Cyrus K. Holliday arrived in Kansas Territory in 1854 from Pennsylvania with a sack full of money and a dream to build a railroad. Holliday rounded up eight investors who established the Topeka Town Association, taking the name from a Kansa Indian term for digging good prairie potatoes. The budding railroad moguls selected a location where a branch of the Oregon Trail crossed the Kansas River.
The anchor for the railroad grew rapidly and the population was 600 by the time the territorial legislature incorporated the town in 1857. Topeka was the largest free-state community in “Bloody Kansas” in the years before the Civil War and got the nod as the temporary capital. When Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861, Topeka got the permanent job as state capital.
With the twin economic engines of government and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the town boomed in the 1880s. In 1888 alone some 3,000 new buildings were added to the Topeka streetscape. The country’s financial Panic of 1893 derailed the Santa Fe Railroad and slammed the brakes on the town’s growth until the coming of the motor age in the 1910s.
Topeka’s population grew steadily through the 1950s until it reached its current level of 120,000. At that time the city became an enthusiastic player in urban renewal, designating 37 blocks for revitalization. While the wrecking ball was swinging across large swaths of Topeka in 1966 one of the country’s most destructive tornadoes struck the town, leaving 13 people dead and causing an estimated $100 million in property damage, removing even more historic buildings.
Our walking tour of downtown Topeka will seek out the survivors and we will begin at a building that has witnessed the town’s history very nearly from the beginning...
Kansas State Capitol
bounded by 8th and 10th streets and Jackson and Harrison streets
Cyrus K. Holliday donated the land for Capitol Square in 1862 and native limestone from Geary County was hauled to the site to begin construction in 1866. Wisconsin State Architect Edward Townsend Mix’s French Renaissance design was chosen and a 37-year process got underway. The East Wing went up first, then the West Wing and finally the domed central link. The statehouse was declared officially complete in 1903, although sessions had been held here since 1869. The dome reaches 304 feet into the sky - taller than the United States Capitol dome.
EXIT CAPITOL SQUARE ON THE EAST SIDE, AT THE INTERSECTION OF JACKSON AND 9TH STREETS.
Santa Fe General Office Building/Landon State Office Building
900 SW Jackson at southeast corner of 9th Street
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was organized single-handedly in 1859 by Cyrus K. Holliday and, through innovation and mergers, became the dominant carrier between Chicago and Los Angeles in the early 20th century. Ironically the line never reached Santa Fe because of its daunting terrain. Its flagship passenger train was the immortal Super Chief, often referred to as “The Train of the Stars” because of the many celebrities who traveled on America’s first Diesel-powered streamliner. The Super Chief pioneered the iconic glass domes on its lounge cars and was the first all-Pullman sleeping car train in America. Along the way travelers could enjoy meals at the famous Harvey House restaurants strategically located throughout the system. A landmark four-story red brick general office building was constructed for the Santa Fe Railway in Topeka in 1884. It cost $187,000 and served until 1910 when it was razed in favor of this 140-foot tall, Chicago Style structure. The State of Kansas acquired the iconic office tower in the 1980s and re-named it for former governor Alfred M. Landon who opposed Franklin Roosevelt for the U.S. Presidency in 1936 and failed to stop FDR’s re-election, carrying only Maine and Vermont in the general election. Landon, who was 98 years old, attended the dedication ceremony in 1985 and made it to his 100th birthday before passing away.
TURN RIGHT ON JACKSON STREET. TURN LEFT ON 10TH STREET.
120 West 10th Street at northeast corner of SW Jackson Street
In 1908 the State of Kansas got word that the federal government would be paying over a half million dollars in debts incurred during the Civil War that ended over 40 years earlier. The legislature earmarked the money for the construction of a headquarters for the Kansas Grand Army of the Republic and space for the Kansas State Historical Society that had been taking up more and more room in the state capitol. President William Howard Taft came out to lay the cornerstone on September 27, 1911 for the Neoclassical Memorial Hall that was designed by state architect Charles Chandler. An estimated crowd of 25,000 turned out for the dedication three years later. The Historical Society stayed until 1995 and the hall was converted into state offices.
TURN LEFT ON KANSAS AVENUE.
901 South Kansas Avenue at southwest corner of 9th Street
This seven-story office building ushered in the era of modern construction in downtown Topeka as the town’s first steel-skeleton structure. Henry Hobart Mills came to Topeka in 1885 after 28 years of mercantile experience in Michigan and started Mills, Mc Pherson & Company with his son William at the head of the dry goods concern. James C. Holland also arrived in Topeka in 1885 and ten years later was elected state architect, a post he filled for three years. Holland designed this building for Mills Dry Goods in 1910; it became Pelletier’s Department Store in 1916 which remained until the 1970s.
900 South Kansas Avenue at southeast corner of 9th Street
Frank Squires designed this Chicago Commercial Style building for John Copeland Gordon in 1910. Gordon was a New Yorker who migrated to Topeka to become a farmer in 1855 when he was 24 years old. Instead he wound up in the mercantile business and in 1863 got into the hotel game. The next year he opened the fifteen-room Gordon House Hotel which was followed by the 95-room Copeland Hotel on this corner in the 1880s. The Copeland burned in 1909 and even though he was 80 years old Gordon personally supervised the construction of this building and moved his quarters here. He was celebrated as Topeka’s “oldest living resident” before his death in 1915 at the age of 84. The building remained in the Gordon family until the 1980s when it was sold to the Karlan Furniture Company which had been the main tenant since 1914. Gordon’s building has demonstrated the same resiliency as its builder - although it was damaged in the 1966 downtown tornado it has reached its centennial with a restoration of its original appearance.
100 SE 9th Street at northeast corner of South Kansas Avenue
The Hotel Kansan won a duel with the Jayhawk Hotel to become the town’s first million-dollar luxury hotel, greeting its first guests in 1924. Kansas City architects Charles Shepard & Alben Wiser provided the classically flavored design for the U-shaped building, a configuration that encouraged air circulation and offered more windows for the 300-room hotel. Those rooms became apartments after the hotel closed in 1968.
TURN RIGHT ON 8TH STREET. HALFWAY DOWN THE BLOCK, ON THE NORTH SIDE, IS...
110 SE 8th Street
Timothy Dwight Thacher was a New York native whose ancestors sailed to Boston back in 1635. In 1857, when he was 25 years old, Thacher traveled to Kansas to publish the Lawrence Republican, a free-state paper. The paper was destroyed by Confederate guerilla leader William Quantrill and Thacher went back east to work on newspapers in Philadelphia. In 1868 he returned to Lawrence and fired up the Republican again before drifting into politics, winning a trip to the Kansas House of Representatives and eventually being elected state printer. After retiring he remained in Topeka and constructed this High Victorian commercial building in 1888 on plans drawn by busy architect John G. Haskell. The space was originally occupied by the Hall and O’Donald Lithographing Company and after 1899 it was the long-time home of Crane and Company, a printing and publishing house established in 1868 by George W. Crane. Their ghost sign can still be see on the west facade.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO KANSAS AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT, CONTINUING NORTH.
725-727 South Kansas Avenue
Brothers Benjamin and James Davies hailed from Illinois and arrived in Topeka in 1877 to buy a lumber yard. By 1887 when this commercial investment property was raised the Davies Brothers Lumber Company was among the state’s largest business concerns.
Central National Bank
701 South Kansas Avenue at southwest corner of 7th Street
The Central National Bank, through its ancestors, took its first deposits on this intersection in Topeka in 1882. This Neoclassical vault was erected in 1927 at the cost of $250,000 to be the most modern banking house in town. The plans were drawn by brothers Thomas and William Wight who were born in Nova Scotia and began designing Kansas City buildings in their twenties as they became one of the premier architectural firms in the Midwest. The Central National Bank is faced with buff-colored Bedford limestone from Indiana and appointed on the inside with generous helpings of polished marble. It served as the bank’s headquarters until 1957 when it merged into the First National Bank of Topeka.
635 South Kansas Avenue at northwest corner of 7th Street
Sebastian Spering Kresge remained active in company affairs as Chairman of the Board, a post he retained until the age of 98 when the company had grown to include 670 Kresge variety stores, 150 K-Mart department stores and 110 Jupiter discount stores. He died in 1966, within sight of his birthplace in Mountainhome, Pennsylvania where his Swiss ancestors settled in 1765, at the age of 99. He lived to within one year of his mother, whose picture he displayed in every Kresge store until she died in 1940 at the age of 100. This Kresge store in Topeka came online in 1926 at the cost of $150,000. Look up above the modernized street level to see the Spanish Colonial influences on the brick building, including a red tile roof.
TURN RIGHT ON 7TH STREET.
118 SE East 7th Street
These souvenirs from the 19th century show the ornate style of the Victorian age. Nick Chiles owned a taproom and boarding house here. Chiles founded America’s longest-running black newspaper, the Plaindealer, in 1899. When hatchet-wielding temperance crusader Carrie Nation came to Topeka and was jailed, it was bar-owner Chiles who bailed her out. He even printed Nation’s anti-drinking rag, The Smasher’s Mail.
TURN LEFT ON QUINCY STREET. TURN LEFT ON 6TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON KANSAS AVENUE.
New England Building
503 South Kansas Avenue at southwest corner of 5th Street
Topeka’s major financial institutions have traditionally gathered on this block. No bank sported a purer Topeka pedigree than Merchants National Bank that was founded by Cyrus Kurtz Holliday. Holliday died in 1900 at the age of 75 and didn’t live long enough to see this Chicago Style home for his bank erected in 1910. It served as theheadquarters until 1969.
German-American State Bank
435 South Kansas Avenue at northwest corner of 5th Street
This two-story building joined the Topeka streetscape in 1910, showing the influence of the newly popular Chicago Commercial Style with large display windows. The German-American State Bank moved in during 1916, just before it was forced to change its name to Guaranty State Bank to deflect anti-German sentiment stirred up by World War I.
429 South Kansas Avenue at northwest corner of 5th Street
Hidden inside early 20th century storefronts is the two-story building where the “Free State” constitution banning slavery was drafted by forty delegates in 1855 that put Kansas on the path to statehood. Constitution Hall was crafted on native limestone by brothers Loring and John Farnsworth in what was then the center of town. The building did duty as the first capitol of Kansas until 1869. When the government moved out the space settled into commercial use for over 130 years. Work is underway to restore one of the state’s most historic buildings to its 1850s appearance and tell the story of Kansas’ approach to statehood.
U.S. Post Office
424 South Kansas Avenue at northeast corner of 5th Street
The federal government announced its presence in Topeka in 1884 with a soaring Victorian post office and courthouse. The building was torn down and replaced with this Neoclassical federal building in 1933. The plans came from the office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, James A. Wetmore. In April of 1937 two special agents from the FBI Bureau in Kansas City were conducting an investigation in the post office when two men believed to be bank robbers entered. As Wimberley D. Baker, who had just completed agent training, attempted to arrest one of the men the other opened fire on Baker. The gunmen escaped but were captured that night in Nebraska. Baker died from his wounds the next day, he was 27 years old. Upstairs in the courtroom the landmark case of school segregation, “Brown vs. Board of Education,” was originally tried on its way to the United States Supreme Court.
WALK BACK TO 5TH STREET AND TURN RIGHT, HEADING WEST.
501 SW Jackson at southwest corner of 5th Street
America’s downtowns in the the 1890s were stuffed with three- and four-story commercial brick buildings with arched Romanesque windows. This one was designed by leading Topeka architect Seymour Davis in 1888. The money man was Samuel J. Crawford, an Indiana man who came to Kansas in 1859 to practice law and became the state’s youngest governor at the age of 29 in 1865. He became the first Kansas governor to be re-elected. Crawford spent some $75,000 to construct the building, considered the most substantial erected in Topeka up to that time. Arthur Capper, who married Crawford’s daughter Florence, moved into the building with his newspaper, the Mail and Breeze. Capper would build a publishing empire of several newspapers and two radio stations and also ascend to the governor’s chair as the first native Kansan to serve as state chief executive.
TURN LEFT ON JACKSON STREET.
Union Bus Depot
120 SW 6th Street at northeast corner of Jackson Street
In the early decades of the 1900s railroads started gobbling up nascent bus lines - or started their own service - that helped extend passenger networks where rails didn’t reach. This small depot was constructed in 1930 by the Union Pacific. Bricks from the 1870s rowhouse that stood here were recycled to use in the Colonial Revival structure. Railroads sold off their bus lines in the 1960s before the federal government took over passenger train service and the depot was re-adapted for commercial use.
TURN LEFT ON 6TH STREET. WALK A HALF BLOCK TO SEE ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE STREET...
Knox Building/Columbian Building
112-114 SW 6th Street
Seymour Davis, one of the leading Victorian architects in Kansas, designed this eclectic five-story commercial building in 1888. Davis used rock-faced red sandstone and red brick for the facade which is liberally decorated with stone carvings and centered around an oriel window. The money man was William C. Knox who was one of the town’s most successful investment bankers, so confident of his ability to make profits for his investors that he guaranteed an 8% rate of return. That didn’t help Knox’s company survive the Panic of 1893 and after that the Columbian Title and Trust Company commandeered the building.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO JACKSON STREET AND TURN LEFT, CONTINUING SOUTH.
Elks Club Building
122 SW 7th Street at northeast corner of Jackson Street
The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks were founded in New York City in 1868 in the theater district. At first they referred to themselves as the Jolly Corks. The Topeka Lodge, BPOE #204, organized in 1891 and shared space in the Masonic lodge until 1908 when the Elks moved into this elegant brick-and-limestone building designed by William Sayler and Herbert Seddin. The price tag was $50,000. The Elks stayed until 1979 when they left the city for the suburbs.
NEXT TO THE ELKS CLUB IS...
Federal Reserve Life Insurance Company Building
112 SW 7th Street
Architect John George Braecklein lived 93 years, arriving in Kansas City when he was 20 years old in 1885. He claimed to have been responsible for 3,000 buildings in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma during his seventy years of practice. This richly decorated Beaux Arts temple constructed with pale brick was started for Federal Reserve Life Insurance Company in 1922. It features a projecting Corinthian portico at the center of the composition.
Jayhawk Hotel/Jayhawk Tower
700 SW Jackson Street at southeast corner of 7th Street
In the early decades of the 20th century mid-sized towns all clamored for a first-rate hotel that would confer “big-city” status from the new class of traveling businessmen. Often the town’s business community would pool its resources to shepherd the project to completion. Such was the case with the Jayhawk Hotel in 1923. Thomas W. Williamson won the commission to design the 12-story hotel and a shopping arcade connecting the lobby with a 1,500-seat theater. The movie house was the creation of the Boller brothers of Kansas City who used its design as a prototype for over 300 performance halls they would later design. The complex opened in 1926 and enjoyed a 50-year run as the State Theater of Kansas. The Jayhawk Hotel closed shortly thereafter and Williamson’s Renaissance Revival hotel was renovated into the Jayhawk Tower.
701-703 SW Jackson Street at southwest corner of 7th Street
This Chicago Commercial Styleoffice building from 1920 was dressed up with Gothic details, including an old script naming badge above the entrance.
TURN RIGHT ON 7TH STREET.
Central Motor and Finance Corporation Building
222 SW 7th Street at northeast corner of Van Buren Street
This early example of an automobile dealership demonstrates a greater emphasis on an attractively designed building than large plate glass display windows common today. Architect Thomas Williamson practiced architecture in Topeka for 50 years, often tapping the Classical Revival style as he did here for the stone and terra cotta composition. Central Motor sold Studebakers here beginning in 1926 and cars were sold here by various dealerships until 1970.
St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church
701 SW Topeka Boulevard at southwest corner of 7th Street
The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest organized African-American religious institution in America with roots stretching back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787; the St. John’s congregation dates to 1868. The congregation has owned this land since 1882 and this house of worship, the second to stand here, was constructed of native rough-faced limestone in 1908. The Gothic-flavored building underwent three major alterations in its first two decades to reach its current form.
TURN LEFT ON TOPEKA BOULEVARD. TURN LEFT ON 9TH STREET.
Woman’s Club Building
420 SW 9th Street at northeast corner of Topeka Boulevard
The movement for women’s clubs in America took hold at the turn of the 20th century as places where women could come together and discuss the important issues of the day. In 1897 a number of such clubs organized in Topeka and in 1912 the group became the Topeka Federation of Women, changing to the Woman’s Club of Topeka four years later. By 1925, when this clubhouse was raised, membership was over 400. Completed at a cost of $200,000 on plans drawn by Frank C. Squires it was believed to be the largest clubhouse of its kind west of the Mississippi River.
TURN LEFT ON HARRISON STREET.
First Presbyterian Church
817 SW Harrison Street
The first Presbyterian services in Topeka were conducted in 1859; this Gothic-flavored stone meetinghouse was finished in 1884. The famed glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany came personally to Topeka to plan the windows that were installed in 1911 at a cost of $14,000.
TURN RIGHT ON 8TH STREET.
Masonic Grand Lodge Building
320 SW 8th Street at northeast corner of Harrison Street
The Grand Lodge of Kansas Ancient Free & Accepted Masons was established on March 17,1856 from three lodges that had formed in the Territory since 1854. The Masons settled into this handsome Neoclassical building fronted by a quartet of Ionic columns in 1916. The Grand Lodge is still headquartered here, administering some 23,500 Kansas Masons and 242 lodges.
Victory Life Insurance Building
300 SW 8th Street at northwest corner of Van Buren Street
Insurance companies like to use impressive headquarters buildings to convince customers of their financial stability and this Neoclassical temple fronted by engaged Ionic columns from 1928 fit the bill for the Victory Life Insurance Company. Anthony Overton, who was born into a slave family in Louisiana in 1864, founded Victory in 1920. Overton graduated law school in 1890 and became a judge before abandoning the law to run a small hardware business from which he began manufacturing kitchen products and cosmetics. In addition to Victory Life Insurance he also started the Douglass National Bank.
204 SW 8th Street at northwest corner of Jackson Street
The Catholic Church had stirrings in Kansas as early as the 1540s when Father Juan de Padilla did missionary work with Wichita Indians. Three centuries later missionaries established the Assumption Parish in 1862 and a meetinghouse was constructed for the town’s oldest Catholic parish in 1882. After the church was crippled by fire in 1922 the parish retained Kansas City architects J. Maurice Carroll and Victor J. Defoe to design a new church for $100,000. It was one of the earliest commissions for Carroll who would design more than 160 structures before his death at the age of 92 in 1991. The self-taught Defoe was a store clerk-turned draftsman for the J.C. Nichols Company where he came in contact with the Spanish Colonial Revival style that was used for the church. After decorating the Topeka streetscape with this rare splash of Spanish territorial style the partnership dissolved. Local architect Walter E. Glover, know for his elegant residential designs, contributed the Italian Renaissance-styled rectory in 1929. The building is dressed in buff brick with details rendered in Carthage stone, a densely grained marble quarried in Missouri. A garage from Topeka architect Thomas Williamson was added in 1954.
WALK ACROSS THE STREET TO THE STATE CAPITOL AND THE START OF THE WALKING TOUR.