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Organic Renewal: St. Joe’s Story

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jul 05 2013

For Release Friday, July 5, 2013

Roberta Brandes GratzIn 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 The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Ken Wood
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    What happens to the people, usually lower income, that currently lives in the blighted neighborhoods? In Austin, Texas, “Gentrification” is taking over the area east of Interstate 35, a traditionally lower income, mixed race community. As buildings and houses are rehabbed, or torn down and replaced with something bigger and better, older residents are forced out of their homes because they cannot afford to pay the new, higher property tax. Where do they go?

  2. Cave Johnson
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    If you want a look at St Joe, see the 1973 film, Paper Moon. It is set in the depression era Kansas and Missouri and was partially filmed in downtown St Joe. One of my favorite movies.

  3. Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Roberta is a visionary and a savant. I witnessed her in just two short days taking in what is and what can be Saint Joseph, and her article eloquently summarizes our plight and our potential. Kudos!

  4. Sarah Hochschwender
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not leave out all the visionaries who have been around fighting the good fight for years who laid the bedrock for those who are currently finding some success here. People like Sue Creason who bought an historic home in a derelict neighborhood over 20 years ago when everyone thought they were Crazy, wonderful Barbara Ide, the owners of the C D Smith house who bought and lived in their home ( the oldest in the Hall district) while they faithfully restored her. The work done by my good friend PK who relentlessly stood in the way of the destruction and established local landmark districts. There are thousands to whom we newcomers all owe a debt of gratitude.