Constitution Hall (Topeka, Kansas)
Constitution Hall, in Topeka, Kansas, is one of the most famous buildings dating from the history of early Kansas. It was a two-story building constructed between April and October 1855 of native limestone with a flat roof on the 400 block of Kansas Avenue, then in the center of Topeka's downtown, by brothers Loring and John Farnsworth. It remained uncompleted for a period. After its walls were plastered in October, those opposed to introducing slavery into Kansas Territory met in what became the Topeka Constitutional Convention which opened October 23, 1855.
Almost forty delegates, who all opposed slavery and the southern element in Kansas, met. At the time, the southerners controlled the legal government of the territory which committed many illegal acts. The element controlled by the northern immigrants into Kansas established their own government, which had no legal standing.
The convention produced what became known as the Topeka Constitution which the United States House of Representatives adopted in July 1856, but failed in the Senate by two votes. Parts were incorporated into the Kansas state constitution drafted in 1861.
Constitution Hall became the meeting place of the northern element's government and legislature. This legislature drew the wrath of the southerners in Congress, who asked President Franklin Pierce, a southerner, to intervene. In July 1856, Pierce dispatched federal troops led by Col. Edwin V. Sumner to disperse the Topeka legislature. The troops arrived at Constitution Hall on July 4. Facing soldiers with rifles, bayonets and a cannon, the members of the Topeka legislature were forced to disperse.
The government of the northern element continued to meet at Constitution Hall, sometimes storing supplies seized in southern communities in the basement of the building. By the early 1860s abutting buildings were constructed to the north and south of Constitution Hall making it part of a contiguous row of buildings. When Kansas became a state in 1861,Topeka became the capital.
Capitol of Kansas, 1863-1869
The new government planned a permanent capitol building but constructed a temporary facility in 1863 by remodeling Constitution Hall and some of the adjacent structures to create what became known as State Row. In an 1870s photo in the archives of the Kansas Historical Society, State Row occupies bays 11 through 21 and is easily distinguishable from other nearby structures.
Commercial uses, 1869-2006
When the last offices vacated State Row December 25, 1869, the buildings became home to several occupants including an arms dealer, mortuary, used book seller, pharmacy, jeweler, cutlery shop, furniture store, dry goods store, restaurants, offices and residential apartments and were remodeled extensively over the next 100 years making it difficult to determine which structures comprised State Row and which was Constitution Hall.
On July 4, 1903, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque in the sidewalk to mark the site of Constitution Hall. However, over time pedestrian traffic wore-down the details of the plaque, so leaders decided to mount it the façade of the building. The owner of the Topeka Cutlery Shop at 429 South Kansas Avenue volunteered to have it placed outside his shop.
However, there is disagreement whether the structure at 429 was actually Constitution Hall or a part of it. By the mid-1980s, the area around the cutlery shop was being abandoned for several reasons. In 1986, Cy Cohen, owner of the cutlery shop was murdered during a robbery and the store closed. Other businesses came and went, but none occupied 429 S. Kansas Avenue and by 1990, much of the 400 block had been razed with Cohen's shop facing the same fate due to its poor condition.
In the early 1990s, local historians and preservationists made an effort to rehabilitate the buildings of State Row but disagreed about the validity of saving the buildings. Some suggested that the block of buildings on the site had been gutted to the point that nothing of the original structure still existed and their effort failed.
Eventually, through further investigation of the building characteristics, the groups were able to determine that 427 and 429 S. Kansas Avenue were Constitution Hall and garner additional support. They formed the Friends of the Free State Capitol Inc. to preserve the building. Much happened in the first decade of the 21st century to ensure the building's survival. In 2001, the National Park Service added the two addresses to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
In October 2002, the National Park Service announced a planning grant of $7,500 to the Friends of the Free State Capitol. Later the City of Topeka presented a $27,000 grant to the organization to upgrade Constitution Hall's roof. In 2006, the Friends group sponsored a large mural that covers the fronts of some buildings of State Row to commemorate Constitution Hall and the 1856 dispersal of the unofficial territorial legislature. Finally, on July 15, 2008, Constitution Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Restoration efforts began in 2011 and will continue as funding becomes available.
- Fry, Steve (3 February 2003). "Location of Constitution Hall sparks rift". The Topeka Capital-Journal. cjonline.com. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
- "Constitution Hall, Topeka, Kansas". Kansas Memory. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
- Lambert, Don (22 October 2009). "Constitution Hall celebrates 154 years". The Topeka Capital-Journal. cjonline.com. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
- "Constitution Hall listed on historic register". The Topeka Capital-Journal. cjonline.com. 22 July 2008. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
- "Bleedng Kansas: Topeka—150th Anniversary of the Dispersion of the Free State Legislature, July 4, 1856 - July 4, 2006". Washburn University.
- Pollard, Jr., William C. (1997). Forts and Military Posts in Kansas: 1854-1865 (Thesis). Faith Baptist College and Seminary. pp. 153, 208.
- "2002 Network to Freedom Grant: Constitution Hall-Topeka" (PDF) (Press release). National Park Service. February 2002. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
- "A brush with history". The Topeka Capital-Journal. cjonline.com. 28 June 2006. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
- "Ghost Tours plans investigation". The Topeka Capital-Journal. cjonline.com. 1 October 2008. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
- Fry, Steve (3 December 2011). "Constitution Hall re-emerging on S. Kansas Avenue". The Topeka Capital-Journal. cjonline.com. Retrieved 2014-06-18.