By Chantal Roberts
I’ve mentioned before my love of all things French, and my husband’s desire to spread out and learn about our newly adopted state(s) of Kansas and Missouri. This time our adventure took us to St. Joseph, Missouri, to uncover Edmond Eckel, a French-born architect.
Edmond Jacques Eckel
Born in 1845 in Strasbourg, Edmond Jacques Eckel studied architecture at L’École des Beaux Arts in Paris. He came to the United States and was on his way to Kansas City in 1869, when he was waylaid in St. Joseph due to a washed-out bridge. He liked the community so much that he decided to say there, starting his architecture firm which built the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion at 1100 Charles Street.
This 43-room, Gothic-style mansion with a view of the St. Joseph River and the Missouri River was commissioned by the Wyeths to resemble the castles they had seen on the Rhine River. Despite the German influences, some of the rooms on the first floor were French inspired, such as the Reception Room of black and gold woodwork and the Louis the XVI Sitting Room with angels painted on the ceiling.
It is estimated that his firms designed approximately 75% of the public and private buildings in St. Joseph and in many parts of the Midwest, including the St. Joseph City Hall.
One Frenchman you may not know is Octave Chanute, the Paris-born man who managed to tame the Missouri River with a bridge in 1867. The Hannibal Bridge was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River. In fact, it was once thought it would be harder to bridge the Missouri River than the Mighty Mississippi due to the Missouri’s rapid and dangerous currents.
The bridge changed Kansas City from a small river town to a major rail hub in a short time. It connected 7 railroads, bypassed the Kansas River, which cut Lawrence, Kansas, and St. Joseph, Missouri, out of the transportation loop. The swing truss near the middle of the Hannibal Bridge opened to allow steamboats to pass through. Chanute also introduced Fairbanks scales to the Kansas City railroads, allowing large loads of cargo to be weighed at once.
However, this isn’t the reason most people know Chanute—it’s for his expertise in aviation, which he didn’t undertake until he retired from engineering. Chanute literally tapped into his bridge-building knowledge and used it to further flight. His bridge trusses changed into wing stabilizers on early biplanes which he built when he was 64. In fact, it was the Octave Chanute that the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk was modeled on.
William B. Strang, Jr., the founder of Overland Park, Kansas, had a fascination with flight. He arranged the first flight in Kansas and built the first airfield in Overland Park. The Wright Brothers never came to Johnson County, but their machines, influenced by a French engineer who once lived in Kansas City, did.
Jackson, D. W. Kansas City Chronicles. An Up-To-Date History.
The St. Joseph Historical Society.
My own tour of everything.
Soldan Els Oberg, S. and the Overland Park Historical Society. Images of America Overland Park.
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