Published August 15th, 2022 at 2:35 PM
Picnics, birthday parties, ball games and exceptionally nice days are all elements that might bring someone to one of Kansas City’s 200-and-some parks.
The peaceful greenspaces might seem ubiquitous in the city of fountains, but the acres of parks Kansas Citians know today weren’t always there.
Lisa, a Flatland reader, asked, “What was Kansas City’s first City Park?”
To answer Lisa’s question, we went straight to the source: the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.
Kate Warfield, the department’s archivist, said while the answer isn’t quite that straightforward, she usually names Kessler Park as the city’s first park.
In the 1890s, Kansas City businessmen William Nelson and August Meyer advocated for and started the Park Board. By 1895, the board had access to funding and the ability to condemn land for the purpose of establishing parks.
Warfield said the Parks Board was born as Kansas City was on the cusp of expansion, and city leaders wanted a comprehensive plan on the city’s future.
George Kessler had already designed and supervised the construction of Merriam Park, just across the stateline in Kansas, and several privately funded parks such as Hyde Park (which is now maintained by the city). He submitted his application to design Kansas City’s parks and boulevards and was accepted.
Kessler’s designs followed the City Beautiful Movement, which believed a city full of beautiful places would foster social order and a greater quality of life for citizens.
“Boulevards will get you from one end of the city to the other … but my gosh, we’re going to make it really beautiful while you do this utilitarian thing,” Warfield said of the original Park Board’s mindset.
Kessler and the board’s philosophy toward park development in Kansas City is sometimes referred to as creating a city within a park.
North Terrace Park and West Terrace Park were some of the first projects approved and funded by the city. North Terrace Park (renamed George E. Kessler Park in the 1970s) is generally considered the first completed park.
The park sits in Kansas City’s historic Northeast neighborhood. At the time of its construction the neighborhood was home to some of Kansas City’s most elite businessmen and their families. Many of the castle-like mansions endure around Kessler park today.
Kessler designed a park on more than 300 acres that embraced the wild and rugged forests and cliffs. Winding through the entire park is Cliff Drive, an almost five mile road traversing the geographical beauties of Kansas City.
“Every out of town visitor that I have come to town, … I always make them drive Cliff Drive,” Warfield said.
Cliff Drive was named a State Scenic Byway in 2000. Currently, it’s closed to automobile traffic most days and instead hosts those on foot, bike and longboard.
Along Cliff Drive and throughout the park early visitors could see a waterfall, various look-out points, tennis courts, a reservoir and the famous Colonnade.
The Colonnade was designed and constructed by Kessler and Henry Wright, who trained under the former. Modern visitors might draw parallels to castle ruins as the covered walkway sports carved stone arches and domed roofs.
Kessler Park remains largely as it was when first designed. The forests are wild and the views are beautiful.
Visitors can still experience Cliff Drive, play basketball on the tennis courts, or have a picnic on one of the expansive lawns. Modern amenities include bike trails and a disc golf course.
The Northeast neighborhood gradually shifted to be home to working class and immigrant communities as the nearby railroads grew. Its population is still highly diverse.
Kansas City’s history is still evident in the neighborhood through the historic homes and churches that line the streets, as well as at the Kansas City Museum that sits across the street from Kessler Park.
The City Beautiful spirit the Park Board hoped to instill persists across the city and in Kessler Park today. Warfield said it’s one of the few places in the city she can go to see wildlife, and the famous Colonnade begs for visitors to peer over the edge and take in the natural beauty.
We might call it Instagramable today, but in Kessler’s era, these structures were places to take family or friends from out of town and simply appreciate the beauty of Kansas City.
“He really wanted to create these places that you could experience with your family, with your children … these moments and these places that made you go, ‘Wow, What a grand place this is’” Warfield said.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.