Topeka’s grand old park



Topeka’s grand old park

Gage Park continues to evolve in its second century

In his office, Bill Riphahn, director of planning and development for Parks and Recreation of Topeka, keeps a 25-year master plan for Gage Park.

Unrolled, the colorful document reveals Riphahn’s vision for the city’s premier park, including an expanded zoo, a park-wide walking trail and a new botanical garden. How much of the plan becomes reality is anybody’s guess.

“They taught us in school that 80 percent of what we draw will never be built,” said Riphahn, who somehow seems OK with that.

Perhaps the old photographs of Gage Park that Riphahn has stored in his office and on his computer are the source of his acceptance. Look closely at those faded prints, and you will discover what Riphahn knows.

Look at the dusty dirt roads that gave way to pavement, the wandering bear that was replaced by the zoo and the lake that became a swimming pool that led to a modern aquatic center. Can you see it now?

Riphahn can. He knows that no matter how much of his 25-year plan is realized, Gage Park will continue to change, and he will play a role in it.

After all, the park has been evolving since 1899, when the heirs of Guilford G. Gage donated 80 acres of his farm to the City of Topeka to establishment a park in Gage’s name. Additional acreage was acquired over the years until the current 160-acre park was in place.

The changes that have taken place are evident everywhere you look.

● Over the years, Gage Lake became the original Gage Park Pool, which at one time was reported to be the world’s largest concrete filtered swimming pool. (Its bath house is now the Helen Hocker Theatre.) The original Blaisdell Pool was opened in 1957 and replaced by the Blaisdell Family Aquatic Center in 2000.

● The Topeka Zoological Park didn’t open until 1933, but well before then the park had an eclectic collection of animals — including the apparently docile bear that would escape into the surrounding neighborhood only to be apprehended and quietly led back to the park by employees.

● Ernest F.A. Reinisch, the city’s first superintendent of parks, staked off the ground for the rose garden that bears his name, but didn’t live to see its completion. Thomas F. Doran, a Topeka lawyer who was the principal contributor to the Reinisch garden, conceived the idea for the rock garden west of the rose garden and provided all of the funds for it. Naturally, it bears his name.

● The park added a mini-train originally operated by A.C. McCall in 1967 and bought by the city in 1977, and a historic carousel purchased when Boyles Joyland went out of business in 1989. The carousel required a 14-month, $360,000 restoration.

Numerous other changes have taken place, and two more major additions announced since Riphahn’s master plan was created are in the works: the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center and the Miracle Field.

The Discovery Center will feature educational exhibits in a hands-on environment and will be located in the park’s southwest corner. Nearby will be the Miracle Field, an accessible baseball diamond for disabled youth.

Toss in a few of Riphahn’s ideas, and an already outstanding park is poised to become even better.

“It’s a grand old park,” Riphahn said. “I don’t know of any other park in Kansas that has this much to offer. It’s kind of like our little Disneyland.”

Additional information is available at http://www.topeka.org/parksrec

Blaisdell Family Aquatic Center

The first swimming area in Gage Park actually was a small lake created by Guilford G. Gage, the property’s previous owner. Gage discovered a spring when he was excavating for coal and had his workers grade it to create the lake, on the present site of the Topeka Zoo’s parking lot.

The lake was converted into a concrete swimming pool in 1926 — reportedly the world’s largest concrete filtered swimming pool at the time — and was replaced by the new Gage Park Pool in 1957. It was later renamed for R. Foster Blaisdell, the city’s first recreation director.

The Blaisdell Family Aquatic Center opened in 2000 on the site of first Blaisdell Pool. The $4.5 million facility features a 50-meter pool with 1-, 3- and 5-meter diving, zero-depth entry, a separate baby pool and four water slides. It also has fun floatables, sprays, a family changing room, shade structures, picnic areas and a party room.

The center traditionally opens on Memorial Day weekend and is the only city pool that remains open until Labor Day weekend. Regular hours are 1 to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday, but are reduced to 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 8 p.m. on weekends after school begins in August.

Admission is $4 for adults 16 and older, $2.50 for youth 6-15 and $1.50 for youth 5 and under.

Carousel in the Park

The carousel, which includes a 1909 Wurlitzer band organ, was built in 1908 by Jerry Herschell as a portable carousel for use by a carnival. In 1957, Charles Boyles bought the carousel from an amusement park in Longview, Texas, and installed it at Boyles Joyland.

When Boyles Joyland went out of business in 1986, the city bought the carousel and hired Will Morton VII, of Denver, to restore it. The restoration took 14 months and cost $360,000, with half the money provided by the city and half raised privately.

To protect the carousel from the weather, the city built a special enclosure with panels that can be opened for an open-air feel when in use. The carousel was dedicated in May 1989.

In the spring, the carousel operates from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Sunday. Beginning on Memorial Day, the hours are 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Sunday. After school begins in August, the hours return to the spring schedule.

The cost is 75 cents per person. Discount ticket books offer 15 rides for $9.

Gage Park Mini-Train

The Gage Park mini-train originally was installed, owned and operated by A.C. McCall, who carried his first passengers on the one-mile loop around the park in August 1967.

When McCall wanted to get out of the mini-train business in the mid-1970s, he offered Park Commissioner Gary Taylor a $3,000 bribe to persuade the city commission to buy the train from him for $50,000.

McCall was charged with bribery, but plead guilty to a lesser charge. In 1977, the city bought the train from McCall for $75,000, noting that the equipment had been appraised at $104,000.

The train track was redone in 1999, and a new ticket office/concession stand/restroom building — made to look like an old-time, Santa Fe No. 2 train depot — opened in 2003.

In the spring, the train operates from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Sunday. Beginning on Memorial Day, the hours are 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Sunday. After school begins in August, the hours return to the spring schedule.

The cost is $1 per person. Discount ticket books offer 15 rides for $12.

E.F.A. Reinisch Rose Garden

German-born Ernest F.A. Reinisch was Topeka’s first superintendent of parks, serving in that capacity from 1900 until his death in December 1929.

Old photographs show Reinisch’s talent as a landscape architect, which is recognized today in the rose garden that bears his name. Although he staked off the ground for the garden, Reinisch didn’t live to see its completion.

Donations by Topeka lawyer Thomas F. Doran covered most of the original cost of $26,000 for the rose garden. Doran later conceived the idea for the rock garden just west of the rose garden and provided all of the funds for it.

A number of Topeka garden clubs participated in the creation of the rock garden, which is named for Doran, and many of the city's unemployed were given temporary work to construct the area.

The rose and rock gardens are open during regular parks hours from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The peak blooming times for roses are late May into early June and again in early to mid-September. Tulips in the rock garden bloom in April and are featured on the annual Tulip Time tour.


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