Historic warehouse sees new life

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 | 10:01 p.m. CST; updated 10:42 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 25, 2009

COLUMBIA — Kenny Greene remembers when trains pulled up to Wabash Station next to the Berry Building on Walnut and Orr streets to unload and pick up cargo.

But a lot has changed since then. The trains are gone, replaced with the low rumble of endless buses picking up passengers at the bus terminal and the scream of fire engines pulling out of Station No. 1.

Greene has made jewelry in Columbia on the same block next to the Berry Building for almost 30 years — 13 of which were in the building itself.

Today, the building is a mess. The upstairs is a maze of wall and door frames. The sound of hammers and table saws echo throughout its empty spaces. A rusted sign is all that remains of the former landmark.

But all this will change.

The Berry Building and the land it sits on are on the National Register of Historic Places. About a month ago, the old warehouse began its biggest transformation in 80 years.

Work has begun on a 13,000-square-foot, lower-level Wilson’s Total Fitness. The building will have 12 new apartments on the upper level and 10,000 square feet of street-level retail space. In addition, 14 new art studios will open next door to the Berry Building in the next few months.

"(They're) trying to make this a designated area for the arts and trying to revive the old North Village idea,” Greene said. “I think that's really helpful."

The North Village, which spans Walnut, north Ninth and north Tenth streets, was historically a hot spot for Columbia artists. But the once cohesive business community has faded.

Foot traffic has declined. Shops have spread out. And the business district couldn’t compete when retail focus shifted to spaces like the Columbia Mall, Greene said.

For building owner John Ott, who has been involved in renovating the Tiger Hotel, the area is ripe for economic development. Ott has been involved in the preservation and restoration of historic buildings for about 20 years. He said he chose to redevelop the Berry warehouse because he sees the area around it revitalizing.

"It's in the center of the city. It's near the bus station," Ott said. "There's an art district that's growing and a budding film industry in that area.”

Ott said he is trying to capitalize on the appeal of the building's classic design and qualify for historical preservation tax credits, so the redeveloped building will retain much of its original warehouse look.

Historic preservation consultant Debbie Sheals said she has to make sure the building's renovations adhere to federal rehabilitation guidelines.

"You identify what are the character-defining features of the historic building, what makes it convey that sense of time and place, and you keep those," she said. “Some interior work is also looked at. Some people think you can do whatever you want on the inside. That's not really true."

She said the Berry Building's storefront, doors, windows and much of its masonry work will remain largely unchanged.

For Greene, preserving the history of the Berry Building and the surrounding area is important. He is excited about the future and sees this as a chance for the area to reinvent itself. But he’s also glad its past isn’t being ignored.

As with much of the jewelry he creates, the building's history has meaning to Greene.

The history of a piece of jewelry is important, he said. It can celebrate a a moment in time, or convey a legacy. The same can be said about the Berry Building.

“History gives you a story, and a story gives people a compelling reason to come see it," Greene said.

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