Country Club Plaza turns 100, but its ‘terribly racist’ creator still looms large | KCUR 89.3
Almost since its unlikely creation on the site of a marshy creek bed a century ago, the Country Club Plaza has been Kansas City’s premier destination.
While its Spanish-style architecture and shopping and dining options have made it a draw for tourists, its importance to locals is more complex. The Plaza is where Kansas Citians go to celebrate and remember the good times, but also to protest injustices and face harsh realities.
Foremost among these realities: Kansas City’s beloved shopping district is the centerpiece of a racist real estate empire that its creator, JC Nichols, launched in Kansas City and whose practices have been copied across the country.
“JC Nichols distorted the development and growth of Kansas City, Missouri by concentrating most of the city’s wealth in its residential neighborhoods,” says Bill Worley, a historian who has studied Nichols’ life and legacy. .
Chico Sierra, who started a petition to remove Nichols’ name from a boardwalk, puts his thoughts more bluntly: “He was a terribly racist person,” he says.
The Complicated Plaza Godfather
Nichols was a brilliant thinker, control freak, pacer and chain smoker, Worley says. He built some of the most enduring neighborhoods in the Kansas City area, like Mission Hills and Brookside. And for fun, he drove around these housing estates to offer reviews to residents.
“If he saw, for example, an open garage door, or if he saw clothes in the garden on a washing line, he would write them a letter,” says Worley.
Nichols was an architect of suburbs and suburban ideals. He encouraged landscaping that would attract birds and beautify neighborhoods. He believed in planning for permanence, and many of his homes continue to rise in value a century later.
But Nichols also believed in keeping property values high through the use of covenants that denied selling, renting, or renting properties to blacks, Jews, and low-income people. This practice was adopted by other developers and the US government and used across the country for decades.
“What he’s doing is supporting what is absolutely for a large portion of the American population the most palatable thing you can do, which is to protect your investment,” Worley says.
“I’m not here to justify that,” he adds. “I’m just saying that’s the motivation. JC Nichols cares first and foremost about property values. Are these results of these positions racist? Absolutely.”
Birth of the square
Worley believes Nichols’ idea for the Plaza came from a trip he took to Baltimore in 1913. It was then that he saw the Roland Park Shopping Center, a strip of stores built exclusively for a upper class tram commuter. Its developer was Kansas City-born Edward Bouton.
Back home, Nichols observed a swampy property along Brush Creek. With a bit of humor, the plots had previously been named Country Club Plaza by one of Nichols’ real estate competitors, George Law. He thought the name would make the neighborhood more attractive in the newspaper ads he placed to attract out-of-town buyers.
Nichols purchased the property and worked with architect Edward Buehler Delk to develop a design for the buildings, the distinctive Moorish Revival style common in Seville, Spain. It featured tiled roofs and ornamental elements such as fountains, sculptures and courtyards.
Nichols built the Plaza to appeal to affluent white residents of nearby neighborhoods he had created. He also designed the neighborhood to accommodate a relatively new invention.
“Nichols planned from the start to attract a clientele that would arrive largely by automobile,” says Worley.
Nichols’ foresight in designing a neighborhood where people could drive and park their vehicles became part of his enduring success. He also sold land around the Plaza to developers of large apartment buildings, ensuring a steady flow of foot traffic as well.
“He wanted a captive audience for the Plaza,” says Worley. By the mid-1920s, the Plaza had four grocery stores, including Wolferman’s and two Piggly Wiggly Markets.
Just a few years after the Plaza began life, in 1925, a maintenance worker named Charles Pitrat hung a single strand of colored light bulbs above what is now the Millcreek Building on 47th Street. With this began one of Kansas City’s most enduring traditions, the Plaza Christmas Lights.
As his shopping district won accolades, Nichols became part of Kansas City’s civic fabric. He helped raise funds for and acquire ownership of the Liberty Memorial, promoted navigation on the Missouri River, and served on several boards, including those of the Nelson Atkins Museum and the Kansas City Art Institute.
By the time JC Nichols died in 1950, aged 69, his Country Club Plaza was hailed around the world as a triumph of vision and planning. But even then it was divisive.
“For black people in Kansas City, the Plaza was a symbol of white elitism,” says Worley. welcome. And it was done in all sorts of subtle and unsubtle ways.
A place of contention
In June 2020, Christopher Goode, a black business owner and at the time a member of the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners, wrote a letter to the other commissioners.
“The story of Kansas City developer Jesse Clyde Nichols requires very little education for this group,” Goode wrote. “His accumulation of wealth in part through the creation of some of our city’s most valuable real estate, including the Country Club Plaza, is a very painful truth in our city’s history.”
This pain of this truth was evident when Goode wrote his letter. For several nights, angry and anguished citizens had gathered in Mill Creek Park, on the eastern outskirts of the Plaza. Protests that began over the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer, quickly encompassed tensions with Kansas City police and a demand to reconsider the city’s racist legacy .
“Having seen our beloved Mill Creek Park become the backdrop for reactionary protest and visual displays of pain and frustration, as Commissioner of Parks and Recreation I find myself compelled to act,” wrote Goode.
In some ways, the 2020 protests served as a reminder of a show of police force in 1968, when riots broke out after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Guard tanks roosted on the east side of the Plaza, sending a not-so-subtle message.
“I think that’s when symbolically the Plaza became in the minds of a lot of black people and some white people as a symbol of racial discrimination, class discrimination, etc.,” Worley says.
Mill Creek Park has been a gathering point for protests, rallies and community conversations ever since. But, especially since Floyd’s murder, that conversation has focused on how Nichols’ name and legacy are commemorated in Kansas City.
When Goode wrote that he was “compelled to act”, he was talking about his intention to have JC Nichols’ name removed from the boardwalk that separates the Plaza from Mill Creek Park and from the park fountain.
Leaving the name intact, Goode said, sends a message to the community and visitors: “Racism is a norm that we don’t want to eradicate.
Goode was far from alone in his determination to remove Nichols’ name.
“I think it’s important to bring down these statues of racist leaders, to change the names of the streets,” says artist Chico Sierra.
Even before Floyd died in 2019, Sierra started an online petition to have Nichols Parkways replaced with Martin Luther King Dr.
Goode engaged in a citywide dialogue in 2020. He says his call for change was initially met with resistance. But as the conversations progressed, opinions changed.
“We made sure we had a broad voice from Kansas City, not just one audience,” Goode said. “It was a resounding yes, it’s time to drop the name.”
Support even came from an unexpected source. Hours before the Parks Board was to vote on whether to remove JC Nichols’ name from the fountain and boardwalk, living members of the developer’s family went public in support of the change.
“At the time, I think everyone thought it was the right thing to do, and so did I,” says Kay Callison, Nichols’ granddaughter.
Callison was 7 years old when her grandfather died. She lived in the shadow of her heritage. Just like Kansas City.
“We can only live today,” Callison says. “We can’t live in the past, and we can’t live in the future.”
Today, Kansas citizens and visitors take photos at the iconic fountain in Mill Creek Park, which was stripped of Nichols’ name. If they cross what is now called Mill Creek Parkway, they will end up at Country Club Plaza. Some storefronts are vacant and troubling questions about ownership and ambitious development plans haunt the neighborhood.
But, at 100 years old, the Plaza lives on. It is a place of pride for some and a source of division for others. But few could imagine Kansas City without it.
A People’s History of Kansas City is hosted by Suzanne Hogan. This episode was produced and mixed by Suzanne Hogan with assistance from Jacob Martin and Hannah Bailey and editing by Barb Shelly and Mackenzie Martin.