For Release Friday, July 5, 2013
In the mid- and late 1960s, while many cities and towns were still tearing their hearts out for the false promises of urban renewal, all sorts of people, young and old, saw the beauty, value and promise of gracious living in historic buildings in the places left behind by suburban development. From San Francisco to Louisville to Providence to Brooklyn to St. Louis and beyond, urban pioneers stripped, cleaned and restored the irreplaceable artifacts of bygone eras of quality and taste.
Those pioneers were the vanguard of the regeneration of neighborhoods and cities that, today, many people do not remember were considered a blighted lost cause.
Washington’s Georgetown. Park Slope in Brooklyn. King William in San Antonio. The Garden District in New Orleans. The Victorian Districts of San Francisco and Savannah. Who remembers that those neighborhoods were once considered “blighted,” over, finished?
Surely, this is the most compelling storyline of the second half of the last century. The rebirth of today’s thriving cities started with the rediscovery of yesterday’s discards. That, as they say, is history. But history has a funny way of repeating itself. Today, one finds examples of that organic renewal process re-emerging.
Many cities have lost more than what remains of the authentic architecture on which to build a new momentum. Miraculously, one that survives with an amazing rich legacy to work with is St. Joseph, Mo.
Set on a bend in the Missouri River and almost equidistant from Kansas City and Omaha, St. Joseph was a railroad, lumber and banking center and, most importantly, the last full provisioning point for the Westward Expansion in the mid-19th century. It’s the birthplace of the Pony Express, the site of Jesse James’ demise, home of Stetson Hat, Saltine crackers and Aunt Jemima.
St. Joe is still home to a diverse assortment of agriculture-related industry. The past and present combine to offer new opportunities, and a small but growing group of adventurous entrepreneurs appear to be present to lead the way, like the urban pioneers of 50 years ago.
To describe the height of St. Joe’s wealth in the Gilded Age is to just begin to do it justice. Elegant remnants of that forgotten era stand in historic hilltop districts, available for a song. The occupied and unoccupied stand side by side. Eye-popping Victorian, chateau-like mansions remain, sporting highly crafted stained glass windows, carved woodwork, tiled fireplaces and more.
Downtown St. Joe has lost a lot. But what remains represents what many cities have lost: a skyline dominated by church spires and domed public buildings – city hall, county courthouse, public library. It has a wealth of red brick industrial buildings still in economic use; others await conversion to new commercial or residential functions. Still functioning are an old-line club, a YWCA, a Masonic Lodge, a spectacular 1927 Missouri Theater, a Coleman Hawkins city park with local jazz concerts and a smattering of small businesses, including restaurants.
Best of all are the energetic, committed residents and entrepreneurs dedicated to restoring the local treasures. Just like the earlier waves, those pioneers are often from out of town, the ones who see things as they can be, instead of just remembering what was lost.
An 1885 Victorian treasure brought Isobel McGowen from Denver – “grabbed me by the throat,” she says – and inspired her to open a bed and breakfast, the Shakespeare Chateau Inn & Gardens, one of several appealing hostelries anchoring historic hill neighborhoods still dominated by single-family residences.
A wise city landmark grant program helped her project. “We can be so much more than salvage value, as a treasure to see or live,” says McGowen, expressing the feeling of other committed renewers.
Vincent Daunay opened the Bad Art Bistro next door to the Missouri Theater, which throughout the year plays out of town shows. Attorney Joe Morey exhibits the city’s untapped potential in a restored mansion near the courthouse. Not surprisingly, doers like Morey and McGowen vacillate between optimism and pessimism.
St. Joe has been victimized by mansion-stripping salvage predators, low-income tax credit developers who build cheaply and leave, and real estate accumulators buying treasures to hold and then flip at some future point. A hospital moved out, to follow suburban sprawl, and now plans to build cheap-looking, out-of-character single-family homes on their vacated site while authentic, solidly built survivors stand available up the hill. The city is considering chasing the deceptive appeal of a downtown casino, a potential setback for genuine regeneration. A double-decker expressway blocks access to the riverfront.
The lessons of what not to do stand side by side with opportunities to do it right. St. Joe, like many communities today, confronts choices that will shape its new direction.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of 2010, Nation Books.
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