A relic of retail
This was the reason for my recent trip to KCMO. Country Club Plaza is well known in retail circles as the first modern precursor to the American, automobile based suburban shopping center. I had been wanting to walk its pavements for years and on a crisp February morning in 2020, I finally had the chance. And I was not disappointed.
I started my exploration just outside of Zoe’s at the corner of Baltimore and Ward. I walked along the Brush Creek side and was greeted by genuine early to mid-century architecture. This was the real thing, and it really felt it. It wasn’t like the faux classical design of so many lifestyle centers popping up today. These structures were dressed in façades that were ornate but solid, and they showed their age in a dignified way.
Designed mainly in the Moorish Revival tradition, the ornamental style that was at its most popular in the mid-19th century, the entire complex is block after block of astounding beauty. Every crossing seemed to be occupied by a turret or steeple of some sort. Each window was framed by Gothic and baroque elements. It was extravagant and authentic; my jaw dropped as I turned every corner. For what amounted to a gay twenties strip mall, I was in complete awe.
This is what places like Disney try to emulate, but Country Club Plaza gets its message across effortlessly. What’s just across the way from a J Crew? Why, it’s the handsome Palace Theater-slash-Urban Outfitters. And where that old parking deck used to be? Nordstrom is building a new store, moving its location within the metropolis from a sprawling super regional mall in suburbia to the inner neighborhoods around Loose Park.
Country Club Plaza opened in 1923 offering retail firsts in a regional center such as enough parking allotted to accommodate the majority of patrons arriving via automobile, a single management office for the entire complex and carrying through a particular, unified architectural theme across all buildings. It was a very well planned tribute the prevalent design elements of Seville, Spain.
The development was named for the Country Club District of Kansas City, a suburban buildout four miles south of downtown. The first building to open was on the corner of Mill Creek and 47th, now known as the Mill Creek Building. It opened to immediate success, a success that has been consistent over the past century. In fact, not only did it survive the Great Depression, it fared surprisingly well.
In its earlier days, Country Club Plaza was laid out with high-end shops doing business alongside mid-tier grocery stores and anchors such as Sears and Woolworth. But as newer shopping malls began springing up in the late seventies and eighties, the center started skewing toward the more higher end retailers that we see now.
Presently, the center remains the premier high end shopping destination for the entire metro area. It consists of 18 separate buildings and over 900,000 square feet of space for retail, commercial and office uses. While there are no large open plazas that are usually associated with the Moorish Revival style, the plaza does boast more than 30 pieces of artwork consisting of statues, mosaics and murals. There are also handsome reproductions throughout, one of the most well known being the Giralda Tower at the corner of Baltimore and West 47th, a half size homage to the original in Seville.
I spent much more time at Country Club Plaza than I do most other malls that I visit. Usually I’m there just to document them and go as most indoor, super-regionals follow pretty cookie cutter layouts and design strategies. But I really wanted to absorb the atmosphere in which I was standing. Reluctantly, I ended my visit in the shadow of the Giralda Tower before making my way back up north toward the Crown Center.
Having walked through the New Landing Mall fewer than 24 hours previously, it was easy to see the stark difference between it and Country Club Plaza as a microcosm of Kansas City itself. These places of extreme extravagance and tired obsolescence existed just a few miles apart, but both contributed to a place I found full of character and life. I definitely see another trip to the KC area in the future.