Cover Photo: The Plaza Theater in 1930. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.
The nation’s first outdoor shopping mall: The Country Club Plaza
By Diane Euston
When out-of-town visitors come to Kansas City, one of the first spots to see is the Country Club Plaza. With its unique architecture, show stopping fountains, gorgeous landscaping and holiday lights showcased on TV stations nationwide, the Plaza is quintessentially Kansas City.
The early history of the Country Club Plaza embraces the growth of the city to the south and the innovation of one brilliant man who saw past a swampland; he could envision the future of the suburbs,. the need for nearby shopping that catered to a new, growing mobile society.
The Country Club District
Jesse Clyde Nichols (1880-1950), better known by “J.C.,” made a name for himself as a suburban planner who greatly influenced how our city grew to the south. In 1907, he began development of what is known as the Country Club District, deriving its name from nearby Kansas City Country Club (now Loose Park). What started as a ten-acre piece of land far away from downtown, the area grew to 50 subdivisions that shied away from the grid system of streets and embraced the natural curved landscape.
Nichols’s objective was to “develop whole residential neighborhoods that would attract an element of people who desired a better way of life, a nicer place to live and would be willing to work in order to keep it better.” Nichols needed to ensure his developments offered all the modern conveniences of the era in order to attract wealthy and influential people to the area.
The Eyesore of Brush Creek Valley
Around 1912, Nichols stood upon a hill near present day St. Lukes Medical Center, gazing south at a “marshy, weed-invested oxbow of Brush Creek valley.” His Country Club District was growing, but lack of zoning laws at the time had eyesores such as shanties and shacks dotting the valley.
Along the hillsides on the south side of Brush Creek was a dump, a hog farm emanating a horrid smell, and Lyle Rock Company. The hills were covered with brick kilns, trash and quarries. Located between Ward Parkway and 49thfrom Main to Wornall, Lyle Rock Co. yard was known for its black smoke barreling into the sky from the valley.
The company was a constant complaint for neighbors who had purchased homes in the Country Club District. Even though Lyle Rock Co. had established their quarries in 1907, those moving south were unforgiving. People living around it called it a “war zone.” Explosions rocked people’s foundations–one witness said a two-pound stone from a blast shattered his brand new front porch. Nichols called it “unsightly in its condition.”
It took Nichols nine years to buy up the land in the area, including Lyle Rock Co. In 1921, Nichols spent one million dollars to acquire 40 acres at the future site of the Country Club Plaza. In total, 26 houses and stores in bad condition were leveled to the ground.
On the east side of his newly purchased land was a stream flowing from Westport into Brush Creek called Mill Creek. Nichols wanted the city to pay for a road there to join his neighborhoods and serve as an anchor to a commercial development he had envisioned for the future; however, the city refused to pay for it. Not one to let a setback ruffle his plans, Nichols built the road, 16 feet wide, and called it Mill Creek Parkway (now J.C. Nichols Parkway). Upon completion, he planned something never seen before: an outdoor shopping mall.
Planning the Plaza
It certainly would have been easy to plan another housing development, but Nichols was a man ahead of his time. Although most Kansas Citians didn’t own automobiles, he could see that the car was the future. Accessibility, he reasoned, would spread retail sales past Petticoat Lane downtown.
The architecture of the Country Club Plaza was essential in order to ensure its success with the elite. Prior to construction, Nicholas found inspiration from his own travels to Europe where he admired the arches in Spain, villas nestled into the hillsides in Italy and the height of buildings in France. In order to execute his vision of something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, Nichols hired architect Edward B. Delk (1885-1956) and sent him to Spain, Mexico and South America to study the planning and design of buildings. He enlisted George Kessler, landscape designer of the Parks and Boulevard system, along with Herbert Hare to sketch in green spaces and tree-lined streets.
In April 1922, he announced a five million-dollar, 30-acre shopping center to serven the neighborhoods to the south. Adamant about the automobile, Nichols devoted 46 percent of his land to wide streets and parking lots. Prior to his vision of the Country Club Plaza, commercial buildings failed to add any type of parking for cars. His plan included no building over three stories high, harmony in design and color, wide streets, and parking lots.
The design, centered around a diagonal, tree-lined thoroughfare called “the Alameda” (renamed Nichols Rd. in the late 1940s). When construction began in Spring 1922, Nichols commented, “It is essential the new district be not only attractive to the eye, affording also a maximum of convenience, but that it be made commercially profitable.” Developers and business owners thought he was crazy. It was too far from downtown and blocks away from the streetcar line- no one would go there, they contended. Before the Plaza opened for business, people called it “Nichols’ folly.”
Nichols didn’t listen to the naysayers. He simply stated that he believed his Plaza plan could become the model of outlying business districts around the country.
He was right.
The Country Club Plaza Opens
Spain was the model for architecture. Buildings were planned to feature tile, iron, open plazas and balconies for optimal beauty. Keeping his promise to only feature buildings three stories or lower, Nichols worked with Delk to design ornate towers to grace the skyline in the Mill Creek valley. “Two proposed towers should give striking character to the otherwise general low roof lines of the remainder of the development,” Nichols said.
In November 1922, the first building, called the Suydam Building after its first tenant (an interior decorating company) opened its doors at current day 47thand J.C. Nichols Parkway. The Marinello Beauty Shop opened up inside and offered Kansas City’s first place to get the “permanent wave.” By the following year, the Plaza featured an art and gift shop, baby shop, a drug store, a mechanic, a florist, photographer and a millinery shop. At first, customers were scarce, so Nichols asked merchants to park on the street to make the new business district look busier than it was.
He touted the shopping district as “The Country Club Plaza: Where shopping is a pleasure.” Within the year, Nichols got his wish. People began to drive their motor cars to shop on the Plaza and its first fountain featuring a boy and fish began shooting water. This fountain was moved to 76thand The Paseo in 1968.
Completed in March 1924, the first of Delk’s planned ornate Spanish-inspired towers was finished at 47thand Mill Creek Pkwy. It served as a striking gateway to the Plaza. In 1925, the Triangle Building at 47thand Wyandotte was completed and housed Piggly Wiggly. Shortly thereafter, Wolferman’s opened on the Plaza and became the second grocery store in the development. Elite customers phoned in their orders and distinctive Wolferman’s trucks would deliver groceries to customers’ doors. In the same year, the Tower and Balcony Building were open for business.
Nichols wanted to encourage clean streets and upscale businesses and wouldn’t allow merchants to load and unload goods in the streets. he designed loading docks in the back, an innovation at the time. He would walk the streets at night and take meticulous notes, scribbling down when fingerprints could be found on doors or when a window display was quite impressive. A letter typed and delivered to merchants the next day would warn or praise the merchants.
The Beginning of the Plaza Lights
In December 1925, merchants decided to decorate the pristine sidewalks with mini Christmas trees. Likely in the holiday spirit, a Nichols employee who helped lease space along the Plaza named Charles Pitrat stood at the Suydam building, wishing merchants a Merry Christmas.
In his hand was one simple strand of 16 indoor Christmas lights that, stretched out, was six feet long. Feeling festive, Pitrat gazed up at the cornice of the building and grabbed a ladder. He hung that simple strand above the entrance without much thought; thus, the beginning of the Plaza Christmas light display began.
To be fair, there were few witnesses and no grand flipping of the on switch Thanksgiving night. It took a few more years for Christmas lights along the Plaza to become a showcase. In October 1928, the Plaza Theater opened its doors at 207 W. 47thSt., seating 2500 and showcasing the tallest tower at the time at over twice the height of any other at 72 feet.
The $750,000 construction of the Plaza Theater building was a monumental occasion. For the Christmas season in 1928, the new building featured the first ever outdoor strand of continuous lights on 47thSt. Just one year later, the buildings were outlined in multiple colors and followed the architecture so significant to the Plaza. For every year since, minus 1973 when Nixon called for conservation of energy, the Plaza lights have been a staple of Kansas City’s rich history. It is said that the Plaza lights inspired companies to make stronger bulbs that were weatherproof, thus the creation of outdoor Christmas lights.
Development of the Old Lyle Brickyard
In 1927, J.C. Nichols turned his energy toward developing the abandoned quarries on the south side of Brush Creek on Ward Parkway. Fifteen acres in total, the new landscape plan for beautification included high-rise apartment complexes and hotels that still exist today.
There was one flaw. He didn’t add parking for cars because he thought apartment dwellers wouldn’t be able to afford them. He was gravely mistaken. By 1930, 60 percent of the nation owned a car, and the number post-Depression only grew higher. The ability to be mobile, as he had predicted for his elite neighborhood clientele, had trickled down to the working class.
The Country Club Plaza a Landmark
J.C. Nichols’ vision for The Country Club Plaza solidified his Sunset Hills and Mission Hills neighborhoods as the most desirable in Kansas City. In 1915, these communities housed ten percent of the elite; by 1930, 59 percent of the most prominent families called his neighborhoods home. Their popularity, no doubt, had much to do with the gamble he took when developing the Plaza.
Visionary J.C. Nichols proved everyone wrong when the Plaza became the first outdoor shopping mall in America and the model on how to capitalize on suburban development. It may have taken him years to plan, but the early Country Club Plaza is more than a shopping area. It is a destination due to its architectural integrity, tree-lined streets and high-class shopping- all things he had expertly envisioned while standing on top of the hill and gazing down at the eye-sore of Mill Creek valley in 1912.
His plan, indeed, worked.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.