Southeast Students Collaborate to Preserve 100-Year-Old Cape Girardeau Building

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This spring semester, Southeast Missouri State University students collaborated to help preserve and determine the future of a 100-year-old building in Cape Girardeau.

The one-story, brick building, located at 101 William St. in downtown Cape Girardeau, was built in 1916 and served as a warehouse. It’s currently owned by Bill Cole of Cape Girardeau, and has been used for storage for the past several years. It is listed as a contributing building in the Courthouse Seminary Neighborhood Historic District National Register nomination.

It is important to preserve these types of buildings to safeguard Cape Girardeau’s history, said Dr. Steven Hoffman, professor of history and coordinator of the Historic Preservation program. Buildings such as this are a disappearing resource, and once they are gone they are gone forever, he says.

“As an important river port and then train depot, this warehouse would have helped serve the commercial businesses in the city,” he said. “It’s location by the (Mississippi) river and railroad tracks near one of the city’s old train depots reminds us of our historic commercial connection to river and rail. Preserving these historic buildings also helps preserve the character and feel of our historic neighborhoods and helps give Cape Girardeau its distinct look and feel.”

Nineteen historic preservation and 25 construction management students were divided into teams to create a feasibility assessment of the building’s future, he said. The teams came up with event venue, brewery or a teen hangout, then examined real estate, community and preservation, rules and regulations, and design.

The students interviewed the property owner, noting the owner’s personal requests and visions for the building as well as physical restrictions and capabilities of the space.

“Instead of completing a project with an imaginary location and property owner without real restrictions, we were able to apply the real-world situation we were presented with in order to create practical designs and plans that could actually be used,” said Madelyn Brown, a junior historic preservation major from O’Fallon, Missouri.

The real-world project allowed the students to apply the knowledge they learned in the classroom.

The students interviewed the property owner, noting the owner’s personal requests and visions for the building as well as physical restrictions and capabilities of the space.

“It allows them to develop connections to people in the field and community, and to see those professional relationships between and among all the players modeled for them in a low-risk environment,” Hoffman said. “It also grounds their experience in an actual place, which I think anchors their knowledge more meaningfully than if they know they are doing a completely hypothetical simulation of a project. This has potential real-world implications, and helps them begin their journey of making a difference in the field as professionals.”

Bryan Bowers, instructor of construction management and design, agreed, saying “Typically in our classes we focus on new construction and new design. This project opened the students’ eyes to taking something that was existing and trying to improve it.”

Working with students towards a real-world goal was an exciting experience for Alexis Vandeven, a senior interior design major from Marble Hill, Missouri.

“I think it is essential that we celebrate historic buildings by repurposing them for modern times and bringing them up to code while still highlighting their beauty,” she said “We also typically only work in a theoretical realm within our projects, so it has been a nice change of pace to work with a real space with real design challenges.”

The project allowed the students to examine different objectives and perspectives that need to be taken into account when rehabilitating older buildings.

“Ideas for building rehabilitation need to be backed up by community data; you need to make sure there are enough people in the area that are willing and able to engage with the idea you’re trying to pitch,” said Lily Clajus, a junior historic preservation major from Cincinnati, Ohio. “At the same time, it should meet the objectives of the property owner, investors, banks, and other parties interested in your project. Not to mention is has to physically be within the building codes and guidelines governing the area the building is in. It’s a lot, and I never realized how many moving parts play into to it.”

Throughout their research, communication between his teammates, the property owner and subject matter experts was key, said Faron Bartens, a senior historic preservation major from Steeleville, Illinois.

“When you are working on a large project that involves many different parties, having good communication skills helps the project to flow much easier and information be better understood,” he said. “For this project, a lot of the information we needed wasn’t directly available on websites, so we had to reach out to experts in the fields. I know within my group we reached out to a banker, realtor, a few breweries, and brewery equipment company.”

Communication became even more important when due to the COVID-19 pandemic, classes were transitioned completely online for the second half of the spring semester.

Communication became even more important when due to the COVID-19 pandemic, classes were transitioned completely online for the second half of the spring semester.

“We managed to keep the projects going despite having to teach and work remotely,” Hoffman said. “My class would still meet in its regular time slot via Zoom. We talked about the project as we would if we were face to face.”

Additionally, the student teams stayed connected through email, Zoom, online chat applications and Google Docs.

“My team stayed connected mostly through a group chat app called GroupMe –through this app, we were able to get feedback on different parts of the feasibility assessment as well as discuss as a group the contributions we received from the construction management class,” Bartens said.

Bringing students from different disciplines together to work on a project was also an important real-world experience.

“Many projects in the real world are multi-disciplinary, and that is nowhere more true than when it comes to trying to save a building,” Hoffman said. “A feasibility assessment team would normally pull people from different disciplines, such as architecture and design, finance and historic preservation. Instead of just doing the best we can with the architecture and design piece, having the opportunity to work with students who are preparing for careers in that field has been very useful. Not only are my students getting a higher quality product to use in their proposals than they would if they had to do it themselves, but they also get to experience trying to communicate their ideas to people in a different discipline… exactly the situation they will encounter in ‘the real world’ after graduation.”

Working with construction management students allowed him to understand the importance of including other disciplines in a project, Bartens said.

The students’ final projects were presented to Cole and Old Town Cape via Zoom.

“Having students who are becoming experts in that field greatly contributed to the project and reduced the frustration and work our group had to try to do,” he said. “They have knowledge into the design and regulations of buildings that I was completely unaware of.”

The students’ final projects were presented to Cole and Old Town Cape, the downtown revitalization organization, last week. Cole and Old Town Cape will review the proposals and make decisions about the property’s potential in the near future.

“This property owner will be receiving the thoughts and perspectives of young professionals about how to think about redeveloping his property. It also provides a tangible example to members of the community of the multifaceted impact of the University in general,” Hoffman said. “This tangible engagement with community organizations and property owners not only benefits the students but also the community at large.”

Knowing their project idea could impact the local community has been a positive driving force in the students’ work.

The students’ final projects were presented to Cole and Old Town Cape via Zoom.

“When a project could actually impact the community and be referred to in a professional setting, it feels very special that our hard work is being noticed,” Brown said. “My fellow group members and I are very passionate about the Cape Girardeau community and would love for it to further develop and thrive. Therefore, we are ecstatic by the idea that we could play a part in making improvements in the community.”

The opportunity to direct the outcome of a local building that could promote the area’s social and economic development has been an exciting privilege, added Clajus.

“There were times during this project when I thought about the legacy my group would be leaving if on the off-chance that our idea was picked up,” she said. “Being able to come back to Cape as an alumna and hearing people talk about it like they do about other downtown establishments, and knowing that you played a part in making that happen would be pretty special. This project is just the latest in a long line of students participating in efforts to revitalize and preserve downtown Cape Girardeau, and I’m honored to be one of them.”

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