In Kansas City, William Rockhill Nelson saw a place where he could prosper in the newspaper business. He founded The Kansas City Star, which became the region’s most influential paper. But Nelson also saw in Kansas City a raw settlement that needed refinement. Kansas City at that time was a booming transportation hub and a thriving market for the area’s grain and cattle production.
Nelson soon became a crusader for civic improvements, including good streets and sidewalks, parks, boulevards and plantings. He was also a tireless crusader for honest government. As a man who was fascinated with beautiful architecture and the great paintings of Europe, part of his quest for making over Kansas City included the creation of an art gallery.
Nelson married Ida Houston in 1881, and they had one child, Laura, born in 1883. Nelson and his family lived in an impressive home along Brush Creek, Oak Hall, which sat on a 20-acre site. Laura married Irwin Kirkwood in 1910.
Nelson died in 1915 at the age of 74, and it was then that his legacy of an art museum began to be realized. Nelson’s will stipulated that his estate be used to purchase works of fine art “which will contribute to the delectation and enjoyment of the public generally…” Nelson’s wife survived him by six years, and Laura died five years later. Upon their deaths, the will provided for the “construction of a building in Kansas City, Missouri, to bear the name of William Rockhill Nelson and to be followed by the words ‘Gallery of Art.’”
Laura’s husband, Irwin Kirkwood, survived her by less than two years. After he died, in 1927, Oak Hall and the 20 acres were deeded to the city as a building site for Nelson’s art museum.
An additional bequest came from Nelson’s family attorney, Frank Rozzelle, at the time of his death in 1923. The Museum’s great ceremonial hall is named for Irwin Kirkwood, and its original outdoor courtyard (now an enclosed restaurant) for Rozzelle.