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Arts & Life

Who Was J.C. Nichols? The Mixed Legacy Of The Man Whose Name Could Be Taken Off Kansas City's Most Famous Fountain

061220_Nichols Collage.jpg
Julie Denesha/The Kansas City Public Library Collection
The J.C. Nichols Fountain in Mill Creek Park was bought by the Nichols family after the legendary real-estate developer's death and reopened in 1960 bearing Nichols' name.

Nichols developed the Country Club Plaza and helped finance the World War I Memorial but also entrenched Kansas City's stubborn racial divides.

Jesse Clyde Nichols transformed Kansas City by building the Country Club Plaza and developing tree-lined residential subdivisions where homes continue to appreciate in value nearly a century later.

But for decades, deed restrictions kept blacks, Jews and other minorities from living in Nichols’ neighborhoods, ensuring they remained racially and socioeconomically homogeneous. Redlining preserved property values for white homeowners by regulating black residents to less desirable neighborhoods east of Troost.

The residential segregation Nichols perpetuated has had lasting effects on housing policy, education and the lives of black Kansas Citians. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minnesota, Black Lives Matter protesters want to dismantle Nichols’ racist legacy by renaming a fountain and road near the Plaza named after him.

Here are five things to know about Nichols and his decidedly mixed legacy on Kansas City. (This information has been compiled from some of KCUR's past coverage of Nichols and his legacy, as well as information from the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.)

The Country Club District was —and is — aesthetically appealing.

If you’ve ever appreciated the architecture of the Plaza on a blustery Thanksgiving evening while waiting for a hometown celebrity to flip the switch on thousands of twinkling holiday lights, then you’ve experienced Nichols’ legacy.

Nichols developed more than 6,000 homes and apartments during his nearly 50-year career, providing housing for 35,000 Kansas Citians. He built neighborhoods with tree-lined streets wide enough for cars, sidewalks for recreation, sweeping esplanades and beautiful fountains. Instead of living on top of each other as they had for most of the 19th century, city residents had grassy lawns. It was the start of suburban sprawl.

A century later, not much has changed. People still want to live in Nichols’ neighborhoods because they’re picturesque, and homes in and around the Country Club Plaza have only increased in value.

Deed restrictions have contributed to the black-white wealth gap.

Of course, only certain people could live in Nichols’ beautiful neighborhoods when he built them – you had to be white, and you couldn’t be Jewish. In the 1920s, the city council agreed to zoning ordinances that restricted blacks to neighborhoods on the east side, and Troost Avenue became Kansas City’s de facto color line.

Houses in those neighborhoods have not retained their values for a number of reasons, but uncertainty around the construction of U.S. Route 71 certainly contributed. While black activists fought to keep the highway from dividing their neighborhoods, homes and businesses in the proposed roadway deteriorated.

Today, houses west of Troost can go for eight times as much as houses east of Troost, despite being priced similarly in the 1960s. Rising property values in Nichols’ neighborhoods helped white Kansas Citians build wealth while black families lost equity as their homes depreciated.

As a result of polices like Nichols’, black Americans overall tend to have substantially less wealth than white Americans.

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The World's Work

Kansas City schools avoided integrating after Brown v. Board of Education because of residential segregation.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ordered school districts to integrate in 1955, neighborhoods were so racially divided that all the Kansas City, Missouri, School District had to do to keep black students out of white schools was redraw a few attendance boundaries.

The district maintained black schools and white schools into the 1970s, when Kansas City’s desegregation case finally went to court. By then, white families were already moving out to suburban districts in Johnson County in Kansas and eastern Jackson County and north of the river in Missouri, or putting their kids into expensive private schools in and around the Country Club district.

Today, 90% of students in the Kansas City Public Schools are children of color, and white families who choose public education often pick district and charter schools that are whiter than KCPS as a whole.

Nichols was instrumental in building the Liberty Memorial.

Kansas City is home to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, the only major monument in the country commemorating the Great War, and it wouldn’t have been built without the backing of Nichols and other influential Kansas Citians of the era.

The Liberty Memorial was essentially crowdfunded – in 10 days, 83,000 Kansas Citians collectively raised $2.5 million for the project. Nichols, along with lumber baron Robert Long and businessman William Volker, handled the donations. Nichols also helped acquire the property where the monument was built.

Like the fountain at Mill Creek Park, the auditorium at the WWI Museum bears Nichols’ name. He left an indelible mark on many other institutions as well, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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Courtesy the Kansas City Public Library Collection
Full view of the J.C. Nichols Fountain, looking east, in 1960. That was the year the newly renamed fountain was unveiled.

The J.C. Nichols Fountain wasn’t installed in Kansas City until after Nichols’ death.

It’s one of Kansas City’s most recognizable landmarks, but the fountain at Mill Creek Park didn’t always welcome shoppers to the Plaza.

Sculpted by French artist Henri Greber, it was commissioned by a Long Island financier for his private residence and installed in 1910. It eventually fell into disrepair before being purchased by the Nichols family in 1951, a year after J.C. Nichols’ death. A refurbished fountain was unveiled in 1960.

The fountain symbolically is supposed to represent four major world rivers: the Mississippi, the Volga, the Seine and the Rhine. It underwent extensive repairs in 2014, which were paid for by the Miller Nichols Charitable Trust.