Pursuing a face-lift for Missouri’s old Victorians

Jacob2Many of Missouri’s small town centers are filled with old Victorian-style buildings with overhanging cornices and quaint cupola domes.

Today, these historic buildings are treasured. But 80 years ago, Missourians regarded them differently — as eyesores.

In the mid-1930s, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Better Housing Committee created a statewide campaign with a goal to “Lift the Face of Main Street.” The face-lift idea was promoted by committee chairman F.T. Brown in several issues of this magazine from 1936 to 1937.

“Main Street is just a modern Topsy; it grew up without attention,” Brown wrote in the February 1936 issue of this magazine. “It is the weed patch of your otherwise charming community of bright, cheery homes, shiny automobiles, and cultured and hospitable men and women.”

The “Topsy” he cited was once a well-known cultural reference. Topsy was an elephant who performed in New York at the turn of the century. The elephant killed a spectator in 1902. Topsy was later put to death in a filmed spectacle that was distributed around the country via coin-operated kinetoscopes.

While the reference is macabre, Brown and his committee were pushing for Missouri’s Victorian-style facades to meet a similar fate.

pic1“Main Street was built in a day when grandfather or great-grandfather put up a store building in keeping with the ideas of his day. Unfortunately for us, the architects and builders of those times ran a bit haywire on what constituted charm and beauty,” Brown wrote.

He continued, writing that downtown businesses had long ago replaced dirt streets, hitching racks and wooden sidewalks, “but otherwise we left Main Street as it was, and there it is today.”

The Better Housing Committee was promoting the idea of remodeling Missouri’s downtown business districts to conform to the modern, clean, geometric lines of what we now call Art Deco. The Missouri Chamber offered a free plan communities could use to guide this work.

The plan called for cities to form planning boards that would write regulations and guide reconstruction.

If done property, Brown argued, giving Main Street a new look could spur growth.

“Cash registers along Main Street will begin tinkling with a new cadence,” he wrote. “Better buildings mean better tenants, better rentals. New business swarms to new places. Real estate values will swing upward.”

However, in one article, Brown wrote that this work was about more than economics. He noted that the ongoing economic depression had left two-thirds of the nation’s builders without work:

“Aside from the need of employment that exists with some twelve million people, there is the added burden of idleness that, according to a maxim of long standing, gives Satan an opportunity to get in some very effective licks … [which] might easily lead to the belief that it is wicked not to build.”

Months later, Brown wrote that the campaign was having an impact. Several cities had held meetings to “bring their Main Street up to par in looks.” The September 1936 magazine included a drawing of potential renovations to Higginsville’s downtown.

He concluded one article by writing:

“Main Street should represent something more to a community than do many business buildings. It can be a symbol of the spirit of the people … Main Street may be the stirrup to raise the small town into a seat of importance and prestige. It is worth thinking about.”

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