Paul Helmer
As a child, Paul Helmer would often make suggestions to his mother about ways to improve the way their home looked. But his mother would tell him no, because no one in the neighborhood was doing it. “And I’d say, ‘that’s why we should do it!’” he said.

That creative thinking and love of art and architecture continued throughout his childhood, and as Helmer grew up, he came to appreciate St. Joseph’s architecture more and more.

The St. Joseph Historical Society was most likely pretty surprised when Helmer, still a student at Central High School, started attending Society meetings.

And his love for historical buildings and architecture has never waned.

Helmer attended Missouri Western for three years before transferring to Kansas State University to earn an architecture degree. He started his business, Touch of Distinction, in Kansas City about 40 years ago and has completed restoration projects all over the United States, including several in St. Joseph.

“I went into architecture because I grew up in St. Joseph, and architecture was everywhere, and I could see the beauty of the city and the things that made it unique,” he said. “It’s the idiosyncrasies that make our cities beautiful.”

Calling himself both a conservationist and architect, Helmer’s business offers color consultations, faux painting, landscapes, interior design and more for both commercial and residential buildings.

He completed work on St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the Twin Spires church (“the most beautiful church in the city”) in St. Joseph, and recently restored the exterior of the 1890 Krug Mansion. He also restored the original French wallpaper in the Shakespeare Chateau Inn and Gardens in St. Joseph.

“It was a delight,” he said of the Shakespeare project. “I try to bring things back as close to the original as possible.”

And although he lives in Kansas City, Helmer has always remained involved in St. Joseph’s preservation efforts.

“When someone says no, I say, ‘why not?’ I always look at alternatives to demolition. The buildings are so beautiful; how can you tear them down?”

His final graduation project at Kansas State was creating a plan to restore Warehouse Row on 4th Street in downtown St. Joseph, which included converting the upper floors to apartments and filling the ground level with commercial properties. That’s where the Fourth Street Lofts and Boudreaux’s Louisiana Seafood and Steaks are today. And many elements of his senior project, a renovation plan for the Buchanan County Courthouse, made their way into the work that began on it two years later.

“When we tear down a masterpiece of art and architecture, we lose a piece of ourselves; we lose the connection with those who have gone before us,” Helmer said. “We are not just preserving beautiful old buildings, we are preserving history.” Wilson ’15
Garrett Wilson ’15 may be young, but he still appreciates the past and wants to do his part to preserve it. In 2017, he started his own business, GKW Restoration, which specializes in historic masonry restoration such as tuckpointing, stone replacement and patching, brick replacement, masonry cleaning, and new masonry projects.

“I enjoy being able to stand back at the end of project and look at the before and after photos,” Wilson said. “I like to see how far the project came, knowing we did it correctly.”

Wilson, who was born in St. Joseph and grew up in Kansas City, started at Missouri Western right out of high school and played golf his freshman year. He thought he wanted to go into banking, but then decided no.

Wilson got married and switched to part-time college and full-time work. He began working in construction, and then he knew what he wanted to do. Wilson earned an economics degree from Missouri Western and worked as a project manager for a construction company before starting his own business.

When he became an entrepreneur just two years ago, he had one employee. Today, there are 30 employees and the company has grown to do millions of dollars in annual revenue. Wilson has offices in Kansas City and Manhattan, Kansas; and plans to open more in the future.

However, he is quick to credit his wife when it comes to the success of the business.

“I want to mention how big a part that my wife, Maria, has played, and still plays, in the success of the company. She puts up with my 70-hour work weeks and is used to me leaving before the sun comes up and coming home at 8 p.m. She knows that I am not the kind of person that can work a 9-5 job, and she stays at home with the kids so I can do my thing. I couldn’t do it without her.”

Wilson says when you are restoring historic buildings, you have to not only learn the skills to restore the brick or stone, but you have to keep up with the regulations and historic preservation requirements, and he enjoys that aspect of the business.

He is involved in Young Preservationists KC, an affiliate group of Historic Kansas City, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the area’s heritage and neighborhoods. GKW Restoration is also a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which protects and supports significant historic places and structures across the United States.