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The grass actually is greener here: What it takes to maintain two iconic KC lawns

National WWI Museum and Memorial lawn.jpg
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art lawn.jpg
Posted at 6:00 PM, Aug 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-20 13:02:12-04

If you think mowing your own lawn is a pain, imagine maintaining a Kansas City icon — or two.

In Kansas City, many could see a picture of these two iconic places and name them instantly: the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

At both places, people immediately pull out their cameras. Photos taken at these two locations have won multiple awards. It’s where residents take out-of-town family and friends, where celebrations take place, where visitors take in unbeatable views.

Maintaining the lush, green landscape that creates a striking contrast with the historic architecture is an effort that employs many people year-round.

"When the museum was first built, one of the first things that was done was a landscape plan, a design by George Kessler, who did a lot of the parks and the boulevard systems in Kansas City," said Chris Wyche, the National WWI Museum’s vice president for facilities and technology.

And the WWI Memorial, also called the Liberty Memorial, stays true to that plan on its 47 acres.

The trees that line the mall must be sugar maples (the groundskeepers planted 75 new maples this year). Further south, all of the trees are oaks. On the north lawn, there will never be a tree planted in the middle, only around the edges.

"Every tree placement on the property, we look at the viewshed and how it affects the view from the Memorial from any location on the property," Wyche said.

The funny part, Wyche said, is that many of the photos are of the downtown Kansas City skyline. Nonetheless, it’s always clear where the photos were taken.

Like the WWI Memorial, the Nelson-Atkins Museum uses science to maintain its property. The museum has a team on-site every day that monitors the the moisture sensors and 150 irrigation zones.

"When you keep a lawn this wet it gets a lot of fungus in it, so we have to manage that as well. These guys are really working all the time to keep this place in good shape," said Michael Cross, program manager for facilities at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

An arborist keeps a close eye on which plants need a bit more attention.

Cross said the 22 acres at the museum has seven micro-climates. About five years ago, the museum switched to a bio-centric approach, using less fertilizer, nitrogen and weed-killer.

"It lowered the cost of maintenance a little bit and we managed to still keep it pretty, so we try to be good stewards of the land," Cross said.

Huge events at the Nelson-Atkins and National WWI Museum and Memorial draw thousands of people, and their cameras, to these lawns every year.

The Nelson-Atkins introduced more outdoor activities that increased attendance by 20,000 each year. Cross said 90,000 people have been on the lawn this summer alone.

"We have no choice but to make it look as good as we can," Cross said.

When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015, a huge crowd packed the north lawn at the Liberty Memorial. On the lower end, events there can draw 50,000 people at one time — and they're all walking and sitting on the grass.

"It depends on how much moisture you have in the grass,” Wyche said. “You cut it certain ways so that it's maybe a little more forgiving and handles it better. It makes it possible for us to have the events and bounce back pretty quickly.”

Those efforts, however, come with an additional expense. The Hall Family Foundation funds the Nelson-Atkins' maintenance. The museum works with True North Outdoor.

The Liberty Memorial is a 501(c)(3) organization and relies on donations and ticket sales. It works with CMJ Lawn and Landscaping.

Anyone who works at these two iconic locations will tell you it's absolutely worth it.

"It's Kansas City's lawn," Cross said.