Nelle E. Peters (1884 – 1974)
Nelle Peters, also known as N. E. Peters, was a major architect who designed buildings in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1909 to 1967. She drew plans for many notable apartment buildings and hotels at a time when very few women were active in this profession. Many of her elegant and functional buildings still stand today in Kansas City and other cities.
Childhood and Natural Abilities
Nelle Elizabeth Nichols was born in a sod house in Niagra, North Dakota, on December 11, 1884. She grew up on a farm on the prairie. After her family moved to Iowa, Nelle attended Buena Vista College at Storm Lake, Iowa, from about 1899 to 1903. Nelle was very good at art and math. One of her sisters suggested that Nelle combine her artistic abilities with her mathematical skill and become an architect.
Nelle liked the idea of becoming an architect. She wanted to draw building plans for both small and large buildings. She looked for a job in Sioux City and was hired by the architectural firm of Eisentraut, Colby, and Pottenger in 1903. Nelle worked for them as a “draftswoman” for three dollars a week over the next six years. In addition to this hands-on training, Nelle also studied architecture through correspondence courses.
From Draftswoman to Architect
In 1909, Nelle’s employer sent her to its Kansas City office to work. Nelle did not receive much work, so in 1910 she used her small savings to open up her own independent firm. She married William H. Peters, an architect for the Kansas City Terminal Railroad, in 1911. Their marriage lasted twelve years until they divorced in 1923.
Often identified as N. E. Peters, Nelle provided a variety of architectural services in her small firm. She designed homes, churches, and office buildings. Her speciality, however, was designing apartments and hotels. Her multi-unit buildings were both attractive and comfortable. Nelle cleverly arranged her apartment units so that even the small kitchenette space worked well for residents.
Nelle boosted her career in 1913 by forming a business relationship with Charles E. Phillips, a Kansas City builder and developer. Phillips built more large apartment buildings than any other developer in Kansas City prior to World War II. Nelle was the architect for many of these buildings for the Phillips Building Company.
A Major Female Architect
In the 1920s Nelle established herself as a major architect in Kansas City and beyond. She was the architect for nearly 1,000 buildings. Her work included structures in Boonville, Clinton, Columbia, Jefferson City, and Kansas City, Missouri; Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Asheville, North Carolina; Newark, New Jersey; and Columbus, Ohio.
Nelle became well known for fitting several apartment buildings onto a lot in a “court group.” The grouping of apartment buildings around a central courtyard gave Nelle’s buildings character. The outside terra cotta ornamentation on each building was usually simple but pleasing. Her buildings usually had a name. Seven apartments in one grouping near the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City are known as the “literary block” or “poet’s apartments” because they were each named for famous writers such as Mark Twain and Eugene Field.
Nelle also designed impressive hotel buildings. Her best-known hotel in Kansas City, the Ambassador Hotel, was built in 1924. At the time, it was the largest apartment hotel in Kansas City with eight stories and a garden on the roof. It contained 105 apartment units and 108 hotel rooms along with retail shops.
Surviving Hard Times
Nelle’s career took a downward turn during the Great Depression and World War II. The building boom of the 1920s came to a halt and many architects had to find other work. Nelle worked as a seamstress to support herself during this difficult period. She also suffered a serious illness during this time.
Nelle worked as an architect again once the war ended. Though she no longer designed large-scale projects, Nelle did complete many buildings, additions, and remodeling jobs until she retired in 1967. Her last years were spent in a nursing home in Sedalia, Missouri. Nelle Peters died at the age of 90 on October 7, 1974.
Nelle Peters produced a large number of buildings that stand as memorials to her talent and hard work. Her buildings helped shape lasting communities in Kansas City. In 1982, the Nelle E. Peters Historic District was designated in Kansas City and certified by the Department of the Interior. Her “literary” buildings are designated as the Nelle Peters Thematic Historic District.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 611–12.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 81–82.