Once called ‘modern,’ this mule barn is now a slice of Columbia's history

Sunday, August 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:17 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Denny Walkup works on the windows facing Fay Street at the Wright Brothers mule barn building.

Columbia - More than 80 years ago, the Wright Brothers’ mule barn was recognized for how modern it was. Now it’s being recognized for its rich history.

The Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation evaluated the building Friday for potential placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Members voted unanimously to recommend the listing. As mid-Missouri’s leading mule facility back in the 1920s, the barn was able to hold 300 visiting mules and included modern conveniences like electric lights and running water.

Quotes from history

With the completion of a new $30,000 mule barn, Columbia will be a determined bidder for the capital of the greatest mule district in the Middle West. — Excerpt from Missourian article on Aug. 2, 1920 L.W. Wright is a firm believer in the destiny of the mule. “He is far from becoming a curiosity,” he said. “Tractors have filled an important place but not the place of the mule. ... This much is certain, you can’t make a corn crop, a cotton crop or have a war without mules.” — Excerpt from Missourian article on Aug. 2, 1920

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With the council’s approval, the application will move on to the national office, where the keeper of the National Register will have 45 days to evaluate it. Tiffany Patterson, National Register coordinator for Missouri, said it’s rare that properties recommended by the state council are rejected.

“Usually if they make it through our office and advance to the keeper, then they are listed,” Patterson said. “Sometimes they return it because they want more documentation or more information about the site.”

Brian Pape, a local architect and preservationist, owns the building at 1101-1107 Hinkson Avenue, which most recently housed the Diggs meat packing plant. When Pape bought the property in January 2006, he didn’t know how deep its ties were to Columbia’s economy. There was one line in a write-up about the property that sent him digging.

“I looked into it a little more, and I found out that it was a mule barn, one of the best in the state,” Pape said. “It was a really big deal in those days. It changed a lot of things as far as the history.”

L.W. and B.C. Wright, the two brothers who built the barn, were deeply immersed in the mule industry, buying the animals in north Missouri and Iowa then shipping them primarily south and east, according to the Missourian article. Pape said the Wright Brothers probably were drawn to what was then Hollis Street because of its prime location next to the Wabash Railroad. Pape, however, was drawn to the building’s roots.

“There were different agricultural things besides just farming,” Pape said. “That’s what spurred Columbia’s economy. It makes this building rare even though it’s humble. It’s the last of its kind, so I had to save it.”

Patterson agreed.

“The nice thing about the National Register is that it’s not just the houses of the rich and famous,” she said. “It’s all aspects of our lives: gas stations, mule barns, houses. It tells the story of who we are as Missourians, and mules are just one aspect of who we are.”

In the early 1900s the mule became synonymous with Missouri because of the state’s reputation for quality in raising the animal, according to Melvin Bradley’s book “The Missouri Mule: His Origin and Times.” Its significance was short-lived, however, because mules became obsolete as tractors became more affordable. As that happened, the brothers tried to find new uses for the building.

Now, Pape is the one seeking a new purpose for the structure. Leaving its agricultural legacy behind, he is converting the space into apartments, studio space for local artists, retail shops and business offices. The project is expected to cost a total of $2.5 million.

Pape said he applied for National Register status because it offers tax incentives. Without the 20 percent investment tax credit, he said, he would have been forced to alter his plans for the building.

“There’s status, and it’s nice to be listed, but there is no protection for the building in being listed,” Pape said. “In practical terms, tax credits make it more feasible to do this work for old buildings.”

Patterson agreed that the primary benefits to being added to the National Register are for property owners, but she said the community benefits as well.

“The direct benefits are to the owners of the property, but if they reinvest it into the property there is a real community aspect,” Patterson said. “I think particularly when a building is out of use ­— I think this one was even missing a wall — if you can get recognition, rehabilitate the building ... then it is a benefit to the community as a whole.”

Pape said the Wright Brothers Barn is more than just a place to live and work; it adds context to the community.

“I’ve found that without history a community is just a collection of buildings, a place where people work and live,” Pape said. “Without a history, it’s all kind of void of meaning. History gives meaning to a place.”

This philosophy led him to buy the property and restore it so that Columbia would have it for years to come, Pape said.

“I was struck by the fact that it was an unusual building for Columbia and that it needed to be preserved,” Pape said. “It wasn’t going to last long. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew it needed to be saved.”

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