For more than a century, Columbians have headed downtown to bank, dine, ship and shop. And while the central business district has gone through many transformations over the years, many of the buildings from the late 19th century and early 20th century remain.
Because of its central role in Columbia’s history, the Special Business District was recently nominated by the state for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Dozens of downtown structures are several decades old, and their rich architecture and history were detailed by Debbie Sheals, a local preservationist, in a report to the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Sheals’ research identified 127 buildings downtown that are more than 50 years old but still retain much of their historic integrity. Twenty of those, she reported, would be individually eligible for placement on the historic register and 80 could be eligible as part of larger historic districts.
Beginning with downtown’s original platting in 1821 and continuing through the present, Sheals’ report describes the district’s distinct architectural eras as it evolved from a small village serving local folks to a commercial center serving much of mid-Missouri. It includes details about the construction and subsequent preservation of landmark buildings, the government’s role in developing downtown and the history of businesses owned by blacks and women. Together, these moments in time create the fabric of what we know as downtown today.
Learning from the past
Columbia in the past two decades has begun to preserve many historic buildings unique to the city and state, but the push came too late for some.
One casualty of past apathy about preservation was Sharp End, a stretch of Walnut Street between Fifth and Seventh streets that for years served as the city’s black business center. Urban renewal in the 1960s relocated many Sharp End businesses and demolished many of its buildings.
“One of the biggest problems is that urban renewal wiped out many of the black businesses,” said Bill Thompson, secretary for the John William Boone Heritage Foundation. “Black businesses weren’t assimilated into all aspects of the community. The area that was called Sharp End had 60 to 80 black businesses. A lot of these businesses were displaced.”
Community activist Wynna Faye Elbert agreed.
“It just wiped out the economic source for the community,” she said of urban renewal. “Once they put the post office there, and the parking lot across the street, there was no way you could replace those buildings.”
Elbert said, “All of the black community’s efforts were lost. We’re hopeful for the new district to have some African-American businesses. I’d like to think that when we redo the Blind Boone home, that can create a steppingstone to getting into the history of the black community and keeping it solvent.”
The city and the heritage foundation are restoring the Boone home, which made the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
“It’s just one more piece of incredible importance in what is now being called the District,” said Lucille Salerno, president emeritus of the foundation.
“Boone did a great deal and contributed money to help maintain and upkeep (downtown),” Salerno said. “When a church needed a roof, he was there to help out.”
That’s part of the reason his home is on the national register.
Many people know the story of John Lang Sr., who is mentioned in Sheals’ report, and that of Lang’s son, who was Boone’s manager. Few people, however, realize how much Lang Sr. did for Columbia businesses.
“He was unique in that he was able to create the most modern store of its time in Columbia,” Thompson said.
Stores in the 19th century tended to specialize in one type of product, but “he was known for having a store that had produce and meats, and he was able to travel throughout the community buying and selling products to both the Union and the Confederacy,” Thompson said.
Lang and his son were among the few black businessmen listed in Columbia’s 1879-1880 Gazetteer. The same publication listed at least nine female business owners. One early Columbia businesswoman was Ann Hawkins Gentry, the first woman in the United States to be appointed “postmistress.”
Advantages in the present
Broadway, which runs through the heart of downtown, is wide and long for a reason. Mayor William Jewell wanted it that way.
A driving force in Columbia’s early development, Jewell was threatened with lawsuits and bodily harm for his “outrageous” ideas about inspecting slaughterhouses and pigpens and creating sidewalks and gutters along Broadway.
Things have changed considerably since then, thanks in part to the work of Jewell and the Commercial Club. Founded by businessmen in 1906, the club was instrumental in paving Columbia’s streets and ensuring that a new cross-state highway — now known as Interstate 70 — came through town.
“The Club claimed credit for major roles in paving many streets in town, building the municipal water and light plant, and enticing several factories to start operations in the community,” Sheals said in her report, adding that the claims “were not idle boasts; several newspaper articles from the early part of the 20th century repeat those credits.”
Today — beneath the traffic lights, the concrete canopy and other modern features — downtown retains much of the character established by early influences such as the Commercial Club. Some business owners think a building that taps into that early history helps draw customers.
Tucker’s Fine Jewelry at 823 E. Broadway is one example. Just a glance around makes it clear why this building, owned by Robert Tucker, is on the National Register of Historic Places. High, tin ceilings and Italianate detailing create a timeless atmosphere complemented by low-lying custom jewelry cases. Tucker estimates he spent $250,000 restoring the building.
“It’s a total experience,” he said. “There’s an open feeling from the high ceilings and the low display cases that create a more laid-back and relaxed feeling.”
Like many buildings downtown, Tucker’s is a two-part commercial block, featuring retail space downstairs and a residence upstairs.
Tucker hears a lot of compliments on his store’s historic integrity.
“Traditional preservationists like the building because they like to see it intact,” Tucker said.
Looking to the future
More downtown buildings could soon look like Tucker’s, given that the multiple-property application for historic status was approved by the state on Nov. 14. The application is being reviewed by the National Park Service. If approved, owners of listed properties will be eligible for federal and state tax credits that encourage historic preservation.
In her report, Sheals outlined many of the architectural trends that helped define Columbia’s character during the 19th and 20th centuries. When the city was first developing, most buildings were simple log-and-brick structures. That changed with the rise of Victorian architecture from the 1860s to around the turn of the century.
“Those buildings tended to utilize relatively simple Italianate detailing, with brick walls, round-arched windows, and a fairly heavy general scale,” Sheals wrote. Late Victorian style in the 1880s was characterized by more elaborate ornamentation.
As 1900 approached, builders began to erect structures using prefabricated parts. And after the turn of the century, they turned to new types of architecture.
“Buildings of the new century tended to have much less complicated systems of ornamentation, and simpler, classically inspired compositions,” Sheals said. Those styles included Beaux Arts and Tudor revival. Terra cotta eventually became the dominant material of architectural detailing in the early 20th century.
Art Deco styling marked much of American architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. While there is disagreement on exactly what Art Deco is, “there is at least some vertical emphasis, and, futuristic as the buildings appear to be, most use classical patterns of composition,” Sheals wrote.
New construction downtown slowed considerably in and after the 1930s because of the Depression, World War II and the fact that most of the area had been developed. Columbia voters, however, did approve financing for a new city hall — what is now the Howard Building at Broadway and Sixth Street — and the fire and police building that remains in use on Walnut Street.
Though downtown remained relatively unchanged over the next two decades, people continued moving here. In 1940, Columbia moved ahead of Jefferson City to become the most populous town in mid-Missouri.
Many of the buildings from that era and before are eligible for the historic register today. Maintaining those structures, some of which are still being used for their original purposes, is the Downtown Columbia Associations’ goal.
“One thing that really struck me was the rich history we have here that we may not realize,” said Carrie Gartner, executive director of the association. “We are a very vital area, and we don’t always think about the history. You can go to many downtowns in America, and they all look the same. The more generic and homogenous buildings get, the more areas like ours become so appealing.”