The Albrecht-Kemper Museum revisits St. Joseph’s golden age

John S. Lemon Home, 517 North 5th photo by James Enyeart)

The new exhibition at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum, “The Architecture of St. Joseph: The Golden Age Revisited,” is a reexamination of an exhibition originally mounted in 1974. That exhibition featured 85 photographs commissioned by the museum, then known as the Albrecht Art Museum. The images recorded and documented historical buildings and homes throughout the city, many from St. Joseph’s “Golden Age” in the late 19th century. The 2024 version will be supplemented with new photographs that reflect the preservation and losses of the last 50 years as well as architectural elements salvaged from renovated and demolished buildings.

St. Joseph first grew in the 1840s and 1850s as a departure and supply point for settlers and prospectors headed to California and Oregon. In the later decades of the 19th century, the city was a hub for wholesale distributors who supplied the Western United States. In 1886 the Chicago Times praised the city for having “a wholesale trade as large as Kansas City and Omaha combined”. These boom years in the 1880s and 1890s led to the construction of mansions, civic buildings and major commercial buildings.

By the 1970s, a century of economic shifts, population changes and urban growth and renewal plans had left these historic buildings in different conditions. Some buildings were continuously occupied and well maintained, while others had outgrown their usefulness or faded into disrepair. The Albrecht Art Museum decided to undertake a project to photograph many of these important or interesting sites for posterity. As director Jim Ray wrote, “. . . we need buildings we can reflect on, that can help us appreciate the past and not forget it.” The project was completed over the course of 1973, and by the time the exhibit opened in 1974 at least three of the photographed buildings had already been demolished. The current exhibition will include recent photos of the same subjects, including intact buildings, new construction and vacant lots to explore how the architectural character of the city has continued to change.

Barlett Trust Company Building, 8th and Frederick Ave. (photo by James Enyeart)

The photographer chosen for the original project was James Enyeart, then the curator of photography at the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas. Enyeart was a respected academic and curator who would later go on to serve as the director at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona and at the George Eastman Museum, but he was also a photographer with an interest in exploring the documentary and formal aspects of architectural photography. As he stated in an interview from the museum archives, “I wanted to portray the spirit and character of the houses . . . I reacted to each home individually — to whatever made the most emphatic impression on me initially.” Enyeart would go on the next year to do the Kansas Documentary Project, an NEA-funded project with two other artists to document the people and places throughout the state. The National Endowment for the Arts would later fund nearly 100 similar projects through rest of the decade. These documentary photographs evoked the spirit of the Great Depression-era photographers while reflecting contemporary concerns and nostalgia sparked by the Bicentennial, changing technology and conflicting ideas of urban planning and renewal.

The Albrecht-Kemper Museum hopes that this exhibition will give visitors an opportunity to reflect on the changing city both leading up to the original project in 1974 and in the years since. The exhibition will be on view July 20 through Sept. 15.

Financial assistance provided by the St. Joseph, Missouri Visitors Bureau.

CategoriesArts Consortium
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