Nelle Nichols Peters

Author: 
Kansas City Public Library

Nelle Nichols Peters is known as a pathbreaking female architect, designer of nearly 1,000 local buildings, and one of the most prolific architects in Kansas City during the 1920s. Despite the fact that many of these buildings still occupy prominent locations, especially near the Country Club Plaza, Nelle Peters remains a relatively obscure figure in Kansas City history.

Born Nelle Elizabeth Nichols on December 11, 1884, in Niagara, North Dakota, she spent her childhood on the prairie until the Nichols family moved to Storm Lake, Iowa, in 1899. There she attended Buena Vista College, where she studied mathematics and art. Combining these skills, she attained employment as a draftswoman at the Eisentraut, Colby and Pottenger architectural firm in Sioux City, Iowa. She began to learn about architectural design while earning three dollars per week at the firm.

Nichols came to Kansas City in 1909 when the firm transferred her. Few developers wanted to hire a female architect in the 1910s, but she did manage to take on some of her own architectural projects outside the firm. In these projects, she demonstrated a talent for designing apartment buildings. In 1911 she married William H. Peters, a Kansas City Terminal Railroad designer, and took the name Nelle Nichols Peters.

Nelle Peters's career blossomed after she connected with the Phillips Building Company in 1913. Charles E. Phillips, local real estate developer and owner of the company, hired Peters as architect on dozens of projects in the ensuing years. She specialized in apartment buildings and hotels, but also designed corporate offices and single-family residences.

Peters developed a reputation not just for the rarity of female architects, but for her talent. Her signature designs placed apartment complexes around a central courtyard. Her careful attention to detail brought her some national recognition within the architectural profession. She minimized the total area taken up by her designs while still giving them an open feeling and functional spaces inside, especially with her usable kitchenette designs.

In 1923, Nelle and William Peters divorced, but Nelle embarked on the high point of her career. Peters's designs were not overly ornamental, but they were simultaneously attractive and functional. Many still stand today. Among her most notable designs were the Luzier Cosmetics Building at 3216 Gillham Plaza, and the Ambassador Hotel at 3560 Broadway, which was the largest apartment-hotel in Kansas City when it was completed in 1924. Other prominent buildings that she designed included the Valentine Hotel (3724 Broadway), the Belleclair Apartments (401 E. Armour St), the Del Monte Apartments (200 W. Armour), the Melbourne Apartments (303 Brush Creek), the Robert Louis Stevenson Apartments (4804 Jefferson Street), the Mark Twain, Robert Browning, and Oliver Wendell Holmes apartments (on the Plaza), and Charles Phillips's personal home (5825 Overhill Road).

Unfortunately, the drop in apartment construction during the Great Depression and Second World War curtailed Nelle Peters's career in the 1930s and 1940s. She remained in the business, but had to work as a seamstress to augment her income. She finally retired in 1967, although by that year it appears that she had not had a contract in nearly 11 years. Little else is known of Nelle Peters, who was at once one of the most prolific architects and an obscure figure in Kansas City history. When she died on October 7, 1974, at the age of 90, virtually no one acknowledged the significance of her accomplishments. While Nelle Nichols Peters remains largely invisible, many of the buildings she designed still contribute to character of the city's landscape.

Acknowledgement: 

This article has been adapted from an article published at KChistory.org.

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Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
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