J.C. Nichols & Kansas City's Country Club District

The innovative and troubling character of Kansas City's historic residential district.

By Kansas City Public Library

Jesse Clyde Nichols (1935)Kansas City Public Library

Kansas City, like other American cities, added new suburban-style developments at its periphery during the early decades of the 20th century. What makes it a unique case for understanding this shift is the character of Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols. Born in Olathe, Kansas, in 1880, Nichols had a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century and included transforming thousands of acres of land into a planned suburban community.

Verona Columns, Mission Hills, Country Club District (August 4, 1931) by R. B. Harness Greeting Card Co.Kansas City Public Library

Nichols positioned Kansas City’s Country Club District as a model for other cities to follow, elevating suburban-style growth as a choice that developers could make to supplant the gridiron model. His unseen innovations in land development techniques gave the format staying power and enabled private, market-led city planning.

While "Boss" Tom Pendergast ran the old Kansas City, the smoke-filled gridded streets of business and industry’s rough edges, Nichols presided over the sylvan landscape of tree-shaded lawns and curving boulevards at the city’s quickly expanding periphery.

Declarations of Restrictions Affecting Part of Blocks 27, 28, 29, & 30 of Mission Hills (May 8, 1936) by J. C. Nichols CompanyKansas City Public Library

Nichols actively helped construct the racialized landscape of Kansas City by putting racially restrictive clauses into the deed restrictions on all the properties he sold. The practice of redlining neighborhoods, in which a federal agency rated neighborhoods for their creditworthiness, built upon this landscape of restrictions to construct the entangled prosperity and inequality of homeownership, real estate, and race in America.

J. C. Nichols entering J. C. Nichols Companies Building (1933)Kansas City Public Library

Deed restrictions are clauses added to the deed of a property that can put a variety of limitations on that deed—from requiring buildings to be set back a certain distance from the property line, to (historically) specifying the race of the inhabitants. As deed restrictions are a private mechanism for controlling development, real estate developers were keen to understand what this could offer, and suburban developers like Nichols were at the forefront of exploring its possibilities.

J. C. Nichols leads a morning sales meeting (1939)Kansas City Public Library

Nichols contributed to the discussion around deed restrictions in significant ways. When asked to write a short review of the book that contained the chart of racially restrictive clauses, he wrote a 12-page article expounding on his many thoughts on the topic. Little of the public discussion Nichols participated in directly described the systemic racism that developers actively created.

Lily pond on Ward Parkway (1924)Kansas City Public Library

Unlike most developers at the time, Nichols hired landscape architects to lay out his subdivisions and to design public green spaces on medians, esplanades, and other remnant spots of vegetation. Hardly large enough to qualify as park spaces, these enhancements were in some sense eye candy, decorated with statuary and fountains, but Nichols saw them as much more: as aesthetic devices for ensuring stable property values, maintained through the legal device of the home owners’ association.

Crestwood Country Club District, 55th and Oak, Kansas City, Mo. (September 21, 1925) by Hall Bros.Kansas City Public Library

1920 Map of a Scenic Route through the Country Club District (1920) by J. C. Nichols CompanyKansas City Public Library

J.C. Nichols paved the roads in his subdivisions, matching his commitment to landscape architecture with a commitment to automobiles. The curb design and size were important for keeping cars off lawns in these early days of the automobile. The well-paved roads and sidewalks illustrated readiness for the family car in promotional material.

White Eagle Filling Station (1922)Kansas City Public Library

Even service stations were subject to design and construction requirements, matching the character of the surrounding area.

Third Annual Country Club District Community Field Day (May 11, 1923)Kansas City Public Library

The homeowner’s associations sponsored numerous community activities such as an annual field day, Christmas celebration and artists’ fair, which Nichols viewed as yet another way to cement property values and stability.

Country Club District Sign (1912)Kansas City Public Library

The language of Nichols’s ads suggests the exclusivity accompanying a members-only club and reflected consumers’ concerns that in a volatile real estate market rife with speculators, their investment in a property might disappear. The substance of the restrictions—setbacks, common space, racial exclusion, and land use limitations—played off those concerns and were the central focus of Nichols’s sales pitch.

Country Club Plaza (1923)Kansas City Public Library

Studying Nichols sheds light on how real estate developers saw the relationship between city and suburb, and between private market controls on development and the public powers of city planning. Considering Nichols's explicit linking of aesthetics and market economics, the aesthetics of suburbia depended as much on cultural constructions of the picturesque as they did on managing the risks of the market.

Credits: Story

This exhibit is based on an essay by Sara Stevens, Assistant Professor of architectural and urban design history at the University of British Columbia.

Images for this exhibit provided by:

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

State Historical Society of Missouri - Kansas City

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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