We've Moved

Ecology of Absence now resides at www.preservationresearch.com. Please change your links and feeds.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Apartment Therapy Looks at a Ridgewood Ranch

Now Apartment Therapy casts its keen eye toward St. Louis' Ridgewood subdivision, located in suburban Crestwood. The specific subject is the delightfully rejuvenated ranch home of Nathan and Hannah Wilber, which I had the pleasure of seeing myself last week. Nathan is co-author of the Modern Ridgewood blog and devoted to helping others learn about and appreciate St. Louis' wealth of mid-century modern architecture. Yet Nathan and Hannah's house is no museum -- rather, like the best rehabs we may more often associate with 19th century town houses, it is an effort that balances reverence and the demands of daily life beautifully.

See the Apartment Therapy house tour here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Villain Plots to Melt All of the Brick in St. Louis

The annual frenzy of the 48 Hour Film Project is over, and I am catching up on submissions. One of interest to readers is the Thomas Crone-directed Tales of Templar, in which a villain plots to melt all of the brick in St. Louis. Tales of Templar includes scenes filmed at the fire-damaged Fourth Baptist Church in Old North St. Louis and the Nord St. Louis Turnverein in Hyde Park. If only Templar had been around to stop the blazes that struck those buildings!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Old Stix Baer & Fuller Building Re-Emerging

The spirit of John Mauran might be pleased to float down Washington Avenue nowadays. With demolition of the St. Louis Centre skybridge comes the first clear view of the Washington Avenue elevation of the building that originally housed Stix Baer and Fuller Company's Grand-Leader Department Store. Mauran's firm of Mauran, Russell & Garden designed the eight-story eastern section, built in 1906. The successor firm Mauran Russell & Crowell designed the nearly-identically-articulated ten-story western section, completed in 1919.

Photograph by Landmarks Association of St. Louis, 1982.

The firm's later incarnation of Russell, Mullgardt & Schwartz designed a contrasting modern rooftop addition on the eight-story section that was built in 1949, but otherwise the department store building stood unsullied until the start of construction of the St. Louis Centre skybridge in 1984. Fortunately, the bridge has not taken nearly as long to destroy as it did to build, and 25 years of an occluded Stix facade are over. The Washington elevation looks decent underneath, too. The damage is minimal and shall be easily overcome when the building is rehabilitated starting this year.

One of the small joys of the skybridge demolition is the revelation that one of the eastern section's iron balconies has been intact under the bridge all this time. The use of the balconies remains undocumented, but they are an original feature of the building.

The view of the old Stix building gets better every day.

'27 Tornado Survivors on Montgomery Street

I have long admired the group of four narrow-faced, one-story houses on the 3000 block of Montgomery Street. Located on a little wedge between Garrison and Coleman streets, the four houses seem to comprise a coherent group of small shaped-parapet dwellings. The western two, 3005 and 3007 Montgomery (left), have front entrances. The other two, 3001 and 3003 Montgomery (right), have side entrances and paired windows on their faces. All are clad in machine-rolled, rough-faced brown brick with abundant white bakery brick patterns. Raised basements provide well-lit potential additional living space.

The setting is enhanced by the placement of the houses not parallel to Montgomery Street, but parallel to the side lines of the irregular lots on which they sit. Thus the houses roughly step out from east to west, creating visual interest from the side.

These houses have always been architecturally compatible, but there is a twist -- or twister, if you will. These houses began their days as stone-faced homes built around the turn of the twentieth century. One block west stood the massive Mullanphy Hospital. In 1927, the great tornado ran northeast across the city and struck this block. Like most buildings that survived the disaster, the buildings were rebuilt using contemporary masonry rather than restored. While the repairs are within a common range, the grouping and the deliberate effort to match all four houses is unusual.

While not stone-clad, the three one-story, flat-roofed houses one block to the east on the south face of Montgomery Street give some indication of the form of the re-clad homes. The decorated wooden cornices were common on these small raised-basement houses built across north city roughly from 1880 through 1905. Often the high porches sheltered stairwells that led to basement apartments. The three houses pictured above are now so decimated by brick thieves that their demolition is inevitable.

Alas, the four houses to the west are also vacant -- three owned by Northside Regeneration and one by the Land Reutilization Authority -- and unprotected by landmarks status or demolition review. However, they are not sitting alone.

The four tornado survivor, marked by a yellow asterisk on the map above, are adjacent to blocks built up again by Habitat for Humanity. The four small historic houses could some day sit amid a rebuilt neighborhood, reminding people of a time when the city had the fortune and foresight to rebuild even small one-story houses. The brick-rustled neighbors here bear a strange resemblance to houses depicted in photographs of 1927 tornado damage. Houses that went through the tornado and back remind us that even the worst disaster is not the end of the world -- not even necessarily the end of a building.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Friends of the San Luis Not Appealing Ruling; Legislative Change Needed

Today's press release from the Friends of the San Luis (for which I serve as president):

While the Friends of the San Luis had hoped for a ruling by the Court of Appeals that would have affirmed the public interest rights of the community, we accept the ruling issued last week. We will not appeal the cause further, but instead will rededicate ourselves to the outreach and education needed to prevent future losses.

At the start, we sought remedy to a loophole in the St. Louis preservation ordinance (Ordinance 64689) that requires a stay of demolition to appeal meaningfully an action by the Preservation Board. We have always maintained that stakeholders should not have to undertake extraordinary legal measures to assert a right of standing implicit in the ordinance.

However, we appealed the circuit court ruling expressly to clarify that right for future preservation battles – even after we lost the building that united us. Our hope has been that no other citizens would have to go to the troubles that we have. Unfortunately, they probably will. While the aldermen who passed the ordinance apparently intended for there to be a legitimate right to appeal – a necessary check and balance system -- the Court has found that the wording is insufficient to explicitly endorse that right.

The Court of Appeals ruling suggests that the ultimate remedy is not judicial but legislative. The city preservation law is a wonderful example of government recognition of the public interest in historic preservation and urban planning, but it has a major weakness in leaving the public right to appeal as clear as red brick. That should change.

While we are disappointed, we are at least encouraged that the ruling has unequivocally identified an aspect of the city's preservation ordinance that needs to be clarified by our representatives in order to ensure due process in the fair and transparent mediation of disputes.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Murphy Residence Listed in National Register

On May 10, the National Park Service listed in the Joseph and Ann Murphy Residence at 7901 Stanford Avenue in University City in the National Register of Historic Places. The Murphy Residence, owned by Joseph Murphy's daughter Caroline and her husband Vincent DeForest, is one of St. Louis' first truly modern residential designs. Completed in 1939 and expanded in 1950 and 1962, the home was key in introducing International Style-inspired modernist design to the St. Louis region. While Murphy became best known for his later work, including the Climatron and Olin Library at Washington University, this house represented an early accomplishment in his career and in the story of modern architecture in St. Louis.

Read the full text of my National Register of Historic Places nomination here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Park Service Offering Bike Tours of the North Riverfront Trail

Via the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the The National Park Service is offering free ranger-led bike tours of the North Riverfront Trail this summer. The North Riverfront Trail passes through or near many historic sites ranging from still-active industry to the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Untold Story of the Gateway Arch

by Rick Rosen

Over the course of a century a community took shape on the riverfront in St. Louis. At the same time, what happened in that community shaped the history of the nation. Finally, as those years of destiny unfolded, St. Louis came to see itself as a capital, as the great center of the Midwest.

But then, the currents of history changed. The river of history shifted its course and bypassed that community. Chicago, not St. Louis, became the capital of the Midwest.

Ever so gradually, the riverfront was forgotten. Then it decayed. Finally, it became an embarrassment to the still thriving but less influential community that had grown up around it following its century of greatness.

In that larger community, the humiliation of having lost out to Chicago lingered on. The embarrassment ran deep and it was accompanied by amnesia -- a defense mechanism to cope with humiliation. The amnesia masqueraded as conventional wisdom: the riverfront is economically obsolete with regard to its building stock; the riverfront is obsolete in relation to advances in transportation technology; the riverfront is out of date in comparison to current styles of architecture.

All this conventional wisdom was, of course, true. However, it took hold not because it was true, but because it addressed a psychic need to mask the profound sense of loss that ate at the community’s identity, a loss for which the decaying riverfront was a constant reminder.

And then the great depression arrived. Luther Ely Smith, a man of great vision and a respected leader in his deeply embarrassed community, remembered that first century of greatness -- and was appalled by its decadent reflection in the mirror of the nearly abandoned riverfront. He dreamed of something to replace the decadence, something that would bring back to life that lost century of greatness. Smith prevailed on the federal government -- in response to the depression—to build a national park on the riverfront. Then he organized a design competition to create a new vision for the site.

And of course he succeeded -- beyond his wildest dreams -- with the Gateway Arch and its surrounding park grounds. But there was a cost.

A city's built environment is nothing less than the accretion of its history. Whenever elements of that environment are wiped away, the material record of that history is lost. When the riverfront was cleared after 1939, the elements that were lost were the very elements Luther Ely Smith sought so hard to recover.

Any built environment tells the story of its history. But it’s also true that it tells that story in a special language, an arcane language that only people who are drawn to history, and those whose personal memories are embedded in its buildings, can easily understand. Still, despite its weaknesses, it is by far the best language for telling a community’s story. When it's silenced, other languages must be found if the story is to be remembered at all.

Today, a second design competition for the riverfront is in progress. This competition presents a magnificent opportunity for St. Louis and it has already generated widespread excitement. Most of the excitement focuses on possibilities for new connections between the arch grounds and the rest of the city. However, with the original built environment of the riverfront long since gone and forgotten, the hidden challenge of the competition is to find the next best language to tell that lost story. Then, and only then, can the amnesia that has prevailed for so long in St. Louis finally be healed.

Rick Rosen is an architectural historian and downtown resident. Contact him at RARstl2@aol.com.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Saint Louis is Ready for This

by Jeff Vines

While your editor is traveling, I turn over the blog to my dear friend Jeff Vines of STL-Style.com to keep the conversation going. Jeff and I were in Philadelphia together for the inspiring Next American Vanguard. Philadelphia left us inspired by practices that we saw there and the ideas shared among the Vanguard participants.

Fresh back from the Next American Vanguard conference in Philadelphia, and what an incredible experience it was! The conference included an extensive bus tour of gritty North Philly neighborhoods, and I couldn't help but feel slightly envious. Not because Saint Louis' historic urban fabric can't stand with the greatest cities in America (Philly included)-- it certainly can. But in terms of contemporary residential architecture, Saint Louis falls painfully short. The City of Brotherly Love-- a town that celebrates its history perhaps more proudly than any other in America-- also manages to embrace bold modern design, and such a contrast of new and old is striking, refreshing and inspiring.
One particularly fine development in the Northern Liberties section knocked my socks off.

The Piazza!

This sleek, modern development incorporates apartments, dining, retail and public gathering spaces, and it does it beautifully.
Balancing contemporary urban design with the dense, historic neighborhood that surrounds it, The Piazza is more than a complex of buildings, it's a community.

Philly gets it right!
Enough with the faux-historic clocktowers and phony brick facades that St. Louis developers seem preoccupied with-- it's not 1915 anymore. The proposed City Walk development on the former Doctors Building site at Euclid and West Pine could be and should be a truly transformative project, yet the renderings are contrived, underwhelming and overdone. It's time we aim higher.
Saint Louis deserves it.

Tour Southwest Garden by Bike

Saturday, June 5, 10 am to 12 noon, Architectural Tour by Bicycle of Southwest Garden Neighborhood, led by architectural historian Lynn Josse.

Meet at the Southwest Garden office, 4950 Southwest Ave, at 10 am. Bring a water bottle and wear a helmet.

We’ll have coffee available. The ride is free but small donations to help cover the cost of insurance are gladly accepted.

Organized in partnership with the St. Louis Bicycle Federation