Last summer, Debbie Sheals embarked on an ambitious task. Going from one address to another, she researched the architectural history of almost every building in Columbia’s Special Business District.
The result is a richly detailed report that could eventually put several dozen downtown buildings on the list of America’s most important cultural resources — the National Register of Historic Places.
Old buildings have character, too
To meet the standard for inclusion on the register, buildings need to be at least 50 years old and “reasonably intact,” said Sheals, an architectual historian. After surveying the entire downtown area, she identified 127 buildings that reflect the architecture of another era.
“It’s been really fun,” Sheals said. “A lot of those old buildings in town are full of detail.”
Sheals photographed each of the 127 buildings and documented any renovation or reconstruction. She also reviewed a 1979 survey of downtown, as well as other primary and secondary sources to determine construction dates and historical information. In the end, Sheals identified roughly 20 buildings that could be nominated to the National Register individually and another 80 scattered around downtown that could be submitted as part of smaller historic districts.
“Buildings that were questionable on their own have a better chance as part of the whole,” said Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Associations, which funded Sheals’ research.
One example is the North Ninth Street Historic District. The subject of a separate report by Sheals, the district will be among more than 800 properties considered later this month for nomination to the National Register by the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The Ballenger Building, at 27-29 S. Ninth St., will also be considered.
“A few of the buildings in north district have original storefront components, which is really rare in downtown,” Sheals said.
Sheals’ report is a unique narrative of the history of downtown Columbia, particularly the city’s commercial evolution. Platted in 1821 by Smithton Land Co., Columbia had at least nine women-owned businesses, including a drugstore and two hotels by 1880. There were also several businesses owned by African-Americans. John Lange Jr., whose father owned a butcher shop, was a street contractor in 1879. That year he became business manager for one of Columbia’s best-known historical figures, musician John William “Blind” Boone.
A Downtown Revolution
Sheals found that unlike many towns in rural America, the vibrant downtown business district that emerged in Columbia during the 1920s has managed to evolve rather than disappear. More than half the buildings in today’s Special Business District are more than 50 years old, and many of them continue to contribute to downtown’s commercial success.
“When Columbia was founded, there were about 400 lots in the center of town,” Sheals said. “The Special Business District is almost that same area now.”
If buildings are added to the 77,000 properties already listed on National Register — a federal program administered by the National Park Service — their owners won’t be required to make any aesthetic changes. However, the historical significance documented by Sheals’ report will make it easier for building owners to qualify for state and federal tax credits to help finance renovations.
Tom Atkins used tax credits to renovate the Atkins City Centre at Ninth and Cherry Streets. Atkins said he’s happy with the result, and so are his tenants, which include the 9th Street Bookstore.
“It’s beyond our expectations,” Atkins said. “Most people don’t realize we restored it to the exact same as it was built in 1907. It was a real challenge. We worked with some good people. I couldn’t have possibly done it without the tax credits.”
John Ott, vice president and general manager of Premier Marketing Group, has used tax credits to renovate downtown buildings, including 823 E. Broadway. Tax credits, he said, are one way to ensure efforts to preserve history are accurate.
“Part of the benefit of the tax credits is that in order to do work that is historically correct costs lots of money,” he said. “The tax credits make sure you can do the work right.”
Gartner said she expects to see a heightened interest in tax credits, which are available for renovations worth half what the owner paid to purchase the property, among downtown Columbia property owners. Applying for the credits will involve less paperwork now and stand a better chance for approval, she said.
“We’ve cut their costs by 50 percent and cut their time down considerably as well,” Gartner said.
Sheals worked with Atkins on the tax credit-financed renovation of the City Centre, and she hopes her report will be a catalyst for other downtown property owners to consider making improvements to their buildings. In the past, they might not have known the history of their property, and they might not have been aware of the benefits of having it listed on the National Register.
Because of Sheals’ legwork last summer, that may no longer be the case.
“There’s a lot of excitement downtown about historic preservation,” Sheals said. “It’s really fun to watch. I have people asking me all the time if I know of any buildings available for rehabilitation.”