Downtown canopies may be removed

The concrete awnings keep buildings off the Historic Register.
Friday, February 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:33 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

Change is only a few mouse clicks away for those who consider the cement canopies in downtown Columbia an eyesore.

Chris Davis of Peckham & Wright Architects Inc. has photographed the stretch of businesses on the south side of Broadway and will digitally remove the canopies and add trees, streetlights and canvas awnings similar to the ones adorning the buildings on Ninth Street.

After Davis is finished altering the photos, the canopy committee of the Columbia Special Business District and the district’s board of directors will review the new design. What happens after that has yet to be decided.

Future of canopies up in the air

“There isn’t any sort of plan or organized structure,” said Carrie Gartner, director of the Columbia Special Business District. “This is not on our to-do list. It’s part of a larger discussion of streetscape improvement downtown.”

The canopies were built in 1968 to boost downtown business. They were designed to give the stores a uniform look and to protect pedestrians from the hot summer sun and pigeons.

“If you walked down the street at 5 o’clock, you wouldn’t come home clean because of all the birds nesting on the overhead signs,” said Pon Chinn of Chinn and Associates, the architects who designed the canopies.

Chinn said the first idea — to erect aluminum screens — was rejected by downtown business owners. He then designed canopies made of marble and brick, which would have been more compatible with the buildings. However, city fire officials objected, fearing that the structures would not be sound enough to hold firefighters and their equipment in case of an emergency.

Chinn finally adapted his plans to make concrete structures that would be more economical and faster to build.

“When the canopies went up, none of the businesses were closed for more than four hours,” said Chinn, who recalled that the cost of erecting the canopies was $175,000.

Convenience at a cost

However, what was once a convenience has long been criticized as plain ugly. Debbie Sheals, a historic preservation consultant, has been a vocal proponent for the removal of the canopies.

“I can’t imagine a more dramatic change for downtown,” Sheals said. “I’ve lived here since I was a little kid and have never been a canopy fan.”

Lately, the canopies have been considered a barrier by some downtown property owners who want to renovate their buildings with historic tax credits from the state. The Metropolitan Building, which houses Cool Stuff, and the Miller Building, at the corner of Broadway and Eighth Street, were added to the National Historic Register after the canopy was removed.

In order to qualify for the register, all elements of a building must match the period in which it was constructed. Under the guidelines, the concrete canopies have no historical significance.

Chinn is not offended that, for years now, people have advocated the removal of his canopies.

“I really don’t care,” he said. “Time changes …. We did what we were supposed to do.”

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