By the time the architect Nelle Peters (1884–1974) retired in 1967 at the age of 83, almost every neighborhood and area in Kansas City, Missouri, had been enhanced by her architectural designs. During her remarkable career, she designed over a thousand buildings in the Midwest region. This is all the more striking given her inauspicious background, and given the status of women in society and in the profession of architecture during her lifetime.
Early Life and Education
Born on December 11, 1884, in Grand Forks County, North Dakota, Nelle Elizabeth Peters (née Nellie A. Nichols) grew up as one of four children on a prairie farm in North Dakota and, later, in southern Minnesota. Her great-grandfather and grandfather were millwrights, a heritage to which she attributed her interest in mathematics and mechanical drawing. In school she enjoyed solving geometry and algebra problems. She later described her life as without a plan of action or “career goal,” in the contemporary sense: “I’ve done what there was to do in my work and my life worked out its own plan.”11The biographic information is drawn from an interview with Nelle Peters’s nephew, Robert Bawden, and his wife in April 1977; from Nelle Peters’s scrapbook, which was in their possession; and from the following sources: “Enters Architectural Field Because of Desire for Something Different,” Kansas City Journal, Nov. 21, 1925; Madeleine Johnston, “Pen Point Portraits of Kansas City Women,” unidentified newspaper clipping; Who’s Who of American Women, 5th ed. (Chicago: A. N. Marquis Co., 1968–69), 949; and an obituary in TheKansas City Star, Oct. 12, 1974.
As a young woman, she attended Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, first as a preparatory student in 1898–99, and then as a collegiate student from 1899 to 1902.22Archival records at Buena Vista University indicate that Nelle Peters (then Nelllie A. Nichols) only attended three years of the college program and did not graduate with a degree. Kristie Spotts (Director of Alumni Engagement, Buena Vista College), email to Mary McLeod, February 18, 2021. She had no interest in taking a business course as her older sister had done, which would have provided some assurance in the job market. Her sister encouraged her to use her artistic abilities and mathematical skills in the architectural profession. She evidently found this idea appealing, and she moved to Sioux City, Iowa, to pursue architecture without any technical training but with fierce determination.
Peters’s successful career as a woman architect was the result of her perseverance as well as her ability. In seeking her first job, she returned again and again to the few architectural firms in Sioux City in hopes of obtaining employment. Finally, in 1903, the firm of Eisentrout, Colby and Pottenger hired her as a “draftslady.” Frank Colby later told her that he had taken her in on a bet with one of his partners. She was quick to prove her worth. Initially employed at a wage of three dollars a week, after only three weeks she received a dollar-a-week raise.
In 1907, Peters and Ernest O. Brostrom were sent by the Iowa firm to open a branch in Kansas City, Missouri. Brostrom managed the small office, and eventually became a prominent architect in Kansas City. Meanwhile, while working for the firm, Peters took some correspondence courses. Because architectural practice in Missouri was not regulated until 1941, it was somewhat easier for women to become architects through correspondence schools and apprenticeship programs at a time when few architecture schools were accepting women.
In 1909, work in the Kansas City office was slow, and Peters decided to strike out on her own on with “very small savings and a large amount of nerve.”33Johnston, “Pen Point Portraits of Kansas City Women.” She began her architectural practice with commissions for three houses, which she numbered 25, 26, and 27, so that she would not appear to be a novice. Although her business grew slowly, she soon found a niche by specializing in the design of apartment buildings and hotels. The only documented work by Peters from 1909, an apartment building, is no longer extant. Only five residences have been documented as her work in 1910.44Documentation of Peters’s work is based primarily on Kansas City, Missouri, building permits, water permits, and newspaper clippings. In 1911, she married William H. Peters, a designer for the Kansas City Terminal Railway. She described her career as “flagging” during the years of her marriage; they divorced in 1923. Soon afterward, she had commissions for over thirty buildings.
Nelle Peters discounted gender discrimination as a factor in the early years of her career. She told a reporter that she had “never looked for that sort of thing and never found it. Once a man told me it gave him a turn at times when he was discussing the reinforcing of a floor slab or the strength of an I-beam to look up and find a ‘girl’ opposite him.”55Johnston, “Pen Point Portraits of Kansas City Women.” Her family believed that her competence, along with her statuesque physique, made men less inclined to treat her disrespectfully. In a 1920s interview, she averred, “All the talk you hear about men not wanting to take instructions from a woman is bunk, I believe.”66“Enters Architectural Field Because of Desire for Something Different,” Kansas City Journal, Nov 21, 1925.
Although Peters specialized in apartments and hotels, she also designed a number of residential and commercial buildings. Among her commercial projects in Kansas City were an addition to the small Southside Hospital at 3005–07 Main Street (1915) and the McConahay Building at 821 East Thirty-First Street (1922), on whose second floor the young Walt Disney had his first studio, Laugh-O-Gram.
Peters was fortunate in forming a business relationship with the builder and developer Charles E. Phillips. A native of a small Missouri town, Phillips worked as a carpenter in Kansas City as early as 1898, and listed himself as a contractor in the 1909 city directory. By 1912, he was president of the Phillips Building Company, which was chartered with $20,000 in capital.77Western Contractor, Dec. 6, 1911. It is not known how Peters came to the attention of Phillips, but from 1912 until his death in 1955, she seems to have been his architect of choice as his firm constructed both modest and lavish apartment buildings throughout Kansas City.
The relationship between client and architect raises a number of questions that cannot be answered. Why did Phillips select Peters to design millions of dollars’ worth of construction projects? Was he able to hire her for less than a male counterpart? Although Peters did provide a comfortable living for herself, she certainly never became wealthy. Phillips commissioned her to design his own palatial home in 1925, but selected the male architectural partnership of Boillot and Lauck to design his twenty-story namesake Hotel Phillips in downtown Kansas City in 1929. Did Phillips see Boillot and Lauck as having more professional status, or was Peters simply too busy to undertake the Hotel Phillips project? At the time, she was in the midst of designing several large buildings at the northwest corner of Forty-Seventh Street and Jefferson, on the Country Club Plaza.88“Another Structure for the Literary Apartment Group Takes Its Name from Robert Browning,” Kansas City Star, Sept. 1, 1929. These buildings were known as the “literary block,” since each apartment complex was named after a well-known writer, such as Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Russell Lowell, and Robert Browning.
Phillips, however, was not Peters’s only source of employment. Several major developers recognized her skill in the planning and design of hotels and apartments. She was quite adept at solving the layout of multiple apartment units on a single floor, and in grouping buildings to get the maximum square footage on a lot. As she explained, her goal was to make each building as economical, practical, and aesthetically pleasing as if she were going to live in it herself.
A rapidly expanding population in need of housing created a building surge in Kansas City between 1910 and 1930. As a result, so many apartments were constructed in the early 1920s that by the spring of 1923, developers called for a “flat holiday,” hoping that a halt in construction would reduce material costs and wages, and perhaps allow demand to catch up with supply.99In the preceding months, the members of the Apartment Builders Association had started the construction of 123 apartment buildings, providing units for 1,222 families. That equaled the entire volume of construction undertaken the previous year. The length of this “holiday” is not known, but it must have been successful because it was repeated the following year. See “Flat Builders’ Holiday,” Kansas City Star, May 20, 1923; “Flat Builders to Lay Off,” Kansas City Star, Sept. 28, 1924.
In general, Peters kept pace with stylistic fashions. Her residences were typical period designs, such as her Tudor-inspired house for H. N. Knight in Oklahoma City. This 1926 home featured half-timbering and multiple gables. In contrast, the house she designed for Charles E. Phillips (referred to above) was a lavish Italianate residence. She also used a Spanish idiom in some of her projects, notably for some apartments built near the Spanish-influenced early shopping center, the Country Club Plaza.
By the turn of the century, most apartment buildings in Kansas City were two to three stories high, with two dwelling units per floor and grouped in rows of two to four buildings. Peters frequently followed this model in the early 1920s. However, one distinctive and popular feature of her projects was a façade porch for each unit, as seen in her apartment at 4808–10 Oak Street (1924).
Occasionally, she designed the buildings as garden apartments, with each building wing surrounding a central landscaped courtyard. Although this type of arrangement is not as spatially or economically efficient as some plan configurations, it offered other advantages. Because there was more exterior wall surface, Peters could locate all bedrooms in the complex at the corners to provide ample light and cross-ventilation.1010Peters was noted for her proficiency in the design of courtyard apartments, as well as in situating buildings on less than ideal lots. See “Apartments in Court Groups,” Building Age and National Builder (November 1924): 96–97; “Apartment House for a Shallow Lot,” National Builder (June 1924): 48–49.
It is clear that she sought to contain costs through the repeated use of several standard designs for her hotels and apartments, adjusting materials and massing to accommodate the site. One of her standard designs for an apartment building was two to three stories in height and had an L-shaped plan, with the entrance located at the intersection of the two wings, as in the La Solana Apartments in Kansas City (1926) and the Senate Apartments in Topeka, Kansas (1928–30).
By the mid-1920s, there was a dramatic shift in the size and appearance of apartment buildings in Kansas City. While three-story, six-unit buildings with façade porches continued to be popular, developers began to commission larger and taller elevator buildings seven to ten stories high, with eighteen to twenty-four units or more, such as the Ambassador Hotel at 3560 Broadway, which Peters designed and completed in 1924. Façade porches were not practical in these taller structures. Peters avoided overt historic references, and instead relied upon such architectural devices as projections and setbacks to break up the overall mass of the buildings. The resulting projects were more modern in character. Many of the buildings she designed were either single towers with a centrally located entrance or double towers joined by a central, single-story lobby. Any exterior decoration was concentrated on the entrances and upper floors. To maximize profit, developers wanted smaller, more efficient apartments, such as kitchenette-type units, saving elaboration for the lobby spaces. In Peters’s projects, these public spaces often included wrought-iron stair railings and beamed ceilings.
As for millions of Americans, the years of the Great Depression and World War II were difficult for Peters. Building construction nearly came to a halt between 1931 and 1940, and finding work was difficult. Never again did Peters receive the quantity or quality of commissions that she had enjoyed during the 1920s. In 1933, she closed her downtown office and began to list her home as her place of business. She had always made her own clothes, and during these lean years she partly supported herself as a seamstress. She reused her blueprint linens for handkerchiefs and pressing cloths. She also wrote and sold crossword puzzles.
Except for two periods of illness, Peters continued an active practice until she retired in 1967. As she told a newspaper reporter, she had “earned enough money. I just didn’t need any more.”1111Lana Liston, “She Built Hotels and Apartments,” Sedalia Capital, Nov. 23, 1972, 2. However, even after her “official” retirement, Peters continued to accept occasional commissions for residential additions and renovations that she could complete without leaving her home. She liked to serve lunch while discussing projects with her clients, having observed that “people think better when they are eating.”1212Nelle Peters, as quoted in Johnston, “Pen Point Portraits of Kansas City Women.”
Peters’s last years were spent in a nursing home in Sedalia, Missouri. She died in Sedalia on October 7, 1974. Among her belongings was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs of her buildings.1313Liston, “She Built Hotels and Apartments,” 2.
When she closed her office, Peters’s name quickly faded from public recognition. Her work was virtually unknown until around 1980, when an interest in women’s history spurred research on her unusual and successful practice. Her large-scale projects demonstrate that even before World War II a woman could work effectively outside the realm of private residences. Her designs, most of which were apartment complexes and hotels, made a lasting impact on the visual character of Kansas City. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the city without her livable and distinctive brick and stucco buildings. Although some of her works have been demolished for various reasons, others have been honored by inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1982, Kansas City, Missouri, designated one urban area the Nelle E. Peters Historic District; a second district in Kansas City was created in her honor in 1989.