Former Prairie Village councilman takes on task of preserving huge archive of historical KC photos

Steve Noll with a cabinet full of panoramic photo negatives from the Wilborn collection.

Steve Noll didn’t take long to find a way to occupy his newly found free time.

After retiring as Executive Director of the Jackson County Historical Society, a post he held for 13 years, and stepping away from the Prairie Village City Council after representing Ward 2 for nearly a quarter century in January, Noll has set about on a project that combines his passions for civics and history.

A photo from the Wilborn collection showing the first-ever Plaza Art Fair, held in 1932.

When the former Stine & McClure Funeral Company chapel on Gillham Plaza in midtown went on the market a few years ago, Noll, a history buff, couldn’t resist. He and his wife Marianne purchased the building, and teamed up with party planners Jodie and Eric DeLeon to turn its main floors into a new space for weddings and other events.

But in the basement, Noll is overseeing a project he hopes will preserve a vibrant piece of Kansas City history for years to come.

For decades starting in the early 1900s, Tyner & Murphy and Wilborn & Associates were go-to studios for documenting events, sports, schools and development in the metro area. As photography became more affordable, the studios saw less demand for services. But by the time both companies had stopped doing business, it had built up a huge archive of negatives.

Last summer, Noll finalized an agreement with the Chris Wilborn, who had inherited the studios collected works, to purchase the archive, digitize it, and donate it to the Jackson County Historical Society.

It’s no small task.

Steve and Marianne have hired an assistant to help in the process of reviewing and categorizing every negative in the collection — thousands upon thousands of photographs that document everything from opening day at a neighborhood pool to the first-ever Plaza Art Fair to graduations at high schools. The negatives will then be digitally scanned and made available to view for the public through the Jackson County Historical Society.

Of course, the Nolls’ interest in local history isn’t reserved for the photo collection. The duo have purchased the home next to theirs in Prairie Village, and are readying it to hold a collection of historical artifacts from Prairie Village and beyond.