"We tend to think of 19th century Kansas through the lens of a pioneer, the lens of a cowboy, the lens of the outlaw," says Wichita State University Public History Program Director Jay Price. "You've gotta to forget all of that. You have to look as it as a realtor."
The College Hill neighborhood in Wichita was first conceived by four Civil War veterans in the 1870's who wanted to buy cheap land from the government and sell it to recent immigrants who had settled on the East Coast but were hoping for a better life out west.
Jeff Roth, a local College Hill historian, says it's unclear if the four soldiers were friends but the evidence suggests that they helped each other buy their properties.
"The process for qualifying for cheap government land was you had to swear that you had made some improvement on the land, like planting hedges or erecting a home," says Roth. "They vouched for each other but they all sounded suspiciously wrote."
Between between 1870 to 1880, many immigrants bought the land and farmed the area that would become College Hill.
"We can tell from diaries and tax rolls that they were fairly successful in planting hedges; crops such as wheat; vines for grapes and that apple and peach trees were prominent."
1870's Wichita existed primarily from the Arkansas River to the railroad tracks downtown but a speculative land bubble drove investors from as far away as the East Coast to buy land for subdivisions in the city.
"Things took off in the 1880's when there was a major real estate speculation boom," says Price. "This was the dotcom of its day. Part of it went to the fact that it wasn't obvious that any city was going to really boom. Any city could be a major city. Any city could be the next Chicago."
High end houses were originally located in the Midtown area but by the 1880's, a nationwide phenomenon to move the well-to-do out of the downtown to the suburbs was underway.
"The allure of getting out of the densely developed part of downtown with all the chimneys, burning coal, small factories, horse stables and black smiths and all that noise, dust and smoke," helped people look to College Hill says Roth. "Real estate agents could brag that in College Hill, you were up out of the teaming valley and on a hill where the view was so expansive that you could see as far away as as Clearwater and Goddard."
A trolley line also began to run to College Hill in 1887, first as a mule-drawn car and later powered by electricity in 1890. The line made it easier for people in the new suburb to get to work, Riverside Park and local universities.
The name for the new neighborhood came from a plan to encourage a church to build a college in the area. Price says a number of the schools were planned around the city. Wichita University was to be in the South; Garfield College, which later became Friends University, was built; Fairmount College was to be a "Vassar of the West" for women and a central college was to be developed in College Hill in the space that is now Clifton Square at Douglas and Rutan.
"Everything was in place for a successful development called College Hill, with its central university, located between Fairmount College and Wichita University," said Roth. "But by this time, the church elders were savvy. The trustees of the Methodist church pitted College Hill developers against those in Newton, Hutchinson and Winfield. They said, 'who ever gives us the best set of circumstances will get our college.'"
The Methodist church made its decision on May 12, 1885. They would build a school in Winfield, disappointing College Hill and Wichita residents.
"[Winfield] promised more land, more money and limestone. They got the college and it became Southwestern College," says Roth.
More bad news followed in the 1890's when the real estate bubble burst in Wichita. Development in College Hill stopped, leaving only a few lonely houses standing.
"Wichita has always had this, 'I could have been a contender' mentality because maybe we could have been the next Chicago," says Price. "That quickly evaporates and a lot of investors on the East Coast loose their shirts."
"Weeds grew up, you could only make out the lines where streets had been intended. They were just lined with sunflowers at this point," says Roth. "In fact, some of the homes that were built in College Hill moved to Fairmount. People would actually move their homes down to the valley. "
But the city rebounded by the 1900's. Price says the new economy was based more on industry, including Mentholatum, Colman products, oil, lumber and became a regional supplier of agricultural parts. College Hill was still viewed as an upper class suburb that had larger yards and homes than those in the Midtown or Riverside districts.
In 1901 the Wichita Country Club was founded, using the Hillside Cottage as clubhouse. The home was one of the original residences designed by Willis Proudfoot and George Bird in 1887 to be a model home with the hope of attracting people to move to the College Hill area. A seven-hole golf course was opened on the land that would later become College Hill Park. The club remained until 1912, when it moved to two other locations before settling at its current home at 13th Street and Rock Road.
The Hillcrest apartment building was built in 1927 for "upscale living" and was the tallest structure in Kansas until the Allis Hotel was built two years later. Crown Uptown opened in 1928 and showed the first talking motion picture in Wichita, Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer." Religious institutions moved to the area in the 1920's to provide the increasing number of College Hill neighbors with local churches and temples within walking distance.
The people of College Hill petitioned the city in 1923 to develop land that had been reserved for what was always intended to be College Hill Park. The area had become a "vast weed patch" according to Roth and the golf course had disappeared. The city purchased or acquired the land through eminent domain but it would take another decade for the park to be fully realized.
"It was one thing to buy the land, it was another thing to make improvements," says Roth. "The city didn't have the wherewithal to develop the park that we know today until the Great Depression hit. They accessed Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds, President Roosevelt's stimulus plan. With those funds, they were able to clean the park, grade the park and add two structures."
With the federal dollars, the College Hill pool opened on May 25th, 1937 and was later refurbished in June, 2000 after needing extensive repair. The stone footbridge was also a WPA project and was completed by 1935.
"From a vision that was born around 1884, it took about 50 years for the original concept of College Hill Park to come into fruition," says Roth. "It was rescued from being diminished by the loss of the pool 65 years later in 2000."
Today College Hill remains one of the most popular historical neighborhoods in Wichita and its residents enjoy the tree-lined cobblestone streets imagined by real estate developers 128 years ago.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun