October 13, 2013

Ad Astra: Woman’s architectural designs seen in buildings in Kansas, across nation

For the first two decades of the 20th century, Nelle Nichols Peters was actively designing buildings not only in Kansas but also throughout the nation.

For the first two decades of the 20th century, Nelle Nichols Peters was actively designing buildings not only in Kansas but also throughout the nation.

In a profession largely dominated by men, Peters built apartment complexes, houses, churches, office buildings and hotels.

In Wichita, she designed the Commodore Apartment Hotel at Elm and Broadway, which earlier this year was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to Susan Jezak Ford in an article in the Missouri Valley Special Collections, “Nelle Nichols Peters, Architect, 1884-1974,” Peters was born Nelle Nichols in 1884 near Niagara, N.D. As a child, her favorite subjects were mathematics and art.

The Kansas City Architectural Records indicate Peters attended Buena Vista College at Storm Lake, Iowa. She was then hired at a Sioux City architectural firm as a draftsman. While working for the Eisentraut, Colby and Pottenger architectural firm in Sioux City, she received some training but also studied through correspondence schools and eventually received a license in architecture.

She moved to Kansas City in 1909. The Kansas City Architectural Records describe Peters as “one of Kansas City’s most prolific architects.”

She is credited with designing more than 1,000 buildings in Kansas City as well as in Oklahoma, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey and Ohio. Some of her best-known works in Kansas City include the Ambassador Hotel. A historic district in Kansas City is named for her.

She eventually opened her own architectural office and began working for Charles Phillips and the Phillips Building Co. in Kansas City in 1913, according to Jezak Ford.

The 1920s were her best decade in terms of design.

“At that time, she was not only one of the most active architects in the city, but one of the few female architects in independent practice,” Jezak Ford wrote. “Large apartment complexes surrounding courtyards became her specialty and trademark.”

The Commodore in Wichita was no exception.

On the day the Commodore Apartment Hotel in Wichita opened, 5,000 people came to inspect the building.

It was June 9, 1929, and according to the local papers, few people were disappointed with the sight.

“Literally thousands of Wichita folk called to see and later to admire the furnishings and appointments of the city’s newest and most palatial apartment hotel, the Commodore, which was thrown open to the public yesterday,” The Eagle reported on June 10, 1929.

“From the beautiful Italian lobby, which is a delight in itself that invites one to remain there instead of seeking more beauty, the guests were guided to the upper stories and into the tea room, where still more splendor was revealed.”

By the 1930s, Peters’ work had nearly ground to a halt. In an article on Peters, “Forgotten, But Not Gone,” the Kansas City Public Library indicates Peters faced some tough times as the economy soured.

“Unfortunately, the drop in apartment construction during the Great Depression and Second World War curtailed Nelle Peters’s career in the 1930s and 1940s,” said the website, “She remained in the business, but had to work as a seamstress to augment her income.”

The website Kansaspedia, produced by the Kansas Historical Society, says of Peters: “She competed with men for work in a field hit hard. Her small firm was not large enough to compete for government New Deal contracts and her workload vanished.”

Peters retired in 1967 and died in 1974 at the age of 90.

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