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Caring for the Past: Concern for historic structures drives preservationists

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When Springfield Business Journal readers learned a historic building was in line to be razed, social media comments came pouring in.

The empty building that housed the former National Art Shop at the intersection of National Avenue and Elm Street will soon make way for the distinctive, retro design of another Springfield original, Andy’s Frozen Custard. But locals have memories of grocery shopping at the Brigance Food Lane market, which operated 1951-85. Before that, the building was a Kroger grocery store, and before that, starting in the early 1930s, it housed two businesses: Model Market No. 6, also a grocer, and J.P. Cantrell Oil Co.’s Skelly filling station. Throughout its history, additions have been made, and an observant viewer can see signs of these on the side of the structure facing National Avenue.

National Art Shop opened at the site in 1986, according to local historian Richard Crabtree.

Reader Kristen Hurst-Dyche posted on Facebook, “Very sad to hear of the demolition of this iconic building,” and Sarah Smith wrote, “You would think they could save the building because it’s already unique-/retro.”

It’s an impulse Kaitlyn McConnell understands, as a historian and chair of the city’s Landmarks Board.

“Historic preservation is really important because it adds character to a place,” she said. “You think about cities with vibrant historic districts, and it draws people to them.”

McConnell points to areas in Springfield with historic buildings intact: Commercial Street, with the buildings that once served the railroad and its passengers, or the downtown square, towered over by Heer’s Luxury Living, the onetime shopping center that now is an apartment building.

“That’s one that was saved and that actually managed to become part of our future,” she said. “We get to enjoy it, and so do the people that live inside.”

Historic preservation can’t be about saving everything merely because it’s old, McConnell said. “I know we can’t save every building – there’s no reason to save every building,” she said.

What McConnell would like to see is thoughtfulness in the approach to historic structures.

“Doing things in a very thoughtful way is important,” she said. “It’s about being mindful about future generations and not taking something away that they would be sad about and that they could enjoy.”

Architecturally, the National Art Shop building is a mostly windowless block structure. But above the facade, braces holding up the individual letters of the word “NATIONAL” (a sign that at one time spelled “BRIGANCE”) – those seem special, some Facebook commenters noted, as they are reminiscent of the era of a space race in a futuristic style.

Andy’s CEO Andy Kuntz shares a sense of nostalgia about the spot.

“We realize it’s pretty special,” he told SBJ, noting a marker of some kind would likely be installed to memorialize the history of the corner.

Mixed results
Crabtree has a specialized view of preservation. As a real estate agent, he said the main rule of thumb is to ask what is the greatest good a property can bring.

“That depends on who you ask,” he said.

It’s the kind of thinking that might argue for bulldozing Phelps Grove Park and turning it into high-rises for college students, he said. But a preservationist mindset sees the stone bridges, walls and shelters built by the Works Progress Administration, and it would be impossible to ignore the people enjoying strolls, yoga or hammocks throughout the grounds.

Crabtree understands why the National Art Shop building is not a candidate for preservation; not everything is. But he knows Springfield has lost some treasures, most notably the Frisco Passenger Station, a stately Spanish mission structure that was located at North Main Avenue and West Mill Street.

Attached to the station was the Harvey House restaurant.

“People would go down there just to meet people, hang out and watch the trains go in,” he said. “Sundays, a lot of people after church would sit and have fried chicken and watch people. It wasn’t a super fancy place, but it was always good, and you were treated nice.”

When passenger service ended in 1967, there was plenty of debate about the future of the station. Should it be a restaurant or a mini mall, should the city take it on, or should the railroad sell it to another buyer?

As preservationists, developers and city and railroad officials debated, the building went into decline, and in 1977, Frisco officials demolished it.

Crabtree sees beautiful rail stations that carry on, post rail travel, as a place of pride in other cities, like St. Louis. They just don’t build them like that anymore, he said, either in terms of materials or craftsmanship.

But there are stories of successful preservation, too, he noted. Like McConnell, he singles out the Heer’s building, which stood empty and endangered for many years.

“The only reason it survived was it was built so well, even with the windows broken out and rain pouring in,” he said.

There are also the historic Gillioz and Fox theaters downtown. Crabtree thinks, too, of the work happening at the Ozark Mill at Finley Farms.

“Thank God we’ve got people like Johnny Morris, willing to move a mill off its foundation, rebuild the foundation and move it back,” he said.

Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, is a noted preservationist, with other historic buildings in use at Big Cedar Lodge.

“For some people to say it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done, it’s too expensive, I just don’t buy that,” he said. “If you’re going to do the investment, the people of Springfield will support you.”

Developing history
Jason Murray specializes in urban redevelopment, with projects like the Bailey School Lofts and Union Biscuit Lofts – contemporary loft apartments built in a school and a biscuit factory.

“I love to take an old building that’s past its use and been abandoned for years and breathe new life into it,” he said. “Economically, people just can’t build buildings like they used to.”

Most of Murray’s projects are buildings that were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Standards are very strict, Murray said.

“If we don’t meet standards with renovation, we don’t get the tax credits,” he said.

He said he doesn’t know the perfect answer when it comes to the question of what historic structures to preserve.

“Those are definitely tough decisions and tough conversations for property owners and the community,” he said.

But he has a soft spot for buildings with exposed interior brick, high ceilings and big windows.

“That’s what I love,” he said. “There are plenty of new apartments; all of them are somewhat similar. Historic structures offer a character and an ambiance that you can’t recreate.

“I mean, 100 years of history, refurbished into modern loft apartments or condos – who wouldn’t want to live there?”

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