Death of a Visionary

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Jesse Clyde Nichols
Jesse Clyde Nichols
J. C. Nichols Memorial Fountain
J. C. Nichols Memorial Fountain

Jesse Clyde Nichols died on February 16, 1950, after a three-month battle with lung cancer. The news about the famed real estate developer’s death quickly spread across the nation and even much of the world. Some 2,000 people attended his funeral at the Country Club Christian Church, where Pastor Warren Grafton, in his eulogy, explained that the best memorial was to simply look around the city and see the influence of J. C. Nichols.

Nichols was born in 1880 in Olathe, Kansas. Always a hard worker, he began selling small homes in his early twenties. In 1905 Nichols embarked on his first real estate development, which he called the Country Club District. It comprised just 10 acres in 1905, but four years later it encompassed 1,000 acres.

What brought Nichols national renown was not the scale of his developments, but the potential permanence of his developments. The top priority was to protect the beauty and character of residential areas through what eventually became known as city planning.

In city planning, private or public leaders would create long-term plans for the location and character of shopping districts, residential areas, transportation networks, and heavy industry. Zoning regulations, among the first in the nation, legally limited certain areas to residential, industrial, or commercial development.

Neighborhood covenants required the proper maintenance of homes and landscapes. Homeowner associations in each neighborhood would permanently control the covenant regulations. Carefully planned parks, attractive roads, and suburban shopping districts could enhance the value of the homes around them. Nichols demonstrated this with the Country Club Plaza shopping center, which combined some elements of all three.

Less celebrated by modern standards were deed restrictions that limited what sort of people could purchase property in a given neighborhood. The resulting racial discrimination barred minorities from the Country Club District, even if they could have afforded the expensive homes. At the time, discrimination against racial or religious minorities was both legal and common throughout the nation. As a result of high property values and demographic trends, the racial makeup of the Country Club District is still largely white even though legal housing discrimination ended in the 1960s.

The criticisms of Nichols notwithstanding, Pastor Grafton’s adage still holds true half a century after Nichols’s death. In addition to most of the southwestern portion of Kansas City, Missouri, observers today can see grand monuments that Nichols influenced or inspired. The J. C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, J. C. Nichols Parkway, and the Reece & Nichols real estate company bear his name.

He was a critical leader in the creation of the Midwest Research Institute, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Liberty Memorial, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Country Club Plaza, and the North American Aviation aircraft plant that paved the way for the General Motors Fairfax Plant that stands at the same location. Decades after his death, his accomplishments continue to pay dividends to Kansas City.

 

Read biographical sketches of J. C. Nichols and his associates, prepared by the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

 

View images of J. C. Nichols and related items that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

 

Check out the following books about J.C. Nichols.

 

View the documentary, Community Builder: The Life & Legacy of J.C. Nichols, by Steven C. F. Anderson and Brian Peter Falk, Kansas City Public Television.

Visit the Country Club Plaza.

 

Continue researching J. C. Nichols using archival material.

 

References:

Christensen, Lawrence O. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

Ford, Susan Jezak. Biography of J. C. Nichols (1880-1950), Real Estate Developer. Missouri Valley Special Collections, 2003.

Pearson, Robert and Brad Pearson. The J. C. Nichols Chronicle: The Authorized Story of the Man, His Company, and His Legacy, 1880-1994. Kansas City, MO: Country Club Plaza Press, 1994.

Worley, William S. J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City: Innovation in Planned Residential Communities. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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