Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rail Room

Signboard Hill (1955)
Rail Room

Location: 11 West Pershing Road (across from Union Station), Kansas City, Missouri, USA. In the area formerly known as "Signboard Hill" before it was redeveloped as Crown Center beginning in the mid 1960s.

Opened: 1950s

Closed: Probably around 1966

Linda May reports the following in her 1992 article, "Women in Kansas City's Heritage":

There was one bar that Lesbians went to in those days [i.e. the late 1950s, early 60s], the Rail Room, a neighborhood bar where Crown Center now sits, frequented by male railway workers during the day. After a certain time of day, a "magic transformation" happened. It was taken over by women and there was a halfway point in the room, unspoken and unmarked, past which no men ventured. 

Lisa J. Church elaborates:

For nearly ten years, the Rail Room also played host to an all women's band, the Rail Runners.

"We formed there," says Aggie Wheeler, one of the band's founders. "So we decided to call ourselves the Rail Runners after the name of the bar. Wheeler, the current owner of Jamie's, says the owner of the Rail Room, Ray Mitchell, created a safe environment for the women. "Men could come in there too," says Wheeler. "But he didn't want them causing trouble...trying to pick up women and such, so Ray took care of us."

Hallmark Cards founder Joyce Hall had long hated the Signboard Hill neighborhood, which he regarded as little more than a working-class eyesore. At some point, he decided to embark upon a grand urban redevelopment scheme, a "city within a city" that was eventually called Crown Center. Beginning around 1966, Hallmark began quietly buying up properties in the area (Crown Center eventually included some 85 acres in all). What the Halls regarded as a neighborhood of nothing but "rutted parking lots, abandoned warehouses, the sorry remains of failed or failing businesses, and a limestone hill cluttered with signs and tarpaper shacks" was eventually obliterated in favor of what has been described as "one of the nation's first mixed used redevelopments." The Rail Room was apparently one of the casualties of that redevelopment. 

Update March 4, 2012: David W. Jackson has published as a fascinating book on Kansas City GLBT history called Changing Times (2011). Thanks to David's sleuthing, we now have an actual address for the Rail Room.

Photo: Signboard Hill, looking south along the west side of Main near Pershing Road (1955). Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

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