Historical Architecture

A Spicy Legacy

The Surprising History of WDM Architects' Building in Old Town

WDM Architects’ 15,000-square-foot home office, located in Wichita’s Old Town, has a fascinating history. Originally constructed in 1923, the building served as the home of the Dye Chile Factory. In 1993, WDM was one of the first businesses to invest in a run-down building in Old Town and renovate it for modern use. Remarkably, many of the original manufacturing artifacts and structural features have been preserved, giving the building a unique character.

To honor its heritage, WDM Architects hosts an annual chili cook-off among its employees. As the building approaches its 100-year anniversary, it’s worth delving into its remarkable history, from its renowned architect to the influential businessman W.A. Dye, who commissioned its construction. Notably, the Dye Chile Factory is credited with popularizing chili as a staple of the American diet, playing a role in wartime efforts, and contributing to the rise of fast food in the United States.

Chili's Origin

The origin of chili can be traced back to traditional Tex-Mex cuisine. In the 1860s through the 1930s, Mexican women known as the “Chili Queens” cooked and sold chili at outdoor stands in San Antonio’s Military Plaza. During this period, chili gained popularity among cowboys, many of whom were of Mexican descent, and it became a beloved campfire dish along the cattle trails. Wichita served as the Kansas headquarters for the Texas cattle trade, making it the perfect birthplace for a chili empire.

W. A. Dye: A man who knows an opportunity when he sees one

W.A. Dye started in the grocery business in Wichita in 1898. His grocery store stocked ingredients for making chili, a popular dish that typically sold for 5 to 10 cents a bowl at various stands in the area. Business boomed, so when the demand for his chili-related products surpassed that of his grocery store, Dye made the decision to sell out and focus exclusively on the production of chili supplies.

By 1907, Dye had perfected a chili mixture made from chili peppers, spices, and condiments, which was conveniently packaged in concentrated powder form. In addition to his standard chili mixture, Dye offered a range of other products, including hamburger, beans, and corn husks to chili stand operators.

The Wichita Eagle on February 21, 1908, claimed chili was being served at all ice cream shops, peanut stands, church socials, and restaurants, and that Dye’s “Chile Mixture,” was the most popular choice for preparing chili.

Advertising Genius

Dye attributes much of his success to his effective advertising strategies, often creating his own sales jingles. The ads featured his trademark characters known as the Chili Kids, created by artist C. A. Seward in pen and ink. “Juan, The Chile Kid,” was portrayed as a cheerful young boy in traditional Mexican clothing, relishing a hearty bowl of chili. Dye advertised in local newspapers, a Kansas-based magazine, and even national magazines to promote his products. One particular ad in 1909 generated orders from as far away as South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

One very successful campaign leveraged the nation’s patriotism during World War I. Dye offered to send complimentary cans of his Chile Mixture to servicemen at home and in France. This was so successful, that in 1919, a newspaper article hailed Dye’s Chile Mixture as “the mixture that fed the boys in France giving them ‘pep’ that helped them win the war.”

Building a New Home for Dye’s Chile Business

After World War I, Dye’s business experienced significant growth, prompting him to commission local architect Glenn H. Thomas to design a two-story concrete brick-curtain-wall factory and offices. This facility was strategically located adjacent to Mosely Avenue, taking advantage of the proximity to the Frisco Railroad tracks that ran down the center of the street. Dye’s name was prominently engraved on the limestone lintel above the front door of the building. The Dye Chile Factory marked one of Thomas’s early designs, and he went on to create notable structures in Wichita, including North High School, the Minisa Bridge, the Wichita Municipal Airport Building, Kansas Gas and Electric Co. building, and the Sedgwick County Courthouse during his illustrious career.

Greenfield - Circa December 2020: White Castle Hamburger Location. White Castle Serves 2 by 2 Inch Sliders.
Greenfield - Circa December 2020: White Castle Hamburger Location. White Castle Serves 2 by 2 Inch Sliders.

Kick-starting America’s Fast Food Empire

W.A. Dye is celebrated as a pioneering figure in the fast-food industry, particularly in a city that would later become renowned for launching successful fast-food chains such as Pizza Hut and Taco Tico. Interestingly, Dye played a role in kick-starting the very first fast-food hamburger empire, White Castle.

The origins of American fast food can be traced back to Wichita, Kansas, where a grill cook named J. Walter “Walt” Anderson discovered that a flattened hamburger patty topped with onions and served on a bun was incredibly popular. Anderson decided to open his own hamburger stand and managed to convert a used shoe repair stand into a food stand but then lacked the funds to get the supplies to open. In a pivotal gesture, Dye offered Anderson 5 pounds of ground beef at 10¢ per pound and enough buns for his first day, on the condition that Anderson would repay him by noon. Anderson’s hamburger stand opened on November 16, 1916, and its success was immediate, with his 5¢ hamburgers selling out by noon. True to his promise, Anderson repaid his debt with a bag of nickels, bought five pounds more, and had a profit of $3.75 by the end of the day. Five years later, Walt had three more hamburger stands and partnered with a successful businessman in establishing the first national hamburger chain, White Castle. In a 1962 interview with the Wichita Eagle, Dye fondly recalled his association with Anderson, describing how they remained lifelong friends.

By 1918, Dye’s business was so successful it was consuming a ton of peppers imported from Mexico each week and facing wartime supply shortages. By 1927, W.A. Dye had earned the title “Chili King of the West” and had successfully distributed his chili product worldwide. His business generated $100,000 a year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 million in 2023 when adjusted for inflation. Dye eventually passed his business on to his son Hubert, who sold it in 1966. Sadly, the W.A. Dye Chile factory ceased operations in 1970, and the building sat as storage space for the next 20 years.

WDM was one of the first businesses in 1993 to invest in a run-down building in Old Town and renovate it for modern use. As the idea of reinventing Old Town gained popularity, WDM was engaged for the historic renovation of an entire city block of long-neglected historic commercial buildings along Douglas, Eaton Place in 2000. Over the course of the next 20 years, WDM has renovated more than a dozen different historic buildings in downtown Wichita and Old Town including the Harvester Factory, Belford Electric building, Player Piano Lofts, the Coleman Factory into classrooms for WSU, Colorado Derby building, Union National Bank, and the Carnegie Library for Fidelity Bank.

Honoring a Spicy Legacy: WDM’s 2023 Chili Cookoff

In a chili-fueled celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the iconic Dye Chile building, WDM Architects held a sizzling chili cook-off. This annual tradition, rooted in the building’s rich heritage, showcased six delectable chili entries vying for the top honors.

Dan Wilson

Adding star power to the event, three esteemed former principals—Dan Wilson, Les Mock, and John Brewer—graciously accepted the role of celebrity judges. Over lunch, the trio indulged in more than just chili; they reminisced about the building, the firm, and, of course, their shared love for all things chili.

John Brewer

Stan Landwehr, one of WDM’s principals, announced “Les was drawing ‘Little Juan’ in the margins of his construction documents even before he bought this building.”

“And getting in trouble for it,” noted Dan. He was recalling a federal job that rejected prints that had Les’s ‘extra’ illustrations.

So when asked why he drew ‘Little Juan,’ Les stated matter-of-factly, “Because I could.” Les is renowned for his sense of humor and affection for everything spicy—be it chili, Tabasco sauce, or jalapeños.

Les Mock

Amid laughter, John shared, “We had a chili event even before we renovated. Just when we gutted the building. We invited everybody, clients, friends, folks from Larkspur.”

The discussion delved into the challenges of acquiring the building. Dan revealed, “Someone else was trying to buy it but got ‘sideways’ with the group who owned the building, or they probably wouldn’t have let us have it.”

John agreed that getting funding for a factory building in Old Town posed the biggest hurdle, “We went to 10-12 banks and were turned down. Finally, we found a bank in Newton who said, ‘I’m gonna take a chance on you.'”

Dan proudly declared, “I think we were the first professional office in Old Town,” reminiscing about how the only businesses that had opened were restaurants and bars like Heroes, Spaghetti Factory, and Larkspur.

As the conversation weaved through history, Les pointed out there was some difficulty designing the building, which one of the architects would do it? “It was quite the deal having too many cooks in the kitchen,” he chuckles.

As Old Town supporters, WDM entered the popular Wagonmasters Chili Cookoff for several years and won for best booth one year. “Not for the chili, mind you but for the best booth,” laughs Les. “And that was because Matt and Stan created 6’ tall peppers for the booth,” added Dan.

Sources Cited

  1. Wichita Historic Warehouse and Jobbers District, National Register of Historic Places, Historic Listing Application, 5-20-2003
  2. “Eccentric Kansas: Tales from Atchison to Winfield,” by Roger L. Ringer, pg. 51 (book)
  3. The Wichita Eagle • Wed. March 13, 1918
  4. The Wichita Eagle • Friday, February 21, 1908
  5. The Wichita Eagle • Sun, September 25, 1921, pg. 40
  6. The Wichita Eagle • Sunday, Nov. 6, 1927
  7. The Wichita Beacon • Aug. 15, 1942
  8. The Wichita Eagle • Friday, June 8, 1962, pg. 12
  9. The Wichita Eagle • Thursday February 12, 1987, pg. 3
  10. https://icintheict.com/william-dye-chili-king-of-the-west/?amp=1
  11. https://www.allrecipes.com/longform/history-of-chili/
  12. “Selling Them By The Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food,” By David G. Hogan, Pg. 26 (book)

WDM’s chili cook-off commemorating the 100th year for the Dye Chile Factory concluded with Ralph Flanagin, a perennial favorite, securing the coveted ‘People’s Choice’ award with his traditional spicy and sweet recipe. Meanwhile, Jason Harlan’s chicken chili reigned supreme, earning the distinguished ‘Judges’ Choice’ title.

The event not only celebrated the flavors of chili but also paid homage to the enduring legacy of the Dye Chile building, a cornerstone in the history of WDM Architects. Stay tuned for more tales from the heart of Old Town and the spicy traditions that continue to thrive at WDM!