Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series on landmark homes in Topeka. Stories about other landmark homes can be found at cjonline.com.
Topeka was founded in 1854, and since that time, many historical figures have chosen Topeka as their place of residence. Along with backgrounds of significance, they brought a variety of architectural styles to what would become the capital city.
Through the efforts of many who have rescued them from disrepair and potential destruction, the homes still stand today. The Governor’s Row House, 811 S.W. Buchanan St., is among them.
Topeka’s historic Governor’s Square includes the 800 and 900 blocks of S.W. Buchanan Street. The area was christened as such in the early 1900s because the house that once stood at the southwest corner of 8th and S.W. Buchanan served as the home for Kansas governors from 1901 to 1962, when Cedar Crest became the official residence.
The area just south of the governor’s residence became unofficially known as Governor’s Row, in reference to six Victorian mansions that lined the avenue, seemingly keeping guard over the governor and the business of the people.
Several of those homes still stand, including the Ronald McDonald House and the Buchanan House, which has been converted into apartments. Although the governor’s house was torn down in 1965, its closest neighbor survived and continues to keep watch over the neighborhood for which it was named.
Constructed in 1901 by attorney, jurist, oilman and mortgage broker C.E. Foote, the Governor’s Row House, 811 S.W. Buchanan, cost $5,000 to build. J.C. Holland designed the house in the Colonial Revival style.
The home’s second occupant, Clyde W. Miller, had ties to national politics. An insurance businessman by trade, Miller was a partner in the Miller Ranch in Osage County and had powerful influence within the state’s Republican Party.
During Alf Landon’s 1936 presidential bid, Miller hosted visiting journalists in his home next door to the governor’s mansion. According to local historians, it was rumored at one time that a tunnel was built between the two houses for more accessible communication.
Miller remodeled and enlarged the house in 1915, adding the first-floor ballroom to the rear of the house. The remodel reportedly was done for his two daughters.
The house was converted into the Historic Events Center in 1988, and is still used for that purpose today, regularly hosting weddings, receptions, dinners, meetings, parties, conferences and art shows.
At 6,400 square feet, the Governor’s Row House includes a main sitting room, a groom’s dressing room, ballroom, bar and caterer’s prep kitchen on the first floor. Upstairs, a bridal room allows brides to prepare for their big day before descending down the Victorian staircase in a grand entrance.
Three rental apartment units also are housed within the home’s walls — two on the second floor and one on the third floor. A separate entrance affords renters privacy from the main house.
‘A 10-year project’
John and Deborah Sidwell purchased the house last spring and have set about returning it to its original beauty. A former police officer and school principal respectively, the Sidwells were looking for a project in retirement when a friend told them the Governor’s Row House was for sale.
“I like to plan events, and he likes to work on old houses, so it was a match made in heaven,” Deborah said.
John takes on small house repairs around town for Realtors who are getting ready to put houses on the market, but the Governor’s Row House is his biggest project these days.
“The house needs a lot of work,” Deborah said. “It’s a 10-year project, and after 10 years, we’re going to sell it.”
This summer, the Sidwells’ attention has focused on renovating the exterior of the house, including painting and repairing the first-story porch and all of its spindles. They are adding ornamental finials that were missing from several of the porch posts and replacing a support beam for structural purposes.
Deborah also painted 267 pieces of dental work by hand. “Dental work” refers to the tiny blocks of wood that give the house its decorative appearance.
The Sidwells also have future plans of adding rails back to the upper front porch, which were removed at some point over the years.
As it was built, the house boasted numerous porches and a second-story bay window, as well as a unique window pairing on the third-story gable known as a Palladian window, a feature found nowhere else in Topeka. Cornices under the bay windows provide an example of the home’s intricate details.
“I like old houses because of the detail,” said John. “You just don’t find detail like that anymore. The work and workmanship is amazing.”
The Sidwells are collaborating with a historic designer to return the house to its original grandeur inside, too. Each room will receive a makeover, and a change in color palette will take the house back to more traditional hues of the time period in which the house was built.
Other plans involve stripping all of the woodwork of black paint before finishing it to how it might have appeared in 1901.
“I want to maintain the historic integrity of it,” said Deborah. “Every day that we do something, you can actually see the progress. It’s a beautiful old house, and I’m really anxious to bring it back to its original beauty.”
Many original features can still be seen today, including the main sitting room fireplace and mantel and hardwood floors. A porthole window at the bottom of the staircase landing contributes to the light that pours through the jeweled, leaded-glass windows that line the stairway to the second floor.
A modern kitchen with sink and disposal, freezer, warming oven, refrigerator and a work table was built years ago to accommodate events. However, the Sidwells believe the groom’s dressing room was probably the location of the original kitchen based on a door that once led to a butler’s pantry.
The ballroom is the focal point of many events hosted in the house, and guests enter through leaded-glass double doors. Original chandeliers and wall sconces bear witness to today’s revelry, just as they did more than 100 years ago. A back staircase in the corner of the ballroom once led to a sleeping porch, but it’s merely decorative rather than functional now.
The house can comfortably accommodate seating for 150 people, or 100 people seated at round tables in the case of a reception. The event center also uses the parking lot next door on the weekends, which allows for plenty of parking.
“Come in and get a feel for the place. I love to give tours, and it’s a beautiful venue. If you like history and want something that’s elegant, it’s a wonderful place,” she said.
When they aren’t hard at work on repairs and renovations or hosting an event, the Sidwells enjoy sitting on the front porch and listening to the church bells in the quiet neighborhood.
“The neighbors are very neighborhood-conscious. Everyone who comes by is extremely respectful,” said Deborah.
The Governor’s Row House has been awarded the Historic Preservation Award for efforts made to preserve the history and architecture surrounding it, but it isn’t currently on the national or state Registers of Historic Places.
“I’m a big history guy, and this is history,” John said. “If you like architecture and viewing how people lived, this house is a great example.”
Shanna Sloyer is a freelance writer from Topeka. You can reach her at email@example.com.