Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Announced in 1922 and begun according to a substantially revised plan the following year, Kansas City, Missouri's Country Club Plaza was the most ambitious and the most influential comprehensively planned retail complex realized in the United States before the mid– twentieth century. Through this work, real estate developer J. C. Nichols became the nation's foremost exponent of a revolutionary new approach to the creation of business centers, an approach that has had a profound impact on the American landscape since World War II.

While not the first example of its kind, the plaza far exceeded any precursors in the scope and detail of its program. The complex was conceived to encompass more than 200 retail outlets and approximately the same number of professional offices and other services for the consumer public. Planned in conjunction with Nichols's vast Country Club District, the plaza was intended eventually to serve a population of tens of thousands from that precinct and other parts of the metropolitan area as well.

Nichols's plans broke with convention in several important ways. First, the plaza was planned as a physically unified entity: buildings and all other components of the landscape were designed to present a harmonious ensemble that would be visually distinct and engaging. Second, the complex was planned to have a unified tenant structure: businesses were carefully selected not only for the quality of the goods and/or services they purveyed but also in terms of how each contributed to the greater whole. Third, this ensemble would operate in a coherent manner under the auspices of a single management office and a business association to coordinate hours, special events, and advertising, among other features. Fourth, rather than having a defined center, with a hierarchy of land values based on proximity to it, all property in the Plaza would be of more or less equal importance in order to foster market return. Fifth, the complex was oriented to motorists rather than to public transportation routes. Streets were unusually numerous and wide to facilitate movement and parking. Buildings could be no more than two stories high to preclude vehicular congestion as well as to equitably distribute land value. In 1928 two parking lots were added in prime locations, to be followed by several others designed to facilitate access. Finally, all these objectives were possible because every aspect of the scheme was undertaken by the J. C. Nichols Company, which retained ownership of the property and control of the operation.

The plaza was designed to be built incrementally as demand in the Country Club District and other outlying areas increased. Construction was brought to a halt by the Great Depression, then resumed in the late 1930s. Numerous additions were made following World War II and fewer in recent years. Through the years the plan has been fluid and dynamic, adjusting to ongoing change.

Nichols intended the plaza to complement rather than compete with the downtown shopping district. Early tenants mostly retailed high-end specialty and convenience goods. By the late 1930s a few chain stores had been included. During the postwar years branches of several major downtown stores and a large Sears unit were added, rendering the complex a more significant regional destination.

Nichols was instrumental in advancing the term shopping center for his unusual venture. Within a few years of its commencement, the plaza began to be emulated by other developers, and it soon acquired legendary status. Although the layout and exuberant Spanish baroque–inspired imagery were no longer considered relevant in the postwar era, the success of the plaza's underlying concept had a decisive impact on the proliferation of shopping centers nationwide.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri.

Richard Longstreth George Washington University

Longstreth, Richard. "The Diffusion of the Community Shopping Center Concept during the Interwar Decades." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 56 (1997): 268-93.

Longstreth, Richard. "J. C. Nichols, the Country Club Plaza, and Notions of Modernity." Harvard Architecture Review 5 (1986): 120-35.

Worley, William S. J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.

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