COLUMBIA — Breathing new life into historical buildings has been a decades-long passion for John and Vicki Ott, who have become adept at tapping state historic preservation tax credits to renovate downtown buildings and preserve what they call the architectural culture of the community.
The Otts' work with historical buildings began with an old schoolhouse in the river town of Rocheport, where much of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places, John Ott said. At first, plans called for upper-level loft apartments with a store on the ground floor. After delving into the history of the schoolhouse, the Otts decided that converting it to a bed-and-breakfast inn would be the best way to preserve the building's historical integrity.
The Otts opened the doors of the inn in 1989 and owned it for about 15 years. It remains successful today, John Ott said.
"There was a need for it," he added, noting that more bed and breakfasts have opened in Rocheport since. "It's a great little historic town."
Like Rocheport, Columbia also has a rich architectural heritage. Several buildings downtown and in the North Village Arts District have undergone transformations, many with the help of historic preservation tax credits offered by the state and tapped by the Otts.
The tax credits are matched by money from private investors with the aim of rejuvenating buildings of historical significance. In the past decade, investments in the Columbia area that tapped preservation funds totaled $88.8 million. For every public dollar spent, another $4.40 came from private investors, a previous Missourian article noted.
When selecting a historical building for renovation, the Otts try to envision what business or residential uses would be successful there. Buildings in the North Village Arts District represented a location where John Ott anticipated a strong demand for fine arts. That proved true with the success of the Orr Street Studios, Mojo's and Dancearts of Columbia.
During a historic tax-credit project, the Otts are careful to retain historic features, although some modern touches — such as new lighting and changes that bring the buildings into compliance with the American with Disabilities Act — are essential. The result is a mix of old and new architecture. Marble kitchen countertops like those in the Stephens Building apartments contrast but work well with the hardwood floors, brick walls and tall windows from an earlier time.
Vicki Ott said she enjoys uncovering the history and stories surrounding a building.
"People will contact us with old pictures or old stories about a particular building," Vicki Ott said.
For the Otts and their tenants, the rich history of the buildings is important, but it's the vitality that their restorations bring that resonates.
"We've been fortunate. We've worked with some great people in Columbia," John Ott said. "... I love seeing these places and all the activity when they're done."
Here's a glance at some of the buildings the Otts have transformed:
Paramount Building, 29 S. Ninth St.
Built in 1892 and first remodeled around 1928. Latest renovations completed in 2004. Businesses include Kaldi's Coffee and Bangkok Gardens.
The Paramount, also known as the Ballenger Building, is one of the oldest continually operating commercial buildings in Columbia. It was built at the northwest corner of Ninth and Cherry streets for the G.F. Troxell Furniture Store in 1892. The Ballenger Stove and Implement Co., later listed as Stone and Ballenger or Ballenger Stone, owned it from around 1892 to the 1920s, according to a document from the National Register of Historic Places.
Rene Butel was an early basement tenant, taking advantage of a natural spring on site for his soda fountain. He served ginger ale, birch beer, soda water and other soft drinks, according to the National Register of Historic Places document. The building also was home to a Safeway grocery store from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the Paramount Pool Hall was once located there, John Ott said.
An extensive remodeling effort around 1928 created the signature terra cotta and brick facade, according to the National Register of Historic Places document.
"I love the brick work," Vicki Ott said. "That's kind of a cool architectural feature."
The Ballenger Building's entrance features a white-and-black checkered tile pattern on the floors that lead visitors to stairwells on either side of a brushed stainless steel elevator. Cylindrical, art deco-style lights illuminate hardwood-trimmed walls along the stairs.
Kaldi's Coffee displays historic cues blending with modern touches. Coffee-colored tin roof tiles harken back to the building's earlier years, bordered by sundrop yellow trim and pillars of black and vermillion. Hardwood floors and wood-framed chairs blend well with the bright, expansive front windows faced by a long counter and framed by small chandeliers that appear to drip with glass around the light.
Kaldi's general manager Johanna Cox said the historical building reflects sustainability and environmental awareness that are priorities for the company. She's happy with the Otts' work on the structure.
"They're just brilliant at restoring properties," Cox said.
The Otts were presented with the Columbia Historic Preservation Commission's first Outstanding Local Historic Preservationist award for their restoration work to the Ballenger and Dorsey buildings, according to a 2008 Missourian report.
Berry Building, 1025 E. Walnut St.
Built in 1928. Renovations completed in 2009. Businesses include Wilson's Fitness, Perlow-Stevens Gallery, Studio Home Interiors, SilverBox Photography, HOOT Design Co. and Independent Stave Co.
The Berry Building was constructed for use by the Berry Wholesale Grocery Co. Along with the present-day Walnut Market's historic warehouses, the Berry Building was built to take advantage of trains at the nearby Wabash Station and former railway yard, according to a document from the National Register of Historic Places.
John Ott is pleased that he was able to preserve many of the architectural characteristics of the Berry Building.
"The wood post and beam construction is emphasized and maintained throughout," he said. The windows were replaced with modern thermal panes but retain the historical appearance. Retaining the brick veneer also was a priority.
Ott said it also was important to consider safety and practicality when restoring the structure.
"The building definitely has a lot of character," Amy Meyer, associate curator at P.S. Gallery, said, adding that customers most often compliment the hardwood floors.
The wood posts and beams contrast with the white spaces for art displays — "not so the building and art compete; they marry very well in this space," Meyer said.
Colorful sculptures and paintings adorn the white surfaces. The natural light melds with track lighting throughout, casting a soft glow on focal items.
At Studio Home Interiors, administrative design consultant Sarah Frost said the clean white walls "allow for any color to be displayed."
The store boasts an eclectic mix of traditional, contemporary and transitional styles of furniture and decor. Ceiling light fixtures resemble gigantic incandescent bulbs. And there's a framed collection of real beetles, entitled "Stag Beetle Mosaic," on the wall.
"It's gross, but beautiful," Frost said.
Walnut Market, aka North Village Studios, 1019-1023 E. Walnut St.
Original building constructed in 1926, with additions in 1939 and 1950. Renovation completed in 2009. Businesses include Artlandish Gallery, Root Cellar, Monarch Jewelry, House of VanSickle, Moonshadow Photography and Shear Soul.
Lisa Bartlett, owner of Artlandish Gallery, said the Otts could have simply razed these historical buildings to develop a new Walnut Market.
"John is really into preserving the architectural integrity of these buildings," Bartlett said. "It just has a great ambiance."
The original building housed offices and a warehouse for the Poole and Creber Market Co. Although it has a Walnut Street address, it was built to face the alley and railroad tracks south of Walnut.
The basement of the structure, known colloquially as "The Catacombs," is home to several galleries and has a history all its own. Tunnels were literally blasted out between rooms during the railroad boom years.
"A little dynamite goes a long way," Bartlett quipped.
The interconnected rooms, still in use today, served as storage for clothing and produce coming from the historic Wabash train system. A large door still faces the old Wabash Station, and a trough in the basement once contained blocks of ice for refrigeration, Bartlett said.
Jake Davis, co-owner of Root Cellar, said there were many locations he considered for a grocery store, but he is pleased with his decision to relocate to the North Village Arts District after operating on Providence Road and on Broadway.
"We really like the atmosphere downtown," Davis said.
Marsha Ely, who crafts ceramics on display downstairs, said she enjoys passing through the galleries and meeting the people who work here.
"It just seems like we're all a family here," Ely said.
Jennifer Roberts, owner of Moonshadow Studio, likes the authentic character of the building. "It's not a manufactured ambiance," she said.
Suzanne VanSickle, owner of the clothing store House of VanSickle, agreed. "It's definitely a wonderful community down here."
VanSickle said she chose to work with John Ott because "I really respect his vision." She said he always answers phone calls personally and takes a hands-on approach.
"He always looks happiest covered in dirt," VanSickle said. "He really does do every part of his business."
Columbia Academy of Music, 1020 E. Walnut St.
Built in 1947. Renovation completed in 2010. Home to the Columbia Academy of Music and The Bridge nightclub.
This structure began as the McGlasson Distributing Building in the 1940s, according to the National Register of Historic Places. Before the Otts' renovation, it was home to Lou's Palace nightclub. Today, the Columbia Academy of Music offers lessons to about 160 students, while The Bridge has become a popular performance venue.
The Bridge manager Ted Paletta said the venue's black and gray walls intentionally direct attention to the stage. He said that the walls also were acoustically treated, so the music sounds "pristine." The Bridge can accommodate 190 people when the lobby and patio are included.
Immediately to the right of the entrance to The Bridge is a hardwood bar built by the drummer for the Columbia band Bockman, one of Paletta's favorites.
Paletta showed off several rooms lining either side of the academy's hallway, the Columbia Academy of Music runs parallel to the Bridge. These include a drum room with strategically-placed, reverberation-killing foam pads, and an audio/visual room where recordings of live performances often are mixed for music videos. Inside a practice room, the facing wall displays a poster of the artwork for John Coltrane's "Blue Train" album for inspiration.
Paletta said the building and its location are ideal.
"It's a great location," he said, noting that art walks and Artrageous Fridays bring people around to hear the live music.
Broadway Trio, 908, 912, 914 and 918 E. Broadway
Built circa 1886. Renovation completed in 2007 and 2008. Businesses include Breeze Boutique, Saigon Bistro, Elly's Couture and Blanc Studio, 918 E. Broadway St. (completed 2008)
The late Victorian-style buildings located at 906-914 E. Broadway were built following an 1886 fire. The second floor rooms were interconnected, serving as a Singer sewing machine manufacturing facility and a photography business over the years, according to a National Register of Historic Places document.
Breeze Boutique is carrying on a decades-long tradition of clothing stores in this section of Broadway, said Regeb Mavrakis, who owns the store with his wife, Fariha Mavrakis.
His favorite aspect of the store is that "all four stores are open to each other."
Breeze has an airy, colorful layout of clothing, accessories, shoes and other items "from top to bottom," Mavrakis said.
"I've been here with John (Ott) for four years," Mavrakis said. "It's going very smooth. "As a landlord, I like him very much. He's very good at taking care of his property."
Mavrakis described John Ott as intelligent and an excellent source of marketing advice.
"I told him 'John, I want your brain.'"
Elly Bethune, owner of Elly's Couture, recalled being nervous about the long, narrow floorplan of her store. But it "worked to our benefit," she said. The layout reminds her of the tall, slender Venetian homes she encountered while attending school in San Francisco.
Today, metallic gold sections of the walls are framed by fire red columns and illuminated by beacon-like track lighting. Chandeliers glimmer, a skylight casts a soft glow onto a crimson couch adorned with "E" and "C" gold pillows.
Poppy's operated in the space for 19 years. But the building once housed a bank, probably in the early 1900s. Bethune's eyes grew bright as she described a basement safe that was too heavy for the previous owners to move. That basement extends past the storefront and under Broadway. It is "probably the safest place in Columbia," Bethune said.
As a part of her second five-year lease, Bethune decided to give up the basement, clearing the way for remodeling work and a new business to move in with a storefront on Alley A south of Broadway.
Bethune said John Ott "has the big picture. He just gets it."
Stephens Building, 1020 E. Broadway
Built circa 1892. Renovation did not require historic preservation tax credits. Site of Dream Catcher Studios.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Columbia Herald was the second-largest employer in Columbia, and much of the Stephens Building was devoted to printing operations. The building was constructed in about five months after a fire at the Herald's wood-framed printing location. Crews cleaned that press with gasoline that ignited and set the newspaper building on fire, John Ott said.
Jon Durk, who assisted with the renovation work, said the Stephens Building was "well-maintained." Crews tuckpointed the exterior and repainted trim bordering the roof and a sun emblem at the top of the facade.
"All of that was faded out, and the paint was chipping on it," Durk said.
Most of the work on the Stephens Building was done by last October. Ott said it's now in "whitebox condition," which means it's ready for customized finishing according to tenants' wishes.
Durk is particularly proud of the ornate stone work atop the pillars framing the entryway to the Stephens Building. The sculptures were "almost all black" from years of exposure to the elements, he said. After cleaning, he said, "those almost look new."
A brick patio offers an outdoor complement to the brick-and-mortar construction and the buildings tall windows. A boiler, bearing the inscription "Kewanee Boiler Co./Kewanee, Ill. 1922" still sits in the wall of a spacious back room, its interior filled with bricks and mortar from some point in the building's history, Durk said.
Dream Catcher employee Skylar Hunt enjoys the unique aspects of the Stephens Building. Dream Catcher occupies portions of the first and second floors.
"It's a cool building," Hunt said. "We've got sweet views."
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.