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One Day In The Park With George

February 2, 1904


Five times in the twentieth century, or about once a generation, the University of Kansas paid to have its future portrait drawn up in the form of a campus plan. By the 1990s, when there seemed relatively little left to plan within the University’s bounds, these plans became massive documents drawn up by dozens of people over several years.

But originally, when the University was just a little huddle of buildings around the bend of present-day Jayhawk Boulevard – when its future lay vast and unwritten in the blank prairie beyond – the whole affair was polished off by about three men, in about three months, on just a few sheets of paper. KU Chancellor Frank Strong just sat down and wrote a letter to George Kessler, the landscape architect who had planned Kansas City’s parks.

“Dear Sir,” Strong dictated on February 2, 1904. “We are intending to improve our campus in the near future. Would you care to come to Lawrence sometime soon and look over the ground and consult with us in regard to the matter? Please let me hear from you at your earliest convenience.” That was it. By May Strong was writing the thank-you note, and presumably a check; he had received Kessler’s plan “some time ago,” and “liked it very much.” This plan was not only a model of bureaucratic efficiency, but also a blueprint for the campus so far-reaching in its vision that it would take the University decades to disregard it.

George Kessler became a landscape architect because that is what his mother told him to do. Back in Germany, George’s mother had married an heir who unfortunately listened to his family rather than his heart, and went into business rather than art. Serial failures brought George’s father to New York, Missouri, Wisconsin, Dallas, and an early grave. The Widow Kessler saw in her boy the same artistic inclinations and decided it would be different this time around – the family would impose an entirely different career on George. It was landscape architecture, blending the love of natural beauty with the discipline of engineering, and it worked out pretty well.

George studied and traveled in Europe, then returned to the United States to look for work. Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, turned him down for work in New York but referred him to a job in Kansas City. So in 1882, at the age of twenty, George found himself back in the booming Midwest, a fittingly energetic young man who would be compared in looks and ambition to his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt. Kessler started with the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Gulf Railroad – designing stations, laying out a tree farm for ties and poles, and even building a successful amusement park in suburban Merriam to generate local traffic for the railroad.

But Kessler sought bigger fish to fry. He opened an office in Kansas City, took on freelance jobs like the refurbishment of Hyde Park, and angled to become landscape architect for the new parks board. He landed the job partly by landscaping the home of the board’s first President, August Meyer. Kessler and Meyer together wrote the plan for Kansas City’s now-famous system of parks and boulevards, starting in 1893. The parks expanded as the city grew, and have often been considered Kansas City’s crowning feature. Other cities such as Denver, Memphis, Houston and Dallas sought out Kessler to recreate his success in their cities.

The University of Kansas was thinking along similar lines when it contacted Kessler in early 1904. His drawings for KU that spring were a relatively minor job for him, but they began a professional relationship between Kessler and KU that would last until the landscape architect’s death in 1923. But if Kessler was the first professional to plan the KU campus, there had of course been amateurs who preceded him.

For example, Walter S. Hall, a sophomore engineering student at KU, had drawn a verbal picture of KU’s future for the commencement edition of the Kansas University Weekly in 1899. Hall had an economic stake in Mount Oread – he was working his way through school by operating an eating establishment with his friend William Reynolds (’00). Just east of Fraser Hall, this social hot spot was known variously as The Oread Cafe, Billy’s, and The Dog House, though the proprietors had dubbed it The Eatomobile.

The crux of Hall’s plan was a road of “granitoid” pavement looping out 600 yards west of the existing campus, all around the edge of Mount Oread. Along its outside, Hall proposed a low stone wall with iron “points” bearing electric lights; this would frame the campus, decorate the drive, and keep the cows out. New buildings would hug the drive’s inside, leaving space in the center for a grassy “parade.”

Though the campus was clearly growing westward, Hall also begged purchase of “a point of land extending southeast from the Physics building, which still bears the marks where the sturdy, self-reliant Kansas spirit stood entrenched ready to meet an invading and lawless foe.” These “bands of earth” still marking the the modest Free-State fortifications of the Civil War era could be “sodded over” to preserve them, perhaps with a monument as well, or even a memorial building.

On a practical level, Hall may have overestimated Mt. Oread’s width. But his circumferential roadway would have provided vehicular access to every campus building, as well as an intimate pedestrian park at the campus’s core. The views looking down from the University and up at it would be equally impressive.

On a deeper level, Hall’s imagined campus – buildings close against a spiked wall, looking outward and downward, with a yard in the middle – was like a proper fort writ large. Though by then Kansas had no need of a military fort on Mount Oread, Hall called for the creation of a strong point of esthetic and intellectual enlightenment. Nature had compensated bare, windy Mount Oread with “brightness, hop, energy and command,” so a fitting campus there would “typify the bulwark of our state, not by parapet and wall; but by true brightness and beauty.” The preserved fort was no afterthought for Hall; as a memorial it would expand to encompass the whole University.

There is no sign that Walter Hall’s plans left any impression beyond that day’s newsprint. Fragments of campus would accidentally echo him: bits of wall, Memorial Drive, a proposed pedestrian way at its “natural’ location behind Wescoe, a distinction between round-campus vs. through-campus streets. But the campus developed with no border, no drive all around it, and no view from most vantages once trees overgrew the hill. The alternative to a loop was a central street running along the ridge. Such a path had begun with the Oregon Trail, and developed further with KU’s initial campus layout. It would become formalized in Kessler’s 1904 plan.

In fact, both Kessler and Hall had imagined a road encircling the main topographical feature, but the two planners were looking at different features. For Hall it was the hilltop, but for Kessler it was the double ravine-bowl north of the hill, from present-day Marvin Grove and Potter Lake down to present-day Memorial Stadium. Kessler fell in love with this heart-shaped cavity, and he lavished it with a pond, a Mall, a Grand Court, a driveway going round it and an elaborate walkway right up its center. He even fringed it with a college campus.

KU’s first campus plan was not really a campus plan. Kessler was still at heart a park planner, and what he offered KU was a park. To the 10 existing major buildings comprising the campus, Kessler added only eight. And none of these, except the already-imminent Green Hall (now Lippincott) was ever built where he proposed, though a Strong-like hall was drawn more grandly across the street, and the western rim did eventually become dormitories and “club houses.” A more modest pond was indeed built (present-day Potter Lake), though its original function for fire-suppression purposes made its placement unnaturally high on Mt. Oread’s brow, to be close to burning buildings.

Kessler may have actually eaten in the café owned by Hall and Reynolds, since it was almost the only place that served food on campus. In any case the “Dog House” was not in the drawings under any name. While Reynolds stayed on to run the cafe until 1911, Hall left for a career in the chemical and metallurgical field. He was supervising the construction of a new smelting plant in Illinois when pneumonia suddenly killed him in 1912. He had married a KU girl one year his junior, Louise Haynes, with whom he had a son. Louise returned after a generation to a very different KU campus, where in the spring of 1927 she received a graduate degree on the same day Walter Jr. earned a BS in engineering like his father.

By 1904 George Kessler was already developing for Kansas City the deepest emotion of all, love-hate, and was splitting his time and letterhead between there and St. Louis. He had helped design the St. Louis World’s Fair that opened that same spring of 1904. In 1910 he moved to St. Louis for good, and was buried there in 1923.

Where other cities sought him out, Kessler felt he was always chasing after his hometown to give him due credit. “Kansas City,” he wrote in 1917, “is the only one of the cities in which my service has been taken as a matter of course . . .” Perhaps he was sore because earlier that year a former president of the Kansas City parks board had publicly credited Frederick Law Olmsted with planning the Kansas City parks, feeding a persistent legend. Kessler also quarreled and broke with Henry Wright, the draftsman and planner who actually drew the handsome KU plans (though most published copies deliberately obscure his signature), and who went on to a distinguished career planning and writing about housing.

But Kessler maintained his professional relationship with KU and with the father-and-son firm of Hare & Hare that was designing new plans for KU when he died. Chancellor Lindley had requested that Kessler approve of any new plans, and mourned the architect’s death as a “serious loss . . . he had not completed his work here.”

As for the original Kessler plan, elements of the proposed park survive around Marvin Grove, the Campanile, and Potter Lake, and graduating students march down an informal version of Kessler’s walkway. But the lower half is more parking than park, Spencer Museum nibbles at the east, and more building is planned for the west. Over the decades KU did build in a U shape all around the park, but then went far beyond. In fact in the long view Kessler got it wrong.

Since 1866, KU had been developing in a meandering ray from Old North College to the southwest. Kessler left Old North off his plans, and put an odd-looking building like a Great Wall on the southwest of his campus, as if to corral growth in that direction back north around the park. Jayhawk Boulevard almost, kind of, sort of obeys him still, neither running southwest nor swinging north around the park but just ending there in that corner. But the majority of campus would eventually be built out in that blank-paper prairie beyond.

Robb Campbell

Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Strong to Kessler, 2 February 1904 and 9 May 1904, KU Archives; William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement in Kansas City; Jane Mobley and Nancy Whitnell Harris, A City Within a Park: One Hundred Years of Parks and Boulevards in Kansas City, Missouri (Kansas City: Am. Soc. Landscape Architects, 1991; Hall obituary: Graduate Magazine vol. 10, no. 8 (May 1912), p. 317; 1928 Alumni Directory (Bulletin of the University of Kansas vol. 24 no. 14, 1 August 1928); The Campus Plan: The University of Kansas: a Framework for Campus Renewal and Physical Development (KU, 1997).]