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Travel Log: St. Joseph Missouri

May 11, 2007 Travel 18 Comments

While driving to Iowa on Wednesday my friend Rich and I decided to take a detour through the town of St. Joseph Missouri (wiki), population roughly 74,000 (year 2000). St. Jo has many familiar faces: the old industrial section next to the river, the (now) flooding waterfront park, the old warehouse area, the nearly vacant downtown, the “it will save downtown” arena, parking garage and hotel combination, numerous older residential areas, new suburban homes and auto-centric chain shopping areas with mid to big boxes.

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Near the river is an old industrial area with some great structures such as the one above.

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Not far to the north is an active warehouse district. The building detailing is above anything you’ll see in a modern industrial or office park.

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St. Joseph got into the highway game in a big way, a massive structure dividing the downtown from the riverfront. Inviting huh?

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The riverfront park, immediately adjacent to the highway, was flooded while we were there on Wednesday. Numerous people came to see the flood waters. The downtown, thankfully, is on high ground while surrounding residential areas are on even higher ground.
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St. Joseph’s downtown has great potential. Numerous older buildings have wonderful detailing and pleasant massing.

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Sadly, St. Joseph was convinced of the whole arena/convention center, parking garage and hotel myth for revitalizing their downtown. The arena, shown above, occupies and entire city block and presents a cold shoulder regardless of angle.

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Another view of the arena, the parking garage can be seen in the background. The hotel entrance is to the right. Surface parking is also plentiful, although I am not it is not when they have a monster truck pull (per a local).

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The hotel entrance, above, is all about the car. The design is not much different than you’d see in any suburban area — not at all suitable for a downtown.

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Just south of the area destroyed for the arena is a newish park which is more memorial than anything active to do. It was attractive but boring. Note the gas station in the background.

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The downtown area includes a number of one-way streets, such as the one we were on. I really hate one-way streets, they just seem like mini highways to me.

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Back over by the arena is the parking garage consuming an entire city block. Lovely it is not!

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Just up the hill from downtown are some great old mansions. Most are cared for like the above examples. Across the street…

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This house has seen better days.  However, it certainly is not beyond reusing.  All over St. Joseph we saw buildings with great unrealized potential.

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Above is another great home on a wonderful site near the central business district.  Builders years ago knew how to build on sloping sites, unlike todays suburban builers that level every site they develop and then name the subdivision something Oak Hills.

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I loved the way this more modest sized home “held” the corner.

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We ended our too brief stay in St. Joseph at the walk-up Dairy Queen.  Overall I was very impressed, St. Joseph has such great potential.  I look forward to doing more research on this city regarding past development (arena, highways, etc…) and what is planned.

To see the rest of my 230+ images from St. Joseph click here.


Currently there are "18 comments" on this Article:

  1. demolition says:

    I have it on a reliable source that St. Joseph, Missouri, has more foreclosures in process than the City of St. Louis.

  2. Dan Icolari says:

    St. Joseph is the birthplace of the legendary Coleman Hawkins, who practically invented the jazz saxaphone. He was an extraordinarily inventive player who was able to adapt to changing tastes and styles beginning in the early 20s and continuing into the late 60s.

  3. Tom says:

    St. Joe had and extensive streetcar system plus interurbans until the 1930s. David Young’s new book on Missouri Streetcars documents this with excellent historical photos.

  4. robby says:

    At least from the photos offered above what a horrible town

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    How’s that convention center complex really doing? 😉

  6. Dan Icolari says:

    Thanks, Steve, for the impressive range of these pictures. I’ve never been to St. Joseph, but based on what you’ve included here, it might be an interesting excursion.

    I can’t agree that, based on these pictures, St. Joseph is a horrible town. Every picture that displays a human-scaled streetscape looks beautiful, even in that clean-as-a-whistle redbrick warehouse district.

    What these pictures make maddeningly clear–especially the shots of people-less streets scaled like airport runways–is that suburban-style development is death to everything people are finally starting to value about city life.

    It would be interesting to know how the St. Joseph city administration views issues like this. Would they build that mausoleum of a stadium today? Would they continue the post-WWII practice of scaling streets for cars rather than people? Would they, in short, continue the fruitless effort to graft suburban values onto what in places looks like a small, charming 19th-century city?

  7. A.Torch says:

    St. Joe is home to the CHASE Candy Company. At one time (when they owned National Candy and Bunte Candy) it was one of the largest candy companies in the USA besides Hershey. Sadly, like most of Northern Missouri the jobs have left and have not returned.

  8. Deb Goodrich says:

    St. Joe is a wonderfully rich and interesting town and I hope that some of the “less pretty” pictures don’t dissuade folks from visiting. Its rich history pops up everywhere from the Pony Express Museum to the Pattee House to the Art Museum. Like all downtowns, St. Joe has issues, but it also has some real pluses that it is difficult to see–the people–some of the most energetic and community-spirited people I have ever seen, and one of the best Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus. There is still so much happening in St. Joe, though like most cities, it is going through transitions, and I do hope there is a way to save more of the impressive buildings that lend so much character to the landscape.

  9. Ethan Cordray says:

    The many downtown churches are lovely, as well. Some of them were built for old mainline denominations but are now owned by younger, more Evangelical groups. But the Romanesque and Gothic styles remain an arresting part of the cityscape.

    There really are a lot of empty houses, though.

  10. Devon Abels says:

    As a life long resident of St. Joe, I would like to say that although some places might look more rough on the outside, they have sustained a long time of being empty, left in probate, left for the option of buying a brand new home instead of rebulding the old. Although they might be a little harsh to look at they still hold so many historical things just in the structure alone. While many of us have hoped that someone could or would restore these homes, but more places our leaving than staying. Levi’s, Mead products, Quaker Oats, but on the other hand many have chosen to stay and are personally owned. The D&G Restraunt has been located in the same building since 1945, and owned by the same people since the mid 70’s. Their are many wonderful things to find in this small town of ours, many of those things are also hanging on the walls of the D&G. So thank you for displaying some of most wonderful pictures of my hometown.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — What I saw of the old areas I must say the buildings were beautiful and full of at least potential.  Hopefully the locals will wake up to this fact soon.  However, recent (last few decades) attempts to revitalize the downtown appear to have been wasted money and perhaps made things worse than they would have been without the interventions.]

  11. Lea says:

    One of the more recent things done in downtown St. Joseph is the remodeling of buildings in to modern studio apartments. This has drawn a much younger crowd in to the downtown area and I feel like it is a start in revitalizing the area. While the downtown area does hold a lot of history, being from the younger generation, I don’t like to go to our downtown area because of the rundown buildings, the one-way streets, and the lack of entertainment. It is also getting higher in crime. While our local organizations and government work on improving the downtown area, such as creating the studio apartments, that does draw me in and they are working on restoring and cleaning up these problem neighborhoods. The city takes their appearance very seriously, having a patrol unit to run around and make sure that certain neighborhoods don’t have grass growing in the cracks of their sidewalks….issueing citations to those that do. If you didn’t visit our parkway system, I would suggest that, as it is very scenic.

  12. Steve Klein says:

    Nice… sorta. Being a native-born St. Joe boy, I can attest to the beauty of many of the older structures in town. Downtown was a beautiful site to behold, all red-brick late 1800 era buildings with gee-gaws, gargoyles, castellations, towers and a host of other Victorian architectural accouterments. Then came Urban Destruction -excuse me- Renewal. I have heard that someone with a dump truck and bulldozer had some connections, and made a haul hauling downtown St. Joe to the landfill. My brothers gathered some of the remnants and had them around for a while.

    In 1880, St. Joe had a population of around 80,000. Most recently it was around 72,000. It has been said that it is a great town to raise the kids, and retire to. That’s because there’s not much there for the kids, and subsequently quiet enough for the old folks. I’m thinking of going back there myself, when I get old enough. (But if anyone there reads this, they may not let me back in!)

    An interesting anecdote I have heard, (I cannot attest to it’s accuracy) says that back in the mid 1800’s the railroad big shots came to the City Fathers and said “If you build a bridge across the river, we will bring the railroads to town and make you a hub city.” Well, the City Fathers added up the cost of the bridge and decided it was too high, so they said NO. The big shots then went to Kansas City, and they said YES, and the rest is history. And St. Joe still holds to that mind set today.

    But in spite of all the bad things I can say about that town, I gotta admit that it is a nice place to live in a lot of ways. And I still go back quite often and visit.

    “Nuff said.

  13. LN says:

    I’d just like to say thanks for the nice review. The city really does have a great amount of unused potential. The problem is, has, and always will be the worthless morons at city hall. Every person who has ever tried to do anything good for this city has always had to fight the city tooth and nail every step of the way. What can you do, though?

    P.S. They’re considering tearing down the Civic Arena and replacing it with a /real/ convention center. 😉 We’ll see where that goes.

  14. Kara says:

    Speaking as a current St. Joseph resident, there are parts of town that look good (the number is growing as lately they have been doing quite a few cosmetic improvements in various locations) and there are parts of town that look just HORRIBLE. This can be seen in most if not all towns though. The problem with St. Joseph is that the majority of the residents, especially the long-term native residents have a very sour and unwelcoming snobby/cliquish attitude. Those of us who have had the “pleasure” to move in to the town have realized this fact the more we take vacations to other towns/states/etc where in comparison the people are refreshingly polite and nice and easy to get along with. Even when they are rude it almost seems polite in comparison to the St. Joe attitudes.

    In short, come to St. Joe if you wish but do it for the history, not for the people.

  15. Lisa Silva says:

    My husband and I came here for vacation and to buy a Victorian home. It has been my life long dream. I am more than an avid lover of all things Victorian, I am filled with the love of this era all the way to the bottom of my heart. With much planning, a realestate lady all set up to show me homes on Francis Street, and other historic homes in Historic Saint Joe’s West side, I was happy as I could be flying all the way from San Diego CA. to see what my future may hold in these lovely homes and quaint town. My husband and I looked for hours and hours online at some of these homes. We told the Realestate Lady that we were looking for a a small town that was growing and had lot’s wonderful oldfashion stores, restruants, parks, schools etc. She told us Saint Joe’s was the place. My husband and I jumped on a plane and away we went. When we arrived in Saint Joe’s we were shocked down to our bones at what we saw! There hundreds of old dilapidated buildings, condemed buildings, no stores, grocery stores, no restruants, etc. There was not even a 7-11! NOTHING!!!! It is what we here in California call a DEAD TOWN! It was so desturbing and creepy that I started to cry. I had been douped! The realestate lady never told me that W. Saint Joe’s was dead. The homes I was intrested in were all on the west side. My hubby and I drove around for an hour just shocked and freaked out that we could not even find a place to eat! Man! What a mind freak!!!! We finally went to the only hotel we saw, the Holiday Inn to eat. We were so upset and just mad at the realestate lady and ourselves for not doing more research. The dest clerk told us the East side is where everyone wants to live and only a small amount of low income live at this end. She then said the East side was 20-25 minuted down the beltway! I could not believe it. I was looking for a town to grow old in and be part of the community. When you are very old, one may not be able to drive. That is a long way in bad weather. I wanted to live in a historic town not a creepy goast town. To top this all off, my husband has a tooth break off at the gum line so we had to return the next day for oral suregry. He was in bad pain and very mad that we came all the way for nothing. The town holds some of the most beautiful Victorians I have ever seen. It has much to offer if the money was there and the people were so inclined, however on their own chamber of commers site, we read that the west side is poor, dilapidated, a blight, a place with nothing. It says most can not even afford to drive a car! The place is truly creepy to it’s bones. They truly need to do something for the people of this West end. How sad to live like this. It was depressing. I was glad to leave. I could not even think what it would be like to live in this end. I hope someday to be able to return to this area so I can see the East end. It sounds nice. However, if it was a modern town I wanted, I will stay in San Diego. I thought the West end was thriving too. I do not know how this area turned this way, but it has such history. It could be a really cool place to visit if it had something to offer. The City Planners should be held to a higher calling in their own home town. What a shame! Hopefully I can return and take photos of this old town. I am sure it will not stand to much longer in this condition. The founding fathers of this area would turn over in their graves to see the sad plight of the Victorian town left to rot in the Missouri sun.

  16. James Lau says:

    response to Lisa Silva:
    Oh poor you.
    Mrs. Silva, you are a posterchild for all things California. I’m drop-jaw amazed by your superficiality.

    Please stay in California. You Californians are bursting from your state and spreading like puss from a wound, infected by a consuming disease. I wish there was some way to contain you to your borders. You are blind as bats and I think almost everyone one of you suffers from a mind-numbinb narcissistic disorder.

    People from your demographic have destroyed the culture and conservation efforts of Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Texas. Now that you’ve consumed all the best of there, you’re spreading farther.

    Stop eating everything in site.

    St Joseph is a beatiful town, with a culture all of its own, and the better for St Joseph if it is driving away people such as Lisa Silva.


  17. James Lau says:

    ps, my spelling errors are due to depressing keys upon an extremely tiny keyboard.

  18. Christy says:

    Wow! I’ve just spent several hours looking at these wonderful, haunting photos of my beloved hometown. My fascination with old homes, abandoned buildings, etc.. led me to this treasure trove of memories. I graduated in 85 from Central High. I often wondered if I had seen its glory days. I left that summer- thinking I would never return and ” feeling sorry” for those that chose to stay. As the years have gone by, each time I return, I stay longer, I drive around and look for a familiar face that may remember me. I visit the many places that basically hold my childhood memories. I know it must be strange for people visiting to see the state of decay throughout areas of the city and wonder why anyone would live there. My friends lived in many of the older, “creepy looking” houses but at the time that was all I knew. Downtown was the place to go for shopping, eating out, doctors appts, hospital care. Sadly, I have no photos of what these businesses looked like when it was bustling with life. Manufacturing plants closed, farms foreclosed and often times that meant people had to move, even if they didn’t want to. Midwesterners are proud, tough, stubborn and protective of their own. I am sure they too, want the city to be restored to its glory as they remember it. The cost of preserving these buildings is monumental and a health hazard due to lead, abestos, etc.. I don’t know what the solution is, if any.

    I have lived in the “burbs” of several major cities for 24 years. I’ve thought about moving back a few times in my life but I don’t have the guts or grit to live in St. Joe again. Sadly, I’ve been brainwashed to bitch about not having a Walmart every 3 miles. I sometimes envy the friends that have stayed all this time or the ones that have come back. When I visit or see photos of St. Joe, I don’t see ugly, old, creepy houses and buildings anymore. I see homes and businessess that once held hope and heartaches for many individuals that contributed to this forgotten city by the mighty Missouri River.

    Thank you for sharing these photos of my hometown. I am reminded of how lucky I was to have grown up here.


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