(originally published 2/27/20)
While J.C. Nichols’ name is apparent all over town even seventy years after his death, the name of Napoleon Dible is generally only known in parts of town, particularly the Waldo area. Both men put their own stamp on the housing character of Kansas City during the first half of the 20th Century. They shared many traits – hard working, visionary, hugely successful and ultimately wealthy. What distinguishes Dible is the range of his interests and talents, but even more, his motivation – he was determined to make homes available to all.
Napoleon Dible (pronounced “die-bull) is a rather immodest name for such a humble man. “N.W.”, as he was commonly known, was a contemporary of J.C. Nichols, but unlike Nichols he came to the development game later in his career. Dible was born in Ohio, raised in Beloit, Kansas, made his first professional career in advertising in Denver, and then arrived in Kansas City in 1903. He made a little money on a minor invention that afforded him the chance to make even more money in railroad stocks. He and his wife came to Kansas City with the thought that Dible would go into business for himself. He sold the railroad stock for start-up capital shortly before the railroad went bankrupt. In 1906 he filed a patent on a device for improving a device to stimulate the scalp toward hair production. He was growing restless to find another productive career, when his banker gave him a lead on a possible venture. Another client of the banker was a builder looking for a partner. Dible jumped in, seeing the same opportunity that had captivated Nichols and others. The partnership was short-lived. Six months into the venture, the partner skipped town, leaving Dible in the middle of his first three house projects, with no capital and no knowledge of housing or construction.
Dible was not the type to give up. He was a principled man who took commitments seriously. He was regimented in his personal routine, maintaining a daily schedule that bordered on obsessive. Meals were taken at precisely the same times every day. He neither smoked nor drank, was a devout member of the First Baptist Church, and president of its Business Men’s Bible Class. In this role, he is credited with having organized the “World’s Largest Bible Class,” which consisted of more than 52,000 men who met at the city’s convention hall in 1923. Despite his faith, he only kept the Sabbath in part. Dible worked tirelessly seven days a week and was never known to take a vacation. He was a life-long advocate of good health, and at the age of 88 wrote a book titled “How to Live One Hundred Years and Retain Your Health and Mental Faculties.”
His disciplined nature, combined with the marketing skills he gathered in advertising, helped him keep the company afloat until he could learn the business. But money was not his principle aim. He was a zealot on the subject of home ownership, determined to provide the middle-class Kansas City family with a home it could afford. An average price for a typical Dible home in the early days was about $8,000. To make housing affordable, Dible employed some techniques that were new and innovative, but not readily accepted by the higher end builders working in the Country Club District. He insisted on not just selling lots, but building the house as well, presumably to maintain a standard of quality. He also built speculative housing, normally a risky strategy given the large capital outlay that required. He was among the first to use mass-produced building materials and supplies, buying in bulk and significantly reducing the cost of each home. His floor plans were few and basic, but he managed to find ways to make each home unique inside and out.
Architecturally, Dible homes were most typically either a faux English Tudor style – the style most often associated with him – or the arts-and-crafts style of the Prairie School of design often associated Frank Lloyd Wright. But Dible also produced a few houses that were innovative for the time, notably the California bungalow form he had once seen in Los Angeles. The style, with its half-second story, provided maximum house on minimally-sized lots. Each and every one of these strategies made a significant contribution to the level of his success. Ironically, however, Dible’s own home, while built by him, was in none of the neighborhoods for which he is known. He built his house in the Nichols Company’s Country Club District.
For Nichols, the house was important, but most of his company’s deals were about the land development. He built or let others build, as opportunity presented. For Dible, the house was what mattered. He built the houses on all his properties, and was known to help with financing, moving expenses, or whatever it took to get a family into a home. Over the course of his career, N.W. Dible was responsible for the construction of five thousand homes in thirty seven subdivisions. His first projects were in neighborhoods like Oak Park and Ivanhoe, north of Brush Creek and east of Watkins Roadway. Later, he moved south and west. A significant number of Dible houses are in or near Waldo. On the west side, his largest project was the thousand-unit Ward Park addition that ran from Gregory Boulevard to 74th Street, from Wornall Road to the state line. On the east, the Rockhill Gardens and Rockhill Manor subdivisions, from Gregory Boulevard to 81st Street between Oak Street and Troost Avenue, were even larger, with one thousand five hundred homes. When N.W. Dible died in 1960, at the age of 89, he turned over the legacy of the N.W. Dible Company to his grandsons. He left the community of Waldo with a greater legacy, quality neighborhoods that have stood the test of time.
(Featured Photo: A string of typical Tudor-style homes in the Waldo area. Courtesy UMKC. )