The history behind J.C. Nichols’ development, restrictive covenants in Kansas City

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some of Kansas City’s most iconic architecture was inspired by the man known for the Country Club Plaza.

From homes, parks, fountains and museums that surround the area, J.C. Nichols left a huge influence on the city.

But it’s how he went about those developments that’s now being called into question.

This week, Kansas City Parks Commissioner Chris Goode recommended that the J.C. Nichols Fountain and Parkway be renamed, saying “it allows racism to take center stage.”

Nichols died in 1950. His family purchased the fountain and brought it to Kansas City from New York the next year. Kansas City dedicated it in his honor in 1960.

Sixty years later, history is viewed with a very different lens when it comes to how Nichols should be remembered.

Born in 1880 in Olathe, after attending the University of Kansas Jesse Clyde Nichols started purchasing land around Kansas City at the turn of the century.

The Kansas City Library has archived the rise of a farmer to one of the most important figures of his time.

“He was known as an ambitious, driven hard-working person,” said Jeremy Drouin, manager of Missouri Valley Special Collections for the Kansas City Public Library.

After visiting Europe, Nichols fell in love with Spanish architecture. Those influences are still found in perhaps the crown jewel of the housing district he helped develop, the Country Club Plaza.

“He was very particular about how they looked,” Drouin said. “He wanted tree-lined streets. He wanted parks. He wanted fountains. He wanted statues. It’s what he called planning for permanence.”

But there was one other restrictive covenant in his developments known for their cul-de-sacs — African Americans and minorities weren’t allowed.

“Now, we look back at those and we are appalled,” Drouin said. “At the time, he wasn’t the first to have those clauses and deed restrictions.”

Drouin said Nichols also didn’t invent the government policy of “redlining.” But by in effect forcing minorities to live east of Troost, he drove them into neighborhoods where banks wouldn’t loan money at reasonable rates.

“A lot of African Americans didn’t have an opportunity to purchase homes and build wealth, and as a result, you see a lot of neighborhoods on our east side that fell into disrepair,” Drouin said.

It’s why now there’s a push to have Nichols’ name removed from city streets and fountains. 

“Good and bad aspects of our history we need to preserve, but as a community we can decide what is displayed in a public forum,” Drouin said of the recent renaming request.

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