The Country Club Plaza is turning 100 years old, but its 'terribly racist' creator still looms large
Over the last century, the Country Club Plaza has survived floods, social unrest and challenging economic climates. How can Kansas City reconcile its affection for the district with the problematic vision of its creator, J.C. Nichols?
Almost from the time of its improbable creation at the site of a swampy creek bed a century ago, the Country Club Plaza has been Kansas City’s signature destination.
While its Spanish-style architecture and shopping and dining opportunities have made it a draw for tourists, its significance for locals is more complex. The Plaza is where Kansas Citians go to celebrate and remember good times, but also to protest injustices and to deal with hard realities.
Foremost among those realities: Kansas City’s cherished shopping district is the centerpiece of a racist real estate empire that its creator, J.C. Nichols, began in Kansas City and whose practices were copied nationwide.
“J.C. Nichols skewed the development and growth of Kansas City, Missouri, by concentrating most of the wealth of the city in his residential neighborhoods,” says Bill Worley, a historian who has researched Nichols’ life and legacy.
Chico Sierra, who started a petition to remove Nichols’ name from a parkway expresses his thoughts more starkly: “He was a terribly racist person,” he says.
The Plaza's complicated godfather
Nichols was a brilliant thinker, a control freak, a pacer, and a chain smoker, Worley says. He built some of the Kansas City area’s most enduring neighborhoods, like Mission Hills and Brookside. And for fun, he would drive around those subdivisions to offer critiques to the residents.
“If he saw, for example, a garage door up, or if he would see out in the backyard clothes on a clothesline he would write them a letter,” Worley says.
Nichols was an architect of suburbia and suburban ideals. He encouraged landscape designs that would attract birds and make neighborhoods beautiful. He believed in planning for permanence, and many of his homes continue to appreciate in value a century later.
But Nichols also believed in keeping property values high through the use of covenants which denied the sale, lease, or rental of properties to Blacks, Jews and low-income people. This practice was adopted by the other developers and the U.S. government and used across the nation for decades.
“What he’s doing is to support what is absolutely for a large portion of the American population the most acceptable thing you can do, which is to protect your investment,” Worley says.
“I’m not here to justify that," he adds. "I’m just simply saying that's what the motivation is. J.C. Nichols is concerned first and foremost about property values. Are those results of those positions racist? Absolutely.”
Birth of the Plaza
Worley believes Nichols’ idea for the Plaza came from a trip he took to Baltimore in 1913. That’s when he saw the Roland Park Shopping Center, a strip of shops built exclusively for an upper-class streetcar suburb. Its developer was Kansas City born Edward Bouton.
Back home, Nichols eyed some swampy property along Brush Creek. Somewhat humorously, the parcels had already been named the Country Club Plaza by one of Nichols’ real estate competitors, George Law. He thought the name would make the district more appealing in the newspaper ads he placed to attract out-of-town buyers.
Nichols bought up 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 tile roofs and ornamental features like fountains, sculptures and courtyards.
Nichols built the Plaza to appeal to the affluent, white residents of the nearby neighborhoods he’d created. He also designed the district to accommodate a relatively new invention.
“Nichols was planning from the get go to attract a clientele that was going to arrive significantly by automobile,” says Worley.
Nichols’ foresight in designing a district where people could drive and park their vehicles became part of its lasting success. He also sold land around the Plaza to developers of large apartment buildings, ensuring a steady flow of pedestrian traffic as well.
“He wanted a captive audience for the Plaza,” says Worley. By the mid 1920’s, the Plaza had four grocery stores, including Wolferman’s and two Piggly Wiggly markets.
Just a few years into the Plaza’s 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 that began one of Kansas City’s most enduring traditions, the Plaza holiday lights.
While his shopping district claimed accolades, Nichols knitted himself into the civic fabric of Kansas City. He helped raise funds and acquire the property for the Liberty Memorial, promoted Missouri River navigation and served on multiple boards, including those of the Nelson Atkins Museum and the Kansas City Art Institute.
By the time J.C. Nichols died in 1950, at age 69, his Country Club Plaza was heralded worldwide as a triumph of vision and planning. But even then, it had a divisive side.
"For black folks in Kansas City the Plaza was a symbol of white elitism,” Worley says. “It wasn’t that they couldn't go into the stores and shop, it was that it was made very clear that they were really not welcome. And this was done in all kinds of subtle and not subtle ways."
A place of protest
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 fellow commissioners.
“The history of Kansas City developer Jesse Clyde Nichols requires very little education for this group,” Goode wrote. “His accumulation of wealth in part by the creation of some of our city's most treasured real estate, including the Country Club Plaza, serve as a very painful truth in our city’s history.”
That pain of that truth was evident when Goode wrote his letter. For several nights, angry and anguished citizens had gathered in Mill Creek Park, on the Plaza’s east fringe. Protests that began over the murder of a Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer, quickly came to encompass tensions with police in Kansas City and a demand to re-examine the city’s racist legacy.
“Having seen our beloved Mill Creek Park become the backdrop for the reactionary protest and visual displays of pain and frustration, I, as a Parks and Rec commissioner, find myself compelled to act,” Goode wrote.
In some ways, the 2020 protests served as an encore to a show of force by police in 1968, when riots broke out after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Guard tanks perched on the east side of the Plaza, sending a not-so-subtle message.
“I think that’s the point at which symbolically the Plaza became in the minds of a lot of Black folks and some white folks a symbol of racial discrimination, of class discrimination, you name it,” Worley says.
Mill Creek Park has since been a gathering point for protests, rallies and community conversations. But, especially since Floyd’s murder, that conversation has centered around how Nichols' name and legacy is memorialized in Kansas City.
When Goode wrote that he was “compelled to act,” he was speaking of his intention to have J.C. Nichols’ name removed from the parkway that divides the Plaza from Mill Creek Park, and from the fountain in the park.
Leaving the name intact, Goode said, sends a message to the community and visitors: “Racism is a norm we are not willing to eradicate.”
Goode was far from alone in his determination to remove Nichols' name.
“I think it’s important to take down these statues of racist leaders, change street names,” says artist Chico Sierra.
Even before Floyd’s death, in 2019, Sierra started an online petition to have Nichols Parkways changed to Martin Luther King Dr.
Goode engaged in dialogue across the city in 2020. He says his call for change at first met with resistance. But as conversations continued, opinions changed.
“We made sure we got widespread voice of Kansas City, not just from one audience,” Goode says. “It was a resounding yes, it’s time to remove the name.”
Support even came from an unexpected source. Hours before the Parks Board was scheduled to vote on whether to remove J.C. Nichols’ name from the fountain and parkway, the developer’s living family members went public in favor of the change.
“At the time I think everyone felt this was the right thing to do, and I did too,” says Kay Callison, Nichols’ granddaughter.
Callison was 7 when her grandfather died. She has lived in the shadow of his legacy. As has Kansas City.
“We can only live in today,” Callison says. “We can’t live in the past, and we can’t live in the future.”
Today, Kansas Citians and visitors take photos at the iconic fountain in Mill Creek Park, which has been stripped of Nichols’ name. If they walk across what’s now called Mill Creek Parkway, they’ll find themselves at the Country Club Plaza. Some storefronts are vacant and troubling questions about ownership and ambitious development plans haunt the district.
But, at 100 years old, the Plaza endures. It is a place of pride for some and a source of division for others. But few people 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 reporting help from Jacob Martin and Hannah Bailey and editing by Barb Shelly and Mackenzie Martin.