Spotlight on Topeka, Kansas

Last night I was in Topeka, Kansas, and took a quick tour this morning. Topeka is about twice the size of Terre Haute, and has a number of distinct neighborhoods, so it wasn’t entirely possible to see the whole of the city in one day, let alone the hour or so that I spent looking at the highlights. But what I saw in that hour was very impressive.
The first place I visited was Gage Park. This really is a lovely park with a variety of features, including fields, picnic tables, playgrounds, a rose garden, and even a little train.

Next, I visited the neighborhood of Potwin, northwest of Downtown.
The neighborhood is set apart by its brick streets and a series of traffic circles and islands that keep traffic slow without stopping it. The houses of this neighborhood are very grand, many of them Victorians but some later styles, including the Prairie Style house above that I really liked.Southwest 10th Avenue is sort of a monumental street in Downtown Topeka. Principal among these monuments is of course the Kansas Statehouse, which is lovely.Reflected across 10th Avenue is the Judiciary, which isn’t so lovely, but does reflect a bit of an American tradition of Brutalist administrative structures that is typified by the Boston City Hall. I guess you could say that it looks imposing or foreboding, which may be an image you want for a courthouse. Other monumental buildings include the Secretary of State and Topeka High School.Kansas Avenue is the traditional main street of the city. It is a very wide street, and would be uncomfortable if not for some great interventions along its path.Principal among these are a series of mid-block crossings. The sidewalk widens at these crossings to fill the parking lane, making it so that a pedestrian only has to cross two lanes at a time.The widened sections of the sidewalk sometimes include little pocket parks, with plantings, benches, trash cans, and information kiosks.Some also include public art, and a few of the merchants have set up cafe seating. I thought it was fun to find a Jersey-themed restaurant this far from home.Another interesting neighborhood I visited was North Topeka, or Noto, following the trend of concatenating names like Soho. Noto is meant to be an arts district, and had some fun galleries.

I really liked what I saw in Topeka. It has its shortcomings, like anywhere else; its edges are dominated by suburban strip retail, and even in the center, many of its commercial streets are too wide. But like any traditional city, it has some real jewels, and it didn’t take too long to find them. Although I’ve shown a lot of great spaces, I’ll finish with the best feature I came across.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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