We've Moved

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

Friday, June 30, 2006

What We Can Learn from Jennings

Internet happenstance led to my discovery of the website for the Jennings Historical Society. Jennings is a small city in north St. Louis County, located not far from the city limits of St. Louis. While Jennings was incorporated in 1946 and saw rapid growth after the opening of Interstate Highway 70, settlement there dates back to 1839. While the Historical Society's website isn't deep in content, its presence and wonderful design suggest that there is an effort going to take an interest in the history of one of north county's most interesting cities.

Jennings was instrumental in the development of the shopping mall in St. Louis. Both Northland Shopping Center in the 1950s and River Roads Mall in 1967 were innovative, albeit auto-centric, development projects that fell into vacancy and disrepair before demolition. Northland fell last year for a new big-box strip, and River Roads is under demolition at the present moment for a new subdivision developed by the Pyramid Companies.

Jennings, however, lives on. While the city faces the same problems as other municpalities in St. Louis County that went from great early suburban development to stangant economies, it could stand to preserve some of its recent past. The suburban development of the 1950s is increasingly the subject of serious research, and its atomic-age modernism seems rather intimately-scaled when compared with suburban development that followed it. Jennings is still the site of 20th century retail, gas station and other commercial buildings that tell the story of the postwar settlement of St. Louis County -- as well as older buildings that show the development that the once-rural county supported before highways.

Historic preservation is needed in Jennings as well as other "inner ring" suburbs. The rush to increase revenues may wipe out a lot of interesting places and buildings there. I hope fellow preservationists look at mid-century suburban architecture as seriously as they do early 20th century urban office buildings. Places like Jennings are very important antidotes to development projects like WingHaven that undercut all sense of place and totally condemn the pedestrian. Jennings developed into a car-friendly place that also retained a specific character. Those of us who despise the suburbs can find things to like about these cities -- and our involvement can redirect development efforts from replacement sprawl to urban development that builds on local character. A site like that of River Roads would have been a great place for the New Urbanists who are instead building non-places on the remote corn fields of St. Charles County.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Advertising Displacement

On the old Missouri Pacific Building, now dubbed the "Park Pacific," one finds some troubling banners. Facing west toward one of the park blocks of Memorial Plaza are banners advertising -- with staged photographs of yuppies at home -- a personal chef, gourmet grocery and other perks of the condominum conversion project off-limits to the denizens of this park area, who are mostly homeless men who use the shady blocks of the Plaza to stay out of the sun during the day.

Although the banners are likely innocent advertisements, they appear to be a rather rude posture that creates a Dickensian contrast between the wealth of the occupants-to-be and the poverty of those presumably to be forced away from the building.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Considering Wright

In "A Case Against Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect", Toby Weiss makes a brilliant entry into the ongoing debate on the historical importance of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The essay spends a lot of time investigating the reconstruction work needed to keep his landmark works watertight and structurally sound.

Toby's points resonate with me to great extent. While I remain fascinated with the aesthetic dimension of architecture, I am most impressed with what buildings are and how they function. May favorite buildings balance technical proficiency with inspired design, and their architects never lost sight of the fundamental basis of architecture: containment of space for a purpose. Wright's mentor and one of my favorite architects, Louis Sullivan, applied rigorous standards to the construction of his buildings because he believed that the appearance of the building should be the embodiment of the architectural form he was designing. While Sullivan is best remembered for his artistic achievements, part of his architectural program was structural innovation and his partnership with structural genius Dankmar Adler shows his desire to get every detail correct.

In contrast, Wright's iconoclastic insistence on advancing design principles ahead of examination of what his buildings were seems sloppy and careless. However, Wright created wonderful works of architecture and a few, such as Chicago's Robie House and Springfield's Dana-Thomas House, that lack the structural pitfalls of his later work. There seems to be a point in his career at which he began to willfully avoid the pragmatics needed to make truly great buildings. While his earlier works show that he learned from Sullivan the importance of posing the building as a solution to a spatial problem, his later works are almost purely artistic creations that nonetheless make great, awe-inspiring spaces. That he would come to insist upon bizarre and faulty construction methods is troubling, but more suggestive of the consumption of Wright by his ego and "vision" than of his inadequacy as an architect. Wright could do better, and chose not to do so.

I would say such a choice is not the mark of an artist, but of an architect acting irresponsibly toward his buildings. If the architect has a duty to any one thing, it is to the buildings that he creates. If a lapse in duty is a failing, then Wright failed in the late part of his career. Oddly, he is much more revered than Sullivan, whose duty to architecture was so intense that he sacrificed his career rather than make bad buildings. (Both were, however, similarly arrogant toward clients and moody.) Sullivan could be a bully, but he did not lose clients because his roofs leaked and he denied the problem. He lost clients because his theory of architecture was supplanted by others, and his vision was too strong to be tolerable to most clients. He did not want to balance his views and those of his client. Neither did Wright, who also had long stretches without much work.

So why did Wright become an enduring popular legend and Sullivan largely forgotten until the scholars began reconstructing his legacy in the late 1950s? Mass media seemed to play a role; Wright's sensational personal life and aptitude at developing quotable axioms made him great fodder for newspaper articles, radio news programs and, famously, television. To some degree, Wright was able to compromise his presentation with public expectations; Sullivan was far too verbose and serious to do so.

Wright's legacy as an architect alone would not have solidified his fame; his ability to become the first American architectural media icon did so. As a showman, he excelled. He defined the public's perception of the Architect in a way that Sullivan could not. Whether or not his buildings need expensive repairs based on his faulty structural calculations to most admirers seems but a footnote to his body of work as public figure and designer. Perhaps the trouble with Wright is that it's nearly impossible to consider his work apart from his role as a public figure.

To me, each aspect is equally important. I admire Wright but find
Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, Albert Kahn, George Elmslie and much lesser-known American architects to be far more studious designers committed to great, functional buildings before being committed to theoretical purity. Ironically, other architects achieved a consistency greater than Wright's without making big promises. The legacy of 20th century American architecture was enriched by Wright and defined by others.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Preservation Board Will Consider Demolition of House in Penrose Park

The house on June 20, 2005. Photographs by Michael R. Allen.

Built in 1902, the house at 4961 Penrose Avenue is located inside of Penrose Park and is slated for demolition in favor of road and park improvements. The design of this house is an uncommon blend of Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts tendencies; the slate jerkin-head roof and side entrance add variation to what otherwise may have been a common red-brick period house. The demise of the house is predicated on its supposed separation from the surrounding parts of the Penrose neighborhood, but it actually is less than a half-block from the nearest occupied house.

Although the house had been put into use at the residence of the Keeper of Penrose Park as early as 1906, enough of the surrounding neighborhood remains to give it a visual relationship to the neighborhood. Across the street is Scullin School, and to the southeast are mostly intact blocks of brick and frame houses and two-flats. In fact, with widespread demolition in north city, a passer-by would likely assume that the space between this house and the next one to the south are simply vacant lots produced by demolition. This is not far from the truth -- houses did stand there, forming a street wall in which this house was located. The cleared lots and this house became part of park, though, which seems to be making the difference in the Board of Public Service's drive to tear it down.

Road improvements to nearby Kingshighway are in progress and did not entail demolition, although the work is creating a road between this house and others on its side of the street. A planned amphitheater on this site could be re-designed to let the house stand.

Perhaps when the city's last park-keeper moved out in the 1980s, the city should have returned the house to the neighborhood by selling it. The time is not too late for the city to make the right move now. If the house does not sell, perhaps some park-related function could be found for the house. Park houses are a valued part of south side city parks, and the city does not push to demolish them.

Consideration of the Board of Public Service's demolition application by the Preservation Board in May 2006 led to a vote in favor of a one-month deferral. Staff from the Cultural Resources Office recommended approval of the demolition on the condition that documentation be made. This position stemmed from the seeming hopelessness of trying to save a building supposedly isolated and in the way of public works projects. However, memebers of the Preservation Board led by Luis Porrello seemed posed to deny the permit until member Richard Callow moved to defer a vote one month, to the June 2006 meeting. Callow wanted staff to photograph the interior so that the board could more thoroughly assess the potential for reuse.


At its June 2006 meeting, the Preservation Board again heard the matter. A staff member from the Board of Public Service attended, waived his right to have a quorum hear the matter, and then proceeded to merely endorse the staff recommendation to approve demolition instead of actually providing testimony. Michael Allen, Steve Patterson and Claire Nowak-Boyd provided testimony on the re-use potential of the building as a cultural centerpiece of Penrose Park. Commissioners John Burse, Richard Callow and Anthony Robinson all voted to deny the permit.

View to the southeast down Penrose Avenue.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

10th and Locust

Here is the intersection of 10th and Locust streets in downtown St. Louis, with this view facing southwest. At left, one sees a massive cast-iron spandrel on the Syndicate Trust Building (built in 1906, designed by Harry Roach), which is being renovated into condominiums and apartments by LoftWorks and Sherman Associates. In the center, the art deco Civil Courts (built in 1930, designed by Klipstein and Rathmann) stands above the Thebes-Stierlin Music Store Building (built in 1906 and designed by Theodore Link, architect of Union Station). At the right is the 1899 Delany Building, designed by Matthews & Clark and rehabbed by LoftWorks in 2004. In 1953, the Delany Building was sold at a tax sale at the Civil Courts Building.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Three in Old North

Meet three buildings in Old North St. Louis in need of rescue: 1215 Wright (Blairmont-owned); 1312 Warren (absentee owner, fire-damaged); 2917-23 N. 13th Street(partly-collapsed, LRA-owned).

While these buildings aren't easy rehabs, someone should give them a try and get them away from bad owners (the first two) or an overworked, underfunded government (the last one). One would have a small army of well-wishers here.

From my newly sunburned self, to those in the know: #52 Clayton South County

Is it just me, or is there no longer a Downtown-bound #52 Clayton South County bus stopping at the corner of Lindell and Grand at 4:18 pm? What about 4:48? Today and Friday (respectively) I tried to catch these busses (which I've caught fairly regularly in the past) but saw neither hide nor hair of a #52. Both times I got out there 15 minutes early and found myself waiting for nearly half an hour, only to catch the regularly scheduled on-the-half-hour #93 Lindell. Am I nuts? Has there been a reroute or reschedule Metro didn't post to its website (imagine that!)?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Blairmont Money Goes to Hubbard, Nasheed and El-Amin

According to information in a post on Blog St. Louis (about other interesting matters), northside slumlords Blairmont Associates LC gave $500.00 to the 58th District Democratic Legislative District Committee. This money was combined with other donations and distributed to candidates Rodney Hubbard, seeking re-election to the 58th District State Representative seat; Jamilah Nasheed, seeking the 60th District seat; and Yaphett El-Amin, seeking the 4th District State Senate seat.

If Blairmont is simply a speculative endeavor, and not a front for a planned development project, why would it be buying influence with candidates for the state legislature? If all it needed was to hold the Building and Forestry divisions at bay, its contributions to the 5th Ward Regular Democratic Organization would seem to be all that it could do in that regard.

What could Blairmont need from the state government? Affordable housing tax credits?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Preservation Board to "Reconsider" Lutheran Altenheim Home Decision

The Preservation Board of the City of St. Louis meets May 26 to consider several items. One item that jumps out to me on the agenda is a "request for reconsideration" of a demolition permit for the old Lutheran Altenheim Home in the Baden area of north city. The owners, multi-state residential-care operators Hillside Manor LLC, have already contracted with Spirtas for demolition and started removing interior items. In April, they appealed the permit denial of the staff of the Cultural Resources Office to the Preservation Board, which upheld the denial.

While Hillside Manor has no use for the old building, and it stands in an awkward spot between Hillside Manor and another residential care facility, they have yet to prove that they need to demolish the building, or that they have considered other uses of the building.

Thankfully their "request for reconsideration" goes to the Preservation Board and not to the Board of Alderman as legislation. However, the Preservation Board should refuse reconsideration. No doubt that Hillside Manor will be pushing some high number on rehab costs that would be a "financial hardship" under the Preservation Review Ordinance. If so, it's hogwash -- Hillside Manor has expanded into a large network of locations and does not seem to be short on money for expansion.

There still are uses for the old building, but they would require creative thinking. It might make a great apartment building if more parking could be created. (Has Hillside Manor considered allowing a developer to build a second level of parking over their existing lot?)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

More suspicious condo fires on the South Side

Two suspicious fires broke out yesterday morning in Lafayette Square, around the suspicious hour of 5AM.

KSDK's got the story, and a photo.

Both fires were at historic-styled new construction sites. The first was at Vail Place Townhomes at 1425 S. 18th. The second was at Mississippi Place, near the corner of Lafayette and Mississippi.

One wonders if this was done by the same person(s) responsible for the recent condo construction fire on South Grand (just south of Reservoir Park). Both were new South Side construction sites, both happened around the same time of day, and both the fire on Grand and the Vail Place fire were noted as being so hot that they damaged nearby homes, cars, and other objects (often by melting them).

This is disturbing, to put it mildly.

I believe that new development in the city must be responsible if we are to ensure a sustainable future for ourselves, and I am no big fan of endless condo-ization, but shit. Does this arsonist really think that StL is doing so well as a city that it can afford to drive developers out? Redensifying vacant land in our city is generally a good thing. And heck, I'd sure like to see some relatively historically sensitive infill like Mississippi Place going up on the North Side!

And, um, if the arsonist's goal is to stop Lafayette Square from getting really fancy and pricey, I hate to break it to them, but they're a few years late on that one.

Hopefully they'll figure out who did this before it happens again.

(Thanks to Dave Shocklee for the news tip.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Encouraging ONSL news on the web, OR how to be a nosy neighbor without being seen in your fuzzywuzzy pajamas

Sean Thomas and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group have launched their own blog, What's New in Old North. The title pretty much says it all--the blog chronicles some of the cool things that are happening in our 'hood.

Check it out.

Cine 16 this Thursday: Ben Franklin, besides electrified kites.

Heyyyyyyyyyyyy kids! It's that time again!

This Thursday, June 15, is the next Cine16 showing. As always, it's FREE.

This month's theme is Ben Franklin's Busy Life, which is a cornucopia of films directly or tangentially related to Ben Franklin. This month, we've got dazzling footage of a 1960s power plant, an almost unbearably wholesome fireman doing his chores but not fighting fires, and children playing in the great outdoors while a gentle voice reads poetry about the weather.

My personal favorite film this month is Library World. Young Brian thinks he's too cool to follow his friend Stephanie into the library, but that all stops when a library employee rolls up in a hot rod, goes inside, and starts cleaning civil war era guns for a library display! Where did the library worker find out about hot rods and guns? Why, BOOKS, of course!

Where, when, etc:
Thursday, June 15 * Films start at 7pm
@ The Missouri History Museum (Lindell at DeBalivere, two blocks from the Forest Park Metrolink stop)

&fyi, the Museum leaves their cafe open during the showing, so snacks, booze, and POPCORN are available!

And for more information about who we are, check out our website.
For the very curious, here is the full listing of this month's films:

cinĂ©16 – June 2006


Benjamin Franklin
17 minutes
From humble beginnings as a printer's apprentice in Boston, we follow Franklin as he seeks a new life in Philadelphia and beyond. Not only did he serve his country during the critical period surrounding the
Revolution, but also studied electricity, served as the first Postmaster General, created the public library, and organized the first fire department. Though he signed his name as merely B. Franklin, printer, we find that he was far more: inventor, scientist,
statesman, and diplomat.

Electricity – From Power Plant to Home
11 minutes
How does power to your TV or washing machine from the plant? Follow its generation and flow, from the simple electromagnet, to the turbine, to the substation, along the power lines, and into our movie projector!

Weatherman – A Scientist
11 minutes
Dir. Art Evans
This film stresses the importance of the weatherman’s job in society, while asserting at points that weather is dramatic and exciting. We see how he gathers information on his own region using a litany of tools, and how he incorporates information from other regions to produce a forecast.

Whatever the Weather
9 minutes
Four children run and play in different kinds of weather, as the calm voice of a narrator recites sweet, simple poetry celebrating different kinds of weather.

Story of a Book
11 minutes
Children’s author H.C. Holling narrates the process of writing a book by explaining how he and his wife wrote the book Pagoo. He shows us inspiration, research, writing and illustrating, laying out the book, and the printing process.

The Man Who Made Spinning Tops – Why People Have Special Jobs
7 minutes
Dir. Steven Clark
A prehistoric inventor creates the world’s first spinning top for his son. Other children ask him to make tops for them, but only when their fathers agree to provide him something in exchange can he make the time to do so. We learn in a basic way why each person does a certain job in society, rather than each person having to do everything for himself.

Day with Fireman Bill
11 minutes
Bill is training to become a fireman. He demonstrates many of the tasks of his daily life, speaking with equal pride about learning to operate a hose and learning to have good housekeeping skills at the station. This film does not feature any footage of fire whatsoever.

Pony Express
10 minutes
Even people named after Ben Franklin made great contributions to American society. Benjamin Franklin Ficklin (No relation) helped found the Pony Express in 1860, in order to connect the new state of California with the existing union out east. With careful reenactments, this film shows how the Pony Express worked and what kind of equipment they used.

Library World
16 minutes
Dir. Ronald B. Underwood
Brian is reluctant to follow his friend Stephanie into the library, until a man drives up in a race car and walks inside. He follows the man to ask about the race car, and it turns out the man works at the library. The library worker explains to Brian and Stephanie how the library works. Each time he opens a book, exciting, kinetic stock footage plays on the topic of that book.

Monday, June 12, 2006

City Hospital's Missing Pieces

The City Hospital has reopened, but without two important elements: Its front steps, and its front gates. (Or its original cast-iron cupola framing, made locally by Banner Iron Works. But that's another story.)

The gates are in the middle of one of the ugliest new developments in the city, The Gate District. The city removed the gates around 1994. They sit on Park Avenue west of Jefferson, framing an ugly and useless lawn that now sits sun-baked.

The gray Maine granite steps are in the City Museum, having been removed by Bob Cassilly in 1997 along with other items from the front entrance, including a terra cotta arch and a transom window bearing the hospital name. While the future of the hospital was bleak at this stage, demolition was not scheduled and salvage bids were not being taken.

Why anyone would rob an architectural landmark of defining features is beyond comprehension. Then again, in 1997 believers in the future of the City Hospital were in short supply. Alderwoman Phyllis Young was seeking demolition in coordination with the redevelopment of the Darst-Webbe housing project, and Mayor Freeman Bosley's office concurred. While these instincts proved wrong, and some of the hospital buildings ended up being renovated, what sort of pessimism would lead the city government to allow the removal of the gates and steps?

The bigger question is why the city under different circumstances years later did not try to return the gates.

Suburbs Old and New

We happened to be in St. Charles County last night for a family function, and decided to take the grand tour of New Urbanist development there. We looked around Frenchtown (where silly New Urbanist ideas are threatening an authentic urban area), New Town, WingHaven and Dardenne Prairie (where a large development is being considered). What a marked contrast to Friday's travels through East St. Louis, Alorton and Belleville where years of change and accumulation have produced truly interesting suburban and urban fabric. In St. Charles County, it is difficult to find a soul -- and the supposedly progressive projects we toured were especially problematic. We'll be thinking more about what we saw and writing substantial criticism later, but in the meantime one big observation is beating in my head.

The old modernist suburban designers truly believed that they were shaping history. While autocentric, they paid attention to little details of proportion, materials and site planning. They also created environments that actually can be walkable and pleasurable to walk through. These designers embraced history, and tried to change it to fit their modern ideals; all that they built reflects an optimism that is now dated but still discernible.

Today's suburban designers, however, seem to shun their role in history. They seem most interested in redeeming the suburban form so that it does not perish. These designers don't create anything inspirational even by their own standards. Their projects mix historic styles and details in a displeasing way, and their materials choices show that appearance overrides sustainability. They are trying to deny that their projects are marks of a particular place in history that will leave traces.

So, while suburban environments are unsustainable in the long-term, older suburban places have a functionality and beauty that the new ones do not. The older environments are worth defending and researching, while the new ones are simply products that do not try to transcend their private economic functions.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

You, Government

Drawing seen on a railroad embankment near the St. Louis approach to the Merchants Bridge.

Friday, June 9, 2006

The Demolition of Prince Hall at Washington University

Built St. Louis has already published demolition photographs from Prince Hall, which is a long way gone.

That the demolition started so quickly raises many questions. How did preservationists fail in this case? There seemed to be considerable delay from the time people started talking about the proposed demolition to the time people acted. And the action came mostly in the form of letter-writing and a few newspaper article quotes. Admittedly, the preservation dynamo Esley Hamilton worked hard to preserve the building. The rest of us were there mostly in spirit and not enough in deed to make a difference.

The potential to have lobbied alumni and donors could have been utilized. Washington University may have changed its mind if its decision was costing money. With large universities, there seems to be no other way outside of legal restriction to keep historic campus buildings standing.

I also think that the building's secluded location on a private campus located amid wealthy neighborhoods kept it from being a championed cause among the rank-and-file of urbanists and preservationists. Most of us, to be frank, didn't go to Washington University and live far from the manicured lawns of Clayton. I have to admit that Prince Hall was low on my list given the urgency of the situation of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home and other north side buildings.

Still, the Washington University Tudor Gothic campus core -- designed by Cope and Stewardson and built between 1901 and 1905 -- is one of the most attractive collegiate groups in the country. The great significance of this group as architecture, that art so public that ownership legal barely restricts its appreciation, outweighs any reservations myself and others had. We should have tried much harder.

One final question the demolition raises is whether or not the Washington University campus district's listing as a National Historic Landmark District should be de-certified. Is there sufficient context left for it to remain listed? What would de-certification mean for the other buildings? The National Historic Landmark listing again proves to give no special protection to an historic building, even if it gives special recognition. Preservation is the result of human action.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

1953 Magic Chef Stove

Our old Frigidaire refrigerator died last night.

The 1953 Magic Chef stove that we use, however, holds steady. Its burner jet holes need constant cleaning, but otherwise there have been no problems. The oven's consistency and even heating surpasses any stove that I have ever used. The oven's lining is speckled, enameled sheet metal -- better known as graniteware. The 1953 Magic Chef's design is early space-age streamline, with a white enamel finish punctuated by red bakelite accent parts and chrome door handles.

I should note that the stove is a generous loan from a friend. He would use it himself, except that he has a 1950s-era Maytag in his place. If he does reclaim his stove, we have a 1957 Roper stove that needs new tubing, sitting in a warehouse in the Wellston Loop that another friend owns. That warehouse used to be a Three Sisters department store, that sold appliances in the 1950s -- but not any Roper, which was a Sears store brand.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Carnahan Aims to Expand Federal Historic Rehab Tax Credits

While this is old news, it should be noted here: On May 18, Missouri Third District Congressman Russ Carnahan introduced the Preserve Historic America Act of 2006 (HR 5420), a remarkable bill that would greatly enhance historic rehabilitation tax credits available at the federal level. Among many things, the bill would make federal tax credits available to owner-occupant rehabbers living in a house that is not drawing income. The bill also creates tax credits for moderate rehab projects and creates targeted tax credits for rehabilitation projects in low-income areas. If passed, the bill could be a boon to marginal areas like north St. Louis, and make it easier for low-income homeowners to rehab their historic homes appropriately without going broke.

Carnahan represents areas of south St. Louis that have seen extensive rehab using Missouri's state historic rehabilitation tax credit. His constituents there certainly support the bill, so in some ways it is easy for him to introduce it. However, the text of the bill is incredibly sensitive to the needs of historic preservation efforts in urban areas and shows careful consideration of real needs rather than pandering.

Congressman William Clay, who represents the rest of the city, is a co-sponsor along with 22 other members of Congress.

Read the full text of the bill here.

The Founding of Granite City: Industry and Apsiration

Based on notes for a bus tour that I gave during the 35th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial Archeology, June 2, 2006.

German immigrants Frederick G. and William F. Niedringhaus played a major role in St. Louis history by organizing the industrial city of Granite City, and a major role in American industry by pioneering the process of creating durable, affordable stamped and enamelled metal-ware. They came from Westphalia to St. Louis around 1858 after having trained under their father, a tinner and glazier. With $1,000 and three helpers, the brothers incorporated Niedringhaus & Brother in downtown St. Louis. Their first products were hand-made kitchen utensils, but early on they experimented with mechanized production. By 1862, the brothers began using machines to stamp utensils from single sheets of metal -- a technique on which they would build their fortunes. By 1865, they were making deep-stamped wares and were likely one of only two such makers in the country. The brothers began working with sheet iron imported from Wales.

The Niedringhaus brothers founded the more focused St. Louis Stamping Company in 1866, and enjoyed immediate success. Their seamless stamped tinware met the public demand for durable, affordable kitchenware. The first year's sales were $7,000 -- an amount that they would increase one-hundred-fold within eleven years. Production increased to levels that led them to purchase land north of downtown near the Mississippi River in 1870. They built a four-story brick manufacturing, warehouse and office building between 1871 and 1873. This building, still extant, was likely designed by architect August Beinke and faced Collins Street between Cass Avenue to the south and Collins Street to the north. By 1876 adjacent to the first building, the brothers built seven additional smaller buildings including a blacksmith shop, annealing building, galvanizing shop and boilerhouse. (Part of one of these buildings remains.) North of this block, the Niedringhaus brothers constructed a rolling mill in the style of the English tin-plate mills of the era. This railroad- and river-served mill could produce twenty tons of sheet metal daily and employed about 700 workers.

During this decade, the brothers developed and patented their famous granite ironware. Their attempts started in spring 1873 with manufacturing of enameled kitchenware like that William had seen on a trip to Europe. (He paid the maker $5,000 so that he could observe the process for weeks.) Three groups were working on developing such kitchen ware at the time: the Niedringhaus brothers; Lalance & Grosjean in Woodhaven, Long Island, New York; and Jean Vollrath in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

The brothers saw limitations to enameled kitchenware, and sought to improve its performance in American cooking, which utilized gas stoves made of iron. They came up with a process in which a sheet-iron body was coated in highly vitrified glass. The coating was virtually insoluble, blocking cooking oils and food acid that caused oxidation in iron. The glass coat was infused with iron oxide in artistic patterns, strengthening the glaze and giving the product an attractive speckled appearance like granite. The process for production was developed by April 1874, when the first piece was made. With the new process, granite ironware was lightweight, cheap and almost indestructible. The St. Louis Stamping Company began selling the wares worldwide. Locally, the company remained the only producer and seller of stamped japan, tin and iron wares. Total sales were over $400,000 in 1875.

Frederick Niedringhaus secured a patent on the granite ironware process on May 30, 1876. The St. Louis Stamping Company plant was updated with new plating machinery and a new building to handle demand for the newly-patended product. The new five-story building was completed in March 1877, bringing the plant size to two full city blocks. Between 1866 and 1877, annual sales for the company expanded from $7,000 to $700,000. The plant processed 550 tons of iron and 400 tons of tin each year, with employment at 450 men. This growth boom continued into the 1880s, with the product output reported in the Year Book of the Commercial, Banking and Manufacturing Interests of St. Louis at 5,000 tons by 1882-3. George W. Niedringhaus, son of William F., became treasurer of the company in 1884. George W. would become a major player in the development of the company in the next twenty years, and would later serve as president. As the founding brothers aged, George ensured that an active family member would remain involved in planning the long-term future of the stamping company. The company's national stature grew in the 1880s, and by 1888 there were St. Louis Stamping Company branch offices in Chicago and New York.

In 1888, Frederick G. Niedringhaus successfully sought election to the U.S. Congress as a Republican from the Eighth Congressional District of Missouri and served one term from March 1889 until March 1891. Niedringhaus had basically run for the office to secure steep tariffs against foreign tin plate, to secure the dominance of American companies like his own. Niedringhaus aided passage of the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which raised the duty on tin plate from $22.40 to $49.28 per ton. Two months after passage of the act, the Granite Iron Rolling Mills began to produce tin plate. By 1890, employment at the stamping plant rose to 900 workers. Upon his return to St. Louis, Frederick joined his brother in seeking a new site for the company's operations. The first plan was to expand near the stamping plant, but with the Rolling Mills' use of the Bessemer process for steel production, which used a lot of smoke-producing coal, a city location was politically impossible to secure.

Like many industrialists of the Gilded Age, the Niedringhaus family set their sights on open land outside of the city proper, hoping to find land not only for building a new plant but also to create a town that would house its workers and memorialize their entrepreneurship. This search inevitably took them east across the Mississippi; most available undeveloped land in Missouri around St. Louis was far west away from railroad trunk lines, good roads and the river. Many industrial concerns had made the move to the east side of the river, as we will see when we visit the nearby stockyards district later today. The land available was flat and sparsely populated; most was in use as farmland.

William Niedringhaus and his son George, whom many historians consider the driving force behind the land search, set out in August 1891 to survey lands just northeast and across the river from their stamping works in St. Louis. They visited the small town of Kinderhook (also known as Kinder) on the so-called Six-Mile Prairie in Madison County, Illinois.

The Six-Mile Prairie, literally a six-mile long fertile prairie, had been populated by farmers as early as the last decades of the eighteenth century, and sufficient population existed in its vicinity for the area to become Illinois' third official county in 1812. The Six Mile Prairie Township was organized in 1817, and the area received the name of “Venice” during this period. During the 1830s, the National Road segment through the Six Mile Prairie was completed. In 1849, farmers needing access to market banded together to build a plank road from Venice to the city of Edwardsville to the northeast. This road consisted of 12-foot oak logs split and laid face up on top of wooden rails, and original wood was found in excavations into the 1930s.

The improved road access led more farmers to the area, and eventually small towns like Kinderhook appeared on the prairie. Perhaps the biggest economic boon, however, came in 1856 when the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad built tracks south from Alton to East St. Louis across the land that would become Granite City. Without a rail bridge to St. Louis, this railroad terminated at Wiggins Ferry on the East St. Louis waterfront, from which train cars crossed into St. Louis via ferry. This situation changed little when the Eads Bridge was completed, due to railroads' not being able to obtain Missouri licenses needed to cross the river and later due to monopoly control of the bridge.

The Terre Haute and Alton line finally obtained a river crossing when the three-span truss Merchant's Bridge opened in May 1890. By then, Venice Township had incorporated in 1872 and there was enough population on the Prairie to support a schoolhouse.

Still, the area was very rural when the Niedringhaus family began to explore it. When they returned in 1892 to visit, they hired Kinderhook village schoolteacher Mark Henson as their land agent and scout. Henson obtained options on around 3,500 acres of land for the family, and they completed their purchase in 1893. they immediately set out to plan and built their new city, which the brothers infused with progressive ideals envisioned not as the conventional “company town” but a real city where residents might be factory workers but would buy their own lots and raise their own homes as they saw fit. William had studied Pullman, and thought that a more libertarian model would lead to a city that could be successful no matter what the St. Louis Stamping Company's fate.

The family's deliberation over the name favored Granite City, the suggestion of patriarchs Frederick and William honoring the family's product, over the less modest name of Niedringhaus offered by other family members.

By the end of 1893, the city had a plan designed by the city engineer of St. Louis. The design was inspired by that of Washington D.C., where Frederick Niedringhaus has just served in Congress. The brothers asked for an east-west thoroughfare diagonally crossing the city's grid like Pennsylvania Avenue in the District of Columbia. On this street they would bestow family name. They also planted over 14,000 trees along the city's new streets within two years of purchasing the land. Not all was progressive, though: blacks had to leave the town at sunset, and many black workers settled in nearby Lovejoy (now Brooklyn); the city charter forbade taverns; the Niedringhaus brothers made an estimated $4.8 million selling residential lots that had required $568,000 to purchase.

In 1895, the family hired noted St. Louis architect Frederick C. Bonsack to design new plants: one for the St. Louis Stamping Company, and another for a steel rolling mill to supply the stamping works. The new plant for St. Louis Stamping comprised 30 acres and produced graniteware and galvanized ware (among other products) for pots and pans, foot baths and gold miners' pans. Bonsack designed a wonderful four-story office building in the Romanesque style, featuring a wide Richardsonian arched entrance under a small tower. Within seven years, 1,200 people would be employed there. By the end of the year, the family opened the Granite City Steel plant that today is part of US Steel. The plant contained two 22-ton open-hearth furnaces and four mills capable of producing 20,000 gross tons of finished product annually. This facility was needed to supply rolled steel sheets to the stamping company. Originally, the plant only made the sheets but in 1905 diversified its output. By 1908, the plant made 4 tons of bar steel and tin plate daily, employed 2,000 men and covered 15 acres. The St. Louis plant would remain active until 1912, when the family closed it.

The city was incorporated in 1896 with a mayor-council form of government. No Niedringhaus family members would ever serve in city government, although they would have a hand in the finances of everything from banks to gas companies. The first city school, designed by Bonsack, was built in 1896 and named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who epitomized the American individualistic democratic sentiment that the Niedringhaus brothers wanted their city to embody. Within ten years, population needs and steady increases in city revenue led to three additional schools' being built. With all the big industry located within city limits, the city government never suffered the same way that East St. Louis did. In East St. Louis, most major industrial concerns intentionally located plants outside of but close to the city line, so they affected the city but did not contribute to its upkeep.

In 1899, the Niedringhaus family's growing national reputation enticed them to rename their stamping company the National Enamelling and Stamping Company, or NESCO. NESCO kept its main office in downtown St. Louis, and founding brothers Frederick and William never moved to the city, instead residing in fashionable West End mansions.

In 1900, the city's population had grown to 3,122 people. By the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, about ten years after Granite City was founded, the stamping works covered 1.25 million square feet on 75 acres of land and employed 4,000 persons.

With its hundreds of jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers, the city became a magnet for immigrants. The first wave of immigration came to work at the NESCO plant and steel mills, and largely consisted of Welsh and English immigrants. Many Polish families migrated from St. Louis around 1900, followed by Slovaks, Greeks, Croations and Serbs who largely worked at the Commonwealth and American steel foundries. Later waves of immigration included Macedonians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Russians, Lithuanians. Finally, Mexicans arrived during World War I to take the place of conscripted laborers.

Inter-urban rail arrived in 1910 when the Illinois Traction System built a line through the city and south to the McKinley Bridge. This system connected a station in downtown St. Louis with Granite City and central Illinois cities such as Urbana, Peoria and Springfield. Also around this time, Granite City saw a local streetcar company open that operated until July 1958.

In 1924, NESCO had $30 million in assets, covered 75 acres and had a plant floor space of 1.25 million square feet. The company was employing 4,000 people. By 1930, the city's population had risen to some 25,000 people.

NESCO came up with yet another innovation in the 20th century, when it developed the single-coat-enameled NESCO Royal Graniteware. Yet the product's appeal would wane. Granite ironware could barely compete with aluminum cookware, Pyrex, Corning Ware and stainless steel as they were developed and mass marketed from the 1930s onward. NESCO enjoyed some success during World War II, when it produced helmets and “Blitzkrieg” cans for the US government. These cans held fuel or water and floated in water with all but the top quarter inch underwater. These almost-invisible cans made delivery of provisions at sea much easier for the US Navy.

Unfortunately, in 1956, NESCO closed its doors. Granite City managed to maintain its industrial growth for awhile even without the giant, although gradually decline has caught up with the city. Population peaked in 1970 at 40,685 residents; today's population is around 31,000 people.

Sadly, in November 2003 a huge blaze destroyed most of the remaining NESCO buildings. The buildings, some with wooden post-and-beam construction, had been used for warehouse space since 1956. By 2003, over 10,000 tires were stored in the buildings; the tires along with propane tanks allowed the fire to quickly spread out of control. Firefighters spent 14 hours battling the blaze, and the damaged buildings were immediately demolished. One four-story section of a building still stands along with a few smaller buildings.


Granite City, A Pictorial History, 1896-1996. Granite City, Ill.: G. Bradley Publishing, 1995.

Landmarks Association File: St. Louis Stamping Company Buildings.

Missouri Historical Society Library and Collections Center: Various Files.

Theising, Andrew. Made in USA: East St. Louis. St. Louis, Mo.: Virginia Publishing, 2003.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Taxpayers Cutting the Lawn for Allston Alliance

On Saturday morning, passers-by on 10th Street downtown may have seen the city Forestry Division crew trimming the tall grass and weeds along the east wall of the vacant Cass Avenue Schnucks.

This publicly-funded trimming is odd because the building is privately owned by the Allston Alliance, a company whose registered agent is developer John Steffen. The Allston Alliance purchased the property on December 28, 2005 with a $2.8 million loan from Corn Belt Bank and Trust Company of Pittsfield, Illinois.

Routinely, Forestry will trim vacant lots and bill the owners. This agreement isn't uncommon. However, Allston Alliance has a for-lease sign on the building, a large loan and a prominent developer's involvement. Can't they mow their own grass without taxpayers' fronting the money? Perhaps they should have sought a loan large enough to cover grounds maintenance.

Downs on Cleveland High School

St. Louis Board of Education member Peter Downs on Cleveland High School: Move and Repair. Down's suggestion is the most reasonable course of action proposed so far.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Society for Industrial Archaeology in Town This Weekend

Tonight is the start of the annual conference of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, which meets for the first time in St. Louis. Co-sponsors include Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the Missouri Historical Society and the UMSL History Department. Members are already out and about delving into the fabric of a city that fascinates all of them.

While a ruinous landscape is always of interest to SIA members, their delay in meeting in St. Louis gives them a chance to see some great examples of adaptive re-use of industrial sites. Although a small group, SIA members' scholarship is at the forefront of interpreting the history of American industrial cities. Perhaps the visit will inspire them to write a little more fondly of St. Louis.

Check out the conference schedule to see what SIA members will be doing while in town.

For the conference, I have been helping create tours, and will be co-leading a bus tour tomorrow to Granite City and the National City Stockyards that will include a rare guided tour of the US Steel facility in Granite City. I will be making a presentation on the founding and history of Granite City that will get posted on Ecology of Absence at some point. On Sunday, Landmarks Association is leading downtown walking tours; guides are Richard Mueller, Joseph Heathcott and myself. This should lead to three very different tours.

Trash Collection and City Block 1130

The Refuse Division missed pick-up of the one refuse dumpster on City Block 1130 -- our block -- starting on Friday, May 19. They missed pick-up on the following Tuesday and Friday. By Tuesday, people had started dumping trash into the yard waste dumpster on the block. We simply walked our trash to a business-sized dumpster the next block west that sits behind a vacant lot where a storefront building stood until the late 1980's.

Complaint to the Citizens' Service Bureau led to the trash in both the refuse and yard waste dumpsters being collected yesterday evening.

The incident reminded me of how depopulated Old North St. Louis remains, and how similar conditions are here to those found in the small towns of southern Illinois where I grew up. In both places, one must not expect any luxury or regularity to life, even in trash collection. There simply are not enough people in either place to keep things on schedule. Times like these can set people into a rage, and lead some to abandon a neighborhood. To a country-born fellow like myself, I simply shrug at the uncollected waste and take my trash to the next dumpster. Where I grew up, we burned our trash outdoors!

The 1897 Whipple fire insurance map shows 14 buildings on the irregularly-shaped City Block 1130 (almost a triangle formed by 14th, Wright and Sullivan streets). Today, there are four. (We own one and the sites of six others.) A quick estimate of households in 1897 is twenty-two; today, there are three. One dumpster for three households is a luxury by 1897 standards. Perhaps today it is, too -- although I hope that the Refuse Division is not trying to phase out collection on our block.