This is not a unique story — it happens in other places. This is the place I know something about… I lived there thirty-seven years and watched the problem develop.
Once upon a time Jefferson City’s Capitol Avenue neighborhood was a showplace of nice homes with mixed architectural styles. This was where the Barons of (prison) Industry built their homes…within walking distance of the Missouri State Penitentiary where the inmates worked in their factories making shoes and other products of the late 19th century. This was an era when prisons were considered commercial enterprises with a large cost free, or nearly free, labor force. It was not unusual for inmates to be rented out for construction work in the city. Sometimes this was public work, like heavy-duty road building or excavation, but sometimes for private projects. Having a large inmate labor force was beneficial to Jefferson City and a number of people and families got rich off of inmate labor. They built impressive homes along Capitol Avenue…in full view of the Capitol Building a few blocks west. In 1893, future Governor Lon Stephens built Ivy Terrace, a large shingle-style Queen Anne home on Capitol Avenue. This area was the place for “movers and shakers” in Missouri politics and business.
It was not all stately mansions. There are a few side-hall Italianate homes, some without any set-back distance from the sidewalk. The Parsons House had pioneer roots and the home was well known before the Civil War. This was the home of Gustavus Parsons, Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary.
There are a few apartment buildings and a few smaller homes of vernacular style or with eclectic traces of Tudor or Craftsman styles.
Nothing lasts forever and the prison industry era eventually was reformed out of business. The stately homes remained…and still remain…as a memorial to that economic boom time enjoyed by a few well-positioned folks. Over the years the neighborhood transitioned into a mixed commercial area with some homes converted to office space for lawyers or lobbyists. This being the seat of government, a few of these stately residences offered an impressive spot for those influencing or tracking government business. The movers and shakers still had (and perhaps still have) a toe-hold in the neighborhood.
Many of the occupied homes and multi-family residences in the neighborhood were acquired by one person over the years who rented the properties out – more or less as a herd of cash-cows. Things began to go down hill but it was still a striking and desirable neighborhood on the whole. Many properties, especially those in commercial hands were well maintained. A few were not. The area was designated as the Capitol Avenue Historic District and placed on the National Historic Register in 2005. Some individual properties, like Ivy Terrace, were also placed on the register.
Around that time, I was working in the city Planning Office on a part-time basis and was tasked with photographing all of the buildings along Capitol Avenue from about Adams Street east to Cherry Street or beyond. Most of the buildings were still occupied and there was an expected rediscovery and renaissance coming to the area due to the redevelopment of the old prison site and the construction of a new Federal Court House a few blocks away. There was an interest in retaining the character of the neighborhood and avoiding inappropriate new construction or renovation.
Over the course of a few months I had amassed a collection of over 1,000 photographs of buildings and architectural details for the city’s use. I remember that a few structures were beginning to fall into serious disrepair. Most of these, but not all, were owned by one person who seemed to have no interest in maintaining the properties. Some of the buildings were sitting vacant and appeared to be hazardous if entered. Her ownership and neglect of Ivy Terrace was particularly destructive because, unlike the many other brick structures, Ivy Terrace is primarily a wooden structure. Finally the city moved in and applied a fresh coat of paint and made minor exterior repairs to Ivy Terrace in spite of the owner’s continuing refusal to maintain it. Now, almost ten years later, it is beginning to show signs that it needs more paint. Apparently the city made repairs to a few other of the buildings and then took the owner to court to get reimbursed for the expense. The city won but I’d be surprised if she makes any reimbursement payments. As recently as 2014, she owed $40,000 in delinquent real estate taxes for her properties.
On a recent visit to Jefferson City, after being away for three years, I took a walk along Capitol Avenue and around a couple blocks to see how things have fared. It is a very sad sight, indeed. The buildings have seriously deteriorated. Some that were occupied when I moved away were now vacant and boarded up. The city has posted no-entry signs on a few. Those that were in bad shape ten years ago are much worse now. I suppose the city is lucky that a fire hasn’t destroyed the buildings. There is really nothing left but to somehow take over the properties.
The city finally took action in the summer of 2016 and commissioned a private firm to conduct a blight study of the neighborhood. The study confirmed the blighted conditions and declared the area as a threat to public health and safety as well as an economic liability to the city. The city now must declare the area as “blighted” and direct the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) to include the area in the city’s urban renewal plan. A determination will be made on which properties are salvagable and if some need to be demolished. The city will need to acquire the salvagable properties and offer them for resale or rehabilitation.
This is a lengthy process and some important properties have been allowed to slip away…maybe to the point of no return. That is regretable and probably could have been avoided by earlier action. Of course, the blight designation hurts those faithful property owners and properties that are well maintained. Allowing a designated historic district to disolve into a neighborhood of deteriorated and condemned buildings is pretty much inexcusable and also hurts those faithful property owners.
Jefferson City, being the state capital, has lost much of it’s original core to government offices and associated parking lots. State government is the economic engine that runs the city. The state had big plans for redevelopment of the vacated prison site but very little has happened. This was the oldest major prison west of the Mississippi River. The prison site will probably follow the usual pattern of neglect followed by demolition and some sort of redevelopment. While the city shows an interest in salvaging and restoring the central business/commercial district, there doesn’t seem to be an ability or willingness to preserve the little that remains in the architectural history of residential properties.
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