We've Moved

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

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Hey, kid....

This morning, I heard a knock on the door. I rushed over to open it, knowing that it was yet another roofing contractor showing up to give us a bid. When I opened the door, a man was there with a roofing truck.

He said, "Hi. Are your parents home?"

I answered, "This is my house."

"Oh. Well let me go shut off the truck."

I was a little sour at first, but since many folks I know informed me at my recent birthday that they didn't know I was "so young," I guess it's nice to have someone make a mistake in the opposite direction to balance things out.

More importantly, I'm excited that St. Louis still has reasonable enough real estate prices that I can own a house at this age, let alone a fairly large (if dilapidated) 120 year old house. That's a lot of why I was so eager to move back here. Had we stayed in Chicago, we wouldn't have been able to own a building (let alone a fairly intact historic one in a neighborhood of our choice) for decades. With the real estate prices in Chicago, there is no way that anyone would have ever mistakenly thought me too young to be the owner of the building, cos I would definitely not look like a kid anymore by the time I could afford to buy property up there.

Come to think of it, this particular contractor lives in the county, likely in an area where young people cannot afford to own property, either. Maybe he should think about moving to the city. Then again, his advice for dealing with the parapet walls (which need to have all their bricks relaid) of our historic house was to suggest simply knocking the things down and not replacing them. Maybe he should not think about moving to the city....

Either way, I'm happy to be here!

Driver's Ed 101

by Bridget Frischer

Dear drivers in Brentwood,

As a resident of the neighborhood you only see as a commercial area, I am sick of you all being bad drivers. Every time I leave or come back to my apartment, I fear my safety as I think one of you will hit my car and probably jeopardize my life. Please be respectful and remember that people do live around here. Here are some simple guidelines for driving that you should take heed to not only in my neighborhood, but always when driving.

1. A stop sign means stop; it is not a suggestion to slow down. When I make a complete stop, it is not because I am resigning my right of way to let you, in a hurried panic, rush off to your next shopping destination. I do so because it is the law and it applies to you as well. If it my right of way, I will go. If you decide to go before me and I'm making a left turn, you will risk hitting me at your own fault and you will pay to repair my car. If you do something obviously stupid, I will honk at you until you get the point and the hell out of my way.

2. Read street signs. If you are leaving Brentwood Square and making a left from Eager, the lane that has the sign that says "40 East Only" it means just that. It is illegal to drive through the intersection and you risk hitting people entering the 40 West lane. Again, if you do this, you will risk hitting somebody at your own fault and you will pay to repair their car.

3. When changing lanes, there is something installed in your car called a turn signal. Use it. Brentwood is a busy street and any time you change lanes it is risky, especially when you don't use your turn signals. If you hit somebody because they don't expect you to come into that lane, you will pay to repair their car.

4. Pay attention to your own light. At Brentwood and 40 East, the northbound light turns green before the southbound one does as to let people traveling north on Brentwood enter 40 East. If you are going southbound and decide to drive because the cars going in the opposite direction are moving, you risk hitting someone at your own fault and you will pay to repair their car.

5. If you are entering an on-ramp and making a right turn onto it, the person turning left to enter it has the right of way if they have a left turn signal. You must yield to these people. If you do not, you risk hitting someone at your own fault and you will pay to repair their car, or else somebody else will hit them when they have to stop in the middle of a busy intersection and it will still be your fault.

6. If it is raining hard enough that you have to use your windshield wipers, turn your lights on. This is the law. If it is dark, turn your lights on. This is the law.

If you follow these rules, we can coexist peacefully. These are all things that you should have learned when you acquired your license. Maybe you have forgotten and just need a refresher. I hope this worked for you.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

This blog post was sponsored by Zombies For Slay

So, yesterday's post over at the blog credited to Mayor Slay said that "More dead people are reported to have signed recall petitions in the 22nd Ward."

Dead people endorsing the other side? Time to finally take notice of all those dead voters who are still registered!

I guess we can conclude from this post in the Slay blog that his administration wants to keep 22nd Ward Alderman Jeff Boyd in office. Not surprising--seeing as how both Boyd and Slay are definitely in favor of using eminent domain to build dubious commercial projects, it's a match made in heaven.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Bus riding on December 26, part 2.

"It's so much vacant land and vacant houses on the North Side. If those motherfuckers built houses on the vacant land, it'd be just like the South Side. But they don't want to see that many black motherfuckers here, in one place. It's so much vacant land and vacant houses on the North Side."

--Overheard on the #30 Soulard bus today. One teenager talking to his friends as we drove through the Near North Side, the most demolition-ravaged part immediately north of Downtown.

Just incase you think that the average kid living in a planner- and 'dozer-ruined neighborhood doesn't understand why his neighborhood looks the way that it does.

Bus Schedule Changes, Today and Monday, January 2

Several of my coworkers and I were late to work today. Why? Because Christmas was on a Sunday, Metro changed today to a Sunday schedule so that its workers could "observe" Christmas. While I'm glad they get the break, it would have been nice if the change had been well advertised or posted. I didn't hear about the change on any bus that I rode, and when I consulted my bus schedules this morning, they simply said, "NOTE: Sunday schedules operate on New Year's Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas." December 26 was nowhere to be seen on that list. Thus, we were late. Cmon, Metro, work with us here--we need to get to work!

Also of note: A coworker informed me that on next Monday, January 2, busses will again run on Sunday schedules. Share the news with all the public transit riders in your life!

(Thanks for the tip, Adria!)

Hyde Park Theatre May Get Facelift

Thomas Crone continues his intriguing Dead Theatres series with a photograph of the vacant Hyde Park Theatre that is apparently undergoing some tuckpointing work. According to Crone's conversation with a passer-by, it seems the tuckpointing project is part of yet another hair-tearing scheme: the theater will be rehabbed while a lovely and much earlier building across the street will be torn down for a parking lot.

Clean Out the Basement!

Get or give too many gifts for Christmas? Here's an optimistic warning fromSullivan Avenue:

Our basement on October 3, 2005. Over 300 broken computers were among the debris that we removed.

The same space on October 6, 2005. Everything thrown out except for a few antiques that we discovered in the rubble, including an enamelled cast iron sink now in use in our kitchen.

Does Red Mean More Rain?

Here is the Weather Ball atop the General American Life Insurance Building at 15th and Locust. I took this photograph last week from the roof of the building, looking up (of course). The ball, which dates to the 1950s, is a constant red these days. In the past, the building manager would change the color according to weather conditions.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Skybridges to Where?

Skybridges to nowhere in downtown Cincinnati, 2003. The parking garage building that stood here came down, but the convenient walkways remain expectant of a new reason to live.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Old Easton Avenue

One of the two remaining three-story 19th-century commercial buildings on the south side of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive just west of Jefferson disappeared last week.

We have no photograph of the building. May someone else have a better memory of the building than ours.

Rob Powers did get a photograph of another great commercial building across the street that came down in 2001. The "Heller Co." sign and its greatly-altered building still remain in use. This block was one of many thriving commercial blocks on the former Easton Avenue; by the 1930s almost every block of Easton from downtown through the Wellston Loop was chock-full of buildings housing apartments, stores and offices. The street must have been fabulously urban.

Today, traces of the past density remain, especially between Grand Avenue and the city limits. But the vitality is less evident, and certainly less concentrated. Enough buildings remain to make the thoroughfare a likely candidate for future revitalization.

St. Al's Demolition Denied by Preservation Board

The Preservation Board denied a demolition permit for the historic part of the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex in the Southwest Garden neighborhood. (I use the phrase "Southwest Garden neighborhood" even though my mouth forms the words "Fairmont District," but that's another story.) While the application was only for preliminary review of the demolition plans, developer James Wohlert did not prove that the buildings were unfeasible to rehab and his claim that the contract he had on the property contained a must-demolish clause has been disproven by Steve Patterson.

Perhaps now Wohlert will at least cover all of the windows on the church building, left open since the Archdiocese removed the stained glass windows. Perhaps he will clean up the mess left by his tree removal crew, who felled many of the lovely old trees on the grounds of the parish. Hopefully he will perform basic maintenance on the buildings according to city code until a certain future for the buildings emerges.

That future has often been said to be housing. Turn the main church into condominiums, say preservation-minded folks. Does anyone have another idea?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Victory for St. Aloysius

Today, the Preservation Board not only voted against permitting the demolition of the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex but also voted separately to deny the permit outright. As someone who has followed the demolition saga since September and as someone who presented testimony today, I am greatly encouraged by today's meeting. Activism works! All of the efforts that Steve Patterson has put into the issue this week raised awareness and led people to send letters and testify. This church that seemed obscure and doomed in the fall received enough appreciative attention to convenice the Preservation Board to preserve it.

I note that no one from the neighborhood attended save demolition advocates Alderman Joe Vollmer (D-10th) and Father Vincent Bommarito of St. Ambrose Church. Did anyone there really know about this important decision?

The votes were interesting. The vote on a motion by Commissioner Luis Porello (second by Mary Johnson) to grant the demolition permit went this way:

Yea: Porello, Johnson
Nay: John Burse, Melanie Fathman, Anthony Robinson, Richard Callow

The vote on the motion to deny the permit, made by Richard Callow and seconded by John Burse went this way:

Yea: Callow, Burse, Fathman, Robinson, Johnson
Nay: Porello

Citizens interested in urban design and historic preservation can make a difference when we work together to challenge the status quo. In this case, we turned the situation around and got the Preservation Board to flat-out deny demolition. Although this is a preliminary review, and the developer can return to the Board for approval again, the vote shows that they will have to redesign their plans to save at least the church to make it past the Board. It's likely that the developer will keep trying to get the plan exactly as it is, though, so we'll see how long this victory lasts.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Blairmont, VHS Partners share address with McKee's companies

The July 15 Quarterly Report of the Jordan W. Chambers 19th Ward Regular Democratic Organization reveals some interesting information about its contributors. Namely, that the following contributors, all real estate holding companies, share the same address:

N & G Ventures LC
Noble Development Company
VHS Partners LLC
McEagle Properties LLC
West Alton Holding Company LLC
Oakland Properties, Inc.
Blairmont Associates Limited Company

That address is 1001 Boardwalk Springs Place in O'Fallon, Missouri -- pretty damn far from north St. Louis. 1001 Boardwalk Springs Place is the address of the largest office building in the sprawling ersatz New Urbanist WingHaven development. This also happens to be the mailing address for Paric Corporation and McEagle Development, the well-known companies founded by wealthy developer Paul McKee, Jr. (Paric is now led by McKee's son Joe.)

Readers know that we have detailed the adventurous purchases of rogue real estate companies Blairmont Associates LC and VHS Partners LLC, and that we along with other northsiders have been wondering what the hell these silent speculators have been trying to do in our neighborhoods. But few people would have known that Blairmont and VHS shared an address with these other companies, because both Blairmont and VHS were registered anonymously and their only known agents were Harvey Noble and Steve Goldman of Eagle Realty Company and Roberta M. Defiore. Even fewer would have known the links between Blairmont, VHS, Noble Development Company and N & G Ventures. Without seeing this report, I would have never learned of this additional entity or of the definite link with McKee's enterprises. Campaign finance disclosure again proves to be a valuable democratic tool. Together, these four companies own 244 north side properties and hold an option to buy one city-owned parcel:

Blairmont: 82
VHS Partners: 101
N & G Ventures: 58 plus one option
Noble Development Company: 3

The holdings of these companies are geographically confined: most are in the 63106 zip code and the a well-defined southern part of the 63107 zip code; all are in either Ward 5 or Ward 19; nearly every property is a vacant lot, with only a handful of vacant buildings in the inventory. (Although we know that they did attempt to trick a legally-blind woman into selling her own house to them.)

The question remains: What exactly is the tie with McKee? Perhaps he's just their landlord... Really, what is the link? And what is the plan for such a large area of the city?

The alternating silence and aggressive pursuit of properties by the entities at 1001 Boardwalk Springs Place is disturbing no matter how good their plan could be. These companies need to talk to their neighbors, who are very worried about the intentions and methods behind these companies. Consensus is built through communication; suspicion grows through silence.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Preserving St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church

Expanded version of report written for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, September 2005.


The St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish had its origin with an 1892 petition by Catholics in the newly-developing Fairmont district of St. Louis. These Catholics, almost exclusively of German origin, were among a wave of residents who moved into the area after the development of Scullin's electric streetcar line. Their petition was successful, although the parish would not have a permanent church building for another 33 years. On March 9, 1892, Vicar General Henry Muehlsiepen came to the area to deliver a mass at a private residence, an act followed by his ordering a census of the area that showed 60 families ready to organize a new parish. Reverend F.G. Holweck, assistant pastor at St. Francis De Sales church, became the first pastor on May 27, 1892.

For the parish, the Church purchased for $8,500.00 ten acres of land on Reber Place between Columbia and Reber avenues. This large amount of land was subdivided into three city blocks (CB #4054A, 4054B and 4054C) in an inviting arrangement, with the church buildings planned for the center block and new homes planned for the two flanking blocks. The arrangement of spaces showed some sense of visual drama, with Magnolia Avenue running up to the middle block, where the church would sit, and continuing around the church block with two home-lined streets. The site is probably one of the best examples of urban planning by a parish in the entire city.

The parish undertook construction of a temporary frame church building, dedicated on October 16, 1892 in honor of St. Aloysius, and a school building. With Rev. Holweck acting as pastor and as real estate agent for the lots on the residential blocks, the parish grew fast and reported 130 families at some point in the mid-1890s. Masses were largely in German. The parish was strong enough for a permanent church, and the parish turned to the renowned St. Louis church architect Joseph Conradi for plans. Conradi designed an elaborate Gothic edifice that would have been marvelous -- had it been completed. After laying the cornerstone on May 7, 1899 and building the basement, the parish quickly ran out of money for completing the structure. The parish roofed the basement and the incomplete building became the second home for St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish.

Around the turn of the century, numerous Italian immigrants arrived in the Fairmont district. Later to become the ethnic group most widely associated with the area, the Italians at the time were struggling to establish cultural institutions that honored their heritage. Italian Catholics in St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish were far from the city's only two Italian-speaking parishes, and turned to their local parish for assistance. In 1903, Rev. Holweck invited Rev. Ceasar Spigardi of St. Charles Borromeo Church to organize a mission for Italians in the St. Aloysius building. This mission raised funds to organize the St. Ambrose parish, which was able to move into its own temporary building by year's end.

A new pastor, Rev. Francis G. Brand, arrived in 1903 and worked to pay off the church's debts. He oversaw construction of the existing rectory (built in 1904 by plans from "Koester") and convent (built in 1911 by plans from Joseph Stander and Sons). Building permits show that in 1914, the parish started building a new school building at the northeast corner of South Magnolia and January (since demolished). Most importantly, though, Brand led efforts to build yet another church building, designed by Ludwig and Dreisoerner (a firm on whom extensive information does not seem to be available) in the Romanesque style. As a late example of a St. Louis church in the Romanesque style, St. Aloysius Gonzaga displays the conservatism of archdiocesan architecture at the time. This building had its cornerstone laid on May 2, 1925, and was completed in April 1926. Construction cost $500,000. The old unfinished church building was remodeled for use as the parish bowling alley and gymnasium, a use it held until the parish closure in 2005.

The parish went on to peak at 800 families in the 1950s. In 1962, the parish built a new school building. The original 1914 school building was wrecked at some point. The school closed in 2002 and the parish was closed in 2005 after dwindling to 315 families.

Clay Mines Under Church

Claims that old clay mines are undermining the main church building likely have some truth, although I have not located conclusive evidence. A June 10, 2005 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes damage to the building caused by settling, including a supposed split down the center of the building and rapid settling of part of the building around the bell tower. The article states that the parish tried to stabilize the building: "about 15 years ago workers put 63 pins in the foundation -- nothing held."

Inspection of plat maps and atlases has not confirmed that this location was the site of a clay mine. No Geological Survey of Missouri spends much time on clay mining, and only the 1890 edition contains county maps of clay mines. The Geological Survey of Missouri's 1890 supplement The Clay, Stone, Lime and Sand Industries of St. Louis City and County shows that the site sat above clay deposits connected with the Cheltenham district, but locates the closest recently active mines or pit a half-mile to the north. Many brickworks mined the belt of clay that runs through this area. Evans and Howard as well as Laclede-Christy had nearby brick kilns and mine entrances. The site may have been host to an unmapped and short-lived pit; those were common in the Cheltenham district. Compton and Dry's Pictorial St. Louis of 1875 does show a few small dome-like structures near this location which may be kilns. Yet little subdivision of the Fairmont district had taken place by 1875 and the structures may be haystacks.

The mine tunnels supposedly under St. Aloysius Gonzaga may be extensions of the mine drawn on the map found in The Hill, which is located north of Columbia Avenue. Larry Giles, who has thoroughly researched the clay-mining operations in the Cheltenham district, speculated in an interview that there probably is a mine tunnel under St. Aloysius, because the tunnels were rarely mapped and never disclosed to the State Geological Survey. Without a map of that particular mine, Giles says, it would be impossible to make a definite identification of any tunnel under the church. He says that whatever tunnel exists under the church building would also extend through surrounding blocks, and any shrinkage thereof would be systematic. Filling the tunnel without substantial excavation would be impossible; new development on the site could be plagued by severe settling if it is occurring on the land.

A search on Pitzman's 1878 real estate atlas offers no suggestive leads; the full site of the parish and its subdivision is shown as being owned by Union National Bank of St. Louis. On the Pitzman atlas, no parcels south of Columbia Avenue are owned by brick or ceramic companies, likely due to the establishment of subdivisions there. Without access to the interior of the church building, there is difficulty in making any determination of the physical condition of the 1926 building. From the exterior, it looks sound, and the Building Division has not condemned it. One imagines that a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the subsequent availability of historic tax credits could make renovation, even with structural problems, feasible.

Preservation Board Considering Demolition

Yet new development threatens to destroy the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex for a rather conventionally New Urban subdivision. The developer who purchased the parish buildings from the archdiocese this year, Wohlert Company LLC, has sacrificed the grace of the setting for uninspiring tract housing. Gone would be the stunning head-on view of the steeple from Magnolia Avenue and the old-growth trees. Consideration of preservation of at least the 1926 church seems obvious, but an even wiser plan would save the main church and the older buildings to retain one of the city's most intimate church settings. Ample space for new housing would remain on the block.

The staff of the city's Cultural Resources Office has submitted the proposed demolition for review, stating that the buildings are of high merit and eligible for National Register listing. That opinion is correct, and is an accurate interpretation of the city's Preservation Review Ordinance, which suggests that demolition of the complex for the subdivision is imprudent and possibly an abuse of the ordinance. Yet the Cultural Resources Office is bowing to the pressure to let the development proceed, and is recommending that demolition be allowed. The Preservation Board should go against this recommendation and instead instruct the developer to come up with an alternate plan that respects the Preservation Review Ordinance and gives The Hill area a dignified and historic urban setting, of which it has few remaining. The same developer recently built a home at January and South Magnolia that is totally disrespectful of context, with an attached garage and materials inappropriate for all but a flimsy shed. Within a two-block radius, numerous examples of bad infill housing abound -- replete with vinyl siding and garage doors facing the street. The Hill area contains several large tract-house developments from the last 25 years, including the new Parc Ridge Estates development on the cleared site of the Truman Restorative Center.

The context of The Hill (more accurately called the Fairmont District) has been severely diminished in the last 25 years. Demolition of St. Aloysius Gonzaga is a mistake and should be prevented. The mistakes of the past should only strengthen our resolve to make better choices for the future.


City of St. Louis Building Permits.

Survey of Historic Churches of St. Louis Collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

Toft, Carolyn (ed.). The Hill: The Ethnic Heritage of an Urban Neighborhood. St. Louis, Mo.: Washington University School of Social Science, 1975.

Wayman, Norbury. The Hill. St. Louis: Community Development Agency, 1976.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Open Letter on the Riverfront

Dear Diana Balmori and friends,

I have a few questions for you:

1. Did you realize that the publicly-announced meeting on the riverfront plan scheduled for Decmber 3 did not happen? And that no press release has been issued by Great Rivers Greenway, the Planning and Urban Design Commission, the Mayor's Office or your office explaining why it did not happen or when it will happen?

2. The Arch grounds are surrounded by an ugly wall formed by concrete traffic barriers. Do you think that maybe redesigning that wall should precede or at least accompany grand riverfront plans?

3. Have you walked around on the east riverfront? The riverfront south of the Arch grounds? North? What are your plans for those areas?

Thank you for your work so far.

A Citizen

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Council Plaza into the Future

Bricks continue to fall from the mural on the east side of one of the two towers at Council Plaza in Midtown. (See this December 7 report from TV station KSDK.) While it's sad to see the mural deteriorate, good news came at the most recent meeting of the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation: approval of a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places for all of Council Plaza, which was developed starting in 1967 by local Teamsters as a "Model City" demonstration project.

For an odd reason, the St. Louis Preservation Board had recommended that the nomination be tabled until the mural could be repaired, even though the current ownership group stated that it needs tax credits to be able to restore the mural. Well, a motion to recommend approval of the nomination almost sailed through until member Richard Callow moved to table the nomination and reconsider it after the mural issues could be resolved. Never mind that the nomination of Council Plaza was only invoking "urban planning" and not "architecture" or "public art" as a criteria for significance. The Preservation Board unanimously voted for Callow's motion.

Wisely, the state council went ahead with the listing so that the mural can be restored -- provided that the owners intend to honor the promises they have made publicly at the Preservation Board and Missouri Advisory Council meetings. Even though the towers are rather clunky concrete boxes, the murals and brickwork on the windowless side elevations add depth and human scale that redeems the heavy-handed site plan.

At least the old spaceship-style gas station building, now Del Taco, stands intact. That may be the most attractive building on the site. (See a photo by Toby Weiss here.)

Dixie Square Mall Scheduled for Demolition

According to Wikipedia, Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois will soon be demolished to make way for a stip mall. The Dixie Square Mall is famous for two reasons: the mall was the mall used for the car chases features in The Blues Brothers, and it has been vacant longer than it was occupied. The mall opened in 1965 and closed in 1978. Since 1978, it has sat and crumbled much like River Roads Mall in Jennings, Missouri -- also being demolished soon.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Snow City

The Merchandise Mart, Isaac Taylor's 1888 Romanesque masterpiece at 1000 Washington, looked very stately in last week's snow. Then again, what in St. Louis did not look good in the snow?

Over on Hadley Street

The lot at 2805 Hadley Street in Old North St. Louis may be fenced but sports an incredible amount of debris. One can find broken PVC pipes, old furniture, solid fill and scraps of wood lying around its confines. That is, during the winter. In the warm months, the grass grows so tall on this lot that passers-by would not be startled if someone told them that a house was on the lot.

Next door, a lovely late 1870's townhouse is undergoing and ambitious rehab from an owner who is rehabbing other buildings in the neighborhood. Across Hadley Street is Ames School, one of the city's finest elementary schools.

The owner of the lot?

Blairmont Associates LC, one of the near north side's most active collectors of vacant lots and buildings. Where the owner of the house next door sees a need to restore his building, Blairmont sees nothing but the future value of the land and is willing to hurt its neighbors today so that its owners can profit tomorrow.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Blairmont: Rook to QB4

Word on the snow-covered street is that Blairmont Associates LC was not pleased with the attention it received from a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article on its abusive ownership of the Clemens House and the resulting speculation on the identity of the deep pockets behind Blairmont. Sources say that Blairmont had no idea that the property at 1849 Clemens was a historic mansion; they were only interested in the large lot the home and chapel sit on. Thus, to avoid more publicity they will sell the house by January 6 (not sure why this date is being floated).

Of course, if they want to avoid attention they will need to do more than sell the Clemens House. We will continue to monitor their abuse of other historic buildings (such as the Brecht Butcher Supply Company buildings at 1201 Cass, if Blairmont is reading) and many northsiders are actively working to uncover the identity of Blairmont. People who are investing their time, labor and money in rehabbing homes on the near north side have a right to know who is behind Blairmont Associates LC and VHS Partners LLC. Some people think that they know, as the comments section on this blog shows.

For the record, we have no evidence that isn't already public record. Our guess is as good as yours -- probably worse, since we have neighbors who know a lot more than we do about them.

Friday, December 9, 2005

The Spirit of Old North St. Louis

Since our stove won't work until Saturday (needs a new ignition, a part that was hard to locate for a 1950's Roper), we are still eating out most every night. Last night, with the slushy roads populated by speeding drivers, we did not want to take our chances with driving anywhere. We walked the block between our Sullivan Street home and Crown Candy Kitchen on St. Louis Avenue, taking in the beautiful sight of our neighborhood covered in a blanket of snow.

Crown's was deserted, save for Mike Karandzieff and three staffers holding down the place. Mike himself waited on us, and we chatted with him before ordering our usual order. It's great that this place is so dependable and near. Earlier in the day, Claire had walked down to Marx Hardware on 14th Street to take back some wrong-sized cornerbead and to buy a miter box; the Marx brothers took back the cornerbead even though they operate on a cash-only basis and don't have a refund system. However, we have been regular customers of theirs since before we even moved into our place, and they reward our return trips with generosity.

After we ate -- and after we decided to splurge for delicious sundaes as cold as the air outside -- we walked back home. Light streamed out of a small storefront on 14th Street behind Crown's. Inside, a crew of twentysomethings was scraping paint off of a wall while listening to music. This is the future home of The Urban Studio, a community space that our neighbor and fellow twentysomething Old North St. Louisan Phil Valko has created.

We returned home full of hope and good cheer. I was so inspired by the spirit of the neighborhood that I finally found the strength to remove the broken old faucet from our sink so that we could replace it.

Anyone wanting to partake of the Old North community spirit is welcome to join residents for the neighborhood New Village Brewing Company's holiday beer-tasting tonight at 7:30 p.m. Email me at michael-at-eco-absence.org for details!

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Very Glad to Be Back Home in Mild Weather Land!

It's snowing in St. Louis. Now, I finally concede that St. Louis is experiencing winter.

Though it's been almost a year now since my at-long-last return to StL from Chicagoland, I remain acclimated to Chicago winters. So to me, this ain't cold. With the exception of the period when we had no heat in our house, I have not yet felt the cold unshakably deep down in my bones, which was always the feeling that signaled the start of real winter to me in Chicago. I stand by the often-open front door of the grocery store where I work and get asked, "Aren't you cold?" all day long, but ....well, no, I'm not cold. And I'll knock on wood before I type this (knock, knock), but in Chicago, you never really know it's winter until your car breaks. Yes, there are a few inches of snow on the ground right now in StL, but I'll eat my hat if they last four days. In Chicago, you look at the same snow for four months, and it gets gray and icy and hard, and what little exposed pavement there is gets this sickly pale look from so, so much chemical road salt.

(Shiver, shiver!)

My attitude may also be a result of what I used to always hear my mom say about St. Louis winters when I was a kid. Every winter, without fail, she would complain and complain that St. Louisans don't know how to drive in snow. (For the record, she grew up in Detroit, and spent several years living in Nova Scotia.)

For a Detroit-born child, or someone who's spent recent winters in Chicago, this isn't bad. But both of us had the luxury of living in homes with heat--something thousands of St. Louisans don't have--so that had a bit to do with our words as well. I guess it's all relative. If you've seen worse winters, this is bad, but if you're used to StL's otherwise warm climate or you don't have a warm place to stay, I can see how this could be overwhelming. And if you've never seen winter before, well.... Our four-month-old kittens were pretty impressed when we opened the curtains for them to look outside this morning.


Wednesday's entry in the blog attributed to Mayor Slay featured the phrase:

"...and that park downtown with the sculpture."

Yeah yeah, real cute. We all know you'd scrap the Serra sculpture entirely if a certain wealthy St. Louis Serra enthusiast wasn't looking over your shoulder. But yeah, we realize you'll save it, and try to move it to Grand Center in the process, since your administration thinks that the only reason Grand Center is such a failure is that it doesn't contain enough art (when in reality, the problem is that it contains absolutely nothing but art and parking lots for art).


Bowling Alleys Vanishing from St. Louis

Today's Post-Dispatch carries a headline: Bowling alley is razed for shopping center [DEAD LINK]

This time, the bowling alley is the Montclaire in Edwardsville, Illinois. I have never been there, and can't say anything about its architecture or history. I can say that many bowling alleys of all ages are closing or being torn down in the St. Louis area, and only a few new "boutique" style alleys are opening. The new alleys usually don't have more than 8 or 12 lanes and are often more geared toward alcohol sales than bowling.

Proprietors of bowling alleys that have closed recently have blamed the closures on the decline of league bowling, which guaranteed steady revenue for older alleys with high maintenance costs. I wonder if our atomized society will ever support good, affordable bowling alleys again. St. Louis once had enough bowling alleys to rival the most blue-collar of the other Rust Belt cities. Now, there are only a handful left, with only three lanes left in the city (two of which are small, new and not affordable to working-class people).

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

4101 Manchester Avenue

Word from Forest Park Southeast business folks is that Alderman Joseph Roddy and other businesses is pushing for a parking lot on the LRA-owned lot at 4101 Manchester, just west of Manchester's intersection with Vandeventer. This is a prominent location that is one of the first things visitors see when coming from the east into the business district along Manchester. Nothing could be uglier and less exciting than a surface parking lot at the entrance to a growing business strip. The clubs, bars and restaurants here rely on the density slowly growing as new businesses open in proximity to each other. Why not put a new business at this hot location?

Manchester is not exactly a safe street, yet it attracts hundreds of people every weekend night. These people are coming to the nightlife without surface parking. If the lot gets developed for a building, the crowd at Atomic Cowboy or Novak's is not going to fall off -- the crowd will only grow. Surface parking in a major location would only reinforce people's reservations about the business district; people are encouraged by vitality, architectural density and storefront activity. This site is perfect for a new building.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Fire in Old North St. Louis -- Please help.

On Sunday, there was a big house fire in our neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from our house. I didn't see it, but Michael and some of our neighbors did, and described the scene to me. When I got home in the evening, I turned on the news and saw that familiar building, with flames several feet high leaping up out of what used to be windows. I've not yet seen the building in daylight, but when we went by at night, I could see the dark sky through the blackened roof.

The family survived. They all got out alright. That's the most important thing.

One adult cat died and several kittens are unaccounted for, but all the birds and dogs survived, and there are a good eight or nine kittens staying at a neighbor's rehab house.

The family lost everything except the surviving pets and the clothes on their backs. They didn't have insurance. The Red Cross has been putting them up in a hotel for the time being.

The first floor of the house looks like it might not be too damaged, but a section of the side gable roof fell in onto the second floor and took a few bricks along with it. The building is not habitable. Sadly, the family did not have insurance.

Besides the tragedy of the family losing their home, several pets, and their belongings, there is a sad side to this architecturally: That fire happened on the very last intact block of Old North. That was the last block in ONSL which has never had a single demolition (despite a recent narrow brush with big-time speculators Blairmont LC), retaining some very early buildings. This is significant, considering the degree of loss here--ONSL is a very old neighborhood just outside of the very core of an older, industrial American city, so it's had a lot of demolition over the years.

If one could possibly take anything positive from this, it's that the neighborhood has done a good job of helping. The scene I've heard described was one of everybody trying to help--neighbors were out in decidedly non-winter clothes, holding onto rescued dogs, blow-drying wet kittens, arranging temporary homes for the pets, and watching neighboring buildings in case the flames spread. A friend of mine from South City who was sent to help at the fire through her volunteer work with the Red Cross said that folks from the neighborhood group approached her to coordinate the neighborhood response with that of the Red Cross. She said, "You guys are very lucky to have such a great group." And, of course, if any neighborhood can bring back an injured building, ONSL can. The damage on this house pales in comparison to that of others that are being saved in the North Market Place development. I hope that we can come up with a plan to bring this building back.

If you would like to help the family, there are several ways you can contribute. You can drop off donations at the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group office. We're assuming that the family had a total loss, so anything you could bring would help. Blankets, clothing for larger sizes (men's, women's, and young women's), toiletries, nonperishable food, and other household items would all help. If you would like to donate money, you can bring a check to the Restoration Group office or mail it there. Make the check out to "Old North St. Louis Restoration Group," and in the memo field write "ONSL Fire." The Group is going to pool all of the money donated for the family, and write them one big check with the total amount.

The ONSL Office is located 2800 N. 14th, St. Louis, MO 63107 (directly across the street from Crown Candy). The #30 Soulard bus stops at that corner, and the #74 Florissant bus stops a couple of blocks away at Florissant and Saint Louis. They are open from 9-5, M-F. (If you have some stuff you'd like to give but can't make it then, drop us an e-mail [eoa-at-eco-absence.org] and we can figure out a time for you to drop stuff off with us to pass along to the Group when they're open.)

Please consider donating a little something to the family, if you can. They've lost everything, and it's awfully cold this time of year.

Monday, December 5, 2005

National Trust Case Study on Century Building Released

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has posted its Case Study on the Old Post Office and Century Building, which comes in at a whopping 76 pages. The document was released to members awhile ago but not posted on the website immediately. Included is a commentary/rebuttal by Carolyn Toft of Landmarks Association, written without her being able to read the Case Study first.

Friday, December 2, 2005

Blairmont in Court

What happened yesterday at the Blairmont hearing?


Blairmont's attorney, Steven Goldenberg, successfully obtained a continuance from Judge James Dowd of the Circuit Court, claiming that it will conduct an engineering study on the Clemens House and submit that the court. This indicates two things:

a.) Blairmont's owners are still hiding from the public and preparing some revelation to head off any moment at which their watchdogs might have a clue on their identity;

b.) Blairmont likely is getting ready to justify demolition of the Clemens House with the study.

Rumors have flown here and there about Blairmont's identity. One source has Blairmont being a northside business family investing the last dollars of a failed empire; another more likely scenario has Blairmont being a front for a well-known suburban developer plotting a large scattered-site housing development.

But I think that I have solved the case: I think that the land is being bought up by relatives of our new police chief S. Jammu. Sound kooky? You say there isn't a chief named Jammu? I swear that the pieces all fit together to make a convincing story! Either that or Jonathan Franzen is on the joyride of his life.

All kidding aside, Blairmont Associated Limited Company is an irresponsible property owner whose failure to maintain its property warrants the lawsuit filed by the Building Division. If I were an eminent domain sort of guy, I would say here's a case where it might be wise to use it. Blairmont controls 89 properties and its affiliated enterprise VHS Partners LLC controls an additional 101 properties. Of course, if the plan is to build new houses the powers that be would more likely endorse the effort than try to stop it.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Rosa, in glowing letters.

Today, as I walked around Downtown, all the busses I saw flashed the message:


The small, mobile memorial was touching--rather than a name left on some unread stone in some mossy corner of the city, the words moved along major arteries all through St. Louis, quietly jarring daydreaming bus-riders, pedestrians, and motorists from their drifting thoughts. I hope that having those words on city busses, which are normally a largely ignored part of the daily city scenery, helped remind people who saw the busses that simple, everyday places and services we take for granted were not accessible to everyone in the very recent past. And really, they're still not accessible to everyone--simple things like having access to reliable transportation, a good school, a good job, safe housing, and medical care continue to be special priveleges in our city, our state, and our society.

We still live in a city where the North and South Sides are very different, and Delmar remains a blurry-but-undeniable color line between less and more vanquished parts of town.


I was going to write more about what I saw, but Joe Frank said it better than I could have. Read his post here.

Antonio French has also written about Rosa Parks Day. Read it here.