Some might say J.C. Nichols’ imprint on the look and feel of Kansas City has faded a bit.
The Country Club Plaza, his retail oasis that made the developer legendary, is in the process of being sold.
On the Kansas City Public Schools’ latest list of buildings to vacate is Southwest High. For decades it was the prestige school anchoring Nichols’ neighborhoods that blossomed around Ward Parkway, where an all-white middle class melded with the elite.
Jesse Clyde Nichols was all about the 20th century. He died halfway through it from smoking too much. He wore round spectacles and double-breasted suits. He loved the old cities of Europe.
So much would change in this new millennium.
A housing bubble would burst, sending single-family home values around the nation into reverse. Across the metro area the Power and Light District downtown, Zona Rosa up north and the Legends out west became favorite spots for shopping and nightlife, looking not one bit like old Europe.
Still, Nichols’ thoughtful influence on urban design remains great.
It’s one big reason why first-time visitors to Kansas City often voice surprise at its cosmopolitan flair — and it’s not just about the ever-vibrant Plaza.
“In terms of urban planning, generally J.C. Nichols is as highly regarded as ever,” said his biographer, local historian William S. Worley. “His style of residential development is often cited by the architects and planners of the New Urbanism movement.”
Credit the fact that Nichols’ approach to building places to live made a lot of sense.
He called it “planning for permanence,” with homes constructed to last a couple of centuries and situated near pleasant shops, offices and places to play.
Rather than plotting simple grids of streets, Nichols developed curving roads with set-back buildings that accented the contours of the terrain. He dotted his neighborhoods with statuary.
The ideas began to gel during a summer break from the University of Kansas.
Between his junior and senior years, the Olathe-born Nichols traveled to Europe and spent days on a bicycle. The tour instilled a lasting appreciation for communities and architecture that endured for generations, even centuries.
He bought his first Kansas City tract in 1905, 10 acres in the area of 51st Street and Grand Avenue. Over the next few decades his developments stretched the city limits to the south and covered a tenth of the city.
His ventures in the rural hills of northeast Johnson County lured Missourians across the state line, but at first only into the luxurious homes of Mission Hills.
Nichols then chose the scrubby, stinky banks of Brush Creek to launch the Plaza, which would become the star attraction of retail Kansas City.
Years later his son, Miller Nichols, heir to the J.C. Nichols company, recalled his father’s vision of the district:
“Conceived as the first large-scale shopping center in America accommodating the automobile, it was designed as a place, not just welcoming, but celebrating the family....early on with a pony rig and Tom Thumb miniature golf.”
When the first Plaza shops opened in 1922, Nichols’ “planning for permanence” and support for zoning laws were drawing national attention.
Most developers at the time had no plan at all; they just built when the demand was there.
Nichols derided them as “thoughtless, carefree opportunists....
“Either we tear down and rebuild or we move away from the old centers,” Nichols wrote in his journal. “This is not ‘progress,’ but an enormous destruction of property value.”
Nichols soon turned his attention to creating homesites for the expanding middle class: Crestwood, Armour Hills, Romanelli Gardens — adorned with tudor-style homes and sprinkled with quaint shopping districts that remain lively 80 years later.
Fairway and Prairie Village sprouted on the Kansas side. They’d become magnets of middle-income families after World War II.
In his biography “J.C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City,” Worley looked at the trajectory of Kansas City-area property values between 1940 and 1980. He found that the values in Nichols-developed areas rose nearly twice as fast as values in non-Nichols tracts.
The underbelly of Nichols’ legacy was his use of restrictive deeds. The idea was to set high standards on home upkeep and require membership in neighborhood associations to help protect values even after properties passed through several owners.
But the means were racist, as deeds originally barred sale to ethnic minorities and persons of certain faiths.
Through much of the 20th century such residential “covenants” were not unique to Nichols developments nor to Kansas City.
“There is no question the practice became far too copied,” said Worley.
Though the racial and religious exclusions were struck down in 1948 by the U.S. Supreme Court, The Star just a decade ago found that in many cases the provisions were never removed from property records.
Missouri and Kansas only then passed laws requiring that the restrictive language be removed from homes association bylaws.
Granted, Nichols was not a product of the times that most Kansas Citians know today.
Yet his most enduring ideas will continue to affect how tomorrow’s communities are designed.