Standing on E. Capitol Avenue, the tip of the Capitol dome glistens in the western sky and to the east the towers of the Missouri State Penitentiary, MSP, are visible.
A significant east-west artery for the city, Capitol Avenue serves as a connector between these two historic landmarks and to the past itself. Like the deep roots of the plentiful trees that frame parts of the street, the grand two-story brick homes on E. Capitol reflect a unique area of the city at the turn of the century and the prominent citizens who served and shaped the community.
Nine homes in the Missouri State Capitol Avenue Historic District are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and they represent a variety of architectural styles, including Queen Anne, Spanish Revival, Second Empire and Craftsman, and were designed by famous architects such as Charles Opel and Fred Bell.
A shining symbol of historic preservation in action, several of the homes have been restored and renovated while others, including 19 owned by Barbara Buescher, have been abandoned and neglected. One of those untapped gems is Ivy Terrace. Once home to the 29th Missouri Governor Lawrence “Lon” Vest Stephens (1897-1901), the distinctive home sits empty and seemingly doomed as Buescher has hung on to the buildings even while regularly cited and fined by the city for numerous code violations.
While it’s often seemed like an uphill battle, and the neighborhood has been plagued by years of inaction on these eyesore properties, Mayor Carrie Tergin sees the fortunes of the area turning.
“Capitol Avenue is the thread of the fabric of our community,” said Tergin, who realized her first year in office in April. “One by one these brave members of the community are bringing these homes back to life despite the blight that they see around them.”
The newly released blight study funded by the Housing Authority of the City of Jefferson will offer a legal precedent to reclaim the abandoned and boarded up properties, good news to many of the business owners and residents who invested in the area decades ago and have been waiting…and waiting to see progress in the area. While the property rights of Buescher are not taken lightly, the property values of the people who’ve invested in the neighborhood are being threatened.
Steve Veile moved his public relations agency Communique into the Ephriam B. Ewing house in 1983 and the company purchased it four years later. The Vernacular Victorian brick with Italianate features was built with prison labor in 1873 by W.C. Young, one of the original contractors of the State Capitol.
“I’ve been coming here to work everyday for the past 33 years and I love walking through the doors,” said Veile, who served three terms with the Jefferson City Council and was chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission in 2000 and 2001.
He along with other property owners there have banded together to form the Capitol Avenue Landmark League to promote the area and communicate their concerns to the city.
“Our inspiration came from the Old Munichberg group that was created to deal with their issues,” Veile said. “We meet about four times a year with our elected officials, the mayor and city council to share our concerns with them and to find out what the city is planning for the infrastructure and dealing with other housing problems.”
“Those of us that own property here see what this area can and will be and we have the people, the vision and resources and are going to hang in there to help turn this area around,” said Veile. “It will be like turning the lights on in a dark building.”
Frank and Carol Burkhead bought the Dallmeyer home at 600 E. Capitol Ave., in 2004 from the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and renovated the building for their accounting and wealth management businesses. They were also instrumental in assisting Jane Beetum, a heritage development consultant, who submitted the paperwork for designating the Capitol Avenue Historic District, predominantly a residential area situated between Adams and Cherry Streets, and also comprising blocks of Jackson, Lafayette and Marshall Streets.
“I call us the laid-back High Street,” Burkhead said. “I believe if you build it they will come and we definitely want to see this causeway from the Capitol to the prison become a live, work, eat and play district.”
Long a popular walking spot for state employees in the downtown area, Burkhead envisions coffee shops and other retail locating along the avenue that would also benefit the other businesses, home owners and renters.
Holly and Nathan Stitt of Stitt Barcony purchased and renovated the properties at 619-623 E. Capitol Ave., home of Avenue HQ. President Quentin Rice, a local businessman, musician and part of Murphy’s Ford and The Cherry Pistols, has booked several well-attended comedy shows this year in the 3,000 square foot event space. Scene One, the black box theater company, moved into a the building and will benefit in terms of increased ticket sales and more visibility from a larger space for performances. The Bridge, an intimate music concert venue currently located in Columbia, is moving into the building this fall.
“Jefferson City is my hometown,” said Bridge owner Wes Wingate. “I feel like we are helping to fill a niche that the town needed and the progress and development in the Capital City is very encouraging.”
“It was nice to meet the people behind Avenue HQ who have a vested interest in developing the art and entertainment culture in the community,” he said.
Avenue HQ and Stitt’s software programming company, Argosity, moved their offices into the historic Dix Apartment building, which had been vacant for 15 years.
“We needed a building but we also felt like being so close to the capitol that this was a great location, and that something was going to happen here,” said Nathan. “We’re still working on painting, replacing plumbing and updating but we’re very excited about what’s going on in our buildings and for the community.”
The Mission and Prison Brews continue to draw traffic on E. High and Johnny Graham of Revel Catering on High Street in the Old Opera House building is expanding to the old Blackwell Garage building. O’Donoghue’s Steaks and Seafood was one of the first restaurants opened on the east side of High Street in the 1895 Kaullen Mercantile Company building on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Juanita and Sam Donehue were trailblazers,” said Cathy Bordner, who with her husband, Dave, own a home at 718 E. Capitol Ave. “Everyone told her it was a huge risk as it was definitely not the greatest area then, but she did it and they’re still in business.”
The Bordners bought their 1920s home at an auction in 2001, when the prison was still open. In her research, Cathy found that past owners of the house included a Supreme Court librarian, a lawyer, publisher, a car salesman and factory foreman. The previous owner had made it into four apartments, but the couple gutted it and restored the original woodwork and hardwood floors and turned it into office spaces. Non-profits like the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and Home Health operated from there over the years.
“We had four different tenants here during a nine year period, but then when the economy tanked we had trouble finding renters,” Bordner said.
The Bordners decided to sell their home on Fairmount Boulevard and earlier this year they moved into the house themselves and have added a kitchen downstairs and made other renovations.
The Bordners love living in the house and when they sit on their porch their view across the street is the prison walls, which remains top of mind for them. They sat on their porch and listened to Travis Tritt performing at the “Inside the Walls Outlaw Country Concert” on the upper yard of the MSP during the Salute to America event. Despite the heavy rains, more than 2,000 people attended the concert, probably the most activity there on one night since it closed in 2004.
As heritage tourism is hot right now, the MSP, the oldest state prison west of the Mississippi, is definitely a major part of marketing Jefferson City. The history and paranormal tours offered by the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, CVB, have been popular attractions. Several television crews have shot episodes for various reality shows at the MSP, too.
According to CVB Executive Director, Diane Gillespie, by the end of this year the MSP tours are on track to record close to 28,000 to 30,000 visitors.
“With our variety of tours, the MSP has made us an overnight destination and once the visitors come into the community, whether by car, motor coach or train, they see how much we have to offer,” she said.”
“Jefferson City is unique in that we are a river town with a historic and beautiful Capitol and a decommissioned prison,” Gillespie said.
The CVB and the MSP Museum moved to the Marmaduke House, built in 1888 and named for the first prison warden to live there, in May, a move that seems destined.
Jeff Schaeperkoetter, who served in the General Assembly between 1981 to 1992 purchased the 8,800 square foot home in November of 2013 that had been the law offices of Andereck, Evans, Widger, Johnson and Lewis at one time. An investment for Schaeperkoetter, there’s a permanent covenant attached to the sale intended to preserve the building’s history and allow public access.
“One day I was tending to the yard and a couple came by taking photos. It was a teacher and her fiancé from Montreal, Canada doing a tour of American prisons and they wanted to see inside the house, too,” he said.
“When we bought the house we had no idea what was going to happen with the prison, which was a wild card really,” he said “We are encouraged by recent developments. My wife Jane and I see ourselves as caretakers of this house and I love being able to show this place off,” he said.
Gillespie walked through the house when it was up for auction. “I walked into the basement and thought this is exactly where the museum needs to be. It was all I could think about,” she said. “Now we’re here and looking at it from a visitor’s standpoint, it’s much more interesting to walk into a historic home versus an office building.”
She reports that in July alone museum attendance equaled 1,443 people, with 2,712 from May-July. Instead of buying tickets in the old location on High Street near the Capitol, now visitors benefit from the proximity of the MSP Museum in the basement across the street from the MSP, a “living” museum of sorts that can be experienced simply by driving by, or certainly by stopping near it or taking the tour.
“The CVB has become another anchor in the redevelopment of this area that’s only 8/10ths of a mile from the Capitol,” said Gillespie. “Capitol Avenue is part of the history of Missouri and the entire country. We must preserve that history and share it with younger generations so it’s not lost.”
“That’s what makes the tours so special because the majority of our guides have either worked at the prison or written books about it and have a lot of stories to share,” she said.
It’s hoped that further development of the MSP will also spur improvements on Capitol Avenue, on past the prison. Once, the neighborhood contained several factories but the state demolished most of them in recent years, except for the Tweedie Footwear Corporation.
Many of the city’s treasures have been torn down in the name of urban renewal. While the historic Jefferson City Community Center is still there and tennis courts were built later in the area known as the Historic Foot District, the segregation-era community of many black-owned business’s including restaurants, barber/beauty shops, grocery stores and social centers are gone. All that’s left of the rich history is a commemorative plaque.
Tearing down the city’s treasures is always the last resort for historic preservation and Jefferson City being the capitol of the state is more in the spotlight.
“We are the capitol of Missouri and we do have a responsibility to showcase Jefferson City and all of it’s strengths, to foster more attention on this area so all of us can be proud of it,” said Bordner.
“We make a first impression when people come to town to take the prison tours or visit the MSP museum,” she said. “When we were trying to sell our house a couple came by from Columbia and asked what was going on with all of the boarded up buildings. It makes the town look bad.”
“The decay is part of the ambiance of the neighborhood and it’s shameful to allow that to happen,” she said. “We can no longer sweep this issue under the rug.”
They believe they’ve found a champion in Tergin. She is optimistic and seems willing to lead the movement underway to take the area back and capitalize on the potential of the area. The Whitton Expressway interchange at Lafayette Street should be completed in the fall and will allow easy access to the MSP development site.
The blight study has been present to the City Council and to the public and in the coming months a plan will be deeloped with options including condemnation, where the city would purchase the abandoned homes for fair market value and sell them to individuals who want to restore them.
“If you had told me that we’d have a concert at the prison a lot of people wouldn’t have believed it, Tergin said. “The progress we’ve made in just a year is so promising. We definitely have our foot in the door.”
“It is so important to preserve the last 180 years and change the face of our community for the next century,” she said. “We are all joining together to make this whole area come alive again.”
“For the first time in a long time we have the opportunity to re-energize the area and bring this area back to its former glory.”
The next Capitol Avenue Historic District Tour will be held on Sunday, September 25. Advance tickets are $12 and can be purchased at Samuel’s Tuxedos, Carrie’s Hallmark, Busch’s Florist, Schulte’s IGA and Hy-Vee. Tickets are $15 the day of and are available at 601 E Capitol Avenue. For more information contact Mary Ann Hall at (573) 635-8512 or Jenny Smith at (573) 230-8245.