Johnson County Square: Past, present and future

An aerial photo of the new Johnson County Square

By Gerald Hay

The downtown Olathe square is brimming with history.

Although long called the courthouse square, only half of the county’s four courthouses were ever built in the public square totaling approximately three acres.

Two historic notables connected to the square are George Washington Carver, famous agricultural scientist and inventor (see pages 16-17), and William Quantrill, infamous Confederate guerrilla leader.

Historically, downtown Olathe has experienced many changes over the years and decades, but the square has had far fewer changes since being created 165 years ago.

“It’s the same location, the same size,” said Bob Courtney, vice president of the Olathe Historical Society.

Sandwiched north-south between Santa Fe and Park streets, and eastwest between Cherry Street and Kansas Avenue, the square was platted in the heart of Olathe when the city was created in 1857 by Dr. J.T. Barton.

Two years later, Johnson County’s first courthouse and county offices were located on the second floor of a building built by Frederick W. Case. It was located across Park Street south of the square.

With its designation as the county seat of Johnson County in 1859 and a growing population, downtown Olathe was the heart of the business community with churches, flouring mills, a foundry, lumber yards, hotels,
an opera house and banks.

The square became a popular gathering place to shop or relax, meet others, have fun and even go to school, which brought George Washington Carver to Olathe.

In 1860, Barton, then mayor, ordered “a good substantial fence around the public square” along with planting black locust trees. At that time, Olathe had a population of 527 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The public square became a public stockade in 1862 when Olathe was ransacked by William Quantrill and about 140 guerrillas. Residents were confined behind the fence at the square while businesses and homes were looted.  Ten men were killed in the raid. 

“They corralled residents in the square since it was fenced in,” Courtney said.

From 1861 to 1863, Quantrill and his raiders crossed the Kansas/Missouri border and looted almost every town in Johnson County, including Gardner (1861), Aubry (1863), Spring Hill (1863) and Shawnee (1862 and 1863). The nearby Lawrence Massacre, claiming between 160 and 190 lives, occurred in 1863.

During that time, only one town in Johnson County was not raided: De Soto.

“He had a close friend living in De Soto at the time, so he shared the community,” Courtney said. “It's who you know.”

Quantrill was killed by Union troops in 1865. He was 27.

Olathe became a second-class city with 2,045 residents counted in the 1870 Census. The square also had its first building. The 1874 Atlas Map of Olathe shows an engine house was added to the square for the Olathe Hook and Ladder Company, the city’s first official fire company.

By the turn of the 20th century, Johnson County had replaced the Case Building, which was occupied by the county for courthouse purposes for four decades.

The second courthouse was designed by famed architect George P. Washburn. Along with his son, they designed courthouses in 11 Kansas counties and nine Carnegie library buildings in the state.

Dedicated in August 1892, the Washburn courthouse was the first court facility actually built in the courthouse square. Sixty years later, that courthouse was razed when the county’s third courthouse opened in 1952. It was the second courthouse constructed in the square. Two building wings were added in 1954 and 1968 along with an eight-story tower in 1975.

Another major project was added near the square when the Johnson County Administration Building opened in 1992.

After 68 years, the third courthouse was replaced by the current courthouse, which opened a year ago. It was the second courthouse not directly in the square but located across the Santa Fe Street to the north.

The old courthouse was razed this summer, paving the way for creation of the Johnson County Square on the same location, the same size, but without a courthouse.

The Johnson County Square was formalized with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 9.

The project features a large open, public community green area with a curved and widened walkway from the corner of Santa Fe and Cherry streets as the main entry to the square, leading to the Administration Building. The project included site lighting,
landscaping and sod and an irrigation system.

Fourteen Rotary Clubs in Johnson County provided funding for the Rotary Tree Grove of the County Square as a gift to the community in the northeast corner of the square. The grove has 33 linden trees and maples. The county has also added six picnic tables near the grove for use by residents and visitors to the square.

The Rotary Tree Grove is the first donation under a donor policy approved by the Board of County Commissioners to receive and accept donations for the square. The policy also provides naming recognition for donors who make substantial contributions who so generously donate their time, money, property or other assets for the benefit and success of the Johnson County Square.

The reopening of the Johnson County Square fulfills a three-year contract with JE Dunn to build the new Johnson County Courthouse and the county’s new Medical Examiner Facility, which opened in 2020. Funding for both projects is from a 10- year, quarter-cent public safety sales tax approved by Johnson County voters in 2016. The contract also included demolition of the old courthouse and creation of the “intermediate option” for redesigning the Johnson County Square.

As part of the county’s donor policy, a master plan option for future development of the square suggests other possible enhancements. Proposals include a Memorial Plaza with educational and historical information, an open multi-use platform with stage, an art garden play area and iconic public art near the main entry.

Pending possible donations, Johnson County Government has not authorized or funded a future option for the square at this time.