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Uniquely Kansas City | How the owner of a famed brothel helped City Union Mission get its start

City Union Mission
Posted at 1:26 PM, May 04, 2024

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As City Union Mission marks its 100th year in Kansas City, we're looking back at its beginnings.

It was founded in 1924 by Reverend David Bulkley and his wife Beulah from Sedalia, Missouri. He worked with the YMCA and served as a chaplain assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I. There he was wounded.

The Mission's current CEO Terry Megli said Reverend Bulkley was deeply affected by what he saw.

"He did a variety of passing messages along, first aid, food, assisting soldiers at the hospitals," Megli said. "War is very traumatic and that really shaped him to want to do more when he came back to Kansas City."

City Union Mission had a rocky start. Originally in a storefront at 5th and Main, there were 40 brothels in the area.

None like the so-called resort operated by Annie Chambers at 3rd and Wyandotte. Her 24-room mansion had a barber shop and a ballroom. Ms. Chambers required her girls dress properly and conduct themselves as refined ladies. Annie knew many prominent Kansas Citians, politicians and law enforcement brass. A button set off an alarm at KCPD headquarters about three blocks away.

"She needed protection. The button was located on a back side of the staircase in the foyer hallway. She needs to be on the side of the police so they could be there as first-responders, 'cause you're going to have all kinds of shady characters coming in and out of that property there," Megli said.

So what does a woman who could be called Kansas City's early version of the “Mayflower Madam” have to do with City Union Mission? Megli said Chamber had a religious conversion. That came about the time the Bulkleys opened the Mission in 1924. What was a well-known resort became a boarding house.

"She wanted to share the good news of how her heart had been changed and she knew that the Bulkleys were doing the work that needed to be done," he said. "I had to have known her heart just burned with love and passion, excitement, knowing, 'I did the right thing,' and it was never too late to do the right thing."

Annie lived into her 90s, passing away in 1935. Her mansion was left to City Union Mission, which now seeks to partner with churches offering outreach programs dealing with homelessness and mental health issues. The Mission operates several facilities for men, women and families and an 800-acre kid's camp in the Ozarks. Terry Megli hopes to acquire additional property. He says the need to help folks get back on their feet is continually growing.

Uniquely Kansas City is a partnership between KSHB 41 News and retired Kansas City journalist Bill Grady, highlighting the historical stories that make the Kansas City area truly unique through audio and digital storytelling. Is there a piece of Kansas City history you'd like us to share? Send us an email at desk@kshb.com.