Small businesses drawn to whimsical Nutterville in midtown KC

The Kansas City Star

Cheryl Brugger glides with the grace of a dancer, except that black Dr. Martens hug her ankles where ballet shoes might. Her stage is a small room with wooden floors in a house painted blood-orange trimmed in maroon and green with a huge front porch.

For six years, the hair stylist at Friseur and her business partner, LeAnn Cruce, have seen clients at this midtown location on Archibald Avenue, a narrow strip of pavement between Main Street and Broadway Boulevard.

“I’m a midtown girl, but I live in Johnson County,” says Brugger, who wears an above-the-knee skirt with her boots as she quickly navigates from one side to the other to attend to a woman sitting in a salon chair. “I’ve always liked Westport.”

Brugger had driven around trying to find a location that would be suitable for her clients, like Jeb Stuckey, whose hair she is fixing. Stuckey works at Hallmark just a few miles away. Brugger saw this neighborhood and knew she had found the right fit.

“Rent is fair, and my clients often compliment the landscaping and then I have to tell them I didn’t do it myself,” she says. “It’s an affordable place for me to have a business.”

Her story mirrors those of other entrepreneurs who make their way to work at the whimsically colored homes clustered just north of the Country Club Plaza and on Westport’s doorstep, owned and maintained by Kansas City real estate godfather James B. Nutter.

Many of these homes are Victorian and have historical significance to the area, and that’s just part of the charm for tenants.

Welcome to Nutterville: daytime population 533.

Most people stumble upon Nutterville by accident, the result of a shortcut through midtown or a wrong turn navigating the one-way streets north of the Plaza. But the houses along Archibald, Central Street, Baltimore Avenue and the area wrapping onto Broadway are a welcome find.

Begonias and bunches of impatiens snake around the yards beneath the wrap-around porches. Hand railings match the vibrant colors of the houses. Window borders and trim on the shirtwaist and bungalow houses all follow a color scheme out of a dollhouse village, the most recent one on Baltimore painted a coral and aquamarine.

From accountants to attorneys to nonprofits and hair salons, James B. Nutter & Co. Vice President Eric Bushner counted 27 tenants among the 34 buildings. The other buildings are occupied by Nutter mortgage employees.

“These are our own little business incubators,” said Bushner, who has known the Nutters for 30 years and is like a city manager to Nutterville.

Landscaping crews tend to the yards and flowers most Mondays around the homes, some that date back to Civil War times.

Among them is the Scarritt House, named for its famous owner, the Rev. Nathan Scarritt, who had come to the area to minister to the Shawnee Indian Mission school and became a wealthy banker.

The house at 4038 Central St., built in 1847, is considered one of the oldest in the area. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places before the Nutters bought it, but the Nutters fixed structural problems in the mortise and tenon framework and gave it a good painting.

A restored area with period furniture and decoration is open for tours to school-age children by appointment.

Care to the house is symbolic of the attention to detail the Nutters have taken to the surrounding blocks and buildings, which Nutter employees affectionately call by nicknames such as “Red House,” “Wood House,” “Little House” and “Two Story,” rather than their addresses.

“Some names make more sense than others,” Bushner said.

Bird chirps from a clock mark time in James B. Nutter Sr.’s office. His space is filled with hints of the decades he’s spent as one of the city’s most well-known landlords. Books cram shelving, and an old typewriter sits nearby. Photos from decades past hang on the walls.

Nutter leans close to talk.

“Now, where do you live?” he asks off-topic, often directing the conversation to the other person. “Where did you grow up? Nice to have you in Kansas City.”

His venture into acquiring Nutterville had no grand plan, he says.

The company moved its offices to 41st Street and Broadway in the mid-1970s and then started acquiring derelict properties nearby.

Nutter found his answer as to why one property owner sold so quickly to him the next day in the newspaper: The guy was headed to prison.

When real estate took a dip and a good friend told him that six houses were for sale in the area, he said, “What am I going to do with six houses?”

But he started buying them one at a time. What he found was that almost all the homes were inhabited by single, older women.

“I’d do little things like fix their roofs, or do their plumbing,” he said.

The women were in their 70s, 80s and 90s and the Nutters’ good deeds came with a quiet understanding that when it was time to sell a house, they might consider doing so to Nutter.

A trip to Telluride, Colo., sparked the creativity for the color pattern.

Nutter saw smaller homes in the mountain town that younger people and artists had bought. The residents used bright paint to liven the abodes. Nutter stopped the car and took pictures when he spotted one.

When one of the first Nutterville houses was completed in a bright purple hue, a close friend of Nutter’s asked him, “What will the neighbors think?”

“I am the neighbor,” Nutter replied.

The flowers are more locally inspired. Nutter aspires to the care that’s given to the nearby Plaza by its owners. Landscaping is good advertising, he says. He gets a kick when people now stop and take photos of his property.

Nutter’s son, James Nutter Jr., refers to the tenants as “mom-and-pop shops” and claims the press dubbed it Nutterville.

“We love these houses and decided to go to the extreme and fix them up the way they should be,” he said. “Our philosophy is that whenever one comes up, we see if it’s a good fit, and then go for it.”

A table that serves as a classroom for the French & Music House is painted aqua blue. A map of France and a dry erase board hang on the dining room’s walls. A parents’ waiting room near the front door retains an ornate fireplace; it’s an open room that can be closed off with wooden pocket doors.

The understated decoration brings an elegance and worldly twist to the house that serves as a place for both language and music lessons.

“We fell in love with it as soon as we walked in,” Zoé Hommertzheim said. “We were looking for a space and this felt like home, because it is a home. It fits with the theme.”

Zoé and Darren Hommertzheim moved their language and music education business to Nutterville in June when they outgrew the work space in their Brookside home where the business was based.

The two are co-owners, with Zoé as the director and lead instructor and Darren handling the business side of things. Zoé Hommertzheim is from Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, and the two met there while Darren Hommertzheim was on an internship with a pharmaceutical company.

Zoé Hommertzheim began tutoring and giving lessons out of the couple’s home, but then the student demand meant bringing on more instructors for lessons, which include piano, violin, voice, guitar, saxophone, viola and flute. Her tutoring had evolved into book clubs and expansion on the language lessons she gave.

A location in midtown, but close to their customers in the Brookside area, was important. They find many clients among the Academie Lafayette families and can accommodate home-schooled children during the day.

“This was move-in ready, and for a house that’s over 100 years old, it was impeccable,” Darren Hommertzheim said. “People move into new homes with a romantic notions and then find things to fix and touch up. That wasn’t the case here.”

Another newer tenant is IP Watch, a corporation that helps other businesses track and market their intellectual property assets.

CEO Kerry DeLay McCane met her husband in Westport’s Harpo’s, so her daily commute from Lee’s Summit means coming back to a beloved area.

She had looked at downtown, the Plaza and around the tech hub off 39th and State Line Road.

The Westport and Plaza scenes offer a lot to the younger employees she might be recruiting from the coasts who are used to an arts and culture scene.

“It’s a really easy sell,” she said.

Jim Starr owns two apartment buildings near Nutterville and often drove through the area with his children.

“I would point out the colorfully painted houses and tell them that is where Santa quartered the elves in the off-season,” he said. “It made sense to them. They could totally understand elves living there.”

Nutterville reflects consistent reinvestment, Starr says.

“The area is an example of how someone can follow through on a vision on improving a district, while making it as nice as possible and as distinctive as well,” he said.

The yellow house along Central where O’Neill Marketing & Event Management has its office is the kind of place where Atticus Finch might have worked. At least longtime Westport businessman and marketing executive Pat O’Neill imagines the “To Kill A Mockingbird” character spending his working hours there.

The O’Neill family leases the Victorian house with a wrap-around porch, and it matches the business’s personality, O’Neill says. It is the company’s third location in Nutterville over the last 20 years.

“Our clients and friends love coming to our office,” he said. “This just fits our profile and is better than anything we could find in the city.”

Westport restaurants, boutiques and the overall vibe are calling people to the area, O’Neill said, and Nutter’s quiet dedication to the neighborhood has stabilized it.

People who stop their cars to take pictures outside his office no longer creep him out.

“Finding Nutterville is not intentional,” he said. “It’s something you discover, and when you do, you say, ‘How quaint, how cool, how fun.’”

Scarritt House

The Scarritt House, built in 1847, is open by appointment for tours by school groups and homeschooled children in groups of six or more. Call 816-531-6811.