Feeling invincible is a thing of the past, Heather Hamilton said, revealing a diagnosis that stopped her in her tracks and poured a change of perspective for the West Bottoms bar owner.
“Knowing that I’m gene-positive for Huntington’s disease has made me even more motivated to make a difference,” Hamilton said, noting the disease has already greatly impacted her family — but its hold doesn’t have to mean losing it all.
Unwilling to let the progressive disease rob her of a life well lived, Hamilton and her husband, Sean Smith, tapped into entrepreneurship and a shared passion for cocktails and community as an outlet for taking control back from the diagnosis.
In early 2021, they purchased the Pabst Brewery building at 1717 W. 9th St. in Kansas City’s West Bottoms — a building filled with history and its fair share of secrets, Hamilton noted. The couple then uncorked 9th & State, a cocktail lounge and community gathering space, in early June.
“My hope — and what we’re already starting to see — is [9th & State can be] a space where we celebrate art, diversity, music, culture and history,” she said, adding the business welcomes events, hosts local musicians, houses locally produced art, and often serves a rotating lineup of metro-sourced noshables.
As the former home of saloons, jazz clubs, burlesque shows, casinos, raves, fetish clubs and history only knows what else, nearly every drink on the 9th & State menu represents the building’s past, Hamilton continued.
Click here to learn more about the area of 9th and State known as the “wettest block in the world,” the subject of a recent Kansas City Public Library presentation.
Menu items run the gamut from beer (including PBR) to bubbly, in addition to a growing lineup of craft cocktails — libations like “The Boobie Trap,” a mix of rum, lime, clove and coconut; “The Glory Hole,” made with vodka, gin and lime — a nod to an attribute hidden within the building that represents a seedier time in its past; and “The Gambler,” where spiced pear rolls the dice alongside a blend of tequila and elderflower.
“The history of the building is incredible,” Hamilton added, mixing up a tale that includes Tom Penderghast, the infamous Kansas City political boss, living in an apartment that formerly stood on the grounds and the mystery surrounding the contents of a safe hidden within the building.
“We have no idea what’s in the safe … although every blog will tell you it’s empty,” Hamilton said, revealing the safe is rumored to be bobby trapped with tear gas — and no soul has yet chanced a raid on the treasures that could lie within it.
“What makes it really interesting is that it was built in 1931 — when the building was home to a casino and jazz club called the Antler’s Club,” she continued, recalling events of the time that, if anything, could indicate a windfall piled high behind cold steel.
The world will likely never know, Hamilton joked.
Click here to learn more about the history of 9th & State which includes the presence of jazz greats Charlie Parker and Buster Smith or here to read a Flatland report regarding the Kansas City mafia and its presence in the area in the 1980s.
Watching customers take in the sights of the historic building, play a game of ping pong, or enjoy the sounds of local artists such as Lava Dreams, Hamilton couldn’t be more pleased with the way her entrepreneurial dream has been so far been distilled into reality.
Giving back to communities and people she cares about provides an outlet to navigate her own struggles, she added.
“Live in the moment and try to do some good,” Hamiltion said of her current outlook, noting it’s resulted in the launch of a special menu section: Cocktails for Good.
“One [drink] is named after a sweet friend who killed themself and 10 percent of [sales] go to the Trevor Project. One goes to Bikers Against Child Abuse and the other goes to Huntington’s Disease Society of America,” she said.
“I love being able to find ways to support important organizations through amazing cocktails.”
And Kansas City should too, Hamilton added.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.