From Preservation Issues, Volume 3, Number 2

The Amazing Nelle E. Peters

by Jane Flynn
She was intrepid and resolute, defying tradition by entering the male-dominated field of architecture yet felt the need to observe the common practice of her day: concealing her gender. The name, "N.E. Peters, Architect," found on the 10th floor office door in the Orear-Leslie Building at 12th and Baltimore, gave no clue that the occupant, Nelle Elizabeth Peters, would one day be judged one of Kansas City s most successful architects and who, at the time of her retirement in 1967, had been responsible for the design of more than 1,000 buildings.

Her life began on December 11, 1884, in a sod house in Niagra, North Dakota. Early in her childhood a talent for drawing and a consuming interest in mathematics became evident. Both, credited to her millwright ancestors, served her well in her professional work since she regarded architecture as a problem, requiring not only a solution but preferably an attractive solution. Peters lacked formal training, possibly due to little being available at the turn of the century. However, on-the-job training as a draftslady and the completion of several correspondence courses proved sufficient to allow her licensing in several states.

Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Historical Society Archives to Preservation Issues.
". . . [Peters] left an enduring legacy of buildings as a memorial to her talent and tenacity."

Peters came to Kansas City in l907 I to work in an architectural office. Four years later she married William H. Peters, a designer for the Kansas City Terminal Railroad. Although she continued to work during her marriage, it was following her 1923 divorce that she was most productive. Her association with Charles E. Phillips, a builder and developer, was important to her career. Among the credits given to this partnership were seven apartment buildings located just west of the Country Club Plaza and known locally as the literary block because they were individually named for famous authors of English literature.

File photo. The Luzier cosmetics company of Kansas City commissioned Nelle E. Peters to design the building on the left in 1928; Peters unified the two buildings with a classical facade in 1933.

"Nelle Elizabeth Peters, of Kansas City's most successful architects,...[was] responsible for the design of over 1,000 buildings."
Photo by Mary Mathews. Kansas City's Ambassador Hotel in the 3600 block of Broadway, ca 1924, was one of several large hotels designed by Peters during her most productive period.

Her specialty was designing apartment buildings containing four or six units. They were comfortable and functional, although frequently lacking much exterior adornment. She was the local pioneer of the concept of siting apartment buildings around a central courtyard. A good example of this technique is the Belnord Court, 4024-50 Warwick Boulevard, completed in 1921. Sizable apartment hotels were also designed by Peters including the Ambassador Hotel (1924) at 3560 Broadway and the Valentine Hotel (1927) at 3724 Broadway. There were occasional commissions to design commercial buildings. One of the best known is the Luzier Building located at 3216 Gillham Plaza, home for a cosmetics company. Modest single family residences are attributed to her, as well as more opulent ones such as a home at 1239 West 61st Street and at 5825 Overhill Road in Mission Hills, Kansas.

Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Landmarks Commission. The "literary block" or "poet's row", a series of apartment buildings on west 48th Street in Kansas City, were individually named for famous authors of English literature.

Nelle E. Peters died on Oct. 7, 1974, at a nursing home in Sedalia. One of Missouri's most prolific and least recognized architects, she left an enduring legacy of buildings as a memorial to her talent and tenacity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Fifield Flynn, former director of the Landmarks Commission of Kansas City, is the current president of the Jackson County Historical Society and serves on the Missouri Advisory Council for Historic Preservation. Flynn has authored two books on Kansas City history. Kansas City Women of Independent Minds (1992) celebrates the lives of 92 women from all walks of life who challenged convention, and even the law, to enrich Kansas City by their accomplishments. Kansas City Style with Dory DeAngelo (1990) is a social and cultural history of the city as seen through its lost architecture.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
First electronic edition: 1995
Modified 28 January 2003
Return to the History of Missouri's Women home page.