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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.


Anonymous said...

It is a wonderful project.

It would be fair to note what part of that $32 million comes from public funds, grnts, and other development incentives.


GMichaud said...

I agree that these old classic row houses should be saved. Part of the problem is process. For the amount of money already spent shoring up this structure, I could have pulled in the wall and made it ready for tuckpointing. (I don't want to go into technical methodology in this post)
From what I see there is going to be a double, triple or even higher cost factor due to inexperience of whoever has called for this shoring.
This type of action dooms many of these buildings where construction costs are so important.
You can look at the Mullanphy Building for another example of this lack of knowledge. The shoring of the interior wall actually weakened it, causing the second brick wall failure. An architect wrote that the wind caused it to fail, and this may be true, but it was because the structural integrity of the wall was compromised by actions undertaken by people with incomplete understanding of this type of building.
So many structures are condemned by ignorance. Supposedly professional persons can often supply this ignorance under the facade of their license.
In addition the manic political establishment methods spill over to the building industry in St. Louis. It is connections that matter, not ability. The result is haphazard building projects, such as this, that jeopardize the building and its cost structure.
Of course in the end the city does not even bother with professional opinions, they have torn down hundreds, if not thousands of sound buildings based on their own view of how the world should be.
Nevertheless, no matter how impressive the shoring may appear on this building, it is pure folly, and it represents the wrong way to approach the rehabilitation of this building.

Michael R. Allen said...

To PE: Indeed, a project like this one would be impossible without public incentives that respond to community desires.

To GMichaud: You raise good points. I think that you're right. The front wall has been bowed for years without collapse, and its reconstruction is a few weeks away. It's likely that a lender required the bracing. As for the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, you are right -- the bracing and the failure to block wind at the south wall caused the interior to become a great pressure chamber relived trough outward force.