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200 Years at the Center of Everything: The History of Park Central Square at the History Museum

The History Museum on the Square in the Fox Theatre has opened a new exhibit about Park Central Square itself, called "200 Years at the Center of Everything," continuing through April 30. John Sellars, director of the History Museum, took me on a walking tour of the exhibit, of which several items can be seen in the slide show accompanying this story.

Sellars says the History Museum wanted to display an exhibit that "would really tell the story of the downtown. We wanted something that would focus on this area, how it developed, and also something that would be mostly photographic"--as opposed to a display overly reliant on written and printed documents. Not that documents are neglected by any means--the History Museum has a treasure trove of both historic photographs and documents pertaining to downtown Springfield.  So much material exists, says John Sellars, that they realized "we couldn't tell the story of the whole business district on the walls--there was just too much about the Square.  So we decided to tell the story of the Square itself, by decade, and we did that on the walls." Inside the theatre a 20-minute video plays throughout the day that tells about the outlying streets around the center business district and the Square.  "It came out to be what we think is a really neat exhibit," says Sellars.

In the 1820s explorer John Polk Campbell was awarded a good-sized tract of land by a Native American chieftain, and in 1835 Campbell donated 50 acres of it to Greene County to create a town to serve as the county seat--what became Springfield, of course. As John Sellars reminded me, the Native Americans wree here long before that. "This crossroads (where Park Central Square now sits) predated the white settlers. Native American trails crossed here because there was such a huge amount of water--and because there was water here, there was wild game and fruit and so on.  So the Native Americans traveled this area even before it became the Public Square."  Indeed, long before there was a Springfield.  Two acres of the 50 donated by Campbell were platted as a Public Square intended to house a courthouse, and to generally be the center of activities for the new town.  The other 48 acres were then plotted out and sold, and that revenue was used to build the courthouse in the center of the Square. 

Unfortunately, the courthouse burned to the ground in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War. No photographs or even drawings of the original courthouse exist from the period.  However, there are detailed written records.  And as recently as 1999 an architectural drawing representing the courthouse, along with a watercolor painting, were created.   John Sellars feels sure they are "pretty accurate" depictions of the way the building looked. "We've even got copies of the original hand-written deed for the land for the Square. So yeah, we've got wonderful records and maps, so we're very pleased to be able to show some of this stuff off."

The History Museum exhibit starts with the 1830s, with displays along the walls and back up the opposite wall, ending with the 1970s and the "pedestrian mall" that was envisioned to help revitalize downtown Springfield--and then, John Sellars says, "tearing that all back out and making it the way it looks today."

Sellars likens the significance of a central business district like Park Central Square to being "the heart, the beating heart of commerce and contact of the citizens and their activities. And it's genuinely that piece of everything that has to do with the community.

The development of Springfield can't be told without reference to what, in the 1800s, was the separate incorporated town of "North Springfield." There was strong friction between the two communities during the period when the Frisco Railroad was headquartered in North Springfield.  The two cities finally merged in 1887, and John Sellars says the new united Springfield was "aggressive" about growing and having "the latest and greatest" of everything. At a time when more than 4000 railroad employees lived here, a lot of commerce and income were generated for the growing city. By the mid-20th century, Springfield's Public Square really was the major hub of commerce for southwest Missouri. 

Says John Sellars, "this is where all your top-of-the-line shops were. You might go to a discount place, or you might go somewhere (else) for a knick-knack or something.  But when you wanted jewelry, or you wanted something special to wear, this is where you came."

By around 1970, with the opening of Battlefield Mall at Glenstone Avenue and Battlefield Road in southern Springfield, the downtown area--like those in other cities--rapidly lost its pre-eminence as a shopping and business district.  Shopping patterns changed, and as John Sellars told me, "Springfieldians showed less and less interest in taking a leisurely walk around the downtown area." Most downtown-based retailers either moved, or built second locations in or near Battlefield Mall--including Heer's.  Downtown Springfield Association members, "grasping at straws" as John Sellars describes it, travelled around the country looking at "downtown revitalization" efforts in other cities.  The idea they came up with for Springfield's downtown was to create more one-way streets and attempt to turn the Public Square into a sort of pedestrian mall, with a name change to "Park Central Square."  As you can see in the slide show above, there was even a proposal to build covered, climate-controlled walkways around the Square.  However, what was lacking for that and other such proposed renovations of downtown, says John Sellars, was adequate venture capital and other incentives to entice retailers to stay, return, or locate downtown.

The History Museum exhibit "200 Years at the Center of Everything" stops short of the recent revival of downtown Springfield and the explosion of bars, restaurants and boutiques.  But if you want to learn how it got to this point, the exhibit will answer just about any questions you might have.  It continues through April 30 in the old Fox Theatre building on Park Central Square, the home of the History Museum.