If you have lived in Columbia, Missouri for a number of years, you more than likely have heard or read about the Niedermeyer Apartments at 920 Cherry St. Situated in downtown, among the many 19th and 20th century brick buildings home to various restaurants and establishments, sits an L-shaped structure older than the University of Missouri! A 25-foot-by-40-foot structure built on the lot in 1837 would become the Columbia Female Academy owned by General Richard Gentry. With emerging popularity came an expansion to the building including a 2nd floor and the L-shaped addition for which the building is known for. By the 1850s, trustees of the academy formed the Baptist College, which later became known as Stephens College. With the rise in success of Stephens, the Columbia Female Academy closed its doors. Over time the building has reportedly housed Union troops at points during the Civil War, been leased to MU for use as the Department of Domestic Science (home economics), and most popularly been a hotel.
The building became known as the Cottage Hotel in 1895 and later the Gordon Hotel, which was the first hotel to have steam heat in Columbia. Frederick W. Niedermeyer didn’t stake his claim in the building till 1897 when the Cunningham family sold their interest for $6,500. Niedermeyer and Gordon worked throughout the coming years to add wings to the south and west sides of the building, thus giving the structure its current appearance. If you know that the Niedermeyer Apartment building was once a hotel, then you more than likely know that Mark Twain once walked its halls. On June 3rd, 1902, members of the Phi Kappa Beta Society held a dinner in the meeting room of the Gordon in Mark Twain’s honor. He was to receive an honorary degree from MU the following day. According to an article published on June 6th, 1902 in The Columbia Missouri Herald, Twain’s speech “kept the audience in a constant roar of laughter, which reached at times the explosive stage.”
By 1911, Niedermeyer became the sole owner of the building, and by 1921 the place was reopened as the Niedermeyer Apartments. Remaining in the hands of Niedermeyer’s family for the next several decades, the building wouldn’t come into a compromising position until 2013 when it was slated for demolition. Collegiate Housing Partners, a development firm out of St. Louis was under contract to purchase the building and replace it with a new student-housing complex as tall as 15 stories. When a long-standing, historically important building is threatened by new development, it isn’t uncommon for there to be many who oppose the idea. Countless Columbia citizens, including those on the City Council, past and present tenants, and simply those who have walked past the building and cherished its presence, voiced their disapproval and fought to keep the Niedermeyer intact. The Historic Preservation Commission actively sought to find a private buyer in order to save the building from demise, while also recognizing the structure at their 2013 Most Notable Property Event. The event helped to further emphasis just how important the Niedermeyer Apartments are to the city. Collegiate Housing Partners eventually caught wind of the aversion felt by numerous citizens. In response, the firm backed away and soon came in contact with Nakhle Asmar, the building’s current owner. Asmar is a Jefferson City resident, professor and head of the Mathematics Department at MU, and owner of Ginger C. LC, which owns 37 other properties throughout north and central Columbia. After talking with Collegiate Housing Partners and fully realizing the significance of the Niedermeyer, Asmar eventually purchased the building, saving it from demolition. He says of the experience, “[The Niedermeyer] came my way, and I thought if I could save it I would.” Owning a building with such exciting history and significant value to the community as this one wasn’t something Asmar had ever truly though of doing. Yet a series of events landed the Niedermeyer right in his hands, and the opportunity of maintaining this historical gem was one that couldn’t be passed up. One could have said the building was again safe and sound, but according to Asmar, that statement couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
The Niedermeyer Apartments were in for some serious renovation work to ensure the building’s safety. Thinking back to first purchasing the building, Asmar remarks, “When I was touring the building I thought ‘Oh my.’ It was full of combustible things; you know, like old mattresses. I mean junk, junk, junk!” The previous owner had held onto the building for roughly 40 years and had done very little as far as maintenance goes. Four guys and one week later, the building had finally been cleared of debris. The renovations could commence. Asmar was immediately concerned with the safety of the building and concentrated on securing it first and foremost. The electrical was all redone which allowed for a much-needed upgrade to the plumbing in which a sprinkler system would be installed. The porch, significant to the building’s social aspect, was completely restored. Before it was rotted away so severely that it seemed it would collapse at any moment. The windows are currently being replaced by large, double insulated, energy efficient ones, and the apartments are being completely upgraded unit by unit. Asmar emphasized the bathrooms as a priority. The pipes were clogged beyond repair, therefore they had to be cut and completely replaced so that there would be adequate water pressure. The flooring throughout the building has to be redone and as Asmar observed of the building in general, “Most everything did.”
The biggest project currently facing the building is an addition of several units to the 3rd floor, plus a fire escape with a staircase. The west wing’s attic space has yet to be finished. When considering this area of the building, Asmar says, “It bothers me [from a safety perspective] that you have an area of the building where it is down to the studs.” This space was previously used as storage and was home to the numerous mattresses Asmar and several others had to haul to the dumpster. The apartments in this space will be outfitted with upgraded, high-quality features and interiors. The new drywall plus the upgrades will help to make these once vacant spaces feel brand new in a building that is far from that.
According to Asmar, a lot of the inside has been modified throughout the years, and with just one walk through the building it’s not hard to comprehend this. The bathtubs, some lighting fixtures, and the architecture may be original for the most part, but other than that, much has been changed along the way due to the building’s multiple purposes since its foundation. Various carpets cover the hardwood floors throughout the halls, and the wood banisters have been painted over multiple times. It’s simply a matter of bringing the building back to its roots while still maintaining the functionality demanded of present day apartments. One tenant has helped in doing just that to her own unit. Linda Libert has rented the studio unit right off the front entrance for many years, her son recently residing here. She was one of the many who vigorously fought to save the property. Libert not only enjoys the apartment’s convenient location, but she also hated to see a valuable part of Columbia’s history be torn down. Not only is Libert’s unit famous for being carved out of the Gordon Hotel’s lobby, but the University of Missouri has a photo of Mark Twain leaning against the brick fireplace that still stands in the middle of the unit’s living space. The floors have been redone with Libert’s help in a walnut color and the walls are exposed brick. She also repainted the kitchen, which had been painted in subtle shades of pink and purple by the previous tenant. A unique feature of the space that surprisingly still works is a call button used for bellboys. This is located behind the fireplace and presumable behind what used to be the hotel’s front counter. It is unique features such as this one that reminds those of the building’s treasurable past. Central air was recently installed in this unit and will be installed in the other units as they receive renovation work. Libert continued to point out other original features of the building such as the front entry’s hanging light fixture and the left front door’s glass embellishment inscribed with the letter “N.”
It has been 2 years since Asmar purchased the building, and he says that it will be roughly 2 more until the building will be near a finishing point. Much work goes into repairing a building of this age, especially when it hasn’t been consistently maintained throughout the years. However, regardless of the long-term renovation work, the apartments still have a waiting list. People love to live in the Niedermeyer Apartments despite its overall lack of brand new, luxury amenities. Current and future tenants appear to value the history and culture of the building over the renovation work, which always has the potential of being troublesome to every day life. Asmar remarks of the work, “People appreciate what we are doing there so they work with us.” It’s not just the tenants who appreciate the work being done. It’s those who fought to save the building and it’s those who still have the opportunity to walk past the white brick and green roofed structure that truly has stood the test of time. It’s also the future generations who will have a chance at living here and building friendships with fellow residents on the beautiful wraparound porch. It’s true what Asmar says, “You can’t help but really fall in love with the building.” Walk through the wide halls, catch a glimpse of the fireplace, or stand on the front porch looking out into downtown Columbia and it’s hard to deny the draw this building has on those who come in contact with it. The Niedermeyer has surpassed all other downtown Columbia structures in age, and there is no doubt that it will continue to do so for many, many years to come.