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Will the other shoe drop on the Buster Brown Blue Ribbon Shoe Factory?

Jim Osher can’t imagine how anyone could think of tearing his building down.

"You see that piece of wood?" he asks pointing to a massive rafter. "That’s old growth Douglas fir. You can’t get that anymore."

We’re standing on the fourth floor of the Buster Brown Blue Ribbon Shoe Factory, a building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1901 and the Brown Shoe Company bought it a few years later. The company made children’s shoes here for decades under the Buster Brown label.

Now the four-story brick building with an unusual curved front sits on marked land. It’s within the footprint of what St. Louis officials hope will become the new home for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. And if the agency does move there, the building will have to go.

But Jim Osher is brimming with enthusiasm. He has a plan to save it.

"This is history that won’t ever get replaced," he says, shaking his head at the idea of a wrecking ball.

Instead Osher wants to pick up the 85,000-square-foot building, move it across the street and turn it into a shoe-themed hotel.

He’s got two companies that say they can do it by either moving it on railroad tracks or on wheels. The cost? Somewhere in the $5 million range, or as Osher puts it, "A tenth of what it would cost to rebuild this building."

Jim Osher poses for a portrait inside his building.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Jim Osher poses for a portrait inside his building.

Morehurdles than cost and logistics

Osher and the city haven’t come to an agreement on how much the property is worth. Last week the historic building became part of the city’s eminent domain suit that would, in effect, force property owners to sell to the city if the NGA chooses the north St. Louis site. On top of that, Osher has fired his attorney.

"He didn’t share my vision," he says and laughs.

While it might be easy to dismiss Osher as tilting at windmills, the 55-year-old is a businessman. He runs the Home Improvement Outlet from the first floor of the Buster Brown building and distributes custom granite countertops nationwide from a facility along Vandeventer Avenue.

There’s also a model for his idea for a shoe-themed hotel. TheCraddockTerry Hotel in Lynchburg, Va. is housed in an old shoe factory, built in 1905.

"It’s a beautiful, beautiful place that they have, and I’ve been talking with the management company that runs that facility," Osher said. "We’ve signed a memorandum of understanding for them to run this hotel."

Osher also has hired an architect, St. Louis-based Pete Conant, who shows off plans for a 150-room hotel in the Buster Brown building. The biggest challenge he says will be modernizing the structure without losing its historic character. That will likely mean replacing all the windows with historic replicas. The architect is less worried about moving the brick structure across the street.

"I’ve seen what they’ve done before with other buildings, and it seems very doable," Conant said. "The people who are knowledgeable are biting at the bit to do it."

City officials not so confident

St. Louis Development Corp. executive director Otis Williams is heading up efforts to attract the NGA to north St. Louis. Yet while the city has agreed to move one resident’s three-story brick home to save it, Williams thinks it would be a feat to move the old factory.

"Engineering-wise and structurally there will be some real challenges," he said. "It’s not our intent to move the facility, but if Mr. Osher would like to move it, we would not object. But we’re going to deal with him based on the value of the property."

Williams said conversations with Osher continue despite the lawsuit, but rather than the $5 million it would cost to move the factory, the city’s terms would likely be closer to $3.75 million. That’s the amount developer Paul McKee paid back in 2011 when he bought the building from Osher, who remained on the property. Osher said he got a down payment and helped finance the deal, but he decided to take the building back last November. Tax records confirm the sales. 

Located near the edge of the NGA site, would the city consider letting the historic building remain? Williams said there’s no chance.

"We’re 100 percent certain the building can’t stay," he said. "We had conversations with the NGA over a year ago and it doesn’t work on the site."

Move it or lose it

The idea of moving a huge brick structure wasn’t always so foreign in St. Louis. Landmarks Associationexecutive director Andrew Weil says he comes across it in his research of buildings.

"You see pictures of large brick houses like you find in the Central West End being pulled down the street on wagons and sleds by horses."

With today’s technology he thinks moving the Buster Brown Blue Ribbon Shoe Factory is hardly out of reach.

"I think it’s doable," he says. "I know it’s been done in other cities."

Weil says with 3,100 employees at the NGA, a boutique hotel so close by would be well-supported. If not that, the building could find some other use. The preservationist says there’s a good economic development argument to be made for saving the shoe factory.

"Destroying this building is destroying future capacity for the city to grow its tax base ..." he says. "If it’s imploded and carted off to the landfill it’s not going to do anything for anyone."


Along for the ride

While it would seem to solve a lot of problems for Jim Osher if the NGA chose to go to Illinois instead, he doesn’t want to see that happen.

Osher says he’s had the plan for years and wanted to use it as an incentive to bring the NGA to north St. Louis. After all, he says, the college graduates that the NGA needs to recruit are unlikely to want to locate "in a farm field." He's referring to the land near Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County that's the city's biggest competition for the agency.

"We wanted to create something that people who are working at the NGA would have a nice place to go after work, and if they had people coming in, they’d have a nice place to stay," he says.

Osher says he’ll go forward with his plans for the hotel whether or not the NGA chooses St. Louis. He believes it could be a catalyst for this neighborhood where he’s lived for 25 years, many of them in a loft in the building he’s now trying to save.

Asked what he’ll do if the building is moved, Osher says he’ll stay put.

"I’m going along for the ride!" he says.

Then he launches into an explanation of how he'll get a generator and portable septic tank for the four-month journey. 

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.