The AXA Building, located on the southeast corner of 5th and Delaware, has served as the centerpiece of Leavenworth’s downtown business district for more than 100 years. The building was constructed in the spring of 1905 by owner, Charles Espenscheid, who promised it would make Delaware street the finest business block in the city. The architect was locally prominent William P. Feth and the builder, Robert Yoakum, whose bid for the project’s completion was four month’s time, 61 days less than the lowest bidder. Plumbing and heating was done by the Tholen Brothers and the painting and decorating contractor was C.M. Tarr.
Designed to be 2 ½ stories, the primary façade faced west and was symmetrical with two identical wings connected by a one-story arched entryway. The floor plan called for five businesses and 26 office suites to be used primarily for physicians and attorneys.
The Mehl & Schott Pharmacy was the first ground floor tenant and conducted business here for many years. It was the son of one of the owners, Henry and Harriet Mehl, Byron Mehl, who became a first lieutenant in the Twelfth Field Artillery and was killed in action July 21, 1918, in France–the first from Leavenworth to lose his life in the war. The Byron H. Mehl American Legion Post #23 was named after him.
Ownership of the AXA building in 1971 was held by Ruth D. Todd, granddaughter of Charles Espenscheid. That year application was made for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places. In 1978, V.B. Greenamyre purchased and restored the building to its original design. At this time there were seven businesses in the building with the capacity for twelve offices. Ron Booth, a local pharmacist, purchased the pharmacy in 1981, and until recently operated the Corner Pharmacy. Four years later he purchased the AXA building itself and looked forward to an eventual complete restoration.
What remained a mystery about the most photographed building in downtown Leavenworth however is when the observer looks high above the west entrance and sees the inscription: “19 –AXA – 05”. Is this a symbol, a time-stamp, or of some astrological significance? Historians and casual passersby have suggested several possibilities and speculated that the owner Espenscheid and architect Feth, might have chuckled to one another when they decided to add this small design detail and commented, “A hundred years from now, no one will ever be able to figure this one out!”
Perhaps the joke is really on them for in the July 28, 1905 issue of the Leavenworth Times the following article was discovered:
“What does that word ‘AXA’ mean?” is a question asked by almost everyone who passes the new Espenscheid building and notices the letters carved over the entrance; and the inability to answer the question is almost as universal as the question itself. Architect Feth furnished the explanation yesterday.
“It is a contraction of Mrs. Espenscheid’s given name,” he explained. “She was given a Biblical name that is pronounced the same as ‘Axa’ but I certainly don’t know how to spell the right name. Before Mr. Espenscheid married, he used to always address his present wife as ‘Axa,’ and so decided to give the building the same name.”
Mrs. Espenscheid’s given name was “Achsah”.
For those interested in our rich local history, membership is open in the Leavenworth County Historical Society, whose home is the Carroll Mansion Museum, 1128 Fifth Avenue. Visit our website for more information: www.leavenworthhistory.org.