From Historical Novice to Obsessed Preservationist

Today, I have a website called ColumbiaHistoricHomes.com that has had 10,000 visitors a year. The site features dozens of pages and hundreds of entries about everything from the economics of historic preservation to black history.

Not bad for someone who only a few years ago didn’t even know what a historic building was or that the National Register of Historic Places existed.

But my greatest accomplishment came this summer when I was asked to give a program at the Columbia Public Library on our city’s hidden histories and mysteries. It drew about 50 people; I debunked a number of Columbia’s favorite historic myths by citing primary documents, shocking most of those in the audience.

DESTROYING MYTHS, USING DOCUMENTS

One of the myths was that David Guitar served in the Confederate forces while his brother Odon Guitar served in the Union Forces. People credited this family connection for the preservation from the fires of the Civil War of the antebellum Guitar mansion. But using the digitized military records of David Guitar, I showed both he and his brother served in the Union forces. Anyone can see who and where someone served during the Civil War via Missouri’s Digital Heritage.

The highlight of my summer was attending the Missouri Preservation Conference in Sedalia, an honor I secured by applying for a scholarship supported by credentials I’d earned almost by accident since 2010.

THE ACCIDENTAL HISTORIAN

I’ve come a long way since I stumbled upon Columbia’s Most Notable Properties list, a city program designed to highlight historic properties. Despite the fact that I was a reporter, I’d never heard of it, although it was 10 years old when I discovered it and there had been annual galas celebrating the annual additions of properties to the list along with extensive media coverage.

Color me clueless.

It all started in 2010.

I was working as a freelance journalist for the Columbia Business Times, a bi-weekly business magazine in Columbia, Missouri. David Reed, the editor at the time asked me to look into the Columbia’s Most Notable Properties list, following the recent gala.

A program of the Columbia City Council’s Historic Preservation Commission,

Most Notable Properties

properties named to the list must be more than 50 years old, within the city limits and have some important historic city tie so that it plays a “part in the history of architectural influences that help identify Columbia,” according to the Most Notable Properties brochure on the City of Columbia’s website.

A few calls later, I had a list of the Notable Properties, all 120 of them but I couldn’t make heads or tails out of what I had. The list included cemeteries, government buildings, a chapel and houses. So I started a website to help me keep track of the information I was collecting. Really. ColumbiaHistoricHomes.com was started as my version of an online filing system.

After creating an Excel file with all the properties on the list, organized into various categories, I called my editor back and told him, “I’ve got these lists of buildings, some are commercial, some are public and some are just houses and I don’t know what to do with them.”

I credit my editor’s reply with everything that has happened since: He said, “You’ve got some lists, we’ll create some boxes, you find some information and we’ve got a story.”

MY SKILLS: WILLINGNESS TO MAKE TELEPHONE CALLS AND ASK QUESTIONS

At this point, my main skills were my willingness as a reporter to make some calls to ask questions – and a willingness to admit to being ignorant. One of the buildings on the list was the Berry Building, a recent preservation project completed by John Ott. I asked him why he renovated the building and he explained that the brick warehouse project made sense economically — for him and for Columbia.

He told me that prior to the renovation, the building yielded the rent from four tenants. After the project, it had two dozen lessors.

“There’s no question about the economic development advantages of restoring historic buildings,” Ott said, as I quoted in in this article.

As a reporter, I double-checked the information. Could preservation be a good idea economically? A 2001 report published by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources confirmed what Ott had told me and more: historic rehabilitation provides more employment per dollar than new construction.

Everyone likes an economic success story and I did, too.

MYSTERY IS MY JAM

That was the first business preservation story I wrote, but it wasn’t the last. And as I kept reporting (calling people and asking questions), I realized that it wasn’t the history that hooked me but the mystery of it all.

While I’d been walking by the Berry Building for years, having a beer or two or three in the Blue Note and passing by dozens of historic building, I’d hadn’t a clue as to the story behind these buildings.

For example, the Berry Building was built in the 1920s as a grocery warehouse, where goods were dropped off via the railroad siding and delivered throughout Columbia via truck. The Blue Note, a downtown nightclub also on the Most Notable Properties list, had started out as the Varsity Theatre in the 1930s – one of several theatres downtown at the time.

ADDICTED TO INFORMATION

Before I knew it, it was like eating peanuts, I couldn’t stop.

In March 2010, another editor asked me to look into the J.W. “Blind” Boone house that was undergoing renovations by the City of Columbia. I learned that Boone was the offspring of a contraband slave and a Union Army bugler. His eyes were removed when he was a child in a surgical attempt to treat a fever. That part of his story was well known.

But I’d never known he was also a classical musician who also played the then popular music, ragtime – and before his 1927 death, one of the wealthiest men in Columbia. Despite being an African American during a time of rampant racism, he’d  travelled all over the country and made a fortune.

It was this kind of hidden history – Boone’s house is a half block from Broadway, Columbia’s main street — that clinched the deal and my interest in historic preservation.

I’d been walking by, driving by and even walking and driving on history for years but never knew it.

FEEDING MY HUNGER FOR HISTORY AND MYSTERY

I kept getting assignments to write about historic places and over and over, and I fell in love with the hidden history of Columbia. I wrote about the historic theatres of Columbia – who knew that businessmen used to go to the movies during the day. I wrote about a former furniture/funeral building and a former shoe factory that later became airplane propeller a sporting goods factory until today it’s a beautiful office space.

But not all of this reporting fit into the word count of my articles, so I kept adding to the website.

NOT ALL THE NEWS WAS GOOD

And not all the stories turned out to have happy endings. The Hamilton-Brown Shoe factory was our city’s first effort to lure manufacturing but as a shoe factory, it turned out to be a public health hazard, according to the 1916 Columbia Missourian coverage.

In 2014, I wrote about rock quarries and learned that Columbia had once had eight different brick manufacturers. The last one turned out 35,000 bricks a day in 1971 before it closed in 1984. Now its former kilns are under one of Columbia’s discount stores but the bricks and the output of all our quarries and brickworks are still visible when you drive throughout Columbia and see the brick stores downtown and the White Campus of the University of Missouri.

I also learned frightening information. While collecting historic information on quarries, I found out that quarries weren’t regulated until the 1970s, so there may be a filled-in quarry just about anywhere.

That’s when I became obsessed with hidden history.

LEARNING ALONG THE WAY

As I continued to write about historic buildings, I had to learn a lot.

For example, for one piece I had to learn how to trace deeds and property records using the Boone County Assessor’s records. There I debunked a myth about a beloved historic home on West Boulevard, which is often called the Hansel and Gretel house.

hansel and gretel house
Hansel and Gretel House

While everyone believed and published accounts stated it had been built from oaks on the property cut down by Arch McHarg, the deeds and property records showed the house was built before McHarg bought it — but it really does indeed have a log cabin inside it! I also learned that the unique string-pull lock on the front door did not hail from those long ago, once frontier home days, but from a fanciful owner who thought it would be funny to add a string-drawn latch.

I learned through research that appearances can be deceiving. Who would think a formidable stone, Foursquare house had been moved across the street. Turns out that the two-story home at 2000 S. Country Club Drive was moved across the road in 1924 so its builder, Berry McAlester, the son of the founder of MU’s Medical School, could have the view he preferred for a better and bigger house – with a ballroom on the third floor.

ASKING FOR HELP WORKS

Along the way, I got to know scores of great people and organizations including Missouri Preservation, the state Historic Preservation Office, the Missouri State Historical Society, the MU Archives, the Boone County Historical Society and scores of others.  I learned how to use various tools through classes at the Columbia Library and getting to know people who know so much more than I do like Deb Sheals.

I’m a geeky sort, so once I found the National Register of Historic Places documents, I was smitten. The documents are so much more than dates and dull facts. The narratives, lists and maps area are like taking a walk through history.

For example, documents on areas like Downtown Broadway tell about businesses that once buzzed in our downtown buildings. Who knew that the flattop haircut was invented in 1942 in the Tiger Barbershop, which is still there. Or that Columbia’s Chamber of Commerce got its start in the Virginia Building, now the Atkins Centre? Or that there are buildings downtown that are now one story, but were once three stories – and some that were one story and are now three story buildings? Or an 1870’s building has prism glass designed to multiply existing light.

Of course, not all the news is good. Did you know it’s impossible to correct a mistake in a NRHP document? For example, the NRHP document about the David Guitar home erroneously concludes he served in the Confederate forces, although it states he was in the Enrolled Missouri Militia. Factual errors like that make me itch!

But my obsession with historic preservation has also given me so many gifts.

Along the way, I got involved with Missouri Preservation, the National Trust for Preservation, a national nonprofit, and local organizations. I recently became a volunteer on the Mayor’s Task Force on the Bicentennial Celebration, or CoMo200, which will help plan three years of festivities to mark the founding of Columbia, Missouri.

I also have new ambitions:  I want write a book about the history of Columbia describing the little known hidden history while debunking the myths that have grown up with the city.

But for now, I’m going to keep adding to my website. Who knows? Maybe all those pages and posts could make up a nice book about Columbia’s history.

Not bad for someone who didn’t even know what a Most Notable Property was eight years ago!

Journalist. Teacher. Traveler. I’m still driven to find that one last surprising detail, fact or figure, whether it’s about frozen food packaging or the history of Columbia, Missouri. I reveal the hidden history, myths and mysteries of CoMo at columbiahistorichomes.com. In 2017, I published a book I wrote with Charles W. Gehrke about his life as an analyst of the moon rocks from the Apollo missions and his founding of ABC Labs, now Eurofins, a global firm. Read more at melonfields.com

http://columbiahistorichomes.com/ also on Facebook as ComoHistoricPlaces

 

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