One Man’s Vision Shapes the City
The Country Club Plaza is a historical beacon to commercial developers and still evolving as a beloved destination for Kansas Citians and visitors alike
Before the turn of the 20th century, the Brush Creek Valley was little more than a watering hole for those on their way to somewhere else. Fur trappers, Indians, soldiers and early settlers all walked its banks, but their journeys took them elsewhere. Only one man had the vision to see the little valley as something more. With steadfast determination and hard work, Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols changed the face of the land forever, transforming a swampy, unappealing tract of land into the country’s first shopping center, the Country Club Plaza.
Born outside Olathe, Kansas in 1880, J.C. Nichols had an uncanny ability of turning dreams into reality, even when others thought his ideas were foolish. He began working in his father’s mercantile store at age 8, and started his own wholesale produce business at age 16. His college days had him always looking for a new way to earn money, willing to adapt his talents to many business opportunities. College vacations were always an adventure. One summer he loaded potatoes into railroad cars. The next had him selling maps door-to-door in Utah and Wyoming. He even took a job as a deputy U.S. marshal chasing down outlaws in the Southwest. His last summer of college had the most impact on him, though. He and a friend worked their way to Europe aboard a cattle boat. They toured Britain and the Continent on bicycles, earning money as they went. What resulted was a lasting impression of the colorful marketplaces of Spain and the warmth and Old World charm of Europe, an inspiration that eventually led to the construction of the Country Club Plaza.
At the turn of the 20th century, J.C. Nichols envisioned a business opportunity that would prove to be his life’s work--real estate development. Nichols convinced two of his fraternity brothers to join him in buying land near 13th and Lathrop that was going up for bankruptcy sale. That move proved to be the start of a journey of successes that Nichols traveled the next fifty years. Shortly after this purchase, thousands of Kansas Citians were forced out of the riverbottom area to higher ground during the 1903 flood. Nichols tract of land at 13th and Lathrop was on high ground. A neighborhood was built almost overnight.
Using the profits earned from this first real estate venture, Nichols turned his attention to the southern edge of the city, a place in many people’s minds that was too far removed from the city’s core, and bought land at 51st and Grand. Many were skeptical of Nichols' plan. There were no rail or trolley lines; stores and neighbors were few; it was thought of as a place where no one would want to live. But, Nichols believed he could develop whole residential neighborhoods that would attract people who desired a better way of life and a nicer place to make their home. Nichols was indeed a visionary; he saw the importance of the car in middle-class lives at a time when many thought the automobile would only be a fad of the rich. He put together a plan to build entire neighborhoods and shopping centers designed with the automobile in mind. Planning his dream was the easy part, getting people to buy into it took real salesmanship.
The rail line ended at 47th and Troost, so to get people to venture out to his new area Nichols met prospective buyers at the end of the line and drove them in a buggy the mile to his new development. Nichols promised what others hadn’t--plumbing, water, trash pickup, miles of tree-lined avenues, neighborhood parks, sidewalks and even front lawns. His persistence and a distinctive master plan paid off, his residential neighborhoods took shape, and people moved south of the city.
With the residential plan in place, Nichols moved on to his next dream; he envisioned building a major shopping center where residents of his neighborhoods could go and work or shop. But the land he planned to use to carve his dream was nothing more than a dumping ground with a hog farm on one end and a brickyard on the other. Rundown shacks covered the area; stagnated water filled the swampy land. As early as 1907 he began buying up the swamp land that had been sold off in 25-foot lots in an early-day mail order sale. Piece by piece, the land was purchased until 55 acres were accumulated at a price of over $1 million. Formal plans for the Country Club Plaza were drawn up in 1922.
When the construction of the Plaza was announced, many of the city’s leaders called it “Nichols’ Folly”. What they didn’t see was a masterplan that was years in the making and reflected a study of shopping areas around the world. Nichols had his architects and landscape designers plan the whole project in advance so future buildings would be part of the total environment.
Remembering his travel experiences in Europe and the Southwest, Nichols chose a Spanish theme for the Plaza that included beautiful courtyards and stucco buildings with red tile roofs and ornate towers. He hand-picked works of art to adorn the Plaza’s streets and sidewalks; antique sculptures, columns, tile-adorned murals, wrought iron and fountains were all meticulously placed by J.C. himself. And he designed The Plaza with the car in mind. There were eight filling stations in the early days. Garages and parking lots were ample. The Plaza became the first major shopping area in the country to be constructed to cater to people arriving by automobile.
The early days of the Plaza were exciting, and ever-changing. New buildings were constructed, streets widened and paved, stores opened, and people came. Seeing the successes of early Plaza merchants, many long-standing Downtown stores moved south with a second location on the Plaza, while other shops ventured into uncharted territory offering the newest in fashion and entertainment. The Plaza became known as the place for style and trends; the permanent-wave was introduced in a Plaza beauty salon; top Hollywood movies debuted at the Plaza Theater. Each new building and shop brought more to do and see on the Plaza.
In 1925, a single strand of lights started the tradition of the Plaza Lights, a celebration for more than three-quarters of a century that has grown into a world-famous event. Word of mouth about the Plaza quickly spread throughout the city and the region, enticing early tourists to what is today Kansas City’s most cherished destination.
From its early days, the Plaza, and J.C. Nichols himself, were ready to adapt to any situation, willing to try the new to succeed, able to withstand the tides of change. During the Depression when many other companies failed, the Plaza looked for new ways to attract customers. The Plaza Art Fair was started as a promotion to draw shoppers to the area. Seventy five years later, the Plaza Art Fair thrives today as the Midwest’s premier art fair, featuring nearly 250 nationally-recognized artists, and drawing a crowd of almost 300,000 annually.
As the Plaza grew in the years before and after World War II, so did the J.C. Nichols real estate company. More subdivisions were developed and additional employees were added. One new employee in particular was Miller Nichols, eldest son of J.C., and heir-apparent of the J.C. Nichols Company.
J.C. Nichols died in early 1950. In 45 years his vision shaped his city, and the design for many retail centers in cities across the nation. He set new standards of quality design and construction that continue to influence builders all over the world. He saw the company enjoy success, and, more importantly, established a foundation to support the company’s growth into the 21st century. Upon his father’s death, Miller Nichols became company president.
Building on his father’s dream of wanting to make the Plaza better by changing the status quo, Miller Nichols launched the company into new territory by adding hotels and apartments to the Plaza’s landscape. Stores changed, too. Sears opened on the west side; the popular downtown department store Emery-Bird-Thayer opened on the Plaza; local stores enlarged while new ones were built. Excitement and change continued on the Plaza, and the J.C. Nichols Company expanded the building boom seen on Kansas City’s skyline.
Miller Nichols did more than keep the company’s bottom line in the black. He continued his father’s legacy of collecting and adding great works of art to the Plaza’s landscape. Keeping in mind his father’s philosophy that people desire a better place and will take pride in it, Miller Nichols personally sought out the finest works from around the world to adorn the Plaza. The beauty of the Plaza flourished until one fateful day in September of 1977.
For over fifty years, Brush Creek flowed peacefully through the Plaza’s center. But on the night of September 12, 1977 the creek reclaimed its early channel, and a wall-high flood of water ravaged the famed Country Club Plaza. In just minutes blocks of stores were destroyed, many shops were gutted and millions of dollars of merchandise was destroyed. When the flood waters receded many wondered if the 55-year old shopping center could survive. But the persistence and adaptability to change inspired by the Plaza’s founder took hold the next day and a massive cleanup campaign began. The annual Plaza Art Fair scheduled to open in only ten days was the goal. Those merchants who could open right away, did so. Other merchants turned the tragedy into an opportunity to expand and update their stores. In all, fewer than a half-dozen small shops did not return. And the Plaza Art Fair was held, making it one of the most successful in its history.
The 1977 flood set the Plaza in motion for the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Consumer demands and desires were changing, and the Plaza changed, too. Upscale shops were opened for the new fashion-conscious consumer; restaurants were renovated and their menus revised to reflect changing tastes; a standard of quality was developed and taken to heights never before seen in Kansas City.
In 1998, another transition helped shape the Plaza. Highwoods Properties Inc., a nationally recognized real estate development company based in Raleigh, N.C., acquired the Plaza from the JC Nichols Company after more than seventy years of ownership. The acquisition by Highwoods breathed new life into the Plaza. Highwoods brought new stores and restaurants to the Plaza, restored many Plaza art and architectural pieces, all while preserving its rich integrity and honored traditions.
In 2000, Valencia Place, a 325,000 square foot development was added to 47th Street, and brought with it a wonderful mixture of new retailers, restaurants, offices and additional parking to the Plaza. In 2002, the Granada Shops opened. A 20,000 square foot retail development, the Granada Shops have added more space for exclusive retail on the Plaza. Through these developments, Highwoods has succeeded in creating modern, progressive additions with architecture that is harmonious with the 80 year old shopping center’s other buildings. Beyond these additions, Highwoods has also worked diligently to modernize and maintain the integrity and beauty of this Kansas City landmark.
National merchants like Apple, Capital Grille, Burberry, Brio Tuscan Grille, and Tiffany & Co. opened their first Kansas City locations under Highwoods ownership. New locally-owned businesses like Standard Style, Hemline, Starker's Restaurant, and Blanc Burgers + Bottles have maintained the local flavor of the Plaza. Traditions are as successful as ever, the Plaza Art Fair is now in its 80th year, while the Lighting Ceremony celebrated its 80th Anniversary in 2009. Through this mix of new favorites and beloved staples, Highwoods Properties has continued to bring JC Nichols vision to life.
The Plaza’s ever-growing popularity and reputation have been recognized around the country, but nowhere is it held in higher esteem than in Kansas City. Many Kansas Citians have a personal pride about the Plaza. Generations have grown up with it. New generations are eager to discover it. Througout the years of development in the Kansas City Metro area, the Plaza has become more of an urban cultural district, and less of the suburban shopping center it originally was. The neighborhood around the Plaza is changing. Luxury condominiums have risen around the district, attracting upper-income empty nesters and young professionals with new consumer demands, but with a sense of pride with the Plaza’s place in history.
Those interested in obtaining more information about the Country Club Plaza can contact the Plaza Customer Service at 4750 Central, Kansas City, Missouri 64112, (816) 753-0100.
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