Real estate developer Gilbert A. Nichols constructed many of OKC’s historic neighborhoods.
More than a century ago, Gilbert A. Nichols made a career-changing decision that helped shape the landscape of Oklahoma City. In the early 1900s, Nichols built a successful dentistry practice in Cashion, Oklahoma, and later in Oklahoma City, but after statehood his interest started to wane. He had long thought about building homes. He could see the city growing and developing — perhaps he even envisioned what it could become. He wanted to help build it from the ground up.
After stepping away from dentistry, he built his first home at 624 NW 19 St. in 1908. It was the first of thousands. By 1914, he and a partner had bought property near NW 18th Street between Robinson and Walker avenues. To entice lot sales, they built several homes on each block.
By 1919, he had built 700 homes in Oklahoma City, including many in the Harndale and Heritage Hills additions. A year later, he had a new partner and bigger ideas.
In 1928, he built the Spanish Village shopping area, the first commercial district north of downtown OKC now known as the Paseo Arts District. The same year, he opened Nicoma Park as a colony for chicken farmers, with housing and a cooperative building that processed, packaged and shipped eggs to both coasts. It was successful for a while, but the neighborhood couldn’t survive the Great Depression and a devastating poultry disease.
Nichols became renowned for his homebuilding, residential developments and leadership skills. He was named Oklahoma City’s most useful citizen in 1929 and later served as president of the Chamber of Commerce. And he continued to build homes, including many in today’s historic districts Mesta Park, Crown Heights, Gatewood and Capitol-Lincoln Terrace.
His largest and best-known endeavor is Nichols Hills, a community developed in 1929 and early 1930s. The 1.98-square mile neighborhood was designed to follow the natural rolling landscape. Lots were expansive, with wide and curving streets named after English towns. Each home’s exterior was distinctive. Homeowners enjoyed the golf courses, bridle paths, polo field, club house, tennis courts and parks. Nichols built his family estate on 17 acres, complete with a stable for their show horses.
In 1928, before the town was built, several clapboard houses were constructed on the property that Nichols had bought, and several of Nichols’ friends and partners moved in for the night. The next day, after proving legal residency, they asked that the town be incorporated. Lot sales began almost immediately. A reported $1 million in sales were recorded the first week, and Nichols Hills was incorporated as a municipality a year later.
As an astute businessman and forward-thinker, Nichols knew a commercial district was important in the area. What he didn’t want for the city and neighborhood was industrial or oil field activity like he had seen near other housing additions and towns. He made sure certain restrictions were in place.
Aside from homebuilding, Nichols’ other business interests included managing bus and lumber companies and several downtown Oklahoma City office buildings. A reporter once asked him for his rules of success. “If I were to enumerate the rules of success, number one would be: Work in the line you like,” he said.
Nichols, who estimated he built about 4,000 houses, died of heart failure in 1950. The neighborhood named after him still stands as his most impressive work, recognized as the jewel in a four-decade career for the man who might be Oklahoma City’s most accomplished and recognized homebuilder and developer. His legacy can be seen throughout the city.