We've Moved

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

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.)

Which Twelve?

St. Louis has sent an application for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2008 List of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations. Read more at MayorSlay.com.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The blog that frequently brings you cussing about architecture would like you to see some dancing about architecture.

I'm sure a good number of us have heard the ol' quote "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture" from the movie Playing By Heart.

Welp, both are entirely possible if one puts one's mind to it, and thus tomorrow afternoon Project Bandaloop will dance on the side of the Continental Building in Grand Center. Superman Building, indeed.

danish public transportation haiku

These little poems were written by Zoe Trope, who is blogging her experience studying abroad in Denmark.

As a transit rider half a world away here in the urban Midwest, I gotta say, I often feel just the same when I'm bussin' it (or attempting to bus it) across town. Enjoy:

everyone thinks
trains are so quiet, fast, clean.
try the regional.

waiting for the bus
it is twenty minutes late
you can suck my dick.

when i tell people
about my commute, they gasp
"i'm sorry for you."

A few more notes on the demolition permits on MLK

I was disappointed that we lost not one, but five buildings on MLK at the Preservation Board on Monday.

4222 Martin Luther King had to go. I watched it burn--it was terrible and thorough, and complete with a huge collapse. That building was not a building anymore afterwards.

4149-53 MLK had to go, too. They were pretty much just front facades. They were in the kind of state that only heavy subsidy or some wealthy angel of rehab could have turned around, and I didn't see either touching down on that block any time soon, sadly.

4220 and 4224 could have been saved. I really, really think so, call me crazy. (I call your attention to the fact that I just said I'm okay with the other three demolitions--I'm not THAT crazy!) After questioning whether to vote on the buildings individually, the board voted on all five buildings at once. The vote to grant the demo permit was unanimous (with Richardson, Callow, Robinson, Killeen, and Kennedy in attendance).

The first time I went along the length of MLK after moving back to St. Louis several years ago, I was struck by what a beautiful street it was, and how surprisingly intact and varied its collection of storefront buildings was. Going down a street like that, you can just tell from the landscape that it was and is an important place. As I've watched disappearances on the street since that day, one little storefront here, another little storefront there, I just keep thinking This street will be gone before I turn thirty. I mentioned this in my testimony to the Board on Monday. Asked how old I was, I answered: "Twenty-three."

"You've got time," came the answer.

"It won't take that long," I replied.

Making the loss of the buildings of the 4400 block especially sad was the testimony of Alderman Moore, who had brought the buildings up for demolition in the first place. He said he saw people run out of 4222 shortly before it started visibly burning. He said that he just knew they had to be brick rustlers. Brick rustlers have been setting fires in his area and letting the flames and the fire department be the demo crew--the wood is eliminated, and you get loose bricks and conditions where people are less likely to be suspicious if you're palletizing. Sure enough, Alderman Moore said, he went to the building at 8am the next day, and at 9am the brick rustlers showed up and started picking out the good bricks, throwing broken brickbats back into the remains of the ruined building. The Alderman called the police, and he said they showed up briefly but then left without doing anything, letting the brick rustlers go. What I want to know is: If the cops won't even help AN ALDERMAN arrest brick rustlers (9am the morning after a fire! When no demo permit could have possibly been issued yet!), how the hell do the rest of us in the community even stand a chance at stopping brick rustling?

Shoo Fly Shoo

The Riverfront Times declared me "Best Gadfly" in this week's "Best of St. Louis" issue (more coverage at Urban Review).

I'll take the honor, but I'm puzzled that the writer seems to know where I buy my pants.

More Buildings Falling on MLK in The Ville

The St. Louis Preservation Board approved demolition of these cast-iron-front commercial buildings at 4420, 4422 and 4424 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville at its meeting on Monday, September 24 (see report). The center building at 4422 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive burned and collapsed earlier this month. The flanking buildings are deteriorated but not beyond rehabilitation. In fact, they likely would contribute to a national historic district along Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville. Alas, no architectural survey and district nomination have been completed in recent years. Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) requested the demolitions along with demolition of commercial buildings at 4149 and 4153 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive (see report). Those permits also were approved by the Board.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sonic Atrophy Returns

Sonic Atrophy has returned to the internet after a two year absence. The website features photographs of abandoned places along with narratives on the anonymous site creator's experiences visiting and photographing the places. Most of the locations featured on Sonic Atrophy are in the St. Louis region, but some are located in other places including Peoria and Cairo, Illinois and Gary, Indiana.

Visit the website here.

3500 North Grand: One of LRA's Many Available Buildings

Photo from Land Reutilization Authority.

This three-story commercial building with a distinctive chamfered corner stands at 3500 N. Grand Boulevard (northeast corner of Grand and Hebert) in the Lindell Park neighborhood. Formerly home to a bank, this building in the Classical Revival style was built in 1909.

This is just one of the thousands of properties owned by the city's holding agency, the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). LRA seeks $15,000 for this building -- a price below market value. A recent sales contract fell through and the building is again on the featured properties section of LRA's website.

Last September, I published a blog entry entitled "LRA's Problem With Marketing: It Needs to Start." I chastised LRA for leaving properties that had sold in the featured properties list without adding new ones. One year later, I am pleased to report that LRA's website features only available properties on this list. I am not pleased to report that the online list still represents the bulk of LRA's marketing efforts.

While many blame LRA itself, that's a cop out. As a municipal authority, LRA is hidebound to funding and operational binds placed on it by those with budgetary and legislative authority. Ultimately, each of us city residents is a stakeholder in LRA. LRA's staff cannot effect major and necessary policy changes related to the disposition of city-owned buildings and land -- but our elected representatives can.

St. Louis Centre Project Grows

Major retail district announced for downtown - Riddhi Trivedi-St. Clair (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 26)

Pyramid's St. Louis Centre project has grown to include the old Mercantile Library Building, the Railway Exchange Building and the dreadful old Edison Brothers parking garage.

Friday, September 21, 2007

UPDATED: Three Demolition Applications and One Appeals on Monday's Preservation Board Agenda

UPDATED Monday, Sepetmber 24

Three applications for demolition are on the final agenda for Monday's meeting of the St. Louis Preservation Board. The permit applications are:

- 2868 Missouri Avenue in Benton Park (national and local historic district), owned by Craig Hamby & Brian Magill. A two-story corner commercial building, located across the street from the restaurant Yemanja Brasil, mostly collapsed last year. An adjacent building is stable, but the owner seeks to demolish it too. Application includes new construction.

- 4153 (owned by James and Betty Mitchell) and 4220-22 Martin Luther King Drive (owned by LRA) and 4224 Martin Luther King Drive (owned by Tommie Hampton) in The Ville. The buildings on Martin Luther King are brick commercial buildings. The building at 4222 Martin Luther King collapsed last month, perhaps causing damage to its neighbors.

There is one appeal of a staff denials:

- 2217-19 Olive Street downtown, owned by Gary and Gail Andrews. This is a two-story, flat-roofed brick commercial structure.

The meeting begins at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, September 24, on the twelfth floor of the office building at 1015 Locust Street.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Crisis of Abandonment

A recent article published on Preservation Online entitled "Winging It in Buffalo" provokes thoughts about the nature of widespread urban abandonment. In the article, writer Stephanie Smith discusses the situation of Buffalo, New York, where city leaders have started a "Five by Five" program to bring its vacant building rate closer to five percent within five years by demolishing 1,000 buildings a year. City planners there estimate that 10,000 buildings should be demolished.

This campaign to "right size" the city makes sensible historic preservation planning next to impossible. The Buffalo preservation board has to consider 1,000 applications a year. There is no way that preservation board members can even begin to make sense of what comes across their desks. At the same time, city leaders at least pay lip service to the idea that massive clearance is ultimately detrimental to neighborhoods.

The larger issue here is relevant to St. Louis and other cities: widespread abandonment creates public safety and land use crises of unprecedented scale. Natural time dooms many historic buildings, while political time expedites that process. Economic time brings solutions slowly, and may not move fast enough for the comfort of residents who remain in areas where abandonment is rampant. While the federal government has spent billions of dollars on supposed crises in nations like Iraq, we have failed to direct it to play a meaningful role to resolve our urban crises. Local problems rely on local solutions -- and severely limited local budgets. How and when do we break from this cycle?

(Thanks to my colleague Lindsey Derrington for the link.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sidewalk Indecision at the Ninth Street Garage

A new game downtown is taking bets on how many times workers on the Ninth Street Garage will tear out and rebuild the sidewalks around the new parking garage. Today crews were seen repaving already-paved sections of the sidewalk on Locust Street along the north elevation. In recent weeks, the crews went through many changes on the Ninth Street side that involved installing a thin strip of granite since buried under a sheen of dust that renders it nearly invisible.

Needless to say, the sidewalks around the garage do not include street trees.

The Facts Behind the Rumors of Miss Rockaway Armada

KWMU's Maria Hickey interviewed Coast Guard Commander Mark Cunningham about the incident involving Miss Rockaway Armada; listen here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Baron May Seek Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act; Discussion Needed

According to recent articles in both the St. Louis Business Journal and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, developers McCormack Baron Salazar may seek the new Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit for the massive Chouteau Lake and Greenway project that they have contemplated for nearly a decade. This possibility is based on the fact that the state Department of Economic Development considers the entire city of St. Louis a distressed area under the legal definition of the tax credit act. Thus, any project in the city that meets the tax credit's other requirements could qualify.

This probably isn't what the authors of the tax credit had in mind, but the use would not be a bad thing. After all, the connection between the south side and downtown historically has been weak due to the railyards and Mill Creek before that. While rail lines are important and could see greater use in future times, the visual and physical barrier along the southern edge of downtown is detrimental. On one side, we have downtown and its burgeoning vitality. On the other side, the strong historic neighborhoods of the near south side. Between, we have the rail yards, the anti-urban campuses of AmerernUE and Ralston Purina and countless marginal uses. Making connections across this expanse will be a huge and visionary undertaking.

According to Richard Baron of the firm, he and his partners already control 23 acres in the project area. The tax credit would allow them to acquire more. Their project is unlikely to involve any residential relocation at all, although it may eventually include eminent domain.

While perhaps not the most pressing need for urban development, the Chouteau Lake project could be very good for the city. The details need full and open discussion. That discussion would benefit from the participation of developer Paul J. McKee, Jr., who has big plans for the northern edge of downtown. Unlike Baron, McKee has not published any rendering or discussed many details of his project. McKee has stated that he wants to use the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit in north city. In fact, his attorney Steve Stone is credited with writing the first version of the tax credit act.

These two large projects on the edges of downtown could unite the central city to its neighborhoods. The Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit could enable wonderful urban-scaled projects that resolve big, old problems in the city -- or it could enable years of neighborhood fear, deferred dreams and unfulfilled promises. Baron and McKee need to engage the public, each other, city planners and neighborhood leaders so that we don't let two good opportunities turn into huge failures.

Monday, September 17, 2007


If your hand-made river vessel, powered by wind, bio-diesel and sun and made of junk, sadly happened to fall apart in the river, you probably couldn't have better fortune than to have that happen near the city of St. Louis. St. Louis teems with scrappy mobs of ingenious anarchist inventors, bands of starstruck architects, teams of poetic moonshiners and do-it-yourselfers who know how to rebuild even whole neighborhoods.

I think that Miss Rockaway Armada has found the perfect port to recover from strange misfortune. No doubt that the good crew will be afloat one way or another within a few days.

Once-Disputed House in Florissant Listed on National Register

Florissant house added to National Register - Brian Flinchpaugh (North County Journal, September 17)

A Tale of Two Playgrounds

I caught myself snorting aloud when reading the following piece on StL Today:

Spat at the playground

On one hand, I can sort of see the objections of the Lafayette Square folks--those new playgrounds do look ungodly ugly sometimes, and cheap and plastic and contemporary and.... But then again, the children's librarian in me says, "Hey, wait a minute, kids LIKE colors. Kids LOVE colors." And weren't the Victorians fans of effusive, brilliant colors every bit as gaudy as the ornament on their architecture? Some modern day folks may imagine that time as being polite tan and taupe (Really, a tan slide? Ew.), but that doesn't necessarily reflect the reality of that era.

Where I live, a historic neighborhood on the other [North] side of Downtown, we would kill for a playground like this. Last time I was in Old North's Jackson Park, I softly kicked the tire swing, and the entire playground apparatus swayed dramatically from side to side for the next ten minutes. I'm not talking about millimeters of movement, either--this was a pretty serious, marked, unstable sway. The structure creaked loudly as it moved. Good thing I just kicked it, rather than sitting on it. The next kid who happens by might not be so lucky. My neighbors and I looked over the whole playground, and found that the wood was dangerously rotting throughout. Oh, to fret about historically "appropriate" color choices, rather than to worry that our playground equipment might kill somebody!

And for the record, we do have a nice, new playground in Strodtman Park, but the southern end of our neighborhood could use something nice, or at the least could stand the removal of the dangerous old equipment. And I bet there's no equipment anywhere near as dangerous as that of Jackson Park to be found anywhere in Lafayette Square.

In closing, I'll just say that I hope that the playground in Jackson Park is replaced with non-dangerous playground equipment before the Lafayette Square folks get new equipment, unless that neighborhood pays for it entirely themselves. Otherwise, it seems to me like the whole thing could wait until the current batch of equipment wears out, and then replace it with something "appropriately" puce, khaki, putty, or tan.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Downtown Walking Tours Offered Every Saturday

Want to know where Henry Shaw's townhouse stood? Why the Chemical Building is so named? Heard about the Gateway Mall but not quite sure what that is? Or maybe you just want to see four bronze turtles carrying a lamp-post.

You can get your questions answered every Saturday from April through October on a Metropolis Downtown Architectural Walking Tour. Metropolis offers both an eastern and western tour each Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Tours generally last two hours.

Enjoy the last few weeks of tours in pleasant weather. Docents -- inlcuding myself -- will share architectural information about downtown past, present and future (okay, I don't know about the other docents but I offer some predictions).

Eastern tours start on the western steps of the Old Courthouse, near the corner of Market and Broadway.

Western tours start at the entrance to the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Union Station, near the corner of 18th and Market streets.

The tours cost $5. More information here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Historic Building in Washington to be Recycled - Piece by Piece

Demolition of Old MFA Feed Store Will Begin Monday - Sarah Wienke (Washington Missourian, September 14)

A former lumber mill built in 1865 and located in Washington, Missouri will meet its end starting Monday -- but there's a small silver lining. The owner of the building, most recently used a feed store, plans to salvage every part of the building that he can.

(Thanks to Callow for the link.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Historic Preservation Jobs Update

Karen Heet is now Real Estate Coordinator for the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. Karen formerly worked for Millennium Restoration and Development Corporation where her work put her at the forefront of community-driven historic preservation work. I look forward to Karen's involvement with my neighborhood. Some challenges ahead include development of city-owned land, dealing with Paul McKee's holdings in Old North, developing design standards for the neighborhood and completion of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home project.

The Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance recently created the new position of Historic Preservation Specialist for Matt Bivens, who is now working on the "Crown Square" project almost daily. The creation of this position shows that RHCDA anticipates continued and growing involvement in historic preservation projects. This is also one of the most interesting new jobs in historic preservation created in St. Louis. Matt was one of my predecessors at Landmarks Association of St. Louis and most recently was serving as Senior Architectural Historian for SCI Engineering of St. Charles. Matt is energetic, tenacious and an asset to any organization.

Meanwhile, the Cultural Resources Office will soon be considering applicants for its new permit review position.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Big, Bad Buildings

Who's afraid of the big, bad buildings? Everyone, because there are so many things about giantism that we just don't know. The gamble of triumph or tragedy at this scale -- and ultimately it is a gamble -- demands an extraordinary payoff. The Trade Center towers could be the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.

- Ada Louise Huxtable, "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Buildings?", New York Times, May 29, 1966

The End of Noah's Ark

Today I passed by the site of the Noah's Ark Restaurant in St. Charles, Missouri. The ersatz ark fell to wreckers on August 29. The restaurant had to be one of the most prominent and best-loved pieces of Googie architecture in the St. Louis region. The Biblical premise behind the off-the-interstate restaurant charmed and delighted as many as it baffled. Built in 1967 by an airline pilot with a dream, the ark once marked the outer limits of St. Louis suburbia. My one childhood trip from the east side to the ark seemed like a journey to the edge of the world that I knew as St. Louis. Nowadays, the site is east of the homes of hundreds of thousands who call themselves St. Louisans. In place of the whimsical restaurant and its attached hotel will come a pool and exercise center.

(Last year Toby Weiss posted her thoughts and photos of Noah's Ark here.)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Land Assemblage Project Yielding Development Results in Old North St. Louis

Detail of commercial building at 2712 N. 14th Street. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.

A land assemblage project has led to large-scale development in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. Construction is almost fully underway at Crown Square, better known as the "14th Street Mall" redevelopment project. The moribund 14th Street Mall had long been an impediment to redevelopment of the historic neighborhood, with a pernicious spread of abandonment out from its center at the intersection of 14th and Montgomery streets. Since the closure of 14th street in 1975, the commercial district lost viability and eventually almost every commercial and residential tenant.

The abandonment of buildings led to fires and demolition into the late 1990s. Since the "mall" began as a thriving urban commercial district, ownership was never consolidated. In the years of decay, divided ownership and some land speculation proved as big an impediment to revitalizing this area as the abandonment.

Several years ago, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group formed a partnership with the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance (RHCDA) to acquire properties around the mall for redevelopment. This move was debated within the community and initiated by the neighborhood organization, which sought the strategic partnership with RHCDA.

The assemblage strategy was to overlay the area. Basically, if a property was vacant, the partnership made an attempt to acquire it. If it was occupied, the partnership did not. The partnership expressly avoided the use of eminent domain, rumor-mongering or threats in their assemblage operation. In fact, they did most of the necessary assemblage without a redevelopment agreement that would have granted condemnation rights.

Also noteworthy is that the overlay approach was based upon full respect for the traditional lot sizes of the neighborhood. This restriction would force the partnership to do development on the intimate, urban scale of Old North St. Louis. However, the partnership intended to not only respect the scale of the neighborhood but its architecture as well. The plan of the partnership was to rehabilitate each of the nearly 30 buildings acquired, and later build on vacant land.

The goal of historic rehabilitation both honored the community's pride in its heritage and allowed for utilization of an important financing mechanism: the state historic rehabilitation tax credit. That tax credit was key to ensuring that this project was economically feasible. The uncapped historic rehabilitation tax credit has seeming infinite use in north St. Louis and other areas where large-scale renewal is needed.

In the end, the partnership acquired about ten acres within a 25-acre redevelopment area. The remaining acreage includes streets and alleys -- also key components of community renewal -- as well as property owned by rehabbers, homeowners and businesses that are now stakeholders in the Crown Square project. As soon as assemblage reached desired levels, the partnership secured a redevelopment agreement with the city of St. Louis and sought financing to make the neighborhood's dream come true. This is the project that should have been the basis for a smart distressed areas development project.

The result is a $32 million project that will create 78 residential units and 26,000 square feet of commercial space within a 16-block area. In a historic neighborhood with small blocks on a street grid, that's a large project -- and a great model for future endeavors in north St. Louis. Hopefully, the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit and the scale of development that it stipulates does not discourage people from learning lessons from Crown Village.

Follow the fast-paced construction work at Crown Square on the What's New in Old North blog.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act Signed by Governor

Yesterday Governor Matt Blunt signed into law the "economic development" omnibus passed by the Missouri legislature last week. The bill contains the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit, a measure designed to reimburse landbanking costs in impoverished areas. Specifically, the tax credits' authors intend for them to be used in north St. Louis for a project by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. The details of that project are not available to elected officials or citizens.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

One-Armed Bandit

I was taken aback by a developer's decision to rename the Chemical Building in downtown St. Louis to "Alexa", but I am completely floored by the latest move: a change of the building's address to 777 Olive Street from its legal address of 721 Olive Street. That's plain fiction.

Furthermore, an Urban St. Louis moderator changed the title of the thread on the project to reflect the supposed new address. Bah.

Detroit Ruins

Photograph by Nicole Rork for Detroit Ruins. Used with permission.

I want you to look at a website of photographs of abandoned places...

I already sense the disinterest.

Well, hear me out. I want you to look at Detroit Ruins.

I want you to see how Nicole Rork offers a tour of the ruins of Detroit, Gary and a few other cities through images that are at once prosaic and beautiful. I want you to notice that she provides short histories of the places she documents, with accurate information and links to other sources. Rork captures the vividness of faded colors, the brightness in dark rooms and the larger world in confined spaces. She's a bit of a conjurer -- taking shots with views wide enough to suggest that life in some form is lurking right outside of the frame of the still scenes she documents. Perhaps she is confronting that force somewhere while her camera takes its picture. Perhaps not. Does it matter? The subject matter itself gains a new life through her gaze.

I want you to look at Detroit Ruins.

St. Nicholas Hotel Briefly Returns

Photo by Michael R. Allen.

In the past two weeks, construction of the Old Post Office Plaza downtown unearthed some fragments of a Louis Sullivan masterpiece lost twice, the St. Nicholas Hotel. The hotel stood at the northwest corner of Eighth and Locust streets downtown between its construction in 1893 and its demolition in 1974, surviving an unfortunate remodeling in 1903. Since 1974, its site has been paved and maintained as a parking lot. Salvagers picked the building of recognizable Sullivan ornament, but apparently other parts stayed on site.

When workers broke through the asphalt, they unearthed a mess of structural steel, brick and other parts of the old hotel. The city had an unusual and unanticipated archaeological site, offering potential clues on the elusive details of the St. Nicholas. Unfortunately, the potential opportunity came and went without any real investigation. Steel was loaded out to be scrapped, and more solid debris was either removed with other fill or left in the ground. The good news is that the excavation was fairly shallow, and surely more of the building survives beneath the plaza. Should the plaza ever be less than successful, and it future land use reconsidered, we may have another chance to mine the lot for traces of the prairie master's hotel.

Photo courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

The eight-story St. Nicholas Hotel was defined by a dramatic side-gabled roof, large center arched entrance on Locust and projecting oriel bays on both street-facing elevations. Like the Wainwright and Union Trust buildings, the St. Nicholas featured a monochrome exterior palette accentuated by terra cotta featuring Sullivan’s imaginative geometric and organic motifs. The roof profile was somewhat unique among Sullivan’s designs. A supposed fire led to conversion of the building to office use in 1903, when the gabled roof and arched entrance were removed and four floors added according to plans by Eames & Young. Renamed the Victoria Building, the hotel survived in diminished form for another seventy years. (Read more about the St. Nicholas in Patty's Ramey's article Louis Sullivan and the St. Nicholas Hotel, St. Louis, MO.)

Two Accounts of Last Thursday's Public Meeting

Kathleen McLaughlin, Riverfront Times: Forum on Paul McKee's North-Side Doings Devolves into Name-Calling

Steve Patterson, Urban Review: Alderwoman Argues Against Modern Zoning, Prefers Piecemeal Approach