Country Club Plaza is 100 years old. Explore the history behind the most famous buildings | KCUR 89.3
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Country Club Plaza celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, and included in this milestone is 100 years of architecture, celebrations, and even a strange history. KCUR’s podcast, A People’s History of Kansas City, recently commemorated the occasion by exploring the famous borough’s complicated legacy.
When JC Nichols developed his plan for the Plaza in the early 1920s, he envisioned more than just a mall. “Nichol’s vision for a larger shopping destination culminated in a plan to convert this swamp property along Brush Creek,” host Suzanne Hogan describes on the episode.
Nichols’ complicated legacy of racist real estate practices led to the renaming of the fountain and avenue that bore his name. Despite this history, Nichols’ original vision for the plaza remains, as many see it as a tourist destination or a place for family gatherings.
The Plaza’s unique Spanish-style architecture remains a draw for locals and tourists alike. The plaza has changed tremendously over the last century, but there are a number of architectural gems that date back to the neighborhood’s founding. Others have been built in the decades since.
Learn about the history of these places you may have passed dozens of times without knowing their meaning.
Mill Creek Building
opened in 1923, the Mill Creek Building was JC Nichols’ first commercial building on the Country Club Plaza. It still stands at 4646 Mill Creek Parkway, across from the fountain in Mill Creek Park.
The building was originally named the Suydam building after its original occupants: Suydam Incorporateda supplier of high-quality “art objects” and furnishings.
It was the first example of the Plaza’s remarkable Spanish-style architecture, a marked departure from traditional local conventions. “Historically, Kansas City builders feared color, for example in the sense that it was used in California,” according to a 1923 article in the Kansas City Star.
The same article applauding architect Edward Buehler Delk’s design noted that “the business structure has won unqualified praise from architects.”
The building has hosted a number of tenants over the years and now houses the locally owned restaurant Rye Plaza.
Nelle Peters district
Another notable segment of Plaza architecture has less to do with Spanish influence and more to do with the important woman behind the buildings.
It is believed to have been designed by famed Kansas City architect Nelle Peters approximately 1,000 buildings in the Kansas City area. This makes her, according to Jason Roe of the Kansas City Public Library, “one of the most prolific architects in Kansas City in the 1920s”.
Peters accomplished this amazing feat at a time when female architects were rare and developed her own style. “She was the local pioneer of sit-down apartments around a central courtyard,” describes Jill Canon in a 1995 Kansas City Star article.
The Nelle E. Peters themed neighborhood at West Plaza was designated in 1989. It consists of six residences named after literary and artistic figures including Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Paul Cézanne. Peters designed these buildings in 1928 and 1929.
The Cezanne pictured above is located at 712 W. 48th Street. The Peters themed district is located at 48th Street with buildings at Jefferson Street, Roanoke Parkway and Ward Parkway.
In 2016, three of Peters’ Tudor-style apartment buildings on Block 4700 of Summit Street were demolished. While many campaigned to preserve the landmarks, the Kansas City Council voted against a proposal to give the buildings historic preservation status.
Seventh Scientist of the Church of Christ
This is high on the hill at the northwest corner of 47th and Pennsylvania Avenue Seventh Church of Christ, Scientistopened in 1942. According to Kevin Collison, the church is “regarded as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in the city”.
The church was designed by Indianapolis architect G. Wilbur Foster to “harmonize with the Spanish architecture of the Country Club Plaza neighborhood,” according to a 1941 Star article.
If you want to see the church, you may need to act quickly as the building’s future is in the balance. “Drake Development of Overland Park plans to demolish it and replace it with a nine-story building that will house restaurants, luxury condos and entertainment,” KCUR’s Jacob Martin reported in April 2022.
The group Historic Kansas City Foundation campaigns against the demolition of the historic church.
Country Club Plaza Theater Building
With its tower and ornate stonework is the old Country Club Plaza Theater Building on the southwest corner of 47th Street and Wyandotte Street is a sight in itself. The cinema was a major attraction in the Plaza’s early days, but the building also has much earlier historical connections.
During construction in 1928, workers discovered a 2.5-pound mastodon tooth.
The old Plaza Theater embodied the neighborhood’s Spanish theme, both inside and out. According to a 1928 Star article, it contained “two park stations treated in an entirely new way, with a low brick coping wall, old Spanish gates, fountains, shrubs and trees”.
The building had a long life as a theatre, operating until 1999 when the nearby competing (and now closed) Cinemark cinema moved to 526 Nichols Road. The theater was also home to the Kansas City Philharmonic in the 1960s.
Though the building is currently closed, signs suggest a store called KC Style Haus will open in late spring 2022.
Plaza Medical Building
Upon its completion in 1937, a Jack Henry advertisement excitedly called the Plaza Medical Building “the most beautiful structure in Kansas City.” The main entrance to the building is at 315 Nichols Road and is flanked by colorful murals. The second floor is decorated with a tower and tiles around the windows.
As the 1937 Star advertisement details, the building contains “brilliantly colored tiles from ancient Mexico…interesting plaques…antique iron balconies from Spain…soft, handcrafted tiles of bright colors.”
Prior to the construction of the Plaza Medical Building, the land was once the site of the Plaza Dog Market. On September 22, 1934, “Country Club Plaza dealers sponsored a dog fair where people interested in buying a dog could see and inspect many breeds of dogs,” according to the State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City.
Boy and Frog Fountain
There are of course many statues and fountains to see in the plaza. Popular destinations include The Fountain of Neptune near 47th and Central Streets, the Ben Franklin Statue near 47th and Jefferson Streets and the Wild Boar of Florence near 47th and Wornall Road.
A small fountain to add to your list is just across from the Plaza Medical Building. That Boy and Frog Fountain Located directly in front of Starbucks at 302 Nichols Road. The statue was designed by Raffaello Romanelli in Florence and brought to Kansas City in 1929.
“Although it looks like the chubby kid is peeing happily in the frog’s mouth, the amphibian is actually spitting up the water.” funny describes the site atlas obscura. “There’s a grumpy-looking faun crouching beneath the boy and his frog friend [sic] riding a dolphin that doesn’t look too pleased that it’s stuck holding up the marble basin.”
Atlas Obscura also states that the fountain has recently been the subject of drama. It was reported that the frog went missing in February 2021 and that as of June 2021 “the frog is back, although missing its right front leg”.
This isn’t the first time the fountain has been involved in a theft. The baby was stolen in 1960 but luckily later found in nearby bushes, the star reported in 2016.
This compilation only scratches the surface. If you have time, Country Club Plaza has created several themes scavenger hunt. The William T. Kemper Foundation also put one together 36-page plaza tour with historical reflections on the district. It contains 50 notable landmarks in the district.
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