George Elmslie’s Capitol Building & Loan

William L. Steele* wrote an article that accompanied the photos below. Steele states that most cities want what has worked elsewhere so what happens is cities end up looking the same with a standardization in hospitals, schools, office buildings and hotels, for example, that have no regional distinction.

In Topeka, though, and because of the Capitol Building & Loan a locality was able to express itself. The building was commissioned by the president of the building & loan, Charles Elliott. Elliott wanted to hire Louis Sullivan for the job but by this point in Sullivan’s career he probably wasn’t well enough to undertake the work. The building was situated at the northeast corner of 6th and Kansas Avenues. The actual address was 534 Kansas Ave. It was a six-story building with a two-story lobby and four floors of offices.

George Elmslie was the architect of the building and Steele claims that while Elmslie was a student of Louis Sullivan and had been a partner with William Gray Purcell — Elmslie, by himself, was an architect of “power and distinction.” According to Steele, the building & loan was a small, compact building with no wasted space and because of its location where it was surrounded by “diminutive and commonplace” buildings his first reaction to the building was one of “shock” due to its originality.

This is part of a fountain, inside the building, opposite the front doors.

Emil Zettler, who studied at the Art Institute in Chicago, the Royal Academy in Berlin and the Julien Academy in Paris, was the building’s sculptor. Zettler’s work on the Capitol Building & Loan was naively simple, according to Steele, but “modern in its symbolism of the life and times which have given birth to this building.” The panel over the main entrance symbolized not only the agricultural and industrial aspects of Kansas but the idea of the home too.  Steele wrote, “The well-placed masonry piers with their flower-like finials at the main entrance are very beautiful. They are intended to express growth, with strong stems bursting into a bloom of finely modeled human forms. The figures on the south side of the building may be taken as symbolizing Kansas. Its history is suggested by the rugged pioneer, while its civic and cultural development is portrayed by the serene and beautiful woman opposite.”

On the building’s long, street-side the central panel around the clock suggests city life but the panel’s outer edges indicate the advantages of a rural life. Two of the figures in the panel are a sower and a winged figure that might be a “Guiding Spirit.”

Schneider was the individual who molded the terra cotta and even though Schneider was trained by Louis Sullivan, back in the “Auditorium days,” the terra cotta design was distinctively Elmslie’s.

According to Western Architect John Norton did the murals for the Capitol Building & Loan. (This name could be incorrect because the murals look very similar to the murals that John North did for the Woodbury County Court House.) There are three murals. The two smaller murals depict the “safety and peace of quiet home-life.” The larger mural deals with Kansas’ agriculture and cattle production.

Steele wrapped up the article by writing that this building would look out of place in New York or Chicago. I’m not sure that’s true but he goes on to write that a building of this beauty and originality can only occur when businessmen want something different and are willing to trust a “discerning” architect.

Sadly, the building was demolished in 1968.

Here it is on a postcard.

*The architect of the Woodbury County Court House is William LeBarth Steele. The writer of this article could be the same man.

Steele, W. L. (1924, September). The Capitol Building and Loan Association Building at Topeka, Kansas. Western Architect, (33)9, 99-100, plates 1-11.


Note: I have a book coming out in the latter half of 2018 from The History Press titled: The Architects Who Built Southern California. It will be 12 chapters with each chapter devoted to a different architect (or architectural firm) including: Harrison Albright, John Austin, Claud Beelman, Elmer Grey, Hudson & Munsell, A. C. Martin, Meyer & Holler, Julia Morgan, Morgan Walls & Clements, Parkinson & Parkinson, Alfred F. Rosenheim and Paul R. Williams.