Blue-collar Past,White-collar Future

Renovation of the former Hamilton-Brown shoe factory aims to preserve its design and details
Wednesday, December 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:09 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

For almost 100 years, an aging 3½ -story building has towered above the corner at Wilkes Boulevard and Fay Street. In faded letters painted over its yellow brick, the words “Hamilton Brown Columbia Factory” label the structure’s place in Columbia history since 1907.

Soon, thanks to a federal grant and the optimism of its owners, the building will be remodeled so it can be useful to the community for another hundred years.

The Hamilton-Brown building, known today as the Atkins building, is owned by Tom and Scott Atkins. It is now an office center, but uses of the structure have been as varied as the service of its unreliable old freight elevator.

The building was originally built in cooperation with the Columbia Commercial Club as a shoe factory for Hamilton-Brown Shoe Co., which at the beginning of the 20th century was the largest shoe manufacturer in the world. The Columbia factory was the first Hamilton-Brown facility outside St. Louis, and the company used the location at 1123 Wilkes Blvd. until 1939.

At one point, the building was home to a combat boot factory, and during World War II, it was a production site for wooden propellers. Tiny imperfections that sewing machines left in the original, dusty hardwood floors are testament to its time as a garment factory.

But the Atkins building is beginning to show signs of age. Its 240 windows — surrounded by rotting frames — are brown and discolored, peering like dark eyes through a weatherworn skin of peeling paint. The building looms, abandoned and out of place next to new businesses with brightly colored signs on one side and old but well-loved houses tucked between small gardens and painted gates on the other.

The Atkins family, which has owned the building for about 25 years and has offices there, decided to embark on a long, costly process of renovation. “We want to preserve the building and get it back to a viable status,” Scott Atkins said. He wouldn’t comment on the estimated cost of the work.

Fortunately, in 2002 the building was added to a list of nearly 82,000 sites, buildings and objects on the National Register of Historic Places. This means that it is considered a cultural resource that should be preserved by the government and that the remodeling will be financed in part by federal and state tax credits for historic preservation. The repairs must meet standards designed to prevent damage to the building’s historical character.

Atkins likened the building to a piece of “antique furniture.”

“We want to preserve the building and get it back to a viable status,” he said.

Debbie Sheals, a historic preservationist, said the renovation will be good for the north-central Columbia neighborhood.

“These projects tend to be big, and it will make a lot of difference,” Sheals said. “Upgrading everything always helps the neighborhood.”

Sheals said the Atkins building is unique to the city because Columbia didn’t attract the as many assembly-line factories as St. Louis and Kansas City.

Linda Rootes, vice president of the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, said that the building gives Columbia a unique opportunity to create a factory loft and that the neighborhood supports the plan.

“It may be the only factory loft in Columbia,” Rootes said. “Other cities have many of these, but this is really our only opportunity.”

Factory lofts are composed of open offices that benefit from the natural light from the windows and large rooms. The idea is to create an office environment for professionals that incorporates the building’s historical charm.

Remodeling will begin from the top floor down once work permits are issued, and the work is expected to take five years. The outside of the building will be repaired to match its 1907 appearance. On the inside, workers will build an elevator and stairwell, fix electrical and mechanical problems and clean the floors, ceilings and interior brick.

“The interior is going to be great,” Sheals said. “It’s going to be wood floors and exposed brick. It’s not going to be highly finished.”

Additional work will be done upon the tenants’ requests. Two engineering firms have already agreed to occupy the top story.

The east side of the north-central neighborhood is zoned for heavy industrial production. In addition to several warehouses, the area features a mix of private residences and small businesses. “We hope to have some design firms, including architecture and engineering,” Rootes said. “We also hope to have new graphic technology like sculptors and glass blowers in the area.”

The Hamilton-Brown building is not the Atkins family’s first historic renovation. They also remodeled the Strollway Centre into the Atkins City Centre in 2000 and are working on the Matthews and Miller buildings on Broadway.

“It’s just a really neat building,” Atkins said of the Hamilton-Brown factory. “It has a tremendous feel of history.”

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