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Discover Mid-America— November 2010

Celebrating ethnic diversity on Strawberry Hill

Honoring America’s heritage through immigration and ethnic diversity gets difficult when political scores are being counted, especially in an election year. But embracing our country’s history by keeping alive the ties our citizens have to their home countries makes the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center in Kansas City, KS a special place.

“I feel like I’ve been a very privileged individual because I’ve gotten to meet people from all those different countries,” says Adrienne Nastav, volunteer museum curator and member of the Strawberry Hill Ethnic Cultural Society board.

Emotions rise up slightly in Adrienne’s voice as she talks about sharing food, organizing exhibits — especially the upcoming Victorian Christmas presentations (Nov. 20 to Jan. 31) — and guiding tours through an 1887 Victorian house.

The Cruise-Scroggs’ mansion staircase decorated for Christmas (photo courtesy of the Strawberry Hill Museum)

The Queen Anne style Cruise-Scroggs mansion has been a family home, a Catholic orphanage and now what serves as “the glue” to the ethnic rich Strawberry Hill neighborhood through the Museum and Cultural Center.

Adrienne’s husband Richard knows the neighborhood well — born and raised in the “hill” on the city’s eastern slope. Also a volunteer, Richard creates the Christmas display in the Center’s chapel, built in 1925 to mainly serve the nuns who cared for the children.

“There are seven different ethnic churches within a five square block area,” said Richard. In the early 20th century, the community was a teeming mix of mostly Croatian but also Irish, German, Polish, Serbian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Slovak immigrants. Many of the men worked in area meatpacking plants.

The museum’s most moving permanent exhibit is the Hall of Immigrants on the second floor. Photos of families and newly married couples hang in the hallway. Their faces depict the excitement, hope and determination common to most all immigrants coming to America during that period. It’s hard not to wonder about each individual’s history and their hardships, and to applaud their resolve to seek something better for themselves and their children. A brochure tells the story behind each photo.

Along that same corridor are some of the museum’s ethic display rooms. By Nov. 7, rooms representing over a dozen different ethnic groups, including African Americans and Native Americans, will have their unique Christmas displays up and readied for public viewing.

For decades the Strawberry Hill neighborhood was the beginning of the American experience for many local immigrants. People stayed in the area, said Richard.

“Once you had a house that would sell, there was another Croatian standing in line to buy the house so they could send their kids in walking distance to school.”

Historic photos as part of the Hall of Immigrants (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

But change came in the form of Interstate 70.

A large format photograph taken by an unknown photographer in 1957 hangs in what once was the children’s dining room when the mansion served as an orphanage. It documents the beginning destruction.

Construction destroyed four and a half blocks of Strawberry Hill, eliminating 219 homes.

“It just destroyed the Hill,” said Richard, still a little angry about the highway project. Richard and Adrienne remain in the neighborhood, he of Croatian heritage, her Polish by way of Chicago.

After the interstate more change came. Churches didn’t have enough priests, schools closed and consolidated, kids no longer could walk to school. The last was St. John the Baptist. The Catholic Church closed its school in 2007.

But in 1988, change brought opportunity to Strawberry Hill. The Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King could no longer afford to operate the St. John Children’s Home.

The Sisters had come to Strawberry Hill in 1919. Sr. M. Bonaventure, mother superior, visited the Cruise-Scroggs house and purchased the family home for $15,400. The worldwide influenza epidemic had struck a year earlier. St. John the Baptist Parish had recorded 51 deaths that year and 71 in 1919. Children were without parents and St. John’s Orphanage soon opened.

The Sisters decided the orphanage would be open to the “children of all nationalities, creeds and races.” By 1931, the nuns were caring for 68 children. By the 1960s, the orphanage operated through the Catholic Charities of the Archdioceses of Kansas City, KS. In 1973, the name was changed to St. John Children’s Home and by the 1980s, the focus had changed from a children’s home to a long-term residential treatment facility.

When Adrienne got involved, the neighborhood was concerned about what would happen to the mansion and children’s home once the Sisters left. Adrienne, together with board members Tom Tomasic and Frank Jaksa Jr., worked with Msgr. John W. Horvat to find a plan for the facility.

Adrienne Nastav, Strawberry Hill Museum curator (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

“Because we’re such an ethnic neighborhood, we thought it would be nice for a place (people) could come and show their traditions and their customs,” said Adrienne, summing up the rationale for establishing the Strawberry Hill Ethnic Cultural Society.

With the church affiliation gone, the Society stood alone. As an all-volunteer undertaking, the effort to restore the mansion, and identify and acquire exhibits remains difficult.

“I don’t think it’s gotten easier,” said Adrienne. “I think were a little bit more organized than when we first got started.”

Highlights of the mansion and center

While the nuns did exceptional work with the children through the decades, the sisters took “artistic license,” with the mansion’s interior, said Adrienne, putting it nicely.

The nuns favored fluorescent lighting over the mansion’s original chandeliers. Slowly, volunteers are re-mounting the chandeliers. Old wood paneling put in by the Sisters has been removed and the woodwork restored. The mansion’s staircase is particularly stunning in its restoration. It is said the children would polish the wood on the weekends under the watchful supervision of the Sisters.

Stained glass windows have been repaired and original period furniture donated. The Ladies Parlor Room, Men’s Library Room, Family Dining Room, the Master Bedroom and Family Sitting Room, with its Butler’s Eye in the door, capture expertly the Victorian feel.

The large Croatian room contains artifacts from the mother country and information on Croatian artists and other significant individuals from that country. It includes military uniforms and insignia.

“Per capita, they (Croatians from Strawberry Hill) had more people in the war (World War II) than any other place in the US,” said Adrienne.

Christmas archway in the Men’s Library Room (photo courtesy of the Strawberry Hill Museum)

Photos of the nuns and of orphans hang on the wall. Society members are still seeking information to identify the children in the photos, which includes a 1924 graduating class from the orphanage.

With the Hall of Immigrants, visitors can view a “Sister’s cell” (living quarters) used from 1925 to the 1970s. Next to it is the Pope’s room. Airplane artifacts — bed, pillow, linens and other items — from Pope John Paul the Second’s visit to the United States in 1987, 1995 and 1999 are on displayed behind glass, donated by the now gone TWA company. Richard Nastav is a former TWA employee.

“Anything the Pope touched is a third-class relic,” said Adrienne. “If they (the Church) should make him a saint, they will become second-class relics and of course, priceless.”

Some of the nuns were excellent artists. Their work is on display in the chapel area. The chapel itself contains religious items from other neighborhood churches since closed, including crucifixes, the communion railing, stained glass windows, Nativity scenes and Stations of the Cross.

“We’re trying hard to get it back,” said Adrienne. “Everyone of the things in here has a little story.”

A tour of the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center begins in the 1925 Sister’s chapel. Tours are $7 for adults, $3 for children ages 6-12 with children age 5 and under admitted free.

The Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center celebrates its 22nd Anniversary preserving the “Holiday Traditions” of many cultures from Nov. 20 through January 30, 2011. “Olde World Christmas” with Victorian displays throughout the 1887 mansion, is available for viewing from Nov. 4 through Jan. 31, 2011, Saturdays and Sundays.

On Saturday, Dec. 4, St. Nicholas will appear in the museum’s West Room from 1 to 4 pm. Photos with St. Nicholas are $5, and milk and cookies will be served.

For more information about the Strawberry Hill Ethnic Museum and Cultural Center, located at 720 N. 4th St., call 913-371-3264 or visit www.strawberryhildmusuem.org.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher@discoverypub.com.


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