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Ozarks Rambles

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by Kenny Knauer

The confluence of Springfield and the highway system that became Route 66 was certainly no accident. This successful effort involved the visionary planning of many area developers and local boosters, and it was led by one of Springfield's most enlightened builders and dreamers, John T. Woodruff.

Woodruff built and owned the Kentwood Arms Hotel, developed and built the Woodruff Office Building, built the historic Colonial Hotel for the Landers family, helped convince the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad to relocate its headquarters building in Springfield, and developed and built many other properties along Historic Route 66.

John Woodruff's role as chairman of the Highway 66 Commission was influential in helping Springfield become the linchpin, the deciding factor, in determining the first transcontinental highway's route through what became the vacation mecca known as the Ozarks Empire.

The highway played a significant early role in development of the center city area, the historic corridors of Kearney, Glenstone, St. Louis and College Street, and the commercial developments that prospered along its urban route.

It is serendipitous that a report on ongoing efforts to rebuild, renovate and renew center city and the historic districts should appear in this Architects and Engineers issue. Reported are plans for the future of Civic Park, proposals for special district status, and a look at why the builder of one historic landmark the Gillioz Theater chose to encourage patrons to enter his theater from Route 66.

My interview began with Jan Horton, president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. I asked how the development of Civic Park, Founders Park and the proposed opening of Park Central Square to through traffic would affect downtown development.

"The most important coming attraction for center city Springfield, and one which the UDA board of directors and other entities are working diligently to bring about, is the formation of a CID, or community improvement district.

"Many other cities have utilized CIDs as revitalization tools because they afford a means for self-imposed assessments which can be used for improvement purposes. An example is downtown St. Louis, a CID which has dramatically changed and improved an important historic and commercial area in St. Louis. Our goal at UDA is to make center city clean, safe and friendly for those who are and will be shopping, dining and attending arts and cultural events in the heart of our city," Horton said.

Another interview was with downtown developer and rehabilitation enthusiast Sam Freeman, a longtime Downtown Springfield Association supporter and member of the Landmarks Preservation Trust, which is involved in a multi-year renovation and rehabilitation of the historic Gillioz Theater.

"M.E. Gillioz, from Monett, was a long-time highway and bridge contractor in southwest Missouri. He owned a bank in Monett and built many of the roads, bridges and highways in our part of the Ozarks. He was a longtime friend and associate of Mort Lines, of Lines Music. Lines Music featured a radio playing news and music for patrons and friends of the store, including the reading of successful bid lettings on municipal construction projects. Quite often M.E. Gillioz would first find out the results of his bids at the radio in Lines Music, and make plans accordingly.

"The best (and most expensive) business address in downtown Springfield was St. Louis Street (Route 66), and the epicenter/prime location was the corner of St. Louis and Jefferson streets. A thriving entertainment, dining and dancing district flourished around this intersection and Mr. Gillioz was determined that the patrons of his fabulous theater would be afforded access from St. Louis street."

"Mr. Gillioz located a large lot fronting on Olive Street, but to enable patrons to enter from the 'fancy address,' he leased the lobby frontage from the Will Johnson family for the then unheard of sum of $550 per month. This was a considerable sum in those days, and is still quite a figure for the amount of footage involved.

"The lobby and the theater building were in separate hands from 1925-1987, until local businessman and arts supporter Jim Morris bought the lobby space from the heirs of Will Johnson and helped make it available to the Preservation Trust. Another hurdle to overcome was the lack of handicapped access to restrooms and public areas in the renovated Gillioz, and this knotty problem was resolved when SMOA agreed to sell the former Netter's building next door, where their headquarters was located.

"The acquisition of the Netters building helps the Preservation Trust in two ways: first, the building saves us money; and, second, the building makes us money. First, we would have had to build a three-story, $750,000 separate structure behind the lobby of the Gillioz, to house elevators, restrooms, and lobby space for our patrons. We had already acquired the space for that project.

"Secondly, with the money that we saved from not having to build another structure, we can completely renovate the entire Netter's building, including restrooms and elevators, and we will end up owning an adjoining 26,000-square-foot building in excellent structural condition. Revenue-enhancing uses of this convenient building include: restaurant, gift shop, lounge, arts display space, banquet facility.

"The Netters building would have been lost to our group had not someone stepped in and acquired the option on the building, and held it until our board could act to purchase it. This was difficult since the fund raising and rebuilding of the Gillioz was our paramount priority.

"The invaluable assistance of Nancy Brown in helping acquire this option helped assure that the completed project would have fine facilities, access and updated accommodations for all patrons," Freeman said.

(Kenny Knauer is an organizer of the St. Pat's Parade, a participant with the parks, greenways and open spaces committee of Vision 20/20, and a long-time member and volunteer on the steering committee of Founder's Park.)

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