Prior to my recent visit to Topeka, Kansas, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about the place, other than it was the capital of a state that was smack dab in the middle of the country. All I knew of Kansas was that it had plenty of cornfields and tornados, and was the fictitious home of Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.” Oh, and I also recalled that there is a Kansas City in Kansas and one of the same name with greater fame in Missouri, right across the border. These paltry facts pretty much summed up the extent of my knowledge of number 34th in the United States of America. In a matter of just a few days, however, I gained new insight into a destination that to many outsiders is often erroneously perceived as flat and boring.
“Expect the unexpected” became my mantra during an April stay in Topeka, where I discovered the hidden gems that await visitors to this vibrant town. For history lovers, it’s a veritable mecca of significant sites and momentous events. Dominating the area’s landscape is the Kansas State Capitol, considered one of the ten most impressive capitols in the country. It’s an impressive building that measures 304 feet from the ground to the top of its dome and is characteristic of a Neo-classical/Renaissance design with a Greek cross plan. Construction of the monument began in 1866 and took 37 years to complete at a cost of $3.2 million. Made of Kansas limestone and copper sheeting with elaborate marble wainscoting and copper and bronze columns, the building is well-known for its dramatic array of art, architecture and colorful Kansas history. Notable features include rotunda murals created by David H. Overmyer, depicting memorable events and prominent individuals in the state’s past. Additional murals painted by well-known artist John Steuart Curry represent some of the finest public art in the country. 'Tragic Prelude' - an interpretation of John Brown and the antislavery movement in Kansas Territory before the Civil War - is considered one of the artist’s best works, while 'Kansas Pastoral' is an attempt at showing the more romantic side of the state’s agricultural features. Statues of famous Kansans can also be found throughout the building; some visitors might be surprised to discover Dwight D. Eisenhower and Amelia Earhart among them. Outside, on the capitol’s vast 20-acre site, are Robert Merrell Gage’s noted sculptures, 'Pioneer Woman' and 'Seated Lincoln'. The best way to experience this special building is via a free tour, with a guide who can help make the state’s history come alive.
Other not-to-be missed historical sites along what is designated as Topeka’s 'Freedom’s Pathway' include the John Ritchie House, Topeka’s oldest dwelling, and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site & Museum, which commemorates the 1954 end of racial segregation in American schools. At the Ritchie House, a simple, two-story stone vernacular building circa 1856, you’ll learn about ardent abolitionist figure John Ritchie, a friend of John Brown. Ritchie and his wife Mary Jane moved to Topeka to support the Free State movement during the pre-Civil War days that became known as 'Bleeding Kansas'. The couple collaborated with other Free State advocates to insure that Kansas would enter the Union free of slavery. They used their house as a station along the famed Underground Railroad to help runaway slaves seeking freedom in the Northern states and Canada.
The Monroe School, once one of four all-black elementary schools in Topeka, is the location of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site & Museum. The school was a focal point in the district court desegregation case that led to the monumental Supreme Court decision. Today, it is a fascinating, interactive museum full of displays, films, photos and other interpretive media aimed at examining the barriers African Americans faced while trying to receive a formal education from the early 19th century to the mid-1950s. Additional exhibits relate to the civil rights movement that followed in the wake of the landmark decision. Visiting this museum is an invaluable educational experience, which is sure to have a powerful, emotional impact on all who visit.
Train buffs with an appreciation for railroad yesteryear might want to head to Great Overland Station, formerly home to the Union Pacific Station. Today, the 1927 Neo-classically designed building is a museum and event centre dedicated to bringing Topeka’s railroad heritage to life through guided tours and special displays. Kids and adults alike will also enjoy Old Prairie Town, located on the Ward-Meade Historic Site, where they can explore a pioneer village and get a glimpse of what life was like in days gone by. Among the places of interest are both a physician’s and dentist’s office done in the style of the 1880s, complete with original instruments that, from today's perspective, are more akin to barbaric tools of torture. There’s a one-room schoolhouse, an old depot and caboose, an 1870s prairie mansion and even an old-fashioned, working soda fountain at the Potwin Drug Store.
History isn’t the only area where Topeka shines. The city has a thriving arts scene and if you happen to be visiting on a Friday, make sure you take part in the First Friday ArtWalk for an opportunity to meet local artists. Then make a beeline to the North Topeka Arts District or NOTO, a hip, newly renovated area featuring some of the town’s most historic buildings, which have been transformed into studios for local entrepreneurial artists. And when the great outdoors beckons and you want to commune with nature, Topekans will be happy to direct you to some of their favorite wide open spaces. Of note are Gage Park, a 160-acre playground and home to the Topeka Zoo, and Lake Shawnee, an expansive recreational area that prides itself on its spectacular, well-tended gardens and unique landscaping features. The place bursts with color in spring, when thousands of tulips bloom and folks come in droves to see this eye-popping display.
All this fresh air is going to make you hungry and if you’re smart, you’ll ask a Topekan for some restaurant recommendations. They’ll probably inquire as to what type of food you want because you can get just about anything and everything in this town. BBQ reigns supreme, however, and the Blind Tiger Brewery gets high marks in this category with its award-winning, lip-smacking barbecued meats and handcrafted beers. For the health conscious, there’s Blue Planet Café, where owner Linda Carson - locally known as Mama Linda - uses fresh, wholesome ingredients and ecological practices to keep green-friendly minds at peace. Topekans love their breakfast and it’s easy to see why Hanover Pancake House is always bustling. The portions are hearty and comfort food is the name of the game.
One of the best meals I ate during my stay was at the RowHouse Restaurant, an upscale establishment that occupies a stone building erected circa 1876, which is on the National Historic Register. Owner and Chef Greg Fox prepares creative six-course prix fixe menus with an emphasis on healthy, fresh and unexpected. He grows many of the ingredients and seasonings in his garden out back, infusing salads, entrees and desserts with just the right blends. The ambiance is cozy, the wine selection is extensive and all one has to do is sit back, relax and prepare to be dazzled by Fox’s culinary magic. Leave room for the trio of melt-in-your-mouth, miniature desserts like Lemon Cupcakes with Berry Puree and Cream Cheese, Crème Brulee with Pistachio Brittle and Mint Chocolate Truffle Cookies.
If you need more of a sweet-tooth fix, you’ll want to stop in at Hazel Hill, a family-owned and operated candy company that has an arsenal of treats guaranteed to make you drool with pleasure. The staff is used to the euphoric stupors on customers’ faces and they’re very patient while you agonize over your purchase. And as with most Topekans, they’ll probably strike up a conversation with you and you can bet their interest is genuine. After all, this is Kansas, folks, where everyone’s friendly and down-to-earth.