An insider's guide to the architecture of Kansas City's Country Club Plaza
Learn the hidden history and little-known facts behind 100 years of Kansas City's iconic shopping district.
This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.
The Country Club Plaza celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, and wrapped up in that milestone are 100 years of architecture, festivities, and even weird history. KCUR's podcast A People’s History of Kansas City recently commemorated the occasion by exploring the complicated legacy of the famed district.
When J.C. Nichols developed his plan for the Plaza in the early 1920s, he envisioned more than a mere shopping center. “Nichols’ vision for a bigger shopping destination crystalized into a plan to transform that swamp bed property along Brush Creek,” host Suzanne Hogan describes in the episode.
Nichols’ complicated legacy of racist real estate practices has resulted in the renaming of the fountain and parkway that bore his name. Despite this history, Nichols’ initial vision for the Plaza remains, as many see it as a tourist destination or a place to celebrate family events.
One draw for locals and tourists alike remains the Plaza’s unique Spanish-style architecture. The Plaza has changed immensely over the course of the last century, but there are a number of architectural gems that date back to the district’s foundation. Others have been constructed in the decades since.
Learn more about the history of these places you may have passed dozens of times without knowing their significance.
Mill Creek Building
Opened in 1923, the Mill Creek Building was J.C. Nichols’ first commercial building on the Country Club Plaza. It still stands today at 4646 Mill Creek Parkway, across the street from the fountain at Mill Creek Park.
The building was originally called the Suydam building after its original occupants: Suydam Incorporated, a purveyor of high-end “objets d’arts” and interior goods.
It was the first example of the Plaza’s notable Spanish-style architecture, a marked departure from traditional local conventions. “Kansas City builders in the past have been afraid of color, in the sense, for instance, that it is being utilized in California,” noted a 1923 Kansas City Star article.
Applauding architect Edward Buehler Delk’s design, the same article noted that “unstinted praise from architects has been won by the business structure.”
The building has housed an assortment of tenants over the years and is now home to the locally-owned restaurant Rye Plaza.
Nelle Peters District
Another notable segment of Plaza architecture has less to do with Spanish influence, and more to do with the important woman behind the buildings.
Famed Kansas City architect Nelle Peters is thought to have designed around 1,000 buildings in the Kansas City area. This makes her “one of the most prolific architects in Kansas City during the 1920s,” according to Jason Roe of the Kansas City Public Library.
Peters accomplished this amazing feat at a time when female architects were rare, and developed her own style. “She was the local pioneer of sitting apartments around a central courtyard,” describes Jill Canon in a 1995 Kansas City Star article.
The Nelle E. Peters Thematic District in West Plaza was designated in 1989. It consists of six apartment buildings named after literary and artistic figures including Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Paul Cézanne. Peters designed these buildings in 1928 and 1929.
Cezanne, pictured above, is at 712 W. 48th Street. The Peters Thematic District is at 48th Street, with buildings on Jefferson Street, Roanoke Parkway and Ward Parkway.
In 2016, three of Peters’s tudor-style apartment buildings on the 4700 block of Summit Street were demolished. While many fought to preserve the landmarks, the Kansas City Council voted down a proposal to grant the buildings historic preservation status.
Seventh Church of Christ Scientist
Perched on the hill at the northwest corner of 47th and Pennsylvania Avenue sits the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, opened in 1942. The church is “considered one of the city’s finest examples of Romanesque Revival architecture,” according to Kevin Collison.
The church was designed by Indianapolis architect G. Wilbur Foster to “harmonize with the Spanish architecture of the Country Club Plaza district,” according to a 1941 Star article.
If you want to see the church, you may have to act quickly, as the building’s future is in limbo. “Drake Development, of Overland Park, wants to tear it down and replace it with a nine-story building that will house restaurants, luxury condominiums, and entertainment,” as KCUR’s Jacob Martin reported in April 2022.
The group Historic Kansas City Foundation is advocating against the demolition of the historic church.
Country Club Plaza Theater Building
With its tower and ornate stonework, the old Country Club Plaza Theater Building on the southwest corner of 47th and Wyandotte Streets is a sight to behold in and of itself. The movie theater was a main attraction in the Plaza’s early days, but the building also has much earlier historical connections.
During its 1928 construction, workers uncovered a 2.5-pound mastodon tooth.
The old Plaza Theater embodied the district’s Spanish theme both inside and out. It contained “two parking stations, treated in an entirely new way, with a low tile cap wall, old Spanish gates, fountains, shrubbery and trees,” according to a 1928 Star article.
The building had a long life as a theater, operating until 1999 when the competing (and now closed) Cinemark movie theater moved nearby into 526 Nichols Road. The theater was also the home of the Kansas City Philharmonic for a period in the 1960s.
Though the building is currently closed, signs indicate that a store called KC Style Haus will open in late spring 2022.
Plaza Medical Building
Upon its 1937 completion, a Jack Henry’s advertisement excitedly dubbed the Plaza Medical Building “Kansas City’s most beautiful structure!” Located at 315 Nichols Road, the building’s main entrance is flanked by colorful tiled murals. Its second story is adorned with a tower and tiling around the windows.
As the 1937 Star advertisement detailed, the building contains “brilliantly colored tile from old Mexico … interesting plaques … antique iron balconies from Spain … soft tone, hand-made tiles in variegated colors.”
Before the Plaza Medical Building’s construction, the land was once the site of the Plaza dog mart. On September 22nd, 1934, “Country Club Plaza merchants sponsored a dog mart where people interested in buying a dog could see and inspect many breeds of dog,” according to the State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City.
Boy and Frog Fountain
There are of course many statues and fountains to see on the Plaza. Popular destinations include The Neptune fountain near 47th and Central Street, the Ben Franklin statue near 47th and Jefferson Street, and the Wild Boar of Florence near 47th and Wornall Road.
One small fountain to add to your list is directly across from the Plaza Medical Building. The Boy and Frog fountain sits right outside of the Starbucks at 302 Nichols Road. The statue was designed in Florence by Raffaello Romanelli, and was brought to Kansas City in 1929.
“Though it appears the chubby child is gleefully peeing into the frog’s mouth, the amphibian is actually the one spitting the water,” comically describes the site Atlas Obscura. “Crouching below the boy and his frog friend is a grumpy looking faun [sic] riding atop a dolphin who looks none too pleased to be stuck holding up the marble basin.”
Atlas Obscura also details that the fountain was recently the subject of drama. It reported that the frog went missing in February 2021, and that by June 2021, “the frog is back, although missing its right front leg.”
This is not the first time the fountain was involved in a theft. The baby was stolen in 1960, but was fortunately found later in nearby bushes, reported the Star in 2016.
This compilation only scratches the surface. If you have the time, the Country Club Plaza has created several themed scavenger hunts. The William T. Kemper foundation has also put together a 36-page Plaza walking tour with historical reflections on the district. It contains 50 notable sights to see in the district.
Want more adventures like this? Sign up for KCUR's Creative Adventure Email.