Historic Missouri house might become modern classroom

Friday, November 18, 2011 | 3:20 p.m. CST

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — The building that Cape Girardeau's miller called home in the mid-1800s may soon be a lab for students interested in preserving historic landmarks.

James Reynolds operated a steam-powered flour mill that extended over the Mississippi River just north of Broadway and had built what is now known as the Reynolds House in 1857.

In 1982, dilapidated and scheduled for demolition, the building was saved by the Historical Association of Greater Cape Girardeau, which had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the association was constrained in its preservation efforts by a lack of funding, so the house was mothballed in 1999.

Earl Norman and his wife bought the home in 2009 after hearing that the Historical Association was planning to sell it. They had made an anonymous donation in 2008 to have the roof replaced and floor joists repaired and wanted to see the home preserved.

Norman, chairman of Benton Hill Investments Co., understands the difficulty of maintaining old homes.

"If you don't have a functional use for it, it becomes an albatross," Norman said.

Norman hoped that somehow he would be able to turn the Reynolds House into a community asset. When development of the Isle of Capri riverboat casino started, it began to seem possible.

Jill Alexander, spokeswoman for Isle of Capri, said the casino is committed to the revitalization of downtown. The Reynolds House is right at the casino's front door.

An application was filed in October to form a not-for-profit corporation, titled the James Reynolds House Foundation,that will assume ownership and care of the property. The officers named are Norman, Dick Meister of the Isle of Capri and Southeast Missouri State University historic preservation professor Steven Hoffman.

Alexander said incorporation could take six to nine months, and, though ideas have been proposed, formal plans have not been made.

Hoffman and Norman hope the Reynolds House will have a multifaceted role in the community through the efforts of the foundation.

"It could be a great learning laboratory for our students," Hoffman said.

The undergraduate historic preservation program at Southeast is one of only 10 in the United States endorsed by the National Council for Preservation Education. Its students have helped develop 15 of the 30 historical registry sites in Cape Girardeau.

Hoffman envisions a place students could learn by experience in preservation and museum operations. Student docents would host rotating exhibits and programs to educate residents and tourists about preservation and local history and culture.

"We think it is the best possible use that property could be put to," Norman said. "We are just delighted that we can turn it over to an organization that can really do something with it."

The house was designed in French colonial and Georgian cottage styles by Edwin Branch Deane, the architect who designed the Glenn House and other large residences of the era.

Brick mason Joseph Lansmon, who also was involved in building St. Mary's Cathedral and the Common Pleas Courthouse, contributed to its construction. After James Reynolds' death in 1865, his wife, Christine Catherine Reynolds, lived there until she died in 1909 at the age of 100. The family owned and maintained the home for about 30 more years.

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