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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Illinois Closes Cahokia Courthouse, Fort de Chartres and Other Sites

Unbelievable -- according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is forced to close five hiostoric sites due to budget cuts by Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. Five are near St. Louis, and are popular destinations for families and student groups from the St. Louis area:

  • Fort de Chartres
  • Pierre Menard Home
  • Cahokia Courthouse
  • Fort Kaskaskia
  • Vandalia Statehouse

    What becomes of these highly significant places? Stay tuned.
  • Friday, August 29, 2008


    Entitled "Changes," my latest commentary for radio station KWMU aired this morning. The piece reflects on changes both physical and social taking place literally across the street from my house in Old North St. Louis. New residents have moved into the colorfully-painted buildings seen above, which were rehabbed as part of the ongoing Crown Square project transforming the center of the neighborhood. Read or listen to the commentary here.

    Small Victory for Sensible Agriculture

    From the Marshall News-Democrat's story "Judge rules in favor of Arrow Rock CAFO opponents":

    The future of confined animal feeding operations in Saline County is uncertain after Associate Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ruled in Cole County Circuit Court Monday, Aug. 25, in favor of Arrow Rock opponents to Dennis Gessling's proposed CAFO two miles from the village.

    The judgment specifies a 15-mile buffer zone around state historic sites in which CAFOs cannot be permitted and cannot operate.

    Quirky Gem on University Street

    The house at 2314 University Street in St. Louis Place is one of the strangest 19th century houses on the near north side. Built in 1878, the house's central feature is a wide round turret rising the full height from the foundation to the pointed round roof.

    The builder could not be trifled with convention on any point of the design -- form, style, floor plan and ornamental detail. I love how the windows on the turret are dwarfed by its sheer volume and their exaggerated wide lug-sills, emphasizing the castle-like quality of the turret. The stepped up brick cornice and projecting window surrounds give the building a heavy feeling. However, the heaviness is at odds with the delicate wooden parts -- the little trapezoidal bay window over the front door and the ornate side porch.

    The later flat-roofed rear addition adds another interesting element with its slate siding, including multi-color lozenge patterns on each side of the lone second story window. All in all, this quirky home is gorgeous and another unique part of the unique St. Louis Place built environment. It is occupied and owned by an individual, so hopefully its future is secure. The house is located on the same block where we just lost a home owned by a McKee-related holding company, and lacks any landmark designation or demolition review protection, so nothing can be certain.

    Thursday, August 28, 2008

    Chuck Berry Shopped Here

    The old brick building, already refaced with glazed brick after street widening in the 1920s, has a mess of stucco across the front. The storefront is covered by chain link gates. The exquisitely-lettered enamel sign board has long lost its neon tubing. This block has lost most of its buildings and businesses, and blocks east and west of here are equally forlorn. Yet the Heller Beauty Supply Company has remained in operation since 1908 at the same location, 2709 Martin Luther King Drive (once Easton Avenue) in JeffVanderLou (once Yeatman).

    The sign's exaggerated moderne letters read: HELLER CO.; Sofay Cosmetics - Hair Goods; BEAUTY SUPPLIES. (That reading leaves out the squiggles.) Sofay Cosmetics was a line of cosmetics and colognes distributed exclusively by the family-run Heller Distributing Company. The Hellers distributed their own products here and elsewhere. The store has always sold a wide line of cosmetics and, most famously, wigs. According to family members, Ike and Tina Turner as well as Chuck Berry were customers of the shop over the years. Shriner clowns and Muny makeup artists also frequented the business.

    Long-time owner and manager David Heller passed away in 1999, but his children still operate the business. This is still "the place" for wigs on the near north side, with a clientele from across the region.

    Wednesday, August 27, 2008

    Every Day There's More Progress on 14th Street

    The Crown Square project (once known as the "14th Street Mall") marches along in Old North St. Louis, and it's hard to keep up with construction. These photographs are already a few days out of date, but worth sharing.

    A view of the west side of 14th street, looking south.

    A view of the northwest corner of Warren and 14th streets; the second building in from the corner was well-known in recent years because almost all of its front elevation lay on the sidewalk in front of it.

    Here's the storefront building at 2717 N. 14th Street.

    Visitors to Crown Candy Kitchen once gazed upon fabulous urban ruin, and now look southeast across St. Louis Avenue and see glorious renewal.

    Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    Exuberant First Assembly of God Church

    Located at 2334 Grand Avenue in Granite City, Illinois, is the former First Assembly of God Church. While the congregation, which has roots dating back to 1909, has moved to a larger building on Madison Avenue, it still maintains the exuberant mid-century church building.

    Basically, this church is the average center-aisle front-gabled church form that has persisted in America since the colonial period. Yet it is adapted to the formalism of its era. The gable is not symmetrical. The entrance is not centered on the gable end but placed to one side on a glass addition.

    Most prominent, though, is the use of colored glass. This church comes from a period in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s when modernist architects were abuzz with large, loud color experiments. In 1961, Plaza Square Apartments opened in downtown St. Louis; architects Hellmuth Obata Kassebaum and Harris Armstrong gave each of the six multi-story apartment buildings vertical metal stripes in different vivid, bright colors. Googie designs in restaurants and bus depots abounded. Homes has bright garage doors in green, red, blue and yellow. Young John F. Kennedy was president, the Russian threat seemed diminished and all was well. Why not play with churches, homes, schools and office buildings?

    The architect of this church sure did play. We have a beautiful asymmetrical tapestry of aluminum-framed colored panes on the front elevation and striped of color on the sides. Obviously, the colored panes also provided an economical alternative to stained glass, but in way no less stylish.

    The church remains a festive point on a tidy, quiet street of well-kept houses. A steel city, Granite City welcomed modernism with open arms, as evidenced by the iconic Granite City Steel Building downtown. This church is one of the best-kept examples of the mid-century modern period in Granite City.

    Monday, August 25, 2008

    Scenes from the Building Arts Foundation Tour

    Over 50 people attended Saturday's Rehabbers Club tour of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation Conservatory in Sauget, Illinois. Foundation President Larry Giles discussed the past, present and future of his unique collection of architectural artifacts and the equally-unique former steel foundry that is now its home. See more photographs here.

    Friday, August 22, 2008

    A Fine Storefront Addition

    Storefront additions to residences were very common between 1920 and 1950 between on Lafayette Avenue between Jefferson and Compton in south city. I have written about two others (read them here and here) in this stretch, and neglected to point out a robust corner storefront addition at the southeast corner of Lafayette and Nebraska avenues. On the front of an eclectic Craftsman-inspired house with false mansard and front gable, we have the finest storefront addition on Lafayette. Actually, the addition houses two commercial spaces. Cast iron columns frame generously-glazed traditional storefront openings (which wrap the side), and an intact dentillated tin cornice with a second order of brackets provides a refined crown. Many of these additions bear the programmatic inelegance of their utility. Not this one.

    Cherokee Street Chronicles

    Lindsey Scott and Jason Deem sent out news that there are two new websites chronicling the vibrant life of Cherokee Street, the city's most diverse and lively neighborhood commercial district:

    Cherokee Street News, a blog.

    Cherokee Street Photos, already featuring hundreds of photographs, including historic images.

    Wednesday, August 20, 2008

    St. Louis Building Arts Foundation Conservatory Tour on Saturday

    Drawing (c. 1955) courtesy of Larry Giles.

    The Rehabbers Club presents:

    Tour of St. Louis Building Arts Foundation Conservatory

    Saturday August 23, 2008
    2:00 p.m.

    Join us for a very special tour at the Conservatory of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation led by founder Larry Giles. The Foundation was created in 2002 to help realize Larry's dream of opening a museum of architecture centered on his collection of nearly 300,000 architectural artifacts assembled during a 35-year career as an architectural salvage specialist.

    In 2005, the Foundation purchased the former Sterling Steel Casting foundry in Sauget, Illinois. The site, called the Conservatory, will eventually serve as an off-site facility for the architectural museum. Till then it will serve as interim interpretive center and library.

    The 15-acre site includes 13 historic foundry buildings built between 1923 and 1959 that the Foundation is rehabbing as the home for Larry's collection, previously stored in four different locations. Larry has already completed an impressive amount of work at the complex and moved over half of the collection there.

    Don't miss this rare chance to come inside and see both a marvelous collection of architectural artifacts as well as a one-of-a-kind historic rehabilitation project!

    Note: Due to ongoing work, public access is limited and there are no bathroom facilities.

    If you'd like to carpool or caravan, meet at 1:30 in the Quiznos parking lot at 1535 South 7th Street in Soulard. Or you can meet us there promptly at 2:00 p.m.

    DRIVING DIRECTIONS [for map graphic, approximate address, 2300 Falling Springs Road,

    1. Take eastbound I-55/I-64 traveling across the Poplar Street Bridge
    2. Exit onto southbound Illinois Route 3
    3. LEFT turn at Monsanto Avenue
    4. RIGHT turn onto Falling Springs Road
    5. LEFT turn into parking area at St. Louis Steel Castings foundry


    1. RIGHT turn onto Falling Springs Road from parking lot
    2. LEFT turn onto Monsanto Avenue
    3. Right turn onto Illinois Route 3
    4. Look for westbound I-55/I-64 [left lane], enter ramp to Poplar Street Bridge

    Tuesday, August 19, 2008

    Odds and Ends

    MCPHEETERS WAREHOUSES NEARLY GONE: The McPheeters Warehouses on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, subject of a Vital Voice column of mine published in June, are nearly gone. Demolition started two weeks ago, and now the one-story cold storage warehouse and most of the center building are gone.

    SHANK SONS HONOR ISADORE: Peter and Stephen Shank have published Firbeams, a lovely website featuring the residential architecture of father Isadore Shank.

    KIEL PROGRESS: In the St. Louis Beacon, Charlene Prost reports on progress in the plan by SCP Worldwide and McEagle Properties to re-open the Kiel Opera House.

    VACANT BUILDING INITIATIVE: As featured in a story on KSDK TV this week, Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett (D-6th) has introduced Board Bill 174, which would require owners of vacant buildings to pay an annual registration fee, carry liability insurance and secure all openings, among other requirements. Church and nonprofit property is exempt, but Land Reutilization Authority property is not. More later.

    STATEWIDE PRESERVATION CONFERENCE SEPTEMBER 10-13 IN ST. CHARLES: The 2008 Annual Statewide Preservation Conference begins on Wednesday, September 10 in St. Charles. I am co-presenting a workshop with Jan Cameron of the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office entitled "Vernacular Architecture from the Stone Age to the Space Age." Details here.

    DRURY WANTS TO DO WHAT?: At Vanishing STL, Paul Hohmann reports on a bizarre plan by Drury Hotels to demolish the northwest corner of the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood for a new hotel. The plan threatens the Lambskin Temple and many historic homes. Drury will present the plans tonight at the Gibson Heights Neighborhood Association meeting, 7:00 p.m. at 1034 S. Kingshighway.

    Emergency Demolition? No, That Might Make Sense.

    The house at 1512 Montgomery Street in St. Louis Place is a perfect example of the city's senseless approach to dealing with vacant buildings. This handsome old tenement happens to be owned by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr.'s Blairmont Associates LC, but that's not what is notable here. What is notable is that the old building has had a severe lean to the east for many years. The building appears twisted, as if it were made of pliant red rubber. The building has also been vacant for at least a decade -- not surprising, considering the slope of each floor. In December 2006, the Building Division condemned the building for demolition, putting it on a long list with a wait period for demolition funding.

    During an early July storm, the gable end collapsed onto the parking lot of the adjacent Church's Chicken. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

    We all know what's next, right? The Building Division swoops in with an emergency condemnation and demolition order, and the lot is quickly just another expanse of straw-covered dirt.

    Guess again. The building still stands as of the date of writing! The Building Division has not issued any emergency order, and the owner has applied wooden and tube-steel bracing of questionable utility. (Honestly, the part of the building most likely to fall has already fallen.) Here is a house that could not be rehabilitated without complete demolition and reconstruction. Even moderate correction of the lean would cost more money than the house would ever be worth. Contrast this condition with other vacant houses in St. Louis Place and other neighborhoods that have been put under the "emergency" axe for happening to have a non-structural rear wall collapse or by literally being adjacent to a building that has collapsed after a bout of brick thievery. I've watched the Building Division take down structures easier to repair (and located in more desirable spots than next to a fast food restaurant) than the sad house at 1512 Montgomery Street.

    There is no consistency in the use of emergency condemnation procedures. Often the decisions make no sense in regard to preservation planning or structural necessity. Discussions about how to shape a new vacant building policy in the city should examine ways in which the Building Division's power to use emergency condemnation powers could fall under some sort of review. We have relatively weak cultural resources and urban planning laws, but what good comes from those laws often gets undermined by a quick decision over on the fourth floor of City Hall.

    There needs to be coordination -- not a new board, office or commissioner position, but simply a smart policy of cooperation between the Building Division, the Cultural Resources Office, the Planning and Urban Design Agency and the aldermen. As this house shows, even the most tenuous-looking building isn't going to fall over tomorrow. There is time to make smart choices.

    Update: The house was demolished in September 2008.

    Monday, August 18, 2008

    Brick Theft Suspect Charged With Felony

    This morning was a momentous event in efforts to crack down on the plague of brick theft that has hit the north St. Louis neighborhoods of St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou and the Ville. This morning Judge Cale Stovall-Reid held a preliminary hearing in the case of the City of St. Louis vs. Samuel K. Ivory.

    Ivory, known as a demolition crew worker, faces the misdemeanor charge of Theft/Stealing (Value Of Property Or Services Is Less Than $500) and, most important, a felony charge of Property Damage 1st Degree. Judge Stovall-Reid has also ordered Ivory confined to the city of St. Louis pending trial. Earlier this year, police from the Fifth District arrested Ivory at the scene of 2569 Montgomery Street, where allegedly Ivory and others were taking down a house owned by one of Paul McKee's holding companies. The house has since been demolished due to its destabilization by brick thieves (see "Cut Off, Cut Down", July 25).

    North side residents have been demanding justice against the brick thieves for the last two years. That justice may be coming, at least to one of the perpetrators.

    Eminent Domain Coalition Meeting on Thursday in JVL

    Citizens Coalition to Fight Eminent Domain Abuse

    Come Join US
    JVL Daycare Center
    2953 M.L. King
    August 21, 2008
    At 6pm to 7:30pm

    Special guests:
    Ed Martin, Former Assistant to the Governor
    Marvin Steele, Paul McKee Properties Consultant

    For more information contact: Isaiah Hair, Jr. at 314-38707592 or Pam Talley at 314-535-6867.

    Sunday, August 17, 2008

    Moonlight Ramble Included the Mullanphy Emigrant Home

    Early Sunday morning, cyclists on this year's Moonlight Ramble made a north turn to ride by the historic Mullanphy Emigrant Home in Old North St. Louis. The Ramble, organized each year since 1964 by the Gateway Council of Hostelling International USA, is a midnight bike ride held on the Saturday night nearest the full moon in August. Over 15,000 riders participated this year, and each one got to see first-hand what could be an exciting new home for Hostelling International's local chapter.
    While the route of the ride was a secret, word had already spread that this year's ride proceeds would benefit the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, envisioned as a world-class hostel by the Gateway Council. Hostelling International hopes to continue rehabilitation of the Emigrant Home, hit by devastating storms in 2006 and 2007 and now largely stabilized through the efforts of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

    The hostel plan would both restore the historic architecture of a building built in 1867 from plans by renowned architects George Barnett and Alfred Piquenard and also rededicate the building to housing the itinerant. The Emigrant Home originally housed immigrants headed westward through St. Louis from New York and other eastern ports. Hosteling International would provide lodging for a different sort of migrant -- travelers exploring the United States. If the hostel opens it would be a serendipitous revival of the building's original purpose.

    Meanwhile, residents of Old North are enthusiastic about the prospects for the building's future, and the legions of travelers who might come through their neighborhood as they travel this country. That enthusiasm was on display in full force last night, and a throng of neighbors (including people from the block facing the Emigrant home) welcomed thousands of riders for well over an hour. To learn more about the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, visit SaveMullanphy.org.

    All photographs by Lynn Josse.

    Friday, August 15, 2008

    Remuddled Row in JeffVanderLou

    Continuing to explore storefront additions to houses in St. Louis, I came across these three buildings at 1399-53 Garrison Avenue in JeffVanderLou. While the storefront additions add character, I'm not sure that's good character. Then again, these old houses have been remuddled past the point of recognition, and far beyond being able to contribute to any historic district. We have original dormers and cornices removed, mansard roofs clad in weatherboard (although apparently over the slate tiles!), window openings altered and a whole front stone elevation relaid in concrete block.

    What a mess! No doubt the buildings are still sturdy and salvageable, but historic restoration would be challenging. Not impossible, but challenging. Who is up to that challenge? And what other ways of rehabilitating the buildings beyond a historic-tax-credit rehab exist?

    Thursday, August 14, 2008

    Landmarks Association Publishes 2008 Eleven Most Endangered Places List

    Landmarks Association of St. Louis has published its 2008 Eleven Most Endangered Places list.

    These are the sites held over from last year's list:

  • Andrew Einstmann House, 2347 Virginia Avenue
  • Mullanphy Emigrant Home, 1609 N. 14th Street
  • Mullanphy Tenement, 2118 Mullanphy Street
  • James Clemens, Jr. House, 1849 Cass Avenue
  • Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 2153 Salisbury Street
  • Wellston Station, 6101 Martin Luther King Drive
  • Carr School, 1421 Carr Street

    And here are the sites new this year:

  • San Luis Apartments, 4483 Lindell Boulevard
  • House at 1930 St. Louis Avenue
  • Commercial Buidling at 5286 Page Boulevard
  • Shriners Hospital, 700 S. Euclid Avenue and Central Institute for the Deaf, 909 S. Taylor Avenue

    All of these sites will be familiar to Ecology of Absence readers. Read a full report on the Landmarks website here.
  • Tuesday, August 12, 2008

    Eclectic Italianate House in JeffVanderLou

    Sometimes there is a house so exuberant and eccentric that even the most seasoned architectural historian can't help but smile. This house at 3049 Sheridan Avenue in JeffVanderLou is one of those houses. The composition is strange in the best possible way. Here we could have a basic brick two-story Italianate town house with stone front. Yet we don't have that, because the true mansard roof is somewhat low-pitched with a deep overhang. The trapezoidal front dormer with rounded roof belongs on another house. That dormer doesn't quite match the dormers on the east side, which have roofs that mimic the roof form of the house itself.

    The east side's trapezoidal bow adds character, and the ornate wooden cornice is continuous on this side. On the west side, where the wall is blind, the wooden cornice makes a transition to some of the most unique brick corbels I've seen in St. Louis. This detail is remarkable considering that historically this side was obscured by another house and these details would scarcely have been seen.

    The house is occupied and in fair condition. The bright blue paint of the front elevation seems appropriate to the eclectic Gilded Age style of the house. Make no mistake about it -- architectural historians love to find such houses.

    Monday, August 11, 2008

    Cut Off, Cut Down

    Three weeks ago I wrote about the loss of a house at 2569 Montgomery Street in St. Louis Place (see "Cut Off", July 25, 2008). The house and the house next door were owned by companies tied to developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. and had suffered severe damage at the hands of criminals who steal brick. Now the house next door, at 2571 Montgomery Street, is gone. This photo dates to the demolition last week. Now this block is down to two remaining houses across the street from each other to the west. One of those houses is owned by a McKee holding company.

    Preservation planning, anyone? It's much cleaner and safer than demolition through the urban warfare of brick theft.

    Saturday, August 9, 2008

    The Metal Roofs of Waterloo

    I spent twelve pivotal years of my childhood living in Monroe, County Illinois, just southeast of the city of St. Louis. There I spent time taking in the historic architecture. Due to a mix of circumstances ranging from Germanic thrift to rural poverty, much of the remaining historic stock of the county retains a high level of integrity. Wooden window sashes, doors and porches remain. Barns have original siding. Walkways are often paved in brick. The county seat, Waterloo, offers a spectacular array of well-preserved brick and frame vernacular buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    One of the most noticeable aspects of Waterloo's architecture is that many of the gabled and hipped roofs retain historic standing-seam metal roofs, maintained with silver paint. Some people even opt for new metal roofing when they replace a roof. There is no reason these roofs can't last forever as long as the diligent owners keep them maintained.

    Here is a sampling of metal roofs, all from just one side of one street: the north street face of Mill Street.

    Friday, August 8, 2008

    Richard Nickel's Chicago: A Review

    This article first appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of the NewsLetter of the Society of Architectural Historians, St. Louis Chapter.

    David Norris, friend of photographer, salvager and historian Richard Nickel, once said that "I think what Richard had to teach was that if you find some way to express your deepest convictions, you should exercise that talent to the very utmost of your ability. . .even if it leads somehow to your destruction." Nickel died in 1972 while rescuing interior ornament from Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange building, then under demolition. The attitude toward life’s work that Norris summarizes is readily apparent in the vivid, arresting images in Richard Nickel’s Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, published at the end of 2006. The book amasses many of Nickel’s images of condemned Louis Sullivan buildings, as well as his glimpses into other long-gone parts of Chicago: Chicagoans enjoying the carnival at Riverview Park; a Loop landscape prior to the Congress Expressway; downtown offices with stenciled lettering on frosted glass doors; youth making a strong show of protest at Grant Park in 1968; other hallmarks of a vibrant urban culture in which the built environment is both backdrop for human action and a pivotal character.

    Richard Nickel’s body of work is the result of chance. After serving in the Army immediately after World War II, Nickel was seeking a mission in life and use of the free tuition the GI Bill offered. Newly-divorced, the young man happened upon photography classes at the Institute of Design, founded and directed by Bauhaus transplant László Moholy-Nagy. There his primary instructors were noted photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Siskind taught a class in which he assigned his students to photograph the surviving buildings of Louis Sullivan. Because he was draft-exempt, Nickel was put in charge of the students’ efforts and an exhibition held at the Institute in 1954. No matter; the young photographer had enthusiastically taken up his assignment, and took steps that made the study of Sullivan’s architecture his life’s work. Under Siskind’s direction, Nickel embarked upon a still-incomplete book entitled The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan. After completing his courses, Nickel continued the book project but began to get sidetracked. Chicago seemed to be disappearing around him, and Nickel responded by documenting doomed buildings (Sullivan’s and others’) through drawing floor plans and taking photographs and then, when demolition was certain, salvaging ornament.

    Most of the images in Richard Nickel’s Chicago were never printed in Nickel’s lifetime, making the book a remarkable document. Nickel took some 11,000 photographs in his life, but mostly made contact sheets unless a client was willing to pay for development. Even more remarkable than the book is the way in which Nickel was able to capture so carefully each scene without ever seeing a large print. Somehow Nickel was able to deftly find the drama in the still life of many architectural scenes, and carefully transmit the sorrowful scenes he witnessed directly. Those images are his best known, although most in the book are new to even his admirers. Less known are Nickel’s gentle shots of people at festivals, expressing the glee, anger or longing in what seem to be private moments between subject and photographer. Those images show a breadth to Nickel’s body of work previously unknown.

    The architectural images convey both respect and resignation – a painful combination. The parade of lost masterpieces is staggering – Adler and Sullivan’s Schiller Theatre, Meyer Building, Rothschild Building, Babson Residence and Stock Exchange; Burnham and Root’s Church of the Covenant and First Infantry Armory; Holabird and Roche’s Republic and Cable building. Even the photographs of surviving landmarks like the Rookery and the Auditorium Building have a weary gaze, as if the photographer has doubts of their permanence at the hands of his society. Nickel conveys the glory of these buildings while making statements about Chicago’s arrogant disregard for them; he poses wry scenes that are statements of protest in which the beauty of the building makes the loudest statement.

    Ever faithful to his subjects, Nickel avoids taking photographs that are easily digested or ignored. Nickel prefers wide views and the occasional vivid close-up to iconic images. At first glance, the photographs can seem carefully workmanlike. Then, a detail jumps out – the postures of men standing in the foreground of a demolition scene, words on a church wall next to a gaping hole made by wreckers, the appearance of a church steeple in a photograph of a roof. As one studies the photographs, the intentional nature of the details becomes apparent. Nickel thought through his capturing of the details of every building he shot, just as the architects who designed them conceived of the intricate parts. Every foreground, background and shadow was chosen. The genius of Nickel emerges; he has taken photographs that reward a multitude of viewings and whose technique emulates the subjects’ complexity as much as any documentation can. Nickel’s photographs teach us the values of patience and observation, and of the power of making careful choices. These were the values that led Nickel to study and defend the works of Sullivan and other Chicago masters. These were the values that could have kept the buildings around as long as the photographs.

    Cahan, Richard and Michael Williams, editors. Richard Nickel’s Chicago. Chicago: CityFiles Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-9785450-2-8.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008

    Left Behind

    Here we see part of the fallout of the current housing market collapse, and a sign that large-scale projects pose only one obvious type of threat to the historic architecture of north St. Louis. This is a tenement house at 1102-4 Montgomery Street in Old North St. Louis, and is best known for the gaping hole in the side wall and giant grafitti tag prominent on Interstate 70.

    This poor building's condition is the result of a rehabilitation scheme gone awry. In 2005, Impact Real Estate Investment purchased this building, a house across the street and a house at the northwest corner of St. Louis Avenue and Hadley streets -- all in Old North. Impact also bought buildings in other neighborhoods. Led by Marteese Robinson, former Director of Professional Scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, the company had big plans.

    In an article that appeared in the January 31, 2005 issue of the St. Louis Buisness Journal, Robinson's redevelopment philosophy is reported:

    When he buys a property, Robinson first replaces the roof and then guts the interior. When renovating the homes, he tries to maintain as many historic details as he can, recycling ornate woodwork and replacing worn-out hardware with modern replicas.

    To appeal to today's buyer, Robinson concentrates on making kitchens, bathrooms and closets larger than those found in the turn-of-the-century homes. He uses a mix of carpet, hardwood and tile on the floors. For some items, like 12-foot-high front doors that are hard to replace, Robinson has custom reproductions manufactured.

    What's not to like? Try the execution of the projects. Robinson's crews did work best described as slap-dash on his Old North properties -- and never even finished the ones on Montgomery. The house at Hadley and St. Louis was completed (all historic millwork was carted off in a dumpster) and supposedly sold for $225,000, but currently sits in foreclosure.

    For 1102-4 Montgomery Street, Impact had a tall order. The rear section of the building needed masonry reconstruction of all three walls, while the front wall needed a corner relayed. Impact ignored the bid of a seasoned mason and hired the work to a crew so inexperienced with historic masonry, the work is agonizing to describe. The corner was relayed without boxes for either window, so the edges aren't straight. Somehow the coursing didn't work out, with bricks shaved under the window lintel on the first floor to compensate. The worst work was on the side where, after months in which Impact had demolished the entire wall and left the second floor joists sagging, a more experienced crew laid up a straight block wall to the second floor. Then an inexperienced crew laid brick over that, changing the sizes of window openings and making slopping connections to the existing wall.

    Then, everything stopped abruptly in 2006. The wall stopped at the second floor, leaving the roof trusses unsupported. Part of the other side wall collapsed. The buidling was left completely unsecured. The pits dug on each side for foundation tuckpointing were never filled. The building was left structurally compromised and in violation of city codes.

    Impact stopped paying taxes on the Montgomery buildings in 2006, too. The building across the street, at 1119 Montgomery, supposedly sold at a Sheriff's tax auction in May to a Paul McKee holding company represented by Eagle Realty's Harvey Noble.

    The building at 1102-4 Montgomery awaits its tax sale next year. Marteese Robinson now works for the Washington Nationals. Residents of Old North have a nasty scar with an uncertain future. And the building manages to stay standing.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008

    Monroe County Corn Crib Still in Use

    While driving in Monroe County, Illinois recently, I was delighted to find an intact historic corn crib still in use. This crib stands on the east side of Bluff Road between Fults and Kaskaskia roads. Corn cribs are used for storing whole ears of corn for livestock feed. Due to the widespread use of processed feeds since the middle twentieth century, corn crib usage is very low and corn cribs are poised to become an extinct agricultural building type.

    The corn crib is part of a farm that includes a historic one-story, side-gabled frame house, replete with standing-seem metal roof, wooden window sashes and two additions. That level of historic integrity is not entirely uncommon on surviving farmsteads in southern Illinois. Many have been clad in newer siding, like this one, but metal roofs and wooden doors and sashes are common. Some farms still believe in the adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." (Although I'm sure many farmers are simply working from "we're broke, so we can't fix it.")

    Monday, August 4, 2008

    Chuck Berry House Headed for National Register

    Photograph by Lindsey Derrington.

    This modest flat-roofed, one-story brick house at 3137 Whittier Street in The Ville is where rock 'n' roll was invented. Well, if not outright invented, definitely made into something it had never been before. Chuck Berry bought this house in 1950 and lived there during his most productive early songwriting period. When he sold the house in 1958, Berry had recorded "Maybelline," "Johnny B. Goode" and "Roll Over Beethoven."

    My colleague Lindsey Derrington, Researcher for Landmarks Association, identified this house last year as a landmark worthy of listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Rather than wait for someone else to take action, Lindsey wrote a nomination that received approval from the city's Preservation Board last week and will be considered by the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation this Friday. After that point, the nomination is likely to face a tough time undergoing review by the National Park Service, which generally does not list in the Register properties associated with persons still living. This rule comes from fear of making hasty historical judgment. Lindsey's nomination makes the case that Chuck Berry's importance already has a permanent spot in the history books, even if he is alive and very well.

    Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered the nomination of the house with a front page article; read that here.

    Mid-Century Modernism in Collinsville

    Across the street from each other on Main Street in Collinsville, Illinois are two delightful one-story mid-century modern office buildings dating to the 1950s. These buildings aren't exceptional modern masterpieces, but simply nice examples of vernacular modernism: derived from the International Style and other sources by local architects or builders, highly functional and strongly stylized. These buildings are the modern equivalents of the nineteenth and early twentieth century vernacular storefronts lining other blocks on Main Street.

    To the east is a later modernist pharmacy and medical office building -- there was a clear and exciting architectural conflation between the clean lines of modernism and the promise of postwar medicine. However, the modern purity erodes here through stylized cursive lettering that softens the severity of the purpose houses inside.

    In Collinsville as elsewhere, attemprts to make downtown more modern weren't satisfactory enough for some businesses. One of those was the Collinsville Building and Loan Association, which in 1969 moved from Main Street to the sprawl of Belt Line Road. The Association still occupies that building, and its New Brutalist body hasn't changed much.

    Heavenly Bar-B-Q

    This quintessential A-frame work of Googie-tecture stands at the northwest corner of Vandalia (State Highway 159) and Clay streets in downtown Collinsville, Illinois. According to the Conestoga sign on the pole in front, this was Bert's Chuck Wagon with "Open Pit Bar-B-Q." The high pitched roof overhangs the building to almost conceal the sides completely. Splayed columns add a whimsical touch, and the gabled entry overhang creates enough head space for a person to walk into the building through the door.

    What is most striking is the large gable end facing the corner. The open glass wall provided exposure and a contrast to the heavy, almost foreboding side elevations. Now, with the old barbeque joint under the ownership of the adjacent Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, that gable end provides a backdrop for religious expression.

    The windows of the gable end display a rather expressionistic scene of Jesus Christ on the cross, done in bold colors with dark shadow lines. Disconcerting, though, are the white open eyes reminiscent of the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip.