The Kansas City of the 1920s and ‘30s was marked by the rule of the Pendergast machine over the city’s government, industry, and culture. After Boss Tom’s arraignment on tax evasion charges, the city and the rest of Jackson County were well overdue for a deep cleaning of their tax rolls. In addition to the concerns that machine era-cronyism had led to an unfair distribution of tax burden, the economic turmoil of the Great Depression devastated the real value of property without an attendant change in citizens’ tax bills.
The 1940 Jackson County tax assessment was overseen by J. L. Jacobs & Co. of Chicago, and largely staffed by several hundred Works Progress Administration workers. Developing an organization strategy was an early stage of the project. Kansas City, within its 1940 city limits, was divided into 17 districts, with five larger districts making up the remainder of Jackson County. Kansas City’s 17 districts were then subdivided into nearly 4,900 blocks, and those blocks into specific parcels.
Beginning April 22, 1940, twelve pairs of men -- one armed with a 35mm camera and the other with numbered signboards – circled each block, taking a photograph of every structure they encountered. Whether a high rise office building or a shack, any structure was considered an improvement subject to taxation, and as part of what the Kansas City Star (February 9, 1940) called the area’s “first scientific assessment,” a photograph was a key part of the new property records. Surveyors and other workers followed soon after, recording measurements, building materials, conditions, and other details. And behind the scenes, realtors, architects, economists, and other professionals labored over the incoming information to establish a new system of fair property values.
The project was completed within its $440,000 budget by December 1940. J. L. Jacobs & Co. submitted its final assessment to the county court, reporting the taxable value of Jackson County property at $390,000,000.00, down more than $23,000,000.00 from the previous evaluation. Then, as today, concerns were raised about the impact of lower tax revenue on Kansas City School District funding, and the impact of lessened school funding on the city – including property values in the future.
After serving their purpose in the Jackson County Tax Assessor’s Office, the majority of the documents detailing land values, survey information, and ownership records were been lost, forgotten, or disposed of over the years, but the bulk of the photographs, pasted onto cards by block, survived through their decades in county offices, a trip to a dumpster, a rescue and move to City Hall, and, finally and happily, a relocation to Central Library and a permanent home online and in the Missouri Valley Room.
Other Online Tax Photo Collections
Large scale photographic tax assessments were not undertaken everywhere, but several other communities did take advantage of Works Progress Administration funding for similar projects and a few of those collections did survive to be viewed today. It appears that Kansas City’s photographs are the only collection fully indexed and online, but information about other city’s tax assessment photograph collections can be found at the following links.
New York City, New York: http://www1.nyc.gov/nyc-resources/service/2297/buy-a-1940-or-mid-1980s-tax-photograph
Seattle and King County, Washington: http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=3692
San Francisco, California: http://sfpl.org/index.php?pg=2000084501
For current Jackson County, Missouri, tax assessment information, you can search for properties (and view recent assessment photos) with Jackson County's Parcel Viewer.