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Windsor Hotel graces skyline of Garden City

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, at 11:32 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 16, 2013, at 9:20 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

The Windsor Hotel stands tall in matronly elegance against Garden City’s skyline. It is a symbol of Victorian promise and success.

But it is also serves as an example of how 21st-century Kansans can work together to save a community landmark, once labeled the “Waldorf on the Prairie.”

“I think it stands for the impossible out here,” said Brian Nelson, vice president of the Finney County Preservation Alliance. “It stands for all the opportunities the West had for people. It is about new tomorrows and new futures.”

In 1887, John Stevens, a former buffalo hunter and early developer of Garden City, began work on a hotel that would symbolize refinement and civilization. He built it on the property he homesteaded.

Never mind the four-story Windsor was built on dirt streets. Kansas and the rest of the nation were in the midst of an economic boom.

At the same time, Wichitan John Carey was finishing his plans of building “the finest hotel in the southwest” – a six-story building on Douglas that featured a steam-powered elevator, steam heat, hot and cold water for rooms and electric bells for guests. It would eventually be known in Wichita as the Eaton Hotel.

The two hotels were compared as sisters.

“There was a gentleman who stayed first at the Eaton and then at the Windsor. He declared the Windsor the more grand and his favorite,” Nelson said.

The interior of the Windsor features an enormous court, a three-story atrium and a mahogany staircase. It is topped with a skylight running the length of the building; some compared it with the Brown Palace in Denver.

In its day, guests at the Windsor included the famed actress and opera singer Lillian Russell and Buffalo Bill Cody.

“You step into the building and get the dreams of the past and the connection we have with our ancestors,” said the 27-year-old Nelson. “It is like stepping back in time. You can almost smell the cigar smoke and hear the click of high heels on the wood floors and the rustle of petticoats.”

The Windsor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. It served as a hotel until 1977.

For many of the years since, the second through fourth floors have been vacant. A furniture store occupied much of the first floor until the turn of the 21st century.

In 1997, the Finney County Preservation Alliance began working on preserving the building. They have received grants and donations to stabilize and renovate the lobby and replace the roof.

Developers are now working on proposal that would convert the second through fourth floors into senior citizen apartments and office space with retail and restaurant space on the first floor.

“It’s been a community-based effort to get it done,” said Don Harness, president of the Finney County Preservation Alliance.

“The Windsor was first built as a leap of faith. And through the years, it has been the tallest and most prominent building in our downtown. It is part of the fabric of our memories and a fixture of southwest Kansas and Garden City.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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