Step into Spring: The Plaza Walking Tour

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of working on a project to create a “walking guide” for the Country Club Plaza. Historic Kansas City led the efforts of a group that included journalists, academics, architectural experts, HKC leadership… and me, and created a beautiful full-color booklet, with something for everyone.

While not strictly a history tour, there’s plenty of history explored in the short topical essays in the section, “7 ways of Looking at the Plaza.” The bulk of the book is devoted to “50 Notable Things to See.” While not an expert on the Plaza, my research and writing on the Country Club District has made me more familiar with the Plaza than most people, but even so, many items on that list surprised me.

The Plaza has always been a draw for visitors, and the booklet is good at helping them navigate the landmarks of the area and understand its origins. But equally important was that the book appeal to a local audience, in order to (as HKC’s purpose as a preservationist force hopes) interest and engage Kansas City folks in the heritage of the city’s buildings and places. A worthy goal, but the problem is that tourists will always go looking for a tour map. Locals typically won’t.

So, to assist in that effort, I’ve selected a few of the items on the “50 Notable Things” list to tickle your interest. And at the bottom is a link to Historic Kansas City’s site, where you’ll find a pdf of the booklet. Just where that booklet is available in the physical world is hard to say at any given time. Check Plaza retailers or the Plaza management office. Libraries too.

  • 900 Ward Parkway Apartments (900 Ward Parkway) – Just west of Roanoke Parkway on the Plaza’s western side, overlooking Brush Creek, is the 900 Ward Parkway apartment building. Identified as only one of three remaining pieces of the Park Manor Historic District, it is the site of the so-called Bennett Bridge murder in September 1929. Myrtle Bennett shot her husband in the back following a row over a losing bridge hand during which they lost to another couple. Even though the neighbors were present to witness the shooting, Myrtle Bennett was found not guilty.
  • The Sears/Seville Square Building (526 Nichols Road)– What is now the site of Brio, and to many of a certain age was once known as Seville Square, actually began its life in 1947 as the Sears Building, the first the company built anywhere in the country in what was then considered a suburban (non-downtown) location. Attracting the big-name Sears Company was also a turning point in the Plaza’s character, for although the well-known brand attracted customers, it was among the first tenants to challenge the established character of the Plaza – small, locally owned and operated businesses.
  • Original Nichols Company offices (310 Ward Parkway) – The J.C. Nichols Company was already 25 years old when it moved into the Plaza offices they occupied for almost 70 years. , in large part because of the front doors with their metal lacework and the medallions on each door – an art deco depiction of the residential development on the left, and a similar piece on the commercial projects on the right. The company occupied the ground floor lobby, second floor offices, and the single room on the third floor (west end of building), which was originally J.C. Nichols’ private office. Inside, the original Spanish motif used a lot of wrought iron and tile, but the most interesting feature was a tile version of a cartoon-type map showing all the features of the Country Club District. All that is gone today, but embedded in the sidewalk in front of the building is a plaque commemorating the work of J.C. Nichols.
  • The Postal Life & Casualty Insurance Company Building (4725 Wyandotte)– While we think of the Plaza as wholly and completely a product of the Nichols’ Company’s design and construction, there are a few buildings that were built by private companies for their own use. The Skelly Building (605 W. 47th) and the Commerce Bank Building (118 W. 47th Street) are two examples, although both do conform to the Spanish/Moorish design of the Plaza. But the Postal Life & Casualty Insurance Company Building, built in 1933 does not conform at all. For many years that fact was hidden by a modern façade, but when that was taken down, it revealed a concrete, streamlined building that looks exactly like what you’d expect if you crossed the concepts of insurance company and post office – clean, non-nonsense and imposing, but not without its share of interesting architectural detail.
  • The Giralda Tower (47th and Nichols Parkway) – The Giralda Tower is an accurate 3/5ths scale version of the original 12th century tower in Seville Spain (a Kansas City Sister City). Like the original, the Plaza’s tower is a bell tower. Unlike the original, it was not originally built as a mosque-turned-cathedral, though that duality is evident in the contrast between the Moorish filigree work along its sides, and the Renaissance-influenced domed top. In that respect, the Plaza’s Giralda Tower fits right in with what has become something of a mash-up of architectural styles encroaching on the Plaza. J.C. Nichols saw the original on a trip to Spain, and always wanted to include a smaller version on the Plaza, but was never satisfied with any of the proposed sites. Following Nichols’ death in 1950, his son Miller Nichols (the new head of the Nichols Company) found the perfect location and finally constructed his father’s pet project in 1967.
  • Sulgrave and Regency waterfall fountain (121 W. 48th St., west side of building) – This fountain is like no other on the Plaza. Maybe that’s because it’s out of the commercial area, hidden among the high-rises on the south side of Brush Creek. Maybe it’s because that, instead of being ornamental and charm-inducing, it was actually built to solve a problem. Following a major renovation the need for a retaining wall gave the architect the chance to turn function into the form of a three-story tall single drop fountain. The brochure describes it as “decidedly modernist,” with its stark concrete terraced wall crowned by a tie to the interior of the building with a single sheet of glass.

So now that spring is here, take a moment to explore the Plaza from a different perspective. Spend time looking not just into the decorated store windows, but noticing the decorative details around those windows, the tiles on the facades, the art work along the sidewalks, and the original names on the buildings. I find something new every time I bother to look. The walk is good for me, and I don’t have to spend a penny to enjoy it. I just have to spend the time.

Link to Historic Kansas City – Country Club Plaza Walking Guide:

Historic Kansas City – Country Club Plaza Walking Guide

(Photo: Architect Edward Delk’s original master plan for the Country Club Plaza, 1923. Note the original street layout was more curvilinear than today’s mostly grid-like form. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri)

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