Tenants, preservationists feel powerless to save Niedermeyer building

Sunday, January 13, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:06 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 30, 2013
The Niedermeyer building sits on the corner of Tenth and Cherry streets in downtown Columbia. The apartment building, which is the oldest building in Columbia, could be sold to a St. Louis developer who plans to erect new student housing at the site after the building is demolished.

COLUMBIA — Advocates for the preservation of the Niedermeyer — the oldest building in Columbia at 920 Cherry St. — say they feel powerless in the face of powerful development interests.

Collegiate Housing Partners, a St. Louis-based development firm, is in line to buy the property from Fred Hinshaw and then demolish it to build a student apartment complex as tall as 15 stories on the site. It would be one of the tallest structures in town. The parking garage at Fifth and Walnut streets is 10 stories tall. 

Timeline of events

Dec. 13: A demolition permit application for the Niedermeyer building was filed by Contegra Construction on behalf of Collegiate Housing Partners, a St. Louis-based development firm. Collegiate Housing Partners is under contract to purchase the Niedermeyer building in March. 

Dec. 14: A Facebook page called Save the Niedermeyer was created and had 155 "likes" as of Saturday afternoon.

Also in December, an online petition on was created and had gathered more than 1,570 signatures as of Saturday afternoon. 

Dec. 17: At the City Council meeting, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe called for a six-month moratorium on demolition permit requests in the Downtown Community Improvement District.

Hoppe said the moratorium would allow the city a chance to review its zoning code. The review would include concerns about adequate parking, building height and placement, and historic preservation. 

A vote on the proposed moratorium was set to occur at the Jan. 7 council meeting.

Jan. 3: The Historic Preservation Commission held a meeting, in which they decided to support the preservation of the Niedermeyer building

Jan. 7: The council postponed voting on the moratorium. The ordinance will instead be voted on at the Jan. 22 council meeting.

Council member Gary Kespohl proposed that the vote be postponed so the council could hear from the two groups that have a stake in downtown development: the Downtown Community Improvement District and the Downtown Leadership Council.

City Manager Mike Matthes also announced that city staff had rejected the application for a demolition permit for the Niedermeyer building because tenants have to be gone and utilities have to be off for the permit to be approved.

But Matthes said once those requirements are met the city cannot stop the demolition of the building.

Jan. 8: At the Downtown Community Improvement District meeting Tuesday, members on the board voted unanimously to oppose the moratorium on downtown demolitions, said Deb Sheals, chairwoman of the district.

Jan. 15: The Downtown Leadership Council has a meeting scheduled for this date. Downtown Leadership Council Member Brent Gardner said the group will give an opinion on the proposed moratorium. During the meeting members might also discuss whether downtown C-2 zoning is working. 

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Amy Hotchkiss, a senior majoring in architectural studies at MU, is one tenant in the building who hopes to prevent the building from being demolished. During her more than 17-month residency there, Hotchkiss' interest in its 176-year history has grown. 

"It was originally built as a female school house before the University of Missouri was even built, which I just think is fascinating," Hotchkiss said.

For a class project last spring, she compiled a research paper on the Niedermeyer's history and drafted a petition for it to be considered for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

According to Hotchkiss' research paper, part of the building was constructed as an all-girls private school in 1837. It was then renovated into prominent hotels, the Cottage and the Gordon. Mark Twain is also remembered for giving a speech there in 1902, when he received his honorary doctorate of law from MU, Hotchkiss said. It has served as a residential apartment building since 1921. 

Savannah Viles, a sophomore at MU who has been living in the building since August, said her favorite part of living in the Niedermeyer is its history. "Probably 200 people lived in my room, and it's really cool," she said.

Callahan & Galloway, which manages the Niedermeyer building, informed its tenants through a letter in November that the property is under contract to be sold.

Viles said affordability and its downtown location drew her to live in the building. "I think it's the best option that I've found by far," she said. "I don't think there is another option that is so affordable and also in downtown. I have no idea what I'm going to do next year." 

Brett Davis, a tenant who moved in this month, said management told him when he signed his lease that he will have to move out by July 31. A tentative closing date is set for March, according to the letter sent to tenants. Davis said he decided to live in the Niedermeyer anyway because of its affordability and great location, but he has already seen numerous maintenance woes. 

"It needs to be renovated," Davis said. "The pipes are old, electrics are old, and it has radiator heat."

Hotchkiss also thinks the apartments need better maintenance, but she said some students' behavior hasn't helped.

"Someone has punched a hole in the wall after coming from a bar, and it really made me mad because they don't care about this building," Hotchkiss said. "They finally patched it, in a really bad way, they put a board over it and slapped some paint on it. The lack of maintenance and lack of care is the problem." 

Elizabeth Gentry Sayad is the great-great-granddaughter of Richard Gentry, the founder of the Columbia Female Academy, which built the original Niedermeyer structure in 1837.

Sayad heard about the impending demolition just before Christmas. She spoke at the Columbia City Council meeting on Monday.

"There are no early buildings of Columbia left from the 1820s ... in the name of progress so many have been torn down," Sayad said in a telephone interview on Saturday. "It's a terrible loss because it has rich heritage to the community that is irreplaceable."

Patrick Earney, structural engineer and member of the Historic Preservation Commission, visited the building on Friday with Deb Sheals, historic preservation consultant on the Downtown Community Improvement District.

"For a building of its age, it's in fine condition," Earney said. "It has a whole lot of history in it worth maintaining in our community."

Hotchkiss created the "Save the Niedermeyer Building" Facebook page on Dec. 14, to raise awareness among city residents. After four weeks, the page has 155 likes, but as a full-time college student, Hotchkiss said she feels powerless. One Facebook poster suggested that if she didn't want it torn down, she ought to buy it. As a 22-year-old college student of limited means, Hotchkiss found the suggestion frustrating.

Earney said the Historic Preservation Commission is trying to find a private buyer to purchase and preserve the building, but absent one, the commission has few other options. 

"Directly, we can do nothing," Earney said. "All we can do is to put that person in touch with the owner. It's totally out of our hand."

Hotchkiss said she hopes either the city of Columbia or MU will purchase the Niedermeyer. It could be renovated and serve well as a bed and breakfast or museum, she said.

Mayor Bob McDavid said he does not think the city will purchase the Niedermeyer. Neither he nor any of the council members have visited the building to see its condition, he said last week. 

"The complicating factor is the legal issue," McDavid said. "The owner has legal rights ... so it does not seem that the city can interfere."

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe proposed a six-month moratorium on granting downtown demolition permits after the Niedermeyer demolition application was filed with the city. But after the threat of a lawsuit from Wally Bley, a lawyer representing Hinshaw, the council postponed voting on the moratorium on Monday.

At the Downtown Community Improvement District meeting Tuesday, board members voted unanimously to oppose the moratorium on downtown demolitions, Sheals said.

"Members felt the council overreached and aimed (the moratorium) at one property," she said.

The building's site falls into the Downtown Community Improvement District. The zoning there, C-2, requires no maximum height restrictions or parking requirements.

"We want to have good development downtown," Hoppe said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "We don't want to lose the character of downtown and be just any town ... and we are at risk of that."

Hotchkiss seemed dismayed that the proposed building could dwarf the nine-story Tiger Hotel, currently the tallest building downtown. 

"If the proposed plan to put in, like, a five-story building, I would be more OK with that than a 15-story building," Hotchkiss said. "I understand that Columbia is growing, and it's developing, but for them to want to purchase the oldest building in Columbia to tear it down and put up a disproportionate building is not right."

Robert Hollis, who represents Collegiate Housing Partners, said the firm will not begin planning a new building until a decision about the moratorium is made.

Hotchkiss said the best thing she can do to save the Niedermeyer is to speak out. 

"I do understand that buildings don't always last forever, but it's just sometimes really hard to let things go," Hotchkiss said. "I mean, there is so much you can do to try to persuade people."

Missourian reporter Lauren Gatcombe contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Jacob Kirn.

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Michael Williams January 13, 2013 | 9:44 a.m.

Sometimes liberals out-conservative conservatives.

I'm still trying to understand how folks who desire high-density living instead of urban sprawl are not in favor of this. The fact you are not begs the question "What is your REAL agenda for the growth of Columbia?"

I was in the Niedermeyer in the early 1970s; it was a dump then and it's a dump now. Good riddance.

Let's build this skyscraper and at least 4 others like it, dotting downtown like the smallish large city we are. Use lots of glass. Be modern. The older shops, if cared for, will survive quite nicely. A real mid-western Manhattan.

And tear down the Tiger. Or paint it. Or cover it. But, DO something to it.

Also, many of you downtown building owners need to clean up your second story fronts.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin January 13, 2013 | 12:24 p.m.

With the city's terrible history as a steward of historic properties it owns -- the decaying Blind Boone Home and Heibel-March Store prime examples -- this is a terrible suggestion: "Hotchkiss said she hopes either the city of Columbia or MU will purchase the Niedermeyer."

I'd like to see Mrs. Hoppe and other Council members worry more about the properties City Hall currently owns (hint: Blind Boone Home, Heibel March Store) than property it does not own.

How else will they -- or anyone else at City Hall -- have any moral authority to argue for preservation of other people's property?

(Report Comment)
Tom Seagraves January 13, 2013 | 6:37 p.m.

Tenants and Preservationists are not powerless. They can buy the building and then do whatever they want with it. I'm sure the owner would be willing to sell it if they offered him the right price.

(Report Comment)

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