J.C. Nichols and the Country Club District: Suburban Aesthetics and Property Values
American cities changed drastically over the course of the 20th century. In a word, they suburbanized. One way in which to see that is to look at urban form, that is, how streets were laid out and how buildings were set upon lots. From the gridiron plans and cheek-by-jowl buildings of the late 1800s to the suburban cul-de-sacs blanketed by grassy lawns common by second half of the 20th century, urban form reflects larger shifts in the legal, economic, and cultural aspects of urban development.
Kansas City, like other American cities, added new suburban-style developments at its edges during the early decades of the 20th century. What makes it a unique case for understanding this shift is the character of Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols. Born in Olathe, Kansas, in 1880, Nichols had a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, and included transforming thousands of acres of land into a planned suburban community. That work can be divided into two parts: the Country Club Plaza was one of the earliest shopping centers in the country, and it made Nichols well known both in Kansas City and among American urban historians. He is also known for the Country Club District and its suburban landscape of curving, tree-lined streets filled with gracious, middle-class homes that has had surprising longevity and stability.
Nichols advocated for a suburban model of urban form, and in his expansion from elite, high-end homes into the middle-class market for residential subdivisions, he linked the practice of urban development to its theory. He both built cul-de-sacs, working with landscape architects, and advocated for them, putting his techniques for land development first in front of professional audiences, and later in front of federal policy makers.
Thus, Kansas City, while perhaps not every urban historian’s paradigmatic case, is nonetheless ideal for understanding the resilience of the cul-de-sac as a format for urban development. Nichols positioned the Country Club District as a model for other cities to follow, in essence elevating suburban-style growth as a choice that developers could make to supplant the gridiron model. His unseen innovations in land development techniques gave the format staying power and enabled private, market-led city planning.
Nichols’s story also offers a contrast to the grittier side of Kansas City in the 1920s. While "Boss" Tom Pendergast ran the old Kansas City, the smoke-filled gridded streets of business and industry’s rough edges, Nichols presided over the sylvan landscape of tree-shaded lawns and curving boulevards at the city’s quickly expanding periphery. Though the two sides of the city were of course linked (Tom Pendergast, for example, enjoyed the charms of Nichols’s Country Club District in a house he built for himself there), different urban forms, modes of development, and legal foundations underpin the shorthand nicknames (urban vs suburban) that have codified discussions about the built environment ever since.
Nichols’s career began in the opening years of the 20th century, a time when city planning and landscape architecture were fields just coming into being as professional enterprises linked to city development. Those looking to turn a plot of dirt into profit-maker wanted greater control over the process and increased odds of success. City builders and planners had struggled over how to guide development, and two ideas rose to prominence in the early 20th century: zoning and deed restrictions.
Zoning offered a public process—a government policy that could control land use and direct new construction to generally align with a broader city plan. The deed restriction offered another method—a private practice, essentially a contract between buyer and seller, that could control many things from land use to building setbacks. Deed restrictions are clauses added to the deed of a property that can put a variety of limitations on that deed—from requiring buildings to be set back a certain distance from the property line, to (historically) specifying the race of the inhabitants. As deed restrictions are a private mechanism for controlling development, real estate developers were keen to understand what this could offer, and suburban developers like Nichols were at the forefront of exploring its possibilities.
Race and Real Estate
Deed restrictions are most commonly known for their racially restrictive clauses, whose legacy reveals the intertwined relationship between race and real estate. Racially restrictive clauses in deed restrictions produced an intentionally segregated landscape that white power elites wanted for their city. This was not accidental, and the repercussions of this for the United States continue today. In 1948, a supreme court ruling (Shelley v. Kraemer) ended the enforcement of racially restrictive clauses, but as other scholars have shown, that decision did not bring about an end to residential segregation, and structural conditions still enabled a racialized landscape to continue through today.
Nichols, lauded though he might be for the charitable work he did in the city, also actively helped construct the racialized landscape of Kansas City by putting racially restrictive clauses into the deed restrictions on all the properties he sold. The practice of redlining neighborhoods, in which a federal agency rated neighborhoods for their creditworthiness, built upon this landscape of restrictions to construct the entangled prosperity and inequality of homeownership, real estate, and race in America. Real estate analyst Helen Corbin Monchow’s 1928 book, The Use of Deed Restrictions in Subdivision Development, instructed real estate developers on how to use deed restrictions (also called covenants) to their best advantage, and in a chart, she includes Nichols’s restrictions on race for an area of the Country Club District, Armour Hills.
Nichols contributed to the discussion around deed restrictions in significant ways. When asked to write a short review of the book that contained the chart of racially restrictive clauses, he wrote a 12-page article expounding on his many thoughts on the topic. Little of the public discussion Nichols participated in directly described the systemic racism that developers actively created.
Deed restrictions did control other aspects of land development beyond creating racial segregation. A two-page, fold-out chart from a 1925 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine shows just how many factors the deed restriction could control, including, for example, limiting hedge heights, prohibiting hogs, requiring building setbacks, and setting minimum construction costs. They became standard practice across the country in suburban developments—part of the legal infrastructure on which suburbia is built.
In the Country Club District, Nichols built suburban infrastructure. More than constructing homes, turn-key style, he laid roads and sidewalks, buried water and sewer lines, and subdivided land into lots. Much of this work was subterranean and contractual—infrastructural, in other words—but it also had a decidedly aesthetic component. What the suburb looked like mattered quite a lot.
Unlike most developers at the time, Nichols hired landscape architects to lay out his subdivisions and to design public green spaces on medians, esplanades, and other remnant spots of vegetation. Hardly large enough to qualify as park spaces, these enhancements were in some sense eye candy, decorated with statuary and fountains, but Nichols saw them as much more: as aesthetic devices for ensuring stable property values, maintained through the legal device of the home owners’ association.
Nichols believed the aesthetics of curving lanes, bird baths, and shrubbery not only bolstered, but also steadied property values, providing Kansas City with an expansive landscape that showcased his vision of private-market city planning. Nichols did not see his investments in plant material as a sales tool for moving empty lots as much as he saw them as an infrastructure that would bring long-term dividends. In this way, leftover spaces gained productive value, signaling and ensuring through their aesthetics the high value of surrounding properties. This piece of leafy suburban infrastructure was but another component of Nichols’s system of legal and economic standardizations aimed at producing steady property values for his purchasers, insulating them from the dangers of investing in real estate, what he called "unstable merchandise."
Nichols was a singular but key player in creating the cul-de-sac landscape of suburbia, whose designs and deed restrictions would later be promoted by the Federal Housing Administration as standards to follow. A leader in his field, Nichols regularly borrowed from the language and techniques of city planning and landscape architecture to achieve his projects, and he repeatedly and explicitly defined his work and that of other “real estate men” in relation to the discourse on city planning.
Nichols wiped any off-putting politics from city planning discourse in his retelling of it, casting city planning as a business-friendly initiative that would work together with developers to grow American cities. His deed restrictions established self-perpetuating, private controls to development that became the model for other developers, forming the legal groundwork for private land use control, aesthetic regulation, and an intractable urban fabric. Nichols capitalized on techniques from landscape architecture, paired with his own legal innovations, to establish and maintain in perpetuity the romantic, leafy-green aesthetic commonly associated with suburbia. The unurbanized southwest edge of Kansas City in the early decades of the 20th century was the canvas on which he experimented.
Nichols's Sales Craft
Nichols began subdividing in 1904, having no experience in the business and little capital to launch his plans. He borrowed the equipment to put in the first curbs in the Country Club District and salvaged wood from a barn to build sidewalks. Those curbs and sidewalks were some of the first of the physical “improvements” to the Country Club District – the name given to the aggregation of smaller, contiguous subdivisions Nichols developed piecemeal southwest of Kansas City until his death in 1950.
Nichols employed landscape architects to design his subdivisions at a time when most developers did not. As early as 1907, Nichols worked with landscape architect George Kessler to subdivide a large farm he was purchasing west of land that had already been subdivided. Later he would hire the father-son firm Hare & Hare to design many of his subdivisions. Landscape architects were an added expense that most developers avoided, but Nichols mined the techniques of landscape design to make his subdivisions more exclusive and more profitable. The expected signs of a landscape architect’s hand—curved interior streets, small park areas, sensitivity to topography, and a hierarchy of roads—appear in Nichols’s developments from an early date. Landscape architects were also good at maximizing the number, and attractiveness, of saleable lots on a given piece of land. Put simply, Nichols hired landscape architects to increase land values in his neighborhoods.
The role of landscape architecture in Nichols’s work reflects a longstanding and significant association between picturesque ideals and residential design. As part of the professionalization of the field of landscape architecture, pushing away from associations of “feminine” gardening was key to legitimizing the work of men in the field. But this gendering did not remove the picturesque aesthetic so commonly understood, then and now, as suburban. Histories of U.S. suburbia have shown how the picturesque represented a timelessness and escape from the city and its industry. The landscape designs of suburbia held a cultural meaning intended to provide separation from the domestic sphere and stability against the fluctuations of modern capitalism; likewise, it connoted the elite gardens of the English that secured cultural hegemony.
As scholars have observed of the picturesque suburban cemetery designs of the mid-19th century, the creation of a timeless, domestic space of permanence and rest for the dead explicitly countered the hustle of the unpredictable market in the gridiron city. (Indeed, one of Nichols’s landscape architects, Sid Hare, was a cemetery designer before opening his own landscape architecture firm.) The soft edges, gentle curves, and lush greenery hid the harshness of the speculative market and suggested something of the sublime in its place. Nichols continued to build on these cultural meanings while finding new ways to operationalize the production of such landscapes. Economic exclusivity and enhancement of lot values was the goal: landscape architecture, the tool.
To further this aim, construction details were calibrated to attract high-paying buyers. J.C. Nichols paved the roads in his subdivisions, matching his commitment to landscape architecture with a commitment to automobiles. The curb design and size was important for keeping cars off lawns in these early days of the automobile. The well-paved roads and sidewalks illustrated readiness for the family car in promotional material. Nichols’s two sons even worked on road-building and maintenance crews in the summers, learning to lay heavy stones as base, breaking up that stone with a napping hammer, and “enduring the suffocating asphalt fumes as they spread the macadam top.” Explaining how the large-lot design improved automobility for residents, Nichols told the Ladies Home Journal in 1921, “In these days of the motor car you can whisk around these long blocks in a jiffy.”
Nichols’s landscape architects also used another kind of design—statuary fountains—to sell buyers a vision of high-end suburban living. The neighborhood’s traffic-directing street layouts created small, postage-stamp sized parks, islands surrounded by roads. These Nichols turned into selling points by filling them with fountains and sculptures. He collected the art on trips to Europe, adding to the general cachet of the endeavor, and held receptions to unveil new acquisitions. More than mere ornaments in the landscape, Nichols believed these objets d’art established an aesthetic tone that reflected the street design, and helped build a long-term vision for the quality and financial stability of the area.
Nichols's landscape architects used site design and street layouts to sell buyers a vision of high-end suburban living. Though Hare & Hare’s practice would never be as influential as Kessler’s, the firm designed features in Nichols’s subdivisions that reflect a new approach to real estate development. Hare & Hare’s Hampstead Gardens plat introduced curving streets and small, uninhabitable triangular parks at three-way intersections to direct car traffic and add greenery. Blocks were generally oriented to run east-west, as in Nichols’s previous projects, accentuating the hierarchy of arterial roads. The east-west orientation also allowed for ideal sun exposure on the majority of homes that would face north-south.
More generally, if a gridded city plan would give equal importance to all roads, suburban superblocks create a hierarchy of roads—major arterials for faster traffic and smaller neighborhood streets for residential enclaves. By curving the roads gently, Nichols slowed traffic on them, and encouraged drivers to use the arterials instead of the indirect smaller streets. Curved streets, Nichols believed (in an echo of the picturesque), offered an “ever-changing vista” that was “more pleasing to the eye,” as his son later recalled his father saying on drives through the District. Unspoken but easily inferred is his dislike of the monotonous, gridiron, pothole-ridden city, conjuring too much the hard edges of capitalism. By contrast, his well-paved roads and sidewalks were all highlighted in advertisements for the District to illustrate readiness for the family car.
Early in their collaboration with Nichols, Hare & Hare designed the high-end Mission Hills subdivision, a 240-acre development of large lots on the Kansas side of the state line. Platted in 1912, Mission Hills was bisected by a creek that divided the residential area from the country club and golf course to the north. The traffic arteries that continued into the subdivision from the east curved to follow the topography and creek, creating the visual interest Nichols liked. One exception at the center of the subdivision was “Colonial Court,” a block-long divided road with a formal planted median. Triangular parks at intersections were again laid out in accordance with the turning radius of an automobile. Lots were very large, some with as much as 175 feet of street frontage, and varied in size. They were intended to draw high-paying buyers. Nichols also planted thousands of trees in the subdivision between 1912 and 1919. Since the subdivision was in Kansas (not Missouri) and in an unincorporated area, all services—sewers, water, and electricity—were provided by the Nichols Company.
Nichols’s picturesque schemes became more confident as time passed. His seeming success in selling lots, the larger sites he acquired, and the ongoing lack of city oversight on unincorporated land allowed him to continue the experimentation. By the early 1920s, Nichols’s street patterns regularly disregarded the preexisting grids within tracts of land—atypical for residential development at the time. In the Armour Hills development, Hare & Hare designed a subdivision that continued the numbered streets running roughly east-west on the site, but modified them to curve gently and break the grid’s regularity. An aerial photograph of the development early in its construction shows a straight line of trees, as if drawn by a ruler, from the previous Jeffersonian grid pattern that covered the site. Atop this lies a new layer, etched onto the site, in the contrasting curving street pattern that disregards the markings of the site’s farming days.
Like other Nichols developments, Armour Hills’s plat plan responds to the relatively flat topography of the site and the lack of any outstanding landscape features by highlighting the slight changes in topography with the lines of the streets and transitioning from a regular, gridded street system on the western boundary to a more curvilinear scheme in the center, and then returning to a regularized street pattern at the eastern boundary.
Security of Investments
Landscape architecture was not enough in itself to maintain property values over time, so Nichols also looked to legal mechanisms to stabilize value and to further increase exclusivity, both racial and economic. Nichols promoted the use of deed restrictions to control land use, setbacks, racial demographics, minimum costs, construction standards, materials, colors, landscaping, and, thereby, aesthetics. On this he mostly copied developers of high-end subdivisions before him. But no other developer looked to extend and finesse this device to more middle-class homes, and no other developer had found a way to extend the life of the restrictions with automatic renewals. Nichols did.
In the 1910s, Nichols actively participated in discussions among developers about how to make deed restrictions lasting, as at the time it was unclear what mechanism would provide enforcement and what would happen when restrictions expired. Typical deed restrictions at the time would simply fade away, and only the rare committed developer might decide to pay the bill for legal fees when a buyer broke their contract. Nichols worked toward and eventually found a way to make the renewal of restrictions automatic and to create an authority to enforce deed restrictions in perpetuity.
As an enforcement mechanism, Nichols invented the Home Owners’ Association as we know it, and it came about as a solution to the cost of maintenance that typically fell to the developer. While lots sold in a new subdivision, developers were on the hook for the cost of city services like trash removal and for maintaining common areas. Upon purchase of a property, a buyer was automatically given membership to the association, which charged assessments based on lot size. The association’s responsibilities included maintenance and upkeep of common areas and parks, as well as overseeing utilities and services like snow removal.
Nichols’s earliest deed restrictions controlled land use by allowing only residential use; they controlled class by setting a minimum construction cost for the not-yet-built houses; and they controlled the urban fabric by mandating setbacks from the street and orientation of the building. His Home Owners’ Associations then continued the enforcement of deed restrictions and managing and funding the maintenance of the subdivision into the future.
Building up his holdings, Nichols had accumulated over 1,000 acres by 1908, and over the following decades those acres were built out by home builders and owners. Nichols began advertising his larger plans in the Kansas City Sun by highlighting the large size of the development and the deed restrictions as protection against market instability. “Have You Seen the Country Club District? 1,000 Acres Restricted for Those Who Want Protection,” the advertisement read. And in a subsequent company brochure: “In the Country Club District you are given the protection that goes with ‘a thousand acres restricted.’” The limitations on property use and buildings translated into good sales practices for the Nichols company. The language of Nichols’s ads suggests the exclusivity accompanying a members-only club and reflected consumers’ concerns that in a volatile real estate market rife with speculators, their investment in a property might disappear. The substance of the restrictions—setbacks, common space, racial exclusion, and land use limitations—played off those concerns and were the central focus of Nichols’s sales pitch.
Real estate, the salesman Nichols once declared, was “unstable merchandise.” He believed that the Country Club District was “a practical demonstration of the value of good planning, as is shown by its effect upon the banks and insurance companies, simply because they feel that by our planning we are securing values, stabilizing values.” Developers and bankers believed stricter restrictions were favored by property owners because they were designed to stabilize that “unstable merchandise.” Without zoning regulations or deed restrictions, and without the authority of a city planning department, a home buyer would have no assured expectations for the development of neighboring properties. Not only would the bank be more likely to renew a loan on a covenant-restricted property, but noxious industrial or commercial tenants could not move next door.
These protections not only contributed to segregation in housing, perpetuating racial injustice, but they also offered the developer the obvious incentive of greater profit. Over the decades, Nichols's subdivisions have held their value, and scholars agree that comprehensive site planning and deed restrictions explain a significant part of their high value today. In doing so, Nichols’s innovations have helped make permanent the deep setbacks and cul-de-sac urbanism that defines suburbia.
Nichols’s vision for landscape design set his subdivision apart from the “ordinary way.” It also laid the groundwork for the legal and managerial codes that would regulate future development and land use on the site. The curving streets that follow the topography, triangular mini-parks that ease traffic flow at intersections, and attention to landscaping created a visual tableau that attracted buyers and provided copy for newspaper ads. From Nichols’s white-washed, neo-colonial sales outpost, potential buyers could survey the landscape and imagine stately homes and mature trees behind each sidewalk. And with the assurances of the deed restrictions and home owners’ associations, buyers were insulated from the risks of a volatile real estate market.
Understanding J.C. Nichols's role in the early decades of the 20th century in Kansas City sheds light on how the shape of Kansas City informed broader patterns of suburbanization in the United States. Nichols would go on to shape federal policy as the founding president of the National Association of Home Builders. Nichols's deed restrictions were the model that the Federal Housing Administration would recommend other developers to follow in The Community Builder’s Handbook in 1947. Through this document and other disseminations, the subdivisions he built in Kansas City influenced subdivisions across the continent. But more than this, studying Nichols sheds light on how real estate developers saw the relationship between city and suburb, and between private market controls on development and the public powers of city planning. Considering Nichols's explicit linking of aesthetics and market economics, the aesthetics of suburbia depended as much on cultural constructions of the picturesque as they did on managing the risks of the market.