By Michael Humphrey
A city is truly fortunate when it has an iconic symbol to visually represent its essence. St. Louis has its Gateway Arch, Kansas City its Liberty Memorial tower and Jefferson City its Capitol dome – rising 238 feet above ground level and topped by a bronze statue of Ceres, goddess of vegetation. As you drive in from the north and cross the Missouri River, it stands against the skyline as a reminder of what makes this city so special.
Why would you ever apologize for being the home of the Missouri State Capitol? That’s an easy question for Steve Picker, executive director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. The answer: you wouldn’t.
“We are proud of our status as the state capital and of the rich history of this city,” says Picker, a lifelong resident of Jeff City. “We appreciate being the seat of government and all that means to our economy.”
…And here comes the rest of the story. For years, Jefferson City has tried to shed the singular identity of being the hub for state government. There’s more to the mid-Missouri city of more than 39,000 permanent residents and another 20,000 commuters and part-time residents.
But in trying to recast Jeff City as a place worthy to visit on its own, sometimes town cheerleaders seem close to complaining about their status as state capital. Not so with Picker.
“We just believe there’s something new to find in the old,” he says. “That’s the direction this city has been heading – rediscovering what’s exciting about our town within the framework of our history.”
So it’s no surprise that Jefferson City has re-embraced its past with the slogan: You’ll Feel the History. And the city is not just offering lip service. Near the Capitol building, the Lewis and Clark Monument Trailhead Plaza is the perfect blending of old and new. Limestone rocks and bronze statues of Lewis, Clark, George Drouillard, York and the dog Seaman will give visitors a steady sense of history. On the other hand, the Katy Trailhead link to the monument points to what is new and exciting about the city – finally connecting the Katy Trail to the Capitol and the greenway trail network, once the Missouri River Pedestrian Bridge is completed.
And you will feel the history by experiencing what made the city so vibrant and exciting 170 years ago. By taking what’s old and making it new again, Jefferson City is showing the spirit of adventure and innovation that characterized its namesake.
One thing Thomas Jefferson would never have failed to mention is the city’s strategic location. And Picker wouldn’t miss that opportunity either.
“If we can offer new ideas for groups, we know that our central location will always be a draw for us,” he says. “Especially when you are bringing in people from across the state.”
So here are some examples of what’s new in the historic capital.
You might not think of a prison as the new hot spot in town, but Jefferson City is cagey about its prospects. The neighborhoods that surround the city’s old penitentiary – built in 1836 and decommissioned in 2004 – are starting to experience a renaissance. The Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission is specifically in charge of finding ways to use the historic building and the grounds.
But Prison Brews is ahead of the game. It’s not actually part of the old prison system – though you would never guess it given all the bars that are up. It’s actually an old creamery that has been turned into Jeff City’s first microbrewery since Prohibition.
A wood-fired stove makes delicious pizzas and a full grill menu, including stout stew, and offers a wide variety of food for small groups or a larger catered event. Six kinds of beer are the favorites around here though – from light wheat to hops-happy ales.
“This is an area where you can see Jefferson City is moving in exciting directions,” says Sarah Stroesser, communications manager for the Jefferson City CVB. “It’s happening not so much by the government, but by people who like the old houses and buildings and want to bring it back to life.”
One example nearby is the Contemporary Art Museum.
“There are a lot more artists – talented artists, people who show in New York – than I would have ever guessed,” says Carla Steck, president of the museum’s non-profit board. “For Jefferson City, this is a major step toward appreciating the visual arts.”
More than 60 contemporary visual artists from across the U.S., Canada and Europe have exhibited in the museum. The current exhibit is the work of the NEONWARRIOR of Kansas City. The museum also contains “TOTEMS,” a piece from Olympic artist John Dahlsen, and “Hand Knit Motorcycle Cozy,” by Theresa Honeywell of Wellsboro, Pa.
Two separate exhibit spaces offer room for up to 200 people in a cocktail setup.
“It’s something new for people who are tired of meeting in the same places,” Steck says. “Communing with art adds an energy you can’t get anywhere else.”
There may be no better example of old becoming new again than the Doubletree Hotel, a 13-story round tower that rises nearly to the height of the Capitol building itself. Out of what once housed the Hotel LaBella, all that is left is the concrete structure. Everything else is new.
“If we were going to do this, we were going to do it right,” says Vic Puri, part of the ownership group of the Doubletree, which had a soft opening in May.
The result is contemporary décor, flat panel televisions, business-size desks, Sweet Dreams beds, and complimentary high-speed Internet access, both wired and wireless. Starbucks sits in the hotel lobby, a large exercise room comes with state-of-the-art equipment and a top-floor restaurant serves three meals a day along with panoramic views of the city.
“There’s going to be a lot of excitement about this place,” Puri says. “The restaurant will draw people from the city as well as visitors. It will be a major gathering place. And the hotel itself will be a convenient and luxurious amenity to the city.”
Equally exciting for planners is 6,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 3,500-square-foot ballroom, a 1,230-square-foot Capital View room, a 1,530-square-foot meeting space and four smaller spaces for groups of 20 to 50.
“We’re getting a lot of interest before we even open the doors,” says Amy Kolb, sales manager.
Just down the street from the Doubletree is the downtown district. Because of the hustle of the government corridor, this area is often overlooked for its Old World charm. But it’s there – brick buildings, pedestrian pathways, restaurants, shops and one really fantastic addition for meeting planners. And yes, it is making the old new again. What once was once the Lohman Opera House is now a trendy and heavily sought-after event space.
G2 Gallery, much like the Contemporary Art Museum, has found that magic combination of art and meetings. The second-floor gallery, with elevator access, is 2,000 square feet, seating 130 for dinner and 200 for a cocktail reception.
But co-owner TaNea Graves says the real driving force for the venue is food, created by chef Kasey Green.
“The feedback we get on the food is amazing,” Graves says. “We bring things to Jefferson City that you can’t really get anywhere else and that’s exciting for our customers.”
Rosemary-crusted pork tenderloin, cannelloni formaggio, salmon béarnaise and brisket porto are examples of entrees. Appetizers include beef and artichoke tartine, cranberry meatballs, black bean cakes and pineapple poppers. There’s also a long list of traditional fare such as Parmesan chicken, apple glazed ham, chicken tenders, bruschetta and more.
The elegant woodwork was left intact, including the large proscenium where the opera house stage once stood.
“That offers the chance for large projections,” Graves says. “We also have a nice buffet and bar room for easy flow in and out of the dining area.”
While the art on the walls is for sale, Graves says their main function is atmosphere.
“We want to give our guests the sense of an elegant experience,” she says. “We felt making it a working gallery was a way to create that atmosphere.”
One last example of the old becoming new is the Miller Performing Arts Center. It opened in 1926 as the Jefferson City Junior College, and has since served as Jefferson City High School, Jefferson City Junior High School, and the Instructional Resource Center. It’s still owned by the Jefferson City School District, which is ready to do business with groups.
“We have a wide variety of groups that come in, although much of it tends to be arts, education and civics-oriented,” says Rusty Warning, manager of the center.
The center re-opened in 2005, after a $4.5 million renovation that included a grand atrium, gallery space and a state-of-the-art theater.
The atrium can hold 84 with tables and seating; the galleries can hold up to 100 reception-style, but cannot be used for food and beverage service; and the auditorium seats hundreds.
“The acoustics in the theater are truly the best,” Warning says. “We’ve had a lot of professional companies come through who were surprised with just how sophisticated this venue is.”
Not Such a Big Surprise
And it’s that kind of surprise that Jefferson City wants – and wants to move away from as well.
“It’s just a matter of people coming and experiencing the city in a new way,” Picker says. “Then when you know you can have a wide variety of experiences here and pass the word along, people start to expect Jefferson City is a broader destination. That’s the goal.” MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
Jefferson City Convention & Visitors Bureau
100 East High Street • P.O. Box 2227
Jefferson City, MO 65102
573-632-2820 ext. 301
305 Ash St.
Jefferson City, MO
Contemporary Art Museum
830-2 East High St.
Jefferson City, MO
422 Monroe St.
Jefferson City, MO
102 E. High St., Suite 200
Jefferson City, MO
Miller Performing Arts Center
501 Madison St.
Jefferson City, MO