The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

July 29, 2010

Missouri Southern mansion restoration nearly complete

JOPLIN, Mo. — Bob Higgins remembers marveling at the Mission Hills Mansion as a boy growing up in Joplin.

The Spanish-style building overlooked an elegant estate that was built for a regional mining magnate.

“It had a mystique for me,” said Higgins, 88, who graduated from Joplin Junior College in 1942, during a Tuesday visit to the building

Higgins was a member of a strategic planning committee for Missouri Southern State University’s Alumni Association that in 2004 recommended, among other things, that the mansion become the new home for the university’s alumni center.

That vision will be realized come September, when the restored mansion is publicly unveiled as the Ralph L. Gray Alumni Center. Restoration of the 90-year-old structure started several years ago, beginning with work on the exterior before crews moved inside.

“We call it home for everyone (at) Missouri Southern,” said Lee Elliff Pound, the university’s alumni director.

‘Heart’ of MSSU

The mansion was built in 1920 for Lucius “Buck” Buchanan. The property surrounding the mansion was used as a dairy farm before it was acquired by Joplin Junior College in the mid-1960s.

The building was used by the college, which later became Missouri Southern State University, in several ways over the years.

“It’s really a fascinating story,” said Brad Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex. “The heart of the university is really right here.”

The mansion was vacant for more than a dozen years — and suffered leaks and decay along the way — before the university in October 2005 approved the Alumni Association’s plans for the structure. A donation from the late Mary Helen Harutun, a longtime and noted Joplin piano teacher, helped start the work.

Pound recalled that Harutun made the contribution after touring the mansion. The fireplace in the front living room stirred memories of the fireplace in the Harutun home, Pound said.

“Two days later, she gave us her very kind gift,” she said.

The university earlier this year said the Alumni Association had raised $1.8 million for the project. Since then, the university has raised even more after factoring in donations to underwrite projects such as the restoration of the outdoor fountain, Pound said.

Hundreds of donors have helped with the project by buying patio bricks or making other in-kind donations.

Over the past few years, the exterior was re-stuccoed and the roof decking was replaced. A new main entrance was constructed, and the wall surrounding the mansion was lowered to a 3-foot retaining wall. Older windows have been replaced with energy-efficient ones.

On the inside, the old carpeting was removed and the hardwood floors were sanded. Lighting fixtures were restored when possible or replaced with replica lighting. Old restrooms have been refurbished, and new ones have been added to the first floor. The building was rewired, and some new plumbing was needed, Pound said.

Distinguishing features of the mansion include ornate tiling, an indoor fountain and a red-tile roof.

Once complete, the building will house the university’s Alumni Association offices and will have space for events. Freshman orientation also will be offered in the mansion.

Showcase

A connecting hallway will showcase a number of alumni items, Pound said, such as jerseys worn by graduates Allen Barbre and Rod Smith. The two men both went on to the NFL. Pennants festooning the walls also are envisioned, along with other historical pieces.

Belk, the museum complex director, said the plan is to “sprinkle some of the artifacts” and the “stories” throughout the building.

Higgins, who was named the college’s outstanding alumnus in 1974, said he doesn’t think he even set foot in the mansion until after he became a member of what was then called the Board of Regents for what was then called Missouri Southern State College. Higgins served on that board from 1983 to 1989.

“This was Cinderella Land to me,” he said.

The 11-room mansion was built in 1920 for Buchanan, a lead and zinc mine owner who developed the Waco Mining Field, one of the most productive in the Tri-State Mining District.

In 1940, the property was sold to Frank Wallower, who owned the Golden Rod Mine near Cardin, Okla., and whose father built the Keystone Hotel at the southeast corner of Fourth and Main streets in Joplin.

The property was purchased for the university in 1964 for $300,000 — a $100,000 gift from George A. Spiva and $200,000 donated to a committee called Friends of the College and headed by Morgan Hillhouse.

Leon Billingsly, the university’s first president, had offices in the building until Hearnes Hall was complete.

The garage was converted as a student union, bookstore and cafeteria.

The mansion was home of the university’s business school from 1969 until Matthews Hall was constructed. Then, it was occupied by the social science and communications departments.

Staff writer Susan Redden contributed to this report.

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