Renovating downtown

Building owners look to the past for inspiration
Monday, July 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:59 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A walk in Columbia’s historical Downtown District reveals buildings with styles ranging from art-deco to classic brick facades, pre-Civil War to modern glass simplicity. While each building has its own history, together they create Columbia’s Downtown District.

“It’s literally the heart of Columbia,” says Arnie Fagan of the buildings that create downtown.

Fagan is the owner of Cool Stuff, a downtown shop on Broadway in what used to be J.J. Newberry’s Five and Dime store.

“It was a five-and-dime, much like Cool Stuff is now,” he says. Cool Stuff is about to celebrate its 11th anniversary in its current location, and he says that the combination of pedestrian and vehicle traffic along with the people who live or work downtown provides a lively customer base.

Rob Tucker of Tucker’s Fine Jewelers agrees that downtown is usually the center of any major city.

“I think there’s a positive stigma that when you want nice things, you go into the city,” Tucker says. “Whether it’s Chicago, New York, St. Louis or Columbia, you go downtown into the city.”

Although Tucker’s Fine Jewelers has only been downtown since 1996, the building dates to 1888 when Miller Boot and Shoe Co. occupied the building built by the Miller family. Most of the original work on the building is still intact, including the metal work, brick exterior and press-tin stampings, but the wooden storefront was torn down when Knight’s Drug Store took over the shoe company in the 1930s. Tucker refurbished the building in 1996 to resemble the original store by looking at photographs that had been saved through the years.

Columbia’s oldest commercial building dates before the Civil War and is currently Teller’s Gallery and Bar on Broadway. Originally a dry goods store, the building was completed when the façade was added in the 1920s, says Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Columbia Special Business District.

“We’re not just a bunch of cookie cutters down here,” Fagan says about the stories behind the buildings. “We have a sense of history just walking by the buildings.”

A historical rehabilitation project is under way to refurbish some of the old downtown buildings to their original architecture. Fagan said that during the past 125 years the buildings have been cut up in different ways and now the goal of the rehabilitation is to put them back together. Apartments will probably be added to the second and third floods of buildings lining Broadway and surrounding streets.

“Overall, it’s just common sense to restore the buildings to how they were originally designed,” Fagan says.

In addition to the rehabilitation project, The Columbia Special Business District and the Central Columbia Association are working to beautify downtown by adding new benches, trash cans and bicycle racks.

“You look at the other cities where the downtown is empty and the city becomes like a doughnut around it,” Gartner says. “People find it refreshing to find eclectic and funky older buildings with great architecture.”

Lorah Steiner of the Convention and Visitors Bureau says that projects such as the Eighth Street beautification, Missouri Theatre renovation and expansion, and possibly a water feature in Flat Branch Park are part of a plan for a renaissance that will change the look of downtown.

While other parts of the city are trying to bring the architectural style of downtown to new stores and strip malls, Tucker says that some things from older buildings cannot be replicated.

“It doesn’t have the same feel, it doesn’t have the same smell,” Tucker says.

Trying to maintain the history of downtown while renovating the buildings might seem like a tough project, but Fagan says it feels like it’s important to the city to remember its past.

“Architecturally, it’s just fascinating,” he says. “They work together to create a sense of place,” he says.

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