Cover Photo: August Meyer was honored with this memorial at 10th & Paseo dedicated in 1909.
August R. Meyer: The Father of the Parks and Boulevard System
By Diane Euston
Kansas City’s extensive park and boulevard system would not have been the same without the vision and the power of a man whose passion involved embracing nature. When August Robert Meyer made his home in Kansas City in 1881, the 30-year-old quickly rose to the upper echelon of society. He used his words and wisdom to later convince the city to make its roadways more than thoroughfares–he wanted to make the city beautiful.
The Son of Immigrants
August Robert Meyer was born August 20, 1851 in St. Louis, Mo. to Henrich Peter Meyer (1815-1864) and Anna Catharine Kraft (1812-1898), both immigrants from Hamburg, Germany. His father was a very successful businessman in St. Louis and upon his death in 1864, he was one of the wealthiest manufacturers in the city.
After his father’s death, 14-year-old Meyer was sent to Europe to continue his schooling. He first attended school in Zurich, Switzerland, and later, when he found mining to be of interest, he transferred to the School of Mines in Freiburg, Germany. He graduated in 1872.
Striking Silver in Mining
After graduation, Meyer spent a few terms continuing his studies in Berlin and later traveled around Europe visiting some of the most prominent mines there. After gaining some of the best education offered in the world, Meyer returned to St. Louis in 1873. Seeking his fortune in the mining business, he moved for a short time to a coal mining operation in Illinois and landed in Colorado one year later.
In 1875, Meyer started an ore-crushing mill in Alma, Co. and struck it rich in the silver industry. He along with “Silver King” Horace Tabor founded Leadville, Co. in 1877. In 1878, he married Emma Hixon of Denver, Co. and built her a beautiful home in the heart of Leadville. This home, known as the Healy House, still stands as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Meyer sold the home in 1888 to Daniel Healy who used it as a boarding house.
Meyer was always attuned to the future, and when he studied the commercial prospects and the advantages of the newly-extended railroads, he saw Kansas City as the heart of industry and growth. In 1881, he moved to Kansas City and established the Kansas City Smelting and Refining Company in the Armourdale area of Kansas City, Ks. At the height of its existence, Meyer employed over 1,000 people at his company.
How to Build a Beautiful City
In 1880, the population of Kansas City was around 55,000. By 1890, the city exploded to a population just shy of 133,000. With this incredible growth in the 1880s came some serious challenges. Population was not an accurate measure of a city’s health, Meyer and others argued. There was more to it than that. “A city must attract with more than just tax concessions and columns of figures,” Meyer said.
An avid outdoorsman and nature lover, Meyer would oftentimes escape the congestion of Kansas City and his residence in the heart of the elite northeast area to take horseback rides in the rolling hills to the south. These escapes into nature inspired him to push the city to add beauty within the growing commercial, industrial and residential areas being built in record time. Meyer spoke passionately at meetings, promoting his “How to Build a City” paper that outlined what growing cities needed to do in order to include nature.
Many metropolises were beginning to see the necessity for integrating nature within the cityscape, and Meyer embraced this “City Beautiful Movement.” Along with parks pusher and Kansas City Star publisher William Rockhill Nelson, Meyer begged the government to add more parks and start planning a boulevard system. “Life in cities. . . has a tendency to stunt physical and moral growth.”
Kansas City’s First Park Commissioner President
In March 1892, Meyer got his wish when mayor Benjamin Holmes appointed him as the first president of the city’s new Parks Board. Holmes and Meyer worked together to hire renowned landscape architect George Kessler so that Meyer’s vision could become a reality.
The first meeting occurred March 15, 1892, on the second floor of the Livestock Exchange Building inside Meyer’s office. The first report released in 1893 promoted its central parkway, aptly named The Paseo, as the main artery of the parks and boulevard system. Meyer’s extensive travels were critical to some of the designs implemented; in fact, he personally named “The Paseo” after Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City and was the designer behind Penn Valley Park. These main features of the parks and boulevard system were laid out under the supervision of Meyer and executed by Kessler.
When a proposal for a special property tax was discussed in order to fund this large system of parks and roads, people protested the associated costs. However, the power of the Park Board, including the influence of Nelson and Meyer, were able to calm fears and have the tax pass in 1895.
A Move to the Middle of the Boulevard System
In 1896, Meyer and his family moved from 2806 Independence Ave., once the richest area of the city, to an eight-and-a-half acre estate designed by the architectural firm Van Brunt and Howe. This stunning, three-story, 35-room Queen Anne mansion made of brick and stone featured a grand staircase and entrance hall. His neighbor was none other than his longtime friend, William Rockhill Nelson.
This move from the northeast to the Rockhill neighborhood is said to have sparked an exodus of the rich moving west into the edifice of the blossoming parks and boulevard system that was linking the city to beauty while also creating thoroughfares that joined the city together.
His mansion, named “Marburg” at 4415 Warwick stayed in the Meyer family until 1927 when it was sold to Howard Vanderslice. It was then donated to the Kansas City Art Institute. Today, it’s called Vanderslice Hall, serves as the KCAI’s administration building, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
His Namesake in Kansas City
On December 1, 1905, Meyer died at the age of 54 from “a lingering illness” after developing a severe cold a month prior. He served on the Park Board for eight years and oversaw the development of the complex boulevard system we see today. He negotiated with landowners to get Swope, Penn Valley and North Terrace Park.
In June 1909, a memorial at 10th and The Paseo known as “the square” was erected in honor of Meyer. Its placement along The Paseo shows us even today the importance of this boulevard to our area’s history. An 18-foot high bronze marker reads: “Houses and shops are man’s/ But grass and trees and flowers/ Are God’s own handiwork./ Undaunted this man planned and toiled/ That dwellers in this place might ever/ Freely taste the sweet delights of nature.”
Meyer knew that boulevards stimulated growth and attracted upscale residences, so it was no surprise when the Park Board set to honor Meyer with his own boulevard. In 1910, The Board of Park Commissioners began planning Meyer Blvd. after acquiring land to the south. Meyer Blvd. is the southern link even today of the historical parks and boulevard system: the western portion links Ward Parkway; the middle section links in The Paseo; and the eastern section picks up the traffic and leads to Swope Pkwy. By 1913, the grading was finished, and in 1920, Meyer Blvd. was completed.
The Meyer Circle Sea Horse Fountain
At Ward Parkway and Meyer Blvd. stands one of the most iconic fountains in all of Kansas City. In 1922, this circular artery linking Ward Parkway with Meyer Blvd. was named “Meyer Circle.” In 1924, J.C. Nichols offered to donate a fountain in its center and pay for the installation if the city would pay for the landscaping.
The city eagerly said yes to the proposition; in turn, Nichols donated a 17th century sea horse sculpture that had stood in a Venitian square for over 300 years that he had purchased a few years earlier. Nichols hired architect Edward Beuhler Delk to create a fountain featuring this incredible sea horse sculpture made of Carrara marble. In 1925, the Sea Horse Fountain at Meyer Circle was turned on, featuring 28 sprays of water in a 100-foot circular park centered on an 80-foot pool where it has remained a central feature of beauty along the boulevard system.
Remembering Meyer Today
A prominent Kansas City businessman and civic leader, Meyer used his experiences in other cities across the nation and the world to transform Kansas City. His visions inspired real estate builders such as J.C. Nichols who continued the objective of adding physical beauty while building and constructing the city’s suburbs.
Working alongside William Rockhill Nelson and landscape architect George Kessler, these pioneers of city improvement worked to promote the need of a parks and boulevard system.
Meyer’s planning at the turn of the century has deeply impacted the way in which our city is seen today, and his ideas greatly influenced the residential character of our city for decades to come.
Diane writes a blog of the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.
August Meyer Monument at 10th and The Paseo. Photo courtesy of Kansas City Parks and Recreation
The Meyer Mansion named “Marburg” is now the home of the Kansas City Art Institute. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.
Same house, different view- courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.
August R. Meyer
Sea Horse Fountain at Meyer Circle. Courtesy of Kansas City Parks