Crestwood Historic District

Kansas City, Jackson County, MO

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The Crestwood Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

Platted in 1919 and under development in 1920, the Crestwood subdivision developed by the J.C. Nichols Investment Company is located on the far east side of the firm's 1000 acre "Country Club District." Touted as a "garden home" development for "high class residence purposes," the plan for Crestwood was the result of careful study and planning. Designed by the landscape architecture firm of Hare and Hare, the subdivision was platted on a tract of pasture and woodland noted for its old forest growth. Herbert Hare took advantage of the topography and laid out a neighborhood of paved curving drives, interior parks and picturesque entrances.

Even before the formal opening of the subdivision, a number of homes were already under construction.

Nearby were three churches and both public and private schools. Directly to the east were subdivisions and neighborhoods established by other developers. A half block away to the west was the Country Club car line and Brookside Boulevard. In 1922 the Nichols Company erected a small shopping district in the area on 55th Street between Oak and Brookside. Publicized as the "Williamsburg of the West" the Colonial Revival shops provided a variety of convenient goods and services and established an even greater sense of community for the residents of Crestwood.

By design, the Crestwood subdivision, with its variety of lot sizes attracted both middle- and upper middle-class residents. A review of the occupations of the first homeowners revealed butchers, salesmen, teachers, small business owners, lawyers, physicians and owners of good sized manufacturing concerns. The homes they bought or erected appealed to their tastes but also reflected the design control exercised by the Nichols Investment Company. The predominant use of historic eclectic architectural styles, particularly Colonial and Tudor Revival styles; the similarities in size, scale, massing and materials of buildings; and the rapid development of the subdivision between 1920 and 1926 resulted in a neighborhood with a high degree of visual homogeneity. These elements combined with the curving streets and unique landscape features to distinguish Crestwood from adjacent pre-existing neighborhoods which followed the traditional right angle street grid system and included housing styles which varied from street to street and lot to lot or were composed of street after street of nearly identical Craftsman Bungalows or American Foursquare houses. Moreover, these elements represented the culmination of the Nichols Investment Company's residential subdivision design and development formula.

Today, the neighborhood is still one of the city's premier neighborhoods. Its continued vitality and viability is due to the stability created by the Nichols Company in the planning and execution of the larger Country Club District, Crestwood's own unique landscape and residential designs, the use of protective deed covenants and the continuous administration by a homeowners association.

The Crestwood subdivision, and the larger Country Club District, were the product of the vision of Kansas City developer Jesse Clyde Nichols, whose ideas and inspiration influenced an entire generation of American urban planning. Historians consistently cite J.C. Nichols as a key figure in the history of American urban expansion, suburban growth and housing development. Urban historian Sam Bass Warner, Jr. notes that Nichols' subdivisions comprised the only residential developments in the United States which were part of a continuous planning process by one company. Numerous studies use the Nichols Company as a primary example of a suburban development company in the 1920s.

In large part due to the practices of J.C. Nichols, new residential developments today undergo a routinely common process with the same company subdividing the land, improving the site, and erecting the buildings. However, prior to the last half of the twentieth century the development process was divided — land transactions were usually handled by real estate dealers or brokers, while building construction was normally done by members of the building trades. The real estate businessman was essentially a land subdivider who directed the process of breaking larger pieces of land into smaller ones and bore the primary responsibility for marketing the land. Housing construction, on the other hand, was the domain of the building professions. Usually a carpenter erected a single residence at a time hiring other tradesmen as needed or, if he had enough capital and experience, put together a crew to put up several buildings at one time. By the end of the nineteenth century, a growing number of such construction companies began to emerge.

During the land boom of the 1880s in Kansas City several companies which were engaged in selling of land expanded into the area of home building. However, these companies did little more than survey the legal boundaries of lots and build some houses to attract buyers. More common, both in Kansas City and across the country, was a process in which small companies purchased land, platted it and sold individual lots to numerous builders who, in turn, sold or rented out their completed residences. As a result, the vast majority of housing erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had little relation to what was built on the next block or even the neighboring lot.

Although common today in most municipalities, city planning was the exception rather than the rule at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. At the same time, landscape architecture as a profession was just evolving, and was generally associated only with the wealthiest element of society. Real estate entrepreneurs and builders lacked experience (even exposure to) planned residential development. It was not until after World War II that large building companies erected hundreds and even thousands of housing units per year. The J.C. Nichols Company was one of the pioneers in housing development in the post World War I period.

Shortly after 1900, J.C. Nichols began building speculation houses in a small subdivision in Kansas City, Kansas. Within seven years he expanded the scope of his real estate business to initiate what would be one of the most important developments in greater Kansas City, a project which would prove to be influential throughout the nation—the Country Club District. In 1907 Nichols and some financial backers gained control of approximately one thousand acres of pasture and woodland located between Holmes Street and State Line Road and 51st and 59th streets. Nichols named the area "The Country Club District" because the land surrounded the grounds of the Kansas City Country Club (present day Loose Park at 55th Street and Wornall Road). The April 28,1908 announcement in the Kansas City Star indicates the level of innovative planning that was part of the project from the beginning.

Just as important as the landscape design elements in the planning of the Country Club District was the establishment of two basic development principles that would guarantee the early and continued success of the Nichols Investment Company: (1) all phases of the development process were controlled by the Nichols company and (2) all decisions were made according to a comprehensive planning policy. As a result, by the beginning of World War I, the Nichols Company not only sold lots, but also controlled the design and construction of the houses on those lots; offered financing services for those houses; provided the utilities and infrastructure for the neighborhood; imposed strict deed restrictions regarding future development; and formed neighborhood associations to involve property owners in perpetuating property values. Moreover, the control of the company over the developed area included the delineation of certain parcels for churches, schools, playgrounds, parks and village retail centers.

J.C. Nichols reached beyond landscape design, infrastructure amenities, and the use of homes associations to guarantee the quality of his developments. Control of the design of the private residences was a crucial element in the company's successful formula. His use of architectural controls was not original, but adopted directly from the ideas and practices of his friend and colleague, Edward Bouton, the developer of Roland Park, Maryland. Nichols commitment to coordinated and compatible architecture even extended to constructing Tudor Revival fire and police stations, ashlar street car shelters and Williamsburg inspired shopping areas. He controlled architectural design for his pre-planned neighborhoods through a variety of means. Using restrictive covenants he dictated the size, plan, materials, direction of the frontage, setback, and set minimum building width, yard space and cost. Rather than including more detailed stylistic and design controls in the deed to the lots he sold, Nichols instead secured the right to advance approval of building plans in the sales contract. By 1918 he employed a full time grounds man to check for conformity with restrictions. Enforcement powers were conveyed to the homes association at the proper time. In this he was unique among his peers; Nichols insisted on design review by the homeowners associations rather than a panel of architects.

In addition to these legal mechanisms, several informal practices also affected residential design in the subdivisions of the company. Early in the development of the Country Club District, Nichols sold a five acre tract to the architectural firm of Wilder & Wight, beginning a trend toward architect designed homes in his subdivisions, a practice that was a distinct departure from common residential building practices of the time. In addition to selling to and working closely with a number of architect/builders, he commissioned various architects to design the speculative "companion" houses which he erected in groups of two and three in order to coordinate work of the crews and take advantage of buying materials in bulk. Nichols also offered packaged financing for those who hired his crews to construct their homes, thereby exercising another measure of quality control.

Prior to 1907, the houses built by Nichols were in the mid-price range for single-family residences and their design did not differ from those erected by other builders and developers. These speculative houses were strictly "builders' vernacular" most often American Foursquares and Craftsman bungalows based on designs in plan books and local carpenter's preferences. While he planned to create "high class" neighborhoods in the Country Club District it was not until Wilder and Wight's "especially designed bungalows" sold at the highest price for any house in his subdivisions, that Nichols considered using architects. And from that point on, he hired local architects for his building projects and recommended those architects to purchasers of his lots. During the next twenty years a variety of architects designed buildings and residences throughout the Country Club District, some worked almost exclusively in the District.

Even in the construction of upper-middle class housing, it was unusual at this time for a firm like the Nichols Company to work with an architect. Conversely, most in the profession considered domestic architecture, particularly middle-class housing, to be an inferior pursuit, preferring instead the large commercial building contract and an occasional commission for a stately mansion. The architectural community in Kansas City at this time fell into two distinct categories: a few architects had the education and training to provide a full spectrum of professional services; others—"draughtsmen," engineers and contractors—provided more limited types of design and planning work. The professionals usually entered into partnerships, employed "draughtsmen" as apprentice architects, and confined their attention to commercial design and a few, choice residential commissions. There were also, however, numerous architects in individual practices who, by necessity as well as choice, provided residential design services. Nevertheless, until the Nichols Company began development of the Country Club District, the contractor/builder using standardized plan books designed the majority of Kansas City's middle-class housing from modest bungalows to sizable two-story residences.

Housing in Kansas City by the end of World War I ranged widely in type and quality. But, in design, historic eclecticism prevailed as the most common styles for residential housing. In this respect, Kansas City was no different from other American cities and continued these preferences into the 1940s. This period was part of a larger era dating from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II in which stylistic interpretations were based on a full spectrum of older Euro-American period houses. As a result, styles such as Colonial Revival, Classical Revival, Neoclassical, Tudor Revival, Chateauesque, Beaux Arts, French Eclectic, Italian Renaissance, Mission, Spanish Eclectic, Monterey, and Pueblo Revival appeared. In addition, the distinctly American Prairie and Craftsman styles also took hold. The historic eclectic movement began when European-trained architects began to design houses for wealthy clients in the United States based on relatively pure copies of earlier styles. The architecture of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 further accelerated the movement. During the early years of the twentieth century, the new and distinctly American Craftsman and Prairie styles overshadowed the eclectic movement until after World War I when revival styles once again gained favor. In part, the shift back was due to new inexpensive methods for adding thin masonry veneer to balloon frame houses, allowing even modest homes to replicate the stone and brick construction of bygone eras. However, it should be noted that the national preference for proven architectural styles even extended to the grand, architect-designed mansions.

The architecture of the Country Club District presents many examples of these historically based revival styles including Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Italian Renaissance, Spanish Eclectic, and Mission styles. But, while there are a few residences that might be considered premier examples of American architectural design of this era, it is the sheer number and the consistently high quality of the housing designs using both high-style and more restrained versions of these styles that created distinctive neighborhoods such as Crestwood in the J.C. Nichols Country Club District.

As a rule Nichols viewed the 1920s bungalow as a first home for the young married couple and used the style sparingly, even in subdivisions designed for that market. This was a departure from the norm in Kansas City. Modest plan book stock designs and pre-fabricated bungalows were very popular with developers interested in quick production of small, detached houses. The larger, custom designed bungalow however, was not as popular with builders; the higher cost associated with the spread out nature of the design on one floor, i.e., foundation, exterior wall and roof surface, made them financially accessible only to about half the city's population. For modest houses, Nichols preferred smaller, two-story houses in the Colonial Revival style with three main rooms on each floor and a screened porch at one end. [485 E. 55th Street & 5531 Crestwood Drive] On the other end of the scale for middle-class housing, he chose the broad front, two-story Italian Renaissance or Georgian Revival style—styles with facades that hinted at mansion proportions but had no rear projections and were narrow in depth. [54th and Cherry streets] The residence designed by Elmer Boillot at 5367 Cherry illustrates the typically free adaptations of the Colonial Revival, Georgian Gable Front sub-type which Nichols favored for upper middle-class housing.

The development of Crestwood came at a crucial period in the evolution of the Nichols Investment Company. The period of 1919-1920 was a turning point for J.C. Nichols. His concern about the post World War I economy, in part, led him to consider moving from the area to try new endeavors. When Nichols decided to remain in Kansas City and continue land development he chose Crestwood as his first major undertaking. More importantly, by this time the crucial elements which became the company's trademark formula for success had completely evolved by this time.

Through the efforts of the landscape architecture firm of Hare and Hare, mature trees and new plantings were incorporated around lots of varying sizes created by curving streets which followed the natural land contours. The long east-west frontages, such as those found on 54th and 55th streets and Crestwood Drive, created opportunities for the location of interior parks in the middle of blocks and small parklets and entrances which, with their ornamental urns or Tudoresque arched entrances and square pillars created a unique sense of place. The design of Crestwood was a significant departure from the standard grid system found in older middle-class neighborhoods. If one consults census maps for the Kansas City Metropolitan Statistical Area, a clear dividing line appears in regard to the design of subdivisions. In the areas north and east of the Nichols Company's first subdivisions there are almost no examples of curving streets that conform to the shape of natural land forms in private subdivisions.

Other early examples of the Nichols Company's innovative "suburban" design concepts found in Crestwood such as the use of narrow residential streets, the restriction of sidewalks to one side of the street or dispensing of walkways in some areas of the subdivision altogether, reflect the beginnings of landscape design elements that would become common after World War II in "modern" suburban developments. These components tended to increase the size of blocks and, with the use of interior parks, shared driveways, and placement of garages in basements to the side or rear, Crestwood reflects the private, insulated environment which became a Nichols trademark. Of note is the use of interior residential streets for the larger lots and residences and placement of more modest residences on smaller lots on exterior arterial streets such as Oak and Holmes.

These design elements are further reinforced by the use of popular, traditional building styles and their arrangement within the subdivision which created a visual character unique to Crestwood. The large number of Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival homes and lesser numbers of other Revival and Modern styles found in Crestwood is representative of the typical styles and treatments of both architect and builder designed houses found in Kansas City during the period of 1910 to 1930. The extensive use of these free adaptations of earlier styles reflects a common and innate preferences for familiar images. But what distinguishes the Crestwood subdivision from middle- and upper middle-class subdivisions built by other developers at this time, is the consistency in size, massing and materials and the homogeneous nature created by the use of several dominant historic eclectic styles. Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival predominate on a subtle street by street basis with high-end styles—Spanish Eclectic and Italian Renaissance—and low end—craftsman and vernacular Prairie styles—adding a subtle diversity to the whole. The placement of these houses on different sized lots also created a continuity in a subdivision which provides a range in housing from the simple two-story, seven room house to the larger 10-12 room house.

The types of housing constructed by the Nichols Company in Crestwood in the 1920s reflected the type of housing Americans often wanted but found difficult to obtain in the suburban explosion following World War II. The pre-1930s home found in Nichols subdivisions was built of more substantial materials and had larger bedrooms and living areas. According to Nichols Company architect-planner, E.W. Tanner, the decline in house and land sales after 1930 brought about the demise of the typical Nichols subdivision residence built to last two hundred years and the advent of the one-hundred-year house. After 1930, design changes reflected more dependence upon electrical innovation in appliances and greater attention to the mechanical aspects of housing. Even in Nichols subdivisions developed after 1930, housing styles were, as a rule, more a precursor for the post World War II, limited styles of suburban subdivisions than a reflection of the more spacious houses of the 1900-1920s. The exception to this rule was new houses erected in older Nichols subdivisions such as Crestwood. Here, deed restrictions and design guidelines enforced by the homes associations assured continuity in materials, size, plan and design. One result was a noticeable continuation of eclectic adaptations. In Crestwood, for example the c. 1953 and 1975 Neo-eclectic French houses at 5301 and 5532 Locust Street and the c. 1950 Colonial Revival house at 5421 Locust reflect this continuum.

Another feature which distinguished Crestwood from the upper-middle class subdivisions of other developers of the period is the large proportion of homes which were architect designed. As noted earlier, Edward Tanner had a long association with the Nichols Company and, in addition to his commercial work, was a prolific designer of residences. Tanner was responsible for a considerable number of eclectic designs throughout the Country Club District including the Colonial Revival style residences at 463 and 485 55th Street and 5523 Crestwood Drive. Edward Buehler Delk, whose varied work spans a number of years also made a significant contribution to the residential as well as commercial architecture of the Country Club District. The residence at 422 E 54th Street reflects the high quality of Delk's work.

It was common for an architect to work with a builder on a number of residences in the Country Club District. Harry Foster Almon teamed up with building contractor C.R. Wright in 1924-25 to build the residences at 5318, 5324, 5404, 5415 and 5530 Locust Street in Crestwood. In 1925 Almon paired with H.R. Ostram's construction company to erect the house at 456 E. 55 Street. Almon is listed in the 1926 City Directory as a "draughtsman" in the prestigious Kansas City architectural firm of Wight and Wight. Edgar Paris, architect, and C.R. Wright worked together on the 1925 designs for 418, 422, and 426 E. 55th Street. In addition to these examples, there are residences designed by the following Kansas City architects: W.A. Bott, A.B. Fuller, E. M. Fuller, George E. Mclntyre, Victor DeFoe, Fred Michaelis, William Kotch, the father-daughter team of Helen and J.W. Smither, H.L. Green and the firm of Root and Siemens.

Beginning with the tract he sold the architectural firm of Wight and Wight in 1907, Nichols made it a practice to sell lots to certain architects who designed and built speculative homes. Architect/developer Benjamin F. Hart had the greatest number of commissions in Crestwood and his work includes the early 1920s residences at 522, 528, 532, 536 and 540 E. 56th Street; and 5538 and 5559 Crestwood drive; his home at 5572 Crestwood Drive, built in 1923; and 5507 and 5578 Crestwood Drive erected in 1924 and 1926. The last house designed by Hart in the neighborhood is located at 470 E 55th Street and was erected in 1949. His designs included Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival and Prairie styles.

In addition to architect designed homes, many builders worked throughout the Country Club District and designed and built houses in accordance with the guidelines of the Nichols Company and under the review of Tanner. They not only built custom homes for individuals who had purchased lots from the Nichols Investment Company, they also acted as designer/builders/developers, purchasing lots from Nichols, erecting houses and marketing them.

The Crestwood subdivision represents the innovation and the synergistic enterprise of the J.C. Nichols Investment Company. It reflects an effort to bring together the best ideas and thinking regarding residential development for the middle- and upper-middle class to create a distinct living environment. Due to its continued integrity, the Crestwood subdivision today communicates the packaging by the J.C. Nichols Investment Company in the first decades of the twentieth century of urban design, landscape architecture, and residential architecture. The legally binding self-perpetuating restrictions imposed by the J.C. Nichols Company produced carefully planned and protected residential neighborhoods for the affluent that have lasted and retained value for over seventy-five years. Such protected and stable subdivisions are rare across the nation and within the city. As such, Crestwood is the typical Nichols Company neighborhood that forms an important part of the built landscape and social framework of Kansas City, Missouri.

‡ Sally F. Schwenk, Historic Preservation Consultant, Historic Kansas City Foundation, Crestwood Historic District, Jackson County, Missouri, nomination document, 1997, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
54th Street East • 55th Street East • 56th Street East • Cherry Street • Crestwood Drive • Holmes Street • Locust Street • Oak Street

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