We've Moved

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

Thursday, December 27, 2007

National Register News

Wagoner Place in the Ville is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More at MayorSlay.com here.

Meanwhile, Landmarks Association reports on its pending nominations of the Saratoga Lanes building in Maplewood and the Usonian Harry Hammerman House in Ladue. More here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Grand Center and the Central Apartments

Demolition is nearly complete on the Central Apartments at 3727 Olive Street in Midtown, and there is still no answer to the big question: What were they thinking?

The better question seems to be: Were they thinking?

Central Apartments in 2005.

The graceful apartment building is the latest victim of the indecision of Grand Center, Inc., the redevelopment corporation charged with revitalizing the midtown area. While the Central Apartments has been owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority since 2001, its fate has been under the control of Grand Center. Since the apartment building fell empty in 2001 -- it was partly occupied with storefront tenants up to the time of closing -- Grand Center has failed to articulate a vision for its reuse or demolition. After languishing for several years boarded and deteriorating, the building fell to wreckers in December apparently at Grand Center's request.

The Building Division considered the demolition an emergency, and some reports of brick loss on the west wall circulated. However, the brick loss was spalling of face brick, and the concrete structure of the building was as solid before wrecking began as it was when people were living there just six years prior.

Alas, the potential for reuse in December 2007 was perhaps greater than ever. Thanks to the work of Restoration St. Louis, Steve Trampe and other developers, there finally is an apartment housing market in Midtown. These developers have seen the obvious need for off-campus housing for St. Louis University students and have rehabbed large historic buildings for housing. Two blocks from the Spring Avenue mall entrance to the SLU campus, the Central Apartments had an obvious market.

While the 3700-3800 block of Olive Street has long lost any semblance of cohesive historic character, and lies outside of the Midtown National Historic District, the block retains a few buildings and many lots the could be developed. The William Cuthbert Jones House and the former Lindell Exchange (later Wolfner memorial library) on the south side of the block were recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic rehabilitation and new construction could transform that block from its current dullness.

Built in 1916, the Central Apartments possessed an elegant front elevation adorned in the Renaissance Revival style. With a sound structure, mostly solid masonry and largely intact interiors -- revealed when exterior walls were knocked off of the building -- the building was in good shape. The building could have provided the high-density urban housing one would assume is needed to make a thriving arts and entertainment district function as a real neighborhood.

Why Grand Center did not make rehabilitation of the building a priority is a mystery. Too often, such a senseless demolition is the result of deliberate bad planning. Here, it seems the result of no planning and no deliberation whatsoever.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gift Basket

There are now official Board of Public Service plans for the Marti Frumhoff Memorial Garden, which will be the triangle at the intersection of Utah and Morganford. See the plans here.

Meanwhile, Steve Smith has posted his video of an August 2007 trip into the Spivey Building in downtown East St. Louis.

St. Louis Patina went in search of Edwin Lemp's Cragwold estate.

Meanwhile, Lumiere Place opened in time for the holidays. Reviews by Urban St. Louis forum members start here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Just Another Vacant Building?

I don't think there is such a thing as an average run-of-the-mill vacant building in St. Louis. For instance, look at this building located at 2831 Lafayette Avenue:

On first glance, the yellow-toned plywood sheets and blue awning jump out from a nearly all-white building. Looking at the building longer, details emerge. Behind that projecting storefront is a different, older building. The building appears to be an old house. A close look brings out clues.

This two-story building has a pretty sandstone front; the large filled-in window openings must have been gorgeous when they were glazed. Underneath white paint and stucco repairs are fine carved details around the windows. The sunbursts centered over each window are impressive and typical of the finely detailed nineteenth century stone masonry we have in St. Louis. Right at the top are sill brackets, showing that the building once stood another story taller. The presence of such fine details, the use of sandstone and the style of the facade suggest a construction date in the 1880s. In fact, building permits show that this block face was built out with houses (mostly single-family and many with significant construction costs) between 1880 and 1895. There are three permits for three-story houses: in 1880, 1889 and 1894.

Owners added the storefront addition at 2831 Lafayette by the 1930s, although fire insurance maps show that the building retained its third story into the 1960s. The first floor of the building was in use a dry cleaners as soon as the storefront was finished. Apartments were above. Essentially, the building joined many others in the city located in well-to-do walking neighborhoods that changed dramatically in the early twentieth century as the upper and middle classes migrated west to quieter streets farther from downtown. The large houses of the migrating residents often were divided into rental housing or businesses; many were expanded, and altered and some were eventually demolished as new commercial uses moved into once-genteel neighborhoods. One under appreciated result of these changes was that population density increased. This building is a frank reminder of twentieth century changes in use and demographics on the near south side.

Deed research could clear up which one corresponds to this house. For now, I am glad to have given it a long look and learned that the old building tells an unexpected story. While the house has lost its third story and its original appearance, the remaining traces still provide beauty. There is no reason that future reuse of the building could not highlight the remaining traces and incorporate them into a new design. While the building is rendered ineligible for any landmark designation through loss of historic appearance, there are many futures for it beyond simply tearing it down.

All over our city are similar old houses -- many with storefront additions, missing floors, mangled entrances and strange alterations. These are the buildings that cannot be considered contributing to historic districts but who still lend historic character to our streets. Historic rehabilitation tax credits will never be available for these buildings. Some would knock them over, because of the financial problems of rehabbing them without tax credits. Hopefully others will see that, however twisted or obscured, these buildings still have architectural potential -- and still tell the stories of their construction and show the scars of changing use. This stretch of Lafayette Avenue gains far more character from 2831 Lafayette in its current state than from the new homes of the Gate District, or the Holiday Inn.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Drinks and Mortar Tomorrow

What: Drinks and Mortar

When: 7 - 10 p.m. Thursday, December 20

Where: Dapper Dan's, 410 N. Tucker Boulevard in Downtown St. Louis

What: People gathering to talk about architecture, urbanism and anything else that's on their minds.

More information here. (And here.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Rollin Stanley Departing St. Louis

Rollin Stanley, Director of Planning and Urban Design for St. Louis, is leaving after six years on the job. More at MayorSlay.com and at Urban St. Louis. Apparently, Rollin is headed to a planning job in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland. Somehow, he kept the rumor mills quiet before breaking this news; there was no chatter preceding this announcement.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Not Quite the Pinnacle

My latest commentary for radio station KWMU, a review of Lumiere Place, aired this morning. Transcript is available here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

McGowan and Thomas Discuss Development Tonight

Tonight at St. Louis University, the Rehabbers' Club concludes its annual series of "classes" with a panel discussion on development featuring Kevin McGowan of Blu Urban (formerly of McGowan Walsh) and Sean Thomas of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. This is a great chance to listen and talk to people on the cutting edge of revitalizing St. Louis city. Bring questions!

Date: Wed., Dec. 12th

Time: 7:00-8:30 p.m.

Location: St. Louis University's Humanities Building, 3800 Lindell Boulevard, Room 142 [1st floor conference room]

Cost: $10 or join ReVitalize St. Louis (parent of the Rehabbers' Club) at the $20 or above level, and get this class free. Payment by cash or check only.

Other information: Parking at the Moolah Theater garage across the street is only $1/hour.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Saller Working for Missouri Coalition for Historic Preservation and Economic Development

The Missouri Coalition for Historic Preservation and Economic Development recently hired Christian Saller. Christian is a veteran of the St. Louis Development Corporation and was a candidate for alderman in the Sixth Ward earlier this year. Anyone who knows Christian knows his passion for historic preservation, extensive knowledge of the politics of development, sharp memory and kindness. I am glad to see his holding a job where his talent and passion are both put to use.

Meanwhile, the Coalition is gearing up for 2008, the tenth anniversary of the enactment of our state's historic rehabilitation tax credit. Already there are rumblings from Republican State Senator Brad Lager, who is apparently going to introduce a bill to cap the tax credit in the forthcoming legislative session. Christian and others have hard work ahead.

World Leadership Award Nice, Progress Made Great

Historic preservation has led to St. Louis winning a World Leadership Award in the category of housing. The award specifically recognizes the heroic efforts of St. Louisans in revitalizing vacant historic buildings. While Mayor Francis Slay and Planning Director Rollin Stanley went to the award ceremony in London to claim the award, it really belongs to everyone working to revitalize the city -- residents, rehabbers, developers, preservationists, architects and, I suppose, politicians.

While there are definite reasons to be skeptical about the organization that grants the awards (Steve Patterson has those reasons covered), there is no doubt that the accomplishment is very real. According to Mayor Francis Slay, more than 20,000 housing units have been rehabbed in the city since 2000. The turnaround is dramatic, and the visible results in the city rewarding to generations (including mine) who lived through darker days. While the losses continue, and politicians and urban planners sometimes seem to be the last people to get the news that historic preservation and unique character are fueling our renewal, things haven't been this good for old buildings in decades. We are making a lot of progress.

The roots of this resurgence go back to 1996 when a group of St. Louisans, with attorney Jerry Schlicter at the forefront, pushed to make historic preservation economically sensible. These folks successfully lobbied the Missouri General Assembly to enact the country's most progressive state historic rehabilitation tax credit. This credit was a boon to St. Louis and the entire state. Preservation used to be the lonely battle of historians and neighborhood activists. Now it's the common parlance of developers, realtors and bankers -- the people who control the historic buildings. For over a decade, heartbreaks have been healed. Preservationists have gladly seen many of their gloomy predictions proven wrong.

The battles continue, of course. The playing field is different in many ways. Demolition is still a problem, and historic landmark status has become a double-edged sword that cuts historic buildings that won't ever get it. North city likely will bleed buildings for the next two decades. But a preservationist now has some pretty impressive case examples of the viability of preservation. We don't need an award to reap the benefits of changed political and economic circumstances, but it sure doesn't hurt.

Friday, December 7, 2007

New Fleur de Lis Looks A Little Odd

A few weeks ago, the new St. Louis University Biolab building at Grand and Chouteau avenues gained an unfortunate appendage: a large fleur de lis atop the attached tower section. While the site plan for the building is abysmal, the building itself has many redeeming qualities. Overall, Cannon Design gave the building a restrained modern sensibility -- within the constraints of St. Louis University's constant use of architecture as branding. (Such practice mars both architecture and the brand, methinks.)

At night, the fleur de lis glows blue with neon light. It is a huge distraction from the building, and clashes severely. However, there is another problem with the symbolic flower. A friend and I noted that the center crest seems a bit low, and the wings -- yes, those are wings --too wide.

Here is the sign at night:

Here is a common fleur de lis symbol:

Something seems wrong with the proportions. The sign is too short and too wide. Perhaps it emulates not our city's symbol but a popular napkin folding shape:

The alternate meanings are many. The ascot could symbolize the laboratory's formality, or maybe its adherence to the academic tradition of inquiry. The napkin symbolizes cleanliness, an important quality for a laboratory. Napkins also suggest that the laboratory is well suited to "clean up" in the field of biomedical research -- a goal of local civic leaders. Of course, wings suggest flights of inspiration and the lofty goal of developing cures for human ailments.

Hewlett Students Present Their Projects Tomorrow

Each year, freshman students in professor Bob Hansman's Hewlett City Seminar at the Washington University School of Architecture trek to the Wellston Loop area of north St. Louis. Amid some of the city's most intense urban decay, the students learn from observing conditions, listening to residents and studying the history of the area's decline. Then they devise design interventions that could transform the community, channeling residents' desires into plans for the future. This is one of the best two-way streets in town. The freshman, many from other places where conditions like those of north St. Louis are rare, are exposed to a whole new world. Residents of the community are in turn exposed to an urban design perspective their political leaders often disregard.

This fall's program is over, and the students will present the models and plans they have created this semester. The presentation is tomorrow, Saturday December 8, at Friendly Temple, 5540 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, from 1:00 - 5:00 p.m. The event is open to the public.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

CSB Records Again Freely Available through Geo St. Louis

Citizens Service Bureau (CSB) complaints records again appear to the public on the Geo St. Louis website. Apparently, city government was strictly interpreting a newly-enacted Sunshine Act compliance ordinance sponsored by Alderman Craig Schmid (D-20th). The ordinance specifies ways in which citizens have access to public records, with an emphasis on expanding access through established city policy. (More discussion on the CSB part of the law here.) Schmid claimed his intention was to put the city into compliance with existing state laws on public records, not restrict citizen access to CSB information. Schmid opposed the city's interpretation.

I noted on November 27 that the records had become password-protected.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Eleven Most Endangered Places Report Online

Landmarks Association of St. Louis has published its year-end report on the city's Eleven Most Endangered Places. Read it here.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Modern Motor Hotel in Central West End Faces February Demolition

Here is the building now known as the San Luis Apartments, located at 4483 Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End. Just west of the Cathedral, the building is owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis and used as apartments for the elderly. The Archdiocese plans to demolish the building in February for a surface parking lot despite no pressing problem with the apartments, which are generally loved by residents for their excellent location. Residents are being relocated to many different places, none of which is as transit accessible -- an important criterion for older people who do not drive.

The news of the Archdiocese's plan surprises many Central West End residents who are aghast at the idea of creating a surface parking lot facing well-traveled Lindell on the same block as the elegant Cathedral. Many are astounded that the Archdiocese would proceed to demolition without any plan for future development of the site, leaving a gaping hole for an indefinite period. The Central West End Association and Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th) have yet to make official statements on the proposed demolition. However, oppositional voices are stating to cry out. Last week, the West End Word ran a letter to the editor from STL Style's Randy Vines.

Real estate moguls Harold and Melvin Dubinsky working with Paul Kapelow took out a building permit for a motor hotel on September 25, 1961, with construction estimated at $2.75 million. New Orleans firm Colbert, Lowery, Hess & Bouderaux designed the curvilinear, E-shaped modernist hotel. On July 3, 1963 the hotel building was granted an occupancy permit and shortly afterward opened as the DeVille Motor Hotel. The hotel was part of a national boom in "motor hotels" located in urban areas. Hoteliers sought to revive urban markets by building multi-story hotels with ample covered parking on lower levels. Many had bars, including popular tiki lounges. These buildings employed modernist styles to symbolize their cleanliness and newness as well as their utility. One could park right in the hotel and avoid walking city streets carrying luggage -- no doubt a concern in the dark days of American urbanism, and perhaps still. Designers are better at hiding the parking in today's urban hotels, but the idea of integrated parking, lodging and dining remains the same.

The design of the San Luis Apartments is strange and cool, if not cutting edge. The curved smooth white concrete towers cloak services while providing textural contrast to the aggregate body of each wing. The parking is recessed enough that it does not overpower the building; recessed walls on the first floor actually minimize its presence. The bays of aluminum-framed windows on the sides of the central, taller section and end of each wing are balanced by the ribbons on the inside walls of the wings. What could have been the tired bulk of a typical motor hotel -- like the Howard Johnson by the airport -- is relieved through division of the building into a series of forms of different height and footprint. This is no thoughtless slab. In fact, the modern lines interact quite well with the later and more accomplished Lindell Terrace (built in 1969 and designed by Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum) across Taylor Avenue to the west.

Unfortunately, due to recent age, the San Luis Apartments are not considered a contributing resource to the Central West End Historic District. Thus the building is not eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits. However, the buidling is included within the boundaries of the Central West End Local Historic District so there is legally-mandated preservation review of the demolition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Historic Tax Credit Programs Class Tonight

Join ReVitalize St. Louis and the Rehabbers Club for our next highly informative Fall 2007 Rehabbers Club class:

Historic Tax Credit Programs

Wednesday, November 28, 2007
7:00-8:30 p.m.
Saint Louis University's Humanities Building, 3800 Lindell
Boulevard, Room 142 (1st floor conference room)

This week's expert speakers and presenters are Lynn Josse, Maureen McMillan and Melinda Stewart.

This week's class will focus on:
- The relationship between the rehabber and the tax credit application preparer
- How to work with a preparer (do you need one?)
- Types of historic designation that do and don't make your project eligible
- How to get that historic designation if you don't already have it

After the initial presentation, extra time has been set aside for
your questions.

Fee for Individual Class: Only $10 each - and if you join ReVitalize St. Louis at the session ($20 level or above), you get that night's class for free!

PARKING: Onstreet, metered parking is available along Lindell or Vandeventer or park in the Moolah Theatre garage behind 3821 Lindell. Garage parking is $1 per hour, but their gate is frequently open at the end of our classes. Garage tickets can be validated at the Moolah Theatre in exchange for a purchase at their bar or
concession stand. Do not park on SLU's campus without a SLU permit; you will be ticketed!

PAYMENT: We accept checks and cash at the door; sorry no credit cards. The class fee is tax-deductible. Your support of these classes benefits ReVitalize St. Louis, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, and its projects including the Rehabbers Club and the annual Big BIG Tour.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Confusion at Page and Union

Monday's meeting of the Preservation Board was one of the most bizarre in recent memory -- and that's syaing something. Visitors to the meeting found a room full of over 60 people when the board convened at 4:00 p.m. Normally, there may be around 15 or 20 people in the audience at the start of a meeting, and many less by the end. Had the board offered a raffle prize?

Alas, the cause for the crowd was political: the majority of people in the audience were members of the Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church on Union Avenue, which was appealing Cultural Resources Office staff denial of a demolition permit for the building at the southeast corner of Page Boulevard and Union Avenue. Their purpose seems benign: they want to replace a fire-damaged, abandoned building that neighbors loathe with a gymnasiusm and educational center. There is an interim step of surface parking, but the new building should be standing within two years.

Yet closer examination of the church's plan and the conduct of the church through the demolition permit process makes their plan seem quite controversial. First, the church applied for a permit in April 2007. After denial, the church attorney sought and obtained two continuances without so much as letting CRO staff know why. Then they finally show up, long after the denial, with a crowd of congregants and an attorney with a thick new brief.

Then there is the fact that the gymnasium and educational center plans dissolve under scrutiny. The church simply does not have solid plans. They have a possible site plan and rendering, prepared by an unregistered intern architect working for St. Louis Design Alliance. They don't really have a time line or cost estimates. The church plans to build the shell of the building and gradually finish the interior. Even the parking concern seems weak given that they have use of Walgreens' parking lot across the street in evenings.

Most important, there is the building that the church wants to demolish. The two-story brick commercial building is the last discernibly urban building at one of the most prominent intersections on the north side. The building comes up to the sidewalk, offering definition to the area. Literally, the building anchors the corner. Page and Union abound with glorious buildings, but their intersection has become ugly with Walgreens and a supermarket presenting parking lots to the corner on the west side. That's a sad fact, but a changeable one. This building offers the first step toward that change.

Architect George H. Kennerly designed the building, which was built in 1905. The elaborate tin cornice and cladding around the projecting bays show Classical Revival and perhaps some Italianate influences. Although marred by peeling paint, the tin is in excellent condition and would restore beautifully. The bay windows create an eloquent rhythm and provide definition to the otherwise boxy form. A small fire has left the building with some damage, including roof collapse, but overall it's sound. This is the type of building that seems infinitely adaptable to community needs. Every neighborhood needs buildings with combinations of walk-in and walk-up spaces.

Furthermore, the building is within the boundaries of the Mount Cabanne/Raymond Place National Historic District. That fact is noteworthy for two reasons: historic rehab tax credits are available there, and that district has lost many buildings like this one at its southern edge along Delmar.

The Preservation Board did not consider the appeal until nearly 7:30 p.m. Attorney Richard Kenney of Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus began the church's presentation, which seemed to add other speakers impromptu. Kenney presented a brief written by William Kuehling of his firm. City Counselor objected to Kenney's evidence, which made many assertions about the inability of the church to reuse the building. Frankly, the church's use of so many people to testify weakened their case through confusion and exhaustion of nonpartisan witnesses and Board members. Recounting and contesting the church members' testimony would be tedious and unhelpful to readers of this blog. Eventually, Chairman Richard Callow announced that the Board would take no vote until CRO staff and Board members could carefully examine the church's evidence. (A special January Preservation Board meting is likely.) However, testimony continued until after 10:00 p.m.

Not one person testified in favor of preservation; myself and others had left for other enagagements. However, the hearing of the matter is still open and citizens should send testimony to the Preservation Board by emailing Board Secretary Adona Buford (BufordA@stlouiscity.com).

Meantime, one hopes that the church is not too intractable to reconsider their options. The church owns vacant lots on Page, owns an incredible building (potentially worth money to a developer) and enjoys support of its neighborhood, nearby businesses and its Alderman, Frank Williamson. The battle mentality is premature; with the church's connections it could find a way to do what it wants without robbing a neighborhood of an important architectural anchor.

(Photographs by the author.)

Preservation Board Spares House on Bartmer

At its monthly meeting on Monday, the St. Louis Preservation Board wisely voted 5-2 against the demolition of a Shingle Style frame house at 5594 Bartmer Avenue in the city's West End neighborhood. The house was built in 1898 and while not the most exquisite example of the Shingle Style in the city (that may be on nearby Cabanne Place) is one of probably less than two dozen remaining homes in the style. The demolition was proposed as a preliminary review, with no actual permit under consideration. Preliminary review is often used by potential applicants and staff of the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) to gauge Board opinion without beginning formal application process.

In this case, Alderman Frank Williamson (D-26th) brought the matter to CRO two months ago, citing citizen complaints about the condition of the home. The house has been vacant since at least 1998 and is owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority. The house is located outside of any national historic district where tax credits would be able to be used in its rehabilitation. However, the 5400 and 5500 blocks of Bartmer show an unusual collection of large historic homes with consistent deep setbacks and early 20th century period styles. Blocks to the west also show consistency. There is no doubt that some historic district on Bartmer is possible.

Two months ago, CRO staff presented the matter to the Preservation Board, which elected to defer consideration for 60 days while staff prepared a thorough report on the building's condition and reuse potential. Ald. Williamson appeared at the first meeting and said that he wanted to tell the citizens something was going to happen, although demolition was not the only outcome he would accept.

CRO staff prepared a report that covers issues of condition, historic integrity and potential market value. Among other conclusions, the repprt showed that not only is the house "sound" under the definition established by the Preservation Review ordinance, it retains almost all of its original architectural features inside! Staff strongly recommends preservation of the house. Meanwhile, Ald. Williamson decided to support demolition. Two citizens sent letters of opposition, including blogger Douglas Duckworth (read his letter here). On Monday, the Board heard testimony against the demolition from myself and in favor from Myron Jefferson, who is building a new house at 5596 Bartmer to the west. Jefferson stated that he would not have built his house if he had known the house next door was not going to be torn down.

According to CRO Director Kathleen Shea, the LRA has agreed to make the house at 5594 Bartmer a priority for its limited marketing efforts. Apparently LRA will not seek its demolition until it has drawn attention to potential buyers. While the gesture is small, it's the most that LRA can do -- and more than usual. Ald. Williamson might want to coordinate with LRA in finding a creative future for the house.

Board Member Mary Johnson told the Board that the board would impede the "development project" of "developer" Jefferson unfairly if it voted down the demolition. Johnson cited Joe Edwards' Moonshine Hotel project in the Delmar Loop as an example where the Board allowed demolition of a historic building, the Ronald Jones Funeral Chapel, for a development project. Edwards is demolishing the chapel but reconstructing its front and some of its side elevations as part of the hotel project.

Board Member David Richardson retorted that Jefferson was not the owner of the property next door. Jefferson does not seek to purchase the house at 5594 Bartmer and was not the applicant for demolition. In making the motion to accept staff recommendation, Board Member Anthony Robinson explained that builders can't control vacant property when building a new house. Robinson said that when he built his residence, his block had five vacant houses and six vacant lots. All of the houses have been rehabbed and all but one of the lots built upon since Robinson finished his house a few years ago.

Voting in support of the CRO staff recommendation authored by Director Kathleen Shea were Melanie Fathman, John Burse, Robinson, Mike Killeen and Richardson. Voting against were Johnson and Ald. Terry Kennedy (D-18th). Chairman Richard Callow abstained from voting.

Citizens' Service Bureau Records Now Password-Protected on Geo St. Louis

Geo St. Louis no longer displays records of Citizens' Service Bureau (CSB) complaints for parcels. Now, only users with passwords can access those records. The site instructs people who want a password to contact the Planning and Urban Design Agency via a generic feedback form. I wonder what precipitated the change, and I wonder who can get a password.

Many residents of Old North St. Louis, where I live, use Geo St. Louis to see just how much of a problem a property is. CSB complaints offer neighbors (and potential neighbors!) the chance to monitor the history of problem properties to determine if a recently-observed nuisance is part of a chronic pattern of neglect. Some neighborhoods lack staffed neighborhood organizations, and citizens may need direct access to CSB complaint records. Geo St. Louis has been a leader among American cities' public geospatial systems in terms of breadth and depth of information available to any site user.

While those records are public and a citizen has always been able to to obtain them with a written request, the sudden departure of open online access seems unnecessary.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Preview of Monday's Preservation Board Agenda

The St. Louis Preservation Board meets Monday at 4:00 p.m. at the offices of the Planning and Urban Design Agency on the twelfth floor of 1015 Locust Street. Meetings typically last three hours.

Here are some highlights from the agenda:

Preliminary Reviews

5594 Bartmer Avenue: The proposed demolition of a beautiful and rare Shingle Style house appeared on the Preservation Board agenda two months ago and was deferred pending study of the reuse potential by the staff of the Cultural Resources Office. Staff has written an excellent report on the building condition and reuse feasibility based on a thorough site visit; read that here. Staff recommends denial of the permit and exploration of a National Historic District for Bartmer Avenue. This house and its neighbors fall outside of any historic districts that would enable the use of historic rehabilitation tax credits.

2300 Newhouse Avenue: The proposed new construction of six frame homes with attached garages in the western edge of Hyde Park manages to add yet another absurd faux historic design to the architecturally mongrelized neighborhood. Here we have brick fronts with shaped parapets imitating 20th century buildings that can be found in Hyde Park, but there is a twist: the parapets are actually gable ends on a front-gabled building! The sides and rear show the pitched roof and reveal the illusion the front barely conceals. Furthermore, the developer includes attached garages and has not submitted a site plan showing setbacks. Staff recommends denial as proposed.

Appeals of Staff Denials

5286 Page Avenue: The appeal of staff denial of a demolition permit for the two-story commercial building at the southeast corner of Page and Union has been on the agenda for months, always being continued at the request of the owners. Another continuance is possible. The building is a contributing resource to the Mount Cabanne/Raymond Place National Historic District and the last remaining commercial building at a prominent intersection degraded by a Walgreens across the street. Staff urges upholding their denial.

4218 Maryland: The unlawful alterations made to this house transformed it in disturbing ways: rebuilt bizarre porch, new cheap door and sidelights that don't even fit the opening, alteration of brick pattern and color on front elevation and removal of two front bay windows and replacement with flat openings. Yikes! Staff recommends upholding their denial.

Appeal of Preservation Board Denial

2013-15 Park Avenue: The builder of infill housing in Lafayette Square wants to amend earlier plans to face the side elevations with brick and instead face them with vinyl siding. Staff recommends upholding their denial of this request, and wisely so. Here we have strong neighborhood support for a strict local historic district ordinance that expressly prohibits sided primary and secondary elevations. One expects Lafayette Square to be the last local district where vinyl siding should be approved; the neighborhood is both bellwether and inspiration for the power of local district ordinances to shape attractive neighborhoods. (The Lafayette Square standards can also be an example of the the blind spots of such ordinances, but not regarding the use of vinyl siding.)

Kick Ass Awards on Monday Will Honor Marti Frumhoff

The fine folks behind 52nd City have chosen to posthumously honor Marti Frumhoff with one of their annual Kick Ass Awards, to be presented on Monday. I can't think of a more worthy recipient; in fact, I'm a bit embarrassed that I received the award two years ago ahead of Marti due to work empowered by the encouragement and inspiration provided by Marti and others she had inspired.

The awards are at Duff's Restaurant, 392 N. Euclid, from 6:30 - 9:00 p.m., Monday, November 26. Details here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Past the Margins of Chicago

Rob Powers (creator of Built St. Louis) has launched A Chicago Sojourn to chronicle the non-iconic corners of his new home. In his first post, Rob writes that "I've always gravitated to the forgotten: in St. Louis, in Milwaukee, everywhere I go. And so it shall be here."

Beautifully-designed Forgotten Chicago features photo essays on those traces of Chicago's past few celebrate, let alone investigate. Recent topics the Schoenhofen Brewery, pre-1909 street numbering system and Chicago's largest vacant lot, the site of US Steel's South Works. Jacob Kaplan and photographer Serhii Chrucky are the editors.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Foreclosure, Crime and Neighborhood Disintegration

According to an article on the CNN website entitled "Crime scene: foreclosure", Cleveland's historic Slavic Village neighborhood is in the nation's top ZIP code for foreclosures. An estimated 800 buildings sit vacant there. The neighborhood has out-of-control crime, correlated to the foreclosure rate. Houses get stripped within 72 hours of being vacated, and aren'ty worth enough money to justify repair. Police are inattentive, and the city can't afford to do much trash cleanup or demolition. People flee in droves, leaving those who remain in fear. Lenders continue to foreclose, with little concern about the effects.

This situation sounds a lot like conditions in north St. Louis in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The article's eerie conclusion reads "as the number of empty lots and abandoned houses grows where houses and residents were once packed in a tight community, there are fewer and fewer neighbors to fight the battle."

(Thanks to Barbara Manzara for the link.)

LLCs and LCs Linked to McKee Change Agents

On October 24, several companies linked to developer Paul J. McKee's north St. Louis real estate project switched registered agents.

Holding companies Babcock Resources LLC, Blairmont Associates LC, Dodier Investors LLC, MLK 3000 LLC, N & G Ventures LC, Noble Development Company LLC, PATH Enterprise Company LLC, Sheridan Place LC and VHS Partners LLC switched from anonymous third-party agency through CT Corporation System to PEM Agency Corporation (whose own registered agent is Glenn Mitchell, Director of Property for McEagle).

Holding company Allston Alliance LC switched agents to PEM Agency Corporation from developer John Steffen.

Three companies used for loans to the holding companies, Salvador Equity Management LLC, Rice Capital Group LLC and Parkburg Fund LC also switched agents from CT Corporation System to PEM Agency Corporation.

Old North St. Louis Restoration Group Receives $200,000 Bank of America Award

Last week, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation awarded the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group (ONSLRG) $200,000 grant at its fourth annual Neighborhood Excellence Initiative awards. The Restoration Group will use the money to renovate its new office and meeting space in the 14th Street Mall Redevelopment Area and to purchase properties that play strategic roles in stabilizing sections of the neighborhood. These are pressing needs for the group as it begins to operate as a high-profile community development corporation that handles a huge workload.

Currently, the ONSLRG staff does an amazing amount of work with only three full-time staffers operating out of modest rented space. The momentum that ONSLRG has created is impressive, but demanding -- the harder the organization works, the more people inside and outside of the neighborhood want assistance with development, nuisance properties and community matters. This award gives ONSLRG capacity to keep up with accelerating interest in Old North.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Some Online Research Sources

The Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection features cool color photos of St. Louis from 1949 & 1966, including shots of the Merchant's Exchange, Garrick Theater, Woodbine Hotel and Plaza Square Apartments showing the original panel colors. Find these images by searching for Saint Louis. (Via Urban St. Louis.)

The University of Missouri has digitized their Sanborn fire insurance map collection for the entire state. For those unfamiliar with Sanborn maps, the maps were made to assess fire risk and include detailed maps of cities that include parcel lines, building footprints, locations of stairs and elevators within buildings, building materials used in construction and other facts. These maps are essential reference to architectural historians surveying large districts. Insurance and real estate companies typically owned sets and added paste-in updates mailed out by Sanborn. The St. Louis volumes in the university's collection were not updated past 1908, a fairly early date. Look at the collection here. (Via Lindsey Derrington.)

Lastly, the 1876 volume by J. A. Dacus and James Buel entitled A Tour of St. Louis has been published by Google in its entirety. (Via Andrew Weil.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Urbanists Convene for Drinks Tomorrow

The local monthly urbanist get-together is tomorrow night:

Drinks and Mortar

When: Thursday, November 15 from 7:00 p.m. 'til at least 10:00 p.m.

Where: Bastille, 1027 Russell Boulevard in Soulard

What: Drinks & Mortar is a monthly night of drinking and conversation about architecture, civics, local politics, and city life. Everyone is welcome.

CRO Seeking Applicants for Preservation Planner Position

The Cultural Resources Office of the City of St. Louis has opened the position of Historic Preservation Planner I to applications. Deadline is November 21.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Massac Theater Crumbles in Metropolis, Illinois

The charming art deco Massac Theater graces Main Street in Metropolis, Illinois, a small town at the southern tip of Illinois well-known for DC Comics' designation of the town as "Hometown of Superman" in 1972. Although the front elevation appears well-maintained, the theater has been completely abandoned since the late 1980s, when a radio station using the front section of the building moved out. The theater screened its last film, Superman, in 1978.

The Massac Theater opened in 1938 with 537 seats, a large size for a town the size of Metropolis. The front and side elevations were laid in buff brick; polychrome cream and blue terra cotta disrupt the front elevation with vertical finial-topped piers to each side of the entrance joined a ribbon of portal windows. A jazzy marquee, still intact, further enhances the exterior. Entrances on each side of a box office lead to a low-ceilinged front lobby which expands into a larger lobby space. Although the partition between the lobby and the auditorium is now gone, twin staircases with fine metal rail detailing, probably leading to a missing balcony, indicate some sort of atrium in the lobby. Past the staircases is the bow-trussed auditorium, now cordoned off with a plywood wall.

Here is a view of the lobby.

The view below looks toward the front entrance from inside of the theater. Note the staircases.

The auditorium is shocking -- the walls are stripped down to backing block, the seats and flooring missing, and the roof is largely collapsed. Weather-beaten sections of roof deck cover the floor of the auditorium.

Condemned by the city government, the theater sits forlorn. The radio station left behind myriad record, files, desks and other furnishings. No one knows what the future will bring here. Metropolis has not had a movie theater since the Massac closed, but with access to nearby Paducah and its multiplex theater on sprawling Hinkleville Road, the demand for reopening a single-screen downtown movie theater is low. Most of the entertainment in Metropolis nowadays takes place at the giant Harrah's casino that blocks the downtown area from its riverfront on the Ohio River.

Mutrux Home Remodeled Beyond Recognition

How would you describe the complete remodeling of a one-story Modern Movement house designed by Eduoard Mutrux into a two-story turreted country manor?

If you are a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor, you would describe it as "Wright-inspired home gets personal touches," the title of an article that ran in Sunday's paper on the strange remaking of a Town and Country house that removed all traces of its striking original appearance. The article wrongly identifies the house as the work of William A. Bernoudy, when in fact it is the work of his long-time design partner after their partnership dissolved. While the finished project has many attractive and thoughtful elements, it comes at the expense of a mid-century home by one of this region's most distinguished modernists. Less a touch than a blow, I think.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Goldenrod Showboat May Be Safe -- For Now

For the last few weeks, local preservationists have been trading rumors of the impending salvage sale of St. Louis' long lost floating National Historic Landmark Goldenrod Showboat. According to an article in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the sale may be averted and the old show boat moved from its dry dock in Kampsville, Illinois. Whether or not the boat heads back to St. Louis is uncertain.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Landmarks Association of St. Louis Has a New Website

I was on vacation this week, and am catching up. Meantime, I direct your attention to the new website of my employer, Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Designed by Paradowski Creative and updated by the staff, the website should be a great resource for historic preservation in the future. Current content includes the organization's recent Most Endangered and Most Enhanced Sites lists, articles on topics from Lambert Airport to Bohemian Hill and the return of the biographies of St. Louis architects written by Carolyn Hewes Toft that have become important references. Watch the site for future content expansion.

The site is here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Sky Lobby

From a press release on the hotel at Lumiere Place (via MayorSlay.com):

The Hotel features a "sky lobby" on the eighth floor that overlooks a lushly landscaped rooftop pool area with the city’s best view of the Arch and skyline.

This isn't the first time I've encountered the phrase "sky lobby." "Sky lobby" seems to be marketing-speak for "the first seven levels of this hotel comprise a parking garage."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Blink of an Eye

Yesterday morning I walked past the building at the southwest corner of 14th and Washington that once housed Ehrlich's Cleaners. The two-story commercial building is undergoing demolition, and by yesterday morning was reduced to little more than a cast iron storefront and some first floor walls. A one-story building that stood to the west was already demolished. The buildings are being razed for the 22-story SkyHouse residential building.

Something on the remains of the western wall caught my eye. There was a ghost sign! Actually, the sign was too pristine to be a proper ghost. The building next door must have gone up when the sign was still new, and its wall then protected the sign for the next eighty years.

The sign advertised beer, with some words evident -- beer, [dr]aught, bottled. Maybe the beer advertised was from the Lemp or Hyde Park breweries.

After work, I walked past again. However, by 5:15 p.m. there was no sign to walk past, no cast iron front to admire. The western wall and most of the storefront had fallen in the course of the day. I did not take any photograph earlier.

For me, the only extant traces of the sign were the song lyrics in my head, from Neutral Milk Hotel:

What a beautiful dream
That could flash on the screen
In a blink of an eye and be gone from me

I also carried the hope that someone else took a photograph while the sign was exposed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Wm. Stage at Mad Art this Thursday !

Readers of this blog might be interested to know that local photographer, journalist, writer, and practitioner of St. Louis-ism Wm. Stage is having a photo exhibit opening and booksigning tomorrow night from 7-10 at Mad Art. Once again, 52nd City's got the write-up.

As Thomas notes at 52nd, Wm. Stage is probably best known for having done the Street Talk column in the RFT for years and years. But he's done other work, as well. His 1989 book Ghost Signs is a standout in my mind.

But when I think of Wm. Stage, gotta say the first thing that springs to mind is not a book or some big project, but something small and simple. Floating around in StL are postcards of photos he's taken over the years. One of them is a black and white image of an old, turreted, brick building. It's a nice, clean, eye-catching shot. One can't tell whether the building is in use or not, but visible across its facade are big, white ghost signs: "BIRD HOSPITAL" "BIRDS BOARDED AND CARED FOR" "EXPERIMENTAL CANARY FEEDING STATION".* The questionable occupancy or vacancy of the building, the huge bold words slowly washing away, the sheer quixoticness of the advertisements, and the fact that in 1989 such a curious anachronism had still survived here, all of that says a lot about St. Louis. The photo is absolutely simple but nonetheless dense and rich with information, and both beautiful and haunting** to boot. And I have to say, if I had to pick just one postcard of our city to send to an out-of-town friend to explain what is so special about StL, and to explain why it's worthy not only as a place to live but as a place to be obsessed and in love with, that would probably be the image. So, I'm really looking forward to seeing his photos of people tomorrow night.

*I'm ashamed not to have a link-able version of the image, but last time I checked, there were postcards of it for the buying at Washington Avenue Post.
** Had to track down the building. It's an LRA vacant lot now, sadly.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sculpture Garden Plan Underscores Futility of the Gateway Mall

Last week, the St. Louis Preservation Board unanimously granted preliminary approval to the Gateway Foundation's plan to convert two blocks of the Gateway Mall into a sculpture garden. These are the two very formal blocks between Eighth and Tenth streets that were completed in 1993. The garden, which would include landscaping coordinated by the Missouri Botanical Gardens, is actually a good plan in itself. In fact, there is a level of thoughtfulness to the plan that I confess comes as surprise to me. The principal architects, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, looked outside of the mall for inspiration.

The architects cast aside the impossible dreams of formal symmetry, civic grandiosity and identity-making that have plagued the mall's cast of prior architects. Rather than waste half of each block on passive lawn space, as the current design for those blocks does, the architects instead realize the number of intricate details that a city park can have. There are rows of trees along Market Street (for some reason widely viewed as a grand formal drive), and paved "plaza" areas. There is a fountain. But there also are limestone walls (faced in actual limestone on the plans the Board approved), flower beds, smaller lawns and a cafe building at the corner of Chestnut and 8th. Most important to the design are contrasting axes. A central linear axis on the western block abruptly bends on the eastern block, defying the forced sight lines of the mall. A wide arc forms an axis that spans both blocks on the northern side. A meandering curve runs across the southern end of both blocks, suggesting the lines used to demarcate creeks and rivers on state maps.

In fact, the whole concoction has pronounced map-like influences. While the translation of the logical god's-eye view to actual pedestrian experience may muddle the intent, at least the plans celebrate the often conflicting lines that compose our physical and political geography. One of the architects told the Preservation Board that the linear axis follows the footprint of the actual alley that once existed on the blocks, joined with perpendicular lines drawn from old lot lines. This architect actually stated that his inspiration was an old Sanborn fire insurance map of the blocks.

The parks design succeeds inasmuch as it does not attempt to impose a particular experience on an urban space, but rather presents possibilities for user-directed action. However, there are drawbacks. On the plan, Ninth Street looks too narrow to accommodate its current four lanes. Likewise, Market Street appears to lose its northern lane. These losses eliminate metered parking -- a necessity for a healthy downtown block.

The largest problem is not the fault of the designers but of our continued political cowardice: the city won't will itself to erase the Gateway Mall idea from its mind. We are committing political will and civic endowment to major changes for these two blocks, but once completed they sit amid one of the most unintelligible urban landscapes in the nation. These blocks can counteract all of the problems of the mall, but without visual reinforcement their statement will be lost. They will be surrounded by the mediocrity of anti-urban 1980s buildings, which draw their users inside and away from even the best parks. The blocks will still be segments of a string of parks that are mostly useless and unattractive. With so much open space and inhospitable built surroundings, the sculpture garden will still function more as a self-contained destination than a component of a healthy downtown.

Instead of next turning to renovation plans for the rest of the Gateway Mall, city leaders should work to enclose the sculpture garden with good design. The Gateway Foundation is doing a huge service to the city by financing the construction and upkeep. That service should be matched with a program to enhance the context: renovate the block containing "Twain" (or even move "Twain" and build on that block); build on the block of Market between Ninth and Tenth where the second IBM Plaza tower was intended; rework the base of the first IBM Plaza tower; build a new building or even just shops on Chestnut south of the original Southwestern Bell building; redesign the base of the hideous Data Building. In short, we need to fulfill the premise that $20 million invested in the Gateway Mall will make a functional difference for this part of downtown.

Givens Row Loses Two of Its Three Houses

Read the story on the Landmarks Association of St. Louis website. (Thanks to Paul Hohmann for documenting this travesty.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Living together, working together, etc.

Yesterday, I got a text message from Frippy:
"Blighthaven: Like St. Charles, only blander"

I responded:
"PruIgHaven.... It can't possibly fail!"

She shot back:
"Followed up decades later by PruIgHavenMont: Third time's the charm!"

Friday, October 26, 2007

MCU Needs to Get McKee to Appear in Public

Rose Willis speaks at last night's meeting. Photo by the author.

Developer Paul J. McKee's plans for north St. Louis were the subject of last night's packed public meeting of Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), held at Holy Trinity Church in Hyde Park. Although invited, McKee did not attend.

The tenor of the meeting surprised critics -- MCU's leaders were openly critical of McKee. Although the matter was only discussed for 20 minutes, and no questions from the crowd entertained, MCU laid out their action plan on the issue. Lead speaker Roger Duncan laid out MCU's four development principles: community input (an item that received thunderous applause), creation of housing at prices all can afford, no displacement of residents, respect for existing character and street grid. Duncan and Father Rich Creason, pastor of Holy Trinity, made clear that MCU was not claiming that McKee had agreed to these principles. They admitted that McKee did not accept their invitation, and that they were unsure of his intent.

While few residents of the near north side actually attended the meeting (out of the few aware of the meeting), one of their biggest concerns was discussed. 19th Ward Block Captain Rose Willis spoke about living next door to a run-down McKee-owned property and the developer's pattern of negligence.

Creason unveiled a community stakeholders' table that MCU is assembling to build community consensus on a development agenda for the area McKee is targeting. This group includes organizations like the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, the JeffVanderLou Initiative and the Third Ward neighborhood Council. the group also includes the St. Louis Development Corporation, the quasi-governmental corporation that encompasses the city's alphabet soup of development entities. Even stranger was that mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford was on hand to represent SLDC.

Creason ended the meeting by urging all in attendance to send to McKee a signed copy of a card that MCU distributed urging the developer to meet with the MCU stakeholders' group. Creason stated that he wanted McKee to receive 2,000 cards in the mail.

MCU has put itself in a difficult spot by trying to forge communication between stakeholders and McKee. I commend MCU for making the attempt. However, I think that the process could be fruitless without real public engagement. McKee has already met with representatives of the stakeholders' group; as part of city government, SLDC will be involved no matter what. McKee has not met with rank-and-file members of neighborhood groups. These stakeholder groups have not necessarily even communicated to members their involvement in discussions with McKee. Some stakeholder groups are missing, such as those concerned with urban design, green space and mass transit.

Essentially, the stakeholders could end up being a nice compartment for negotiations already underway outside of the public eye. What MCU needs to do is to get McKee to make good on his promise to explain himself in public -- to the residents of the area he wants to develop. Anything short of that is not the starting point of a new direction, but one more step down a path without a clear end.

McKee had a great opportunity last night to make a public appearance before a tame crowd. With few affected residents present, vocal antagonism was unlikely. The developer could have cut through the polarization with even a silent appearance, and demonstrated the leadership that defenders attribute to him. He did not make that first move to address the public. If MCU wants to help, it needs to continue to urge him to do so. All residents of the near north side are at the stakeholders' table by default. Solutions start with them, and with McKee. As long as those parties remain apart, all we have is uncertainty, fear and cynicism. We need hope.

Detroit Park Sale Plan is Hasty

The administration of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is proposing selling off 92 of the city's 367 parks. Most of the parks on the sale list are pocket parks and small playgrounds, many of which are surrounded by vacant lots and some of which are in severe disrepair. Kilpatrick seems to think that some of the park sites would be ripe for new development. The plan raises the issue of public space planning in deindustrialized cities. The amount of park space in Detroit reflects peak density that has not existed in decades. Does the city need so much park space when so much of the city itself is green ghetto land?

Maybe not. Detroit is seeing redevelopment right now. Kilpatrick's interest in selling the parks shows confidence in their having some market value as lots. The city has shrunk, but as it grows it may need the parks. While there are many of the 92 parks that probably will never be useful, there are some that are useful now and would be useful in neighborhoods where infill construction will lead to higher density. Staking out public space now will ensure that neighborhoods don't lack amenities that belong to all residents.

Detroit might consider holding off on a massive sale, and releasing the parks one by one after further community input and investigation of development activity. Perhaps some parks should just be mothballed -- infrastructure demolished and grass planted. One thing we learn from cities like Detroit is the inherent power of a vacant urban lot. From the vacant lots will spring the development of the future -- and public space needs to be part of that.

Media Coverage of MCU Meeting

KMOV Channel 4: North St. Louis developer under fire from religious group

From the transcript: A spokesman for Paul McKee told News 4 it would be premature to talk to the public because "we really don't have any plans."

Pub Def: VIDEO: McKee a No-Show at Meeting

Thursday, October 25, 2007

McKee Purchases Building on Stable Block in Old North

Photo by the author.

Defying promises to neighborhood leaders, developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. has purchased another historic building in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. Last Tuesday at a Sheriff's auction, McKee's holding company Babcock Resources LLC purchased the home at 1412 Sullivan Avenue, pictured above. Babcock's bid was around $8,000 with bidding starting at $900.

The 1400 block of Sullivan Avenue is one of the most stable and intact blocks in the neighborhood, with only two missing buildings. Since renovation work began on another empty building on the block, the house at 1412 Sullivan is the only vacant building on the block.

McKee also owns three buildings on the 1400 block of Hebert Street, one block to the north, and a building at 2900 N. 14th street, one block east.

Since September 6, 2007, Babcock Resources LLC has been used to purchase at least nine properties with total recorded sales prices of $380,600. Eagle Realty Company owner Harvey Noble as well as Roberta M. Defiore have signed the deeds for the company. Deeds of trust report that Rice Capital Group LLC and Salvador Equity Management LLC have loaned money for the purchases.

Tonight at a public meeting Metropolitan Congregations United will be discussing McKee's north side land acquisition project. McKee is an invited guest. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at Holy Trinity Church, 3518 N. 14th Street in Hyde Park.

Statewide Preservation Conference Coverage

I have published a summary of the Statewide Preservation Conference held October 18-20 in Jefferson City over on the new website of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

Read it here.

I would have called it "Ben Joravsky is all in a TIFf"

There's a nice lil' piece about TIFs and Chicago city government by Ramsin Canon over at Gaper's Block. Behold: Why is Ben Joravsky So Mad? For those of you not so keen on reading about development financing, I assure you this is a nicely readable essay.

St. Louisans, some of the stuff outlined in the article about Chicago shore sounds familiar, hm?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

McKee May Not Attend MCU Meeting

According to rumors, developer Paul J. McKee will not be appearing in person at Thursday's public meeting at Holy Trinity Church sponsored by Metropolitan Congregations United.

"What is the City?" Conference at UMSL This Week

Did you know that UMSL is hosting a conference entitled "What is the City?" this Thursday, October 25 and Friday, October 26? The conference examines "urban perspectives in film, fiction, and photography" and is free with advance registration.

Here's the full description:

The Center for the Humanities invites you to join speakers from around the country and St. Louis in examining urban life in contemporary and historical films, fiction, television, and photography. We will discuss examples from London, Chicago, Sarasota, Paris, Los Angeles, Florence, St. Louis, and small towns. The conference presenters are historians, geographers, photographers, film critics, community activists, literary experts, and writers. Engaging in discussion across many disciplines, they will consider ways artistic images and writings shape how we see our cities and those of others.

The schedule and registration form are here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Three Buildings in the Ville Coming Down -- For New Houses?

Today the City of St. Louis Preservation Board voted to approve demolition of three buildings in the Ville at 1820, 1822 and 1826 Annie Malone (see the Cultural Resources Office staff report here). Given the spate of demolition in the Ville since Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) took office earlier this year, sadly that's not noteworthy. In fact, the Board already considered and denied permits for two of these buildings just three months ago.

What is interesting is that during testimony Alderman Moore made several puzzling statements. Generally, the alderman was hostile to Cultural Resources Director Kate Shea, who supported demolition although with a noticeable lack of conviction. Shea recommended approval of the demolition with the stipulation that the alderman and neighborhood groups work with her office to create a preservation plan. In response, Moore said that he would come back every month until all of the derelict buildings in the Ville were demolished. Moore stated that residents of new homes in nearby Ville Phillips Estates demanded the demolition. He went on to say that the cleared lots where the three buildings stood would become part of the subdivision.

The original developers of Ville Phillips Estates were none other than Taylor Morley Homes and Preservation Board Vice Chair Mary "One" Johnson, who did not recuse herself from the consideration of this item. (Johnson is no longer involved with the project.) In fact, Johnson made the motion to accept staff recommendation and demolish the buildings. Her motion was approved with dissenting votes from John Burse and David Richardson.

Shea had recommended including the three buildings in a national historic district centered on the home of Peter Humphries Clark, an African-American educator who helped found one of the first black public school systems in the United States in Cincinnati and successfully fought for the repeal of Ohio's anti-black laws. Shea and her staff secured listing of the house on the National Register of Historic Places last year. Alderman Moore stated that he did not know who Clark was, but that the new subdivision on the site of the buildings would be named for him.

Citizens Anthony Coffin and Barbara Manzara testified in opposition to the demolition. Manzara recommended abolishing the local historic district ordinance in the Ville if there was no community support for historic preservation in the neighborhood. Notably, aside from the alderman, no residents of the Ville testified or sent letters supporting the demolition.

In July, Steve Patterson wrote about the incomplete state of Ville Phillips Estates. Read more: "Ville Phillips Estates Remains Unfinished Months After New Alderman Takes Office"

Log Cabin for Sale

From an ad on CraigsList posted in the "materials" section:

1860's Missouri Log Cabin, dismantled, tagged and diagrammed for sale. Pictures available by request. Original cabin 15X16 with an addition of 15X16, all log. Please respond to judy249@centurytel.net

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A building as useful as it was beautiful: Losing Riis School

My heart broke this morning when I saw this image on Gaper's Block:


Jacob Riis School in Chicago is finally on its way down. Didn't quite make it to 100.

A 2004 article by Ben Joravsky in The Chicago Reader noted that Mayor Daley plans to build 100 new schools within Chicago in the next several years. Why not make that 99, and revive this sturdy gem? Demolition of such a beautiful and solid building is plainly, foolishly, callously wasteful. The Reader article also noted that the building can't be condo-ized essentially because it's too well built--the internal walls are masonry, and therefore make it tricky to reconfigure. Not only does that mean the building is amazingly structurally tough, but it also means that the structure ought to be used for what it was built to do: Be. a. school.

With Hull House and Maxwell Street already gone (or, um, demolished and repeatedly relocated, at any rate) thanks to my alma mater, the University of Indifferent Commuters, it seems extra cruel somehow to tear down a school named after Jacob Riis. The name of the school always had seemed to me like a nice nod to the area's heritage as a neighborhood of tenements and poor immigrants, and also as a place that had been home to some of the greatest social institutions for the poor in the history of the city of Chicago. In his day, Jacob Riis's photographs brought to light the conditions in which many of New York's poorest immigrants in the later 19th and early 20th century lived. He is probably best known for his book How the Other Half Lives. One more nod to the area's actual heritage, wiped off the map. But I'm sure Chicago needs another faceless, flimsy condo development much more than it needs a sturdy, beautiful brick public school named after a man who devoted his life to improving the lives of the poor.

More Riis shots from Carey Primeau here.

And thanks to David Schalliol for confirming my "Please don't tell me this is what I think it is."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Setting a Precedent in Old North

Photo by the author.

Meet the building at 2817 N. 14th Street. This is the sort of buildings that many preservationists would hem and haw about when asked if it would be expendable to redevelopment. This is the sort of building that many Old North St. Louis residents would defend to the moment before the bulldozer arrived.

This 1860s-era row house has some noticeable problems. It's owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority. The front wall is bulged outward, necessitating the bracing that was installed only recently. The roof is sagging inward. Bricks routinely fall from its parapets. The interior is barely recognizable as anything other than a tangle of water-damaged wood. The floors have collapsed, and the walls have descended.

Yet the building still shows its elegant Greek Revival brickwork. Simple segmental arches are repeated over the windows and doorway. A dentillated brick cornice creates a stately crown to the front elevation. The front-gabled roof draws the passer-by's eye upwards to a small dormer. Long ago, chimneys would have provided more visual interest at the roof.

This building demonstrates the craftsmanship of vernacular architecture from an era with relatively little traces. How can Old North St. Louis tell its story to future generations without it? The neighborhood is unwilling to try.

This building joins over 25 other historic buildings to form the $32 million "Crown Square" project in Old North. This project is spearheaded by the Old North St. Louis Restoration group and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance -- a neighborhood group and a not-for-profit. These are organizations whose missions allow them to take the risk to tell the neighborhood's story. These are organizations acting long ahead of any moment at which a private developer would dare spend $32 million in Old North. If that day comes, the developer spending that money may own a building like this one. That developer may look for a precedent on how to handle the thorny question of what to do with a half-collapsed old brick tenement.

By then, projects like Crown Village and the investment of the community in its history will set a pretty strong precedent for doing the right thing. The right thing here is to safeguard the traces of a community's heritage that will inform future generations who will live inside and alongside historic buildings in Old North.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

McKee May Appear at Metropolitan Congregations United Meeting at Holy Trinity Church

Developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. may speak about his acquisitions in north St. Louis in public next Thursday, October 25 at Holy Trinity Church in Hyde Park. McKee is an invited guest to the next regular public meeting of Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), the interdenominational Christian alliance formed to promote social justice and high quality of life for the region's urban core. According to MCU members, if he appears, McKee will state his agreement to a number of conditions MCU has set for their endorsement of his plans for north St. Louis.

While McKee's willingness to make a public appearance is laudable -- and some might say is an appropriate response to recent criticism of his silence -- the fact is that the meeting is not a public forum intended to expose affected north side residents to the developers whose plans have altered their neighborhoods.

Given the format of MCU's public meetings, a reasonable expectation is that McKee will make a brief statement of his intention and why he needs MCU support. A representative from MCU will list their conditions for support, which had been agreed upon by McKee and MCU prior to the meeting. McKee will state that he will abide by the four standard MCU conditions for supporting development: respect for urban character, not displacing people, affordable housing, and community participation.

Hence, the format does not allow McKee to present any substantial information. He will not be taking questions, or listening to comments. The audience will be composed mostly of MCU members, with a smattering of any near north side residents who manage to learn about the event and bother to attend. Residents whose homes are within McKee's project area had a greater chance for engagement at the public meeting hosted by elected officials on August 30 at Vashon High School. McKee is not coming to the north side to address residents; he is coming to symbolically accept the political support of the influential MCU. Residents of north St. Louis will have to keep waiting for a meeting with McKee that is truly public.

In the meantime, perhaps MCU can consider the message sent by endorsing plans with details are unknown to the residents of the areas the plans affected; with an acquisition program fraught with allegations of fraud and deception; that has created nuisance properties on healthy blocks, driven down property values and led to displacement of poor residents; and that has created a climate of uncertainty and resignation in an area showing strong signs of revival. Does it not bother MCU leaders to endorse a development plan long before people affected by it eren know what it is?

MCU missed the chance to hold out their endorsement until McKee gave affected residents a chance for real dialog. Instead, MCU is stepping over residents of Old North St. Louis, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou. Hopefully McKee won't do the same, and will meet directly with residents.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hemmed In

A resident of north St. Louis is heading south to see a friend. He drives south on Florissant Avenue but then remembers that the section of Florissant/13th/Tucker over the old Illinois Termianl Railroad tunnel is closed indefinitely. So he makes a left turn on Cass Avenue, figuring that he can useBroadway to head south and bypass downtown. oops! The bridge over I-70 is closed indefinitely. So he turns around, heads west on Cass and then south on Jefferson. That is fine until he passes I-64. Jefferson is closed.

In the kind of city where north-south connectivity is easy, this driver would not be having so much trouble. But in a city with fewer than a half-dozen north-south streets that actually connect downtown to the city south of it, he's in a bind due to some coincidental road repairs.

There is definitely a spatial dimension to our city's polarization between north and south. I sure hope that Richard Baron is thinking about this fact as he contemplates Chouteau Lake.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

MayorSlay.com Posts Video on Old North

Carson Minow's latest video for St. Louis Traffic is about Old North St. Louis. Check it out here.

Thus continues the continued interest in Old North by the editors of MayorSlay.com. Hopefully that is an indication that our current mayor understands a thing or two about the urban character of the near north side.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mullanphy Foundation Reconstruction Underway

Photo from What's New in Old North.

Old North St. Louis has made a big step in the effort to stabilize the imperiled Mullanphy Emigrant Home. The foundation of the south wall of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home is in the midst of reconstruction this week. Once the foundation work is completed, masons can begin laying the block that will form the new inner wythes of the walls; face brick will come later. Hopefully by winter's onset the roof of the building will be supported by masonry walls.

Remember that the greater the progress made, the greater the cost. The effort to stabilize the landmark continues to seek donations.

More from What's New in Old North: Mullanphy Foundation Begins to Rise

Monday, October 8, 2007

East Side Sprawl Connector Stalled

Gateway Connector Lacks Funding - Nicholas J.C. Pistor (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 8)

Apparently, the State of Illinois lacks funding for a $500 million east side highway that would connect Troy and Columbia. Plans aren't dead, though -- and that's a bad thing for the character of the small towns in Illinois that it would "connect."

Proponents of the connector call it a boon to the growing cities of the metro east. Careful scrutiny might show that the cities are losing investment and residents in their core areas while using annexation of placeless sprawl to offset the losses. The road would reward and subsidize an a trend that is slowly killing the small urban areas of the metro east.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Model Project

Photograph by the author.

At last week's grand opening for "The Laurel" condominiums in the former Grand Leader Department Store Building on Washington Avenue, the Pyramid Companies unveiled this model of the building.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Emergency Demolition Order for Midtown's Central Apartments

Paul Hohmann reports that the city Building Division has granted an emergency demolition order for the Central Apartments at 3727 Olive Street in Midtown.

The building is owned by Grand Center, Inc. Brick spalling has beset the wesetrn wall for the past three years, and the owner has not performed preventative maintenance despite obvious trouble. Still, the Central Apartments are structurally sound in fact and under the terms of the city's Preservation Ordinance, which stipulates that the building must be stable enough to stand for at least another six months to be deemed stable. Clearly, there is no emergency here.

Denial of "Original Restaurant" Building Demolition Permit Upheld

Photograph by author.

At last week's meeting of the Preservation Board, the board considered the appeal of a Cultural Resources Office Staff denial of an application for demolition of a two-story commercial building downtown located at 2217-19 Olive Street. The board unanimously upheld the denial.

The owners of the building, Gary and Gail Andrews, have owned the building since 1977 but have failed to maintain the building according to city building codes. A section of the roof of the building collapsed several years ago, causing parapet damage, but the building is stable. The owners seek to to demolish the building, replacing it with a lawn and eventually a surface parking lot to serve a building that they own at 2206 Locust Street. (Read the CRO report here.)

The building is a contributing resource to a pending national historic district, the Olive and Locust Historic Business District. The nomination is awaiting final approval from the National Park Service. According to the nomination, prepared by Melinda Winchester:

The residential character of both Olive and Locust easily gave way to commercial activity, as many people converted homes into first floor shops with apartments above. An example of this is the building at 2217 Olive. Constructed as a home for Margaret Hilton in 1888, the first floor was converted into Walter C. Persons Photo Supplies Company in 1929 by William Duerback.

Examples of such conversion on Olive and Locust east of Jefferson are nearly extinct. The nomination does not identify a single other example of the converted residence within the historic district boundaries.

Once the building is listed on the National Register as part of the district, its rehabilitation will be eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits. This building and others on the block have not been eligible for the tax credits before. With the availability of the credit, these buildings should be attractive investments.

I concur with Cultural Resources staff that replacement of a historic downtown building with a grassy lot substitutes a high land use with an inappropriately low land use.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Driving to Granite City

Driving to Granite City today I passed a familiar landmark: the abandoned Fantasyland strip club, a massive metal-clad hulk whose only noteworthy architectural feature is the neon sign on its front. Since the last time I passed by, there had been a fire, with the south end of the building sporting gaping holes ringed by black-stained siding. The fire was not completely shocking, given how easy access was to the shoddy and highly-flammable interior.

Four years ago, out of curiosity, I ventured inside with a friend. This has been my only trip inside of a strip club, and I have to say I was pretty downhearted after seeing the water-damaged carpeting, peeling paneling and other dingy trappings inside. The thought of the place in full operation -- lights down, stage lights on, dancers on the stage -- was more upsetting than anything. What fantasy could be limited to the dull confines and hasty construction of this strip club?

Further north on Route 3, at the intersection of 4th and Broadway in Venice, the corner storefront I've watched for years was halfway down. Men were palletizing bricks. The storefront, with excellent vernacular Romanesque brick detailing, has long been a landmark in this town.

Meanwhile, up in Granite City, condemnation notices adorned several downtown buildings, including the ramshackle but one-proud row of flats on Niedringhaus Avenue. With myriad careless window alterations, problematic masonry repairs and general disrepair, this row has suffered much over the years. But the original beauty is still apparent, and in a state with a historic rehabilitation tax credit a building like this in a downtown like this one would be facing better prospects.

Perhaps the condemnation notices are part of Mayor Ed Hanganuaer's continued mishandling of the historic buildings of downtown Granite City. In 2006, under the mayor's watch, 15 buildings in the downtown area were demolished at a cost of $90,000, including many structurally sound historic buildings. For that cost, the city extinguished the much greater economic impact of historic rehabilitation.

The next time I make the trip up Route 3 to Granite City, I will face a road missing a few of the markers myself and others use to know where we are -- to know what places we are passing through. Obviously, I am not sad to see Fantasyland fall; that building was nondescript and place-defying. Other buildings and structures along Route 3 are not. These are markers that beckon us to stop and learn, and that might entice some of us to invest time and money.

Pelster Housebarn Restoration Ongoing

Welcome to the Pelster Housebarn, an architectural marvel located in Franklin County, Missouri west of Washington. The housebarn was probably built around the Civil War by William Pelster, a German immigrant. Pelster had already built and occupied a log home nearby. Pelster's decision to build a housebarn was unusual. Typically the housebarn, which literally combined a farm's house and barn under one roof, was a transitional structure for recent immgrants who went on to build freestanding homes.

Housebarns were most prevalent in the Midwest and Great Plains. Only twelve remain in the United States. The Pelster housebarn features a tall gabled roof over a fachwerk structure. The fachwerk here combines a structure of pegged rough-hewn timbers filled in with fieldstone. The exterior is clad in clapboard, but some of the walls are exposed in the barn. The housebarn rests on a fieldstone foundation.

The large entrance at the Pelster Housebarn opens onto the threshing floor, reputed to have never been used for its intended purpose. Off of the threshing floor are a granary and creamery. The living quarters were located to the left of the entrance, with a separate entrance off of the porch (restored last year) but with an open staircase in the barn section leading to the second floor sleeping quarters. Livestock was kept on the lower level, accessed through entrances at each gable end. The lower level also housed a fruit cellar. Above the threshing floor was a hayloft.

In 1978, the housebarn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After ownership by the Missouri Heritage Trust (now Missouri Preservation), the Pelster Housebarn became property of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is unable to enter the property into the state park system.

Restoration work is thus funded privately, and the Friends of the Pelster Housebarn has been chartered to raise funds for ongoing work. More information about their effort is available here.

Last year's porch project was a substantial undertaking. More work is needed, including replacement of the non-original tin roof, which is in poor repair.

(Photographs by Lynn Josse.)