Down­town Wi­chita build­ing fac­ing de­mo­li­tion had rich life for 109 years

The Wichita Eagle (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY TIM POT­TER

You prob­a­bly know the build­ing as a pop­u­lar down­town cof­fee shop that re­cently closed, if you ever no­ticed the build­ing at all.

It has never been the splashiest struc­ture in Wi­chita. It’s rel­a­tively plain, with a stucco face or func­tional brick, not or­nately pat­terned brick or stone. Some of the trim added over the decades is sag­ging.

But for 109 years, it has been serv­ing peo­ple down­town.

Now that the two-story, ob­long build­ing is fac­ing de­mo­li­tion to make space for a new devel­op­ment, it’s time to re­trace its his­tory and see how it re­flects Wi­chita’s past.

For more than a cen­tury, it has an­chored the north­west cor­ner of Dou­glas and Em­po­ria, in the heart of the his­toric East Dou­glas Av­enue busi­ness dis­trict. The build­ing spans 24 feet to the west along Dou­glas and stretches 131 feet to the north along Em­po­ria.

Ac­cord­ing to old news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, a prom­i­nent busi­ness­man, Fred Aley, built at least part of the cur­rent struc­ture in 1909, when Wi­chita was only about 40 years old. Cur­rent prop­erty records say the build­ing was built in 1920, but that could have been when it was en­larged. A photo taken around 1934 shows a build­ing that clearly matches the look and shape of the cur­rent one.

The build­ing ap­par­ently never had its own name, a name that lasted. It’s been called what­ever busi­ness was housed there.

Since the first con­crete dried in 1909, it’s held ev­ery­thing from real estate of­fices to a hat works, cigar shop and rooms for rent.

Most re­cently, it’s been known as Mead’s Cor­ner for the cof­fee shop that had been there since 2008.

In the 1990s, the build­ing housed a bar and restau­rant called Gil­bert & Mosley’s.

A decade or so be­fore that, it was a pri­vate club called JR’s

and an eatery called JR Mead’s. (The Mead name re­lates to the fact that the site is part of a tract of land known as J.R. Mead’s Ad­di­tion. Start­ing in the late 1860s, Mead was a pi­o­neer de­vel­oper of Wi­chita.) On the back, west side of the build­ing, you can still see the ad­ver­tise­ments for those busi­nesses painted in huge graph­ics, now faded.

Wi­chita ar­chi­tect and his­toric preser­va­tion­ist Dean Bradley says that com­mer­cial re-pur­pos­ing of the build­ing around 1979 — with the JR Mead’s break­fast and lunch place — was part of the spark that led to the devel­op­ment of the Old Town restau­rant and en­ter­tain­ment dis­trict.

On Tues­day, the Wi­chita City Coun­cil voted to let a de­vel­oper raze the two-story build­ing to make room for a fourstory struc­ture with 60,000 square feet of of­fice space and 10,000 square feet for store­front re­tail busi­ness.

Over the past cen­tury, the build­ing has housed a va­ri­ety of busi­nesses, in­clud­ing the New Lynn Ho­tel; City Hat Works; Blue Bird cigar, soda and candy shop; a shoe re­pair shop; a dry cleaner; a lunch room; and the New York Jew­elry Store.

The bustling cor­ner held all of those busi­nesses at the same time, ac­cord­ing to signs on the build­ing when it was pho­tographed around 1934, in the mid­dle of the Great De­pres­sion.

LIFE AROUND 1934

A copy of the circa-1934 photo, pro­vided by the Wi­chita-Sedg­wick County His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum, shows what life out­side the build­ing looked like then:

Eight sedans or coupes are di­ag­o­nally parked along the curb on Em­po­ria. The cars face south; Em­po­ria wasn’t a one-way street head­ing only north like it is now.

The cars have run­ning boards. You would step onto the run­ning board to get into or out of the mo­hair-up­hol­stered in­te­ri­ors.

Some of the cars sport wood-spoke wheels and tall, thin spare tires mounted above solid-steel rear bumpers.

In the circa-1934 photo, cars with run­ning boards weren’t the only ve­hi­cles trav­el­ing down wide Dou­glas Av­enue. Street car rails course through the street pave­ment.

Near the cor­ner en­trance to the build­ing, a man stands un­der signs that say “Rooms” and “Lunches.” He wears a hat and work over­alls. To his left, a man in dress slacks and a light-col­ored dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his el­bows, saun­ters west on the Dou­glas side­walk, ap­proach­ing the sign that pro­claims “Ci­gars.”

You can see part of the Henry’s cloth­ing store just west of the build­ing — and part of a huge Flor­sheim shoe sign. That Henry’s build­ing is long gone. It gave way to a park­ing lot.

In the same photo, there’s a taller Wilks Ho­tel to the north. It’s gone too, re­placed by a park­ing lot.

So the re­main­ing build­ing that dates to 1909 now sits by it­self.

EN­DUR­ING BUILD­ING

To­day, on the ex­te­rior, the build­ing looks es­sen­tially the same as it did in 1934. The south­east cor­ner re­mains an­gled.

The same metal cor­nice juts out from the flat roof — with the same dec­o­ra­tive band just be­low the roof line. The band still holds 71 pressed-metal plaques, each with a re­peated flo­ral de­sign.

Orig­i­nal stone blocks re­main above and be­low the tall, wide sec­ond-floor win­dows.

But the face of the lower level has changed sig­nif­i­cantly. The 1934 photo shows a light shade of stucco. That’s been re­placed by red brick for years now. The bricks cover holes that once held mount­ings for the pro­trud­ing signs in the 1934 photo — the kind of vin­tage signs that are hotly col­lected now.

While the 1934 photo gives a snap­shot of life out­side the build­ing dur­ing the De­pres­sion, an ear­lier map fur­nished by the his­tor­i­cal mu­seum shows how the build­ing fit into the down­town fab­ric in 1914. That’s around the time World War I be­gan.

When the so-called 1914 San­born Map came out, it iden­ti­fied the Dou­glas and Em­po­ria cor­ner build­ing sim­ply with this la­bel: “Con­crete Con­str’n.”

The map also notes a “Mo­tion Pic­tures” prop­erty a few doors to the west along Dou­glas and an­other “Mo­tion Pic­tures” busi­ness a cou­ple ad­dresses to the east.

There’s a “Black­smith & Wagon Shop” — au­to­mo­biles were still rel­a­tively new then — a few al­ley­ways to the north­east, and feed­lots just east of the black­smith shop.

MAN BE­HIND IT

The Ea­gle sought out Jim Ma­son — a lo­cal his­to­rian and au­thor who has col­lected vin­tage post­cards to help tell the city’s his­tory — for pieces of the build­ing’s past. From brief news­pa­per ar­ti­cles kept elec­tron­i­cally by the Kansas His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, Ma­son learned that Aley built a two-story struc­ture at Dou­glas and Em­po­ria in 1909.

Aley, around 43 at the time, had talked of build­ing a six-story build­ing but got no fur­ther than the sec­ond floor, the old clip­pings say. Ac­cord­ing to Ma­son, Aley built other build­ings down­town and served as su­per­in­ten­dent of a pri­vately owned wa­ter util­ity.

From his re­search, Ma­son learned that Aley was born in Illi­nois and first vis­ited Wi­chita in 1877, when he was 11. He died at 75, in 1941. He lived in the 400 block of North Foun­tain, in a stately Col­lege Hill colo­nial built in 1923, ac­cord­ing to tax records.

He had be­come pres­i­dent of the Wi­chita Per­pet­ual Build­ing and Loan As­so­ci­a­tion, an ironic name con­sid­er­ing his Dou­glas and Em­po­ria build­ing won’t be per­pet­ual.

What is hap­pen­ing to his build­ing is what hap­pened to the build­ing it re­placed. To make room for what was then his mod­ern “con­crete con­struc­tion,” a wood-frame gro­cery store with a false front was torn down. The gro­cery store dated back to Wi­chita’s pi­o­neer days, Ma­son said.

So there’s a long his­tory of East Dou­glas busi­ness dis­trict build­ings com­ing down so oth­ers can go up.

Still, some think the build­ing should be pre­served be­cause it has been a part of down­town for so long.

For­mer City Coun­cil mem­ber Sharon Fearey, who op­poses the de­mo­li­tion, said it makes her want to quote the late, long-time his­toric preser­va­tion­ist Jim Guy with this:

“Once they’re gone, they’re just gone for­ever. We’re not try­ing to save all the old build­ings.

We’re only try­ing the save the ones we have.”

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