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Peters, Nelle Elizabeth (1884-1974)

The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture (TFA) was asked to write letters supporting the Tulsa Preservation Commission’s nomination of the Mohawk Water Treatment Facility and Hotel Ambassador for a National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award. While researching the Ambassador, TFA discovered blueprints of the original drawings in its collection. The sheets listed the architect as N.E. Peter of Kansas City.

N.E. Peters is a well-known name in Kansas City history. The Historic Kansas City Foundation references the book, Kansas City Women of Independent Minds by Jane Fifeild Flynn, in which Nelle E. Peters is credited with nearly 1,000 buildings during her 60-year career, often using a single plan for several buildings.

Nelle Elizabeth (Nichols) Peters was born in a sod house in Niagara, North Dakota in 1884. Due to her fondness for mathematics, geometry and algebra and her talent sketching and drawing, her sister suggested that she find work in an architect’s office. Rejected by several firms, she was hired in 1903 by a Sioux City firm for $3 a week as a “draftslady”.

Following a four-year apprenticeship, during which she took correspondence courses in architecture, she was transferred to the firm’s Kansas City office. In 1909, Nelle established her Kansas City practice. She provided a variety of architectural services: residences, churches, office buildings and her specialty, apartments and hotels. “I started with plans for three little houses at $15 a piece. I numbered the first one No. 25 so it wouldn’t look as if I were anovice”. In 1911 she married Williams H. Peters, a designer for the Kansas City Terminal Railroad.

In 1913, she formed a partnership with the Phillips Building Company owned by Charles E. Phillips. During this period, she designed dozens of apartments for Phillips including the “literary group”: the Robert Louis Stevenson, Eugene Field, Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, James Russell Lowell and the Robert Browning, all located in the west side of Country Club Plaza. We wonder if there were sets of “never-builts” called the Dorothy Parker, George (Mary Anne Evans) Eliot or the Elizabeth Barrett Browning that lingered in her files.

She divorced Peters in 1923 and entered into her most productive years. She completed 29 projects in 1924 alone including Kansas City’s Ambassador Hotel (3560 Broadway), which was the largest in the city at that time.

The Tulsa Ambassador Hotel was typical of her work – simple straightforward buildings with terra cotta entrances and ornament. It was commissioned by the Hurley-Park Investment Company. It’s well known that the Ambassador was completed in record time, perhaps because Major General Patrick J. Hurley was one of the investors. Hurley served as Secretary of War under President Hoover.

Although Hurley’s credentials present an iron-fisted image, he did hire Peters. Then again, Peters success in the (then) male dominated profession was derived from her ability to deliver results. Hurley’s sensitivity is revealed when his commemoration bust was unveiled at a 1951 Oklahoma Historical Society ceremony. He is quoted as saying, ” I never weaken when they’re fighting me. I only weaken during something like this”.

Peters was skilled in many other areas. She made her own clothing and, during WWII when work was scarce, supplemented her income through seamstress work. She also painted china and watercolors, wrote and sold crossword puzzles, and was a published poet.

Peters remained active until her retirement in 1965 after which she continued to accept commissions that she could complete without leaving her apartment. She died in 1974 at the age of 90 in a nursing home. There, among her belonging was a notebook that contained photographs and newspaper clippings of all of her buildings.