Tucked within the heart of Kansas City is the legacy of one of the grand experiments of American city planning. These acres upon acres of lovely homes built in the early years of the twentieth century are really a model of community building of national historical significance. There are gateways and city limits signs that mark the names of the communities within this acreage, but there is nothing that marks the name of this historical district. It is there nonetheless, and it is Kansas City’s Country Club District. The vision and lifelong project of J.C. Nichols, whose eponymous company grew from the success of that effort, the Country Club District set national standards for residential and commercial development that were promulgated throughout the real estate industry during the first half of the twentieth century.
It is true that the Country Club District was not the first of what were sometimes referred to as “garden suburban communities.” A few came before it, most notably Baltimore’s Roland. There were others like Beverly Hills that became more famous, though during its peak years between 1920 and 1940, no development in the country received more national recognition and praise than the Country Club District. And none of the others—not Roland Park, Beverly Hills or others like Shaker Heights in Cleveland, River Oaks in Houston or Forest Hills in New York—was built on such a grand scale. What began as an ambitious thousand-acre project would be, by the end, an unparalleled six thousand acres. Nor were any of the other planned residential communities actively developed for as long. The Country Club District was a project that lasted more than fifty years.
From a local standpoint, few initiatives in the city’s history have had more profound an influence on the broader community than the Country Club District. The district’s history begins around 1905, some fifty years after Kansas City’s official birth, but at a time that coincides with the formative period of Kansas City’s landscape. The city’s parks and boulevards were recently laid out; its major monuments and institutions were in the planning. This book focuses almost exclusively on the Country Club District’s first fifty years, that period under the leadership of J.C. Nichols until his death in 1950. Although the company survived some fifty years after Nichols’s death, it was J.C. Nichols’s vision and ingenuity that created the Country Club District as it is today.
The Country Club District lies almost exactly in the geographic heart of the Kansas City metropolis. Yet in its infancy, it was improbably beyond the bounds of the city, just open farm acres south of a tributary called Brush Creek. The area that is the focus of this history is bounded on the north by the Country Club Plaza near Forty-seventh Street along Brush Creek and to the south near Gregory Boulevard or Seventy-first Street, from about Oak Street on the east in Missouri to near Mission Road on the west in Kansas. By the time the Nichols Company ceased residential building in the 1970s, the Country Club District ran from Forty-seventh to Ninety-fifth Streets north to south and from Holmes Road in Kansas City, Missouri, on the east to Lamar Avenue in Overland Park, Kansas, on the west.
This book offers a look back on the first fifty years or so of the Country Club District. It examines the district as it came into being, by focusing on the elements that are essential to understanding its character. The assessment begins with the idea itself, its creator J.C. Nichols and the company he built to make his vision a reality. Nichols’s ideas, in equal part with the lessons he learned as he went along, established the framework for the district. The second element considered is neighborhood development, providing perspective on the nuances of the housing stock Nichols’s created and how that has contributed to the district’s continued stability. Finally, the book focuses on Nichols’s recognition of the profound importance of amenities in the work of creating community, so the stories of the district’s schools and churches, its shopping centers and even its physical layout and use in various forms are included.
While most of the original development remains, the Country Club District’s identity has diminished. During the period between 1905 and 1950, the Country Club District became an effective and desirable brand in an industry not previously associated with brands. Whether it was a stately mansion in Mission Hills on the north or a working-class house in Armour Hills on the south, the cachet of a Country Club District home made the district the neighborhood of choice for many generations. Today, however, other identities have subordinated that of the Country Club District. Its houses still stand, its neighborhoods remain vital and its shops are still popular. But the notion of what it meant—and means—to be a part of the Country Club District is fading.
If the identity or the principles of Nichols’s Country Club District continue into an extended future, it will not be as a result of meticulous preservation of the brick and mortar work of the past. Nor should such preservation be the standard for success. The fact that the Country Club District has survived, with or without popular recognition, is both a testament to all that J.C. Nichols built and to the way in which he built it. This history is as much about recognizing the long-term thinking on which the district was built, using specific tools like fostering a sense of community, creating beauty, providing good services and building homes that would last for more than one hundred years. Nichols himself referred to this as “planning for permanence.” Continuing that commitment to a greater vision will be the ultimate test of success and the legacy of the Country Club District.
It’s official. The long-anticipated commemoration of America’s involvement in World War II…08 August 2016