We've Moved

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

Monday, June 30, 2008

Another Lost Corner in St. Louis Place

In March, I wrote about the tragic loss of an entire block of buildings in St. Louis Place due to brick rustling. Many of the houses on the 1900 block of Wright Street between Florissant Avenue and North 20th Street were owned by Paul J. McKee, Jr., but three were owned by others. (See "Brick Rustlers Decimate Wright Street Block," March 26, 2008.) Two buildings comprising a magnificent row had been the property of DHP Investments, the failed company led by Doug Hartmann that left over 120 historic city buildings in various states of abandonment, including the landmark Nord St. Louis Turnverein. Hartmann's buildings here were imposing three-story buildings with elegant masonry details, mansard roofs punctuated by squared dormers and even intact cast iron balconies.

Missing from my earlier coverages was mention of a row that stood across the alley on Dodier Street until this February. The two buildings at 1944-50 Dodier Street were not as exotic as their neighbors to the south, but they were every much as responsible for creating the sense of place for the neighborhood. The best part of these two buildings was their relationship: the eastern tenement building was wide and set back from the street, while its conjoined neighbor with commercial space came right up to the sidewalks on both Dodier and 20th streets. This pair beautifully demonstrated the order or urban space as it recedes from the public sphere to the semi-private. Here, the public was that which is immediate to the right-of-way, while the semi-private was removed just enough to mark the boundary between residents and passers-by. Both buildings were completely urban.

The details were also lovely. The tenement's brick dormers pack a punch not found in the small belt courses and elegant but typical stone sills. Next door, a corbelled cornice, central dormer and vivid stone keystones give a plain brick wall pizazz. The details are common for vernacular buildings of the 1880s and 1890s, when these were built. While the rarity of such buildings and their details makes them more precious, their historic commonality provides the real significance. There was a time when such finesse was a matter of course even in working class housing.

Alas, these buildings fell into the hands of the city's Land Reutilization Authority by the 1970s, and were vacant for awhile before Victor Casine (whose ownership of another building recently was profiled in the Vital Voice) purchased them in 1982. Casine promised rehabilitation, but did little other than allow further deterioration. The city's Building Division reported the buildings as vacant for every year that Casine owned them. Numerous citations led to one suit filed by the city against Casine. Casine himself sued the city in 1989 for supposedly damaging the property when the Forestry Division mowed the overgrowth Casine did not trim himself.

After three years in which Casine did not pay outstanding liens and taxes on the property, the Sheriff auctioned the houses in 2003. This time was on the cusp of McKee's purchasing, and so the buildings found no bidder. The Land Reutilization Authority took title once more, and after the rear walls collapsed was granted emergency demolition by the Building Division in January 2008. And so it goes. Those new to following land speculation and demolition in St. Louis Place should know that the tragedy is not new and has never been closer to real solutions as it is now. A long time ago, buildings bit the dust without so much as a photograph taken and owners let property decay without a call to the alderman, let alone protests at City Hall. Now, there is relatively wide attention on the future of the neighborhood. From that attention could come action.

Healthy and Active Blogging

The staff of Trailnet's Healthy and Active Communities Initiative have been blogging away for the last two years. Not reading their work? You should be. The blog provides fresh and insightful information you don't get in many urban issues blogs -- writings about the history of food prices, developments in biodiesel, the problems with the abundance of corn in our diets and so forth. Just as autocentric urban planning is very unhealthy, so is an economic system that keeps nutritious foods off of the shelves of inner city groceries. Trailnet's staff keep pointing out how these two problems are related, and how the future of every urban area depends on more than just bricks and mortar.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Trust Incorporated

In their May 8 statement on their conclusions about what should be done to improve the Arch grounds, Memorial Drive and the downtown riverfront, Walter Metcalfe, Peter Raven and Robert Archibald laid out an agenda for year-round attractions and a new museum on the grounds, a lid over I-70, increased number of visitors to the Arch grounds, an international design competition and a 2015 deadline for the goals. Some of those goals are laudable and consensus-builders, like improving access and attendance. Others, like the museum plan and the semantics of "attractions," are quite controversial.

To this end, the trio of mayoral-appointed advisers suggested establishing "a regional not-for-profit trust should be organized to raise funds for, operate
and maintain the new destination attraction."

Although the National Park Service's public comment period on the Arch grounds had not yet commenced, on June 11, Metcalfe, Archibald and Raven incorporated the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Trust. Incorporation documents (available here) state the goals of the corporation as those stated in the May 8 letter. The corporation's directors are exclusively the three advisers; the Danforth Foundation has no representation.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Story at 4477 Olive

The graceful commercial building at 4477 Olive Street in the Central West End may be getting a reprieve. In April, the Preservation Board voted to defer for two months an application for demolition from the Youth Technology Education Center (YTEC) and the owner, Community Baptist Church. (See "Same Old Story?", April 25.) At that meeting, representatives of the Central West End Association Planning and Development Committee testified against the application and agreed to meet with church pastor Willie Kent to see if a compromise was possible. The board was swayed by the spirit of negotiation, and unanimously voted to provide time for more talk.

As a bit of background, the section of Olive Street where 4477 Olive is located was excluded for the original boundaries of the Central West End Historic District due to ward boundaries. Subsequently, that end of the Central West End has been isolated -- even physically, through barriers at Newstead and other places -- from the neighborhood at large. Recent developments have led to a renewal and expansion of the historic district boundaries (which still cut across ward lines) to include the commercial district. Still, there is friction along ward lines between stakeholders in the different sections of the Central West End.

Most of that friction may come from lack of communication. With Kent, YTEC representatives and Central West End Association leaders at the table, a compromise that would preserve the building (most likely) or at least its front elevation is in the works. Things are going so well that YTEC sent the city's Cultural Resources Office a memo asking that the matter be removed from the Preservation Board's June agenda.

Due to procedural rules, however, the board had to take some action. At Monday's meeting, the board voted unanimously to defer the matter indefinitely. Let's hope the dialog between stakeholders is fruitful and that the lovely building is preserved while YTEC's expansion occurs. When the demolition application surfaced, few would have predicted the matter would have been anything but another senseless case of parties talking past each other. Then again, common ground comes from common values -- and all of these parties believe in the revitalization of Olive Street.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Greening the Heartland Documented

The 2008 Greening the Heartland conference is over. Yesterday marked the end of the three-day conference on sustainable practices in Midwestern architecture and urban design, held at America's Center in St. Louis.

Yet the conference still exists, at least online. A crack team of local bloggers documented the conference experience through videos, interviews with conference organizers, photographs of events, posts about green success stories and so forth. Thanks to their efforts, those who couldn't fly across the country or pay the registration fee can immerse themselves in the conference online. (No gasoline for travel or paper for printing required!)

Read the blog here.

Public Meetings Announced for Memorial Planning Effort

From the National Park Service:

Two open house style meetings will be held in St. Louis on June 25 and July 1 to give interested individuals and organizations an opportunity to learn about and comment on preliminary alternatives for the future management of the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). The existing management plan has been in place since 1964 and is in need of updating; therefore, a General Management Plan (GMP) to help guide National Park Service (NPS) management of the memorial for the next 15-20 years will be developed from the preliminary alternatives over the course of the next 18-24 months. The two public meetings are scheduled for Wednesday, June 25, 5-8 p.m., in the Trolley Room of the Dennis and Judith Jones Visitor and Education Center (the historic Lindell Pavilion) in Forest Park; and Tuesday, July 1, 3-6:30 p.m., in the Old Courthouse, 11 North Fourth Street.

Preliminary alternatives have been developed by the NPS planning team, taking into consideration previous studies and plans developed by the NPS, the City of St. Louis, and other private and public organizations. These preliminary alternatives have their foundation in the purpose and significance of the Memorial as stated in the executive order that established the Memorial. The five alternatives identified to date are: Alternative 1, no action (provided as a baseline against which the other alternatives are assessed); Alternative 2, Connections; Alternative 3, Expanded Programming; Alternative 4, Portals; and Alternative 5, Park into the City.

“These preliminary alternatives will be refined and modified as the planning process continues,” said Tom Bradley, Superintendent of the Memorial, "then a preferred alternative will be identified. It may be an existing alternative, it may be a combination of alternatives, or it may incorporate new ideas brought to light during the open house meetings. The preferred alternative, then, will form the basis of the GMP for the Memorial."

Requests to be added to the project mailing list should be sent by mail to Superintendent, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, 11 North 4th Street, St. Louis, Missouri 63102; by telephone to 314-655-1600; or by e-mail. A newsletter will be issued within the next 30 days which will outline in greater detail the identified potential management options for public review and comment. Notification of subsequent public meetings will be made through local, regional, and national media; newsletters and public meeting schedules will also be published online at www.nps.gov/JEFF.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

St. Louis Place Alive With Thursday Night Concerts

Headliner Kim Massie thrilled the large crowd at the Thursday kick-off of the Whitaker Foundation/Grace Hill Urban Evening Series at St. Louis Place Park in north St. Louis. Massie's blues-oriented programs deviated for a crowd-pleasing cover of Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman," showing that music can knock down any supposed cultural divide. Gene Dobbs Bradford & Blues Inquisition opened.

This is the year for the series at St. Louis Place. St. Louis Place, laid out in 1850, is one of the city's oldest and most beautiful public parks. The music energized the neighborhood, with residents of Rauschenbach and 21st streets flanking the park hanging out on front stoops to get an earful of tunes.

Concerts run each Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in St. Louis Place through July 24; full schedule here.

The joy of Thursday night came on the heels of national publicity for the neighborhood to the east, Old North St. Louis. The acclaimed conservation group the Natural Resources Defense Council's blog featured a laudatory entry by its Kaid Benfield, director of the council's Smart Growth program. Benfield's post "Of the community, by the community, and for the community: the rebirth of Old North Saint Louis" celebrates the community-driven resurgence of downtown's northern neighbor.

Meanwhile, the North City Farmers' Market featuring produce from St. Louis Place's New Roots Urban Farm, started on Saturday, June 7 and runs through October 25. Each Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon, people can purchase fresh food and enjoy cooking demonstrations at the intersection of 14th and St. Louis in Old North.

On top of all of this, the Mississippi River flooding has avoided the popular North Riverfront Trail, which remains open and accessible east of Old North.

Residents of the near north side are having a great summer -- good music, the world's coolest urban trail, a farmer's market and awesome music usher in a pleasant season.

(Photographs by Lynn Josse.)

Strange and Cool in Old North

One of the most unique buildings in Old North St. Louis is the house at the northeast corner of Florissant Avenue and Dodier Street (numbered 1917 Dodier). Florissant runs diagonally across Dodier, which conforms to the street grid laid out in the 1850 East Union Addition. Of course, the house shows us that Florissant is diagonal with its chamfered corner parallel to that street.

So many details make this house unlike any other. Obviously, the corner and its treatment -- a stepped parapet against a side-gabled roof -- is singular. There is the concealed side entrance. Then there is the pleasant fact that the dentillated cornice continues across the chamfered corner, a move that provides wide, commercial Florissant with the same decorum as quite, residential Dodier. The formal elevations of the house are faced with a firm pressed brick that was not available until the 1880s, but the windows are topped with flat limestone lintels in a much earlier fashion. This house is strange in the coolest way!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Land Use and Flooding

From "Iowa flooding could be man's fault, experts say" (Washington Post):

Between 2007 and 2008, farmers took 106,000 acres of Iowa land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep farmland uncultivated, according to Lyle Asell, a special assistant for agriculture and environment with the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That land, if left untouched, probably would have been covered with perennial grasses with deep roots that help absorb water.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Casino Claims Historic North Riverfront Warehouses

My latest Vital Voice column, "Lumiere Place Looms Over Historic Warehouses", tells the tale of three industrial buildings on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard between Biddle and Carr streets about to be wrecked by the city government because Lumiere Place claims the buildings are hurting its revenue.

That twisted logic could be twisted straight to demonstrate why the casino owners should use their own money to buy and renovate the buildings, but it won't be. Read the bad news in the article, and then come back here to look at these images of the splendid, sturdy masonry of these warehouses, one of which may be the oldest surviving cold storage building in the city. (It's always frustrating when that determination becomes a matter of trivia about a lost place, rather than part of the narrative that helps people understand their extant built environment.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

San Luis Gets Website, Spot on Most Endangered List

There's a new website called "Save the San Luis" -- referring to the threatened San Luis Apartments at Lindell and Taylor in the Central West End -- located at NoParkingLotonLindell.com.

Also, last weekend at its annual membership meeting, Landmarks Association announced that the San Luis was one of the additions to this year's Eleven Most Endangered Places list.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Two Blocks of Florissant Avenue in 1985

While demolition permit numbers show that the peak decade for material building loss in the Old North St. Louis and St. Louis Place neighborhoods was 1970-1980, a substantial slower loss has transpired since then. The cumulative result is that streetscapes recognizable as urban places twenty-five years ago now form desolate landscapes lacking architectural definition.

Two photographs of the west side of Florissant Avenue in 1985 taken by Mary M. Stiritz for Landmarks Association of St. Louis depict the absurd reality that in the near past, the eastern edge of St. Louis Place was marked by the familiar nineteenth century vernacular masonry buildings that typify other sections to this day.

Nowadays, Florissant Avenue is a confused corridor notable for its many vacant lots and the needless wide expanse of roadway that awaits MetroLink expansion. This area was once a vital part of a beautiful neighborhood. In 1985, Landmarks was preparing a survey leading to expansion of the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District; sufficient physical stock existed here to allow major expansion of a national historic district. Today, further expansion remains a fantasy at best due to continued loss.

Behold the northwest corner of Warren Street and Florissant Avenue, today a sun-scorched vacant lot:

While the architectural context is visibly diminished, the important corner site is occupied by a building that becomes a landmark heralding the site as one for human comfort and exchange. As we rebuild St. Louis Place, we should ensure we have good corners, and not drive-through lanes, curb cuts and fences where the marks of human settlement should be.

The second photograph shows the block of Florissant between North Market Street on the south and Benton Street on the north:

Here was a hybrid row of commercial and residential buildings, all brick but differing somewhat on setback, height and style. There are a few side-gabled buildings, with a mansard-roofed store second in from the corner adjacent to a flounder house with a generous side gallery porch. Dormers abound. There's even a modern Payless Shoe Store at the right of the image. This is a resolutely urban group, friendly to the pedestrian and attractive to the eye.

All of these buildings are now gone.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Locust Street Building Demolished -- But NOT For a Parking Lot

A few people have asked me about the current demolition of a building at 3126 Locust Street in the Locust Business District just east of Compton Avenue.

The building being demolished unfortunately could not be included in a recent Locust Street Automobile Row Historic District extension due to heavy alterations. While remaining sections of the building show a Spanish Revival facade of stucco and brick, the building was clad in metal paneling until very recently. The installation of the panels damaged the facade, and the owner -- Scott Pohlman, who developed the residential building next door to the east -- elected to demolish the building and build a new residential structure on the site.

In 1888, this was the site of the new First Christian Church building. The present building sections date to 1913 and 1919. A 1919 city directory shows Gill Piston Ring Company and Standard Roller Bearing as tenants. The tenant listing is not surprising; "Automobile Row" on Locus included perhaps more parts manufacturers and distributors than automobile dealers and distributors. Companies like these made St. Louis the "Second Detroit" (almost first).

While 3126 Locust may have been salvaged, and I think it could have been, at least there is a redevelopment plan leading to a beneficial trade-off. There have been too many parking lots added in recent years, especially by St. Louis University -- which makes no secret that parking, not development, is its end goal.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Bowling Museum Leaving St. Louis

KMOX is reporting that the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame is leaving St. Louis by the end of this year for a new home in Arlington, Texas. The attraction was the only part of Ballpark Village that could not be characterized as an eyesore. Its departure out of the development quagmire there is no surprise, but its move out of St. Louis is a stunning blow to a city that once took its bowling seriously. There's something sad about losing any national museum -- especially since we have so few. Meanwhile the only regulation-sized bowling lanes that remain open within the city limits are operated by churches.

City Hall Meeting Opens Dialogue Between Near North Residents and Officials

On Wednesday's near north side group Neighbors for Social Justice met at City Hall with Mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford, Building Commissioner Frank Oswald, City Counselor Nuisance Property Attorney Matt Moak and Urban Solution President Marvin Steele. (McEagle Properties hired Urban Solution to implement a maintenance program for its over 700 properties in north St. Louis.) The long-sought meeting was productive if only the start of dialogue with city officials on how to shape the McKee project.

The meeting has spurred media coverage, where details can be found (my commentary can be found in the Pub Def videos):

North side residents continue to question McKee plan (KWMU)

Developer Paul McKee Topic of City Hall Meeting (KMOX)

Is Paul McKee dropping his plans for Old North? (Pub Def)

More Accounts of Blairmont Meeting (Pub Def)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Develop With Dignity

The rancorous discussion about development on the near north side of St. Louis seems without end. Often, we residents seem stuck between a rock (current conditions, which we do need to overcome) and a hard place (Paul McKee's clandestine plans). Yet there is a better path than the status quo, which almost everyone will admit is not leading to enough development to transform our area, or a totally privatized plan, which could wipe out large parts of what we call home.

Develop With Dignity is a coalition working to achieve a balanced vision. The group of north side churches, organizations, businesses and individuals have offered a clear set of positive principles for guiding future development:

1. Engage area residents and their elected officials in formulating a redevelopment plan.

2. No use of eminent domain on owner occupied property.

3. Maintain current properties so they do not become a nuisance or a danger to the community.

4. Every consideration must be given to developing diverse communities.

These are simple and direct statements of what residents expect in future development. The principles cut through the mess of what McKee does or does not have planned with a platform for development that does not displace. we will have many heated discussions about the scope and form of new development, but we first need to set base standards for process.

At a community meeting last night, Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) stated that she endorses these principles. Many organizations have already signed on, from Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish to North Grand Neighborhood Services to St. Louis Crisis Nursery. Here is a working coalition for consensus-based decision-making. Some residents who have met privately with Paul McKee have reported that even he has been favorable to the principles, although he has not signed on. What if he did? Or what if Mayor Francis Slay signed on? What kind of dialog about development could we then start?

Please consider signing on yourself: www.developwithdignity.org

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Old North Building Owned by McKee Demolished

The house at 1412 Sullivan Avenue in Old North St. Louis fell to wreckers last month. The building was already badly deteriorated when Paul McKee's holding company Babcock Resources LLC purchased the property at a sheriff's sale in October 2007. (See "McKee Purchases Building on Stable Block in Old North", October 25, 2007.)

Complaints from some neighbors over bricks falling from the parapet wall led to Building Division action. No, not stabilization or a nuisance property suit, but "emergency" demolition, via an order issued on April 16 by Demolition Supervisor Sheila Livers.

The 1400 block of Sullivan Avenue has only seen one demolition since the start of the twentieth century. The block of Hebert Street to the north has seen none (although it has three McKee-owned buildings on it now), making it the only fully intact block in Old North. Still, this block of Sullivan came in closely behind, with a strong sense of historic character and committed residents.

Obviously, McKee cannot tear down the rest of the block. Mayor Francis Slay would be crazy to approve eminent domain use in Old North, where he has attended several house fundraisers for his campaigns. McKee's interest in this property stems from its ability to help him qualify for acreage requirements under the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit as well as to have further political leverage in Old North. The building was inconsequential to his plan -- but vital to the sense of place of those who look out of their windows and now see a pile of brick bats.

Would it have hurt McKee to have put a new roof on the building and done some brick work? Those expenses would have qualified as maintenance costs under the same tax credit that covers demolition. Promises to do better with maintenance are meaningless in the face of demolition by neglect.

For residents of Old North, amid a $35 million rehabilitation project that will reopen 14th street and rebuild 28 buildings, this is a small blow. We're on a roll. Still, that makes this loss so much more senseless.