We've Moved

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Eating in North City

In a discussion on the St. Louis Rehabbers' Club listserv about the eating habits of rehabbers living without kitchens, our neighbor Barbara Manzara offered this spirited and informative post:

I have to admit to also eating off the table saw. I have finally reached a point where I can boil water, so my culinary options have dramatically increased. I too am single, which is good, as I problably could not keep a husband that I was feeding with eggs scrambled in a pan on top of the propane heater! (Works great, by the way.)

I have hired (it seems) half the teenagers of north city to help me out on one project or another. I don't always have cash for same-day pay, but I always tell them, "If you work, you eat". So I have become extremely familiar with every carryout location north of MLK and east of Grand. McD's is considered upscale luxury food by the quasi-homeless "staying at auntie's place tonight" kids who have fallen so far out of the system they are no longer even truant. So they send me to all their favorite cheap places -- Burrells at St. Louis Ave and Grand for pork steaks, J&W Package Liquor on W Florissant for an amazing array of non-Coke soda pop (where you can also buy hair extensions and Maull's BBQ sauce).

The food flavors change as you go north in St Louis... suddenly there is an upswing in the number of fried fish & shrimp places, parking lot BBQs that smell like they've been continuously smoking since 1945, which maybe they have, and the truly incredible North St Louis Chop Suey, aka "Hood Suey". One night after a particularly demanding day digging out the basement floor, I took the kids to The Best Steakhouse on Grand. It is a pretty cool place where you can get steakhouse quality food while wearing soot-covered overalls, sitting next to Fox theatre-goers, listing to some "fresh cuts" (aka rap on your young neighbor's iPod).

Then there is the challenge of delivery on the north side. There is one pizza place that delivers -- Domino's on Tucker. BUT, the employees there are au courant with the latest in neighborhood rehab. The SECOND time I called they recognized my voice, remembered my address, gave me some history of the previous owners, correctly identified my building as First Empire with a mansard roof, and commented positively on my gutter design decisions. Positively spooky.

And of course, there is our beloved Crown Candy, and in its own way, equally beloved White Castle at Florissant and 19th. The former is for when you want a perfect sandwich and a sympathetic ear in fellow rehabber Andy Karandzieff. The latter is for folks who can't afford to turn on their gas, who hang out and chat endlessly about the neighborhood, politics, land speculators, brick thievery and how to crash a cop party. I became something of an entertainment for the crowd -- I wasn't visiting the Castle for the heat, but for the indoor plumbing. So the guys would see me coming and call out, Hey Baby, you still don't got a toilet??? When you gonna come home with me??? Ain't got no heat, but you are welcome to pee in my pot!

Who could ask for nicer neighbors?

What To Do With The Army Ammunition Plant?

What to do with a huge, transite-clad steel-framed building? That's the question to ask about the Army Ammunition Plant at Goodfellow and I-70 in north St. Louis.

The answer that the Mayor offers is demolition for retail construction.

Of course, removal of the transite covering and thorough abatement would leave a highly-adaptable steel frame in a highly-interesting shape. Re-cladding in any number of materials is feasible, and the resulting big retail outlet would be less of a big box and more of a big curiosity. The rumor is that Home Depot is interested in the site. Don't they want to open the world's coolest Home Depot?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

120 Clinton is almost gone.

The three story red brick warehouse at 120 Clinton, in the Near North Riverfront neighborhood, is being demolished. I'm not sure of its age, but certainly it is at least as old as our 1885 house. It has a rubble stone foundation, and it is of sturdy post and beam construction, so it's of significant age. The one consolation for me about its disappearance is that it is being carefully dismantled--the brick, floorboards, and posts are being saved and will be reused in some form. Of course, knowing the market, they probably won't be reused in St. Louis, but rather in a wealthier city (New York, Chicago, etc.) that never had such a high quality of bricks (or buildings) in the first place.

Building by building, brick by brick, we continue to allow our city's fine riverfront heritage to slip away.

Maybe when there are only two original riverfront manufacturing buildings left in St. Louis, they can stick a plaque on one and open it as a museum, and tear the other one down for a museum parking lot.

Crime and P.R. both dangerously on the rise

I was going to post some general comments about the statistics recently unveiled about the rise in crime in St. Louis, but I think Antonio French said it best over at Pub Def:

Percentage of rise in violent crime matches proposed pay increase for Mokwa

Personally, I'm astonished that the writers of the Mayorslay.com blog tried to spin this in a positive manner. What's tomorrow's blog entry gonna be over there?!? "Thousands of St. Louisans discovering the nutritional value of eating broken glass!" ???

"Careful and prudent"

A little additional tidbit about the Bremen Bank (that Michael posted a photo of earlier): THEY HAVE A WEBSITE.

I guess it's not too surprising for a bank to have a website, but I've Googled a number of North Broadway businesses in recent days, and most of them don't have websites, let alone ones that actually show a basic amount of design skill. The Near North Riverfront neighborhood itself has a website that has not been updated since 1996. So much of the North Broadway and Near North Riverfront area seems somehow deserted--not empty in the way of an area with a high abandonment rate feels, exactly, but more like the area's inhabited yet no one is ever around. It's particularly strange at night, when even the sparse daytime activity of trucks and loaders and workers is lacking. Everything is humming, yellow and orange and white dawn-to-dusk lights are blaring, here and there is the odd plume of steam rising from a factory, but where did everybody go? I hear a train, but where are all the people? ...so, yeah, finding this website coming out of that place struck me as a little strange.

One of these days, I will have to actually go into Bremen Bank, so I can stop mythologizing the little place and satisfy my curiousity. Maybe then it will seem like the kind of place that should have a website? Perhaps?

Bottled District

What is the fabled Bottle District going to look like?


Or this?

Will the towers shrink, the architecture get more conservative and the tenant list atrophy? Probably. While the site is excellent for very tall buildings, it is extremely disconnected from areas of residential and commercial density. While the plans hint that it will be a drive-in, self-contained world, it is being billed as a great entertainment district. Unfortunately, it would need for the demolition of I-70 and Trans World Dome to be a walkable complement to other areas of downtown activity. It's not likely to attract vibrant street life or many interesting stores and restaurants; the tenant list so far could easily be confused for the Union Station renovation tenant list, with barbecue restaurants, go-karts and other things that attract auto-bound visitors.

As a place to live, it could do very well, though. But the designs need to be progressive. I was not a huge fan of Libeskind's plans, which were rather derivative of his other work, but I admired the flair and the notion that the site should be a visual focal point. The newer renderings show rather commonplace buildings, better suited for the high-rise-choked Chicago Gold Coast than the skyline of St. Louis.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Goodnight, Bremen

Bremen Bank, Broadway at Mallinckrodt in Hyde Park. Photograph taken at 10:13p.m. on January 21 by Claire Nowak-Boyd.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church Lses Two Voes

Yesterday, the Land Clearance for Redevelopment authority approved the project known as "Magnolia Square," that would demolish venerable St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church to build 36 new houses.

Today, the aldermanic Housing, Urban Design and Zoning (HUDZ) Committee unanimously voted -- without roll call -- to send Board Bill #361 (sponsored by Alderman Joe Vollmer, An ordinance establishing a Planned Unit for City Block 4054.11 to be known as "Magnolia Square Subdivision"), to the full Board of Aldermen. Alderman Vollmer and developer James Wohlert presented their plans briefly. Wohlert told the committee that DiMartino Homes primarily buys vacant lots for new construction or old houses for demolition and new construction; he did not mention any experience in historic rehabilitation. The presenters barely acknowledged that the project failed to receive preliminary approval from the city's Preservation Board.

Triefenbach and the City

If you have yet to see Jason Wallace Triefenbach's video/installation Hero, Compromised at the Contemporary Art Museum, get over there as soon as you can. Jason's work, part of the Great Rivers Biennial, is a dreamlike reflection on the ideologies and myths embedded in the life of a fictional city dweller, played by the artist. The end credits are interspersed in a monologue-style musical performance that is as fitting an ode to living in St. Louis as I've ever seen. Jason is willing to transcend simple parody by pushing his critique past the limits of humor and self-consciousness and into the realm of the uncomfortable -- exactly where art should take us.

For an artist whose work is deeply rooted in the everyday experience of life in St. Louis, it would be easy to mock, deride and sulk. That's what others tend to do -- offer their assorted fuck-yous and I-can't-seem-to-get-always to those of us foolish enough to like this town. Jason is way ahead of others, though, because he curses the town down while making it a better place to be. His curse is full of as much life as the river that flows through St. Louis; it's no self-indulgent death wish.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Neighborhood Gardens Coming Back to Life

Today, I stopped by Neighborhood Gardens Apartments and chatted with developer Dan Dalton. His crew is working steady, and the results are apparent. The site is a beehive of activity during the day, and the buildings are starting to look much different. Windowpanes have even been installed in one building facing 7th Street. Dalton told me that 99% of the original steel cast window sashes were restored for the project -- that is impressive. Window sashes typically don't survive rehab projects, often because they are wooden and have not been maintained well enough to warrant saving.

When Dalton and company are done with their work, Neighborhood Gardens Apartments will be a shining example of what good can come of persistence and sensitivity to historic materials. Dan and his brother Jim have taken a large, neglected LRA-owned landmark and restored it without the fanfare and financial assistance that other developers have received. Good work, guys!

Lo-Fi St. Louis in the RFT

I've been meaning to mention recently that St. Louis video blogger Bill Streeter made the cover of the RFT on January 11, with Mike Seely writing an uncharacteristically readable article entitled "Sweet and Lo-Fi" about Streeter's StL music blog Lo-Fi St. Louis.

Congrats, Bill!

Hey blog readers and blog writers: Are you interested in getting on the cover of the RFT yourself? Why, it's simple! I have carefully studied the last three weeks' worth of RFT cover stories (January 4, January 11, and January 18), and come up with a simple rubric for how one gets to be the subject of an RFT cover story:

MEN: Publish an interesting blog about some aspect of St. Louis culture, promoting our city to the world!

WOMEN: Take your shirt off on a stage and make obvious statements about the fact that you have done so!

Whoops, looks like I'm in the wrong business! Good thing I'm not worried about getting in the RFT!

Coincidentally also about the Detroit area: Novi, Michigan!

Yesterday, I happened to meet someone from Novi, Michigan, which sent me on a little bitty nostagia trip.

Novi is a suburb of Detroit, near another suburb named Farmington Hills. My maternal grandparents moved to Farmington Hills when it was still farmland, and stayed for decades as sprawl sprang up around them. When we visited my grandparents when I was a kid, we'd often go shopping at Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi.

Novi has one of my favorite place names of anywhere outside of St. Louis. Though it was actually concocted very early on by a resident of the township trying to come up with a short name, the popular myth (which I really like) is that the town was named after its historic 1871 rail depot, which they claim was the sixth stop out from Detroit: "NO. VI." Not true, but nonetheless very charming.

Detroit Continues to Erase Itself

The city of Detroit has begun demolition of the Motown Building, where Motown Records had its offices for a few years (recordings were made elsewhere). This is another installment in the city's near-complete effort to take the Detroit out of Detroit prior to the Super Bowl later this month.

#19 Windermere Revisited

There's a good turn of events for #19 Windermere Place: At the Preservation Board meeting last night, the owners withdrew their application to alter it after a lengthy and productive discussion with staff from the city's Cultural Resources Office. Instead of destroying the veranda-like porch, they will be exploring the possibility of a renovation using state historic tax credits.

Monday, January 23, 2006

New Bridge Coul Widen the Gap

In a St. Clair County Journal article discussing the possibility of tolls being imposed on the proposed Mississippi River Bridge, mayors and alderpersons of several different Illinois cities were quoted, and all favor the new bridge. The mayor of Granite City, Ed Hagnauer, thinks that the new bridge will bring Missourians into Illinois.

One city rarely mentioned in discussions of the new bridge, and without an elected leader quoted in the article, is East St. Louis. Perhaps this neglect is due to the fact that new bridge has no real physical connection with East St. Louis, and will instead divert I-70 from even passing through the old city. The new bridge's backers tout the economic growth it will bring to Illinois, but overlook or dismiss the inequity such growth will bring. Cities farther east, liked Edwardsville and Collinsville will benefit greatly from a quick route connecting their new strip malls and office parks to the moneyed residents of St. Charles County. This economic flow will miss older cities close to the river, like East St. Louis and even Granite City -- cities that face depopulation, widespread poverty and a lack of economic growth. The bridge will allow the haves to gorge on growth while ensuring that have-nots continue to remain economically malnourished. It will carry people over the old cities and their minority populations, just as the highways built in the late twentieth century did for larger cities.

Proponents of the bridge dodge the issue. The bridge will spread the sprawl eastward, and balance out the effect of the far-west suburban growth in St. Charles and Warren counties. But it will be creating a distribution pattern resembling a donut, fueling new growth on the edges of the east side's developed area instead of helping redensify the inner core of east side cities.

East St. Louis is left out, again. Why not? Dealing with its problems is too difficult and requires careful, long-term action. Preventing exurban growth requires strong will on the part of politicians, who would have to tell their big-bucks backers "no." Building a bridge gives everyone a relatively quick dose of what they want: faster profits on new east side development, a short-term decrease in commute time between far suburbs in Illinois and Missouri and a fancy new structure to experience from a car.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Windemere Place Owners Want Inappropriate Alteration

The owners of #19 Windermere want to cut up their historic front porch to add off-street parking to their home. They have applied for a permit to alter the home to create a parking lane that would run at yard grade under the existing canopy -- a plan that would remove a section of their original porch deck. What a mistake that would be!

While other houses on the street have off-street driveways, they are either original to the home or did not get built through alterations to the houses. The homes on Windermere Place are part of the Visitation Park Local District (made a City Landmark in 1975 and expanded in 1987). Owners of homes here have to adhere to historic district standards that preclude major alterations like this one; they must get a variance from the Preservation Board to go against the standards.

Rarely does anyone seeking a variance aim to do anything other than damage the architectural quality of both home and street scape. The owners of this house are no exception to the norm.

These owners and those of other properties will be appearing before the Preservation Board at its meeting on Monday, January 23 at 4:00 p.m. at 1015 Locust Street (12th floor meeting room). Thankfully, the Cultural Resources staff recommends denying the permit.

Read the Cultural Resources staff summary of the application to see photographs of the home as well as plans for the remuddling.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Cine16 Tonight: Sometimes moving, often kitschy, always FREE!

cine16 is a free monthly film series presenting vintage short films that were shown in schools in decades past. As we move into a new space, we examine the motion and growth that are the essence of life.

Please note our change of location begins this month!

What: ciné16 -- Free films at Missouri History Museum

When: Thursday, January 19, 7 p.m. (doors open at 6)

Where: Missouri History Museum (Lindell at DeBalivere in Forest Park, two blocks south of the MetroLink station)

How Much: Free

Theme: "Motion and Growth"

Films on the program:

'Pas De Deux' (1968) 13m, dir. Norman McLaren. McLaren's classic black and white film is both exquisite and experimental. Documenting the movements of two ballet dancers, McLaren accentuates their movements through slow motion, super-imposed images and stark contrast.

'Ballet Adagio' (1971) 10m, dir. Norman McLaren. A few years after releasing "Pas De Deux," McLaren came out with another lovely film documenting ballet through experimental treatment of motion, time and light.

'Barges' (1973) 13m, dir. Parker Rushing. This film chronicles the journey of Illinois corn from a farm field through the port of Chicago and onto a bridge headed south to New Orleans via the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The narrative is almost an ode to life on the river.

'Johnny Learns His Manners' (1977) 17m, dir. Abe Levitow. A child is so messy and rude that he turns into a pig. His mom explains to him that astronauts get to go into space because they are neat and clean. He changes his ways and turns human again.

'How Does a Rainbow Feel?' (1972) 16m, dir. David Holden. A group of children explore character, narrative, color and motion by improvising a story that moves and grows, shifting from tense to silly as each youth adds to the tale.

'The Living Soil' (1965) 20m., dir. Atma Ram. A film made by Shell Oil that discusses soil organisms and "pests" with gratuitous close-ups, then shows farmers applying pesticides to their fields and talks about how great pesticides are.


cine16 St. Louis is a satellite program of the Academic Film Archive of North America (AFA), based in San Jose, California. The series is co-curated in St. Louis by Claire Nowak-Boyd, Michael Allen and Evalyn Williams.

What is "academic film"? From the early 1900s to about 1985, many of the best art, history, social science, literature and science films made were produced for academic settings on 16 millimeter film. AFA is dedicated to preserving these films and to educating the public about films of this era through free screenings and lectures.

For more information about AFA, visit http://www.afana.org

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Roberts Brothers Buy Buildings on Locust Street

Roberts brothers take bigger stake in Old Post Office district - Lisa R. Brown (St. Louis Business Journal, January 13)

The Roberts Brothers have acquired the buildings at 919-21 and 923 Locust Street, just west of the St. Louis Design Center where the offices of Landmarks Association of St. Louis are located. The Roberts Brothers now own the entire north side of the 900 block of Locust, with the Board of Education Building at the other end of the block.

The building at 919-21 Locust is a rather plain, four-story brick commercial building, likely built between 1900 and 1920. The other building, though, is of great historical importance: It may very well be the last remaining Civil-War-era commercial building in the Central Business District (excluding Laclede's Landing). The building consists of two sections, a three-story portion at the corner of Tenth and Locust and a two-story section facing Tenth. Aside from later cast iron columns on the first floor, the building's older features are completely covered by stucco and timber in a kitschy mock-Tudor style. Underneath the stucco, the buildings are probably very simple Federal style buildings with red brick walls adorned with stone windowsills and lintels. Perhaps a dentillated cornice in brick exists. Few buildings like this one are left in the entire city, and no other in the downtown core.

The brothers are contemplating demolition of the newly-acquired buildings, although they have no certain plans. One idea is to build a new condo tower on the site, which would confirm the old rumor that the Century Building Memorial Parking Garage exists not just for the Old Post Office but for a secret new tower project. Who knows? Discussion is underway on the Urban St. Louis forum.

Demolition is ill-advised on one of the few downtown block faces that has not had any demolitions in the 20th or 21st centuries. The 900 block of Locust only recently had intact faces on both fronts, complementing the also-intact 1000 block of Locust and the 800 and 900 blocks of Olive. What a dynamic urban context this was, and still could be. The wise choice would be to renovate the two buildings on Locust, with a full restoration of the old building at 923 Locust. The recovery of the original appearance would add even greater visual complexity to this part of downtown.

Building any new buildings on the north side of the 800 block of Olive seems logical; there is an entire city block front that could host a stunning, modern design that would provide space for a new, taller residential building that would fill in one of downtown's most glaring visual gaps. The proposed downtown plaza and its associated public urination would never come to fruition, but no matter -- there is too much open space downtown as it is, with the old Ambassador Building site already providing a lifeless park one block east. Why not rebuild that space instead, build up the 800 block of Locust and restore the 900 block of Locust? Locust Street needs a boost, and the resources are at the ready.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bear Sign

Near St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, a lone bear takes in the scene from his perch at the corner of Southwest and Sublette.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Inside St. Aloyisus Gonzaga Church

We have posted images of the interior of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, taken in June by parishioner and Southwest Neighborhood Garden Association board member Mary Ann Owens. All of the statues and stained glass windows shown in the images have been removed.

Also pertaining to St. Aloysius Gonzaga: I attended Monday's meeting of the Southwest Neighborhood Garden Association and listened to many residents speak about the "Magnolia Square" project that calls for demolishing the church. The section of the meeting devoted to the project was conducted as a sort of "town hall" with neighborhood association president Floyd Wright acting as moderator between residents and the assembled crew of developer James Wohlert, Alderman Joseph Vollmer (D-10th) and Father Vincent Bommarito of the neighboring St. Ambrose parish. Eleven speakers spoke against demolition of part or all of the existing church building, one spoke in favor of Magnolia Square and six people asked pointed questions of the developer. Although there was reference to supposed outside-the-'hood opposition to demolition, it became clear on Monday that residents who are informed largely don't support demolition. What they would support as reuse is a matter of debate, though. Steve Patterson spoke against demolition and presented an alternate plan that would place several condo units inside the church. Half of the people who opposed demolition reacted negatively to his idea.

Yet condominium conversion is only one possible reuse for the church. While even more unconventional ideas, like office space for a small company or a restaurant, would certainly find no support from the neighborhood, other plans might. I think that neighbors of the church love its beautiful and serene site -- and don't want any use that would generate more vehicle traffic than the church did. Perhaps the church could become a community center or art gallery. I hope that neighbors who oppose demolition and condominiums can suggest a reuse that would be economically feasible.

If the owner of the property had an open mind, such a brainstorming could produce a wonderful compromise that would preserve the church, convent and rectory -- I'm not counting on the never-finished original church to be a popular rallying point -- while allowing for new home construction on the rest of the site.

However, it's also clear that Wohlert has no intention of backing down with his plan. He is supported by Alderman Vollmer, who did most of the talking on Wohlert's behalf on Monday. (Smart move, I suppose.) While the alderman was diplomatic, he also seemed to ignore resident commentary by repeatedly making statements suggesting that demolition was inevitable, even after it was clear that almost no one was buying them.

Vollmer's answer to the question of whether he would take Ward 10 out of preservation review if the Preservation Board would not reverse its preliminary denial of a demolition permit was only mildly encouraging. He said that he did not want to remove the ward from review, but removal existed as a "last resort." He also stated later that there was almost no exceptional architecture in Southwest Garden -- a neighborhood containing State Hospital, St. Aloysius Gonzaga and many interesting vernacular buildings -- and that people moved there for the neighborhood, not for architecture. While I'm sure that his thoughts are more elaborate than they sounded, he came across as crudely disrespectful toward his own ward's historic buildings.

Wohlert came under fire even from people who don't think preservation is realistic. Many people asked him about his hideous new house on January Avenue, which is on of the least urban buildings in the city. They wondered whether he could build good-looking buildings, and furthermore if he could sell them (his speculative house only now found a buyer after months on the market). He assured people that he is incorporating every one of the Cultural Resources Office's recommendations for reworking his project, but did not convince many people of his ability to building thirty-six new homes in an urban context.

The next step will be a meeting of the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee on Monday, January 16 at 10:00 a.m. in Room 208 of City Hall. The Committee will hear Vollmer's bill that declares the St. Aloysius Gonzaga block "blighted." It's full steam ahead for the project's backers, even if the residents of Southwest Garden have objections.

Meanwhile, SaveStAloysius.org has lauched.

The sound of (early) spring in ONSL

Something about unexpectedly beautiful, warm St. Louis days like this just makes me feel compelled to open up all the windows and put on music, if I must be indoors. I like the idea of people walking around just because it's so nice out, and of someone walking down our block and past our somewhat rundown 1880s house, with its funny little mini-half-mansard roof and its dark brick, and hearing beautiful or cheerful music. I like the idea of people hearing music they would not expect to hear while walking down a street, let alone a street Old North St. Louis. From somewhere behind those brightly colored curtains, there is...a harp? A choir? A synthesizer? Falsetto and heavy bass? Canaries and a wobbly electric organ? HUH?

I don't blast it, but I play it just loud enough to enjoy it and just loud enough for it to be audible outside through the windows.

Last week, on an unusually warm day like this one, I got to leave work early. I walked home in the sunny and beautiful weather, taking a wandering and circuitous route through the neighborhood. Walking past rows of apartments and houses in intact areas of the neighborhood, I got a sense what it must have been like when Old North was at the peak of its density.

I passed gray stone steps. Neighbors were sitting and talking with each other, out there in the open. Sometimes we greeted each other, whether or not we knew each other.

I passed mouseholes (tall, arch-topped openings leading straight through to the back of buildings; originally, when blocks were filled almost solidly with buildings, the people who lived on the second floor of a building would go through the mousehole to access the stairs to their apartment, which were in back.). Each one that I passed punctuated my walk with a brief, transient cool breeze.

I passed windows. Not all of them had screens. In places, curtains or patterned sheets or random snips of fabric billowed out above me, floating in the soft wind. I could hear music, sometimes loud music, coming out of the buildings from inside. It was as if the folks in these buildings were announcing to me, to the block, to the neighborhood "I'M HAPPY THAT IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY!" It was nice. In places, music from separate buildings clashed, and mingled with the sound of conversation--the sound of urban life, as I walked along a mix of brick and concrete and overgrown sidewalks.

So, I open the windows and I play my music. On days like today, I like to contribute to the feeling of my block and neighborhood as an urban place with people living in it, and I like to let everyone know I'm happy to be here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Dark Days at St. Louis Centre

Today the Riverfront Times ran an article, "Paint It Black", on troubled St. Louis Centre. Need we mention that the Arch City Chronicle ran an article in its January 4 issue? Or that the 52nd City group called for a photo walk with a blog entry on December 21?

And Again: Wright House in Gary Burns

One of the two Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Gary, Indiana burned on Monday. As usual, Wright follows Sullivan!

Here's more coverage:

A Daily Dose of Architecture: Charred Wright

The Place Where We Live: Another One Bites the Dust: FLW in Gary, IN Goes up in Flames

When we were last in Gary, we met with the city planner to discuss another building. He was talking of his valiant attempts to work with the impoverished owner of this house on a restoration plan.

Like many such plans in Gary, time and money worked against it, and fire trumped all. Of course, the building's condition before the fire was terrible, unlike the great condition of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. The frame-and-stucco house had suffered major interior damage, including floor collapse, due to water intrusion.

Rebuilding Pilgrim Baptist Church

Fire a blow to Bronzeville - Antonio Olivo and Ron Grossman (Chicago Tribune, January 10)

Preservationists, politicians, church members and neighborhood residents are contemplating what to do with the burned Pilgrim Baptist Church (originally Kehilath Anshe Ma'ariv Synagogue), design by Louis Sullivan.

The options seem to be:

a.) A total rebuilding of the church according to Adler & Sullivan's original plans. If the walls need to be rebuilt, this will cost tens of millions of dollars, and the results may be underwhelming. In 2006, we have lost some of the building techniques and materials that Adler and Sullivan had at their disposal in 1891. (This fact should make all of us pause to think about the viability of our society.) As the renowned architect Wilbert Hasbrouck says in the article, a full rebuilding would not recreate the building but instead leave the world with a replica in lesser materials.

b.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church but creating a modern space inside.

c.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church and creating a somewhat "Sullivanesque" space inside that would not be a replica but would attempt to convey some sense of how the interior originally appeared.

d.) Stabilizing the ruins and leaving them stand as they have been left by the fire. This is what Gary, Indiana has contemplated doing with the City Methodist Church, a massive 1925 Gothic structure struck by a devastating 1997 fire. No one has mentioned this possibility in the press yet, but it bears consideration.

e.) Total demolition with salvage of some elements. I don't think that anyone wants this to happen -- even Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is interested in helping preserve the building, although the City of Chicago is taking a typically non-comittal approach.

Whatever happens will be interesting to watch. While the fire is tragic, I share some of the optimism that architect John Vinci expresses in the article. This is likely the only chance most people will have to see an Adler and Sullivan building completely rebuilt in some manner. I wonder what Richard Nickel, that dogged and devoted purist, would think.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

St. Mary's Infirmary for sale again

St. Mary's Infirmary is once again for sale. It's listed for $1,450,000.00. The buildings previously were under contract, and had sold to the current rehab-planning owners in 2003, but apparently no one can get anything started there.

The Politics of Lead Prevention

Leave it to the Gateway Green Alliance (known as the "Green Party of St. Louis" when they need to keep serious candidates from running under the Green Party banner) to turn a serious public health issue like lead poisoning into an excuse to create pointless polarization and flaunt an unimaginative purity.

Instead of advertising an open, solution-seeking meeting on lead poisoning, the group used their January 4 "educational forum" to bait the city's director of operations, Ron Smith. Even though Smith declined to return their e-mail messages (he later did attend the forum, though), the Gateway Greens used his name in press releases and on fliers.

"Will City Discuss Lead Problems With Critics?" asked one flier, utilizing corporate media's strategy of painting issues in terms of conflicts with clear good and bad sides. The advertising was more intent on setting up Ron Smith with a "when did you stop beating your wife?" conundrum: if he didn't show up, he would "prove" their point that he was unwilling to attend. If he did show up to defend the city's position, Smith would know in advance he would be facing a freshly-primed hostile audience.

It thus seems reasonable for Smith to avoid returning e-mail messages or phone calls after the ads started appearing. Not only would he be set up as the sacrificial lamb, he would be spending time talking with a group more interested in empty political posturing than fighting lead poisoning in the city. After all, the Gateway Green Alliance tries to be interchangeable with the Green Party of St. Louis, and thus is a political entity rather than a public health advocacy group. The Gateway Greens would only exploit their participation in lead prevention to build their phony claim that they are the city's second largest political party. They are not; an attempt to build the party into a political force failed when the leadership of the Gateway Greens shooed away serious city-based organization-builders using some pretty dated Soviet-style tactics. As a result, their membership has dwindled and their influence has waned. No wonder they needed to resort to a cheap publicity stunt like this one.

I should point out that an ever cheaper publicity stunt available to them would have been actually running a political campaign against Mayor Francis Slay, but instead the Green Party mayoral candidate seemed to be running against other Greens instead of the Democratic incumbent.

With their recent gripes about the city's lead remdeiation program, their crude polarization has only given Mayor Slay a chance to take the high ground on the issue as the person who is really helping the city's children.

It's no surprise that MayorSlay.com jumped to take the high ground. I still think that the city government is acting too slow in the lead crisis, and could put pressure on moneybags at the Danforth Foundation and others for funding lead prevention efforts ahead of more ephemeral projects like floating islands. Some progress is being made under Slay, but not enough.

Laws need to be enforced. For instance, Dr. Daniel Berg points out in his article "Lead Poisoning in St. Louis" that the city is not enforcing a 1971 ordinance that would require city landlords to abate lead hazards as soon as tenant's child was diagnosed with lead poisoning. The biggest problem rests with rental properties -- that's one area where great focus needs to be. Berg has some other good ideas: The city could publish a list of properties that have been abated, so that families would avoid properties that will poison their kids; the city could make sure that poisoned children be able to immediately move to safe housing.

Berg claims that only 130 homes a year are abated in St. Louis; if that is true, then major funding is needed for the city's efforts. Reliance on federal grants severely limits funding, and needs to be changed. Yet a real strategy for increasing funding would seek out local private sources and enforce existing laws instead of yelling at the city government that federal funds be diverted into local lead prevention. After all, it's not terribly difficult to participate in your own government -- especially in St. Louis. What good are threats?

Real public health programs are solution-focused and well-funded. The work that needs to be done to prevent lead poisoning in the city is difficult and should not present a political opportunity to anyone. Anyone using lead prevention as a political wedge is doing a great disservice to the poor children on the city of St. Louis. Anyone who is doling out millions of dollars for "civic" projects who is not putting lead abatement on the project list must not come into the city very often.

Everyone needs to put aside their misplaced priorities and grand gestures and try to make the city a safe place for children. Abating lead will take time and money, and no heroes will be made -- but lives will be saved.

Monday, January 9, 2006

She's a brick house.

A neighbor, who has completely relaid three walls of his alley house from the ground up (AWESOME), just came by with his brick guy so that they could give us an opinion and an estimate on correcting some of our house's numerous and varied brick-related ailments. After he surveyed the damage, his parting words to me were:

"Brick house. Brick project. Brick headache."

I laughed. His statement might not be true everywhere, but Old North St. Louis has some of the oldest remaining architectural stock in the city, so here it is very true.

Brick problems can be especially frustrating because in most cases, if simple basic maintenance had been done over the years, the brick problems could have been greatly lessened, if not altogether prevented. That's the case with our house--if the roof had been kept up, it wouldn't be in such dire need of major brickwork right now.

Still, I love brick. One of the most jarring things for me about moving to Chicagoland from St. Louis as a kid was that I no longer had immaculate red brick to look at. Chicago bricks are blander in color, larger, more crumbly in quality due to inferior local clay, and are put together with huge, wide, sloppy stripes of mortar--somehow, it just lacks the charm of an immaculately laid, bright red, sturdy wall (esp. if that wall is accented with ornamental Hydraulic Press Brick, once made in Forest Park Southeast--ooh la la!). Chicago was built with such economic fervor that most of its everyday residential stock was built very rapidly. But when I look at a red brick St. Louis wall, I get the warm feeling that someone really took their time on it.

And one more reason to appreciate masonry construction: If our house was made of wood or vinyl, it wouldn't be here anymore! It had a major fire in 2003, starting in the basement in the newer, rear portion of our house. The fire heavily damaged the basement room and the first floor room directly above it, as well as the basement stairs. All the way up on the second floor, in the back part of the house, cracks in the plaster have smoke stains stretching up from them, where smoke must have been pouring up from back inside the walls. But you know what? The front part of the house had very little damage, because it's separated from the back part by an 18 inch thick stone fire wall in the basement. Upstairs, the same wall is brick, and it's still very, very thick. As a consequence, the only smoke stains you will see in the front part of the house are along ceilings and the tops of walls, from smoke that billowed in--because of that thick masonry wall, the front part of the house did not burn. THANK YOU, BRICK! PLEASE KEEP IT UP!

Sullivan Synagogue Gutted by Fire

In his lifetime, Louis Sullivan designed many buildings. Of his designs, 238 were built. As of Friday, only 50 still stood -- and one of them, Kehilath Anshe Ma' ariv Synagogue (Later Pilgrim Baptist Church burned on that same day.

The interior and unique roof was totally lost, and the limestone exterior walls are left unstable.

The historic synagogue was one of the most formative designs in the collaboration of Dankmar Adler and Sullivan, demonstrating Adler's deft structural mind and the maturation of Sullivan's patterns of ornament.

The Place Where We Live has more information: Adler & Sullivan Historic Church Destroyed by Fire

Hopefully, the walls can be stabilized even if the interior spaces and roof structure are lost forever. The city of Chicago and the world cannot afford to lose the last traces of a Louis Sullivan building. By now, the callous city that tore down so many before may realize just how valuable Sullivan's work really is.

Or not.

Chicago continues to drain its heritage: CTA platform expansion has claimed both the 1929 Hays-Healy Gymnasium at DePaul University as well as the Co-Operative Temperance Society Building (lately housing the Bottom Lounge) at Wilton and Belmont; Marshall Field's will become Macy's in September; the landmark Berghoff restaurant will close February 28; yet another turreted corner building is threatened; and so forth.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

Blairmont Case To Be Continued

The hearing for the Building Division's suit against Blairmont Associates LC over the condition of the Clemens House (known as Blairmont #054-2163) has again been continued. The next hearing has been scheduled for February 14, in Division 7 at the Civil Courts Building, at 9:30 a.m.

A tipster says that Paul McKee denies having anything to do with Blairmont or any of its allied enterprises (Noble Development, N & G Ventures, VHS Partners), as well as sharing an address with the company. Should we believe that Harvey Noble and Steve Goldman -- the people who are definitely working for Blairmont -- are going it alone on the "project"?

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Making a splash, making a bet.

Monday's post in the blog "written" by Mayor Slay was the Mayor's To Do list for this year.

The list (sans the honorable mentions section):
"•The Riverfront
•St. Louis public schools
[My italics]
•City services and finances
•City pension funds
•Economic development
•City parks
•St. Louis Centre
•Mississippi River Bridge
•I-64 reconstruction"

I find it interesting that "The Riverfront" is listed first, and the schools come after it. That pretty much says it all.

I should start taking bets that there will be a silly, unnecessary little artificial island in the middle of the Mississippi before Roosevelt High School is a safe place again.

I should start taking bets that the ridiculous swimming pool in the middle of the silly island will be complete before teachers at Washington and Euclid Montessori schools start receiving proper Montessori method teacher training again.

I should start taking bets that the ridiculous island and its silly swimming pool will have their grand opening ceremony long before SLPS regains the accreditation points it had before Slay took office, and before SLPS students ever get the chance to appreciate a curriculum that is not based around obsessively preparing for standardized tests.

If I actually put money on this stuff, my guess is I could make enough money to pay off most of my mortgage.

But who knows, maybe 2006 will hold positive surprises for the SLPS. Let's hope so. Nothing is going to change until the schools are viewed as the top priority, rather than just a public relations issue.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Protecting Perception

In order to make downtown Detroit look cleaner to the middle class who will be attending the Super Bowl, the city government will be removing the lovely marquee of the vacant United Artists Theater, built in 1928. The city also plans to clean all of the attached office building's windows of the intriguing Mayan-style graffiti that an unknown artist painstakingly painted onto the many panes. The graffiti is far more interesting and pretty than blank glass, and also does more to make the long-vacant building seem lively. Open, empty windows will accentuate the abandonment.

I wonder what will become of the marquee. Hopefully it will not turn up in an unscrupulous Chicago salvage shop, as Detroit's architectural treasures often do. A more likely fate is the scrap yard.

What will the cleaning and marquee removal really accomplish? Random crime will be rampant on game day, and has nothing to do with the marquee and graffiti. Superficial actions like this will do nothing to protect people from muggings. Then again, in the name of major league sports, anything can be done so long as it makes suburban fans feel better.

Ahead of Being Behind the Times

Travelers taking Amtrak between St. Louis and Chicago pass two baseball stadiums. Both are of the souless "retro" style, with masonry panels and oversized steel entrance arches attempting to convey a supposedly old-time feel. One is in downtown St. Louis and serves as home field for the major-league Cardinals. The other one is in Joliet, Illinois and serves as home field for the minor-league Jackhammers.

The difference? The stadium in Joliet opened in 2002, while the St. Louis stadium is still under construction.

With the retro style, does that make the Joliet stadium more authentic because it is older? Or less, because it came earlier and is thus a less refined version of the product?

The rules of retro architectural style are determined by pastiche (more like parody), so perhaps Busch Stadium's large and undistinguished bulk is more in keeping with the rather utilitarian stadiums of yore. (At least Joliet's stadium has its main entrance at a chamfered corner, which adds visual interest.) Yet the references are so strained in each stadium that they come across more as tribute to the commercial architecture of the 1980's than the baseball stadia of the early 20th century.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Free Bricks

From CraigsList St. Louis comes this ad:

I have Two 2-story Brick houses that i would like demolitioned. The bricks are yours to keep as long as the property is demolitioned and all debris removed by way of dumping at an official/legitamite dumping site. Must obtain proper permits & adhere to city code & regulations.

Please only reply if you have the equipment for this job and proof of your ability to complete the job as well as remove all bricks from the site.

Thank you.

Now, I wonder if this person knows about the city's preservation review ordinance. Of course, there's a good chance that the ward in which these homes are located is exempt from review.