Potwin Place Historic District
The Potwin Place Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Potwin Place Historic District is an area which derives its distinctive identity from the layout of Greenwood and Woodlawn Avenues, from the deep setback of the residences which line these streets, and from the design character of the buildings themselves.
Both Greenwood and Woodlawn Avenues are wide arteries that run north from Willow to Grove. Where they meet these two termini and where they intersect the three arteries that run through the area from west to east (West First, West Second, and West Third streets) are situated small circular parks around which vehicular traffic must flow. In contrast, the surrounding residential neighborhoods adhere to a simple grid arrangement of streets.
Originally dirt thoroughfares, both avenues were subsequently paved with bricks. Only Woodlawn Avenue retains its brick surface as Greenwood's has been asphalted. Brick sidewalks are also found on many blocks in Potwin Place Historic District. Many of the curbs in the area are formed with limestone blocks. Also unlike the situation in surrounding neighborhoods is the relatively deep setback enjoyed by most of the residences facing on Greenwood Avenue and Woodlawn Avenue. To a large degree this has resulted from the relatively generous proportions of the original lots here. Even when divided in half, as has occurred throughout the area, these lots are large in comparison to those occupied by residences on neighboring streets.
The residences in Potwin Place Historic District are distinguished from those in surrounding areas by virtue of design character. Unusual for Topeka is the high percentage of 19th century designs which survive along the two main avenues of the district. These are generally two or two and one-half story frame structures with multiple roof gables, varied massing that emphasizes offset projections, and large one story verandahs. It is difficult to assign stylistic designations to these buildings. Much of the detailing is Queen Anne in character — fishscale shingles in the gables, turned posts and balusters, windows with panes of stained glass along the borders — while Shingle style inspired features such as pent gables, grouped windows and curved or bowed shingled surfaces are also evident. But regardless of detailing, these residences are predominantly large front gable forms with subsidiary extensions flanking or skirting them. They are, very simply, late Victorian suburban residences.
Some of the very first residences built in Potwin Place Historic District were clearly Italianate in character, a reflection of mid-Victorian tastes for designs that had clear associational reference to a period or place. But most of the buildings constructed in the area during the 19th century evidence an attraction to the vaguer images of domesticity and commodiousness that belonged to the mid-century's concept of the farmhouse and that in the later decades of the century became an important ideal in Queen Anne and Shingle style designs.
Early twentieth century development in Potwin Place Historic District is evident in large two or two and one-half story frame residences that also possess large front porches. The massing of these is more contained than is that of the 19th century structures and in the Palladian windows or columnar supports of the porches is an evident taste for classicism — either Colonial Revival or Beaux-Arts in sentiment. In the replacement of many 19th century verandahs with the classicized porches of the early 20th century is apparent both the influence of later tastes on the earlier developments and the compatibility of early 20th century classicisms with the formal restraint of the late 19th century designs to be found in Potwin Place.
Complementing these early 20th century front-gable structures are residences evidencing the influence of Prairie School designs. 400 Greenwood Avenue is very much an extrapolation of designs such as the Robie House, but residences such as the Margotte Residence (438 Woodlawn Avenue) represent the more common response to the Prairie School evident in Potwin Place Historic District — a two and one-half story box-shaped structure whose hipped roof, deep eaves and horizontal proportions share formal affinities with the school's work. The period's taste for classicism is also evident in the details of these designs — i.e., columnar porch supports and classical moldings.
Potwin Place Historic District also contains a number of residences dating to the 1920s and 1930s. These evidence a more academic approach to design in the way they mimic historic precedent rather than simply embracing the general spirit or selected details of classical or colonial examples. While these designs, which in Potwin Place are primarily based on colonial prototypes, retain the same general scale and amplitude of their older neighbors, they bespeak the social changes which had taken place by this period — e.g. smaller families required slightly smaller accommodations, and a greater desire for privacy made a large front porch undesirable and encouraged the use of rear patios or screened side porches.
What makes the buildings of Potwin Place Historic District a distinctive collection of residences is not simply that there are the above-mentioned types of designs here, but that they are as a totality a harmonious mixture of 19th century and early 20th century designs because of continuities in scale and form that reflect continuities of conditions and taste. Although bound together by distinctive street layout and setback, these structures would in any event sit apart in character from those in the surrounding neighborhoods because of their larger scale, because of the variety of historic periods represented and because of the dominant presence of 19th century elements. In surrounding neighborhoods the development has occurred primarily since the turn-of-the-century and is of small scale and modest character.
Through its physical features Potwin Place Historic District clearly evidences a distinctive aspect of suburban development in Topeka, Kansas, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Charles Wolcott Potwin, a banker from Zanesville, Ohio, purchased 70 acres of land located west of Topeka from S.K. Cross in 1869. This purchase was one of many land deals that Potwin was involved with in Kansas at this time.
It was not until 1882 that Potwin platted out the 70 acres into 80 lots each 122 1/2, feet wide and 205 feet deep. These lined two wide (100 foot) avenues running north and south, Woodlawn and Greenwood, and were divided into blocks by three narrower (50 foot) east-west arteries called Ashland, Park and Laurel Avenues. Thoroughfares running east-west formed boundaries at north and south. Lots also lined an 80 foot street, Elmwood Avenue, which ran along the addition's west edge. The area was called Potwin Place.
At the intersections of the avenues, circular parks were laid out, a treatment which departed from the usual grid street arrangement of most additions in and around Topeka at this time. Reportedly, two hundred elms were also planted along Woodlawn and Greenwood, perhaps to give some credence to the leafy allusions of the street names.
In the autumn of 1885 the lots in Potwin Place became available for purchase. Potwin exercised considerable control over their disposition in an evident attempt to attract a prosperous clientele by creating an atmosphere of exclusiveness. No lot was sold unless the purchaser agreed that the house would be constructed within six months and that it would cost at least $2000 to build. Moreover, Potwin withheld the deed to the property until construction began, probably as a measure to both avoid speculation and create a secure image of growth as a means of attracting other buyers.
Six houses were built during the autumn of 1885 at an average cost of $5000. The first house to be constructed was that at 337 Woodlawn, a venture of Potwin's to set the tone for future development.
It was common practice for purchasers of lots to sell off half the lot as a site for another residence. Possibly Potwin had initially contemplated larger scale development occurring in the area. Yet, early residents of the area were an assortment of lawyers (e.g., Mr. Loomis of 433 Woodlawn; Mr. Murray of 125 Woodlawn; Mr. Troutman of 131 Greenwood; Mr. Gleed of 304 Greenwood), businessmen (e.g., Mr. Crane, banker, of 412 Greenwood; Mr. Henderson, banker, of 124 Greenwood; Mr. Fish, importer, of 41 Greenwood; Mr. Forbes, real estate agent, of 328 Woodlawn), politicians (e.g., Mr. Wilson of 105 Greenwood) and other professional types able to afford commodious dwellings.
Many of the houses were built by developers. Operating in the area with some frequency were Kitchell & Marburg, Martin Gobrecht, Mahlon Updike, Milton Council and Henry S. Allen. Allen was responsible for two and possibly all three of the Italianate residences built on Woodlawn at 338, 337 and 421. Council, Marburg, Kitchell, Updike and Allen also owned homes of their own in Potwin Place. The designs of the new residences were probably based on patterns widely available through handbooks published in the period by such men as Bicknell and Palliser.
By the end of 1888 the Topeka Capital reported that not one of the houses that had been built had cost only the minimum figure. Most had represented an investment of considerably more. Potwin's scheme to create a prestigious suburb seemed to have proven successful. On January 1, 1889, the Capital noted that the population of Potwin Place was "increasing rapidly both from immigration and natural causes, and wealth keeping pace with the new arrivals; bright, progressive, prosperous Potwin."
On June 4, 1888, Potwin Place was incorporated as the City of Potwin Place along with another small tract. This action took place as the city of Topeka developed plans to annex a large area of suburban territory, including Potwin Place, that had been growing up around the city. As Potwin Place was a prosperous area, resentment over the incorporation ran high on the part of citizens who felt that the Potwinites were making their money in the city but not spending it there as well.
With its own utilities and a streetcar line making convenient runs into the city, it was felt that Potwin Place enjoyed "all the advantages and none of the disadvantages of a metropolis."
In 1890, Potwin Place annexed some neighboring suburban additions, though ultimately, in 1899, it succumbed itself to annexation by Topeka. It continued to develop as a prosperous neighborhood during the early decades of the twentieth century. During this period, adjacent developments filled up with inexpensive bungalows and in some cases further divisions of Potwin Place lots afforded sites for this type of housing, but these fronted primarily on the east-west avenues.
"From Nightmare to Dreamhouse," Topeka Capital-Journal, May 20, 1977.
McLellan, Charlotte, "History of Potwin," Bulletin of the Shawnee County Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas, Nos. 27, 28, 30 (April, 1957; September, 1957; July, 1958).
McLellan, Charlotte, and John W. Ripley, Potwin Place: Its History and Traditions, Bulletin of the Shawnee County Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas, No. 45 (December, 1968).
"Residents Ask to Keep Brick Streets," Topeka State Journal, September 12, 1979.
Topeka Daily Capital, September 8, 1887.