Kansas is a pivotal state. Sitting at the geographic center of the country, it typifies the American experience while also illustrating the uniqueness and diversity of the country’s various regions. Its built environment contains celebrated architectural masterpieces, but also displays a range of buildings that reveal the distinctive character of this Midwestern place and its people. Measuring approximately 200 miles from north to south and 400 miles from east to west, it slopes up from an elevation of less than 700 feet in the southeastern corner of the state to over 4,000 feet in the northwestern corner. The western half of the state consists of the relatively flat, semi-arid high plains. Moving eastward the plains give way to the steeply eroded limestone formations of the Flint Hills, which stretch from Nebraska on the north to Oklahoma on the south. Finally, the more well-watered eastern quarter of the state consists of a glaciated area to the north and limestone hills to the south.
The climatic and geological conditions directly affected the materials available to early builders. Wood was more readily available in the more verdant eastern portions of the state, while limestone provided an easily accessible building material through much of eastern and central Kansas, and in the west sod was sometimes the only material available for building. The northern portion of the state drains eastward through the Kansas River basin, and the southern portion drains through the Arkansas River basin. This affected settlement patterns, as trails, railroad lines, and eventually roads tended to follow river valleys as they crossed the state.
There were also a number of historical circumstances that shaped the state’s development patterns, some of which also impacted the country at large. Kansas was initially used by the federal government as a location in which it could forcibly relocate Native Americans from their homelands in the east. Soon thereafter, Kansas became important as a conduit for travelers headed to destinations further west. The Santa Fe Trail through southern Kansas was established in 1821, and the Oregon Trail through northern Kansas was opened in 1842. Inevitable conflicts arose between the white travelers and the Native Americans on whose land the trails were located. Kansas’s first residents included soldiers sent to deal with those conflicts, early settlers who provided supplies to the travelers, and missionaries providing educational services to Native Americans.
In 1854 Kansas gained territorial status and was officially opened for settlement. White settlers flooded the territory and the population rose from 1,500 in 1854 to 107,000 in 1860. The influx of settlers was fueled by the promise of free land and economic opportunity, as well as the struggle to determine whether Kansas would enter the United States as a free or slave state. Those on both sides of the issue sponsored migrants from the eastern states and from European countries who were willing to relocate to Kansas to vote on the terms of a proposed constitution. Tensions ran high between these groups and sometimes ended in violence. The struggle in Kansas proved to be a precursor to the Civil War. Ultimately, the “free state” settlers prevailed, and in 1861 Kansas became the country’s 34th state. The state’s growing white population led to more skirmishes with Native American tribes; in 1873, the tribes were once again forcibly relocated, this time to the Oklahoma Territory.
Development patterns were also directed by the railroads. Although westward expansion of the railroads began in the pre-Civil War years, it was accelerated by the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which authorized extensive land grants. As the tracks pushed westward through Kansas, the end of the line became the eastern terminus of the cattle drives from Texas. These end-of-the-line towns became temporary rowdy and lawless boomtowns. Many of Kansas’s early buildings were crudely built and have since disappeared, although the few remaining buildings provide a glimpse into pioneer life. As towns grew, more permanent buildings such as courthouses, schools, churches, opera houses, banks, and railway stations replaced the earlier structures.
Settlers continued to flow into Kansas, individually and in groups, through the latter half of the nineteenth century. The state’s population grew from 365,000 in 1870 to 1.4 million in 1890. The majority of foreign immigrants were from German-speaking lands. Of these, German-speaking Mennonites escaping exile in Russia were the largest and arguably the most impactful group of immigrants, in that they cultivated hard red winter wheat that was uniquely suited to the Kansas climate. This group was soon followed by Scandinavians and, later, French natives and groups from southern and eastern Europe.
The heady optimistic speculative times began to slow as the unusually generous rains diminished. The Panic of 1893 further weakened the Kansas economy. Many towns whose economic livelihood was based solely on agriculture were abandoned, while those with other dependable sources of employment, like county seats, were more likely to survive. Beginning in the early twentieth century, agricultural developments such as the utilization of scientific strategies and practices, the experimentation with a wider range of crop types, the introduction of steam- and gasoline-powered farm machinery, and the more extensive use of irrigation, caused a resurgence of the state’s economy. It was also buoyed by the discovery of zinc and coal in southeastern Kansas, and of oil, natural gas, helium, and salt in south-central Kansas.
With the state’s rapid population growth came an influx of architects who had trained elsewhere. Many stopped in Kansas City and the more populous eastern portion of the state, while some ventured further west along the expanding rail lines to establish offices in frontier towns. Between the late 1870s and mid-1880s the state’s population surged, and buildings of this era, particularly the great stone Richardsonian Romanesque structures, were built to last, indicating the permanence of the cities in which they were erected. During this time, Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) began offering architecture courses in 1877, and degrees in architecture beginning in 1903, allowing the state to train its own architects. The University of Kansas initiated its own architectural program in 1913, becoming one of the earliest in the country to adopt the new Bauhaus-inspired curriculum in lieu of the more traditional Beaux-Arts methods or the polytechnic approach that informed the Kansas State curriculum.
During the Great Depression, construction in Kansas came to a virtual standstill, aside from some notable projects undertaken with the assistance of federal relief programs. During the 1940s, most building in the state was focused on World War II support efforts, including aircraft manufacturing facilities in Wichita and ammunition plants in Baxter Springs, Sunflower, and Parsons. Housing for the defense workers and their families often accompanied the construction of war-related facilities. The architectural profession in Kansas came of age in the postwar years, when students benefitted from the GI Bill, and the demand for consumer goods resulted in an increase in construction. Most architectural offices found themselves inundated with work, and were able to employ their share of newly trained interns. The Kansas chapter of the American Institute of Architecture was founded 1913 and the State adopted architectural licensing laws in 1949.
Kansas rode the wave of prosperity that washed across the nation, but felt its effects in a slightly different way, as was evident in its demographic changes. Kansas’s population growth during the baby boom era was slower than in many parts of the country, and the state’s largest communities grew at the expense of rural areas. Some towns, like Nicodemus, a notable community settled by freed slaves, all but disappeared, while others like Kingman, which is less than an hour drive from Wichita, lost much of their economic and civic vitality as residents began to commute to nearby cities for work, shopping, and entertainment. In the 1970s, immigrants from Mexico and Southeast Asia sought work in towns like Garden City, which was home to a meatpacking plant.
Overall the population of the state swelled from a little over 1.9 million people in 1950 to almost 2.9 million people in 2014, with almost half of them living in the state’s three largest urban areas. Kansas City, located in Wyandotte and Johnson counties, is the state’s largest city, and grew from a primarily agricultural area into a bedroom community, and, more recently, into a thriving business and commercial center. Johnson County, in particular, has seen exceptional growth, from 63,000 people in 1950 to over a half million today. Wichita, the state’s second largest city, has almost tripled in size since the end of World War II, with a current population of over 380,000 people. The aircraft industry remains its most significant employer but Wichita is also home to the country’s two largest privately held companies: Cargill, an international food conglomerate, and Koch Enterprises, a petroleum business. Topeka, the state capital, is Kansas’s third largest city, and the state government serves as the city’s largest employer. Although Topeka experienced rapid growth in the 1950s, it has had only modest growth in recent years.
Linking these three large metropolitan areas is the Kansas Turnpike, which was built in the early 1950s. In 1956 it was incorporated into the interstate system and a westward link from Topeka to Colorado was established, as well as a north-south link between Salina and Wichita. A network of county roads and federal and state highways serve Kansas’s smaller cities and agricultural communities.
Despite its urban growth, the state’s agricultural roots remain strong. Over 85 percent of Kansas farms are still family owned. Over time the size of the farms have grown much larger but the surrounding communities and the workforce required to tend the farms have grown smaller. The state’s ecological sensibilities can be seen in the growing number of power-generating wind turbines that now dot the Kansas landscape. One wind farm is located southeast of Greensburg, a town that was leveled by a 2007 tornado but has since rebuilt as a model of environmental sustainability. The resilience of the Greensburg citizens recalls the efforts of the individuals who first worked to build a life in Kansas, a rich and challenging land.
Sachs, David, and George Erlich. Guide to Kansas Architecture. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
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