We've Moved

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

Thursday, June 28, 2007

mullanphy happy hour tonight

IT'S THAT TIME AGAIN.... time for monthly architecture-n-civics happy hour!

Please join us for the MULLANPHY SALOON
informal discussion about architecture and our city
Thursday, June 28
7:30 pm - ?
at The Royale, 3132 S Kingshighway Blvd

Architects, bloggers, students, photographers, urban explorers, professors, liberrians, casual observers, shit disturbers... all are welcome!

As usual, we will have a donation jar for the effort to save the Mullanphy Emigrant Home; donations of ANY size are appreciated, but not required. To learn more about the effort to save the wonderful Mullanphy Emigrant Home, check out www.savemullanphy.org!

Any questions, e-mail eoa@eco-absence.org. THANKYAKINDLY. We hope to see you there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bosley Won't Support Any More Demolition in Hyde Park

During testimony at Monday's Preservation Board meeting, Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr. (D-3rd) stated that he would no longer support demolition in the Hyde Park Historic District, a federally-certified local historic district located entirely within his ward.

According to Bosley, decades of demolition have taken their toll. After watching buildings fall during days when the Hyde Park neighborhood was more desperate for development, he sees mistakes in past practices. However, the alderman wants to see extensive new construction in the neighborhood because it makes the older buildings more attractive to rehabbers.

Bosley was testifying in favor of a plan to build two new houses on 25nd Street offered by Mark Zerillo in consultation with realtor, developer and Preservation Board Vice Chairperson Mary "One" Johnson. The houses would entail reuse of existing foundations poured in 1995 but never build upon that would support two-story brick-faced frame houses supposedly modeled on older flat-roofed flats on the neighborhood.

Cultural Resources Office Director Kate Shea opposed granting preliminary approval due to the project's lack of compliance with the standards of the local district. (Read Shea's report here.) The Preservation Board concurred; a motion to withhold preliminary approval made by John Burse passed by a vote of 5-1 with board member Ald. Terry Kennedy (D-18th) opposed.

The Preservation Board also granted preliminary approval to infill housing in Hyde Park proposed by a development group headed by Ken Nuernburger (more here). That plan called for demolition of a two-story commercial building at 2303 Salisbury and a two-story brick house at 3915 N. 25th Street, across the street from the foundations proposed for reuse by Zerillo and the Johnsons.

The Board approved demolition of the building on Salisbury by a vote of 8-1, with member Mike Killeen dissenting. The Board denied demolition of the building on 25th street by a vote of 5-3, with members David Richardson, Johnson and Kennedy dissenting. Chairman Richard Callow abstained from these votes.

Another North Side Building Lost Under Blairmont Project

This two-story 19th-century commercial building at 2413 Cass Avenue, owned by N & G Ventures LC, fell to wreckers last week after being pillaged by brick rustlers. The building stood just north from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project site, and shared a wall with a small Modern Movement building (still standing) to the east that was once home to the social services office for Pruitt-Igoe. The city's Building Division applied for an emergency demolition permit on April 19 (see here), issued on June 1. The lot is now strewn with the signs of fresh demolition: straw and seed. The city sends the estimated $8,500 bill on to the owners of N & G Ventures LC, which include Paul J. McKee, Jr.

For more on McKee's project, see today's article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by reporter Jake Wagman: Plans ride on ties to city

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Paul McKee Praised

In her latest post to the Riverfront Times blog, Kathleen McLaughlin profiles one "flaming liberal" and unexpected WingHaven resident who has genuinely come to respect developer Paul J. McKee, Jr.:

The Softy Side of Paul McKee

In 1966, City Demolished 150 Buildings on Near North Side

According to an article that appeared in the November 26, 1966 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat with the prosaic title "$151,000 Demolition Job," the city of St. Louis was embarking upon a large-scale scattered-site clearance project on the near north side. In an area bounded by Jefferson on the east, Delmar of the south, Grand on the west and St. Louis on the north, the city was planning to demolish 150 buildings identified as substandard. This area at the time was known as Grand Prairie or Mid-City, but today is better known as the eastern half of JeffVanderLou. $101,000 of the $151,000 cost of the project came from federal funds.

This project started six years ahead of the introduction of the Team Four Plan for the wholesale deprivation of the near north side. This came ahead of widespread organized architectural surveys conducted by Landmarks Association of St. Louis and city government. This came thirty years before Paul J. McKee, Jr. set his sights on this area.

This part of the city has been long betrayed by many people. McKee's plans are simply the endgame of decades of deprivation, demolition and neglect. However, knowing what we know now about the lack of sustainability of large-scale urban renewal projects, we should be in a better position to avoid further destroying the near north side. We don't have the density of physical and social resources that should remain on the near north side, but we now know the value of what's left, if only due to its scarcity.

McKee's Holding Company Spent $900K Between May 17 and June 20

Despite statements to the contrary, Paul McKee's north side holding companies continue their purchasing spree. One of those companies alone, MLK 3000 LLC, spent $935,400 between May 17 and June 20 in order to acquire nine properties.

The properties and their recorded sales prices are: 2517 North Market, $92,000.00; 2225 Mullanphy, $80,500.00; 2223 Mullanphy, $80,500.00; 2221 Madison, $74,750.00; 1902 Dodier: $115,000; 1831 Laflin, $78,200.00; 1836-42 N. 22nd, $147,200.00; 2529-31 Hebert, $97,750.00; 2500 Sullivan, $172,500.00.

The building at 1902 Dodier is an occupied contributing resource to the Murphy-Blair National Historic District, the largest historic district in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood.

The deeds are signed by Roberta M. Defiore, manager of MLK 3000 LLC and former consultant to the Archdiocese Office of Urban and Community Affairs (see here). The loans come from the Parkburg Fund LC, an entity incorporated in August 2006 prior to MLK 3000 LLC's first purchase.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hamiet Bluiett, North St. Louis and a Summer Night

Tonight at 6:00 p.m. in Ivory Perry Park (Cabanne at Belt), Hamiet Bluiett will be performing for free. Something must be going right in this city if the world's greatest jazz saxophonist is playing for free in a north side park. See you there.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

How About a Big Plan for Downtown Circulation?

I certainly don't disagree that the Gateway Mall needs massive reconfiguration. I'm not opposed to drawing more people to the riverfront. I definitely would like to see a better connection between downtown and the Gateway Arch grounds.

However, as someone who uses downtown as a pedestrian up to seven days a week, I can't say that any of those concerns is high on my mind as I walk around. One of my biggest concerns is the traffic flow. With the traffic lights not synchronized, the flow of traffic downtown is ragged -- especially east of Tucker. This creates a somewhat unpredictable environment for pedestrians, and annoyances for drivers. Perhaps the Gateway Foundation or another civic-minded group would like to underwrite a study on synchronizing downtown traffic lights.

Another concern is the prevalence of loading zones and no-parking zones. On some streets, like almost all of Locust east of 9th Street and Washington east of 10th Street, there is no on-street parking at all. No surprise that few street-level uses are found on these stretches, and that pedestrians avoid these speedways. On-street parking would help businesses, slow traffic and create a more welcoming pedestrian environment.

Also of concern is the growing number of signs, benches, outdoor dining areas and other obstructions that impede the public right-of-way. While not devastating, this problem creates hostile spots for pedestrians, who aren't always equally able-bodied. I welcome outdoor dining, but hope that the city thinks circulation on public sidewalks is a higher priority.

Then there are street and alley closures and cut-offs that force people into unnatural travel patterns. Sadly, the Gateway Mall Master Plan actually recommends new street closures. Such closures are the worst thing that could happen downtown right now. Streets are the mechanisms of urban exchange; they create economic opportunities for developers and merchants. More streets are always a good thing for a downtown.

Sidewalks and streets are our rights as citizens of a city. They create the means of traversing the city, moving people as well as goods. The success of downtown hinges on the usability of its streets and sidewalks, which deliver people to the buildings where they live, work or spend money. Big plans for the downtown area need to examine circulation issues. In fact, I would argue that the circulation issues are far more pivotal than the supposed lack of destinations fueling the Gateway Mall and riverfront plans. I think that many of the problems with people not going to certain parts of downtown is more due to poorly-functioning streets as well as a lack of places to live, work and shop (read: functional urban buildings). Fixing some of these problems will yield bigger results than any of the current big plans could.

Tomorrow: Raimist Lecture on Harris Armstrong at the Ethical Society

Summer Solstice talk

As Platform Speaker at the Ethical Society, Andrew Raimist will be speaking on "Architecture of the Sun" on Sunday 24 June 2007 at 11am. The audio-visual presentation will address climate, sustainability, and solar issues in the architectural designs of Saint Louis modern architect Harris Armstrong. In addition, refreshments, food, and other outdoor activities will follow the talk. The public is welcome to attend and enjoy an exhibit of architectural photographs by the speaker.

The Ethical Society is located at 9001 Clayton Road in St. Louis County.

Architectural Photography exhibit

An on-going exhibition will have its opening following the talk. Featuring architectural photography in color and black & white by Andrew Raimist, the exhibit will present interpretations of the work of Harris Armstrong, other modernist architects, and selected examples of architectural excellence from the Midwest. The exhibit will be on display through 15 August.

Raimist's extensive writings on Harris Armstrong can be read online at Architectural Ruminations.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A New Job at St. Louis' Cultural Resources Office

Today MayorSlay.com announced the creation of a new staff position at the city's Cultural Resources Office. I can only applaud this wise move to create a permanent position funded from the city's general revenue.

Our city's local district ordinances deserve support and reasonable interpretation. The load of rehab and new construction in local districts is both high and steady, Consequently, the Cultural Resources Office has been greatly overwhelmed lately. One response to this welcome change could have been weakening the local district ordinances to be more lenient on design.

Instead, the mayor wisely went with another option -- another staff member to process the myriad building permits under the review of the CRO.

On another level, the move is also welcome. The city could definitely use another full-time job in historic preservation. Potential applicants should wait for the forthcoming advertisement of the job before applying.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blairmont, Locust Street Covered in Today's RFT

There are two excellent articles in today' Riverfront Times pertaining to controversial development matters:

Phantom of the Hood, Part 2 by Kathleen McLaughlin

The newest member of the RFT staff has written a great article on Paul McKee's north side project. Some of the new information she dug up includes the fact that McKee's attorney Steve Stone of Stone, Leyton & Gershman was involved in drafting the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Act. McLaughlin includes a choice quote from State Sen. John Griesheimer, original sponsor of the tax credit: "My idea of redeveloping is taking a blighted area and bulldozing it, putting mixed-uses in." The "bulldoze the ghetto" rhetoric gains some credibility. Kathleen McLaughlin's byline is definitely one to watch; she is tenacious and smart.

Rebuilt to Suit by Randall Roberts

Randall Roberts' last story for the RFT covers the tension between St. Louis University and the developers and businesspeople who are transforming Locust Street (as well as parts of Olive and Washington) east of Grand into a force that puts the "life" in that fables intersection Grand Center advertises. The last part chronicles the livery stable demolition, bringing to light SLU's promise to demolish no more of its holdings north of Lindell. Roberts has a fine sense of public journalism, and of how an article like this one can make a difference for the better. While this article comes out too late to make a difference in the livery stable fight, its timing is still good since few know SLU's next step on Locust Street. I'm confident that McLaughlin will continue Roberts' legacy of providing critical coverage of development and preservation issues in the RFT.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Livery Stable Demolition Permit Issued, Work Begins

This morning, the Building Division issued a demolition permit to St. Louis University for the historic livery stable at 3401 Locust Street. By mid-day, a wrecking crew from Bellon Wrecking & Salvage was at work stripping the building's roof decking and guttering. Oddly, the crew did not have an on-site dumpster and did not have a copy of the demolition permit on display as is required by city law. The site is not secured, with several window and door openings easily accessible and not even so much as caution tape keeping pedestrians off of the sidewalks. Perhaps there was some haste on the university's part to get work started.

At the end of the day, about one-third of the roof deck appeared to be removed, and there was minor damage to the top of the western wall where the gutter was located. Obviously, fatal damage will not come from a crew of six men -- especially given how sound this building is.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Electrical, Water Services Pulled on Locust Street Livery Stable

Workers have removed the water and electrical services to the historic livery stable at 3401 Locust Street owned by St. Louis University. A demolition permit has not yet been issued.

According to sources, two of the biggest development players in the "Automobile Row" area on Locust and Olive Streets have made offers to buy the livery stable in the past. The first came when the building was last offered for sale, and the second after the university purchased it.

The building is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits. Both potential developers were examining conversion to housing, office and retail spaces.

Meanwhile, north of the stable are large surface lots that could be sites for multi-level parking garages to serve both the St. Louis University arena and the Locust Street business district.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

McKee's North St. Louis Project Makes Front Page of Sunday Post-Dispatch, Above the Fold

A tax-credit bill for one man? - Virginia Young and Jake Wagman (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 17)

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch makes up for its rather late coverage of Paul McKee's acquisitions in north St. Louis with a well-written in-depth story that appears above the fold on the front page of Sunday's paper. Online, there is additional material including a great Flash graphic showing the flow of campaign contributions and in-kind gifts from McKee to a host of Missouri politicians, from Matt Blunt to Lewis Reed.

Despite significant coverage from other media outlets ranging from the Riverfront Times (the first major media outlet to cover the story, thanks to reporter Randall Roberts), Pub Def, KWMU, KDHX's "The Wire" program and KMOV Channel 4 TV news, this issue has not received the huge major publicity it deserves. Here it is, at long last -- and before Governor Blunt's decision on the economic development bill in which the tax credit program sought by McKee is embedded.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Livery Stable Catches Attention of KSDK News

Yesterday KSDK Channel 5 aired a story on St. Louis University's demolition of the historic livery stable on Locust Street. Reporter Mike Owens did a great job laying out the potential for reuse of the building in light of the university's claims that the building must be demolished for parking.

Watch the story here.

(By the way, in the video that's a healing wound under my nose -- not a tiny ugly mustache.)

City Officials Making Best of Dirty Situation

This was sent to me by one "Harland Bartholomew, Jr." No source is cited for this "news report," but if true it is a very interesting development:

City Officials Making Best of Dirty Situation

ST. LOUIS -- In an unexpected move, dirt for both the construction of the Mississippi River island and the mound at the western terminus of the Gateway Mall arrived early. Out of town crews trucked in more of the brown matter than St. Louis had seen in years, although construction of the new civic destinations is years away.

To deal with a possible dilemma, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay ordered the dirt spread across 75 non-contiguous acres of north St. Louis for storage. Slay thinks that the dirt companies may be eligible for a proposed land assemblage tax credit designed to smother areas like north St. Louis.

"We're a unique city, with unique problem -- too much dirt," quipped Slay. The mayor says that other cities have actually noted dirt shortages in recent years.

St. Louis Planning Director Rollin Stanley said that St. Louisans have nothing to fear from the new dirt.

"Other cities have recognized that dirt provides the sort of 24-hour excitement that creates destinations," Stanley said. "Dirt is literally always around, even in the middle of the night."

Stanley added that the dirt would only be temporarily stored in north St. Louis.

"The temperatures in Hades are lowering, indicating that construction of the island and the mound could start at any moment."

One person unhappy with the move is developer Paul J. McKee, Jr., who expressed interest in being the only recipient of the state tax credit.

"We do not have enough dirt in north St. Louis to construct an island in the Mississippi River," read a written statement from McKee. "However, we are interested in seeking other parties who own dirt so that we can partner on making things with our dirt. We regret that the nameless and faceless dirt movers have changed the nature of my project so I cannot continue as an assembler of dirt."

Slay suggests that competition for the tax credit is a good thing.

"Every city in America would love to have two large-scale plans for spreading dirt over economically distressed areas. Think of this as a blessing."

On a related front, Philadelphia is donating a Starbucks kiosk from a downtown park to the St. Louis Gateway Mall effort.

"The last newspaper article calling the kiosk innovative was published in 1999," said Philadelphia Parks Director Sara Collins.


Friday, June 15, 2007

If the Anarchists Did Not Exist, We Would Invent Them (Oh, Wait, We Did!)

In the wake of this week's fire at the Villas of St. Louis site, many pundits are once again raising the tired claim that local anarchists may be responsible for the fires. (Another equally dubious strand of thought blames labor unions.) No doubt that the fire is an arson, like the fires that plagues job sites in the city last year. However, the notion that local anarchists are responsible for the fire is baseless.

Local anarchists have no history of perpetrating violence, and have so many different opinions about what anarchy looks like that it's hard to even categorize the self-professed ones together. They are far more likely to hand one a 'zine on the joys of polyamory than teach the lessons of making a bomb. Certainly some anarchists that I know romanticize violence. After all, the idea of abandoning civil government in its entirety is an indirect endorsement of force and competition. A few local anarchists may have found the arsons last summer warranted because they proved the ham-fisted theory that all private urban development is gentrification. However, beyond one infamous 'zine and a handful of semi-anonymous comments left on the local Indymedia site, the public anarchist endorsement of the arsons was almost non-existent. Unless one has inside information -- and I doubt that the commenters on Urban St. Louis have been to the latest Colibri solstice party -- the claim that "the anarchists" endorsed or committed the arsons is reckless.

The St. Louis police department has issued no evidence suggesting that anarchists or other political dissidents were involved in the fire. No anarchists have taken credit for the fires, which is what a shrewd political movement would do after perpetrating a major arson. There is absolutely no public evidence supporting the claims being volleyed online. The worst offense committed by the anarchists is perhaps a facile stance on urban development, but otherwise there is nothing on "them."

Perhaps there is a bit of romanticizing coming from the accusers. The idea of semi-secret "terrorists in our own midst" who hold fundamentalist (political) beliefs is not a new phenomenon nowadays. Narratives of heroic developers rebuilding a city being plagued by a strange internal enemy would make for good cinema -- and good rhetoric for anyone who wants to ascribe to development a moral dimension. As philosopher Slavoj Zizek said in a 1994 interview, "You formulate your identity on the fantasy that the Other is the one who automatically wants to steal from you."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

St. Louis University Ready to Wreck Another Beautiful Building

St. Louis University is set to wreck the livery stable at the northwest corner of Locust and Josephine Baker -- a beautiful building that visually ties together the burgeoning Locust Street business district with Grand Center.

The replacement? Parking.

Read more here.

Gateway Mall Presentation (In lieu of The Potato....)

Some of you likely missed the presentation on the new Gateway Mall plan the other night. Well, despair not, good friends--you can experience the presentation in the comfort of your own living room or office. It will take you less time to do than it has taken me to write this blog entry (on my short break at work).

Simply go to Google, click on "images," and then search for the phrases "public park planning trends" and "trendy park lighting." Print out a couple pages of miscellaneous results, tape them to your wall, and BAM! You've got the new Gateway Mall right in front of you. Now, sit back and wait to get your check from the City*.

*Ideas about public spaces in St. Louis are neither expected nor welcomed from native St. Louisans, and consequently any native St. Louisans attempting this module should not expect to receive a check of any sort. Sorry, kids, but you've got a Parochial Attitude(tm)!

Landmarks Association's 2007 Eleven Most Endangered Buildings List

The Landmarks Association of St. Louis has announced its 2007 Eleven Most Endangered Buildings List. Selected by a committee, the list highlights buildings in the city of St. Louis in desperate need of intervention. While not conclusive, the list is a bellwether of current preservation battles -- and can be sadly accurate at predicting those buildings that are lost.

This year's list retains several buildings from last year's list:

- Mullanphy Emigrant Home (1609 N.14th Street)
- Mullanphy Tenement (2118 Mullanphy Street)
- Givens Row (2903-7 Delmar Boulevard)
- Bethlehem Lutheran Church (2153 Salisbury)
- James Clemens House (1849 Cass Avenue)
- Carr School (1421 Carr Street)
- Wellston Station (6111 Martin Luther King Drive)

Additions to this year's list are:

- Bohemian Hill Houses (Between Tucker and 13th Street south of Lafayette Avenue)
- Einstmann House (2347 Virginia Avenue)
- Crittenden Livery Stable (3401 Locust Street)

NPR Covers St. Louis Brick Rustling

KWMU's Matt Sepic is back with another built environment story, this time for NPR's national "Marketplace" program. "Brick rustling on the rise in St. Louis" provides an overview of the problem plaguing parts of the city where there is more masonry than money -- but brick yards offer a tempting conversion rate. The story features interviews with salvage specialist Larry Giles, brick dealer Bud Boldt and myself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Missing Media

The Potato has not published anything since January 24. What a shame that is -- this city needs a good dose of satire as cutting as the writer of that blog could be.

Also, I haven't seen a print issue of the Arch City Chronicle in at least a month.

UPDATE: According to a story this morning on KWMU radio, Arch City Chronicle Publisher Dave Drebes says that there will not be any more print issues after this month. ACC cut and pasted the KWMU story for its own announcement of its print demise, but for some reason is hiding comments left in response to the post.

Chippewa and Kingshighway Getting Slammed

The intersection of Chippewa and Kingshighway -- recently the subject of a streetscape program -- received some coverage from the blogs last week:

Not Pretty (Brick City, June 6)

When I Awakened, I was Mistaken... (A Six Pack of Zima and a Van, June 6)

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Memorial For Marti Frumhoff

From Christopher Thiemet:

Friday, June 15th, there will be a gathering in Forest Park, to honor, memorialize, and celebrate the life and times of our dear
friend Marti.

Rain or Shine!

We will be creating the space as we come together… some of us may want to share a story, read a poem, put up art work, lead us in a song, play Frisbee or Scrabble.

We see this as a informal time, family friendly, this includes dogs and children.

If this is at a time in which you will not be able to join us and you wish to have something read please email: mel@changingtide.org and we will make sure that someone reads it for you.

The space is available from 3pm – 8pm. The focused phase of this gathering will begin at 5:30pm.

This memorial is a time of celebration in a park Marti cherished.

Come early, stay late. Two BBQ pits are available.

Please Forward!

A memorial gathering to honor Marti

Pavilion 5 – Wells Drive – Across from the Zoo (south side - map here)

Friday, June 15th

3pm -8pm

The Right Moment?

Sometimes I wish that I had been around in the 1950s to found a historic rehabilitation business. Or better yet, doing the same in the 1930s. Still better would to have been a United States Senator in 1934 when Congress passed the bill that established the Federal Housing Administration. (According to an article by Sam Smith, "91% of the homes insured by the agency in metropolitan St. Louis between 1935 and 1939 were in the suburbs.") Perhaps being a St. Louis alderman at the start of the clearance of the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood for Pruitt-Igoe would have made a big difference. There definitely were better times to intervene on behalf of preserving north St. Louis. But what demographic narratives were playing out? Those of decline. These were narratives built on the struggle of every great American city to stay alive, to survive the onslaught of the automobile so forcefully enshrined in the Interstate Highway Program (oh, to have been in Congress to vote against that!) and countless deadly urban renewal projects. What truly could have made a difference was national resistance to the destruction of cities.

Sadly, that came later when countless intellectuals, designers, politicians and others arose to find the overwhelming evidence of the realized destruction to be the most persuasive argument to mend their ways. In some ways, now is a better time to make the argument for categorical preservation. I'm not one of those people who argue that the thousands of St. Louis buildings that came down had to, because there was no other way for St. Louis to renew itself save through some blight, population loss and decrease of density. That's not true. I think that a variety of forces that conspired to destroy urban areas could have been stopped, but the warning signs were too weak and the faith in technological progress too strong for the people who were on the front lines. Today we simply know more, can do more, and see the lines of defense so much more clearly.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

SLU Applies for Demolition Permit for Historic Livery Stable

On May 31, St. Louis University applied for a demolition permit for the former livery stable building at the northwest corner of Locust and Channing (see record here). The possible demolition had been rumored for months. If rumors of end use are true, expect a parking garage or lot where a restored and vital part of the Locust Street business district could otherwise be.

For more information about the stable, see my June 2 post, Alley Closure Bill Indicates Livery Stable May Be Endangered.

Gentry's Landing Spared from Make-Over

Word on the street says that the owners of the Gentry's Landing apartment building have scuttled the plans to "re-skin" the building and demolish the adjacent three-story office building for a new condominium tower. Looking at renderings that someone posted to Urban St. Louis, I am relieved. The old plan was a travesty of brick veneer, EIFS and European pretense -- dominant tendencies of the style I'll call post-postmodern (because that sounds as ridiculous as examples of the style look).

The new plan is to rehabilitate the existing buildings, completed in 1966 as part of the Mansion House Center project designed by Schwarz & Van Hoefen. While certainly not an original work of modern architecture, and flawed from an urban-functionalist standpoint, Mansion House managed to achieve the simplicity of form and material as well as drama of site that typifies good modernism. Over forty years later, the buildings maintain a graceful occupancy of the site just west of the Arch grounds. In the face of one of the hardest modernist acts to follow, they don't take the stage -- they are a part of it. Sometimes, architecture need not make a huge point about anything. Sometimes, it needs to provide visual support for something else -- another building or a natural setting. As a lesser contemporary example, Mansion House provides excellent visual support to the Arch as well as that excellent little essay of a building, the Peabody Coal Building.

Of course, Mansion House does manage to make one innovation: the rooftop of its attached parking garage (actually the biggest drawback since it creates a blank wall facing the Arch)
is landscaped as a contemplative garden. The garden is one of downtown's best hidden assets, and a great use of what would otherwise be a wasted and rude parking deck. Also, Mansion House has steadily provided affordable apartments in the heart of downtown. In 1966 and in the condo-crazed 21st century, this service is much needed.

Split ownership at Mansion House forestalls preservation planning. Still, perhaps one day the other owners will make some wise choices, including making more of the garage roof.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Plywood and Public Policy

Tonight, I was part of a group of three Old North St. Louis residents and one other city resident who undertook securing a building owned by a holding company controlled by Paul J. McKee, Jr. This particular house sits on a block McKee's agents have worked hard to bust, and in just a few months since purchase has been stripped of new aluminum windows exposing other more historic features intact inside.

We in Old North are a vigilant bunch, and we don't let our heritage get plundered. Upon spotting the empty window openings, my neighbor Barbara Manzara spread word and gathered an impromptu board-up crew. Now, the building is secure before irreplaceable parts are gone. Of course, boards won't protect against brick rustlers who have destroyed many other vacant north side buildings owned by McKee's companies, the city's Land Reutilization Authority and other private parties. These boards can -- and will -- be removed. But residents will probably return to keep the boards on.

On the larger scale, though, we face hundreds of vacant buildings owned by McKee. Four people can't get to them all, and most of the buildings don't have even one person in close proximity to keep watch. Many are already so damaged by theft and weather that they may be lost forever.

Vigilante board-ups are no substitute for a public policy that would protect historic community resources and make them part of the burgeoning revitalization of the north side. Until there are assurances from city officials that they are interested in preservation planning as well as code enforcement for the area that McKee has targeted, residents will continue to take action -- and be suspicious of those who are charged with safeguarding their rights as city residents to participatory government.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

After Reopening Olive, Kennedy Wants to Close Whittier

Alderman Terry Kennedy (D-18th) has introduced Board Bill 91, to close Whittier south of McPherson. The lack of north-south arteries across the central corridor reinforces the local divide between the north and south sides of the city. I probably don't need to mention that the north side is the loser in this split.

On May 7, Urban Review reported that Kennedy had relented and reopened a closed section of Olive Street in the Central West End. Unfortunately, this good act is followed by another proposed street closure in Kennedy's ward. The problems that street closures create are certainly not limited to one or two in particular; the same problems that the Olive closure caused will occur once Whittier is closed.

Alley Closure Bill Indicates Livery Stable May Be Endangered

Rumors that St. Louis University plans to demolish a former livery stable at 3401 Locust Street are bolstered by a bill introduced at the Board of Aldermen by Ald. Marlene Davis (D-19th). Board Bill 129 would vacate the alley in the eastermost 239.47 feet of the alley on the block bounded by Locust on the south, Theresa on the west, Washington on the north and Channing (also known as Josephine Baker) on the east. This is the stretch of alley between the old stable and a parking lot owned by St. Louis University to the north.

R.W. Crittenden built the livery stable in 1885 with later additions in 1888 and 1889. A major renovation occurred in 1902 from plans by architect Otto J. Wilhelmi. In the 20th century, the stable served as a sales room for the Salisbury Automobile Company; it stood in the stretch of Locust known as "Automobile Row." In recent years, the brick building was painted white and had its windows filled in. However, broad arched entrances are evident in addition to other masonry elements common to the local interpretation of the Romanesque Revival style.

With this board bill, the fate of the building seems bleak. Landmarks Association of St. Louis lists the building on its 2007 Eleven Most Endangered Buildings list.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Periodicals Room

Walk into the main hall of the St. Louis Central Library these days, and you will notice a cluttered appearance. The once-grand space was originally the main reading room, a place that delicately balanced the public purpose of the library and the private sphere of reading. Nowadays, the hall is chock full of computers, kiosks of videos and other intrusions. There are even books on shelves lining the grey marble walls. This has been the case for a long time, but the situation has been worsened recently by the library's decision to close the periodical room and move the periodicals and the legions of periodical readers into the already-overcrowded main hall.

The reason behind this decision was the creation of a "reception room" for special events and lectures that raise money for the library's capital campaign. Thus the drive to build money for what could be an architectural travesty -- a plan is afoot to remove the original glass-floors book stacks system on the north side -- has led to a momentary loss of one of the many ornate and supposedly public spaces of the library.

One of the wonderful things about the downtown library is that no matter how prosaic a reader's purpose may be, her reading experience will take place amid the visually stimulating opulence of Cass Gilbert's Italian Renaissance design. The periodicals room was a hopeful sight -- students, travelers, homeless people and downtown workers all getting their news under a finely-detailed painted and coffered ceiling. The scene was prosaic itself -- perhaps too much so. However, the periodical room and its use illustrated exactly why a city would have a public library at all.

Now, the periodicals room sits empty, dark and locked off during the day. Pass through the lobby and you get a glimpse through the bars that keep readers out of this reading room. An empty podium stands where the reference desk once was. Meanwhile, across 14th Street, the library's annex building (formermly the Farm & Home Credit Bank) sits underutilized, with large expanses of empty space. The first floor featues a wide-open and unfinished space; many of the offices located there provide ridiculously generous space for their occupants.

The Central Library will necessarily make big changes in the coming years to adapt to changes in use, and the capital campaign is an essential component of the changes. However, some parts of the library are working fine -- like the periodicals room. Obviously, raising money for routine and functioning parts of the library is not easy. Donors are probably more attracted to buzzwords related to new technology and big changes. However, many people come to a library to handle a newspaper or book in the company of others. Print itself is a technology, but one that tends to reinforce socialization far more than the visual-centric technologies with which our libraries flirt nowadays. Hopefully, in the end, Central Library will still have a periodicals room.

Some small thoughts

I'm sure this will only inspire more angry comments, but nonetheless fellow urbanist Julia Kite sent me this postcard from NYC a while back:

There was a time when the Lexington was a beautiful line.
When children of the ghetto expressed themselves with art, not with crime.
But then as evolution passed, the transits buffing did its blast.
Now we wonder if graffiti will ever last.

--Epitaph for Graffiti, Lee, 1980.

I wish I could locate the postcard (rehab + home = disorganization), because the image of the whole mural, a graveyard painted on a subway car, is really something to see and is really beautiful.

Since I spent a lot of my childhood in an area with a marked gang problem, um, if anybody should hate graffiti, it's me. Early on in my life, tags meant that possibly violent attacks might be on the way. I even had the strange misfortune of riding bus #p62 in an area where other gangs were battling Six Deuce for control. New graf on our school was sometimes accompanied by things like members of rival gangs symbolically throwing glass bottles at the windows of our #p62 school bus to publically display their hatred for all things with a 6 and 2. Consequently, when I was a kid, I was terrified of gang-style graffiti.

That said, still, I have early memories of wonderful murals. I still distinctly remember going to Chicago when I was maybe six or seven, and thinking that it must be a bigger, better city because they had many more beautiful, elaborate, large colorful graffiti pieces around the city than StL did. To me, a kid from vibrant but unfancy urban places, an abundance of street art meant I must be in a great and important city. I knew that some of it was illegal, but still the line between some of the truly masterful illegal pieces I saw, and the also lovely legally sanctioned murals, was blurry in my young mind; all of it was so wonderful and made the city so much more vibrant and beautiful.

Now I own property, and now I try to advocate for historic buildings that have been deemed "nuisances," and now I try to convince more timid people that the city is "okay." I am learning some new and painful downsides to graffiti, but for the most part it almost never scares me anymore, even when it sometimes brings me great frustration and sadness (not on terra cotta or unpainted stone or brick, plz plz plz!).

Still, as a young woman who, frankly, spent a lot of her childhood in various so-called ghettos, I have to say, sometimes the line between a truly wonderful, thought-provoking tag and a truly wonderful, thought-provoking legally sanctioned mural is still a little blurry. Where I come from, this is just another form that public art takes.

I'm not saying I think graf is perfect, but I am saying thatgraf at its best is one of those things that can help make the city magic. Like a late night conversation at some crowded coffeehouse, like the feeling of seeing the skyline when you have been away for a while, like walking down a street that you never knew existed, like the corners of absolute surrealness that hide themselves in pockets near the river, like church carnivals and street kittens in springtime: magic. And people live in cities for that special city quality, that something, that overall accumulation of small magics. I'm not saying you moved here to watch the Orpheum get "vandalized," but I am saying that if you wanted endless predictable, pristine and orderly, you'd be livin' in New Town.