Soggy Cracker House Needs Some Help

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Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:48 pm, Fri May 18, 2012.

The Saltine Cracker House says much about St. Joseph. Some of it isn't pretty.

The inventor of the Premium saltine cracker originally owned the 1882 Italianate house at 914 Main St. The city of St. Joseph said it likely will order it to be repaired - or eventually demolished - in a dangerous building hearing at 2 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

Frank L. Sommers' St. Joseph baking company produced the prize-winning soda cracker in the 1876 Buchanan County Fair, thus the blue-ribboned "Premium" logo. Mr. Sommers' company eventually merged with Nabisco (then known as the American Biscuit Co.), according to several historic sources and Kraft's history of its Nabisco products.

The cracker grew with St. Joseph. Westward expansionists rode the rails to St. Joseph then hitched wagons westward, taking the durable cracker tins with them.

But the industrial wealth stayed here, evidenced by the house at the foot of the hill on Main Street.

"We have to hold onto our history," said Jennifer Higgs, co-owner of Second Century Historic Capital Advisors and a board member of the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation. "You have to hold on with both hands, because if it slips away, we lose another part of St. Joseph's soul."

Gus Singh, of Largo, Fla., bought the house in 2005 after a long search for the owners, who were in the midst of bankruptcy. At the time, Mr. Singh's wife worked for Heartland Health.

"I really fell in love with St. Joseph and its history," Mr. Singh said in a phone interview Monday.

He had grand plans and a verbal commitment from the city for a $30,000 grant. Stories vary depending on the source, but later Mr. Singh was only in line for $15,000.

He scoffed at the offer, which also would've required that he improve the property to the city's exact standards. He said that would've cost about $350,000. Meantime, city code enforcers took notice of the property.

The city and several other people involved in historic preservation have said Mr. Singh was only speculating on "flipping" the house and never intended to make much of an investment.

"That's a total misinformation or assumption on their part," Mr. Singh said. "The problem isn't and has never been with me. Nobody from St. Joseph has ever followed through. Except for code enforcement."

Mr. Singh described his experience in St. Joseph as "pitiful, sad and shameful." He said he would entertain any ideas on selling or fixing the house. "Everybody that could and wanted to left St. Joseph," he said.

He compared St. Joseph with Savannah, Ga. - a city with booming historic redevelopment - and said St. Joseph's historical significance and architecture are "far greater."

"I had great plans for this building, but the heart's been ripped out of me," Mr. Singh said.

Others say Mr. Singh is simply not a good steward and won't invest and won't sell. Even in its current state - wet, crumbling and with holes, not unlike a soggy cracker - historic preservationist Nigh Johnson said Mr. Singh still could make a profit on his original investment.

"There are people that are interested in buying that property," said Lisa Rock, a real estate agent specializing in historic properties.

The city could order Mr. Singh to repair the property. It also is considering offering him another grant, perhaps more than $30,000, according to Mr. Singh and city officials Steve Hofferber and Gerald McCush. The repair order also could prompt Mr. Singh to sell.

"I really feel this is an important structure in St. Joseph's history, and I'm doing everything I can to save this property," said Scott Des Planques, the city's historic preservation planner.

Joe Blumberg can be reached

at joeblumberg@npgco.com.

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