Today I Learned: The History Behind the Country Club Plaza

June 27, 2017

Today I Learned is a blog series from Visit KC and the Kansas City Public Library that shines a light on the history of Kansas City, its culture and the trailblazers who helped shape the City of Fountains. 

Borrowing architectural inspiration from a city thousands of miles away—and hundreds of years older—The Country Club Plaza’s history is as unique as the shopping is vast.

Humble Beginnings

Image courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections

Not many saw Brush Creek Valley as an ideal development site. Its marshy land was far from ideal, and the valley itself was framed by a pig farm and a factory that spewed smoke into the air.

So when developer J.C. Nichols announced in 1912 that he planned to build a “Spanish marketplace magically transported to Kansas City,” many thought him foolish. They figured the site to be too remote (five miles south of Downtown) and too large for the nearby residential area. The project itself quickly earned the unfortunate nickname, “Nichols’ Folly.” 

European Inspiration

The Nichols family traveled to Europe in 1921, in part to study Spanish art and architecture. It was there he fell in love with Seville, Spain, a city located in the southern region of the country. Much of the look and the feel of Seville is influenced by the Moors, a group of people who ruled the area for nearly 800 years—and impressed their distinct design style throughout the city.

One of the major remnants of that legacy, The Giralda Tower, lives on in the Country Club Plaza, as it inspired the construction of a duplicate structure that stands in homage of the original in KC’s now-sister city. 

Modern Design

Image courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections

Few shopping centers built 90-plus years ago remain today. The team that designed and constructed the Country Club Plaza had the prescience to anticipate the dawn of the age of automobiles in the United States. The minds behind The Plaza counted on people driving to visit the district, an unusual thought at the time.

As a result of this innovative thinking, they constructed it to be large enough to accommodate vehicles for both visitors’ vehicles and for trucks importing goods from all across the country. This decision sealed The Plaza’s fate, transforming what was once a laughing-stock of an idea into one of KC’s most iconic and beloved neighborhoods. 

Quick Facts

  • The Plaza was developed for $5 million, nearly $73 million in 2017
  • The initial architecture plan was drafted by Edward Delks, who traveled to Spain, Mexico and South America for inspiration
  • Several cities used The Plaza’s forward-thinking design in their own retail districts, including Dallas, Houston and Cleveland
  • The Plaza Lights tradition first began in 1925, when several merchants voted to decorate their sidewalks with miniature Christmas trees and outdoor lightbulbs, a trend many believe to have begun in KC

Visit KC and Kansas City Public Library

Today I Learned is a blog series that shines a light on the history of Kansas City, its culture and the trailblazers who helped shape the city. We’ll present a different piece of history each month to give a fuller picture of KC’s roots and highlight little-known stories worth sharing.

country club plaza