Hooooo boy have I fallen into a bad habit of dragging my feet on writing these blog posts. I want to sincerely apologize to you, dear reader, for not keeping you in the loop in a more timely fashion. It’s a cutthroat environment out there in the attention economy, and I know you must be starved for my particular brand of frivolous travel writing. I deeply value your commitment to this endeavor, so I promise to do better in the future.
In this years-long quest of mine I’ve been keeping a certain state’s capitol in my back pocket, waiting for just the right opportunity. Though it would have been very easy to cross off the list earlier in my journey, I always knew I would have some future excuse to visit Topeka, Kansas.
You see, growing up in Iowa, it was a mere 4-5ish hour drive to visit our dear cousins (and second-cousins) in Overland Park, KS, which happens to be about the maximum duration a family of six can survive in a (not-at-all-adequately-sized) sedan. If Chicago was the capital of the Midwest, KC was its second city, beckoning us with trips to Oceans of Fun and dirt-cheap Royals games. We’d muscle our cousins out of their Super Nintendo and stay up late watching R-rated movies with uncle John, while mom and Cathy went to Marshall's or Pottery Barn. Over the years the pop free-for-alls devolved into beer free-for-alls. We'd pile 70 or so family members into a couple of rented school buses destined for Kaufman Stadium, but not before uncle Jim lead us all in a pregame blessing. Much goofy stuff occurred.
Now, in addition to the eight Kansans in the Downey clan and the many Mahers, quite a few other cousins found their way to Kansas City over the years. There were long stretches of time when I’ve lost track of who all was living there. With so much family concentrated in one city, it was only a matter of time before there would be another big wedding, so I knew I was in no rush to visit the Kansas capitol. My cousin Michael finally made it happen in the fall of 2022.
After so many trips to KC growing up, I had a few realizations over the years:
Kansas City isn’t in Kansas? That can't be right. Wait, so there is a Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, but the Kansas City Missouri is the main Kansas City? I was probably in high school when this dawned on me. This is just really poor execution by KCK. You let Missouri out-Kansas-City you? Pretty weak. I mean, there's no Massachusetts City, Connecticut.
The Kansas City airport is in the middle of goddamn nowhere. I mean, I live in Denver, so I know a thing or two about airports being in the middle of goddamn nowhere. At least they're opening a brand new airport soon.
I had only ever been to Overland Park, Kansas. That is, it's the only place in Kansas I’d ever been. Of the many times we visited over the years, we never ventured beyond OPK. I never had a reason to go anywhere else...
...until I was charged with a divine mission to visit the bathroom in every single state capitol in the USA. Thus, I would eventually have to find a way to get to Topeka. Cousin Michael gave me the excuse I needed, and aunt Cathy and uncle Johnny provided the crucial logistical support. I flew in two days before the wedding and was greeted at the aforementioned isolated airport by my beloved uncle John and my cousin Emily. The following day Cathy graciously loaned me her minivan to make the roughly one hour drive to Topeka.
I rolled into Topeka just in time for the capitol to open to visitors. There is an excellent underground parking garage on the north side of the capitol complex with complimentary two-hour parking. Much obliged, Kansas taxpayers. After circling the building once for all the requisite exterior photos, I ventured inside.
I had about 20 minutes to wait for the day's first guided tour to begin, so I set about wandering.
The tour group consisted of myself, our tour guide whose name I've carelessly forgotten, and a woman from Connecticut who marveled at how many counties Kansas has - a very Connecticut thing to notice, as they have only eight counties. The floor in the visitor center features a map showing all 105 counties in the state.
Our tour guide explained that the separate wings of the building were constructed at different times - a very practical Midwestern way to save on construction costs. The East wing was begun in 1866, the West wing begun in 1879, and the structure connecting the two was begun in 1886. They finally called it complete in 1903, after 37 years of construction.
It would be another 99 years before the sculpture Ad Astra, a 4,440 pound bronze Native American pointing his bow and arrow at the North star, would be placed atop the 304 foot dome. The Kansas state motto is Ad Astra per Aspera, or “To the stars through difficulty.”
The Kansas statehouse went through an extensive renovation that was completed in 2014 with spectacular results. Some rooms in the building previously had drop ceilings from an ill-conceived remodel in the 1970’s. Yuck.
Like any state, Kansas is proud of it’s famous sons and daughters. Several tatues and portraits of Abiline’s own Dwight D. Eisenhower punctuate the halls. Famed female flyer Amelia Earhart, former U.S Senator Bob Dole, and Canadian-born-adopted-Kansan James Naismith, the inventor of basketball are also duly noted.
Though not a Kansas native, the legendary John Brown spent some time in the state fighting for the cause of abolition. They have his very cool sword on display in the visitor’s center.
Brown is also commemorated in John Steuart Curry’s mural Tragic Prelude. A tornado, a prairie fire, Confederate and Union soldiers both living and dead, and the towering figure of John Brown with a windswept silver beard and all the fires of hell in his eyes, clutching a bible in one outstretched hand and a rifle in the other: this is one hell of a mural. You may also recognize it from the eponymous 1974 debut album of the band Kansas.
A different Brown is commemorated in the 2018 Brown v. Board of Education mural, honoring the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case striking down state laws establishing racial segregation in schools (more on this later).
The Kansas State Library is a lovely little gem tucked inside the capitol. The brass sunflowers (the Sunflower State) are a nice flourish.
When we concluded the “Historic Tour” I found myself with about 15 minutes until the “Dome Tour” began. I decided this would be an opportune moment to see to my official business, so I found myself a restroom near the House of Representatives chamber. Mission accomplished.
And it was a very good thing I took care of that business before the dome tour, because I might have otherwise soiled myself at 300 feet. According to the tour guide, the Kansas Statehouse is the ONLY capitol building in the country that allows visitors to ascend to the very top of the dome. A few capitol tours that I’ve been on took me up to various heights – the inner rim of the rotunda in Iowa and Wisconsin – and a few even took me outside the domes– Minnesota let’s you go up on the roof outside the dome and Colorado has an outdoor balcony around the perimeter of it’s dome.
But the very top of the dome is always off limits.
Not so in Kansas. 296 steps take you all the way up to Ad Astra.
Now I had seen pictures of the interior of the dome online, and it looked pretty harrowing. I told myself I’d go up and check it out and if it got too sketchy at any point I would just tap out. The first landing at the lower rim of the rotunda was alright. I clung pretty tightly to the wall, but it was alright.
The second flight of stairs took us above the glass dome. Looking down I could see the 256 glass panels that make up the dome. The interior walls are just bare brick covered in graffiti from the many decades in which anyone could walk in off the street and climb to the top of the dome without any supervision.
Looking up was a different story. Looking up I could see two ancient steel crossbeams propping up the most fragile-looking staircase-to-nowhere, just suspended in the middle of the dome. The photos do it no justice.
I hadn’t come all that way just to chicken out, so I stuffed my phone tightly into my pocket, put my head down, and grabbed hold of both railings. The staircase juts out into the middle of the dome and ends in a tight spiral that disappears out the very top in the center.
The steps were a little too shallow for my size 13 feet, and I had to do some serious crouching to not bash my head in the spiral segment of the staircase, but I finally emerged into the crisp, breezy Kansas air feeling victorious. And the view from the top…
Well it’s uh, it’s a whoooooole lot of, uh, Kansas. What do you expect? No wonder so many KC refugees move to Colorado. While you're up there just revel in the fact that you conquered your fear of sketchy staircases.
So that’s all she wrote for the Kansas capitol. 21 Crapitols now complete.
One final stop I had to make in Topeka was the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka National Historic Site - hold on - THIS JUST IN - now officially upgraded to the Brown vs. the Board of Education National Historical PARK! Young Linda Brown rode the bus to the former Monroe school, which was one of the four segregated elementary schools in Topeka. Today the newly minted National Park houses exhibits about the history of the Brown v. Board of Ed. case and the civil rights movement.
That was about all the Kansas I could tolerate, so it was time to take the party to the Missouri side for the big wedding.
Now my sister and had the honor of serving as the flower girl and ring-bearer (respectively) at the original Ropp wedding way back in 1990. I had the tux, the bowtie, the cummerbund, the boutonnière, and the lacey pillow with the fake rings tied on, which was a huge relief as I didn't want to be responsible for any misplaced rings. That wedding was an all-time rager, so I had been looking forward to the sequel for over three decades.
Mr. and Mrs. Ropp put together one hell of a party in downtown KCMO. A spectacular venue, superb dessert selection (including a Hawkeye cake), open bar, pop free-for-all and LED light sabers for the little kids, photo booth, FaceTime with Grandma, and the requisite grand finale of any family wedding, the group sing-along to Thunder Road.
We'll have to wait and see when the and where the next family wedding might take us.
Looking forward to more adventures in 2023. Stay tuned, friends.