HOMETOWN: “Column-bia” the “Athens of Missouri” Entry by Ethan Boote

Columbia, Missouri is not well-known outside of Missouri. From my experiences going to college in Minnesota and moving to New York City, I find that a lot of people can’t even successfully identify Missouri on a map of the United States, let alone name the capital. In addition to its physical location, there are disputes as to whether or not Columbia is culturally a part of the South. I will say as a native Columbian, I grew up believing I was a Midwesterner, however, this is my own perspective, and I’m sure if you asked any of the 115,000 people who call Columbia home about whether or not Columbia is a part of the South, you would get a variety of answers from “yes” to “no” to “only since 2012 when Mizzou joined the SEC”.

Located in the middle of the state, around 2 hours from both St. Louis and Kansas City along the I-70 corridor, the “Athens of Missouri” is known for its colleges, namely the University of Missouri (or “Mizzou”), as well as Stephens College and Columbia College. The city’s educational emphasis combined with its “classic beauty” (as described by Wikipedia) has earned Columbia the nickname the “Athens of Missouri”. However, nobody calls it that in everyday conversation. A more popular and accurate nickname is “CoMo”.

The reason I chose to write about my hometown is because of an interesting preservation project from 1893. Mizzou’s Columns are an iconic image for the downtown Columbia landscape as they were preserved after a fire destroyed their original context. Today they stand today as 174 year old symbols of the campus’ first building. They are located at the center of the David R. Francis Quadrangle (“the Quad”), which was added to the National Register of HIstoric Places in 1973.

Growing up, I always assumed these columns were some sort of ancient ruin. Maybe it was their location adjacent to Mizzou’s Archeology museum–a destination for elementary school field trips and collection of classical sculptures and artifacts–or maybe it was because they are powerful remnant of the past that invites viewers to see beyond the built environment into a new dimension of imagined architecture, ultimately posing the question, “What is architecture? What is anything?” Either way, the Columns are a unique showpiece of Columbia that my family would guarantee to show any out-of-town visitors. After all, Missouri is the “Show-Me State”, so show me those columns!

View of the Columns and Jesse Hall looking South on 8th St, also known as “the Avenue of the Columns” (Image Source: Notley Hawkins, 2014)

The University of Missouri was founded in 1839 as the first public university west of the Mississippi, and the first in Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase Territory. Historically, Mizzou has offered a comprehensive view of education, combining research and land-grant efforts at one university to enhance the transfer of knowledge from professors to students to the general public. Today Mizzou is home to a community of 35,000 students, offering a variety of different degrees in different fields ranging from Agriculture to Engineering to Journalism.

In 1892, a fire destroyed Academic Hall, the first building on campus. Academic Hall, built between 1840 and 1843, was designed by A. Stephen Hills, who also designed the Missouri State Capitol building. Academic Hall was special to the campus and community as it was built using bricks fired on campus and limestone locally sourced from Hinkson Creek. The design featured three-storied central dome section and six ionic limestone columns. Two wings (added in 1885) housed educational and administrative facilities. The fire destroyed everything but its six columns.

Academic Hall (1843-1892) before the addition of the East and West wings in 1885 (Image Source: UMC Archives: C:1/141/8)

Academic Hall (1843-1892) after the construction of the East and West wings in 1885 and before the 1892 fire. (Image Source: UMC Archives: C:1/141/8)

Academic Hall (1843-1892)  during the fire on January 9, 1892. (Image Source: UMC Archives: C:0/3/8)

Following the fire, Mizzou’s Board of Curators voted to demolish the columns. However, the iconic columns embodied memory of the University’s first building, and Mizzou students, alumni and Columbia community members rallied to save the columns. After proving they would be structurally sound, and a major student, alumni and public outcry, the Board of Curators voted to save the columns in December of 1893.

The Columns in the foreground with Jesse Hall (1893) in the background (Image Source: Ethan Boote, 2010)

As of 1995, the Columns have become part of Mizzou ritual tradition. The rituals of the Tiger Walk and Tiger Prowl–named after Mizzou’s Tiger mascot–reenact the historic use of the columns in a unique way, giving new life to the Columns. The Tiger Walk occurs each August for the Freshman class. It symbolizes the entrance into Mizzou as Freshman walk through the columns southwards towards Jesse Hall. Historically, this would be the direction that students would enter Academic Hall, if it were still extant. Opposite of the Tiger Walk is the Tiger Prowl, which occurs upon graduation. Seniors walk the opposite direction through the columns, outwards of what would be Academic Hall. The Tiger Prowl does not symbolize leaving the university, but instead symbolizes the long-lasting connection to the University as alumni.

Class of 2017 freshman students running through the Columns as a part of the “Tiger Walk” in August 2013 (Image Source: The Maneater Senior Staff Photographer, Brent Pearson)

This preservation project happens at an early moment for the profession, although in 1893, I’m sure the community of students and alumni were not acting as “preservationists” when rallying to save the columns, however they used a strategy that modern day preservationists use to establish significance. The result is the successful monumentalizing of a lost building through its former main identifying features that are brought to life by the students and alumni of Mizzou in the present. These columns may not be the Acropolis, but it’s what we’ve got!







Main Photo:

University of Missouri aerial photograph featuring the David R. Francis Quadrangle, the Columns and Jesse Hall (Image source: UM Chancellor’s Office)