Arts & Culture

From swampy to swanky, the Country Club Plaza is born

The Suydam Building housed the Plaza’s first retail shops, with doctors’ offices upstairs. At the left is the first gas station, one of eight that would eventually be scattered around the car-centric shopping area.
The Suydam Building housed the Plaza’s first retail shops, with doctors’ offices upstairs. At the left is the first gas station, one of eight that would eventually be scattered around the car-centric shopping area. Kansas City Public Library

Busily developing signature homes around Kansas City’s classiest fairways, Jesse Clyde Nichols sniffed opportunity wafting up over his shoulder.

Others might just have blamed that hog farm down on the north bank of Brush Creek. But some have noses for the scent of success and some don’t.

Nor was Nichols alone in catching the smell.

In 1911, a competitor, George F. Law, was the first to plat the sluggish stream’s bottomland, selling speculation lots by mail. It was Law who hung “Country Club Plaza” on the rough, pig-perfumed property to attract absentee buyers.

Yes, the golf course was nearby, but safely upwind, just over the hill on what had been Westport pioneer William Bent’s old pasture, west of Wornall Road between 51st and 55th streets.

Nichols bought Law out and later claimed he shelled out a cool million just tracking down the lot owners across the nation and buying back the pieces. Perhaps that seemingly high number included his snapping up adjoining properties?

Nichols wrestled with the snaky little creek itself, straightening it from Wornall Road to about where the Dodson tracks just east of Main crossed. One hundred men, twice that many horses and four grading machines worked for six months to shift the stream closer to the south slope.

Characterized as a miniature Panama Canal, the rechanneling cost $30,000 but reclaimed about 30 silt-covered but crucial acres.

(This is not when the creek received its Pendergast-poured concrete bottom. That was part of a Depression-era jobs program that Nichols opposed aesthetically.)

“The Nichols Building occupies what was formerly the bed of Brush Creek, at that time with an old iron bridge (carrying) Wornall Road,” Nichols would reminisce, “and along the North bank was one of the most unsightly dumps of rubbish in Kansas City.” Westport’s trash allegedly was piled where the Classic Cup Café sits today.

Around a hundred small homes, shacks and a grocery store eventually were removed from the site and surrounding hills, including, Nichols said, “Negro houses … on a 30-foot cliff on Main south of Ward Parkway.” An African-American amusement area, disparaged as “Razor Park,” was in the area as well.

These were probably the last African-Americans — other than live-in maids, cooks and chauffeurs — to reside in these neighborhoods, segregated for a half century by deed covenants. Neither were Jews welcomed by Nichols.

The Plaza theater under construction; Wolferman’s grocery is under the small tower in the background. Kansas City Public Library

The developer then turned to C.H. Lyle’s smoky brickyard and quarry, complete with rock crusher, at Main and 49th streets, practically on the doorstep of Bismark Place, Nichols’ first development on Grand Avenue.

His lawyers got the operation closed down as a nuisance in 1920, which didn’t make it any easier to convince the sour Lyle to sell out to him.

All that opened the way for what Kansas City grandly claims as America’s first regional shopping center dedicated to the automobile. (A car then might easily cost less than a fine dinner today for four, cocktails and California wine included, at some of the better Plaza joints.)

Initially, the place wasn’t so grand. The first business? Chandler Floral, its greenhouses lured by Nichols from Hyde Park in 1917 and given a new Spanish-motif home in 1920.

The second was a riding academy upstream. Its bridal paths followed woods-shrouded Brush Creek into the still-raw Mission Hills.

Finally, the first Plaza shops with doctors’ offices upstairs opened in 1923 in what was then the Suydam (now Mill Creek) Building.

Nichols recalled how the location had been a swamp 20 feet deep, which seems somewhat of a contradiction.

Sidewalks were boards from the lumberyard dismantled just to the north and other area teardowns.

The first gas station was spitting distance away. How car-centric would the Plaza be? At one time, it had eight filling stations. Did we mention that Nichols would use his influence to run the newfangled U.S. 50 highway directly through his budding shopping center?

By 1925, 40 businesses — including the famous Wolferman’s, which served 10,000 grocery shoppers its first week at 47th and Wyandotte — had mushroomed atop the ever-richer bottomland.

And that year, the first string of Christmas lights, 16 bulbs, went up on the Suydam Building.