We've Moved

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

Saturday, March 29, 2008

St. Stanislaus Kostka Poised to Demolish Historic School

An article in today's Post-Dispatch reports that St. Stanislaus Kostka parish is planning to demolish its historic school, possibly starting as early as Monday. The public is invited to tour the school tomorrow from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.

More later.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago Awaits Reconstruction

Last month while I was visiting Chicago I stopped by the Pilgrim Baptist Church at Indiana Avenue and 33rd Street in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Built in 1891 as the Kehilath Anshe Ma'ariv Synagogue, this Prairie School masterpiece was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. In January 2006, a devastating fire struck the building, leaving nothing intact save the limestone and brick walls. The photos below show steel bracing against the street-facing walls. The bracing was required by the Chicago city government to prevent collapse into the public right-of-way. Engineers have determined that collapse is unlikely since the walls remain sound.

Although the church has yet to be able to start reconstruction, they have made some progress with raising money and securing the structure. In 2006, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich pledged $1 million in state funds to the church school (since the state can't directly fund the church) to rebuild. Earlier this month, after his administration gave the money to the wrong school, the governor pledged an additional $1 million on top of the previous pledge. Last year, Pilgrim Baptist chose architects Johnson & Lee of Chicago and Quinn Evans of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to design the reconstruction of the ornate Sullivan building. How much of the intricate interior gets rebuilt is undetermined, but the exterior should be brought back fully to original appearance.

Two Important Articles on North St. Louis

Two important articles on north St. Louis went to press this week:

Once again the Riverfront Times' Kathleen McLaughlin is a football field ahead of other reporters. In "More North St. Louis Smoke Signals from Paul McKee and McEagle Properties" she not only gets quotes from a McEagle spokesman, she gets this one: "I don't think there've been any decisions made on whether there's even a project." This is pivotal information, and unfortunately the RFT buried this story on its blog rather than publish it as a front-pager. Please read it.

In the St. Louis American, Team Four principal William Albinson has a commentary clearing up a lot of the myths surrounding the "Team Four Plan." Albinson's conclusion -- that the myth is a convenient and polarizing excuse -- should resonate with a lot of readers here. Hopefully his words will also provoke readers of the American to rethink the narrative of development in north St. Louis.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Big Big Tour In a Buyers' Market, This Sunday

For real estate, we have a buyers' market at the moment. Why not go shopping?

If you are looking for real estate to buy, rehab or just admire, the free annual city housing tour known as the Big Big Tour is back this Sunday, March 30. Founded by Marti Frumhoff, the tour is actually a coordinated open house day for properties available in the city of St. Louis. People start at Central Reform Congregation between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., where they get the map of open houses and peruse the Homebuyers' Fair that includes booths and information from mortgage brokers, neighborhood organizations and real estate businesses. This year's Homebuyer's Fair will include a booth where Old North resident Barbara Manzara will have information on how to purchase real estate from the city's Land Reutilization Authority. That alone is worth a visit -- but so are the dozens of houses you can inspect and, yes, even buy on Sunday.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Brick Rustlers Decimate Wright Street Block

Five years ago, almost every residential unit on the 1900 block of Wright Street in St. Louis Place was occupied. These units were rentals in conditions ranging from good to poor. None of this housing was rehabilitated, but the buildings on the block were in solid condition with average deterioration for their age.

The buildings formed a balanced array of different vernacular styles. On the south side of the street, east of a vacant lot, was a brick-faced, mansard-roofed, three-story former single-family home. That house was vacant. East of that, a side-gabled two-story two-flat. East of there was a row of flats -- two stories with attic, side-gabled brick with striking and simple details.

Across the street was a flat-roofed two-flat probably built a little later than its neighbors. (See photgraphs of this side of the block before rustling.) This building had a Romanesque Revival arched window on the first floor and a dentillated tin cornice above terra cotta garlands. To the west was a two-story alley house reconfigured to face Wright Street, probably after the demolition of the house that stood in front of it.

West of that, another house set back -- three stories, dormer on the front of the roof, corbeled brick cornice. That house stood next to a few vacant lots. Completing the north street face was a three-story half-flounder two-flat with a front dormer. The house had brick corbels at its cornice, perhaps replacing an earlier wooden cornice. This house was very typical of late 19th century vernacular tenement buildings in the city. It shared a wall with the block's crown jewel, a three-story row of flats with mansard roofs, cast iron balconies, detailed limestone keystones and decorative brickwork.

The block's architecture was amazing, yet typical of the stock of the near north side. The conditions of the buildings were likewise typical. The block needed improvement, and the houses rehabilitation, but in many ways the block was doing a lot better than most in the neighborhood.

Then, in 2005, came an investor from St. Charles County. Not Paul McKee, but another notorious large-scale developer named Doug Hartmann. Hartmann bought the ornate row on the north side of the street, relocated the tenants and started rehabbing the building. Then his mortgage scheme caught up with him, work stopped, and the building sat open and empty.

Later that year, the other big developer came to the block. McKee's holding companies started with the flat-roofed house and evicted the tenants. The holding companies took another 18 months to acquire the rest of the block, save Hartmann's property and the vacant house. Everyone moved out. A small glimmer of hope emerged when the titles to Hartmann's properties were cleared and some of his investors acquired the row, but no work resumed. Last spring, illegal dumping started at one of the McKee houses (see my post "Silence is Golden" from May 2007). Then a plague descended on this block and all over St. Louis Place -- brick thieves.

Never before had north city seen such a geographically-concentrated amount of brick rustling. Brick rustling is the activity in which unlicensed workers demolish abandoned properties solely to steal the bricks and sell them to brick yards for quick cash. What happened on Wright Street happened on Montgomery, St. Louis, Coleman, Garrison and many other streets in St. Louis Place and Jeff VanderLou. The rustling began in early 2007 and continues to this day. The targets seem to primarily be McKee-owned property. While the buildings are easy opportunities, and many of these buildings had been occupied only recently and thus unavailable for rustling, the timing has prompted much suspicion of a concerted effort on someone's part.

Earlier this year, the thieves had made their way through most of the buildings. The flat-roofed building and the exquisite row were standing intact until this February, when rustlers hit hard and fast, taking out pivotal front corners. For some reason, the thieves didn't tackle the alley house. On a vacant block, brick rustling goes undetected. Even when someone sees it happening, chances are good that the person will dismiss the work as legitimate -- or simply not care. Those who do need to call 911 at every instance; some reported instances have indeed led to arrests of theieves.

In February, Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) responded to the situation on this block by ordering emergency demolition of all of the buildings, including the alley house. Demolition is nearly complete. Who can blame her? With no hope for the buildings, their condition posed a public safety hazard as well as a sign of neglect. No one wants to live near the spectacle of a group of rustled buildings -- it's a frightening sight, one that drives visitors and homeowners alike to prettier places. The rewards of rustling to the thieves are small and immediate, but the reward to anyone wanting to buy out more residents of St. Louis Place is large and enduring.

The irony is that under the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit, McKee can receive tax credit money for the emergency demolition work that Alderwoman Ford-Griffin ordered, should he pay his bills before applying. Demolition work is reimbursed 100% by the credits. Attractive nuisances, indeed.

Additional coverage is available at St. Louis Patina: "St. Louis Place Blockbusting" (March 8, 2008) and "I Would Have Lived There" (March 6, 2008).

Kinloch Telephone Company Delmar Exchange

People driving down Delmar Boulevard may not known the history of the building pictured above, which is located at 4400 Delmar (southwest corner of Newstead & Delmar). With its hipped roof, almost Gothic window profiles and prominent entrance, the building may look like a church or social hall of some kind. In fact, currently the building is home to the New Tower Grove Baptist Church. Yet underneath the layer of white paint and the exotic style lies an intriguing but somewhat mundane building.

This building is the Delmar Exchange of the old Kinloch Telephone Company. At the turn of the twentieth century, St. Louis had two major telephone companies: Kinloch and Missouri Bell, which eventually secured a statewide monopoly. Kinloch served the entire city and St. Louis County; the company built four "exchanges" in the city where calls were repeated and switched to local lines. Kinloch survives as the name of a north county municipality near the airport, but little else. Kinloch's last company headquarters stands downtown at the northwest corner of 10th and Locust streets, with its brick and terra cotta covered in a 1950s concrete skin. That building became the Farm and Home Building in the 1950s.

The architect of the repeater and switching building is Isaac Taylor, who also designed the first downtown headquarters on Seventh Street, served as chief architect of the 1904 World's Fair and design numerous important downtown buildings. The building permit for the Delmar building dates to April 14, 1902, with the cost listed as $30,000 and Edward Steininger as contractor. A second major permit issued July 16, 1923 reports $20,000 in repairs with Southwestern Bell as the applicant and Steininger as contractor. The station had been subsumed when Bell purchased Kinloch Telephone Company earlier that year.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cochran Gardens Demolition Nearing Completion

Demolition work at the Cochran Gardens housing complex north of downtown is nearing completion. After demolition of three low-rise buildings, wreckers are working to finish demolition of one of the two tall buildings at the former public housing complex.

Completed in 1953 and designed by architect George Hellmuth, Cochran Gardens was the first project built by the St. Louis Housing Authority that made use of "high-rise" buildings. However, the complex balanced two 12-story buildings with four wide six-story buildings. Nevertheless, Cochran Gardens set the stage for the Pruitt-Igoe, Darst-Webbe, Vaughn and Blumeyer housing complexes that were composed exclusively of tall buildings. In time, all of these projects have been cleared and redeveloped, most using the federal HOPE VI program.

Cochran Gardens will retain its second tower, transformed in the 1980s into elderly housing. That tower will remain as the first and last tall public housing building in St. Louis.

Monday, March 24, 2008

SLU Demolished Wagner House Last Week

As of last Friday, the two-story Italianate house at 3438 Dr. Samuel Shepard Drive in Midtown, known as the Wagner House, was gone.

Here's the time line of the demolition:

February 29: St. Louis University closes on the sale of the house.

February 29: St. Louis University applies for demolition permit.

March 4: Building Division approved demolition permit. Since the house stands outside of the Midtown National Historic District and within the Nineteenth Ward, which has no preservation review, the city's Cultural Resources Office did not get to review the permit.

March 12: Workers begin removing interior fixtures and millwork.

March 17: Demolition of the house begins.

March 21: Demolition complete.

Read more at Vanishing STL: SLU Strikes Again! Destroying the Wagner House at 3438 Samuel Shepard.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Just Couldn't Make It

Until last month, this modest storefront building stood at the southeast corner of Delmar and Leffingwell avenues. According to city buildng permits, the building dates to 1881 and was originally four stories tall. Looking carefully at the building, I detected evidence of infill of the third floor sills and window openings just below the parapet wall, which lacks a creasing course. The shortened height and partly-filled windows are obvious, marring the buidling's appearance. Still, handsome details like the iron storefront and arched side windows remained evident.

Once part of a robust, dense urban neighborhood just north of Mill Creek Valley, the building and an alley house behind it fell into the hands of the city's Land Reutilization Authority. All of its neighbors were gone. Across Leffingwell stands a large housing project, while adjacent to the east is a lot owned by N & G Ventures LC, a holding company controlled by Paul McKee. South of here is the hulking campus of Wachovia Securities, formerly A.G. Edwards & Sons. Any semblance of the historic walking neighborhood in which this building played a commercial role was long gone. The city itself lost the mometum needed to keep even diminished buildings in use.

Befitting, the building's east wall partly collapsed in December. On February 6, the Building Division approved a demolition permit and wrecking commenced. The neighborhood could have used a corner anchor, even as one small representation of its old form. Yet the building just couldn't make it. Besides, would the time have ever come again for this lopped-off old buidling?

Next Step: Parking Lot?

I vowed to not describe the building replacing the Doctors Building at Euclid and West Pine, but here I go. Given the impending possibility that the San Luis Apartments building will be demolished, the demise of the Doctors Building is telling. The mid-century modern design of the Doctors Building was poorly appreciated, and news of its replacement through construction of two 30-story towers was welcome news to many people.

Yet the towers will never be built. The Mills Group couldn't make the financing work for its grand plan. Demolition proceeded, and the substitute plan emerged. What we have here is a building completely out of its league. Unable to compete with the fine architecture of the Central West End, this building's design resigns itself to mediocrity. Rather than try to be fresh, the architects employed the same design tricks keeping the St. Charles County metroplex building on up. There's the base of stone veneer (that is stone, right?), the dark brick above, the mangled quotations from other styles.

There are pointless differentiations of the wall plane through setback, despite the fact that both Euclid and West Pine are fairly straight at this intersection and both have decent pedestrian traffic. In fact, the rendering suggests that the building's west wall actually steps away from the street. While dramatic in the exaggerated corner perspective drawing, such a move is hardly appropriate to the street wall of Euclid.

At the top, the building's wall goes white in some attempt to imitate stone. Oddly, there is no cornice. Rather, the walls recess to create private balconies. The pedestrian's eye, however, may be diverted to the prominent corner clock tower, rising a full story above the roof. Instead of selecting an elegant human-scaled clock integrated with the building, the architects have stuck this over sized timepiece on top. Perhaps the goal is to smother the building's flaws in the manner restaurants heap grated cheese atop bowls of wilted iceberg lettuce. Trouble is, people will be looking at this building from the ground level -- not from a spot inside of an invisible Forest Park Hotel. People will spend more time looking at whatever stone will clad the base than at the clock.

I know that I should count my blessings -- the Doctors Building's obscene parking lot will be subsumed by an actual building and there won't be a giant vacant lot for years. I suppose that under some circumstances I could lull myself into thinking these blessings outweigh all other concerns. After all, that line of acceptance is doing well for St. Charles County.

Yet I can't fool myself. The building replacing the Doctors Building is downright inappropriate for any historic neighborhood in the city. This building is an affront to the dignified architecture of the Central West End, and its construction shows a carelessness that could erode decades of hard-achieved acceptance of high standards there. Such a climate benefits the Archdiocese's short-term plan to level the San Luis without any planned construction. Do we want to find out what the step is from bad building at Euclid and West Pine to a new parking lot on Lindell?

The worst step following this blunder would be loss of another large building for an even lower use -- a parking lot. The Central West End never attracted a lot of mid-century architecture, but what it got fits into the context with grace -- unlike some of our contemporary structures. What happened at the Doctors Building should not be the start of backtracking on design standards in the Central West End, but a rallying point for their assertion.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Landmarks Statement on San Luis Apartments

The Board of Directors of Landmarks Association has issued a statement supporting rehabilitation of the former DeVille Motor Hotel (San Luis Apartments). Read it here.

To Do or Not to Do It Yourself

My latest Vital Voice column is in today's edition: Rehabbing -- To Do or Not to Do It Yourself

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Obscure Postcards

Obscure Postcards presents local photographers Brett Beckemeyer and Alan Palmer with photographs from around the world. Themes focusing on urban formation, urban decay, and the built environment unite a variety of photographic vantage points ranging from the photojournalistic to the abstract. Bangkok, Chicago, Montreal, Tokyo, and Quebec are among the cities represented in the respective works.

Opening reception will be held Friday, March 14th from 7-10 p.m. at the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts @ 3151 Cherokee Street.

Rehabbers' Club Offers Peeks Inside the Dorsa and Laurel Projects

The Rehabbers' Club meets Saturday morning for a free tour of two of Pyramid's latest downtown projects.

When: Saturday, March 15 from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Where: Meet at Breve Espresso, 417 North 10th Street
Who: Everyone
Contact: Claralyn Bollinger 314-604-1570

The tour will assemble at Breve Espresso and then at 9:30 a.m. will depart to the first stop, the Dorsa Lofts, located at 1007-1015 Washington Avenue. Paul Hohmann, project architect, will lead the tour. Paul will show the entrance, parts of the original Dorsa Dress Company and Fashion Salon, as well as a loft/condo display (one of 52) and an under-construction penthouse unit (one of 8).

From there, the tour moves east to 625 Washington Avenue to visit The Laurel, presently being developed in the old Stix, Baer & Fuller department store. Here Paul will give people a behind-the-scenes look at this huge mixed-use development that will encompass 72 condos, a mid-size hotel, apartments and first-floor retail.

Congressional Field Hearing Examines North St. Louis

I covered Saturday's congressional field hearing for the St. Louis American.

The story is in today's edition: Congressional hearing spotlights moving from‘Team Four’ to North Side development

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fourth Baptist Church Secured

In the midst of discussion on this blog about a partly un-boarded broken window on the vacant Fourth Baptist Church at 13th and Sullivan in Old North St. Louis, a new board went up (at right in the photo above). This simple act will prevent vandalism and trespass on the building, ensuring its survival as it awaits reuse.

Meeting on McKee, North Side Development Tomorrow Night

Someone left this announcement in the comments section:

neigborhood meeting
Sts Teresa & Bridget Church
3636 N Grand
March 12 2008
Discuss what is happening on the northside and what you/we/I can do about it. This is a call out to all near north side residents. Let your voice be heard. The future is now. All are welcome. See you there. Topics include but are not limited to

Paul McKee
Team Four
Future Development of the North Side

Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin will be in attendance with information of future devlopment.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Kaskaskia Remains

The villages of Dozaville (once Goshen) and Kaskaskia, Illinois remain as vestiges of settlement on Kaskasia Island. Dozaville is a complete ghost town, at least officially -- it has been legally dissolved for decades. Kaskaskia remains incorporated, although with less than a dozen residents in four households within its boundaries has no real need for civil government. Kaskaskia is one of those places that has achieved zero population growth according to the US Census -- a bizarre stasis for a town once of great importance.

Although part of Randolph County in Illinois, the island is west of the Mississippi and accessible only via a bridge from St., Mary's, Missouri. A shallow channel barely recognizable as a river separates St. Mary's from the island, suggesting that the land nearly is part of Missouri. On maps, the land seems fully engulfed by Missouri. Most maps don't even note the channel with water, but merely include a political boundary line. Kaskaskia seems an improbable location for Illinois's first state capital. Now remote, plagued by low land that constantly floods, and insular, Kaskaskia was once a vital part of early French settlement of the Mississippi River valley. The island was once an attached Illinois peninsula.

In 1673, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette claimed the Mississippi River valley in this area. In 1675, Marquette visited the site of Kaskaskia and established the mission of the Immaculate Conception. The mission became a church, and the settlement around the mission grew into a village with fur trading and farming as prevalent economic activities. In 1703, Kaskaskia was founded as the second village of European settlers in Illinois. By 1752, the population stood at a relatively robust number of 671 residents.

At the advent of the French and Indian War in 1756, French townspeople built Fort Kaskaskia on a hill east of the town, now across the Mississippi River. Residents destroyed the fort to prevent it from falling into British control when the British won. Many residents fled to Ste. Genevieve after the war. Later, the British built Fort Gage in Kaskaskia but lost the fort to Revolutionary General George Rogers Clark in 1778.

Kaskaskia became Illinois territorial capital in 1804. In 1818, the newly-created State of Illinois chose to retain Kaskaskia for the first state capital, although for only two years. The Emigrant's Guide of 1818 states that there were 150 houses standing in the village. Growth would not arrive, however, as the village quickly lost the capital to more centrally-located Vandalia. One notable event happened after the loss of the capital: the establishment of the convent and school for the female school Visitation Academy in 1833.

However, the biggest blows to the village's fortune came with terrible floods in 1844 and 1881. Located at a narrow spot between the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers, the site was vulnerable to the Mississippi's eastward shift. Eventually, that river pushed over the narrow neck of the peninsula to create the present island. The first flood caused great population loss, and the second flood created the river channel that made the land around Kaskaskia into an island. During the period between the floods, Visitation Academy relocated to the city of St. Louis in 1844. After an 1893 flood, the town relocated to its present location.

In 1993, flood waters again submerged the island and caused residents to flee. Nowadays, the population of Kaskaskia is about 9 and the population of the island is about 93 people. Kaskaskia still retains its street grid, which carves out blocks punctuated by the few remaining buildings.

One of those remaining buildings is the Church of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1882 and moved to its current site in 1894 after the devastating 1893 flood. A church founded by Marquette now meets only on Saturday afternoons -- strangely diminished in human size but awesome in the length of its existence. The brick building has managed to survive several floods with its Gothic Revival architecture intact.

A long-time parishioner is profiled in the article found here.

A newer building is the home of the church's historic bell, gifted by the King of France in 1741 and known as the "Liberty Bell of the West" since the townspeople rang it on July 4, 1778 to celebrate liberation from British rule.

The old school house is interesting, although badly damaged by flooding and alterations to its fenestration. Boarded up, the brick building is missing much of its interior structure although it has gained a new roof since the 1993 flood. Reuse seems unlikely, although someone is performing enough continued maintenance to ensure survival of the old building.

A few frame and brick homes comprise the rest of Kaskaskia. The wide sight lines of the island ensure views of the church spire and school house framed by expanses of fields. Settlement has come full circle for Kaskaskia, but somehow it endures.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Prohibition Revue Next Sunday at the DeMenil House

Ever wanted to see Craig Schmid perform in a play about prohibition of alcohol?

Next Sunday, you'll get your chance when the Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation presents a radio-style reading of The Prohibition Revue written by sisters NiNi Harris and Sheila Harris. Alderman Schmid, Bill Hart, Lois Waninger, Bob Officer, myself and others will be reading the parts of the people who shaped the prohibition epsiode, from early temperance days to ultimate repeal. The story combines the words of citizens, businessmen and officials with the lyrics of both "dry" and "wet" songs. Expect singing!

When: Sunday, March 16 at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Chatillon-DeMenil House, 3352 DeMenil Place

The play reading is free and open to the public. For more information, call 314-771-5828.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Time is Right for Making Changes to New Mississippi River Bridge

On February 28, outgoing Missouri Governor Matt Blunt announced that Illinois and Missouri had reached a final agreement for construction of the new Mississippi River Bridge. While actual construction remains a few years away, the agreement brings back to the forefront concerns about the bridge's impact on the urban fabric of north St. Louis.

While officials long ago shelved a highly destructive initial bridge concept that included a local traffic connector from the bridge to 14th street, the current plan leaves much to be desired. There are many problems

Clearance. The bridge plan still entails clearance of historic buildings and existing business. While the path of the bridge itself is actually one of the least invasive paths possible, the affiliated roadway projects will entail demolition of dozens of buildings. Particularly troubling is the plan to wipe out all of the buildings remaining on the east side of 10th Street north of Hempstead Street. There are many occupied buildings and houses in that stretch. Most important, the part of Old North St. Louis east of I-70 is integral to connecting Old North to the emerging North Broadway corridor.

Bridge planners are more concerned with traffic efficiency than creating infrastructure that respects settlement patterns. While I-70 has some maddening issues related to placing exit ramps in odd spots due to existing buildings, those issues are small concessions to reality. Reality is that cities are what bind people together, and highways are but a means to that bind. Reconfiguring the St. Louis Avenue interchange is economically profligate; the plan entails spending millions on a road project with no economic return. Reconnecting Old North and North Broadway will cost less and maintain an existing building stock with the potential for high real estate values.

A corollary is that the presence of highway noise and pollution lowers real estate values. Why on earth political leaders would want to champion anything that lowers real estate values amid a recession is beyond my comprehension.

Connectivity. The plan still entails closure of north-south streets like 10th Street. Northside residents use these streets to get downtown. Closing the connections will stall pedestrians and add time to drivers' commutes. Closing the connections could isolate Old North from downtown. There is natural synergy between Old North and downtown, but there are physical impediments caused by a belt of vacant land, industrial uses and monolithic public housing complexes. The bridge exploits that belt, and tightens it.

Short-Sightedness. The new bridge does not address the terrible congestion caused by the poor configuration of ramps on the Poplar Street Bridge. Would the bridge even be needed if the Poplar Street's problems were fixed? No.

The bridge plan does not include any allowance for public transit. There is no space on the bridge for a street car line. That's going to seem silly in 25 years when our automobile lifestyle will be in crisis. Oh, well -- at least we can still walk across the bridge then.

Avoidance. The bridge path funnels I-70 traffic out of East St. Louis and away from downtown St. Louis. This path is a boon to people wanting to live in far-off Illinois suburbs like Highland but work in St. Louis or St. Charles counties. Sure, long-distance traffic will be well-served by a new bridge, but so will exurb-to-exurb commuters.

The bridge itself seems every bit a done deal. But are the details cast in concrete? No. There is still space to mitigate the bridge's impact on the urban fabric of the near north side. Since almost every change for the better involves reducing the project cost, changes are not only logical but prudent. In the wake of the agreement, it's time to make the best of the bridge.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Concrete Block Flatiron in Peoria Gone

When I went to Peoria over the weekend, this building was gone. (This photograph dates to June 2005.) The commercial building stood on Martin Luther King Boulevard just east of Western Avenue, on the south side of the street. Several characteristics were remarkable:

- The building was built entirely of concrete block made to look like rusticated limestone.

- The building formed a flatiron shape even though it did not sit on a flatiron lot. The shape was necessitated instead by topography. Behind the building, the land dropped off so severely that the flatiron was about all that could be built on this site. as the raised sidewalk suggests, things aren't so great on the other side.

I liked this building because it defied the odds. This site is not "buildable" by contemporary standards; it may not have been even back in the early twentieth century when the building was built. Yet someone wanted to develop this lot, probably spurred on by Peoria's density. When a city has a strong downtown, people build anywhere they can get in and around that downtown. Even odd lots get built out. Contrast that with today's American urban environments, where many developers won't even build on lots 25 feet wide by 120 feet deep. Once, land was scarce and building space abundant -- now the formula is inverted. It seems that along with abdundant building space went abundant civic pride. People who don't value land and make the most of its scarcity don't build -- or steward -- great cities.

No doubt the little concrete flatiron fell prey to our perverse size mentality. People probably considered it too small for commercial use, and lacking the "yard" needed for residential. The building went empty and then it was demolished. I'll bet that the lot remains vacant forever.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Under the Layers

While driving on Ridge Avenue in Chicago over the weekend, I spotted this building. Look at it! We have a Spanish Revival gem hiding out under wooden siding and a coating of gray paint. I like how the owners painted the braided terra cotta finials white to make them stand out. Apparently, the building is in use by an automobile repair shop. Perhaps some day the owner will take off the siding and strip the paint to reveal the full glory of the building. For now, though, the building's soul still manages to whisper through the layers.