“The Last Dance: The Skywalks Disaster and a City Changed”
Chapter 1: Prelude to Disaster
By Kevin Murphy
In the summer of 1981, America was losing its financial bearing. Inflation was nearly 11 percent, unemployment more than 7 percent and the country was headed into a deep recession.
Kansas City was feeling the same financial pressures. A study reported on the front page of The Kansas City Star in mid-July predicted a decade of stagnant development and little jobs growth in Missouri.
City government was struggling to keep its infrastructure from crumbling. An election was set for early August asking voters to approve a sales tax to pay for capital improvements, including new buildings for public safety and public health care.
The downtown business district was also suffering. An editorial in The Star on July 11 called downtown “often dingy, sometimes ugly” and in need of a central showcase. To address the problem, 27 major financial, commercial and corporate interests formed the Downtown Council to find solutions. They would pool ideas and resources in a drive to revive downtown.
The Downtown Council had to look no further than Crown Center a mile to the south to see revival at work. Crown Center was a booming array of shopping, lodging and entertainment offerings adjacent to the world headquarters of Hallmark Cards.
Crown Center was everything “dingy” downtown was not, but it had been in worse straits than downtown 15 years earlier.
In the early 1960s, the area was a hodgepodge of abandoned buildings, seedy businesses, rutted parking lots and billboards — lots of billboards. In fact, the area was known as Signboard Hill.
At this time, Hallmark founder Joyce C. Hall and Hallmark President Donald J. Hall, his son, decided that rather than pull up stakes and move to the suburbs they would pursue an ambitious urban renewal plan. Though privately financed through the newly formed Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation, the project would make use of tax benefits under Missouri’s Chapter 353 redevelopment law, which was intended to infuse life into blighted areas.
The corporation broke ground in September 1968 on a five-building office complex, parking garage and central square. Crown Center Shops would follow in 1973, anchored by the high-end Halls department store. The 724-room Westin Crown Center Hotel opened that same year.
“Crown Center development was a real turning point for Kansas City,” said Richard L. Berkley, mayor from 1979 to 1991. “It took an area that was not in great shape and turned it around. It became a little city inside a city.”
Jerry Darter, city director of parks for most of the 1980s, agreed. “It became a destination,” he said.
Advocates for downtown renewal, meanwhile, were not standing still, and in the fall of 1973, developers unveiled plans for a new Hyatt Regency hotel in an area bounded by Wyandotte, Central, 11th Street and 12th Street. It was to be a 1,000-room convention hotel, with a sprawling ground-level floor shaped like a pyramid and surrounded by the hotel towers.
Hopes were high for the new hotel, proposed by a local investor group called Central Redevelopment Corporation, and a grand opening was timed for the nation’s 1976 bicentennial. But the downtown development group struggled to assemble financing, and the Hyatt corporation turned its attention elsewhere, to the Hall family’s interest in putting another hotel at Crown Center.
Downtown would have to wait for its central showcase and revival.
Discussion of the Crown Center location for a Hyatt project was made public in early 1976, and on Oct. 2, 1977, Hallmark formally unveiled plans for a 750-room Hyatt Regency hotel.
The $50 million, 40-story hotel at 2345 McGee St. would be around the corner from the Westin, giving the city a much-needed boost in drawing conventions and tourism while further elevating Crown Center’s stature.
In announcing the proposed hotel, Donald Hall said the project spoke to the “economic vitality and attractiveness” of the area. It would be the only building in the Crown Center complex to rely completely on Kansas City architects and contractors. Three firms formed a consortium called PBNDML Architects Planners. Principals overseeing the project were Robert J. Berkebile, Herbert E. Duncan Jr., and Gene E. Lefebvre.
A PEOPLE MAGNET
According to The Kansas City Star, the new hotel would have 760 television sets, 457 sofas, 2,700 convention chairs and 15,120 spoons. It would employ 900 people, have two bars, one specialty restaurant — the Peppercorn Duck Club — and a full-service restaurant called the Terrace.
Dramatic architectural flourishes had become a hallmark of the upscale Hyatt chain, and chief among the desires of the developers was to build a structure that was visually arresting.
The Hyatt’s owners and structural designers routinely referred to something called the “J.C. Meter” when discussing the visual impact of their hotels. They wanted designs so stunning that anyone seeing the space for the first time would exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” The more stunning, the higher the rating on the “J.C. Meter.”
“There has been some joking about that,” Hyatt Corp. board chairman Jay A. Pritzker would say later. “But that has never been our criteria for designing hotels.”
The concept might not have been an official criterion for Hyatt and its designers, but the desire for high impact was very real.
One of the architectural flourishes intended to achieve that impact in the new Hyatt Regency hotel would be a series of suspended walkways, aesthetically “thin and invisible,” spanning the lobby atrium. The walkways, soon to be known as “skywalks,” were to link the guest room tower on the north side with the meeting rooms, restaurants and other hotel amenities on the south side, 120 feet away. They would be suspended from the ceiling of the four-story hotel lobby atrium.
The skywalks — one each on the second, third and fourth floors — would be offset so that the fourth-floor skywalk would be directly above the second-floor skywalk, with the third-floor skywalk off to the side. All of them would run parallel to the entrance side of the hotel lobby on McGee Street.
On March 16, 1978, dignitaries broke ground on the new hotel with much fanfare. Dynamite used for blasting gave off green smoke, a tip of the hat to the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day. Two years later, on July 1, 1980, the mostly completed Hyatt Regency hotel held its grand opening.
On that day, Hyatt corporate executives A.N. Pritzker and Patrick Foley stood on the skywalk above the lobby, and with a twist on the traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony, Pritzker, Hall and Mayor Berkley untied three red, white and blue ribbons that had been draped from the staircase to the third-level skywalk.
The grand hotel had finally opened and in a time of economic distress in Kansas City, here was something to feel good about.
The hotel quickly became popular for its dining and entertainment offerings, including a restaurant called Skies that sat perched like a giant disc atop the hotel.
Skies slowly rotated, making a complete circle in about one hour. Windows surrounded the restaurant, offering a moving panoramic view. Skies became a novel place to take out-of-town visitors and a romantic setting for couples.
Just as much a marvel was the Hyatt’s stylish and airy lobby, surrounded by a five-story atrium. The lobby was adorned with plush furnishings and carpet, flooded with light from towering windows and skylights 60 feet overhead. Fresh plants, flowers and trees gave life to the setting.
The Hyatt lobby and its surrounding conference areas and ballroom were often abuzz with meetings, parties and celebrations. It had glitz and energy.
“It was a beautiful lobby and beautiful hotel, everyone was excited about it,” recalled Frank Freeman, a Kansas City businessman.
The skywalks turned out to be magnets for people to linger, socialize and watch the people and events in the lobby below.
But even then — in the midst of the gaiety and splendor of the lobby — there was an ominous note in the air. Some who were there had cast a wary eye on the skywalks.
At a party one evening, the 23rd Street Marching Cobras were playing in the lobby. One of the guests at the party was retail businessman Bob Lewellen, who later served on the city council for eight years. As the Cobras marched and drummed, Lewellen looked up to the highest skywalk.
“I remember standing there seeing that bridge jumping up and down, and I thought, ‘My God, it’s going to fall,’ ” Lewellen said.
Berkley said he, too, had wondered that first year about the stability of the Hyatt skywalks and about fashionable architecture in other hotel lobbies and public spaces of that period.
“It was an era when structures were built with creative designs,” Berkley said. “We thought the engineers knew what they were doing.”
“TEA DANCING TONIGHT”
In May of 1981, the Hyatt decided to draw on the popularity of the hotel’s lobby by hosting Friday night tea dances, a throwback to another generation, which had proven successful at its hotels in other cities. Steve Miller and the Hyatt Regency Orchestra started playing at 5 p.m. and dance contests would begin at 7.
Songs were from the big band era of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, featuring the tunes of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Clark Terry and others.
A story in The Star on May 28 called the free entertainment “relaxed new-fashioned fun.” The writer suggested that people who didn’t dance might still like to watch from the sunken lounge in the lobby or from the balconies and upper walkways.
The dances drew a lot of people old enough to remember the big band era, but younger couples and singles also showed up. Beer and soft drinks were $1, wine and liquor $2. The Hyatt was the place to be on a Friday night.
“Everybody was talking about it,” Freeman said. “A couple of folks from work said, ‘You really ought to go, it’s a great place for networking, lots of people, great fun.’ ”
The dances had not only become popular with older couples who remembered big band music but drew singles and the after-work crowd, said Rich Coble, who played the trombone in the Steve Miller band on Friday nights.
“It was a party,” Coble recalled. “It was laid-back, the work week’s over, the ties are loose, you don’t have to deal with rush-hour traffic.”
An estimated 1,500 people would usually show up for the tea dance. “It turned out to be even more than the Hyatt anticipated,” Coble said.
The eighth tea dance of the year was held on Friday, July 17. People started arriving at 3 p.m., saving the best seats as they mingled and socialized — a nice respite from the 90-degree heat outdoors.
By 4:30 p.m., downstairs seats were full and new arrivals went upstairs to tables overlooking the lobby. Some people started gathering on the skywalks.
That same early evening, Mayor Berkley and his wife, Sandy, were greeting guests at a fundraising party at their home near Ward Parkway. Berkley looked out and saw someone had parked behind his car. He was concerned about being blocked in so he asked the police officer who served as his driver to have the other car moved.
“I told him, ‘You never know when I might have to leave in a hurry,’ ” Berkley said.
About 6:30 p.m., back at the Hyatt, Freeman arrived with his partner, Roger Grigsby, and after a while they went up to take in the view from the skywalks. There were only a few people up there then, Freeman said.
John and Fran Calovich of Kansas City mingled with others on the fourth-floor skywalk. They were at the Hyatt for John’s high school reunion. The couple wasn’t comfortable on the skywalk because it swayed, John said.
“I wanted to get off of there, it didn’t feel right to me,” he said. The Caloviches returned to the lobby on the ground floor.
Meanwhile, John and Marie Driscoll of Lee’s Summit were chatting in the lobby with three other couples they had come with to the dance. They were among scores of people directly below the second-level skywalk, watching the dancers. A drink line also formed under the skywalk.
“It was real crowded,” John Driscoll recalled. “My wife didn’t want to dance and one of the other couples said, ‘Why don’t we go up on the mezzanine and get something to eat?’ ” They took the escalator to the next level and got in line to be seated.
At that same time, Freeman and Grigsby had returned to the lobby under the skywalks, in effect switching positions with the Driscolls.
As they waited, Driscoll noticed KMBC-TV newsman Micheal Mahoney and his cameraman, Dave Forstate. The Driscolls were standing only a few feet from Mahoney and Forstate, who had been filming the dance for a feature story and were changing the tape and battery for the camera.
Below, Grigsby went to the south lobby bar and returned with vodka tonics. The dancers wore numbers on their backs as the dance contest was just getting started to the sound of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Freeman spotted an interesting older couple on the dance floor. He pointed them out to a woman standing near him, and said, “Look …”
The time was 7:05 p.m.