“An Outdoor Museum” – Public Art in the Country Club District

(originally published in 2015 in The Country Club District of Kansas City, and on 7/11/19 in KCBackstories.)

Growing up in Lawrence, the drive into Kansas City was a regular event. The first thing I understood about where Kansas City was – as in “are we there yet?” – was that I was there when I started seeing statues and fountains. The art of the Country Club District was my first definition of Kansas City’s identity. Which is, of course, what J.C. Nichols wanted from the start.

Nichols was a crafty salesman, without a doubt, and so I don’t dismiss that he purposefully understood how a good aesthetic would enhance the value of property, be it a single family home or a quaintly designed retail corner. But in reading Nichols’ speeches and other papers, it’s clear that in the public art he placed through the Country Club District, he had higher aspirations for the larger community. The following is a condensation of part of a speech he made in 1924 to a group of fellow real estate developers, where he discussed all the features that went into the Country Club District. Here, he moves the discussion from residential architecture to the importance of public art:

And then you may go further and introduce certain ornamental features of good design and taste, appropriate to public sites, whether it may be an interesting piece of statuary of real antique value and character, or a good reproduction. It may be a beautiful vase placed in an open park, an interesting iron gate or a fountain. I don’t believe there is anything we have done that is adding more to the individual character and creating more distinct environment than the placing of benches, pavilions, columns, balustrades, well heads, rustic bridges, or statuary, all being placed with careful study.

Each ornament and site should be carefully studied, as the architect works out the detail of the most particular parts of his design. Grades, surroundings, light, shadow, approach, scale, and almost the very atmosphere itself enters into the successful placing of such ornaments. In what manner can you more successfully create distinctive character of a particular neighborhood than by this means? In no way can you encourage art and sculpture in the surrounding homes and throughout the city more effectively. And the inspiring thing of it is that these ornaments, properly selected, properly placed, will pass down through the generations, becoming an inspiration for beauty for ages in our cities.

In other writings, Nichols mentions how he came to this opinion through numerous trips to Europe (the first a bicycle tour when he was 20), and noticing how public art, the sculpture and the fountains that he found in public squares and parks brought art out of museums and into the community. Indeed, in another speech in 1937, Nichols said, “[W]e endeavored to make our property sort of an outdoor museum, and have installed in some two hundred locations, garden ornaments comprising fountains, vases, statues, well heads, and other objects of art. They give a distinctive tone to the neighborhoods, creating a certain pride in the hearts of the dwellers, stimulating an aspiration to further beautify their own premises.”

As early as 1920, Nichols began announcing plans to install art objects around the District. The original one hundred pieces Nichols procured by 1922 had grown to two hundred by 1937, and the cost he estimated in 1945 to be $500,000 grew to $1 million in a 1969 auto tour brochure the Nichols Company published. Some of the pieces the Nichols Company acquired were (they claimed) legitimate antiquities. But most were replicas produced by contemporary artisans, although often working with the materials and techniques used by the original artists. This was the era of grand ornamentation, so with a great demand for their work, there was nothing second-rate about using works by contemporary artists.

The Nichols Company developed a relationship with one of the most respected studios of the time, the Romanelli Studios in Florence, Italy. The studio traced its roots to the work of Lorenzo Bartolini, one of the greatest Italian sculptors of the 19th century. His best student, Pasquale Romanelli, took over the studio after Bartolini’s death. Nichols would have likely worked with Pasquale’s son Raffaello (1856-1928), and Raffaello’s son Romano (1882-1968). J.C. Nichols honored his relationship with the Romanelli family and its studio by naming one of his subdivisions Romanelli Gardens, and by giving the Romanelli name to the shops at the southwest corner of Gregory Boulevard and Wornall Road.

The public art largely stopped after J.C. died in 1950, so it’s reasonable to think that twenty years later, the latest generation of District residents might not understand where all the statues in their neighborhoods came from. Perhaps that’s why in 1969 the Nichols Company printed an auto tour brochure, The Outdoor Art of the Country Club District, which has been my primary source of historical data on the art installations the Nichols Company placed throughout its subdivisions. According to that account, following J.C.’s death in 1950, very little information was available in the Nichols Company records about the purchases. This accounts for the list being well short of comprehensive. Further, many of those described in the 1969 brochure are no longer at the location given.

The following are descriptions of just three of the dozen or so pieces covered in that brochure:

Bronze Eagle Statue at 67th and Ward Parkway
  • Bronze Eagle (Ward Parkway at 67th Street) – At fifteen feet high up from the base of its pedestal, and with a wingspan of fourteen feet, the Bronze Eagle in the Ward Parkway median near 67th Street is one of the largest and most impressive of the District’s statuary, although often overlooked because from a car moving quickly down Ward Parkway, the brown metal blends into the surrounding landscape. The Nichols Company records indicate the eagle is Japanese and date it to the 18th century, where it originally stood in the courtyard of a Japanese temple. The Japanese Embassy imported the figure to display in the 1903 St. Louis World’s Exposition. From there it found its way to a New York art dealer, who sold the piece to the Nichols Company. The eagle was installed and presented to the city in 1935. Originally, the eagle had golden eyes. Those were destroyed by vandals sometime after World War II. The eagle was included in a Life photo essay, shot by photographer William Vandivert in 1938. In that shot, the statue stands on open ground, with no evidence of any housing yet built around it.
Fountain near Brookwood Road and State Line Road
  • Antique Venetian Fountain and Well-Head (Brookwood Road (61st Street) and State Line Rd.) – These two pieces were installed in a sunset ceremony on June 24, 1923. The installation was symbolic, with one piece on either side of State Line Road, and those in attendance representing the two adjacent subdivisions – the Mission Hills Homes Company from the Kansas side, and Stratford Gardens as the Missouri contingent. The Mission Hills piece was a 300-year-old Venetian fountain that J.C. Nichols had procured from a London art dealer. The Stratford Gardens piece was undated, but also from Venice, and originally served as a cistern and a communal source of drinking water for its Venetian neighborhood.
Well-head at Tomahawk and Seneca Roads
  • Antique Well-Head (Tomahawk and Seneca Roads) – One of the District’s least imposing sculptural pieces may be one of its greatest finds. The antique well-head at Tomahawk and Seneca Roads in Mission Hills sits in a small traffic island park. Nichols Company records do not definitively date the piece, nor do they identify its country of origin. At the time of its purchase, J.C. Nichols invited Paul Gardner, then the director of the Nelson Gallery of Art, to examine the piece. Gardner saw elements of Romanesque and Byzantine designs in the carvings on its surface, and attributed it to the Lombard region of 13th century Italy.

The Nichols Company deserves tremendous credit for purchasing and placing art objects around the Country Club District. But once placed, their future maintenance became the responsibility of others. Usually, it was the homes association in the neighborhood where they were installed, and in cases when placed on public property, the responsibility of that city. As each of the art objects was installed invariably there was an announcement about it in The Country Club District Bulletin that included a statement by the Nichols Company of its confidence in District residents to respect and protect the pieces, and be inspired by their presence.

The fact that so many of the original pieces have survived, or, when damaged or stolen have been replaced by works of comparable value, is a credit to those organizations, and to Nichols’ faith in his residents. Regrettably, that faith was not fully rewarded, for the 1969 art tour brochure also documents the extent to which vandalism had taken its toll on many of the pieces, beginning even in the earliest days of their placement.

Still, despite the vandalism and having dealt with nearly fifty years of maintaining and replacing the statues, the Nichols Company had not lost its pride in its “outdoor museum.” The 1969 brochure encouraged visitors and residents alike to continue to enjoy the art up close. Its closing invitation still stands.

“In viewing the art, please park your car and walk around and touch the individual items – feel the fine texture of the marble and the delicate tracings. Visualize the skill and time required to create them. You will be amazed at the delicate and charming details revealed by a close inspection.”

(Featured Photo: This triangular park at 63rd Street and Summit was built in 1920 (the photo dates to 1925), and while the urns are no longer features in the park (originally known as “The Piazetta”), other statuary and ornaments are still present, though most (like this table) have been replaced with near duplicates of the originals.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: