Plains Modern: Postwar Architecture in Kansas


Michael Grogan


Kansas State University


Regional Spotlight, Kansas
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Plains Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country, without leaving your home. This edition gives you a taste of the significant modern sites to be found in the heartland of Kansas.

Plains Modern Part One
Postwar Architecture in Kansas


Kansas, the 15th largest state by area, resides at the geographical center of the continental United States. “The Sunflower State” combines mostly family-owned farms and ranches with the robust aviation industry that made the state a strategic military training center during World War II. Paralleling this, between 1941 and 1956 the population of Kansas’s largest city, Wichita, doubled from 115,000 to 240,000 during the peak years of postwar modernism. Possessing the first mile of the Interstate System following the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act—signed into law by Kansas’s “favorite son” Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all—and significantly more geological variation than implied in a certain well-known film, the state is also imbued with a wealth of modern architecture. From many sophisticated distillations of International Style tenets to an array of spirited and expressive examples (representing what Alice T. Freidman referred to as “good life modern”) dotting numerous Kansas roadsides, disciplined and exuberant buildings abound [1].

Kansas firms such as Wichita’s Schaefer, Schirmer, and Eflin and Thomas, Harris, Calvin, and Associates (now the still-thriving firms SJCF and GMLV respectively), Topeka’s John A. Brown, Kivett and Myers of Kansas City, and Robert E. Mann in Hutchinson were joined by outsiders such as SOM, Edward Durell Stone, Caudill Rowlett and Scott (CRS), and even Frank Lloyd Wright in contributing to Kansas’s rich heritage of postwar modernism. A series of courthouses, post offices, community colleges, religious buildings, and train stations (the 1954 station in Hutchinson inspired a rare modernist model train counterpart [2]) spread modern architecture throughout this relatively dispersed state. Larger cities such as Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence, Overland Park, and Manhattan accumulated numerous elegant modernist commercial and institutional buildings, such as Wichita’s bold but now-abandoned public library, recently triple-listed on the Local, State, and National Registers of Historic Places, but facing an uncertain future.

As the state’s largest city, Wichita earned the appellation “Air Capital of the World” and possesses a robust modernist legacy that includes a series of notable office buildings, such as the bold 1954 Kansas Gas and Electric (KG&E) Building designed by Glen H. Thomas and A. B. Harris and the 1958 Sedgwick County Courthouse by the same firm, then called Thomas, Harris, Calvin & Associates [3].

The KG&E Building, designed in 1953-54, consists of an L-shaped, five-story tower extending from a full second floor band, itself floating above a recessed ground level.  An originally-planned five story wing addition to the north was completed in 1969 by the successor firm Thomas Harris Ash and Mason. Floor slabs from the upper stories are projected externally to form expressive shading devices along the south facades. Ribbon windows and brick infill also contribute to the strong horizontality that is countered by the limestone-clad vertical planes defining the east and west walls, as well as lining the second floor that serves as a visual pedestal. Affixed to the east wall were story-high, illuminated “KG&E” letters in an elegant modernist font, though these were recently removed in the conversion from offices to apartments.

The Sedgwick County Courthouse was also designed by the same firm, now rechristened Thomas, Harris, Calvin & Associates, and completed in 1958. The elegant eleven-story structure, photographed by Julius Schulman, is juxtaposed with the former 1889 courthouse across North Main Street. The richly modeled and heavy limestone walls, sills, and arches of the former courthouse are here countered by smooth limestone paneling set within an expressed, stone-clad concrete frame. These zones with horizontal bands of glazing alternate with vertical windowless planes of blue glazed brick, enhancing the complex formal layering. The large building’s rotated position on the site further contributes to its visual dynamism. A linear, two-story base grounds the building to the north and south and a monumental site element consisting of four limestone pylons alongside the east forecourt supports the bell once installed in the former courthouse tower. Both buildings by this firm are in mostly original condition, though tinted glazing more recently installed in the Courthouse contributes a less than desirable reading of opacity at the base.

About 150 miles northeast of Wichita, the capitol city of Topeka also possesses a number of notable modernist works. Perhaps the most important example—particularly as it has recently weathered demolition threats, at least partially geared towards political objectives—is the 1957 Docking State Office Building.  Designed by John A. Brown, State Architect at the time, the dynamic form and quite sophisticated double-glazed curtain walls of this twelve-story building serves as a worthy counterpart to the 1866-1903 State Capitol cross the street. The Docking Building may be read as a polite neighbor, with its streamlined aesthetic and material deployment deferring to the ornate, neoclassical details of the Capitol. Additionally, both are developed on a cross-shaped plan, with the newer building dynamically asymmetrical, with the four uncentered wings extending off a centered vertical core. One of the first modernist public buildings in Kansas and loosely inspired by the U. N. Secretariat Building, the structure’s nine upper floors are tautly bound on their long sides in a double layered Thermopane glazing system, quite high-tech and experimental at the time (for its frame was fabricated by a Kansas City company that formerly focused on beer kegs) [4]. These expanses of glazing, one of the first such systems in the region, are bound at the end by slabs of ubiquitous limestone panels, punctured by smaller windows. Similar to the KG&E Building, the three lower floors ground the wings above but are also asymmetrically positioned in relation to the upper floors, adding to the building’s dynamism. Interestingly the Docking Building’s basement houses the Capitol ground’s central power plant, a factor that thwarted earlier plans to summarily demolish the structure.

A January 2020 feasibility study considering options for reuse [5] and an earlier study testing the performance of the innovative curtain wall—determining that it indeed “may be absolved” of the problems attributed to it by the building’s critics [6]—hopefully offer a positive prognosis for the structure’s future.  Of course the pandemic has hindered current decisions about next steps but the fate of the Docking Office Building, as well as the Wichita Public Library, are extremely important cases within the modernist legacy of Kansas.

These examples merely scratch the surface of the modern architectural heritage in the state of Kansas. Other cities such as Lawrence, Emporia, Salina, and the heavily-developed counties just west of Kansas City, Missouri, are hosts to numerous examples of such postwar works, and the western Kansas counties, home of Garden City and Dodge City, host important buildings by Stone, CRS, and others.

Continue reading this Regional Spotlight series for more about Kansas modern architecture and stay tuned for follow up articles in the future.


  1. Freidman, Alice T., American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 4.
  2. Wm. K. Walthers, Inc., Modern Brick Santa Fe Station—Kit, accessed November 14, 2020,
  3. Freed, David, “We Built This City: History, Family, Flying: It’s All Here in Wichita,” Air and Space Magazine (September 18, 2018), accessed November 2, 2020,
  4. Gibson, Michael D. “Docking State Office Building,” ARCC 2017: The Architecture of Complexity (Architectural Research Centers Consortium, 2017), 424, accessed November 12, 2020,
  5. Clark Huesemann LC, “Docking State Office Building,” (Building Study, January 10, 2020), accessed November 11, 2020
  6. Gibson, “Docking State Office Building,” 432.



Sachs, David H. and George Ehrlich. Guide to Kansas Architecture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996).

About the Author

Michael Grogan is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University. Additionally, he has been selected to become President of the American Institute of Architects, Kansas Chapter in 2021. Michael’s research interests are focused on adaptations to and preservations issues with US postwar architecture. His essay on Mies van der Rohe’s two additions to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will be published in the upcoming Arris 31, the annual journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Contributors to this article are Robert McLaughlin and Chris Fein, AIA.

Plains Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas Vegas and Colorado. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Plains Modern Part Two
Air Capital Modernists: Schaefer Schirmer Eflin