Landscape architect George Kessler saw the problem clearly in 1907. The young landowner and attorney Hugh Ward and his even younger land developer, J. C. Nichols, wanted Kessler to create a boulevard that would surpass in value all other residential streets in Kansas City. The reason Kessler could envision what they wanted so easily was that he had planned almost all of the high-value residential boulevards and parkways throughout the city some fifteen years earlier. Indeed, he planned to connect the new boulevard directly with the southern terminus of Kansas City's widely recognized landscape system.
There was little in twenty-seven-year-old Nichols' background in 1907 that would have led Kessler to the conclusion that he was someone who could help perpetuate the land values the landscape architect created. J.C. Nichols grew up in the Johnson County, Kansas, county seat town of Olathe. Nichols graduated from the University of Kansas in 1902 with a reputation as a campus organizer who made good grades. The latter capability won him a Phi Beta Kappa key and a scholarship for a postgraduate year at Harvard University.
Nichols returned to the Kansas City area in 1903 just after a devastating flood had forced many to flee the river bottom's residential neighborhoods near the packing houses in Kansas City, Kansas. Over the next two years, he and a young assistant, John C. Taylor, bought land and built quite modest houses with money borrowed from Nichols's father and Johnson County farmers associated with the senior Nichols through his work at the Grange supply store in Olathe.
In 1905 Nichols bought ten acres of Missouri land almost directly south of William Rockhill Nelson's growing upper-income neighborhood, which the publisher had dubbed "Rockhill," his mother's maiden name. Nichols constructed the Missouri houses on a somewhat more elaborate scale than the simple $1,000 houses he sold across the river in Kansas. Still, they amounted to only $3,000 to $4,000 houses, designed to appeal primarily to strictly middle-class buyers.
Nichols and his new financial backers from the Kansas City Board of Trade continued to buy land during the next two years in plots adjacent to his initial investment. He opened new subdivisions, trading on the name "Rockhill" as used by Nelson to create a sense of greater prestige and value. All of these early Nichols subdivisions were located along or near the route high-status people from Kansas City had to travel to get to the exclusive pleasure grounds of the Kansas City Country Club, which included a golf course and polo grounds. In the process, Nichols created a distinct community unlike any other residential section of Kansas City.
Hugh Ward had leased the country club its site in 1896 and built his own residence across the roadway from the grounds. He owned over five hundred acres, by virtue of inheritance from his almost legendary father, sometime mountain man and later, improbably, Kansas City banker Seth Ward. Indeed, his father's pre-Civil War house still stood on land west of the polo grounds area of the country club site. Eventually, the boulevard laid out by Kessler at the request of Ward and Nichols undulated to within one building lot of the Seth Ward house, leading later Kansas Citians often to suppose, incorrectly, that Ward Parkway was named for the old pioneer. The fact that Hugh Ward died in 1909 before his fiftieth birthdaywhile the project was still in the planning stagesled Nichols and the grieving widow, Vassie James Ward, to name the planned grand avenue after him.
At the time Kessler commenced his planning, the entire area that would become known as the "Country Club District" served by Ward Parkway was south of the city limits. Consisting of mostly unimproved land aside from the Kansas City Country Club itself, the area appeared to have little potential value to most of the Kansas City real estate profession. It was Nichols's imagination, supported by Ward's financial backing and Kessler's design expertise, that transformed farmlands and hillsides into the most desirable residential section in the city.
The route Kessler determined for the parkway began with a connection to his overall boulevard plan just south of what would become Forty-seventh and Main Streets (Kansas City officially annexed the lands controlled by Nichols and the Ward family in 1911). Kessler decided that Ward Parkway should follow the bed of Brush Creek as it led southwest from the boulevard intersection almost to the point where the streambed crossed the Kansas-Missouri state line. The landscape architect noted that a ravine cut into the bluffs overlooking the Brush Creek Valley just east of the state line. He quickly saw that this natural incline provided a more accessible grade for an approach to the more southerly reaches of the Ward lands, which stretched south to what became Fifty-ninth Street. Once the ravine was scaled (between Fifty-third and Fifty-fifth Streets), it was possible to provide a gentle curve slightly back to the east, creating a slowly widening strip of land for residential building lots between the Parkway and the Kansas state line, which also served as the western boundary of the Ward holdings.
One of Kessler's design techniques resulted in a significant impact on the future grand avenue. Throughout almost all of Kansas City, Missouri, including the areas served by Kessler's previous boulevards, the blocks were oriented with their length running from north to south while the shorter width (usually two building lots deep) ran from east to west. Kessler changed all that in the earliest plats of Sunset Hill, the subdivision name applied to the Ward properties enclosed by Ward Parkway. In these sections, Kessler made the east-west direction dominant, with short north-south blocks. Because the house numbering and street naming were thought to need to conform to previous city patterns, blocks lying west of Main Street in land controlled by Nichols and the Ward estate (and affected by Kessler's plan) skipped a digit as they moved west from the Main Street demarcation. Hence, the first block west of Main was the "0" blockhouses were numbered in double digits such as "34" rather than "134"; the second block west of Main was the "200" block, with numbers like "234"; the third block west was the "400" block, and so on to State Line Road, which had the "1200" block between it and Ward Parkway to the east from a point south of roughly Fifty-third Street.
The change in orientation also meant that there were two blocks between the normal numbered street intersection distances as they existed in the rest of the city. Because Nichols was insistent that the new additions be made to seem as much a part of the city as possible, making the lots more salable, he hoped, a pattern of naming the intervening streets as "terraces" developed. This meant, for example, that the street running east and west between Fifty-fifth and Fifty-sixth was called Fifty-fifth Street Terrace, with the pattern repeated throughout Nichols's subdivisions as far south as Seventy-first Street (or Gregory Boulevard).
The direct impact of this pattern on the future of Ward Parkway as a grand avenue is clear because south of Fifty-third Street, Ward Parkway is a north-south thoroughfare. This means that only a relatively small number of lots were designed to face the boulevard directly. On top of that, Nichols specified in his deed restrictions, which were tied directly to the published plat maps and were legally binding on present and future purchasers, the direction each house on street corners was to face. In many instances he specified that houses would face the side streets intersecting with Ward Parkway rather than the roadway itself.
Nonetheless, Kessler and Nichols planned from the beginning for the fully developed Ward Parkway to be what it became"one of the great parades of America." An early advertisement noted that "the plaza treatment of Ward Parkway south of...Fifty-fifth Street lends an air of distinction to the individual homes which front the streets radiating from it." Nichols intended that the building sites on Ward Parkway would be dominated by houses "of the villa type," meaning large mansions, that "...will present a picture to see which travelers will come great distances and from which the people of our own city will receive great inspiration." The advertisement makes it clear that Nichols viewed Ward Parkway primarily as an attraction to raise values along the intersecting streets even more than he expected the roadway to have large numbers of high-value residences lining its path.
That Ward Parkway achieved that goal can be documented from a number of sources. In 1959 a former Kansas Citian published his first novel, set in the neighborhoods in which he had grown up. Evan Connell's Mrs. Bridge became a significant success, prompting a sequel from a male's point of view, Mr. Bridge (1969). Connell suggests the importance of proximity to (but not actual frontage on) Ward Parkway in Mrs. Bridge:
[Mr. Bridge] was as astute as he was energetic, and because he wanted so much for his family he went to his office quite early in the morning while most men were still asleep and he often stayed there working until late at night. He worked all day Saturday and part of Sunday, and holidays were nothing but a nuisance. Before very long the word had gone around that Walter Bridge was the man to handle the case....Consequently they were able to move to a large home just off Ward Parkway several years sooner than they had expected....
The fact that Mr. and Mrs. Bridge always "expected" to move nearer to Ward Parkway is taken as a truism. It was just a matter of time and effort.
Further documentation of the desirability of a Ward Parkway location comes from work done in the 1950s concerning Kansas City. A sociological research team from the University of Chicago discovered through a series of interviews with a cross-section of the population that the most recognizably desirable residential section in the metropolitan area was what they called "the Ward Parkway and Mission Hills Gold Coast."
The study concluded that many interviewees of various levels of social standing believed that "the streets leading off Ward Parkway were 'lined with mansions'...."
The "blue bloods," "the uppercrust," "the Society Crowd," and "the topnotchers" were said to live in this area. A man who could afford one of these mansions was assumed to be "one of the big industrialists," "a leading man of commerce," "a well-to-do executive," "a top-ranking lawyer or doctor" or "one of the big shots among the real estate boys and stocks and bonds brokers." This was the area thought to supply most of the members of the elite country clubs, leaders in the Chamber of Commerce, and board members of various cultural institutions.
The fact that the researchers encountered so many from such a variety of backgrounds who held similar views about the significance of an address near Ward Parkway demonstrates the continuing importance of the street as a symbol.
As recently as 1981, the Kansas City Star considered Ward Parkway a synonym for "money, power, and permanence." A reporter noted that "at first sight, it's apparent that Ward Parkway is something special. It's a road like no other in Kansas City. Living there is synonymous with prestige."'
That Nichols intended for his centerpiece boulevard to be the prestige address of the city is clear. Throughout the decade of the World War, his advertising emphasized the value of buying land and building a house near the prestigious people of the city. On several occasions in 1911 and 1912 he published large display advertisements in the Sunday Kansas City Star, listing the names and featuring drawings of residential structures either completed or under construction for prominent men of the city."
William S. Worley
edited from "Ward Parkway, Kansas City, Missouri"
in The Grand American Avenue, 1850-1920
Acknowledgements: This WebPage exhibit was original produced as the panel exhibit, "Ward Parkway: a Grand American Avenue," prepared by William S. Worley, Research Associate for Kansas City Regional History, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City; and by David Boutros, Associate Director, Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City, with underwriting support from the William T. Kemper Foundation, Commerce Bank, Trustee.
Showing of the exhibit in Lawrence and Manhattan, Kansas, and in Kansas City, Missouri, in February-March, 1995, was partially underwritten by a grant from the Kansas City Chapter-American Institute of Architects, and in cooperation with the Kansas City Design Center, Michael Swann, Associate Dean and Director. The initial showing of this exhibit was in conjunction with the panel exhibit, "The Grand American Avenue," prepared by the Octagon Museum, Washington, D.C. and the American Architectural Foundation with underwriting from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund. Also produced in conjunction with the exhibit was the book entitled, The Grand American Avenue, 1850-1920, edited by Jan Cigliano and Sarah Bradford Landau, [San Francisco: Pomegranite Press] 1994, which is available in libraries and local bookstores.
The photograph of Vassie James Ward [Hill] is included courtesy of Pembroke Hill School. All other photographs, maps, and drawings in the "Ward Parkway--A Grand American Avenue" panel exhibit are from the J.C. Nichols Company Scrapbooks (KC0054) and Records (KC0106), the Hare and Hare Company Records (KC0206), and the Native Sons of Kansas City Archives (0590kc) in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City. Many of the photographs in the Ward Parkway exhibit appeared in The Grand American Avenue, 1850-1920, courtesy of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City.
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