Politics and Parks: the creation of Kansas City's system of parks and boulevards

Early in 1893, George Kessler, Kansas City’s Landscape Engineer, resigned in a huff and the park and boulevard commissioners threatened to terminate their work after the city’s budgetGeorge Kessler August Meyercommittee appropriated a paltry $5,000 for the board to carry on its plans for the next fiscal year; the board had requested $25,000. “It is a business proposition,” the board’s president, August Meyer, declared, “that if the city can not spare the money for the carrying out of the modest plans of the board, there is no use of the board wasting its time.”

The Kansas City Journal’s editors thought the threats of Meyer and his board to resign were “hasty and unwise. There is much good to be done for the city with even the sum appropriated […].”  Meyer responded that the problem was political as much as financial: the city administration, he said, was “unfriendly to the board and has not treated it fairly. […] None of the other departments were cut down[…].”   Meyer pointed to what he considered exorbitant salaries going to the department of public works, adding that in his opinion and that of fellow board member and businessman Simeon B. Armour,“it costs far more to run the city than it should.”  

Mayor Cowherd naturally took exception, saying he would remove the board and appoint a new one in retaliation for the board’s threat to “take its doll rags and go home,” as he ungently put it; “while I am mayor, no department shall lie down and quit because it does not get all it asks for.” Other departments, including public works and police hadn’t received their full budget request but weren’t threatening to quit business, said the mayor, sidestepping the relative differences: public works got 70% of its request, the parks board 20%, nor was it at clear that the city was behind a special levy on property owners  the parks board wanted, since some property owners weren’t happy about paying for something that non-property owners – the working poor in the central city – would benefit from but not have to pay for.

However, the general sentiment of the business elite was that Kansas City was at a turning point between its helter skelter, frontier past and the sophisticated, progressive city its leaders hoped it would become; some dreamedWest Bluffs it would one day rival Chicago, host of the 1893 Columbia Exposition, or St. Louis, which would stage its own Exposition a decade on. The bluffs above the West Bottoms were the perfect symbol of the discrepancy. As the Times described them,“the general appearance of the bluffs is extremely unsightly, being dotted with rough-looking, dilapidated shanties, which are perched about on jagged ledges of rock of clay. Some of these ledges appear in imminent danger of falling, and it was only a few days ago one crashed through the roof of a shanty beneath and killed an old woman.” This was the first view of the city for passengers arriving at Union Station in the West Bottoms.

The bluffs were, for landscape architect Charles Eliot, who visited as a consultant in May, a unique attribute, even if some of their potential had been lost by leveling the bluffs along the most populous north section to provide access to the Missouri River. “No city in the world has any thing like them,” said Eliot, “and had they not been interfered with and left in their natural condition a driveway could have been builded around the north part of the city, which would have been the only boulevard of its kind in the world.” Nevertheless, Eliot thought something could still be done to give the city a distinct feature by building a roadway beginning downtown and running along the bluffs as far east as Indian Mound, near Gladstone Boulevard. “Every stranger who came to the city would want to make this drive along the bluff views and the driveway toward the eastern city limits," he predicted.

The Journal, though critical of the board’s position, agreed the city’s appropriation was “beggarly”and suggested the mayor should have been “more temperate” in his criticism of board members, prominent business leaders who were serving without salary. A cartoon in the paper depicted Cowherd showing a group of top-hatted, pin-striped men to the doorWill it come to this? of his office while a ruffianly character wielding a broom inscribed “The Push” sweeps “doll rags” – the board’s park plans – out behind them. “Will it come to this?” asks the caption, suggesting that neither the board’s threat to quit nor the mayor’s threat to fire them had yet come to pass.

The Democratic Times, which seldom agreed with the Republican Journal on anything, weighed in with further defense of the park board’s plans, arguing that money realized by the 2 mill levy could only be used for park purposes – not, by implication, to line the pockets of members of the city hall ring – and that the envisioned park system would greatly increase property values. Appealing to civic pride, the editors predicted the system would be “without a rival on the continent in striking features and would make Kansas City celebrated. The people are anxious that it be completed as soon as possible […].”

The next day it was reported in the Journal  that the mayor had reached an agreement with the board: the board would continue its work and receive the funds it needed when the allocation ran out. The issue of the West Bluffs remained unsettled, however: the mayor wanted clearing out the slums and terracing the Bluffs to be a priority. The parks board, less concerned with public relations, wanted to defer the West Terrace project, arguing there was a more immediate need for places of “quiet recreation” for citizens in the most crowded parts of the city.

Influenced by the “City Beautiful” philosophy of Frederick Law Olmstead and his acolyte Charles Eliot, Meyer and his colleagues went beyond purely financial arguments for parks to a transcendental depiction of the effect of natural beauty on the lives of urban workers. Life in cities, the board argued in its report to the city, is unnatural: 

It has a tendency to stunt physical and moral growth.[…] How is the poor man’s boy to grow into a cheerful, industrious and contented man, unless he can play where play alone is possible, that is, on the green turf, and under waving trees, can take with him into manhood the recollections of an innocent, joyous boyhood, instead of the impressions of dirty, white-faced and vicious gamins, and their and his acquaintance with immorality and vice. [p. 12j]

In 1893 there were only two parks, Budd and Troost, within city limits, then bounded by the Missouri and Kansas rivers on the north and west, Hardesty Avenue on the east,Colored Jubilee Festival and 31st street on the south, although the ownership of Budd Park was under litigation. Troost park, surviving today as Troost Lake Park, comprised just forty-five acres, at the end of the Troost Avenue rail line. “Its accessibility,” noted the Times, makes it very popular to the thousands who have neither the time nor the additional money to go farther away.” Special “colored” events were often staged at the park.

Outside city limits there were several larger commercial parks, developed by rail lines running to adjacent suburbs, including Merriam Park, ten miles southwest of the city, largely designed by George Kessler, and no longer existent. The Journal suggested that given the financial collapse, Kansas Citians were better off traveling to these home grown resorts than to those “crowded resorts” further abroad where they would be “cooped up in seven-by-nine sleeping rooms and kept daily and hourly on dress parade […].” The city had a “matchless system of street railways” to carry patrons to its “beautiful and roomy parks with more attractions for the general public than can be found in the public parks of any other city. And they are free to all, as much so as if owned by the city.” 

Washington Park bridgeIn spring the commercial parks opened with puff pieces in the newspapers advertising their newest attractions: Washington Park, located in Independence, touted its new boat house and fleet of seventy-five boats, as well as an enlarged bathing beach. 10,000 people were reported to have visited the park on one summer day to hear a concert by the Seventh United States Cavalry band. The park survives today as a cemetery. Chelsea Park, in Kansas City, Kansas, also still existing, offered in 1893 “caves all through the place, boweled deep in the earth, where lovers may go and whisper their little secrets […],” in addition to an animal menagerie.

The most popular of the commercial parks was the newly established Fairmount Park, also in Independence and still extant, although truncated and overgrown. In the spring of 1893 it boasted of its landscaping, outdoor gymnasium for boys and girls, and rifle range. Special efforts were being made, reported the Journal, “to make the cascade glen, which leads down to the famous Cusenbary spring, along which the lovers are wont to bill and coo, as attractive in every respect as can possibly be.” ItsFairmount Park Beach main attractions, however, were the Manhattan bathing beach, constructed, reported the Times, “at great expense,” and modeled after “the famous Eastern beach as near as art can imitate nature.” Also “at great expense,” the park introduced the latest international sensation, the “Crystal Crystal MazeMaze,” which Fairmount Park was among the first in the nation to install. Mirrors were so arranged, the Times reported, “that anyone entering is reflected such a great number of times and in such manner the effect is startling and wonderful. The most popular corridor is the one in which a young lady reading a novel is seen at six different points, and to discover the girl herself is puzzling.”

The goals of Kessler and the parks commissioners were not met, however, by the commercial parks, lying as they did beyond city limits. The commissioners’ purpose was to create parks close to residential areas, within or bordering city limits, that took advantage of the city’s Churchill White housevalleys, hills, and ravines, to define neighborhoods that would check the city’s tendency to move outwards and increase the value of residential property. The Hyde Park neighborhood, under development at the time, was a model of the kind of upper class area the commissioners hoped to establish, “favored by those seeking aristocratic surroundings […] Kansas City’s best society […].”

The parks board’s report appeared in October, on the same day as a Times editorial was describing 1893 as the “worst of all years, when a panic has swept all over the whole country, paralyzing trade and commerce, destroying banks, closing factories and stopping the wheels of industry generally from the Atlantic to the Pacific […].” ]  But, argued William Rockhill Nelson’s Star, this was not the time to cut back on public works projects. Parks and boulevards, the paper argued, were not luxuries: “Retrenchment can very easily be carried to a mischievous extent and especially in such times as the country is now experiencing.”

Other papers, Democrat and Republican, joined in the effort to get the project moving: “Kansas City Needs Parks,” the Times headlined one editorial that argued for parks “regulated by the will of the majority” rather than by private entrepreneurs.

The need was underlined by the efforts of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour to prevent a Sunday exhibition by the fire department at one of the commercial parks on Sunday. Such Sabbatarian crusades could, the editors argued, ultimately close all special attractions on Sundays, the one day when most people could go to the parks, and without them, “crowds would be cut down, and there would be less incentive to keeping the places of recreation as such, if indeed they were not closed altogether […] and the result would soon be seen in larger attendance at the saloons and beer gardens, and a corresponding increase in crime.” It was an argument for having non-commercial public parks, near at hand, comfortable, but without the ever-escalating spectacles of the private parks.

Charles EliotThe moralistic argument that public parks were needed to keep people out of saloons was only one of the points brought up by Meyer, Adriance Van Brunt, architect and parks board member, and Charles Eliot when they called on Mayor Cowherd in advance of the release of the board’s report. Their emphasis was on improving residence districts and property values: Kansas City lacks “concentration” of its residential districts, said Eliot:

“The city looks very ragged. A block of fine residences may adjoin another block of the poorest class of houses. I am sure that there has been a great disappointment experienced by many a young married man who, after selecting space for a home for the future, and building a comfortable home, was compelled to change his residence on account of undesirable neighbors. It is most essential to the development of a city to have the residence district well defined so that the great middle class of people […] may feel free to buy property for homes, secure as to the future of the neighborhood.”

The parks board report recommended the creation of five major parks: North Terrace and West Terrace, running along the bluffs, Parade and Grove Parks, in the city, and Penn Valley Park, partly outside city limits, taking advantage of the city’s “diversified andParks plan intricate topography,” as the Times put it. All are still in existence. In addition, four smaller parks were proposed in highly populated areas, including “High school square” in a block currently occupied by Kansas City’s city hall but at the time by the public high school and Humboldt School. All but one of the smaller parks still exist, in some form. To connect the parks and define neighborhoods, the board proposed a system of six parkways Parade and Paseorunning around and across the city, including Independence Boulevard, Linwood Avenue, Grand Boulevard, and the Paseo, which in the board’s vision ran from 9th to 17th Streets, “somewhat after the design of Drexel boulevard in Chicago,” connecting Independence Boulevard with the “handsome residence territory” to the south.

The famous architect Frederick Olmstead envisioned creation of a “series of large scenic parks,” more or less on the model of New York’s Central Park, but the board demurred: the largest proposed park, North Terrace, was only 150 acres; a large scenic park would have to wait while “other special and urgent problems,” no doubt including financial stringencies, were dealt with. The city’s scenic Swope Park, with almost 1800 acres, over twice the size of Central Park, was donated to the city three years later, in 1896.

After publication of the board report, public debate got down to the basics of property acquisition, government power, and money. Kessler, who had returned to his job, was authorized to determine what property had to be acquired to realize the board’s plans.

The newspapers cranked up their support for the project, the Star publishing an interview with a businessman who’d left Kansas City out of frustration at what he called “the obstructive tactics of the large property owners who had lived here for years and who thought that the Indian paths and cattle trails which were here when they first settled Kansas City should be perpetuated under the name of streets. […] Life was too short to wait for the construction of parks and boulevards in a city so noticeably lacking in public spirit […].” Sentiment in favor of parks and boulevards “is growing rapidly,” the paper reported with people who own property giving “enthusiastic commendation to the work thus far done.”

Details began to emerge of how the parks and boulevards would be constructed and financed. For example, there was controversy over how the new boulevards would be surfaced, with some favoring the wood blocks that prevailed elsewhere in the city. The board argued for a macadam surface;  appealing to comfortable middle class owners of horse-drawn carriages going to work in the city or out on a Sunday drive, they argued that macadam is the best surface for “light driving,” but – with an implied criticism of the city administration – it must be regularly maintained, which the city had failed to do High School Squarewith the few miles of macadam it had. In their plan, responsibility for boulevard maintenance would be the responsibility of three park districts rather than the city.

Carrying out the board’s plans would require acquisition of considerable privately-owned land, either by purchase or, failing that, condemnation, with the cost of acquisition paid by levies on property in the districts that would be presumed to benefit from the improvements.

The recently passed parks law, said the Journal, gave the board “unlimited authority” in condemning property in cases where the board and property owner cannot agree on a price, so naturally there were objections that the commissioners had been given too much power, but the Times put most objections down to those who always oppose public improvements “because they fail to see the value of any investment which is not in the shape of bonds, mortgages or real estate. Such men are generally opposed to building a sidewalk in front of their premises for fear that some citizen who has not helped to pay the special taxes for that purpose may walk upon it. They are opposed to paving a street except in front of their own residences where they personally need its use.”

Meyer addresses Commercial clubJudging from the response of the Commercial Club, representing most of the city’s businessman, such men were in the minority. The Club held several meetings on the parks plan, beginning with hearing from August Meyer, and Judge Charles L. Dobson, who had been involved in passage of the new parks law. Dobson explained how financing would work, using the example of a theoretical park costing $200,000 for property acquisition; paying for it would require an assessment of 1 per cent on assessed property valuation, with payment of the amount spread out over ten to twenty years: “He said that the cost would be so small that the owner of a small holding would not feel it at all.” In a subsequent meeting, the Commercial Club discussed the parks project “from a business man’s standpoint,” as the Journal called it, and passed a resolution approving the proposed system.

Using the current apex of technology, the stereopticon projector, Meyer demonstrated how various cities, including Birmingham in England, Paris, Glasgow and New York City had greatly increased the value of taxable property by similar projects. With the example of Chicago before them, many members having visited the city during the Columbian Exposition, the members passed a resolution unanimously supporting the project. “The city has been suffered to get into the ruts too much already,” the editors of the Times wrote in approving the Club’s vote. “There is rather too much inclination to hang back and let things take their course, instead of constant pushing, aggressive work to bring Kansas City to the front and keep her there. The time has come when steps must be taken to improve and beautify the city.”

The newspapers, Democrat and Republican, were united on the parks plan, if nothing else, although the Journal could not resist sniping at Nelson’s Star for claiming to be “the god-father of the park and boulevard movement.” The Journal claimed to be the first paper in the city to advocate for a park system, and did not advocate for a boulevard “that benefited no one but the owner of the paper,” referring to Warwick Boulevard which Nelson had used his influence to have constructed, running to his Westport mansion.

West Bluff terraceThe year ended with Kessler submitting a supplemental report giving details for carrying out the board’s plans. Typical of Kessler’s methods, the report contained what the Journal called “voluminous and carefully prepared maps, profiles and sketches” depicting types of plantings and recommendation for the provision of a nursery for trees and shrubs.

The Times, in its year-end summary, predicted Kansas City would soon have “the most complete and beautiful system of parks and boulevards of any city in the country.” Most of the board’s plans were indeed realized within a decade, but the members could not have foreseen demographic and technological changes that would see white residents in the twentieth century fleeing neighborhoods the board had done so much to enhance in the nineteenth, for distant suburbs enabled by the introduction of the automobile, displacing the cable car and rail system in which the city took soGateway to city much pride.

Nevertheless, Kessler and the board’s system of parks and boulevards remain more or less intact in today’s Kansas City. If the vision of a massive, neo-Gothic gateway to Kansas City at the West Bluffs was never realized and West Terrace Park partly erased by Interstate 35 north cutting through the area, today’s Kessler Park and the Cliff Drive Scenic Byway remain “unique and characteristic” features of the city, just as Charles Eliot predicted.

March 12, 2016