Glenn McElroy remembers gazing up as a child at the towering ceilings of what used to be the post office on Cherry Street.
“The ceilings were huge; to a little kid they look huge. It was a big open lobby,” said McElroy, vice president of the Health Adventure Center board, of what was most recently known as the Federal Building. “It was just beautiful.”
The building has had numerous uses in nearly seven decades of existence. It became the Federal Building after housing the post office for years, then was left vacant a few years ago.
Since September 2003, however, the structure has belonged to community leaders focused on creating the Health Adventure Center, which will feature interactive health-education exhibits.
Crews recently began the first phase of reconstruction on the building, which will include demolition inside and renovation outside. The work represents the first structural step toward bringing the center to the heart of Columbia.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time, and it’s extremely exciting to be starting the interior work to restore the Federal Building to its original high ceiling and open grandeur,” McElroy said.
The idea of a Health Adventure Center isn’t new. It’s been floating around since the 1990s.
“It’s sort of an overnight success after a lot of hard work went into it,” McElroy said. “There are a lot of people in town who put thousands of hours into making this a reality. It’s going to be worth every minute once we get it done.”
The Boone County Medical Society Alliance first took the concept of a Health Adventure Center to the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, which liked the idea so much that it brought the public into the discussion.
A task force that eventually became the Health Adventure Center board did a feasibility study, determining that the biggest impediment was finding the right location. Building a center from scratch would have cost an extra $4 million to $5 million.
Then the U.S. government decided it could no longer use the Federal Building,and nonprofit organizations were allowed to submit proposals for acquiring it. The Health Adventure Center and Columbia Public Schools were the leading candidates.
School officials wanted the building for administrative offices. But former Superintendent Jim Ritter said a clear community appeal from local government, downtown merchants, community members and medical experts caused them to defer to the Health Adventure Center.
“As a result of such strong community interest, the board of education and I decided that we’d withdraw our application,” Ritter said.
If the school district hadn’t withdrawn, the Health Adventure Center would have been forced to pay the government $700,000 for the building if it was chosen as the winning applicant.
“By us withdrawing and the others not really qualifying, the Health Adventure Center received the building for no charge whatsoever,” Ritter said.
After retiring as superintendent, Ritter agreed to become president of the Health Adventure Center board. Several others joined the group, including new Superintendent Phyllis Chase, Boone Hospital Center President Michael Shirk, businessman John Ott and Columbia Daily Tribune general manager Jack Waters.
Ritter said he joined the board because he supports the center’s purpose: promoting health and education, “which is exactly what this community stands for,” he said. “We’re certainly considered an education community, and we are the health center probably of this state — but certainly in this area.”
Exhibits for the center are in the developmental stages.
“An example of that might be, we may have a heart, and it’s interactive, so kids would walk through, and they’d see parts of the heart,” Ritter said. “But there would also be a video available that would be for whatever age group you are.”
Tentative plans call for exhibits on the body, the mind, healthy relationships, the immune system and health emergencies. Some of them will require that the inside of the Federal Building be ripped apart.
“When the Federal Building took over for the post office, they lowered ceilings, built a lot of walls and put a lot of offices in there,” Rittersaid. “All of that has to come out, and so is the ceiling.”
Ott, fund-raising chairman for the project, said the old interior is best anyway.
“The building was intended to be a spacious, open, high-ceiling interior structure,” Ott said. “And because of its design for that, it certainly suits our purpose for an interactive science center focused on health.”
Ritter said the first phase of the project should be done within four months.
Although about $5.3 million has been donated to the project, Ritter said another $1.8 million is needed.The plan is to start a community fund-raising drive this spring. “We hope to go to the community and say, ‘We’ve raised this amount of dollars. We just need this amount to finish it all up,’” he said.
Meanwhile, the board is inviting large donations from the medical and business community.
“We’re in the last third of our major gift campaign, which is always the hardest part,” Ott said.
Center architects hope their project not only revitalizes a historic building and quenches the public’s thirst for health education but also acts as an economic stimulus.
“For people who know downtown well, that particular block has been a dead zone for some time,” Ott said. “What a shame that is, because the Federal Building is a beautiful, well-constructed building.”
A study done by Geheke and Associates projects 50,000 visitors a year to the center. When they come, they’ll spend money. “It’s a strong economic opportunity for Boone County and the region,” Ott said.
With the Museum of Art and Archeology contemplating a move downtown, the Blind Boone Home under renovation and attractions such as the Missouri Theatre and Flat Branch Park already available, Ott said the gains are stacking up.
“When all those parts come together,” he said, “it’s a very attractive whole.”