KGOU

How Curious: How Did Nichols Hills Get Its Name?

Apr 24, 2018

The City of Nichols Hills takes up approximately two square miles within the Oklahoma City city limits. It's home to about 3,700 people.

 

KGOU listener Marcella Meade asked “How Curious:” where did the name Nichols Hills come from?

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FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Claire Donnelly: Do you think...what if we're just trespassing right now?

Marcella Meade: Well, I guess we'll be on the news then.

Donnelly: I'm walking down a long driveway with KGOU listener Marcella Meade. At the end of the driveway is a huge house or, really, a mansion. It has big arched windows and balconies.

Meade: Supposedly it's in an "eight" shape and has a five car attached garage.

Donnelly: This is the Buttram Mansion in Nichols Hills. We're here because Marcella called with a question and she wants KGOU to help her answer it.

Meade: How did they come up with the name of Nichols Hills? I think of like 5 cents when I think of a nickel, but there's nothing for 5 cents anywhere in that city. So how did they come up with that name?

Donnelly: This is "How Curious" from KGOU, exploring the questions you have about the state we call home. I'm Claire Donnelly. So let's get this out of the way right off the bat: even though Marcella said the thing about the five cents, Nichols Hills isn't spelled like the coin. It's spelled N-I-C-H-O-L-S. Alright, back to the Buttram Mansion.

Meade: "It's the former home of Frank Buttram and his wife Merle who were oil barons and philanthropists." It says there's tours in the afternoon but I'm not seeing that.

Donnelly: OK, "this property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, 1937." Is there a doorbell? There isn't a doorbell. So I knock on the door three different times. No answer.

Meade: I hear footsteps! Oh wait, that's a hammer.

Donnelly: I got so excited and also terrified. We give up on talking to anyone at the Buttram Mansion and decide to drive around. Nichols Hills is considered part of the Oklahoma City metro area. It feels like a neighborhood because it's only about 2 square miles. But it's actually a city within a city. It has its own government, its own fire department, its own police department. The population is about 3,700 people. And how much does it cost to live here? Last year, the most expensive house sold for more than $2.3 million. The average Nichols Hills sales price was about $897,000, which is almost five times more than the average Oklahoma City sales price. Now, back to Marcellas question: where did the name Nichols Hills come from? The answer is actually pretty simple. It's named after a guy.

Bob Blackburn: The story of Gilbert A. Nichols, G.A. Nichols, has always fascinated me.

Donnelly: This is Bob Blackburn. He directs the Oklahoma History Center. And he calls G.A. Nichols one of Oklahoma history's great risk takers.

Blackburn: Nichols was a creature of the late 19th century. So he was born and raised in the late 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, he had decided he wanted to be a dentist. So he goes off to Kansas City gets his dentist degree...comes back to Oklahoma, opens a practice.

Donnelly: A dentist? That doesn't seem risky. Well, Nichols actually left dentistry after a few years because of some health issues. And then he got into developing homes. According to Blackburn, Nichols built his first home around 1907 in what is now Putnam Heights.

Blackburn: He has a partner named Horace Chandler. And Horace Chandler was a more cautious person. G.A., I've always felt like, was the risk taker. He wanted to go in with everything and roll the dice, take the risk. Chandler, not so much. Well, from 1907 to World War I, they're building a few homes and doing well enough to make a nice living.

Donnelly: But Chandler died during the flu epidemic. Then, Blackburn says, there was nothing holding G.A. Nichols back.

Blackburn: He starts developing entire neighborhoods. He developed his own lumber company, his own architects. He had his own salesmen. He had his own savings and loan association that he controlled. It was vertical operation. So if you're a person that wants a home, G.A. Nichols would say, "I'm the man that can give it to you. I can do it all. I'll design it. I'll build it. Here are the keys to the house."

Donnelly: Nichols had a hand in constructing a lot of Oklahoma City neighborhoods. It was right after statehood and the city was still pretty new at this point. He built houses in Heritage Hills, Jefferson Park, the Paseo, the Plaza District. Blackburn says at that time, most neighborhoods were built at the end of the streetcar tracks because streetcars were the main way people got around the city. But then, by 1928, a new kind of transportation starts changing the landscape-- automobiles. People don't necessarily need to live close to streetcars anymore. So Nichols goes way out in the country, about three miles north of Oklahoma City, and he buys about 2,000 acres of land. He decides he's going to build his ultimate neighborhood.

Blackburn: And it would not be like anything people had seen. Instead of having a grid plat, he was going to have winding trails like you might see in the English countryside. He would have bridle trails so someone could have their own horses. He would have his own airport. He had seen people going from horses to automobiles. He was sure we were going to go from automobiles to flying to work.

Donnelly: Yep, you guessed it. This is Nichols Hills. Now, think about the Oklahoma landscape. There's a lot of flat prairie, not many trees-- doesn't exactly look like the English countryside. So Nichols orders and plants tens of thousands of trees and bushes. He builds his own home, complete with a nine hole golf course, and then gets other prominent Oklahoma residents to build homes there. Here's an excerpt from the original 1930 Nichols Hills sales book. We're definitely going to need some music under this. "Winding here and there are wide curving streets bordered by large trees behind which are stately mansions. Here all is quietness and peace. This is life as it is lived at Nichols Hills. This is the beauty, the comfort, the freedom that only Nichols Hills can give. Who would trade such privileges, such beauty for the grime, the discomfort, the suffocation of the city? Who would live anywhere but Nichols Hills when such beauty beckons?" Bob Blackburn at the History Center says this kind of marketing attracted wealthier people.

Blackburn: It's exclusive. Because if you're going to build there, you're going to have to buy a bigger lot. Because the lots are not any longer 25 feet, you know, it's a quarter of an acre. And so to buy that, you had to be in a certain economic class and a certain race at the time. This was the day of segregation. So you're going to be white, you're going to be fairly comfortable in terms of job and savings to be able to afford to live there.

Donnelly: While we're driving around, listener Marcella Meade says what's always fascinated her about Nichols Hills is how it looks: the streets, the houses.

Meade: They're just so massively close to the street.

Donnelly: And it makes us wonder, who lives in Nichols Hills now, in 2018? I went and knocked on some doors to find out. Not going to lie, I feel a little bit like a door to door salesman or something from the old days. Oh, this one's cool. It's like an nice sand-colored brick, a lot of windows and these cool wooden French doors. OK, here's the doorbell. I stood on the porch for a few minutes and was about to leave, when a woman came walking down the driveway. Her name is Paulette Gordon.

Paulette Gordon: Well, we've lived in the outer areas of Nichols Hills. My father was a builder and we've always looked at living closer into the area. And so we built this home.

Donnelly: We're standing in the entryway of her house which, by the way, is beautiful. And it's big--like 9,000 square feet. Paulette describes it as "old world." It looks like something you might see in Europe. She says Nichols Hills has a lot going for it.

Gordon: It's just quiet and it has a country feel. Very private feel, but we're not gated. And we welcome everyone in the area. And we just feel it's very calm, quiet and neighborhoody. But close to everything.

Donnelly: OK, so now we know how Nichols Hills came to be. I call listener Marcella Meade back.

Meade: It's interesting to me how someone had a great dream, out of the ordinary--thinking definitely outside the box and the neighborhood--was able to start something that is still the level of commitment that he dreamed.

Donnelly: Do you feel... OK, well I have to ask, since you love it so much, are you going to move there?

Meade: Oh no, not at all. No. It's not even in my option of options. I can't even clean a house in there. It's just way above anything that I can afford.

Donnelly: That's it for this episode of "How Curious," a podcast that explores your questions about the state we call home. The show is a production of KGOU Radio. It's produced by me, Claire Donnelly, and edited by Jacob McCleland. David Graey composed our theme music. If you have a question you want us to look into for "How Curious," email us. Our email address is curious@kgou.org. And don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I'm Claire Donnelly.