City Hall building in Mo. celebrates 100th year

Friday, November 12, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CST


JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Her scalloped brow has overlooked the highs and lows of downtown Joplin for decades.

Born in a boom, she helped sustain — some say drive — a thriving retail district. In midlife though, like so many tragic heiresses whose beauty and fortune fade, downtown hit a dry spell and her glorious gown grew tattered.

For a time, the lady even got caught up in a bit of a scandal.

She came back, though. And now the grand dame of downtown — the Newman Building — is about to celebrate her 100th birthday.

Built to sell the millinery, fashions and household goods that the early Tri-State Mining District needed, the Chicago-styled building at 602 S. Main St. today serves as Joplin's City Hall.

Ron Richard, a former mayor who is credited with suggesting that the city buy the building, uses one word to describe the Newman Building today.

"Perfect," he said. "Perfect.

"It couldn't have been any better. A brand new, old building. You don't have to say 'City Hall.' Everybody knows it's as the Newman Building. It's got tradition. It's got character. It's got everything you want in a City Hall and it's been kind of an anchor for downtown."

German immigrant Joseph Newman came to the United States in 1850, landing in Philadelphia, according to his great-grandson and the last in the line of Newman company executives, Bill Schwab, Joplin. After the Civil War, when business was slow back East, Newman pushed West to try to make his fortune. He scouted Springfield and Carthage, but there were no railroad stops in Carthage at the time, so he moved to Pierce City, Schwab said.

Newman set up shop there in 1869 and sold men's and boys shoes.

"He bought them from a catalog and there were only three sizes: small, medium and large," Schwab said. Women's clothing wasn't sold in retail stores here then because women sewed their own, he said.

The Newman Mercantile Co. thrived and so did Newman. He was elected the town's first mayor and school board president. His original storefront stood until a tornado blew down many of the community's downtown buildings in 2003, Schwab said.

Newman also sent one of his sons, Sol, to open a second store in nearby Monett.

Near the end of the century, Joplin was teeming as the result of lead and zinc mine strikes and, in 1898, another of Newman's son, Albert, and a son-in-law, Gabe Newberger, opened a third store at 517 Main St. Again, they started by selling shoes but quickly expanded the products offered to a growing population.

Within 10 years, the demand for goods and the space to sell them created more opportunity for the Newmans. In 1907, they began planning to build a large retail store.

They hired a budding architect who was a native of Joplin, Austin Allen. He took ideas for the design of the building from new Chicago buildings that boasted fireproof construction methods. Allen would go on to design a number of Joplin landmarks: the United Hebrew Temple, St. Peter's Catholic Church, the original Elks Club and the Olivia Apartments.

Schwab said the family spent $150,000 to construct the building. By comparison, a well-appointed home of the day cost $1,000.

The six-story building was erected over a basement dug by men with picks and shovels, Schwab said.

There has been speculation about why the Newman Building has a sloping first floor.

Schwab said it is because the Newmans did not want their customers to have to climb stairs to get into the store or risk a fall near the street.

It was the first building in Joplin to be equipped with electric lights, which operated on DC current then, he said, and the first with elevators. Customers were not used to riding on such contraptions, though, and it took a while before some customers would give them a try. The elevators were bronze and cost $11,500. The store held sales on the upper floors to encourage use of the elevators, Schwab said.

Throngs waited outside the building for its opening on Nov. 16, 1910. One of the newspapers of the day, the Joplin News Herald, described the building as "a palatial home of merchandizing" that required 29 train carloads of merchandise to stock.

The grand opening drew customers from as far away as 100 miles, Schwab said.

As popular as it was with shoppers, it also was admired by employees for its perks.

By 1913, when annual sales had climbed to more than $1 million, Newman's had 200 on its payroll, which amounted to $75,000.

The retailer established a social and benevolent society for the workers. There were often employee picnics on the roof, which contained a garden with swings and a dance pavilion.

During a later remodel of the building, workers found a 1912 postcard in a wall from a store employee who apparently lost it before putting it in the mail, Schwab said. The worker had written to someone in Springfield imploring they come to Joplin "because Newman's is paying $5 a week, which is more than you can earn in Springfield," the postcard read.

Mining revenues declined as the country's need for lead and zinc diminished, and suburb-seeking families changed their shopping habits, too.

That sent the Newmans looking for a new retail experience and Schwab, who by then had control of the business, formed a partnership to develop a new shopping center, Northpark Mall. In 1972, he moved Newman's to an anchor position in that mall.

He eventually sold the downtown building to the Pentecostal Church of God for its headquarters and printing operation, Messenger Publishing Co. In the 1980s, that group moved to a new building on 50th Street and the building once again became vacant.

In 1989, a Joplin man acquired the building and opened a teen club in the basement called The Boulevard. By then, there were maintenance problems, such as crumbling brick and cracking plaster, a lack of fire sprinklers and other code issues. That owner, Kenny Cox, fended off city attempts to issue fix or demolish orders with promises to make repairs. The city stopped short of ordering demolition because of what it would cost taxpayers.

Cox, in 1993, sold the building to a developer, who held it without doing any repairs. In 1995, he sold to a pair of new investors who came to town, Martin Smith and Greg Fears.

Smith and Fears had set up an investment business on Main Street. They restored the Newman Building at an estimated cost of $5 million. They later sold it to a trucking operation, Hook Up Inc., which put administrative offices in the building until it was forced out by an ownership dispute that Smith and Fears caused.

It turned out that Fears and Smith had used money they stole from an Arkansas widow who had entrusted her fortune in Wal-Mart stock to their investment company. The woman's estate foreclosed on the building to recoup some of her losses.

About that time, the building also was put on the county's tax sale list because Smith and Fears, during their legal trouble, failed to pay property taxes.

It was at that point that the city of Joplin, in need of more administrative and meeting space and looking for a way to reinvigorate the downtown, decided to buy the building and rescue it from the tax sale.

The Joplin City Council approved the purchase of the Newman Building for $3 million in 2003. The city spent another $3 million on additional building repairs and remodeling.

Richards said he does not want to take credit for the building's acquisition as City Hall because the idea had the support of many, including the arts and business communities.

"It was part of the effort to keep downtown alive," Richard said. "It would have been silly to encourage development downtown without having the city downtown," he said. The idea was to gather government services there as anchors and that other types of development would follow.

Joplin historian Brad Belk believes the restoration of the Newman Building was a "catalyst" for the downtown revival that is still under way.

"I draw the line of the restoration downtown to that date," he said.

Keeping it a public building, rather than putting it in private hands, has enabled many people to see it, Belk said, noting that it was originally open to the public.

"It was an icon in its day and today it is the centerpiece of downtown," he added.

Although the building survived, the store that moved to the mall did not. Newman's went out of business in 1988.

"The whole thing is gaining momentum," Richard said of downtown revitalization following the restoration of the building. "The vision of downtown is still alive and I think part of it started with City Hall."


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