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The Country Club Plaza celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, and this milestone marks 100 years of architecture, festivities, and even weird history. KCUR’s podcast, A People’s History of Kansas City, recently commemorated the occasion by exploring the famous neighborhood’s complicated heritage.
When JC Nichols drew up his plan for the Plaza in the early 1920s, he envisioned more than just a shopping mall. “Nichols’ vision for a greater shopping destination crystallized into a plan to transform this swamp bed property along Brush Creek,” host Suzanne Hogan describes in the episode.
Nichols’ complicated legacy of racist real estate practices led to the renaming of the fountain and the promenade 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 to celebrate family events.
A draw for locals and tourists alike remains the plaza’s unique Spanish-style architecture. The Plaza has changed tremendously over the past century, but there are a number of architectural gems that date back to the founding of the neighborhood. Others were built in the decades that followed.
Learn more about the history of these places that you may have crossed 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 today at 4646 Mill Creek Parkway, across from the fountain in Mill Creek Park.
The building was originally called the Suydam Building after its original occupants: Suydam Incorporated, a supplier of high-end fine art and home decor.
It was the first example of the Plaza’s remarkable Spanish-style architecture, a marked departure from traditional local conventions. “Kansas City builders in the past have been afraid of the color, in the sense, for example, that it is used in California,” noted a 1923 Kansas City Star article.
Applauding architect Edward Buehler Delk’s design, the same article noted that “the architects’ unqualified praise was won by the corporate structure”.
The building has housed an assortment of tenants over the years and is now home to local restaurant Rye Plaza.
Neighborhood Nelle Peters
Another notable segment of the Plaza’s architecture has less to do with Spanish influence and more with the prominent woman behind the buildings.
Famed Kansas City architect Nelle Peters is believed to have designed around 1,000 buildings in the Kansas City area. This made her “one of Kansas City’s most prolific architects of the 1920s,” according to Jason Roe of the Kansas City Public Library.
Peters accomplished this incredible feat at a time when female architects were rare and developed her own unique style. “She was the local pioneer of seated apartments around a central courtyard,” Jill Canon described in a 1995 Kansas City Star article.
The Nelle E. Peters Theme District of West Plaza was designated in 1989. It consists of six apartment buildings named after literary and artistic figures, including Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Paul Cézanne. Peters designed these buildings in 1928 and 1929.
Cezanne, pictured above, is at 712 W. 48th Street. The Peters Theme District is on 48th Street, with buildings on Jefferson Street, Roanoke Parkway, and Ward Parkway.
In 2016, three of Peters’ Tudor-style apartment buildings on the 4700 block of Summit Street were demolished. While many fought to preserve the landmarks, the Kansas City Council rejected a proposal to grant the buildings historic preservation status.
Seventh Church of Christ Scientist
Perched on the hill at the northwest corner of 47th and Pennsylvania Avenue is the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, which opened in 1942. The church is “considered one of the finest examples of neo -city novel,” according to Kevin Collison.
The church was designed by Indianapolis architect G. Wilbur Foster to “combine 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 fast, as the future of the building is in limbo. “Drake Development of Overland Park wants to tear it down and replace it with a nine-story building that will house restaurants, luxury condominiums and entertainment,” as KCUR’s Jacob Martin reported in April 2022.
The Historic Kansas City Foundation is campaigning against the demolition of the historic church.
Country Club Plaza Theater Building
With its ornate tower and stonework, the former Country Club Plaza theater building at the southwest corner of 47th and Wyandotte streets is a sight to behold in itself. The cinema was a main attraction in the early days of the Plaza, but the building also has much older historical connections.
During its construction in 1928, workers discovered a 2.5-pound juggernaut tooth.
The former Plaza Theater embodied the neighborhood’s Spanish theme inside and out. It contained “two parking stations, treated in an entirely new manner, with a low tiled wall, old Spanish doors, fountains, shrubs and trees”, according to a 1928 Star article.
The building had a long life as a theatre, operating until 1999 when the competing (and now closed) Cinemark cinema moved nearby to 526 Nichols Road. The theater also hosted the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra for a period in the 1960s.
Although the building is currently closed, signs indicate that a store called KC Style Haus will open in late spring 2022.
Plaza Medical Building
Upon its completion in 1937, an advertisement by Jack Henry enthusiastically dubbed the Plaza Medical Building “the finest structure in Kansas City!” Located at 315 Nichols Road, the main entrance to the building is flanked by colorful mosaic murals. Its second floor is adorned with a tower and tiling around the windows.
As detailed in the 1937 Star advertisement, the building contains “brilliantly colored tiles from old Mexico…interesting plaques…antique iron balconies from Spain…soft tones, handmade tiles in varying 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, “Merchants at Country Club Plaza sponsored a dog store where those interested in buying a dog could view 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 Neptune Fountain near 47th and Central Street, the Ben Franklin Statue near 47th and Jefferson Street, and the Florence Boar near 47th and Wornall Road.
A small fountain to add to your list is right in front of the Plaza Medical Building. The Boy and Frog fountain is located just outside the Starbucks at 302 Nichols Road. The statue was designed in Florence by Raffaello Romanelli and brought to Kansas City in 1929.
“Although it looks like the chubby child is happily pissing into the frog’s mouth, the amphibian is actually the one who spits out the water,” humorously describes the Atlas Obscura site. “Crouching beneath the boy and his friend the frog sits a grumpy Faun [sic] riding a dolphin who doesn’t look happy to be stuck holding the marble basin.
Atlas Obscura also details that the fountain has recently been the subject of drama. He reported that the frog went missing in February 2021 and that in June 2021 “the frog is back, although it is missing its right front leg”.
This is not the first time the fountain has been involved in a theft. The baby was stolen in 1960, but was thankfully later found in nearby bushes, the Star reported in 2016.
This compilation only scratches the surface. If you have time, the Country Club Plaza has created several themed scavenger hunts. The William T. Kemper Foundation has also put together a 36-page walking tour of the Plaza with historical reflections on the neighborhood. It contains 50 remarkable sites to see in the neighborhood.
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