Downtown Historic District
Downtown Emporia was designated a Federal and State Historic District in 2012, thanks to the efforts of Emporia Main Street staff and volunteers. The Downtown Historic District isn't just a destination, but also a symbol of our commitment to sustainability, entrepreneurship, preservation and community pride expressed through reinvestment in our unique community assets.
The Downtown Historic District encompasses 18 city blocks, centralized around the intersection of 6th Avenue and Commercial Street. The district is home to a number of two- and three-story Italianate-style buildings from the 1860s, built soon after Emporia was founded in 1857. The 600 block of Commercial Street features the dazzling Granada Theatre built in 1929 Spanish Revival style architecture, as well as two Gothic Revival style churches.
A Brief History of Emporia
by Christy Davis, Davis Preservation
Emporia, the county seat of Lyon County is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, at the junction of the Cottonwood and Neosho Rivers. The area was the traditional home of the Kansa and Osage Indians. In the 1840s, following Indian Removal, the area also came to be home to the Sac and Fox Indians of Mississippi. Charles Withington, the first Euro-American to live in the area, arrived in 1846 and worked as a gunsmith for the Sac and Fox.
Breckenridge County was established in 1855 by the so-called “Bogus Legislature,” which was dominated by pro-slavery delegates from Missouri. Permanent white settlers arrived in the Emporia area by 1855, founding a pro-slavery community at present-day Neosho Rapids.
By the time Emporia was founded in 1857, only three years after Kansas became a U. S. Territory, the territory’s allegiance had shifted, due in part to the influence of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which established a stronghold in Lawrence. Of the five members of the Emporia Town Company, four were Lawrence residents. The fifth, Preston Plumb, made his home in Emporia and thus earned the title of town founder.
George W. Brown, editor of Lawrence’s freestate newspaper Herald of Freedom, sited the town during a 10-day excursion. The town company purchased the land for $1800 from the Wyandotte Indians and named it Emporia ostensibly after a Greek market center known as “a place of great wealth and importance.” The original town plat stretched between present day 6th and 18th Avenues.
The new town grew quickly. In 1857, John Hammond built the town’s first building, a wood-framed structure on the northwest corner of 6th and Commercial that not only housed Hammond’s boarding house and a broker’s office, but also served as the town’s religious, educational and governmental headquarters. Other buildings, including the Hornsby and Fick store and the Emporia House hotel, soon followed. As soon as he arrived, Preston Plumb, who had worked for the Herald of Freedom in Lawrence, founded the Kanzas News (later Emporia News), which he used to promote the fledgling town. Physical ties to Lawrence were established with the founding of a stage line in 1857. The town’s culture was decidedly New England from the beginning, with a town charter’s strict prohibition of the use and sale of “spirituous liquor.”
Despite their historical connection, Emporia and Lawrence soon found themselves in competition. After Kansas entered the Union in 1861, the two vied to be the site of the state university. When Lawrence won its bid amidst controversy, it rallied support to designate Emporia as home to the state’s Normal College. The State Normal School (now Emporia State University), located north of downtown, opened its doors in 1865, the same year Emporia was incorporated as a village.
Railroad and Ranching
As an early, populous, relatively wealthy and historically free-state town, Emporia drew the attention of the railroads that built through Kansas in the years following the Civil War. When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe bypassed the traditionally pro-slavery town of Council Grove and made a straight line toward coal-rich Osage County, Emporia reaped the benefits. In 1867, Lyon County residents voted to issue $200,000 in bonds to lure the KATY Railroad. Soon thereafter, they voted an additional $200,000 for the Santa Fe. By this time, Emporia could long boast county-seat status, having beaten Americus for the title in 1860.
The town’s status as a transportation hub, coupled with its rich grasslands, made it an ideal ranching center. By the 1880s, it would become one of the largest cattle shipping points in the state. The agricultural diversity – the combination of ranching and farming – likely helped protect the local economy when grasshoppers destroyed the 1874 corn crop.
New Residents and a Thriving Downtown
By 1870, Emporia boasted a population of 2,168. The town’s population had more than doubled by 1880. Among the town’s new residents were hundreds of African Americans, many of whom arrived in the 1879-1880 Exodus. In 1879, 184 buildings were built to accommodate the town’s new residents and businesses. Among the businesses established during this time of expansion was Newman’s Dry Goods at 511 Commercial Street, which bought a building and began what would become a department store empire.
Like most Kansas communities, Emporia experienced an extraordinary period of growth during the 1880s. Among the public improvements were the construction of the state’s first waterworks, which tapped the Cottonwood River, the city’s first gas lights in 1880, the establishment of the city’s first street railway in 1881, electric lights in 1885, and a new sewer system in 1890. These public improvements were matched with cultural and educational advances. In 1882, the Presbyterian Church established the city’s second institution of higher learning, the College of Emporia. When the Whitley Opera House opened in 1881, boosters took to calling Emporia the “Athens of Kansas.” Between 1880 and 1886, the city’s population more than doubled to 9,107. By 1888, there was a solid row of commercial buildings between Fourth and Seventh Avenues. Among the major intact Italianate buildings from the 1880s is the Moore’s Block at 324 Commercial Street.
Automobiles, new technology, new buildings and good times
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, with editor William Allen White as its tireless promoter, Emporia took on the mantle of the ideal Midwestern town, a place that valued fairness, sanitation, moderation, and other progressive values. In 1906, Emporia boasted that it was the largest town (the population then was about 8,000) in Kansas without a saloon. Ornate buildings in the Richardsonian Romanesque and Late 19th/Early 20th Century Classical Revival Styles were built downtown, the majority of them on the west side of the 400, 500 and 600 Blocks of Commercial Street.
In addition to the downtown commercial blocks, a great number of imposing free-standing educational and institutional buildings worthy of the City Beautiful Movement were built in the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1904, the imposing new Neoclassical Post Office at 501 N Merchant was completed. In 1912, Emporia constructed a new high school. The new Junior High School, also an imposing Neoclassical structure, was built in 1925. The more subdued YMCA, which was built in 1916, became a center for Red Cross activities during World War I. The new courthouse at 4th and Commercial, completed in 1901, included a women’s rest room, a place where farmers’ wives and children could gather while they conducted business in town, which often consumed entire Saturdays.
Rest rooms would become less necessary as automobiles made trips to town less taxing. By 1907, there were already twenty-four cars on the roads of Emporia. Emporia boasted 8.5 miles of paved streets by 1910; and there were $60,000 in road improvements in 1915 alone. New highways, like U. S. Highway 50 (1926), which generally followed the historic route of the Santa Fe Trail, stretched from coast to coast and connected Emporia to Kansas City and Newton.
Ironically, in 1911, just as cars were becoming ubiquitous, Emporia installed electric street cars downtown. Other civic improvements, completed under the direction of Emporia’s new city commission/city manager form of government, including new water pipelines, were more practical. In 1913, after $60,000 in fire losses that included the destruction of the beloved Whitley Opera House, the city finally established a fire department. Unfortunately, firefighting was complicated by the growing community’s water shortages. The water problem attracted national attention in 1920 when the public utilities commissioner demanded that Emporians use no more than 4” of water in their baths.
By 1920, Emporia’s population had surpassed 11,000, 800 of whom worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. Among the first major downtown projects of the decade was the expansion and remodeling of Newman’s Department Store at 511 Commercial, which received a new façade in 1920. Boosters rallied to replace the Whitley Hotel, which burned in 1921; the result was the Broadview Hotel at 110 W 6th Ave, completed in 1923 at a cost of $400,000, raised from hundreds of stockholders.
The good times allowed benevolent organizations to raise money for those less fortunate. The Emporia Welfare Association, which raised money by selling wood, had purchased the property on the southwest corner of Fourth and Merchant for $60,000 in 1915. The association built a new Mission Style building on the lot in the 1920s.
Emporia was the first prohibition town in the world, prohibiting liquor in 1857 in the town charter. Emporia's prohibition laws preceded National Prohibition by 61 years. In the 1920s, it was difficult to hide an affinity for alcohol in this tee totaling town, where drug store liquor sales were reported in the local newspaper. In 1928, at the height of National Prohibition, the Emporia police reported 221 violations of the liquor laws.
The Depression brings civic improvements and scandal
The Great Depression was marked by a mix of civic improvements and scandal. For the first time since its founding, Emporia saw a decline in population in the 1930s. Despite hard times, Emporia boasted seven hotels, three movie houses, and three auto tourist camps by 1939. It was a division point on the Santa Fe Railroad. A federally funded water project to dam the Kahola Valley, begun in 1926, was finally completed in 1938. Downtown businesses remodeled to compete in an increasingly competitive environment. In 1932, the Hardcastle and Kenyon Building at 520 Commercial received a new Art Deco façade. Palace Clothing Company at 501 Commercial remodeled its building in 1940. The Civic Auditorium at 522 Mechanic, funded in part by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), opened in 1940.
The community that had honed a squeaky clean image for decades became embroiled in scandal in the 1930s. In 1933, Emporia financiers and Republican “financial dictators” Warren and Ronald Finney, aided by State Treasurer T. B. Boyd, were convicted of lining their pockets with forged municipal and school bonds totaling up to $1.25 million. Before it was over, Governor Alf Landon had called a special session of the legislature with troops stationed at the statehouse, Warren Finney had committed suicide, and the community of Emporia was disgraced.
World War II, the founding of Veterans Day, and community change
Emporia continued to have a national presence during World War II. The community’s best known citizen, William Allen White served on President Roosevelt’s Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which promoted the United States’ support (lend-lease) of Great Britain and other allies against Hitler’s attacks prior to the U.S.’s formal entrance into the war. White continued his tireless work for the war effort until his death in 1944. The civic fervor would continue after the war, when local shoe store owner Alfred King came up with idea to create a holiday for all Veterans. Emporia celebrated the first Veterans Day, in 1953, and the day become a national holiday the following year.
In the years following World War II, Emporia’s population rebounded, reaching 15,669 in 1950. In 1951, a flood devastated much of eastern Kansas, leaving $2 billion in damage and thousands of homeless Kansans in its wake. When area highways and rail lines were washed away, hundreds, including rail passengers, were stranded in Emporia. Officials called the flood “worst catastrophe that ever hit the Santa Fe Railroad.” The Red Cross converted the Civic Auditorium into a disaster-relief center. Although the floods caused millions of dollars of damage to roads, bridges, railroads and farmland, downtown was spared.
During the 1950s, commercial and industrial activities moved away from downtown. In 1952, the Chamber of Commerce established the Industrial Park on the northwest side of town. Among the businesses that located there were Dolly Madison, Iowa Beef Packing Plant, and Detroit Diesel. New industries brought new residents. Between 1940 and 1970, the population nearly doubled to 25,287. Despite the industrial and commercial development in the outskirts, new construction continued in downtown. In 1951, Lyon County completed construction of a new courthouse at 430 Commercial Street to replace the 1901 building. Emporia Masonic Lodge #12 built its Modern building at 424 N Merchant in 1952. Southwestern Bell built its new building in circa 1955 at 28 W 8th. And the new U. S. Post Office was built in 1959 at 625 N Merchant.
In 1980s, Emporia's population growth began to stall. As new businesses opened on the outskirts of town, many downtown businesses closed. As residents and businesses sprawled, downtown experienced a decline. The Granada Theatre, once a spectacular gem, fell into neglect and disrepair in 1970s, closing 1982. By the 1990s, Downtown Emporia had fallen far from its glory days.
In an effort to recruit new businesses and revitalize downtown, the City of Emporia established the Emporia Main Street program in 1991. The program has fostered a revival of downtown in recent decades. Many historic buildings have been rehabilitated, including the Granada Theater, which was rescued from demolition by dedicated citizens. In addition to historic rehabilitation, downtown has undergone streetscaping projects and several blocks of new commercial and living space have been developed. Emporia Main Street is leading the initiative to continue downtown revitalization through its 4-Point Approach of design, promotion, organization, and business enhancement.