January 26, 2019
DEFINITION: Capable or clever; able to put available resources to efficient or ingenious use; using materials at hand wisely or efficiently.
John Rodgers and his family visited St. Joseph from Louisiana on a vacation, attracted by the city’s history and architecture. Then they came for another vacation. And then they just never left.
The historic preservation community hasn’t been the same since.
Rodgers, a professional home preservationist, says his family has often taken vacations to places with rich history and architecture, and “stumbled” upon St. Joseph more than three years ago. One vacation to St. Joseph led to another, and the family became friends with area preservation-minded individuals.
“We just fell in love with the city. The variety here – everything from Westward expansion to the railroads and the influence of the River or the Civil War – it’s all here, historically. We just kept coming back to St. Joe,” he says. “We kept meeting people and hearing the stories about the city and decided this was the right place for us to stay.”
The timing for Rodgers and his wife, artist Ramona Rodgers, and son Ethan, to land in St. Joseph couldn’t have been better. As the founders of Phoenix Preservation & Consulting LLC, the Louisiana couple purchases, restores and sells historic properties with a focus on careful preservation. At the time of the Rodgers’ family decision to make St. Joseph their home, the city was (and is still) experiencing a series of changes and enhancements across downtown. Community groups had started popping up to save historic homes and city structures. Special events had begun dotting calendars to generate support and attention for the remarkable architecture St. Joseph can call a true local treasure.
Rodgers was drawn to this energy toward the city’s architectural “resurgence,” but also saw a need in St. Joseph for more services for old home lovers. “We try to teach people who want to do the work themselves. We teach them what to do and what to avoid. We are constantly sharing ideas and coming up with solutions.”
Like many others in the community, he is generous with his expertise and insight in the preservation community. He has assisted with workshops and events, helping residents explore ways to restore plaster, windows and tuck-pointing. Rodgers feels called to learn and perfect the “dying trades” associated with historical renovations and works for many clients on projects large and small. The skills required to run a business like Phoenix fall somewhere between art and construction, and he is happy to tackle the unique challenges that come with restoring and maintaining architectural treasures. Rodgers is passionate about bringing the vision and dreams of his clients to life through restoration and preservation of their homes and businesses.
As an active member of Restoration Church, set in an 1850s Downtown warehouse building that once served as the city’s “natatorium” (a.k.a. indoor pool filled with Missouri River water), Rodgers lends his creative and resourceful eye and hand to the ongoing restoration of this historic warehouse structure. This “roll up your sleeves” perspective extends even further, as Rodgers and his family are active volunteers with the Crossing ministry for the homeless and other initiatives. “We’ve always been volunteers, and we brought that passion with us. We instill that in our son every chance we can. He’s been volunteering since he could walk,” he says.
When it comes to old house challenges, Rodgers says there’s an understanding that local shared knowledge and the willingness to pitch in is a huge resource. “It’s a tight-knit community. We talk about how to fix something. We talk about finding a part. And it snowballs from there with a genuine connection,” he says. “There’s a genuine group of people who are preservation-minded here in St. Joe, and we come together often to share ideas and collaborate. When you need something, you start asking, and someone steps up to help.”
On a given day, Rodgers can often be found applying some of this ingenuity – along with professional know-how and some sheer grit – while restoring two historic homes he purchased in St. Joseph or completing projects for clients. He is careful to emphasize the difference between restoration and renovating or updating. “The reality shows that flip houses have become popular, and what they’re doing is making homes more presentable for buyers. I try to differentiate with restoration projects. This means you have modern things where needed, but you’re not just running in and tearing out a 150-year old plaster wall and replacing it with dry wall. You don’t just rip out original windows and put in vinyl. You take time, find resources, craftsmen and solutions that maintain as much of the original integrity of the space as possible. You’re trying to bring the home back to the period of its creation.”
He sometimes reverses more modern work on a home to return it to a more original state. “I’ve been known to actually tear out dry wall and return the wall to plaster. There’s something really unique about the look and the atmosphere plaster walls create in a historic space. The feeling is different when you use more original materials.”
To achieve these kinds of results, Rodgers explains homeowners need true experts and specialists – but people who love the homes and seek to restore them naturally become good at some D-I-Y aspects, too. Homeowners can sometimes become a local “expert” in a certain area of restoration as they’re putting in the work on their own personal properties.
And when needed, Rodgers can help connect residents with a national network to solve a problem. “From a local and a national aspect, I’m blessed to be connected across the country with people who bounce ideas and tips across for restoration projects, like tuckpointing, plaster and original window restorations. It’s really inspiring to be able to share this network with St. Joe.”
Rodgers knows the opportunities and ideas that are ahead for St. Joseph are not without their challenges, but says, “Coming in with an ‘outsider’s’ perspective, everything has to be taken with a grain of salt.”
“Downtown has changed from night to day since we arrived in St. Joe, and it’s becoming a very positive thing. There’s a lot of preservation activity. People are doing more to spruce up their properties, and some are selling properties they’ve owned for years so those properties can move forward,” he adds. “Having traveled a great deal across the country, I can say St. Joe’s challenges are not that much different than many places. And the city has so much that’s great going for it. We have faith in where St. Joe can go in the future.”
For all the old-house lovers out there, and those working behind the scenes to maintain and re-energize the city’s architectural legacy, Rodgers has a note of encouragement: “I love doing this work, as many of us do as preservationists, volunteers, historians and advocates. St. Joe is the right place to be with so many opportunities.
“Have an open mind. Focus on what you can do, and often that’s a small change right where you are. Everyone can do something to impact their own local block or area. Little actions can start a chain reaction, and they do.”
Walking into Café Belle Epoque takes you back in time. The copper tin ceiling, marble table tops, hardwood floors, wood-burning stove and jazz music seem to transport you to a period of economic glamour in historic St. Joseph.
For 100 years, the iconic Cherry Mash has been made in St. Joseph. The combination of peanuts, chocolate and cherry fondant is the third-oldest continuously made candy bar in the country.
One of St. Joseph public schools earliest and most successful students, Huston Wyeth, built in 1918-1922 what was considered a very large country estate located northeast of central downtown. It was called Wyethwood.
When it’s time for a coffee fix, St. Joseph’s options range from the eclectic to the trendy to the fast and familiar. The coffee culture in St. Joseph continues to expand and thrive, fueled by historic roasters, young entrepreneurs and locals who want to open the doors to a comfortable piece of the city’s relaxed vibe.
It’s not paintball. It’s not even a water balloon fight. It’s foam warfare, and there’s a good chance you’ll want to join the fun.