Plaza lights: From one strand to thousands

You’d think a tradition as big as the KCP&L Plaza Lighting ceremony would start with a grand gesture, a fortune in funding, and years of planning by politicians in smoke-filled rooms.

Nope. It all started with a maintenance man named Charles Pitrat.

It was 1925, and Pitrat was head of maintenance for the Nichols Co., which owned the Country Club Plaza. One holiday season — according to “The Plaza: Kansas City’s World Famous Shopping District” (1990) by David S. Hudson, Bob Barrett and Dory DeAngelo — the enterprising man took it upon himself to string a single 6-foot strand of 16 colored light bulbs across the doorway of the Plaza’s first building, the Suydam at 116 W. 47th St., now the Millcreek.

And ... that did it.

As the Plaza grew, so did the tradition. More buildings. More lights. In 1928, after construction of the Plaza Theater, Pitrat strung colored lights across 47th Street to reach it. Somebody must have liked it, because the next year he outlined all the buildings and towers with lights. By 1930, the Plaza was host to the city’s first lighting ceremony.

The first lights went up with one man and his ladder.

Today? While the exact number of lights can’t be verified, let’s just say it takes significantly more time and effort to put them all up.

Of course, none of this would have been possible if Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols had not traveled to Seville, Spain, and envisioned the Plaza development in the first place.

That, as it turned out, was quite a task.

Before the turn of the 20th century, the Brush Creek Valley wasn’t much more than a watering hole for Indians, trappers and soldiers. But several decades later Nichols changed that forever, transforming the swampy tract into the country’s first shopping center specifically designed with the car in mind.

In his last summer of college, Nichols and a friend worked their way to Europe on a cattle boat. There they saw the colorful marketplaces of Spain and the warmth and old-world charm of Europe. Later, as a successful real estate developer, Nichols remembered those influences as he bought land at 51st Street and Grand Avenue. Years ahead of his time, he developed bold plans for a neighborhood and a major shopping center.

It wasn’t easy. The land he planned to use was uninspiring to say the least. Covered with ramshackle housing and stagnant water, it had a brick yard on one end and a dump with a hog farm on the other. Undaunted, he began snapping up land until he had purchased 55 acres at a price of more than $1 million.

He drew up formal plans for the Plaza in 1922. Nichols chose a Spanish theme that included courtyards and stucco buildings with red tile roofs and ornate towers.

When the construction of the Plaza was announced, many of the city’s leaders called it “Nichols’ Folly.”

Since 1930 — after Charles Pitrat’s single strand became a tradition — the only time the Plaza lights were not turned on was in 1973, when then-President Richard Nixon called for curtailing the use of Christmas lights to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Nichols’ buildings are now the stars of the Plaza lighting ceremony, which draws thousands of revelers. Wonder what Pitrat would think.

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