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History of Columbia, Missouri, with landmarks and heritage buildings to visit here

Welcome to a captivating journey through the storied past of Columbia, Missouri, a city that preserves its heritage with remarkable historic buildings and cultural landmarks. This article is your gateway to exploring the rich history of Columbia, a place where tradition meets the present in harmony.

We’ll start by diving into the history of Columbia, delving into its roots and evolution over time. As we embark on this historical voyage, we’ll encounter iconic landmarks that chronicle the city’s growth and cultural significance.

Our tour includes stops at the Columbia City Hall building, a symbol of civic pride, and The Missouri Theatre, a masterpiece of architectural grandeur. The University of Missouri is another pivotal destination, with its distinguished structures like Jesse Hall, Switzler Hall, The Memorial Union, and the Elmer Ellis Library.

The State Historical Society of Missouri opens the door to Columbia’s historical archives, while The Virginia Building, The Museum of Art and Archaeology, and The Ballenger Building showcase architectural brilliance.

The Boone County Historical Society, The David Gordon House, Collins Log Cabin, The Maplewood Home and Grounds, The Boone County Courthouse, The Tiger Hotel, and The John W. Boone House add further layers to our historical expedition.

So, join us as we step back in time to explore the intriguing heritage of Columbia, Missouri, through its cherished historic buildings and cultural sites. In another article we will talk about the historical churches of Columbia.

A brief history of Columbia

Columbia, Missouri, has a rich history that traces back to its early inhabitants, the Mississippian culture and the Mound Builders.

When European explorers arrived, the Osage and Missouri Native Americans populated the area. In 1678, La Salle claimed the region for France. The Lewis and Clark Expedition journeyed through the area in 1803 along the Missouri River.

Columbia’s history as a city began with American pioneers from Kentucky and Virginia settling in the Boonslick region in the early 1800s. Prior to 1815, the settlement was limited to small log forts due to the threat of Native American attacks during the War of 1812.

After the war, settlers arrived by foot, horseback, and wagon, often bringing enslaved African Americans. By 1818, it was evident that the growing population required the creation of a new county, which led to the establishment of Boone County.

The town’s roots were secured as it became the county seat in 1821. Columbia was laid out in 1821, replacing the smaller Smithton, and became a prominent location on the Boone’s Lick Road.

Stephens College was established in 1833, followed by other educational institutions like Christian Female College. The city thrived as a stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, later benefiting from the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad.

In 1822, the first hospital was set up, and the city saw the establishment of its first newspaper, theater, and agricultural fair by 1835. The population and wealth grew significantly by 1839. Columbia’s infrastructure was largely unscathed during the Civil War, though surrounding areas leaned pro-South. Reconstruction fueled the town’s expansion.

Academic Hall at the University of Missouri before the 1892 fire

In the 20th century, it became an educational hub, hosting the headquarters of the University of Missouri System, Stephens College, and Columbia College. The city’s growth continued, becoming a transportation crossroads with major routes and a regional airport.

The late 20th century witnessed significant population growth, with the city’s population exceeding 80,000. Recent developments include a focus on managing growth, expanding toward the Missouri River, and fostering the cultural and economic development of the downtown district.

The Columbia City Hall Building

The Columbia City Hall, also known as the Daniel Boone Building, is a historic structure with a rich and diverse history. Constructed in 1917, this building initially served as a hotel, becoming a central hub for travelers and a symbol of Columbia’s growth.

The Daniel Boone Tavern, located on Broadway between Seventh and Eighth Streets, was a popular stopover for those journeying between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Throughout the years, the Daniel Boone Tavern welcomed several notable figures, including Walter Williams (founder of the University of Missouri Journalism School), Harry Truman, Alben Barkley, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1972, the city and Boone County jointly purchased the tavern, transforming it into a government office building that became part of Columbia’s City Hall.

The Missouri Theatre

The Missouri Theatre, a captivating concert and entertainment venue in downtown Columbia, is a stunning example of architectural grandeur. This magnificent structure, designed after the Opéra Garnier by the Boller Brothers, was constructed in 1928 and now stands proudly on the National Register of Historic Places.

It represents the city’s sole surviving pre-Depression movie palace and vaudeville stage, boasting a rich cultural history.

In 2011, the University of Missouri assumed a three-year lease of the theater, solidifying its significance as a cultural hub. The Missouri Theatre serves as the home of the Missouri Symphony Orchestra, frequently accommodating performances by University of Missouri and civic groups.

In 2014, the University took full ownership, and it remains a primary performance venue for the University of Missouri School of Music.

This opulent theater opened its doors on October 5, 1928, at a cost of over $400,000, equivalent to more than $4.5 million today. The lavish interior, inspired by Louis XIV and XV periods, features ornate baroque and rococo styles.

Original details, including Belgian marble wainscoting, plaster reliefs, and a remarkable 1800-pound Italian auditorium chandelier adorned with crystal prisms, transport visitors to a bygone era.

The Missouri Theatre’s significance in Columbia’s cultural heritage is undeniable, and its rich history and architectural splendor continue to enchant audiences, making it a cherished gem of the city’s downtown district.

The University of Missouri

The Columns, University of Missouri Columbia, early 20th century

The University of Missouri (MU), also known as Mizzou, is a historic public research institution in Columbia. Established in 1839, it is the first public university west of the Mississippi River and a member of the Association of American Universities, classified as an “R1: Doctoral University – Very high research activity.”

It offers 300+ degree programs across thirteen academic divisions. Notably, the Missouri School of Journalism, founded in 1908, is the world’s first journalism school.

The University of Missouri’s 1,262-acre campus in Columbia, Missouri, is meticulously maintained as a botanical garden. The historical core, known as the Red Campus, encircles the iconic Francis Quadrangle. Key buildings on the National Register of Historic Places grace this area, including Jesse Hall and Switzler Hall.

The College of Agriculture’s rapid expansion in the early 20th century resulted in the White Campus, characterized by Neo-Gothic buildings made from native Missouri limestone. The most notable structure here is the Memorial Union.

In the 1990s, the Carnahan Quadrangle extended the Red Campus southward, including Hulston Hall of the School of Law and the Reynolds Alumni Center. The MU Sports Park lies south of Stadium Boulevard, hosting venues like Mizzou Arena and University Field.

The University of Missouri Hospitals and Clinics complex is north of the sports area, while the MU Research Park accommodates research facilities, including the Research Reactor Center. Amidst this rich tapestry of structures, the Sinquefield Music Center and NextGen Precision Health Institute are recent notable additions.

Jesse Hall

Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri seen from the columns at sunset – watercolor art

Jesse Hall, originally known as New Academic Hall, serves as the primary administrative hub for the University of Missouri. Its iconic dome has loomed 180 feet above the southern end of David R. Francis Quadrangle since its completion in 1895.

The lawn in front of Jesse Hall holds The Columns, the sole remnants of its predecessor, Academic Hall, which succumbed to a fire in 1892. The building currently houses various administrative offices, including the chancellor’s office, university registrar, graduate school, admissions, and financial aid.

Designed by renowned Missouri architect Morris Frederick Bell, it stands as his largest surviving work. Jesse Auditorium, part of the building, has been the site for graduations, university events, and the University Concert Series, which hosts a variety of performances in this impressive venue.

Jesse Hall is a prominent contributor to the David R. Francis Quadrangle National Register of Historic Places District. In 1922, it was renamed “Jesse Hall” in honor of retiring University President Richard Henry Jesse.

A significant storm in 1932 and a fire in 1991 resulted in renovations and repairs to maintain its grandeur. The distinctive dome, standing nine stories above the ground and illuminated by night, is a symbol of the university’s spirit and resilience.

Switzler Hall

Switzler Hall, a revered academic edifice nestled on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, stands as a testament to history and learning.

Completed in 1872, it occupies a place of distinction on the west side of the David R. Francis Quadrangle. As the oldest academic building and second oldest structure on campus after the Chancellor’s Residence, Switzler Hall exudes a sense of tradition and heritage.

The building’s name pays homage to Colonel William Franklin Switzler, a distinguished figure known for his role as editor and publisher of the Missouri Statesman and his unwavering support for the University.

Today, Switzler Hall accommodates various academic departments, including the Department of Communication, Women’s and Gender Studies, and the Special Degrees Program. Its enduring significance is further reinforced by its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Switzler Hall boasts distinctive features such as a bell tower, a symbol of the university’s heritage and academic rituals. The bell, generously gifted by Major James S. Rollins, bears the inspiring inscription “Nunc occasion est et tempus,” signifying the importance of seizing the moment.

Additionally, the hall conceals a mysterious three-story “silo” of historical intrigue, with its original purpose shrouded in speculation. Some theories suggest its use in roof access, heating and cooling systems, or even as part of physics experiments.

The Memorial Union

Memorial Union at the University of Missouri – digital painting

The Memorial Union at the University of Missouri serves as a central hub for the university community, offering a range of facilities and services. It was constructed between 1923 and 1963, designed by architects Jamieson and Spearl, known for their work on various campus buildings.

The origins of Memorial Union date back to the aftermath of World War I when the university aimed to commemorate fallen alumni. Fundraising efforts, led by Professor John Pickard, secured over $238,000 in pledges, culminating in the groundbreaking in November 1921.

The original design included two wings connected by a Gothic tower. The tower’s construction started in January 1923, and it was dedicated in November 1926.

Construction of the North Wing was temporarily halted during the Great Depression but resumed after World War II, completing in 1952. Subsequent additions, such as the A. P. Green Chapel in 1959 and the South Wing in August 1963, transformed the complex.

Memorial Union honors 117 MU men lost in World War I, with their names inscribed on the tower archway. A tradition encourages individuals to tip their hat and speak softly when passing under the archway. Inside the North Wing, a plaque commemorates the 338 MU men lost in World War II.

Elmer Ellis Library

Established in 1915, the Elmer Ellis Library serves as the central hub of knowledge at the University of Missouri in Columbia. This venerable institution, named in honor of former university president Elmer Ellis in 1972, is a vital component of the university’s academic landscape.

The library’s vast holdings encompass over three million volumes and a staggering six million microforms, reinforcing its pivotal role in the educational pursuits of the university community.

Furthermore, the University of Missouri library system has played a pivotal role in the Federal Depository Library Program since 1862, reinforcing its commitment to providing comprehensive access to government publications.

The main branch of the library, situated on Lowry Mall, is also home to the State Historical Society of Missouri and the Western Historical Manuscript Collection. These invaluable resources serve as invaluable reservoirs of historical knowledge, making them easily accessible to scholars and history enthusiasts alike.

For those seeking rare and unique materials, the Division of Special Collections, situated on the 4th Floor West, houses an impressive collection of rare books, the Comic Art Collection, and crucial documents like plat maps and insurance city maps of Missouri. Many of these resources have been thoughtfully digitized, expanding access to these historical treasures.

Additionally, the Bookmark Café, located on the ground floor of the library, offers not only a space for study and relaxation but also a gallery for various exhibitions, enriching the cultural and intellectual life of the university campus.

The State Historical Society of Missouri

The State Historical Society of Missouri, based in Columbia, is a research facility dedicated to preserving and studying the state’s cultural heritage. Established in 1898, it serves as Missouri’s official historical society, situated on the University of Missouri’s campus in Downtown Columbia.

The Society’s mission includes publishing the Missouri Historical Review, the state’s sole scholarly academic journal. It also conducts outreach programs like the Missouri History in Performance theatre, Missouri History Speakers’ Bureau, and Missouri Conference on History.

The Society’s extensive collection comprises over 460,000 items, including pamphlets, books, state publications, 500,000 manuscript items, 2,900 maps, over 150,000 state archival records, and more than 57,000 reels of microfilm. It houses a significant collection of Missouri artists’ works, offering insights into the state’s history and culture.

The Society maintains a Newspaper Library with the largest collection of Missouri state newspapers, a Reference Library, and the Western Historical Manuscript Collection. It runs programs like the Missouri History Speakers’ Bureau and the Missouri Conference on History to share Missouri’s history with the public.

Additionally, the Society sponsors National History Day in Missouri and hosts the annual Missouri Conference of History. In 2019, it opened the Center for Missouri Studies, a facility that showcases collections, provides educational programs, and serves as the Society’s headquarters.

The Virginia Building

The Virginia Building, a charming and historically significant structure situated at the corner of 9th and Cherry Streets in Downtown Columbia, has a rich and diverse history.

Initially built in 1911, it was home to one of the first urban Montgomery Ward department stores, but its name holds a unique story.

The moniker “Virginia Building” was an homage to Sanford Conley Hunt’s daughter, Mrs. Virginia Robinson, who retained ownership of the building well into the 1960s. Hunt and his family played a crucial role in the development of this commercial site.

The building could have just as easily been known as the Columbia Commerce Club Building since it has a strong connection with the founding members of the Columbia Commercial Club, a civic organization that greatly impacted the city’s growth and development.

The club was instrumental in advancing various civic interests, including improvements like paved streets, electric lighting in the downtown area, the construction of the municipal water and light plant, and even influencing the route of what is now Interstate 70.

In 1928, Montgomery Ward, one of the nation’s pioneering retail giants, opened one of its first stores in Missouri within the Virginia Building. This marked a significant chapter in the building’s history. However, by 1961, the Wards store relocated to a new location.

The building underwent a remodel in the 1960s and, later in 2000-2001, it was restored to its original charm. Today, the Virginia Building houses several local businesses, including the Cherry Street Artisan and Columbia Photo, offering a glimpse into Columbia’s history and commercial development.

The Museum of Art and Archaeology

The Museum of Art and Archaeology, situated on Business Loop 70 West in Columbia, serves as the art museum of the University of Missouri. The museum, located at Mizzou North, offers a cultural haven that’s both free and open to the public.

Visitors can explore its galleries from 9 am to 4 pm on Tuesday through Friday, as well as from noon to 4 pm on weekends (Saturdays and Sundays). The museum is closed on Mondays and during University holidays. This invaluable institution receives support from the Missouri Arts Council.

The museum’s roots trace back to 1892 when Walter Miller and John Pickard initiated a Study Collection that would ultimately evolve into the Museum of Art and Archaeology.

The museum houses an extensive permanent collection, boasting over 14,000 works of art and archaeological objects, which are displayed in five dedicated galleries. Additionally, three other galleries host temporary exhibitions based on the permanent collection, loans from other institutions, or private individuals.

One particular highlight is the gallery on the first floor featuring casts of Greek and Roman sculpture on loan from the Department of Art History and Archaeology. The museum’s collection encompasses a rich array of cultural artifacts, with a notable emphasis on Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern art.

The Ballenger Building

The Ballenger Building, a historic commercial gem in downtown Columbia, epitomizes enduring architectural charm. Constructed around 1892, this two-story brick building, which later earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, has witnessed a fascinating evolution.

Originally serving as G.F. Troxell’s furniture store, the Ballenger Building underwent an expansion in 1904 to accommodate its growing role in the local business landscape.

However, its defining transformation occurred in 1928, marked by a complete facade renovation that introduced elements like a magnificent red brick parapet wall, lavish terra cotta ornamentation, and exquisite Chicago school style windows.

Further redesign in the 1980s, while converting the building into a restaurant, involved large casement windows and stuccoed walls.

Throughout its long history, the Ballenger Building has housed various establishments, from soda water bottling in its basement to furniture stores, including S.M. Meyers and Troxell’s.

It also played host to a Safeway grocery store in the 1930s, making it the sole Safeway location in Columbia. H.R. Mueller Florist shop marked the building’s next chapter in 1952, lasting for several decades.

In the 1980s, the building witnessed more alterations, including a restaurant on the ground floor.

Today, the Ballenger Building serves as a hub for businesses and offices on the second floor, while Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company occupies the ground floor, becoming a popular spot for college students and coffee enthusiasts.

The Boone County Historical Society

The Boone County Historical Society, founded in 1924 and located in Columbia, Missouri, has been a dedicated steward of the region’s heritage. The society’s crown jewel is the Boone County Historical Museum, which is part of a larger campus featuring a history museum, an art gallery, a genealogical library, and numerous historic structures.

The museum’s extensive collection includes historical photographs dating back to the late 19th century, offering a glimpse into the Columbia of yesteryears. As a cultural and arts destination for Columbia and its neighboring communities, the museum plays a pivotal role in preserving and showcasing the history and culture of the region.

The Walters-Boone County Museum, established in 1990, is a testament to the society’s commitment to preserving history. It boasts two major exhibit halls and ample display areas, totaling 5,500 square feet of historical exhibit space, as well as climate-controlled vaults and storage spanning 10,000 square feet.

The Montminy Art Gallery, a 2,800-square-foot space, showcases the work of local, regional, and state artists, offering a rotating display of art forms such as paintings, photography, and sculptures.

The society’s grounds are also home to historic houses and buildings, including the Maplewood House, Gordon-Collins Log Cabin, McQuitty House, and Easley Store. These structures have been relocated from their original locations and tell the stories of Columbia’s past.

With a vast and diverse collection, the Boone County Historical Society provides an engaging and educational experience, bridging the past and present for all who visit. It serves as a vital hub for both history enthusiasts and art aficionados alike.

Official website:

The David Gordon House and Collins Log Cabin

The David Gordon House and Collins Log Cabin, both historic residences in Columbia, Missouri, have played a significant role in the city’s history. The David Gordon House, originally constructed around 1823, saw multiple additions in subsequent decades.

Collins Log Cabin at the Boone County Historical Society – painting

The Collins Log Cabin, built in 1818, is a charming single pen log house with a loft design and represents one of Columbia’s earliest permanent dwellings. In 1983, both of these homes earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The history of the David Gordon House is closely linked to the Gordon family, particularly David Gordon, Sr., who was instrumental in central Missouri’s development. The house, known as Gordon Manor, stood for over a century as one of Boone County’s oldest homes.

Regrettably, the David Gordon House was destroyed by arson in 1998. However, the Collins Log Cabin was preserved and relocated to the Boone County Historical Society’s campus at Nifong Park, where it serves as an educational exhibit.

The Maplewood Home and Grounds

Maplewood, a historic residence in Columbia, stands as a testament to the architectural and cultural heritage of the region. Constructed in 1877 by Slater Ensor Lenoir and Margaret Bradford Lenoir, members of pioneer families in Boone County, this two-story dwelling showcases Italianate style with its decorative corbels, arched windows, bay window, front balcony, and oriole window.

In 1970, the City of Columbia acquired the property, which also included 60 acres of surrounding land, establishing the Frank G. Nifong Memorial Park. Today, the Boone County Historical Society and the City of Columbia Parks and Recreation jointly manage the Maplewood Home and its picturesque grounds.

Visitors can explore the rich history of Maplewood through guided tours, offered from April 1 to October 31 each year.

The house, originally T-shaped, underwent various modifications over the years, including the enclosure of sleeping porches and the addition of an octagonal wing. The property once comprised 427 acres, featuring a large pond, outbuildings like a carriage house, a utility house, and a barn.

The legacy of the Lenoir family continued as a portion of the estate was donated for the construction of Lenoir Memorial Home (now Lenoir Woods), a benevolent association. The property’s historical significance is celebrated through events like the annual Heritage Festival in September and productions at the Maplewood Barn Theatre throughout the year.

The Boone County Courthouse

The Boone County Courthouse at sunrise – digital painting

The Boone County Courthouse, situated in the heart of downtown Columbia, is a central landmark for both the county and its judicial district, which encompasses Boone and Callaway counties.

As the seat of the 13th Judicial Circuit of Missouri, the courthouse occupies a place of historical and architectural significance.

The story of the courthouse begins with Columbia’s designation as the county seat in 1821. The first courthouse, built in 1828, was a modest two-story brick structure featuring a unique cupola-like element at its peak.

It played a role in the artistic history of the region as one of the studios of the renowned artist George Caleb Bingham, who famously depicted it in his 1855 painting “Verdict of the People.”

In 1847, a second courthouse was constructed, showcasing four iconic columns that still stand near the present-day courthouse. These columns align perfectly with those of the academic hall of the University of Missouri, highlighting their historical significance. This second courthouse was also depicted in Bingham’s “Verdict of the People.”

The third and current Boone County Courthouse was completed in 1909. The architects and builders worked closely with the court to ensure that the new structure adhered to their vision of a classic, restrained design.

Since its initial construction, the front facade of the courthouse has remained largely unaltered. However, renovations and expansions in 1992 and 2008 added modern amenities, including a state-of-the-art technology courtroom, ensuring the courthouse’s continued relevance for the community.

The Boone County Courthouse stands as a testament to the region’s history, blending classical architectural elements with contemporary functionality.

The Tiger Hotel

The Tiger Hotel, a prestigious 4-diamond establishment in Columbia, Missouri, has a rich history dating back to 1928. Architect Alonzo H. Gentry designed this iconic structure, which was built by the Simon Construction Company.

At the time of its opening, the Tiger Hotel was a trailblazer, being the first skyscraper situated between Kansas City and St. Louis. Its remarkable “Tiger” sign atop the building quickly became a symbol not only for the city of Columbia but for the entire region.

Over the years, the hotel underwent several transformations. In the 1960s, it was renovated and renamed the Tiger Hotel to cater to the needs of automobile travelers.

Later, in 1987, the hotel was acquired by a federal bankruptcy court and converted into a retirement home known as the Tiger-Kensington, reopening in 1990. Under the ownership of Tiger Columns LLC in 2003, the building’s ballrooms were used as event spaces.

However, in March 2011, Glyn Laverick, of Columbia Hotel Investments Inc., purchased the hotel and embarked on an extensive renovation. The revitalized Tiger Hotel welcomed its first guests, even while undergoing the final stages of construction, during the True/False Film Festival in March 2012.

In 2022, the Tiger Hotel became a part of the voco Hotels division of the InterContinental Hotels Group, and it was renamed voco The Tiger Hotel, continuing its legacy as a symbol of elegance and hospitality in Columbia.

The John W. Boone House

The John W. Boone House, also known as the Stuart P. Parker Funeral Home, is a historical residence in Columbia, built in 1889. It is of architectural and cultural significance and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

This Victorian-style house is linked to the legacy of ragtime musician John William “Blind” Boone, and it’s becoming a focal point for tours, receptions, and community events. It was a crucial part of Sharp End, a thriving black business and entertainment district in downtown Columbia, after its construction.

Volunteers from the Boy Scouts, MU students, and the local community contributed to the extensive renovations. Funding from state and federal grants, donations, city appropriations, and the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau ensured the preservation of this historic gem.

Today, the Boone House stands as a testament to African-American history and achievement in the region, a vital part of Columbia’s heritage.

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