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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Vivienne on Lafayette Advances Infill Housing Design

The 2800 block of Lafayette Avenue, between California and Nebraska in the so-called Gate District, is a mixed bag of a street scape. Gone is the continuity of historic brick buildings. There are vacant buildings, heavily altered buildings (see last month's post on 2831 Lafayette) and the graceful corner commercial building at the northeast corner of Nebraska and Lafayette that bears the colorful enamel sign board of the shuttered Garavaglia Market. Most notable, though, there are vacant lots.

This is the diminished state that has led developers to take other blocks in the Gate District and transform them into unrecognizable mixes of old buildings and large platform-framed homes that seem more appropriate to Wildwood than the near south side. Without any historic districts in the Gate District, there is neither incentive for historic rehabilitation work nor mandates for new construction. The area reflects its lack of any legal design framework. Fortunately, on the 2800 block of Lafayette, developer Cheryl Walker of Obasi Enterprises is taking vacant land and doing something that provides new market-rate homes while adding a new and compatible character to the neighborhood.

The project is called Vivienne on Lafayette, and it entails the construction of four adjacent homes. The two that are complete are show here. HKW Architects designed the homes; that firm has done extensive design work for Restoration St. Louis including the rehabilitation of the Moolah Theater building.

One is immediately struck by how different Vivienne is from its contemporaries. The houses actually look like original designs! There is absolutely no quotation of historic architectural styles here. Nor is there imitation of historic styles of cornices, brackets, balustrades, window sills or other building parts. The designers instead very earnestly engaged the project location and standard available materials to produce homes that are urban and attractive.

The front walls of these homes are brick, with some rowlock courses as sills and headers on each metal-framed window. The basements are high, which is one nod to historic tradition that make the homes taller than other new infill houses. The side walls are clad in stucco, indicative of the fact that these are not authentic masonry buildings. The builders could have used some sort of vinyl or board siding, but chose something more compatible with brick. The roofs are flat -- something that minimizes the home volume and allows for potential greening.

The homes are not quite perfect in design; I think that a monotone brick color would have made each better, and that the stucco color is a bit bland. Some more play with masonry details could have added interest. The homes could be placed closer together. Still, such concerns are minor. The homes at Vivienne Place offer sorely-needed innovation in infill housing in St. Louis, where too often we have settled on worse than mediocre design that offers an unpleasant contrast with our excellent historic building stock.

In neighborhoods with challenging conditions, where historic fabric is spotty, homes like these make a lot of sense. They maintain the traditions of density and best use of widely available materials that typifies our neighborhoods without denying us the chance to leave our own mark in time.


Anonymous said...

Developers taking chances with historic replica-styled new construction were among the first to jump start the city's housing rebuild. Pyramid for example.

Meanwhile, here in the Gate District, had SLACO and Vatterott not led the way through the late 80s to the present, you wouldn't have a post on this topic today.

Yes, these are nice looking houses.

Anonymous said...

i don't know, this strikes me as another example of how subjective the subject of infill housing is. Yes, there are large differences between the front-loading SLACO houses and the better historic replica housing seen elsewhere. However, I see the example highlighted here as different but not necessarily better to my eyes. The ultimate historic replica plan for this area fell by the wayside with the death of Pantheon Dev in the 1980's; the much heralded new urbanist plan for this area was a victim of that failure. In that light, SLACO and Vatterott's initial developments in this area, while not in character with the building stock, could be seen much more charitably than you present them. The more recent developments along the southern/western portion of the area represent a substantial break from both the SLACO pattern or the urban infill presented in earlier plans with a much more a detached single-family feel.

In my mind, what stands out about the Gate is how a group of individual developers can all do their own thing. The fact that the neighborhood is visually jarring is in fact one of its pleasures--it is fragmented like the true city that we have. I have no idea whether the area works as a neighborhood, or whether these divisions are reflected in how people congregate, socialize or organize.

Anonymous said...

In reality, the Gate District does have a number of active neighborhood groups. It's probably more active, on average, than the average city neighborhood. :-)

Anonymous said...

Oh jeez, here comes the Gate District Fanatic raving about how wonderful the neighborhood is.

Anonymous said...

sorry, I knew a scion of Strauss and Pantheon - the reason why they stopped the large-scale renos was Reagan's tax codes. more profit then in property management. they woulda kept it up 'cept no more tax credits.

but that was the late 80's.

anyway, it's really not about the materials, but how the building addresses the street.

Anonymous said...

Love these. We need more infill like these filling in the gaps throughout the city.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 9:58 PM needs some longer range perspective to appreciate the status of the Gate District prior to the return of investment, residents, and neighborhood organizations to the area.

Arm-chair quarterbacking after the fact is a lightweight exercise. Stakeholders, working together, for decades, returned the area to the point where nice projects like Vivienne are feasible.

Anonymous said...

the addendum to the pantheon story is correct--the loss of the credits did in Pantheon and a host of other communities developers. I forget what moniker Pantheon used in the project--Lafayette something. The process of ending Pantheon's exclusive development contract on the area took years and dragged through the board of aldermen for a couple cycles.

I guess ultimately I don't understand what difference the basically urban building styles make--even the larger detached homes--aside from the aesthetics of the viewer.

Michael R. Allen said...

The aesthetics of this viewer form the basis of my blog post. I'm not discounting the Gate District accomplishments of SLACO and Vatterott, which were decent for the time. Some of the older infill in the Gate District consists of attached rows of houses that are fairly dense and attractive. The attempt to mix housing styles is indeed a hallmark of truly urban development, but the developers seemed to miss the part about mixing uses. As one commenter says, the newer detached homes are a departure from the old visions for the area. Still, I think that Vivienne builds on the previous infill by offering housing that is more respectful of the neighborhood's traditional form and less mimetic of old building styles that are never going to return.