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CJ Coombs

The 1855 Col. John Harris Residence is part of the history of the Westport District in Kansas City as a museum

Col. John Harris House, Kansas City, Missouri.Photo byAndi Enns, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The 1855 Col. John “Jack” Harris Residence or 1855 Harris-Kearney House is located in the Westport neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. According to the Missouri Division of Tourism, the house is “Kansas City’s oldest remaining brick residence located in the Westport area on the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails.” On October 18, 1972, the Harris Residence was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Originally, the residence was located at the intersection of Westport Road and Main Street (where a Katz Drug Store, then Osco used to be). It was physically relocated in 1922 to 4000 Baltimore.

The architect of the house is unknown. The architectural style is Greek Revival. It was built in 1855 and originally owned by Col. Harris and his wife, Henrietta.

Harris House Hotel

In 1847, Harris acquired the McGee Tavern from A.B.H. McGee and renamed it Harris House. During their years of proprietorship from 1847 to 1864, prior to building their brick residence, the Harris family members resided at the hotel.

In 1848, this structure burned down. It was rebuilt in brick and renamed The Harris House Hotel. This hotel was essential to the neighborhood for a number of reasons and chiefly helped those heading west on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails. In 1864, the hotel was used by the Union Army during the Battle of Westport. The hotel was torn down in 1922.

Col. John Harris

The original owner-builder was Col. John Harris, a pioneer born in 1795 to a large, successful family from Virginia and Kentucky.

In 1832, Harris came to Westport from Kentucky with his wife. They purchased a 100-acre farm and built a small log dwelling on the property. When they bought the property, it wasn’t in Westport. As the town grew, their farm became part of the residential area. Harris became known as “Colonel” Harris because of his participation in the 1838–1839 skirmishes in the Mormon War that was between the Mormons and Missouri citizens.

The family’s brick home was constructed on a portion of the farm purchased in 1832. Harris was 60 by the time the house was built. He and his wife had seven daughters and one son who had married and moved. 

In the late 1920s, the Kansas City Board of Education was made an offer to take over the indebtedness of the home but it was turned down. In 1942, Dr. M. B. Casebolt purchased the house and land under foreclosure proceedings. The first floor was offices for doctors and dentists. The second floor had residential space. When Dr. Casebolt died in 1954, the residence went into another period of uncertainty.

The Harris residence

The Harris family lived in the Harris residence from 1855 to 1881 and then from 1870 to 1898, one of the Harris daughters, Josephine, and her husband, Col. Charles E. Kearney, moved into the house with Mrs. Harris after Col. Harris died in 1874 at age 79.

An addition was built onto the back of the house to accommodate their children. The Kearneys took over ownership of the house after Mrs. Harris died in 1881. Col. Kearney was involved in western trading expeditions in Westport and was the president of the Cameron Branch of the Burlington Railway and was influential in having the Hannibal Bridge built. This was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River.

In 1898, the property was purchased by William Rockhill Nelson who was the founder of The Kansas City Star. Nelson gave the property as a wedding gift to the editor of The Kansas City Star, Thomas W. Johnston, and his wife.

In 1921, Elmer Williams purchased the hotel with the alleged intention of demolishing it to build a hotel. So that didn’t occur — some women who were the forerunners of the Daughters of Old Westport, bought the home for $1,000 and they raised more money to have the home relocated to where it is now. It’s also been written that the Harris Home Association acquired the house and moved it over one block.

It’s also been written the house was sold to a realtor and builder, Elmer Williams, for $40,000 so he could lease the land for business purposes. At this time, the neighborhood was changing from chiefly residential to commercial. On December 31, 1922, almost 100 years ago, the house opened as a museum, but since it wasn’t making money, it closed.

In 1940, the house was sold again at a public auction and bought by a commercial developer. It was used as office space and medical office space but that wasn’t successful either.

In 1970, the house was purchased by David L. Biersmith, President of Crestwood Medical Ltd. During the summer of that year, Biersmith began the renovation project of the Harris Home in an effort to restore it close to its original state.

In 1972, Biersmith was looking for a buyer for the property who would be willing to continue the preservation of the home.

On Oct. 18, 1972, the historic Harris-Kearney House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976, the house was purchased by the Westport Historical Society (WHS) which was able to raise money and restore the home close to its original appearance.

In 1985, the house opened to the public as the 1855 Harris-Kearney House Museum which also houses WHS.

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