Keeping History Alive

When I drive down the streets of Jefferson City, I can’t help but find myself rubbernecking at what I see. The beauty of the architecture and noticeable history are something that make this city unique. Jefferson City has 44 properties and districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This distinction came to be because of the efforts of countless residents to preserve its history. Historic preservation is an effort that unless continued by every consecutive generation, is futile.

Jefferson City has one Local Historic District, also known as the School Street Historic District, which is recognized for its black history. Once known as “The Foot,” this 28-parcel lot grew from the 1860s as a vibrant community with schools, grocery stores, beauty shops, dry cleaners, community pool and filling stations. In 1871, Lincoln University built the first permanent building of its current campus. The black community expanded around The Foot, which continued to serve blacks during a time of segregation. However, the majority of the homes and businesses were claimed in the 1960s due to a federal urban renewal program.

Today, the School Street Historic District is officially established and encompasses 27 buildings from East Dunklin to Miller Street. The designation was obtained after receiving signatures from 75% of the property owners in the proposed district. In signing the statement, property owners agree to abide by design guidelines that will help preserve the original characteristics of the area. Along with the City of Jefferson, groups such as Friends of Lafayette Street and The Historic Foot District are working to bring economic development to the area.

Unlike the Historic District, there are areas that are worthy of preservation but lack sufficient historical, architectural or cultural significance to qualify as historic areas. The Lower Conservation District was created by the neighborhood who had just faced the demolition approval of the Sam Cook Mansion and were further facing the demolition of a 1930’s English Revival home to make way for an apartment complex. Founder of the district, Laura Ward explains, “Our intent was to protect the architectural character of the neighborhood by creating a district which would require all exterior renovations and additions of existing structures not to detract from its original historic character.”

The district is a collection of mostly intact late 19th and early 20th century single-family residences and duplexes located on West Main Street along the southern bluff overlooking the Missouri River. The homes consist of 4 different architectural styles: American Folk Victorian, Bungalow, American Foursquare and Picturesque Revival styles. Conservation districts also have rules in place that protect mature trees from demolition.

The second conservation district is more well known, as this stretch has uninterrupted views of the Capitol Building. Capitol Avenue Conservation Overlay District encompasses 107 parcels and stretches over 32 acres from Adams Street to Chestnut Street. Jane Beetem, Historic City of Jefferson board member reflects, “After many years of neglect, primarily by a small group of property owners, the city partnered with the Housing Authority to address the blighted neighborhood.” They had a consultant conduct a blight study which said the area was “blighted.” Public input sessions were held. The Jefferson City Housing Authority requested improvements from the blighted homes’ owners, and a number of them have already made those improvements to remove the blighted designation from their property. The remaining blighted homes are intended to be sold by the Jefferson City Housing Authority to rehabbers for improvements.

Property owners and rehabbers must adhere to strict design requirements: Exterior walls must be built from brick or stone. Roofs must have a pitch between 15 and 45 degrees. All buildings must be between 2 and 2.5 stories and there must also be three architectural features on the front façade. These are just a few of the requirements of any new construction and rehab projects that are located in the district. These design requirements may seem like a lot for one homeowner, but when the entire district abides, the result is stunning cohesive display that can only be achieved with full participation.

The prestigious Landmark Award designation represents the full range of Jefferson City’s heritage and architectural styles. There are 98 locations in Jefferson City that have received this honorary designation, most recently the Deetz Home and Brandenburger Drug Store on High Street and the Collett Home on Elmerine Avenue. Each year, the Historic Preservation Commission recognizes a property’s historical significance and contribution to the community. Past award recipients have included not only freestanding monuments but also educational institutions, retail stores, houses of worship, governmental properties and residences.

Many volunteers have sought out these designations in order to preserve history for future generations. Historic preservation is an ongoing effort that requires participation from the community as a whole. Jefferson City’s history dates back to its founding in 1820. As we look forward to our bicentennial celebration in 2021, we can continue to commemorate the rich history and privilege we have to live in this great community.