Portrait of a city

Thursday, June 1, 2006
Tom Neumeyer photographed the Himmelberger-Harrison Building, 400 Broadway in Cape Girardeau, on Wednesday. The building was constructed in 1908. (Fred Lynch)

The final stop Tom Neumeyer made in downtown Cape Girardeau Wednesday morning before returning to his studio was the May Greene Garden.

Rumors abound concerning the garden's fate if the Cape Girardeau County government gets control of the current federal building. The garden sits behind the building, on the site of the former Greene estate. But some worry that the garden's location could move.

Neumeyer is working on the final stages of a project called "Portraits of Cape Girardeau: Then and Now," and the parallels between his project and the possible future of the garden aren't lost on the photographer.

"We have lost a lot of treasures due to shortsightedness," says Neumeyer, also a former Cape Girardeau city councilman and a historic preservation buff. "Politicians and bureaucrats are infamous for being shortsighted."

His "Portraits" project seeks to capture the treasures Cape Girardeau has lost, as well as those that have been preserved. Starting Friday, locals can get a sneak peak at the work in progress, when a Neumeyer photo exhibit of the same name opens at the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri.

Calling the exhibit art would be a misnomer. Instead, "Portraits" is a documentary of the city's history that will conjure up memories for many city residents.

"This is not so much streetscapes," Neumeyer says of his work. "It's people and showing the changes in their lifestyles.

"As much as possible it's people. It's not just buildings; it's people who live here and work here."

Like the photo of an old parade sometime in the 1930s at Lacey Street and Broadway. The crowd chokes the sidewalks, and some people climb telephone poles to get a better look.

THEN: A streetcar passed the Boston Grocery and Rooming House as it turned from Broadway to Main Street. Streetcars operated from 1905 to 1934.
NOW: The site of the rooming house is now occupied by the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Another photo shows people on a streetcar at Broadway and Main Street where the Convention and Visitors Bureau now is.

Using photos from the past and the present, Neumeyer's exhibit shows the changes in people, places and culture that have occurred over the years in Cape Girardeau.

There are the lost treasures Neumeyer speaks of, like the Colonial Tavern. Once a local hot spot, the tavern opened in 1932. The building was razed to make room for a Regions Bank at its 407 N. Kingshighway location in 1998.

Once Cape Girardeau was known as the City of Roses, and a trail of the flowers lined U.S. 61 between the city and Jackson. Now those roses are gone, and the city has dropped the name.

Two more losses documented.

Then there are the treasures that have been saved, like the old A&P Grocery building at 19 N. Spanish St. The store opened in 1941, and was once an innovator in self-service grocery. The building remains, and is now the home of the Brick Street Gallery -- appropriately an antiques store.

'Inevitable losses'

"I have pictures of what were beautiful homes that are now a parking lot," said Neumeyer. "Overall the people of Cape have done a good job. ... but there have been inevitable losses."

Neumeyer started work on the project a few years back while working with Dr. Frank Nickell and Dr. Joel Rhodes, two Southeast Missouri State University history professors, on a coffee-table book.

That book, "Historic Cape Girardeau: An Illustrated History," was exactly as the title implies -- a history of the city accompanied by photos. Neumeyer used his connections with the Kassel and Lueders collections, along with other resources, to get images for that book.

Rhodes said Neumeyer's expertise goes beyond just photography. To Rhodes he's a legitimate historian, even if an amateur.

"Tom is, in my mind, the expert in Cape Girardeau on historic photographs," said Rhodes. "Tom has a great awareness of ... what collections are available and where to find historic photographs. If I ever need an historic photograph, he's the guy I would think of first."

Neumeyer's ability to obtain historic photographs is what has allowed this project to be realized. "Portraits" will later this year turn into a book printed by the Southeast Missouri State University Press, with 80 to 90 pairings of then-and-now photographs and descriptions of sites.

He'll also make a presentation to take to civic groups and a Web site so former residents living outside the area can access the project.

15 pairs so far

For now this exhibit of 30 photos (15 pairings) will serve as the public's only taste of the work.

The display is more documentary than artistic, but arts council gallery manager Margaret Dement said Neumeyer's work and the Bicentennial Photography Competition exhibit that will accompany it have given the arts council a way to be part of the city's bicentennial celebration this year.

Dement said the arts council initially just planned to display the competition entries this month. Neumeyer served as juror for that contest, and when he leaked information about the "Portraits" project, Dement showed interest in hosting his exhibition.

The arts council committee that selects its monthly featured works agreed. Dement said the council is confident Neumeyer's work, coupled with the bicentennial competition photos, will bring in the crowds.

People will connect with the images, Dement said. She did.

"I can remember these places," said Dement.

Neumeyer hopes his photos will help dredge up memories in everyone who sees them.

"Part of the purpose of this project is to re-create memories," Neumeyer said. "It's like family vacations when you're a kid. Your memories always seem to be of the moments there are photos of.

"The project is kind of like a family album. But what were the children then are now the grandparents."


335-6611, extension 182

* What: "Portraits of Cape Girardeau: Then and Now"

* Where: Arts Council of Southeast Missouri, 32 N. Main St.

* When: Opens with First Friday reception from 5 to 8 p.m.

* Info: 334-9233

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