New Stories in Old Spaces

October 16, 2018

Written by Rachel McCoy | Photos by Rachel McCoy, Emily Baumann, and Patrick Evenson contributed by the St. Joseph Convention & Visitors Bureau


DEFINITION: Showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious

Remodeled Historic Structures Open Doors to Modern Urban Living

There’s a new energy toward renovation across St. Joseph. Across the city’s historic areas, developers and organizations are taking a fresh look at how architectural elements can connect our history and our future.

A truly unique example is found across expanded residential offerings, including the lofts at the former MeadWestvaco building. Home of the original Big Chief writing tablet factory, this multi-story and modern apartment building on Mitchell Avenue boasts a rooftop garden, pool and an indoor track among other unique amenities. At 500,000 square feet, Mitchell Park Plaza is one of the larger renovation projects in St. Joseph and has more than 250 apartments.

Some units are corporate apartments, accessed by executives as they transition to new positions in St. Joseph. Others are long-term residential apartments close to interstate access and the downtown shops and restaurants. Established by the Foutch brothers, a team which has extensive experience in remodeling historic structures, many architectural elements were left intact. The large conference or banquet space on the main floor is framed by original columns. Several apartment units have original columns or some original brick and flooring.

Big Chief Tablet: A Global Classic with St. Joseph Beginnings You could say the Mitchell Park Plaza lofts are, in essence, writing their own new story that’s fully connected in a historical one. Constructed in 1920, and nearing its 100th anniversary, the building is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

The original Big Chief writing tablet production was spearheaded inside its walls under the Western Tablet and Stationery Company, Building No. 2. Few people know that the Big Chief tablet was created by William Albrecht, who officially opened Western Tablet Company in St. Joseph in 1906. The company became the largest producer of writing tablets in the nation and worldwide. Schools across the U.S. used the popular wide-ruled Big Chief Tablet for decades, until its use declined in favor of a new form of tablet – the spiral notebook. In the 1960s, the building was renamed to “Westab” and then later sold to the Mead company – prompting its local name, “the Mead building.”

Interestingly, William Albrecht’s legacy lives on in another way, with his ornate and spacious mansion on Frederick Avenue serving as the award-winning Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art.

So, was the Big Chief Tablet really something to “write home” about? You bet it was. The tablet was used by John-Boy Walton in the iconic television show “The Waltons.” Science-fiction writer and Hugo Award winner Connie Willis writes her novels on the tablets. In “Suddenly, Last Summer,” a play by Tennessee Williams, poet Sebastian Venable uses a Big Chief Tablet. In “Forrest Gump,” the famous movie, a Big Chief Tablet is in little Forrest’s hand when he boards the school bus – just prior to the legendary running scene. It’s also a piece of The Christmas Story movie lore. In the 1966 Jean Shepherd comedic novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, Ralphie uses a Big Chief Tablet to figure out the secret code as he listens to the Little Orphan Annie show on the radio. The book later inspired the ever-popular “Christmas Story” movie.

While the Big Chief Tablet and the Mead Building might be the most historically-significant conversion of a St. Joseph building to loft apartments, in recent years, other “uncommon” renovation projects like Mitchell Park Plaza have been completed at several locations across town. These projects include the conversion of Hall Elementary School into HL29 Modern Flats, the Lofts @415 (a former warehouse), and the apartments at the former Neely School.

These structures, including HL29 Modern Flats, feature high ceilings, awesome natural light and one-of-a-kind architectural features. They are living spaces where old meets new, and unique historical elements are woven into a whole new story. HL29 Modern Flats, for example, is the 1909 Hall Elementary School building. Nearly all the apartment units have original classroom doors, with details like ornately etched knobs and door knob plates. The large windows and wide hall spaces create an impressive and inspiring level of space.

A showcase element at HL29 Modern Flats are the original staircases, with decorative balusters, railings and banisters carefully preserved. Climbing from one floor to the next of the three-story building reveals areas of beautifully-worn wood on the top of the banisters where hundreds of students made their way to class. Other original elements of the school have been creatively incorporated, such as the wall-size original geography map in one apartment. After decades on the wall of the geography room, the removal of the map left the outline of several continents and countries – a feature that seems to glow from within in the right light.

One of the larger two-bedroom apartments has an especially memorable entrance, having been the original location of the school offices. Rich woodwork panels frame the door, and above it, a row of oversized windows generates a “wow” moment. Although professionally refinished, a fitness area has wooden court lines and a few nicks and scuffs from hours of long gone-by games.

Property manager Roberta Miller says the company that owns HL29 “really cares about the property, and how it’s preserved and how it’s made modern.” It’s one aspect that makes the space a little uncommon among similar properties in other cities.

“There’s a sense of home here, a level of comfort that’s hard to find. There’s a level of pride in the quality that’s been applied here. The history of the building and its integrity was a focus as they worked to renovate the space, which you can see in the gym floor, the windows, the doors and at every turn,” says Miller.

Miller knows some of the “secrets” of the building, such as where a school tunnel is located, and the location of a spiral staircase inside a unit in another similar property in the former Neely School. These elements and others are part of what she says is keeping the historical value alive and making the stories of the buildings matter – even as they reflect new styles of living. Guests who come to visit or tour the space know of other secrets and special areas, because they once attended school there or taught school there.

“We have calls and visits all the time from people who have great memories in the building and they share their own stories with us. We’ve kept the original bricks and floors wherever possible, and incorporated them into the designs,” says Miller. “It’s a preservation focus, not just on growth, and we think the community appreciates that.”


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