Kansas City lost its lead proponent of the park and boulevard movement on December 2, 1905, with the death of August Meyer. Meyer was born in St. Louis in 1851 to German immigrant parents. As a young adult, he studied engineering in Europe and then entered the mining business in Leadville, Colorado, where he grew wealthy. When he moved to the Kansas City area in 1881, he purchased the Consolidated Kansas City Smelting and Refining Company in Argentine, Kansas. By 1889, Meyer helped the company expand to one of the largest refined gold, silver, lead, blue vitriol, and zinc producers in the nation with over 1,000 employees and $15 million of revenue per year. Although well-known at the time for his smelting business, Meyer is now remembered primarily for his efforts to beautify Kansas City.
Meyer believed strongly in a concept that would later become known as the City Beautiful Movement. Proponents of City Beautiful believed that a growing population was not an adequate measure of a city’s health, because an accidental collection of people did not form a true community. Therefore, cities needed to actively plan for the physical and moral well-being of their citizens, who could, in return, contribute to the welfare of the city.
Beginning in 1892, the Board of Park Commissioners, with Meyer as its president, advocated the “park and boulevard movement,” as they called it in Kansas City. Other notable advocates of City Beautiful in Kansas City included George Kessler (the lead architect of park and boulevard planning in Kansas City), William Rockhill Nelson (whose paper, The Kansas City Star, publicly lobbied for the improvements), and Adriance Van Brunt (who designed several boulevards and the entrance to Swope Park).
The park and boulevard movement focused on real estate in particular. In theory, property values would increase along with the city’s moral fabric and beauty. Therefore, the City Beautiful would be more than a mere artistic endeavor. Aesthetically pleasing parks, boulevards, statues, and fountains would arouse a community spirit that would in turn stimulate the city’s economic prowess and standard of living.
Whatever the reasoning, the movement resulted in further segregation of the city along lines of class and race. In practice, beautifying the city entailed the forcible relocation of people living in slums and replacing them with parks or fancier neighborhoods. Those who could live and work in the new, “improved” parts of town were mostly white, middle-class citizens. As appalling as it sounds today, the racial and class homogeneity would have been seen by City Beautiful advocates as one of the key areas of progress.
Nevertheless, the parks and boulevard movement dramatically shaped the racial and physical landscape of Kansas City. Following Meyer’s death, J. C. Nichols became the most prominent city planner in Kansas City. In many ways, Nichols’s internationally famous innovations in residential zoning, city beautification, and urban revival built upon the work and ideas of the earlier park and boulevard movement, with all of the positive and negative effects that city planning of the early twentieth century entailed.
Read full biographical sketches of people involved with the parks and boulevard movement prepared by Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library:
- Biography of August Meyer (1851-1905), Parks and Boulevards Leader, by Janice Lee, 2003.
- Biography of George E. Kessler (1862-1923), Landscape Architect, by Susan Jezak Ford, 2003.
- Biography of Adriance Van Brunt (1836-1913), Architect, by Susan Jezak Ford, 1999.
- Biography of Henry Van Brunt (1836-1903), Architect; designer of Coates House Hotel and August Meyer’s residence; not related to Adriance Van Brunt, by Susan Jezak Ford, 1999.
- Biography of Delbert J. Haff (1859-1943), Early Parks and Boulevards Legal Counsel, by Janice Lee, 1999.
- Biography of Thomas H. Swope (1827-1909), Land Developer and Philanthropist; donated the land for Swope Park, by Susan Jezak Ford, 199.
- Biography of J. C. Nichols (1880-1950), Developer, by Susan Jezak Ford, 2002.
View images of August Meyer and some of the results of the parks and boulevard movement that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
- August Meyer Memorial
- August Meyer Residence
- Drawing of August Meyer Residence
- Postcard of Healy House; Meyer’s residence in Leadville, Colorado
- Postcard of the fountain in Meyer Circle on Ward Parkway; named after August Meyer
- Postcard of Cliff Drive; a boulevard completed in 1900
- Postcard of Nelson Drive; another product of the park and boulevard movement
- Postcard of the Paseo Looking North Toward 12th Street; a grand boulevard completed in 1898
- Postcard of the Colonnade on the Paseo between 10th Street and 11th Street; another product of the park and boulevard movement
- Postcard view of Penn Valley Park; built at the insistence of August Meyer and William Nelson
- Postcard of West Terrace Park, Palisades; one of the more prominent parks
- Postcard of The Spring on Cliff Drive; a scenic drive near the city
Check out the following books about the park and boulevard movement in Kansas City.
- The City Beautiful Movement in Kansas City, by William H. Wilson; the most comprehensive history of the City Beautiful Movement in Kansas City.
- A City Within a Park: One Hundred Years of Park and Boulevards in Kansas City, Missouri, by Jane Mobley and Nancy Whitnell Harris; a pictorial history.
- A Legacy of Design: An Historical Survey of the Kansas City, Missouri, Park and Boulevards System, 1893-1940, by Janice Lee; profiles of parks and boulevards in Kansas City, with pictures and maps.
- The City Beautiful Movement, by William H. Wilson; covers the City Beautiful Movement nationally.
- Midwestern Landscape Architecture, by William H. Tishler; chapter six is about George Kessler, with illustrations, pp.99-116.
View the following documentaries.
- Uniquely Kansas City: A History of the Arts, Part 1: The Art of the City: Making a City Beautiful, by Dan Diefenderfer; discusses some of the designs of George Kessler.
- A City Within a Park: One Hundred Years of Parks and Boulevards in Kansas City, Missouri, by Jay Wilson and Mike Malyn, Board of Parks & Recreation.
See the August Meyer Residence, now known as Vanderslice Hall, which today is an administrative building for the Kansas City Art Institute at 4415 Warwick Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111.
Continue researching August Meyer using archival material from the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
Lyle W. Dorsett and A. Theodore Brown, K.C.: A History of Kansas City, Missouri (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1978), 120-125, 135, 158-172, 200.
Janice Lee, Biography of August Meyer, Parks and Boulevards Leader, Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library, 2003.
Robert Pearson & Brad Pearson, The J.C. Nichols Chronicle: The Authorized Story of the Man, His Company, and His Legacy, 1880-1994 (Kansas City, MO: Country Club Plaza Press, 1994), 28.
Carrie Westlake Whitney, Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1800-1908, volume 2 (La Crosse, WI: Brookhaven Press, 2005), 194-197.
William H.Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement in Kansas City (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1964), 34-37, 40-54.
About the Author
|Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.|