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Sunday, July 27, 2008

God and Man in St. Louis Place

This striking urban view in St. Louis Place includes four one-story, shaped-parapet houses on Sullivan Avenue and the imposing Gothic roof line of St. Augustine's Church. This is the sort of view that doesn't happen overnight, and benefits from inherent architectural differences between forms, styles, heights and uses. The church, designed by noted ecclesiastical architect Louis Wessbecher, came first in 1896. Wessbecher also designed the majestic Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Salisbury Avenue in Hyde Park. The church served a largely working-class German parish, and its style is very influenced by North German Gothic architecture. Clearly, the church expresses the highest aspirations of the neighborhood at the turn of the last century. That aspiration has been recognized through both City Landmark and National Register of Historic Places designations.

The houses -- part of a longer row between Parnell and Lismore -- arrived in the first decade of the twentieth century. In contrast to the church, the houses were designed with great modesty by local builders. The one-story homes are mainly decorated with the shapes of the front parapets and simple tin cornices (some removed). Yet the buildings were sturdy and practical for their residents, offering a single-family home rather than a space in a tenement. The houses are not part of any historic district, locally or nationally. In this view, three of the four houses shown are owned by holding companies controlled by Paul J. McKee, Jr.

Here we have high style and vernacular, a spire reaching upward to the maker and the houses laid out low to the earth of the workaday world. While the contrast is strong, the image tells a very coherent story about the origin of this part of the neighborhood. The tale told about the future is less clear. The long-suppressed parish church has found new use as the home of a mission, but its repair needs seem extensive. The houses sit largely empty and in limbo as part of a development project with no clear parameters or timeline.

The narrative of our past that is embodied in these buildings built itself over time. All it takes is a moment for us to decide that their preservation is a worthy goal.


Anonymous said...

I love the contrast between the church and the homes!

Anonymous said...

I love the contrast between Paul McKee and historic preservation!

Chris said...

St. Augustine's is my favorite church on the north side; you captured its relation to the neighborhood perfectly.

Thomas Crone said...

Nice one, MRA.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Michael's picture creates a bit of an illusion. Most of the land surrounding St. Augustine is vacant. It's an eerie setting.

It would take a time machine, but it sure would be cool to know what the area was like when it was full of Catholics, holding parish picnics, with a Catholic school, and little kids walking home from school together.

That must have been about sixty years ago.

Doug Duckworth said...

Try to climb the towers are your own peril. And say high to Jesus in the basement.

Chris said...

Likewise, remember this church is currently occupied; if you enter this church without permission it is a felony.

Doug Duckworth said...


Michael R. Allen said...

Anonymous, I did not mean to pretend that the other sides of St. Augustine's are flanked by dense concentrations of these houses. Just this one, sadly.

Chris said...


Not trying to sound condescending, but I know of people who have tried to get inside St. Augustine. It's one thing if the building has been abandoned for decades with no effort on the part of the owner to rehab or secure properly.

Doug Duckworth said...

I was speaking of Bethlehem. It's known that The Jesus in the basement is a site to behold. Especially when it's pitch black and your flashlight suddenly discovers that heavenly sight.

Breaking into occupied buildings isn't my forte. Call Haldeman or Ehrlichman.

I do wonder if McKee would save these plebeian, vernacular styles or replace them with his High Style Victorian-esque McMansions or perhaps the urban-inspired vinyl villas of Winghaven?

These are important questions because personally I'd rather see these unique, local adaptations of architecture replaced by those aforementioned "styles" which exist in virtually every suburb in North America! Progress as the invisible hand of the market dictates.

Chris said...

Ah, Bethlehem, that is a travesty that such a great church can sit empty like that.

Doug Duckworth said...

Especially since the Missouri Synod has the resources for rehabilitation. Moreover, their Headquarters are in Kirkwood. There's no way they don't know about Bethlehem.

Anonymous said...

Why would the Missouri Synod invest millions of dollars into a vacant, dying church?

Please explain how that makes sense when they have mission programs around the world aimed at helping starving people and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ? These are church people, not historic preservationists!

Besides, everyone knows the Lutherans have largely written off the city, while Roman Catholics and various black churches, such as the COGIC and Missionary Baptists, are the ones serving most city neighborhoods today.

Know your audience, people!

Doug Duckworth said...

Bethlehem Lutheran dies partly due to their divestment!

I believe that Jesus took time out for lepers, prostitutes, and other people of ill repute. Not to categorize the denizens of Hyde Park in the same boat, but I think what we can get from his teachings is that he's not in the game to make a profit. The purpose of the church is to spread the Gospel to all peoples especially those who are downtrodden. Bring hope to the hopeless?

He didn't bust up the temple to make friends. Surely the Sadducees and Pharisees had a few things to say about his controversial decisions. As a matter of fact they killed him for such offenses. Following the tradition of social justice, the church should not abandon those who have been ignored by government and private enterprise. Who else can they rely upon if not the church to uplift their spirits and be the rock where they may lay their faith for a better future of opportunity?

In the same manner the church should be the avant-garde setting the policy which all other institutions should follow. Given the general trend towards secularism, they should make inroads to areas which have been forgotten. When the church ignores areas which have been traditional bedrocks, simply due to skin color, perhaps they are obsolete or at the least not acting within their own self-interest?

The best PR campaign for the LCMS involves the headline "Bethlehem Church Rehabbed, Open for Service. All are Welcome."

Yet I grew up under the oppression of the LCMS and I'll tell you that they'd rather hang a noose, which occurred at my high school in St. Charles and no punishment was rendered, than invest in North St. Louis. It's unfortunate but seeing that Jesus rots in the basement, and not as an icon upon the altar, you see where their priorities lay!

The LCMS, like our government, caters to the suburbanite with more to give to their coffers.

Obviously the Church wants to reach new markets, but should they forget their longtime members and institutions which have been forgotten?

Chris said...
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Chris said...

I agree wholeheartedly with everything Doug said above.

I don't give a crap whether or not the Lutherans are more or less invested in the city than Catholics; quite frankly, I have no idea how you could possibly empirically test such a theory. The last time I checked the “involved” Catholic Church was closing parishes left and right in the city. I do know that Bethlehem Lutheran could sell the church if they had no plans for it. There are plenty of ingenious people in the city of St. Louis who could do something with that church, but because they won't put it on the market, it rots.

Anonymous said...

Bethlehem Lutheran Church still operates on Salisbury. However, they can no longer afford to operate or maintain the big church, so they now meet in the adjacent school.

The church is the people more than the building. A church building without a congregation really isn't even a church. The church is the body of Christ, comprised of the faithful gathered together. (..where two or more are gathered in his name...)

Badmouthing the church over the decline of the neighborhood is really not fair.

Better to blame the those Lutherans who moved away when black people started moving into the neighborhood.

Chris said...

Exactly, the church is more than the building; that's why they should sell it if they can't afford it.

Anonymous said...

If I had a dollar for every vacant church building too costly to maintain for its current owners, yet not for sale, I'd be a rich man.

Selling may see rationale to you and me, but these are people of faith. They're not necessarily rational.