This past fall, the city was abuzz with the news of a new boutique hotel opening up downtown in 2017. Named for City of Topeka founder, Cyrus K. Holliday, the Cyrus Hotel and Holliday Public House will span across the former storefronts of 912-920 Kansas Avenue.
It’s part of the South Kansas Avenue Commercial Historic District, so certain parts of the properties must be preserved.
Edie Smith, director of marketing and membership at Downtown Topeka, Inc., says the developer plans to maintain some of that historical character.
With a wealth of local history resources available to me in the Topeka Room on the library’s second floor, I was able to locate a few snapshots in history of the commercial properties once housed in 912-920 Kansas Avenue.
How I dug up the history of businesses that thrived in the 900 block of Kansas Avenue in the 1920s
Within the cozy capsule of the Topeka Room, furnished with historically significant antiques and art, I located the library’s collection of city directories. I searched by street name in the 1920s, when most storefronts on Kansas Avenue were brimming with life and commerce.
In 1926, early motorheads and tinkerers would have felt right at home in the buildings of 912, 916 and 918 Kansas Avenue. They housed the Sunflower Battery & Motor Company, the J.E. Ward Garage and Shrake Electric Co., respectively.
By 1929, the properties had changed hands. Montgomery Ward would occupy 912 for years to come, and 916 was Bill’s Barbecue Restaurant. Our modern-day 900 block also features a barbeque joint, HHB BBQ, at 906 and favorite among my library office mates.
By 1933, however, the directory included far fewer businesses on Kansas Avenue, a result of the Great Depression is my assumption. For the buildings at the future site of the Cyrus Hotel, life went on. Montgomery Ward chugged through the hard times remarkably well, even managing to turn a profit before the end of the thirties. Its “green awning” retail store at 912 Kansas Avenue was one of 531 that opened across the nation between 1921 and 1929, after the company went from mail-order catalog sales to a retail store model.
In the thirties, you could get your hair cut by Lester L. Thieroff at 916 1/2 Kansas Ave or buy a pigskin for your football team from the H.B. Howard Athletic Supply.
While wading into the history of those buildings in the comfort of the quiet Topeka Room, I couldn’t help but wonder if the future guests in the Cyrus’s 79 rooms would be able to sense that history, the lives played out, the late hours spent over bookkeeping in the financially perilous thirties, women in long gloves trying on hats in Montgomery Ward, drivers in Model T’s honking out a robust “Ah-oo-gah”as they pulled into the mechanic’s, the locals jawing about the latest squabbles between legislators while getting a shave and a haircut for two bits (quarters).
The Cyrus Hotel wasn’t the only topic that engaged me while I spent some time doing research. While looking up locations on the National Historic Register in Shawnee County, I discovered that my rental in Holliday Park is on the register, and was once occupied by a married couple named Hubert and Maie Carpenter in the 1920s. After Hubert’s death, Maie took in boarders, probably leading to the eventual conversion of the house into two single floor units in the 1930s.
That’s the beauty of spending time in the Topeka Room. You’ll discover more than you bargained for. And your life could become richer in the process.
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On a chilly day in December, members of the extremely popular Facebook group, the Topeka History Geeks, came to the Topeka Room to explore its vertical files, directories, maps, yearbooks and plethora of other resources available to those Topekans with an insatiable thirst for local history.
Donna Rae Pearson, local history librarian, regaled the group with stories and information. Donna Rae, who is a skilled researcher with former ties to the Kansas Historical Society, admits that she, too, is a total history geek.
“I love history. I never thought it would become my life’s work,” she says. “History can change the community. If you understand the past, you can do better today and tomorrow.”
Donna Rae helps connect people to their personal histories to the wider history of a neighborhood, a city, a nation.
“If you understand the conditions people lived through, good and bad, you get a better idea of what you are capable of as a person,” says Donna. “And somewhere along the line, life just seems to make more sense.”