Home Specific Projects Kansas City, MO People Who Made Kansas City's System Possible William Rockhill Nelson, 1841-1915, Kansas City Star
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William Rockhill Nelson, 1841-1915, Kansas City Star

Here Lies Kansas City by Wilda Sandy, Published by Bennett Schneider Inc., 1984

William Nelson

William Rockhill Nelson’s Kansas City STAR-studded rise to power began March 7, 1841 when Nelson was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana to a wealthy farm family. The smart, rich, tempestuous kid grew into a big, brash lawyer who never practiced; a dilettante of failures; a young adult with little focus. Dismissed from Notre Dame, Nelson had worked half-heartedly on his father’s farm; failed in construction; unsuccessfully farmed; and knowing nothing about newspapering, bought the Fort Wayne SENTINEL.

Nelson, the late-bloomer, came here in 1880 at age 39. He founded the four-page daily Kansas City EVENING STAR, and really succeeded for the first time in his life. In three months, his 2 cent paper had the largest circulation in town. Almost from taws, he plumped for city betterment, crusaded for parks and boulevards, and pushed for municipal reform. “Public improvement mad”, some said.

His editorial crusade for city beautification began in 1881. Kansas City with a population of 65,000 had no public parks. His newspaper was barely a year old, but Nelson already had strong, well-placed allies. Together with August Meyer (the Park Board’s first president), Nelson persuaded the skilled landscape architect, George Kessler, to become the Board’s secretary. And Kansas City’s remarkable parks and boulevard system was the happy result.

In a lesser-known role, Nelson was a real estate developer. His first venture in 1883 was a row of small houses on the south side of 31st street between Walnut and Grand avenue, now gone. DeGroff Way, north from 31st street between McGee and Oak came next—a street of attractively-sited modest houses still extant.

Further south are his Pierce and Houston street houses, and those on 47th street and on Harrison, many of which with their native rock walls, remain today. Nelson’s capstone was his Rockhill District of two- and three-story houses built for wealthy prospects. This fashionable residential neighborhood north of 47th street and east of Rockhill road is now in a renaissance.

To the northwest of this hilly area, between Oak and Rockhill road south of 45th street, William Rockhill Nelson built his own fabled Oak Hall, a baronial manse which sprawled on 20 acres. When the “Baron of Brush Creek”—” died at age 74 on April 13, 1915, Oak Hall was dismantled in accordance with his wishes. And in 1930 the splendid new Nelson Gallery of Art rose in its place, constructed with funds provided by the estates of his family. Inside was an art collection purchased with Nelson’s $12 million estate, now much refined and augmented, a jewel in Kansas City’s crown.