Describing the project as “very exciting,” the National Park Service recently awarded a local group $18,000 to help restore the front doors and windows of Topeka’s Constitution Hall, which was the site of events in the 1850s that helped shape this nation’s history.
Diane Miller, national program manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, announced the grant last week in a letter to Grant Glenn, president of the not-for-profit Friends of the Free State Capitol, Inc.
The effort to restore the front doors and front windows at Constitution Hall, 427-429 S. Kansas Ave., was among only 16 projects chosen to receive funding from 41 applications nationwide, Miller indicated.
“We found your project to be very exciting and feel that it will advance the goals of preserving the history of the Underground Railroad and informing the public,” she wrote.“We commend your creativity in developing the proposal and your dedication to this important part of our heritage.”
Restoring the front doors and windows is a critical component of an effort to restore the facade of Constitution Hall, Topeka’s oldest commercial building, to come close to resembling its original appearance, Glenn said.
Topeka’s governing body voted last year to award Friends of the Free State Capitol $355,000 — including $175,000 for facade restoration — over 10 years in revenue from the city’s transient guest tax.
Glenn said the $18,000 grant announced last week puts Friends of the Free State Capitol in a position where — if it receives an additional $90,000 grant it has sought from the Kansas Heritage Trust, which is expected to announce recipients early next year — it will have sufficient financing for the facade project and will be able to start construction next year.
By completing the facade project, those taking care of the building would be able to heat it, Glenn said.
He and Jim Ogle, executive director of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, wore coats this week as they stood inside Constitution Hall and talked about it.
“I think it’s gratifying that the National Park Service recognizes how important this building was,” Ogle said.
Constitution Hall, which is two stories tall and has a basement, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1855 of native stone and timber, Glenn said.
He said Constitution Hall served in the 1850s as headquarters of the “Jim Lane Trail,” this region’s primary route for slaves to use to take the “Underground Railroad” to escape to freedom in the north.
Constitution Hall became a focus of controversy after Missourians crossed the border in large numbers during the Kansas Territory’s first election in March 1855 to vote illegally and elect a territorial Legislature that was pro-slavery.
The federal government recognized the election of that Legislature, which in July and August 1855 passed laws that provided severe penalties for those who freed slaves or spoke out against slave holding.
Kansans opposed to slavery responded that year by holding a convention in Topeka and adopting their own constitution, which was approved by the public in an election pro-slavery advocates didn’t recognize. A free-state Legislature was elected and began meeting in March 1856 at Constitution Hall.
A U.S. Congressional investigating committee visited Kansas that spring and issued a report saying the free-state government reflected the wishes of most Kansans. Still, federal officials rejected that government, and President Franklin Pierce ordered the Army to disperse its Legislature. Troops did that at Constitution Hall on July 4, 1856.
“For this, the first Topeka streets — named for the presidents — exclude Pierce,” Glenn said.
Topeka instead has a street named after longtime U.S. Senator and House member Henry Clay, who never became president, he said.
After Kansas became a state in 1861, legislators met in Constitution Hall until the current Statehouse was occupied in 1869, Glenn said.
In the years that followed, Constitution Hall served as the site of community events and church services, with two large rooms at street level being used for commerce. By 2001, the building was near collapse after decades of abandonment.
But Glenn said recent years have brought major projects to repair the west and south stone walls at a cost of $295,300; to structurally stabilize the second floor and carry out roof carpentry, at a cost of $131,600; and to replace the roof, at a cost of $15,400.
Reporter Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.