Historic Paseo Boulevard: How Did We Get Here?
By Diane Euston
When he put pencil to paper, sketching out these broadened streets amidst carefully placed shade trees, the thought was on future framework and infrastructure. These plans– these incredible designs– became the pathway for a city to grow from a shantytown into a beautiful metropolis.
George Kessler (1861-1923) was a visionary. One of his finest creations before the turn of the century was none other than The Paseo. And lately, The Paseo has been in the news due to its sudden renaming to Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. To understand why so many people in Kansas City are upset about this, we must take a walk down Kansas City’s first boulevard with 126 incredible years of history.
An Early Call to Landscape Design
Eduard Karl Georg Kessler, simply known as “George,” was born in Germany in 1862 and immigrated with his parents and little sister to America around 1865.
Kessler returned to Germany to study botany, forestry, landscape design and civil engineering. In 1881, he accepted a job in Johnson Co., Ks. designing a “pleasure park” for the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Gulf Railway in Merriam, Ks. Merriam Park became Kessler’s first solo run in landscape design. The 40-acre amusement park drew 20,000 people a day.
Kessler was commissioned to design the landscaping of the now historic Hyde Park neighborhood. He was gifted at making the natural curves of the land purposeful and accentuating them with benches, pathways, flowers and trees.
Kansas City’s First Landscape Architect
William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star, was a huge advocate for better sidewalks, streets, lighting, buildings and police presence. He, along with August Meyer, Kansas City’s first Park Board president, hired 30-year-old Kessler as the city’s first landscape architect.
“At a time when Kansas City was looked upon as a dirty cow town–which is mostly accurate–Kessler, August Meyer, William R. Nelson, and others sought to refine the city’s image by developing a park system,” says Jeremy Drouin, manager of Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.
After 18 months of planning, a 90-page report outlined Kessler’s careful execution of what was the future of Kansas City. “Kessler’s initial work, as outlined in the 1893 report, resulted in the city’s circulatory system that survives today and continues to serve as a central means of transportation within the city.” says Cydney Millstein, a preservation consultant, architectural historian, and principal/ owner of Architectural & Historical Research, LLC, in Kansas City.
The Paseo is the Center of the Future
The base of this movement, known today as “City Beautiful,” was the creation of three major parks: North Terrace (now Kessler Park), West Terrace, and Penn Valley Parks. He also penciled in Parade Park, a vacant wooded lot at 15th and Woodland, then known as the circus grounds.
The key to his development was in linking all of these parks into one larger system- and this was his vision of a complex boulevard system. At the nucleus of this system is none other than Kessler’s “premier boulevard,” The Paseo.
The Paseo, named after Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, represented the city’s shift from building roads as straight-up thoroughfares to building roads with elegance. This “crown jewel of the park system” would originally run from Independence Ave. to 18th St. where Parade Park would welcome people from the packed city.
Kessler’s design also included lacing Armour, Linwood, Independence, Benton and The Paseo Boulevards together to create easier access to the city. The design didn’t stop at a widened roadway of The Paseo; he planned “grass, fantastic flower beds, shrubs, winding walks and shade trees” that would “make the parkway beautiful.”
The Founder of “The City of Fountains”
Kansas City may have never been known as “The City of Fountains” without George Kessler’s vision of The Paseo. Kansas City’s first fountain was constructed in 1898 at 15th and The Paseo. Known simply as the “15th Street Fountain,” the design was based on the Latone Fountain in Paris.
At a cost of just over $11,000, this was the original fountain of the public parks system, predating any Plaza fountain by a quarter century. Unveiled in 1899, the electric fountain spewed water high into the air; however, its terraced jets and sprays became a hinderance with the gusty, unpredictable Midwestern winds.
It is said that the first level of this towering fountain was removed when a passing parade, including President Roosevelt, was sprayed by its water. One-by-one, the terraced jets and sprays of the fountain were removed. The fountain was permanently dismantled in 1941.
Today, the oldest fountain in Kansas City also graces The Paseo and was designed by Kessler and John Van Brunt. Placed in 1899, the 9th Street Fountain has been a part of the elegant landscape of this iconic boulevard for 120 years.
Kessler is a National Legacy
Kessler’s work can be found in 23 states. He designed the St. Louis Exposition Grounds for the 1904 World’s Fair. He worked extensively with cities such as Memphis, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Denver. After marrying and having one son, Kessler left Kansas City for St. Louis. He still worked in the area and even designed Longview Farm in 1912-13.
By the time of his death in 1923, The Paseo had been extended to the city limits just past Meyer Boulevard, named for his friend and colleague August Meyer. In 1896, bachelor Thomas E. Swope had donated 1,334 acres of land well south of the city. This donation of land assisted The Parks Board and Kessler in continuing the boulevards to the south so that this land could be linked into a larger system.
The Paseo made its trek from Independence Ave. all the way to 85th St. in the Marlborough community. Just shy of ten miles, this street has integral links to our history and how our city grew.
Historic Designation for The Paseo
In August 2016, the National Register formally recognized the “Kansas City Parks and Boulevards Historic District.” Signs along the oldest portion of The Paseo were replaced with brown markings of “Historic District” to honor this national legacy. These historic streets, according to the report, “serve as the backbone of Kansas City’s parks and boulevard system.”
The Push to Change The Paseo’s Name
Starting in the early 1980s, Rev. Emanuel Cleaver, founding member of the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), began preaching from his church at 55th and The Paseo for the name to be changed to Martin Luther King Blvd. This idea stuck for years to come, and as many large cities began to name streets after King, the SCLC began to advocate for renaming of The Paseo for MLK.
In April 2018, the Parks Board, the organization in charge of street naming and renaming, declined the suggestion to rename the historic Paseo for MLK. They pointed out that a 42-acre park already bears his name. In turn, the SCLC filed a petition with the city. They were required to get over 1700 signatures in favor of the name change. Part of the city charter states that in order to rename a street, even if commemorative, you must get signatures from 75 percent of the people who live or own businesses along the street in question.
Their hope was to get this to a citywide vote. They were not able to gather more than 100 signatures in support for renaming The Paseo.
The MLK Advisory Group Weighs the Options
The Parks Board requested Mayor Sly James form a committee to examine the options available to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. As the petition circulated in April 2018, James’ created the MLK Advisory Group.
The group talked to the community and sought out options for the appropriate memorial to MLK. Millstein suggested assigning “Dr. King’s name to a street indicative of the racial divide–west to east–that still defines our city.” In August 2018, the MLK advisory group recommended three: the new airport, 63rd Street, and The Paseo. But in the City Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee, only one option, The Paseo, was voted upon. Meanwhile, Sly James and other council members acknowledged they had received emails from constituents “critical of the project one way or the other.”
The City Council Votes
To the surprise of many, the city council voted 8 to 4 in favor of the name change on January 24. One of those who voted against it was 5th District Councilwoman Alissia Canady who was aware there was little support in this name change. Canady proclaimed, “I’ve received letters of opposition to [the name change]. That is of grave concern because the city ordinance as it stands now requires the petitioners get two-thirds of residents on The Paseo’s signatures.”
A Petition to Stop the Action
As a historian, I respect our city’s history first and foremost. This renaming has flared up in our city not because of renaming a street after MLK, but because they chose one of the most historic boulevards in Kansas City.
On February 25, I watched in confusion as the first signs went up to replace The Paseo with MLK Blvd. I couldn’t believe we had gotten here when there was opposition from the beginning.
So how can we fix what has already been done?
Residents along The Paseo filed a petition to halt the renaming of this historic boulevard. If over 1700 signatures from Kansas Citians registered to vote sign it, the issue will be put on the ballot.
A street named for MLK should be a great addition to our city, but it shouldn’t include erasing one of Kansas City’s historic boulevards.
To learn more about how to sign the petition, please go to “Save The Paseo” Facebook group or go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com where I will announce locations where I will be collecting signatures!
In order to sign the petition, you must be a registered voter and live in Kansas City, Mo.
Times available for signing:
Martin City Coffee – 131st & Holmes Rd., Friday, April 12, 5-7 pm