Revitalizing the Historic Heart of Downtown Springfield

Mar 27, 2015

John Sellars is a happy man these days. The executive director of the History Museum on the Square in Springfield doesn’t need to look far to admire some of the many renovations currently underway.

“I can look out my window here on the square and can see construction going on in all points of the compass.   I walk from my car and I look down Robberson alley and I see work going on at the Vandivort.   I see activity all around downtown and we’re on the cusp of a tremendous resurgence here,” Sellars says.

Sellars, a self-described “history nut,” started as a volunteer at the museum in the mid-1970s.  He explains that several buildings on the square are coming up on their 100th anniversaries.  Sellars explains the History Museum and Fox Theatre are being revitalized to retain the classic outside appearance while becoming a state of the art modern museum inside.  

Sellars points to the Heers Building, slated to open this fall as a residential and commercial unit.  He explains that prior to its long time rein as the premier department store, it was the site of the original Greene County Courthouse before the turn of the 20th century.

Patrick McWhirt is the creative director for the Vecino Group, a local development group that is renovating several historic downtown buildings on the corner of Jefferson and Park Central East, which is now collectively refered to as Park East.  This includes the old Woodruff building, the Sterling Hotel and the U.  

“The sustainability side of it is these are existing buildings—they’re huge to our heritage and our character as a city.  It’s just the right thing to do.  To bring them back to life rather than just leave them languish or have them torn down.  It’s part of our DNA,” McWhirt says.

Mary Lilly Smith is planning and development director with the city of Springfield.  She says much of the downtown area, or Center City, is zoned as a mixed use environment.  Federal and state tax incentives are available to help make these renovations possible.  Smith says one of the main goals with the projects is to create a “great place to live” and retain young talent after college graduation.

“A healthy community has to have a healthy heart just like a healthy body has to have a healthy heart.  So it’s really important for downtown to be a vibrant inviting space.  That is the most authentic experience that anyone coming to Springfield can have is to visit a downtown,” says Smith.

Sellars and McWhirt agree and say that while the buildings are expensive to bring back to life, they feel the overall potential benefits outweigh the financial cost. McWhirt says revitalizing downtown is helping to grow the economy.

“Because really it is going to help the economy down there to have residents in these buildings. With people living in them that’s going to help all of the businesses downtown.  That’s going to keep people in the center of town and help bolster Springfield’s downtown economy,” says McWhirt.

Outside of the Woodruff, crews load into a lift capable of transporting between five and eight people at once. It’s a ride taken dozens of times a day, which can bring workers all the way to the building’s highest story, or tenth floor.

Each of the buildings on Park East have commercial space on the first floor, and provide unique residential space throughout. For example, The U has monthly mentoring lecture opportunities. This month featured local chocolatier and businessman Shawn Askinosie. The Sterling capitalizes on shared living such as a bicycle and electric car program, as well as other available shared living resources. The Woodruff will have a health and fitness center, pool and concierge. The U is leasing and the Sterling and Woodruff are pre-leasing with plans to open this fall.

Sellars shares his enthusiasm as each of these spaces gets a new chance at life. But he’s sad that officials are renaming the Woodruff Building to Sky 11. 

“Because the Woodruff building was the only thing with the name what I consider the most beneficial supportive proponent of Springfield ever.  John T. Woodruff came here as an attorney for the railroad in 1904,” explains Sellars.

According to Sellars, Mr. Woodruff was instrumental in bringing to town the Normal School in 1905, which later became MSU, as well as the federal medical center in 1933, the O’Reilly hospital, and the legendary Route 66.  He says that Woodruff “put his stamp on the community” in many ways and did so simply for the public good and did not require recognition. 

McWhirt says John T. Woodruff’s legacy will remain a part of the building and Springfield, even with the new name.

“Well they name change on Sky 11 that’s something we talked about.  And really the name in-and-of-itself actually honors the heritage of the property,” says McWhirt.

That’s because “Sky” comes from skyscraper, the first building of its kind in Springfield. The “11” comes from 1911, the year that it opened.