largest building west of the Mississippi River. I don’t remember exactly when it closed for good. The company closed its catalog business in 1985, so the building was overkill after 1985. I do remember going there in the mid 1980s. I’ve found images of the store dated as late as 1989 that appear to show the store still open. 1989 seems late, but that was a long time ago now.

I remember riding in a car past the store after it closed and the old retail space had been turned into a giant flea market. As best I can tell, the flea market is still in business today.

I’m sure the store isn’t as big as my then-8-year-old mind recalls, but I imagine there wouldn’t be much you can’t find in a flea market that large. The flea markets in 1970s grocery stores are cracker boxes in comparison.

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