The downtown Wichita building facing demolition had a life for 109 years

You probably know the building as a popular downtown coffee shop that recently closed, if you ever noticed the building at all.

It has never been the splashiest structure in Wichita. It’s relatively plain, with a stucco face or functional brick, not ornately patterned brick or stone. Some of the trim added over the decades is sagging.

But for 109 years, it has been serving people downtown.

Now that the two-story, oblong building is facing demolition to make space for a new development, it’s time to retrace its history and see how it reflects Wichita’s past.

For more than a century, it has anchored the northwest corner of Douglas and Emporia, in the heart of the historic East Douglas Avenue business district. The building spans 24 feet to the west along Douglas and stretches 131 feet to the north along Emporia.

According to old newspaper articles, a prominent businessman, Fred Aley, built at least part of the current structure in 1909, when Wichita was only about 40 years old. Current property records say the building was built in 1920, but that could have been when it was enlarged. A photo taken around 1934 shows a building that clearly matches the look and shape of the current one.

The building apparently never had its own name, a name that lasted. It’s been called whatever business was housed there.

Since the first concrete dried in 1909, it’s held everything from real estate offices to a hat works, cigar shop and rooms for rent.

Most recently, it’s been known as Mead’s Corner for the coffee shop that had been there since 2008.

The building at the northwest corner of Douglas and Emporia, circa 1934. It’s now facing demolition. Courtesy Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum

In the 1990s, the building housed a bar and restaurant called Gilbert & Mosley’s.

A decade or so before that, it was a private club called JR’s and an eatery called JR Mead’s. (The Mead name relates to the fact that the site is part of a tract of land known as J.R. Mead’s Addition. Starting in the late 1860s, Mead was a pioneer developer of Wichita.) On the back, west side of the building, you can still see the advertisements for those businesses painted in huge graphics, now faded.

Wichita architect and historic preservationist Dean Bradley says that commercial re-purposing of the building around 1979 — with the JR Mead’s breakfast and lunch place — was part of the spark that led to the development of the Old Town restaurant and entertainment district.

On Tuesday, the Wichita City Council voted to let a developer raze the two-story building to make room for a four-story structure with 60,000 square feet of office space and 10,000 square feet for storefront retail business.

Over the past century, the building has housed a variety of businesses, including the New Lynn Hotel; City Hat Works; Blue Bird cigar, soda and candy shop; a shoe repair shop; a dry cleaner; a lunch room; and the New York Jewelry Store.

The bustling corner held all of those businesses at the same time, according to signs on the building when it was photographed around 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression.

Life around 1934

A copy of the circa-1934 photo, provided by the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, shows what life outside the building looked like then:

Eight sedans or coupes are diagonally parked along the curb on Emporia. The cars face south; Emporia wasn’t a one-way street heading only north like it is now.

The cars have running boards. You would step onto the running board to get into or out of the mohair-upholstered interiors.

Some of the cars sport wood-spoke wheels and tall, thin spare tires mounted above solid-steel rear bumpers.

In the circa-1934 photo, cars with running boards weren’t the only vehicles traveling down wide Douglas Avenue. Street car rails course through the street pavement.

Near the corner entrance to the building, a man stands under signs that say “Rooms” and “Lunches.” He wears a hat and work overalls. To his left, a man in dress slacks and a light-colored dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, saunters west on the Douglas sidewalk, approaching the sign that proclaims “Cigars.”

You can see part of the Henry’s clothing store just west of the building — and part of a huge Florsheim shoe sign. That Henry’s building is long gone. It gave way to a parking lot.

In the same photo, there’s a taller Wilks Hotel to the north. It’s gone too, replaced by a parking lot.

So the remaining building that dates to 1909 now sits by itself.

Enduring building

Today, on the exterior, the building looks essentially the same as it did in 1934. The southeast corner remains angled.

The same metal cornice juts out from the flat roof — with the same decorative band just below the roof line. The band still holds 71 pressed-metal plaques, each with a repeated floral design.

Original stone blocks remain above and below the tall, wide second-floor windows.

But the face of the lower level has changed significantly. The 1934 photo shows a light shade of stucco. That’s been replaced by red brick for years now. The bricks cover holes that once held mountings for the protruding signs in the 1934 photo — the kind of vintage signs that are hotly collected now.

While the 1934 photo gives a snapshot of life outside the building during the Depression, an earlier map furnished by the historical museum shows how the building fit into the downtown fabric in 1914. That’s around the time World War I began.

When the so-called 1914 Sanborn Map came out, it identified the Douglas and Emporia corner building simply with this label: “Concrete Constr’n.”

The map also notes a “Motion Pictures” property a few doors to the west along Douglas and another “Motion Pictures” business a couple addresses to the east.

There’s a “Blacksmith & Wagon Shop” — automobiles were still relatively new then — a few alleyways to the northeast, and feedlots just east of the blacksmith shop.

Man behind it

The Eagle sought out Jim Mason — a local historian and author who has collected vintage postcards to help tell the city’s history — for pieces of the building’s past. From brief newspaper articles kept electronically by the Kansas Historical Society, Mason learned that Aley built a two-story structure at Douglas and Emporia in 1909.

Aley, around 43 at the time, had talked of building a six-story building but got no further than the second floor, the old clippings say. According to Mason, Aley built other buildings downtown and served as superintendent of a privately owned water utility.

From his research, Mason learned that Aley was born in Illinois and first visited Wichita in 1877, when he was 11. He died at 75, in 1941. He lived in the 400 block of North Fountain, in a stately College Hill colonial built in 1923, according to tax records.

He had become president of the Wichita Perpetual Building and Loan Association, an ironic name considering his Douglas and Emporia building won’t be perpetual.

What is happening to his building is what happened to the building it replaced. To make room for what was then his modern “concrete construction,” a wood-frame grocery store with a false front was torn down. The grocery store dated back to Wichita’s pioneer days, Mason said.

So there’s a long history of East Douglas business district buildings coming down so others can go up.

Still, some think the building should be preserved because it has been a part of downtown for so long.

Former City Council member Sharon Fearey, who opposes the demolition, said it makes her want to quote the late, long-time historic preservationist Jim Guy with this:

“Once they’re gone, they’re just gone forever. We’re not trying to save all the old buildings. We’re only trying the save the ones we have.”

Tim Potter has covered crime and safety for The Eagle for more than 20 years. His focus is the story behind the story and government accountability. He can be reached at 316-268-6684.