When you’re walking around downtown or the Frederick Avenue area of St. Joseph, it’s hard to resist looking up. There are dozens of 19th century homes, churches and businesses with amazing architectural elements. Some of the finest are the brainchild of Edmond Eckel, a well-known name that has come to mean beauty and inspiration across the region.
As snow begins to fall and homes are glowing with warm lights from inside, it’s a great time to pack up your Monday Morning Coffee mug and take a walk to explore. There’s something about seeing your surroundings in a new way – especially lately – that “perks” up your spirit. (coffee pun intended). Eckel’s French upbringing and his architectural education in Paris sets the stage even today for some study and reflection … or at least, a few “how did they do that?” kind of moments.
How did he get to the Midwest, you may wonder? It was an interesting and accidental turn of events, like a lot of good stories. He arrived in New York in 1868, then headed westward. By the summer of 1869, Eckel’s journey was intended for Kansas City – until a bridge washed out and kept him in St. Joseph. As he waited, he came to know St. Joseph and was impressed with its economic boom. By 1872, Eckel had joined a local architectural firm and started putting his magic to brick, plaster and marble. He would later form his own firm and create beautiful things across the city and the region for another 65 years. (It’s ironic that the loss of an architectural structure led to the creation of so many more).
Some of his hallmark buildings include the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion at 1100 Charles. As the flagship of the Museum Hill neighborhood, the mansion has a three-story tower, more than 40 rooms, opulent woodwork, stained glass and even hand-painted ceilings. Now a natural and cultural history museum, the Mansion offers a closer connection to Eckel with a special exhibit in his honor – featuring furniture, books and original blueprints.
Other buildings that bear the Eckel mark include the St. Joseph Public Library, City Hall, the Corby Building and the German-American Bank Building downtown, now renovated as Mosaic offices. (Interestingly, Eckel designed across the Midwest, including a state penitentiary and an Iowa jail.)
It’s likely that there are some budding architectural minds across the region due to his work, especially because the St. Joseph Museum continues to host a children’s ArKIDtecture Club. The group meets on a regular basis to learn about building structures, local styles and even seasonal-themed elements (like igloos in December).
This week, pack up that coffee and explore some great spaces in our town. Historic buildings connect us to our past and inspire us toward our future. Like Edmond Eckel, the new year ahead could bring some special surprises and pit-stops on your journey that you just wouldn’t want to miss.