Debate about buildings tied to past
Sunday, March 16, 2014
Between the headlines “FDR predicts record debt” and “French uncover plot to send arms to Italy” in the Jan. 6, 1936, Jefferson City Post-Tribune was the story of the contract to build the Cole County Jail being awarded to the local Schell Construction Company.
Like several other local construction projects, including a dorm and instructional hall at Lincoln University and the Missouri State Highway Department annex, the jail project was a welcome opportunity for local, unemployed workers during the Great Depression.
Ever since voters approved building a new jail and sheriff’s office complex, the Cole County Commission has been considering ways the county could continue using the old jail and sheriff’s house space.
But commissioners say those buildings are too small for one of the county’s needs — a new, larger courtroom than the four currently being used — and commissioners say one of their options is to demolish the two older buildings and replace them with a new structure that provides more space.
As commissioners consider demolishing the old jail and sheriff’s house, local historians want to remind county residents of the historical beginnings of the buildings.
The community was in the midst of a terrible winter, and other papers that month told of child kidnappings, influenza numbers, complaints of poorly operating government programs, and Thomas Hart Benton working on his mural at the Capitol.
“At times, it felt like I was reading last night’s paper,” said local historian Cathy Bordner.
A new era of Cole County politics was emerging with the election of Sheriff Carl “Buck” Walz, dubbed the “Governor of the Capitol Basement” because of his pervasive influence in positions and decisions.
For the average Jefferson City family, another government-funded construction job meant they would have food on their table and be able to keep their home reasonably warm.
“The people who took these jobs and built those buildings were desperate,” said local historian and author Gary Kremer. “PWA and WPA projects were literally lifesavers.”
The PWA (Public Works Administration) was established in 1933 and the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in 1935.
Both were President Franklin Roosevelt-era efforts aimed at getting the country back to work during the Great Depression, Kremer said.
“Salaries earned on these projects sustained families during the dark days of the Depression, and gave individuals hope and a means of recovery from the high rate of unemployment in the area,” Kremer said.
By January 1936, more than $620,000 in government-funded projects were in progress in Cole County, half of that directed at four new dormitories at the Algoa Correctional Center.
Despite the intentions of the working programs, they presented a conflict, too.
The WPA was designed for unemployed people receiving government assistance — it paid $35 a month for not more than 130 hours, the Post-Tribune reported. That would be as little as 27 cents an hour.
The PWA was meant to serve unemployed people who were not receiving other government assistance — its pay range was 45 cents to $1, for a maximum of 39 hours of work a week, according to the paper of record.
Obviously, the PWA jobs were sending workers home with more pay in their pocket.
That meant projects funded by the WPA might lose workers jumping onto the higher paying projects.
In January 1936, the county had two WPA-supported road projects — the Waizel bridge and the Seidel bridge to the Stringtown School — that were stalled because of a lack of workers.
“If this situation continues, it will be impossible to obtain enough men to complete the WPA projects,” Cole County Judge E.S. Bond said at the time. “Of course, it is easy to see why the relief workers should want to work on the PWA jobs, which pay more, but the other projects must be completed.”
The jail project was funded by the PWA, making it a priority.
That was good news for John Schaper, the jail’s architect, who began business here in 1932, according to the Cole County Historical Society’s biography.
Other notable buildings he designed include the Coca-Cola building (600 block of Jefferson Street), the city hall remodel at the southwest corner of East High and Monroe streets (where Cole County Abstract now is located), two fire station buildings, the Missouri State Penitentiary warehouse and St. Peter Church’s Selinger Centre.
Schaper, a first-generation American, studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Lions Club and First Presbyterian Church.
He also planned several homes, including The Ira Lohman House, 1107 Moreau Drive, built in 1937.
Lohman’s son Louis recalled contractor James Handley noting “the concrete on the (home’s) foundation would support a seven-story office building,” according to the city Historic Preservation Commission file.
Bordner said: “Before they start tearing down the old jail, they may want to figure out how much reinforced concrete is in there.
“If the concrete in Betty Jo DeLong’s house would support a seven-story office building, Lord knows how strong Mr. Schaper designed the jail.”
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