December 10, 2018
DEFINITION: Full of energy, enthusiasm, and determination.
Talking with Tim Doyle about the renovation work at 117 Francis St. is like having a conversation with legendary movie archaeologist Indiana Jones and legendary evangelist Billy Graham at the same time. Built in the 1850s, the riverfront warehouse property and its sister warehouse property at 101 Francis were purchased by Pastor Doyle and his congregation at Restoration Church in 2012.
Fueled by sweat equity and some very determined hands, the historical importance of the space has been uncovered layer upon layer. There’s the Abe Lincoln connection, and consequently, a link to the Civil War. The space is at the exact launching point for hundreds of thousands of bold Westward expansionists, who gathered supplies and set out on the nearby river water from the very same block. There are ties to many early innovators and businesses, including a conveyor belt that ran underneath the alley connecting the two warehouses Doyle and the congregation purchased.
“We feel very intentional about opening our doors to the community specifically from what we call the ‘west side’ of Downtown St. Joseph,” he says. “It’s just unbelievable how important these blocks are and how much history we’re standing on. This area was literally a shipping resource that connected St. Joe with the rest of the world.”
One of the most “uncommon” features of the 117 Francis property is its conversion in 1897 to an indoor swimming pool, a truly rare and spa-like indulgence for the time period. Called a natatorium, the pool was 40 x 100 feet and held 280,000 gallons of water pumped straight in straight from the nearby Missouri River for a rollicking-good swimming experience. There were ropes, trapezes and swings all around the rafters. Tell-tale hand-written signs still exist today, such as “Everyone must take a shower bath before entering the pool” and the line markers of several different heights of water. Just west of the building was the Planters House Hotel, and the two were some of the first three-story buildings in the city.
The vision, says Doyle, is to bring life, people, activity and a sense of “restoration” to the area. Even as the work continues inside and out, hundreds of people have visited during signature events like the Big Muddy Mini-Maker Faire, a gathering of area innovators and artisans, and the Vintage Christmas Open House – a large gathering of people who love beautiful things in beautiful spaces at the holidays.
Held in December each year, the Vintage Christmas event is a much-anticipated kickoff to the holiday season for Downtown St. Joseph and the city as a whole. Simple, period-inspired decorations fill the Restoration space. Local music and hundreds of twinkling lights are set alongside the rustic backdrop of exposed brick and original plank wood floors. Collections of the building’s historical artifacts are on display, along with an 1800s horse-drawn sleigh. The atmosphere is jolly, to say the least, along the cobblestone streets. It’s warm, inviting and inspiring to the nearly 1,000 guests who come to see this unique space at Christmas.
“The Christmas event is pretty unforgettable, as a showcase to the community and as a little ‘pat on the back’ for our members who’ve never given up on the space,” says Doyle. “When you’re here at Christmas, or any time, the dedication of so many people is so clear. They’ve picked up hammers and uncovered 150 years’ worth of dirt to reveal a lot of treasures underneath. And really, that’s the kind of the mission of our church itself.”
Doyle talks fast when he begins sharing what he knows about the historical significance of the block and its placement within an incredibly historic time for St. Joseph. “We were at the western terminus of the railroad. We were the actual jumping off point for so many families heading west across the river. We can’t afford to lose any of these spaces.” He estimates that there were five different addresses operating out of the current location – including a saloon, a boarding house, a carpenter, a broom factory and a packaging warehouse. At the connected warehouse, 101 Francis, former businesses included a hotel, a horse shoeing location and a produce shop.
In 1905, the 117 Francis area became St. Joseph Packaging and helped supply businesses around the world with packing and shipping supplies during an economic boom. “We’re talking serious entrepreneurship,” says Doyle. “All those products getting made here and everywhere else had to get shipped in something. And St. Joe played a big role in that.”
It would take this kind of determination – and a large helping of grit – to take the space from where it was in 2012 to where it is today. When the Restoration team entered the warehouse for the first time, little had changed since their creation. “It looked just like it did in the 1850s,” says Doyle. “President Lincoln stayed here in 1859 while he was campaigning. He couldn’t speak here though, because the city and surrounding area was such a hotbed of brewing Civil War-related unrest.”
In the past five years, Restoration Church has been bringing its vision to life piece by piece. “Everything had to be reengineered, from the water supply to waste water to bathrooms and electrical,” says Doyle. “And to make it even more challenging, we’re diligent about adding or changing things in a way that complements all the historical character of the building that we possibly can.”
Like the building itself, the congregation of Restoration Church is “committed, creative and undeterred by things not being perfect,” explains Doyle. “We’ve had summer services for months without air conditioning. It’s not uncommon to see kids running around inside with a little dirt on their Sunday clothes. But we find the church keeps attracting people with the same spirit as those who were here 150 years ago. They don’t mind rolling up their sleeves. They want to do something historic here in this space. They want to bring something new to life.”
Much has been accomplished, but Doyle has a long list of renovations planned for 117 Francis and the second warehouse space. “We need practical things, like insulation to reduce our energy costs. But we’re careful with each project to ask ‘Is this reasonable, and does it take away from the space?’” he says. “We really want to be a place to grow each person’s faith journey, and we can also serve the community as a place of tourism. How great is it to let people see an original 1850s St. Joseph warehouse at such a significant location?”
Like many area projects, Doyle and his team find creative ways to solve challenges while working to expand their funding base. “We’re trying to make it look like everything you see was always there, to tell the most accurate story possible,” says Doyle. “And this is also quite expensive.”
The project has captured attention regionally and nationally. The National Parks Service recently expressed interest in developing the riverfront area just west of the buildings to help interpret one of the “largest migrations in human history,” says Doyle.
Looking ahead, Doyle plans to keep opening more of the spaces as community gathering areas. This could include a coffee and gift shop along with several other ideas. The space remains in demand currently for weddings, photo shoots and other special events. “It’s such a great time to be in Downtown St. Joe, and specifically, in this historical area that we see as the building block toward our future,” says Doyle. “As people continue to discover this space and say ‘yes, this is something worth getting behind,” we’ll be able to press on and preserve what we have for our entire community. Because what we have is truly awesome.”
Note: The Big Muddy Mini-Maker Faire returns to the Restoration Natatorium annually. In June of 2019 the church helped host the Missouri State Historic Preservation gathering.
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