Let There Be Lights

Country Club Plaza Christmas Lights
Country Club Plaza Christmas Lights

On December 25, 1925, a string of Christmas lights hung over the doorway of the Mill Creek Building at the Country Club Plaza for the first time, beginning a tradition that today is one of the most extravagant Christmas light displays in the nation.

The Plaza shopping center had been conceived by Jesse Clyde "J. C." Nichols in 1912, when Brush Creek Valley was just an uninhabitable marsh with a nearby hog farm. J. C. Nichols, already a prominent real estate developer in areas south of Kansas City, believed that automobiles (as opposed to electric streetcars) would form the basis of future transportation. Therefore, the architects he hired, Edward Buehler Delk and George E. Kessler, planned the shopping center to have wide streets and considerable space devoted to convenient parking.

The location, five miles south of downtown Kansas City, seemed to pose a challenge. In an era in which virtually all upscale shopping occurred in the heart of cities connected to residential areas by electric streetcars, would shoppers drive their vehicles to a shopping center that was not downtown? When Nichols announced his plans in 1922, skeptical critics derided it as "Nichols’ folly."

To the great surprise of many observers, the Country Club Plaza, which is now considered the nation’s first suburban shopping center, was spectacularly successful after its first buildings opened in 1923. The Plaza’s attractive Spanish-style architecture, green spaces, and scenic location next to Brush Creek drew many visitors. Furthermore, it fulfilled Nichols’s longstanding vision of permanent residential areas that would not be overtaken by industrial developments or slums. The apartments and homes surrounding an attractive and profitable shopping center, Nichols reasoned, would only increase in value.

In 1925, Charles "Pete" Pitrat, maintenance supervisor for the Nichols Company, hung Christmas lights on the Mill Creek Building for the first time. The display was hardly impressive by modern standards – just a few strands of Christmas tree lights hanging over a doorway with some small Christmas trees arranged along the sidewalk. From the display’s decidedly humble beginnings, Pitrat oversaw the installment of more lights on the buildings each year, beginning a tradition that continues today. Each Thanksgiving evening draws nearly 100,000 people who cram onto the Plaza to see the lighting ceremony for one of the nation’s most outstanding lighting displays.

 

Read full biographical sketches of the architects of the Plaza, prepared by the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

 

View images of the Plaza that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

 

Check out the following books about the Country Club Plaza.

 

View the following documentaries about J. C. Nichols and the Country Club Plaza.

 

Visit the Country Club Plaza.

 

Continue researching the history of the Plaza using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

 

References:

Dory DeAngelo, What About Kansas City!: A Historical Handbook (Kansas City, MO: Two Lane Press, 1995), 143.

Susan Jezak Ford, Biography of Edward Buehler Delk, Architect, Missouri Valley Special Collections, 1999.

Robert Pearson, J. C. Nichols Chronicle: The Authorized Story of the Man, His Company, and His Legacy, 1880-1994 (Lawrence, KS: Country Club Plaza Press, Distributed by the University Press of Kansas, 1994), 91-106.

William S. Worley, J .C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 232-263.

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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