KanColl: The Kansas  
Historical Quarterlies

The Amateur Plans a City

by Wallace S. Ballinger

February, 1943 (Vol. 12, No. 1), pages 3 to 13.
Transcribed by lhn;
digitized with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society.

     MUCH has been written of the father of the Santa Fe railroad. There can be no question that his achievement in railway pioneering justifies it. When the full stature of Cyrus K. Holliday is finally taken, however, much of it may be found to depend upon his genius in an art for his day nearly forgotten and almost unrecognized.

     The planning of cities in some form or another had been practised ever since men first gathered to build communities; at certain periods, such as those of the Roman empire or the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries in Europe, the art assumed the proportions of a super-architecture. L'Enfant's plan for Washington had already established a precedent on American soil. Paradoxically, however, the era of America's westward expansion, one unprecedented for city-founding, had only novices and surveyors to determine the form of its projected cities.

     Cyrus K. Holliday was a novice at city planning. So were his collaborators in the founding of Topeka, a handful of youthful farmers, merchants, and craftsmen from the East. All played their indispensable parts in the furthering of the enterprise. On the other hand, when Holliday in the fall of 1854 stood with his companions upon a low hill overlooking the Kansas river and dreamed with youthful exuberance of the metropolis he would fashion there, he bore an endowment destined to make him their leader in giving to the city some degree of artistic form.

     The farm of Holliday's boyhood near Carlisle, Pa., had bestowed upon him an acute sense of the soil, of wind, water, and drainage. The time of his birth, April 3, 1826, was one bright with the promise of a newborn nation, filled with the pioneering spirit of men who sought in ancient Athens the precedent for their enterprise. The boy Cyrus was alive to the spirit of his time; with increasing eagerness he yearned to follow Horace Greeley's counsels to seek his fortunes in the West. His education at Allegheny College in Meadville had equipped him with a professional knowledge of law, invaluable to one destined the rest of his life to deal with men and affairs. Encouraged by the trust of the bride left behind until he could prepare a home for her somewhere on the frontier, himself


brimful with confidence over the success of his first business venture, the development of a small railroad in western Pennsylvania, and his pockets bulging with the twenty thousand dollars he had received for the sale of his share in that venture, Cyrus Kurtz Holliday was ready at the tender age of twenty-eight to conquer the frontier.

     Young Holliday was keenly alive to the merits of the spot upon which he and his companions had come. Below them lay the Kansas river and the Shunganunga creek, ample for water supply, potential arteries for flatboat trade. The hill on which they had stopped was fully adequate for drainage; it was sure to catch the summer breezes. Fertile farming land stretched along the river valley, ideal for potatoes. Bountiful grazing soil extended beyond the river over the uplands. Timber was scarce on the surrounding prairie, to be sure, but clay for brick was close at hand, and sand and building stone as well. Best of all, for these were the early days of Romanticism, the "pure and picturesque" view from the hilltop seemed fit to inspire an Emerson or a Kensett. Thirty years afterward, in fact, one of the pioneers who stood with Holliday that day was moved still to comment that "Topeka was a beautiful place before there were houses here, whether it be since or not." [2] And Holliday himself, glowing with the warmth of his hopes, wrote back to his wife in Meadville:

     ...in a few years when civilization by its magic influence shall have transformed this glorious country from what it now is to the brilliant destiny awaiting it, the sun in all his course will visit no land more truly lovely and desirable than this. Here, Mary, with God's kind permission, we will make our home. [3]

     It was no mere accident that led to the choice of site for the city that was to become the home for Holliday's railroad and the capital of the new state of Kansas. Neither was it accident that determined the initial layout for the project. As president-elect of the new Topeka Association, organized December 5, 1854, Holliday's first task was to make the survey for the city. Available for the purpose were only the crudest of instruments-a pocket compass, two pieces of rope, and several sticks torn from bales of supplies-but little more


was needed, since in the course of platting the streets the founding fathers under Holliday followed simply the lay of the land over which they walked.

     The initial plat under Holliday provided the basis for a regular survey begun two weeks later by A. D. Searl of Lawrence, fixing with greater exactitude what the members of the Topeka Association had already platted and laying out additional blocks in conformance with it. The main artery, Kansas avenue, was made to follow the gentle rise of the ridge of the hill itself, and each parallel or intersecting street to lie only where the grade was easy and the drainage free. When a year later the federal survey came to be made, the professional surveyors disclosed triumphantly what they declared had been a serious error in the original plats by Holliday and Searl: Instead of drawing the streets due north to south and east to west to accord with the federal division of the land into mile-square sections, Holliday had traced the longitudinal axes with a deviation of no less than 18°40' east of true north, or a point about midway between north by east and north northeast. Too late then to start anew, since many settlers had arrived during the interim and much building begun, the Holliday design remained the basis for all real estate developments in the original town and even the first additions. However convenient for the surveyor the federal practice might have been, the truth of the matter was that Holliday cared more for the immediate realities of the site than he did for the mechanical accuracy of a government plat; and the practical consequences of the founder's acumen account for two of the city's foremost distinctions today. The first distinction is excellent drainage. Under the downpours which drench Topeka every spring, the newer additions, laid out mechanically according to the cardinal points of the compass in order to parallel the federal section lines, [5] suffer badly flooded streets, but the original nucleus of the town sheds the surplus water with constant efficiency.

     The second distinction is favorable orientation, an advantage which becomes readily apparent when one notes the climatic features of the locality. Sunlight is abundant, no less than sixty-two percent of a hypothetical maximum. Characteristic of the latitude is the course of the sun in winter, farther to the south than during


the summer months. Prevailing winds come from the south and are usually moderate in temperature, but hot winds originate in the southwest and during June and July bring severe heat waves with them. A cold wave in January or February, on the other hand, nearly always descends from the northwest.

     We know that Holliday with the background of his boyhood on a farm was keenly conscious of the local peculiarities of the weather. In a letter to his wife, dated January 7, 1855, he commented upon the sunniness of the Kansas winter and Speculated over the probable warmth of the summer, observing that a constant breeze which people had assured him would continue to blow through the summer months would do much to relieve the heat. [6]

     With all of this weather wisdom, Holliday perhaps wrought better than he knew in determining the orientation of the principal streets. Modern practice in the planning of housing developments and individual residences finds the original nucleus of Topeka ideal for exploiting the local climate for maximum living comfort. Built on the westerly side of any street which follows the north-northeasterly axis and facing it, or on the easterly side of the same street and facing away from it, a modern house can be so designed as to open mainly towards some point south of east, thus gaining a major share of the winter sunshine and the summer breezes. Insulated on the opposite side, the same house has full protection against the winter winds and the summer sun. The consequent economies in fuel consumption would be considerable. Such subtleties of orientation were probably unknown or merely guessed at in Holliday's time, but the facts remain that the Chase cabin, first building on the site of the town, was made to open on what became the westerly side of Kansas avenue, with an orientation thus approaching the modern ideal, that the westerly side of Kansas avenue and other parallel streets in the city has always been considered the preferable side of the two, and that such streets have always been favored for building frontages over streets following the west-northwesterly axis.

     The blocks defined under the direction of Cyrus K. Holliday were generous in their areas, each occupying three and one-third acres; the twelve lots contained by each block were similarly spacious, seventy-five feet to the front and one hundred and fifty feet to the side; but the most liberal specification of all was that for the width of the streets: seven main arteries of traffic with a right of way of one hundred and thirty feet; other streets on a north


northwesterly axis, with one hundred feet; and the remainder, with eighty feet. The bigness of Holliday's units made him the butt of ridicule. People failed to see why a town on a prairie needed to spread out so when there was already too much open space around. As the town expanded and the traffic increased, they soon came, on the other hand, to see the wisdom of Holliday's provision for the streets. After the first World War motor traffic assumed such unforeseen proportions that even the expanses of Holliday's avenues became increasingly inadequate, until finally one by one most of these arteries had to be widened at great cost.

     It was this very amplitude of the right of way in the early days, however, which provided occasion for making Topeka one of the shadiest cities in the whole region of treeless prairie. The city's first settlers were drawn mainly from Pennsylvania and New England, where the heavily wooded environment and the relatively milder summers had conditioned them to favor an active city-wide campaign of tree-planting in an effort to approximate as far as possible the homes from which they had come. This movement culminated in an ordinance of 1883 requiring a full quarter of each right of way to be set aside for flanking parkways, on which trees should be set out and tended by the owner of each abutting lot. Vigorous enforcement made it possible as early as 1905 to describe the entire residential district as "an umbrageous forest of stately elms and glowing maples." [7]

     One feature of Holliday's plan for Topeka none the less remarkable for the possibility that it was suggested by the presence of a park in Lawrence, that city founded in the summer of 1854 from which Holliday and his companions had embarked upon their municipal enterprise, was its provision for a town on the fenceless prairie of two reservations of twenty acres each to be used as "public gardens." There can be no question of the original purpose of such tracts, since Holliday at the very outset planned that they should be planted with shade trees and kept open for the free use of the community. [8] Not private estates nor the sites of city walls, which recent revolutions in Europe had converted to public pleasure grounds, [9] not "commons" for pasturage and marketing as utilized by the sev-


enteenth-century villager of New England, [10] not ornamental public squares such as Penn had inserted in his plan of 1682 for Philadelphia [11] nor "Palace Greens" and monumental "Malls" such as Wren had planned for Williamsburg in 1699 [12] and L'Enfant for Washington, D. C., in 1791, [13] not beer gardens such as Philadelphia sported as early as 1783, [14] not rural cemeteries which as recently as in Holliday's own lifetime had been converted by popular demand from weedy neglected abodes of the dead to embellished "picnicgrounds for the living," but community pleasure-grounds included in the plan of a town from its very inception-such formed the essence of Holliday's contribution to Topeka.

     The idea of a "public garden" of this nature was new to Americans, especially pioneering Americans struggling to conquer the frontier. [16] The idea seems to have originated with William Cullen Bryant, as recorded in a remark to his family in 1836. [17] A campaign in the periodicals of New York, waged largely by Bryant and the landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, eventuated in 1851 in the projection of New York's Central Park, the first of its kind in America, in 1856, nearly two years after the founding of Topeka, in the purchase of a site for Central Park, and, in 1858, in the final adoption of a design by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., and the commencement of actual work under him to apply that design to the site. [18] Topeka stood thus with the vanguard in the nineteenth-century park movement in America.

     The wisdom of including parks in the plan of Topeka was amply vindicated. The availability of one of the parks for state-house


grounds played in 1861 a prominent role in persuading the legislature to make Topeka the capital of the state-an eventuality which Holliday had actually anticipated from the start and had sacrificed his political prospects to attain. [19] When it was offered by the city for use as a campus, the other park became that same year the major inducement in attracting to Topeka a projected Episcopalian seminary for women. [20]

     However admirable its plans for housing, circulation, recreation or any other aspect of urban life, no city can endure without secure economic roots. This principle Holliday followed in his successful efforts to make the city which he had helped to create the seat of county government, the seat of state government, and the home of a college. This principle, as we have remarked, governed his advocacy of the site selected-the juncture of two waterways and two farming belts. It is true that river traffic lasted only ten years. It is true that there was insufficient drop in the bed of either stream to do much with waterpower. But a good supply of water for other purposes was always at hand, and the very gentleness of the grade in the valleys of both the river and the creek made ideal beds for railroads to build along. From the very beginnings of farm settlement the crops from the river valley and the livestock from the uplands seemed to demand a railroad through Topeka to carry them to their markets. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway was thus from the outset not only inevitable but certain of success.

     It is one thing to establish the roots for a city's economic prosperity. It is quite another to so plan the sites and functions of urban industry as to integrate them with the rest of the city's life. Colonel Holliday did both. From the very beginnings of his city until his death in 1900, he never ceased to push the fortunes of the second project of his dreams, a great railroad stretching from Chicago to the west coast of the country. He chose Topeka for its home, and in that choice guaranteed to his city the major basis for its future.

     Railroads often become as much of a curse as a blessing to any community they serve-cutting through its heart, disturbing its peace with the whistle and roar of passing trains, shutting out sunlight with their smoke, drenching the residential areas in soot, befouling the streams with waste from the yards and shops. Not so


the Santa Fe as its founder and president intended. The tracks he laid not through the town but along its eastern limits, where the prevailing winds would tend to carry the noise and smoke away from the community. The shops and yards he located similarly at the northeast corner of the city, on the edge of the Kansas river well below the city, where the current of the water would likewise carry waste away from the town.

     The planner of Topeka had envisioned an ultimate population of thirty to forty thousand and had planned for it in the initial areas included: 127 blocks occupying 684 acres, to which by 1870 had been added 122 blocks occupying 658 more acres. Again was Holliday's genius made manifest. By 1889 Topeka had reached his expected figure in population, with 35,622. Six years later, due to the depletion of tillable land in the vicinity, the Oklahoma rush, and the intervening depression, the population had declined to 30,I51.

     This loss, however, was not a serious one. Already the city had survived a civil war, two frenzied booms (1857-1858, I886-1888), and a catastrophic drouth. The thirty thousand formed a stable population which attested to the soundness of Colonel Holliday's judgment. Properly distributed, it would have composed within the area laid out for it by 1870 an ideally compact community; after deducting the average third of the area required for all other urban purposes, the remaining 895 acres would have accommodated the dwellings of the thirty thousand with a density per acre of only 33 persons, or, according to the average size of 4.42 persons to the family in Topeka in 1890, a density per acre of only 71/2 families. Topeka would have had at least in this respect the character of a modern garden city: Radburn, N. J., model "town for the motor age," has a predetermined density per acre of only half a family less.

     Cyrus Kurtz Holliday was an exceptionally able individual whose ideas of city planning were well in advance of their time. Thanks to him, no nineteenth century community enjoyed a more promising start than the Kansas capital nor came nearer to realizing in its later history the promises of its origin. Even Colonel Holliday, however, was "a child of his time." On August 12, I855, only nine months after the founding of Topeka, he wrote to his wife:

     I am offered a claim near Topeka with a good house upon it. I may buy it upon my return to Topeka and go to farming. I have rented my house


that I have in Topeka. You remember I told you last winter that it cost me some 35 or 40 dollars. I rent it for six dollars per month, or at the rate 0f 75 dollars per year. Pretty good investment. [21]

     The speculative impulse thus reflected colored every undertaking in nineteenth century America, and the development of Topeka, even at the hands of its founder, was certainly no exception. The area of the town in 1870 was far from being its area in 1895 when the population seemed stabilized at thirty thousand. During the great inflation of the later 1880"s speculative subdividers ran riot: The boom started with 23 new additions in 1886 and ended in 1888 with an all-time high for a single year of 69 more. It is true that many of these additions returned speedily to their original status as farmers' fields. But no one, not even Colonel Holliday himself, dreamed of limiting Topeka's size by law, a practice taken for granted in the modern garden city. Although the first president of the town association had anticipated a modest population and a modest area, he soon joined with the rest in welcoming every means by which the city could be enlarged.

     Under this gambling fever the form of Holliday's original creation steadily disintegrated. Subdivisions were laid out on the open prairie, hastily, carelessly, so that when the city came out to join them the streets rarely corresponded; awkward jogs were the result, and triangular waste spaces too small to build upon or even to make into usable parks.

     In the free-for-all scramble attending the city's expansion, some owners held their lots vacant for speculative prices; others, barred by no restriction, eager to increase the revenue on their lots, filled their 75-foot frontages with as many extra houses as they could introduce. Soon the numbering of the houses fell into great confusion; citizens were much exercised over the difficulty, and various solutions were proposed. A dentist who had bought his share in the city corporation with his lime-kiln, Dr. Franklin L. Crane, proposed the scheme which in 1887 was finally adopted. The blocks were replatted: Each original lot was divided longitudinally into three, and the new 25-foot frontages so created were each given a number. [22]


     Doctor Crane was proud of his solution to the problem. Actually through it, however, he put the stamp of official approval upon a scheme for unprincipled exploitation of land which produced in Topeka the typical curse of every American city: The 25-foot lot. Houses three rooms deep, dark, close, lacking in privacy, subject to fire, difficult to rent with anything better available, and consequently neglected in upkeep-such are the progeny of the narrow lot in Topeka as elsewhere in the country.

     Frye W. Giles, first treasurer of the Topeka Association and later its historian, touches another potential sore spot when he relates how, while he was on an extended visit, to Chicago during the first spring of the city's history, his colleagues on the town association induced a merchant to establish a general store in Topeka by presenting the newcomer with three lots adjoining that which Giles had selected for his home. When the unsuspecting city father returned "and for the first time looked upon the important accession of Mr. Jones' store, in the locality of his future home, it were idle to say his emotions were not somewhat stifling." [23] Already in 1855 the townsman knew the disastrous effects upon residential property values of proximity to a commercial or an industrial establishment. Zoning ordinances were not to make their advent, however, for another sixty years.

     Neither has a master plan for the whole city and the power to enforce it even yet been imposed. If everyone had been as able as Cyrus K. Holliday at helping to shape the city in which he dwelt, Topeka might have preserved much of its original organic form. Instead, under the anarchy practiced in the name of democracy during the closing decades of the century, industrialists built along both sides of the river, through the city and above it; they invaded the residential areas, even the city's "Park avenue," Topeka boulevard; the business district expanded, not compactly in all directions at the heart of the city, but in straggling fashion along two main thoroughfares, inviting the spread of blight; the city broke all bounds, piling out over the prairie in shapeless confusion, building on the low floodlands north of the river, hemming the Santa Fe shops with dwellings, bordering the railroad tracks with residences, tolerating squatters' shanties around the ragged edges of the town, over the open municipal dumps, along the banks of the river. Such conditions menace the existence of any city, however promising its beginnings.


     It is to the credit of Topeka's citizens today that they have consulted experts at the art of city planning which Cyrus K. Holliday and his fellow-founders practiced only as amateurs. These planners have been engaged to make a detailed survey of the city of Topeka. Perhaps through that survey and the consequent designing of a master plan to be followed in its reshaping, Topeka can achieve a form even more organic than that conceived by its founders in the closing days of 1854.


1. Lela Barnes, ed., "Letters of Cyrus Kurtz Holliday, 1854-1859," The Kansas Historical Quarterly, v. VI, pp. 246-248 (letters dated December 10, 17 and 24, 1854).
2. F. W. Giles, Thirty Years in Topeka: A Historical Sketch (Topeka, George W. Crane & Co., 1886), p. 20. Frye W. Giles was Topeka's first treasurer, first postmaster, and first banker.
3. Barnes, ed., loc. cit., p. 246.
4. Giles, op. cit., pp. 46-49.
5. With the single exception of Westboro, which was platted romantically in 1926 to form winding drives, containing terraces, and secluded courts. 6. Barnes, ed., loc. cit., pp. 250-252.
7. James L. King, History of Shawnee County, Kansas, and Representative Citizens (Chicago,-Richmond & Arnold, 1905). p. 157.
9. Mrs. M. G. van Rensselaer, "Frederick Law Olmsted," The Century Magazine, New York, N. Y., v. XLVI, No. 6 (October. 1893), p. 865.
10. Warren H. Manning, History of Village Improvement in the United States, quoted by Thomas Adams, Outline of Town and City Planning (New York, Russell sage Foundation, 1935), p. 120; Lewis Mumford, Sticks and Stones (New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1924). pp. 14, 29; Lois Kimball Mathews Rosenberry, The Expansion of New England (Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909), pp. 1-13, 28-29.
11. Adams, op. cit., p. I24; "The Voyage, shipwreck and Miraculous Escape of Richard Castelman, Gent." (1710), reprinted by Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., American History Told by Contemporaries (New York, The Macmillan Co., 1900-1929), v. I1, pp. 74-77.
12. Fiske Kimball. et al., The Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia (New York, The Architectural Record and F. W. Dodge Corp., 1935), pp. 360, 361.
13. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., "Landscape in Connection With Public Buildings in Washington," Papers Relating to the Improvement of the City of Washington (Senate Document No. 94, Washington, D. C., Government Printing Office, 1901), pp. 28-34.
14. Manasseh Cutler's description, 1783, quoted by Sarah Lewis Pattee, "American Parks a Century Ago," Landscape Architecture, v. XVII, No. 1 (October, 1926), pp. 29, 30.
15. Andrew Jackson Downing in editorials published in The Horticulturist, 1848 and 1849; republished in George William Curtis, ed., Rural Essays (New York. Leavitt & Allen, 1853 and 1857), pp. 144, 154-157.
16. William Solotaroff, Shade Trees in Towns and Cities (New York, John Wiley & sops. 1911), pp. 1, 2.
17. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Theodora Kimball, eds., Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architect 1822-1905 (New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons. 1922). v. 11, p. 23.
18. The Encyclopedia Americana, 1937, v. VI, p. 209; Samuel Parsons, Jr., Landscape Gardening (New York. G. P. Putnam's sons, 1896), pp. 255-294.
19. Giles, op. cit., p. 258; letters written by Cyrus K. Holliday from Wyandotte to his wife. July 14 and 24, 1859, Barnes, ed., loc. cit., p. 294.
20. Giles, op. cit., p. 184.
21. Barnes, ed., loc. cit., p. 264.
22. Note written by Dr. Franklin L. Crane under two clippings from the Commonwealth, date not indicated, one a letter to the editor protesting against the proposal to follow the "Philadelphia plan" in the renumbering of the streets, the other an editorial supporting Crane's alternative.-Clippings mounted in "scrapbook of Dr. Franklin L. Crane" (unpublished; presented to Kansas State Historical society, May 8, 1880), pp. 6, 7.
23. Giles, op. cit., p. 76.

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