Let’s test your knowledge of local history. Kansas City’s Plaza Lights tradition was created by:
a) A banker
b) A janitor
c) A mobster
d) A stay-at-home mother
For bonus points, can you name the creator?
a) Zebediah Christmas
b) Mark “Jellyroll” Masterson
c) Frida Kahlo
d) Charles Pitrat
The tradition dates to 1925 when an employee of Nichols Co., which owned the Country Club Plaza, strung 16 colored lights across the doorway of the Plaza’s first building, the Suydam (now the Millcreek) at 116 W. 47th St. So it says in “The Plaza: Kansas City’s World Famous Shopping District” (1990) by David S. Hudson, Bob Barrett and Dory DeAngelo.
As the Plaza grew, so did the tradition. By 1930, the Plaza played host to the city’s first lighting ceremony.
And it was all thanks to … well, keep reading.
The first lights went up with one person and a ladder.
Today? While the exact number of lights isn’t known, let’s just say it takes a lot longer to put them 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 in the first place.
That, as it turned out, was quite a feat.
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.
The land he planned to use didn’t inspire confidence. Covered with ramshackle housing and stagnant water, it had a brick yard on one end and a dump and a hog farm on the other. Undaunted, Nichols began snapping up land until he had purchased 55 acres at a price of more than $1 million.
Nichols drew up formal plans for the Plaza in 1922. He 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 snickered, calling it “Nichols’ Folly.”
Nobody’s laughing now. Since 1930 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’ towered buildings are now the stars of the Plaza lighting ceremony, which draws thousands of revelers each year.
You can only wonder what Charles Pitrat, head of maintenance for the Nichols Co., would have thought of that.
Plaza Lighting ceremony: The honor of flipping the switch on the holiday lights on the Country Club Plaza will be shared by Royals left fielder Alex Gordon and manager Dayton Moore. Locally-based pop acts the Snow Globes and Gracie Schram are among the entertainers slated to perform before the lights go on. 6 p.m. Thursday. The Country Club Plaza. 816-753-0100. CountryClubPlaza.com. Free.
Who has thrown the switch?
2013 Rob Riggle
2012 Matt Besler, Jimmy Nielsen and Kei Kamara
2011 Eric Stonestreet
2010 Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones
2009 Jason Sudeikis
2008 David Cook
2007 Hometown soldiers from each branch of the U.S. military
2006 Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Clark and Tavia Hunt
2005 Dick and Carol Vermeil
2004 Mickey and Minnie Mouse
2003 Kate Spade
2002 Trent Green
2001 Tony Gonzalez
2000 Maurice Greene
1999 George Brett (again)
1998 Paul Rudd
1997 Marcus Allen
1996 Buck O’Neil
1995 Roy Williams
1994 Derrick Thomas
1991 Oleta Adams
1990 Lee Greenwood
1989 Dee Wallace
1983 Nicolette Larson
Others: Walter Cronkite, Tom Watson, William Christopher.