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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

North 13th Street and the Future

Look at the west face of the 2900 block of North 13th Street in Old North in April 2005. While only one building was occupied, we had a solid, uninterrupted row of historic buildings running from Sullivan Avenue north to Hebert Street. I took this photograph while house hunting, and looked at it frequently to confirm that my decision to purchase a house on Sullivan across the street from Fourth Baptist Church (right at the corner) was a good one. Some would have run away from the prospect of living in close proximity to an unhealthy row, no matter how beautiful its individual buildings were. I was intrigued by the possibility of glorious renewal.

That possibility has closed in the three years since I took the photograph. The building show in the first photograph at right is unchanged, but the west side of the street barely resembles even its scarred former self. Fourth Baptist Church burned on September 20, 2008, and shows severe damage. The four-flat north of the church and its annex was occupied in April 2005 but now is vacant and boarded. Someone stole its cast iron fence a few weeks ago. Beyond that house is the row of city-owned buildings that were hit by partial roof collapse in February 2008 and devastating fire in July 2008. I think that the south side of the row is savable, but the north end is past the point where its salvage is likely. (I do think that its ruined brick walls could become part of new construction.) Past the row, the old Dummitt's Confectionery building disappeared right after I took this photograph.

The worst case scenario for the west face of this block is loss of all but the four-flat next door to the church. What a strange landscape that would be, but one joining the legions of such obscene wounds throughout Old North, St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou, The Ville and other north side neighborhoods. No block of mostly-vacant buildings is immune. Possibility is latent in all of the city's historic architecture, but its realization is not. Realization takes an effort unlike any ever seen in St. Louis before.

Old North is blessed to have residents committed to healing the wounds and a community development corporation that has already healed a few. Many north side residents strive to emulate that energy in their neighborhoods. But the 2900 block of North 13th Street shows us the limits of even the most boundless energy when that energy does not have access to massive capital.

My whole sense of place is changing as the built world across the street from my front door disappears. I still see possibility, but I also sense limits more strongly. Everyone in Old North has lost some part of what defines their place in the world, and some long-time residents barely know what Old North is these days. Yes, neighborhoods are collections of people, but without buildings people have nowhere to live, work, worship or shop. And they leave -- along with their money.

Things seem relatively better now only because we lost so much of our near north neighborhoods in the past fifty years. Losing more is unacceptable, and we need to step up our efforts to safeguard what is left -- and build back the places for human life that we have lost. Look at what happened to one block, and think about how that process has repeated itself on blocks across the north side for over a half-century. We have lost buildings, people, blocks and entire neighborhoods. In the process, we have let half of the city become the biggest development challenge in the region, and made its resource-deprived residents nearly second-class St. Louisans. Our cultural attitudes and political system enshrine the deprivation of north St. Louis.

When do we make it stop?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mae Building Survived Tornado, LRA Ownership -- How About a Car Crash?

Somehow, some way, the poor old Mae Building still stands at 4468 Delmar Boulevard on the north edge of the Central West End. Last May, a speeding car crashed into the northwest corner of the building, knocking a section of the corner wall at the first story away and forcing building tenant the Williams Ornamental Iron Works to relocate. After the accident, the Building Division condemned the Mae Building for demolition on May 21, 2007, but neither the division nor the building owner has acted to demolish or repair the building. Scarcely a brick has moved in that time, too, which testifies to the solid construction. Still, in the present condition, the fate of the building seems certain.

The Mae Building is part of a row of two-story commercial buildings that once gave this side of this block of Delmar great definition. Gradually, much of Delmar between Union on the west and Vandeventer on the east has slipped away. Buildings like these two-story commercial storefronts are rare nowadays, although many sites are now occupied by infill residential construction. The 4400 and 4500 blocks around the intersection of Delmar and Taylor has yet to see great infill or rehabilitation. Instead, just a few blocks from the vibrant heart of the Central West End, this intersection continues to shed its architectural resources. While the southeast corner of the intersection retains a two-story building with a rounded, projecting corner bay (once a turret base), between that building and the Mae Building is a wide unkempt vacant lot. On that site stood the commercial buildings at 4470 and 4474 Delmar, demolished in 2005 and documented on this website.

All of the buildings lost here have been of a high quality of detail, befitting the prominence of the thoroughfare. Still, the Mae Building's history shows a different course than the others -- it was refaced with the present facade. The building actually was built in 1889 as a two-story commercial building housing a string of blacksmith shops in the first floor. In fact, a fairly saturated ghost sign remains on the western elevation, spelling out "[H]ORSE SHOER." Apparently, there was no two-story building next door in 1889.

The 1909 Sanborn map, however, shows a densely filled-out block face. (Above, the Mae Building is marked by a red carrot.) Two-story commercial buildings line the 4400 block of Delmar, and on this side of the street stretch east from Taylor to mid-block, where a large dance hall and bowling alley abruptly abuts the row of residences that fill out the remainder of the street face.

By 1917, city directories show the Mae Building occupied by Delmar-Taylor Ford Specialty Auto Repair. Metal and transportation are still the mainstays of the building's commerce, but in a much more modern fashion. This use finds an ironic dovetail with the repairs required to the building inflicted by an automobile. The Ford repair shop survived until September 29, 1927, when a devastating tornado cut through the neighborhood and severely damaged the face of what would become the Mae Building.

Like most, the owners rebuilt the building. Judging from the side walls, neighboring buildings held the sides solid, so the front must have took the force of the damage. (Eighty years later, without the protection of adjoining buildings, the impact of a mere automobile may have been fatal.) The new front elevation was modern without being daring -- a design taking Arts & Crafts and Tudor Revival influences prevalent at the time. White vitreous brick covered most of the wall, interrupted by jazzy green courses of the same material and more somber terra cotta pieces. A polychromatic shield was placed at the center of the parapet, proclaiming the building's endurance. I have no idea what the building looked like before the tornado repairs, but afterwards it was fancy for an automobile repair shop. Entrance to the service bay was elegantly kept at the rear.

The 1929 city directory lists C.W. Quint Automobile Repair occupying the first floor, with an apartment above. (Did Mae live there? Not sure.) Automobile repair was the primary use for over fifty years. Eventually, the building fell on the inventory of the Land Reutilization Authority, but Royal Vaughn bought it in 1998 and the Williams shop moved in afterwards, maintaining the building's connection to metal work. Telling that a building that survived the 1927 tornado had no trouble surviving the LRA!

Cut back to the present, and the story of the building at 4468 Delmar faces an unpredictable ending. Wise guys foretell demolition, while dreamers hold out hope that the corner will be rebuilt and the building remains. In a twist of fate, the building itself inadvertently offers us the best answer to the question "Will the building survive?"

Neighbors for Social Justice Hosts Rally and March on Saturday

From Neighbors for Social Justice:

September 26, 2008
Contact: Sheila Rendon 621-6002 or neighborsforsj@aol.com


Neighbors for Social Justice continue to call Paul McKee and Mayor Slay to account. On Saturday October 4th 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. near Northside residents will march and rally. The march begins at Sts. Teresa and Bridget’s Catholic Church on North Market and Grand continuing East to N. Market and N. Florissant for rally and speakers.

Speakers include Alderpersons April Ford Griffin, Sheila Rendon and other community representatives.

Neighbors for Justice is comprised of residents from the 5th and 19th Wards. We want Paul McKee and Mayor Francis Slay to end the disrespect they have shown our community. We call for a moratorium on any sales to Paul McKee. As neighborhood residents we want a voice in any development plans for our community. As his constituents, we want Mayor Slay to publicly meet with us and support our efforts.

Rehabbers Club Classes Begin This Wednesday

ReVitalize St. Louis and the St. Louis Rehabbers Club are extremely excited to announce that the 2008 Fall Rehabbers Club Classes will be sponsored by St. Louis Chapter of AIA [American Institute of Architects] Bookstore. They are located at 911 Washington Avenue in the Lammert Building downtown. This location is centrally-located, close to MetroLink and MetroBus lines, on-street parking is plentiful and it is fully accessible.

Directions from your location are here.

Classes begin on Wednesday, October 1st at 7:00 p.m. and the semester will run for eight consecutive weeks. Sessions are two hours long and there is time set aside during each class for Q & A. Details and descriptions are provided on the website on
this page

Topics include:
-- Buying A Foreclosure
-- Pioneering Partnerships
-- Funding Your Rehab
-- Working With A Contractor
-- Neighbors in Action
-- Real Estate Law 101
-- Green Rehabbing
-- Smart Landlording

The fee for each class is $10 [$15 at the door] or you can purchase an eight-class package for $70. You may pay online using PayPal.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Beautiful Fourth Baptist Church

Here are photographs from December 2005 of beautiful Fourth Baptist Church at the northwest corner of 13th and Sullivan in Old North St. Louis. The church's presence truly anchors the immediate area.

The interior was as wonderfully austere as the exterior, with the sanctuary auditorium a voluminous space lit by large southern windows. Here are images from October 2006.

No matter what the fate of the church, all who passed through or by its doors saw in it the incarnation of certain faith and a wonderful sense of architectural economy. The building served well and long, and was awaiting a new call to service when struck by fire on September 20, 2008.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fourth Baptist Church Struck by Devastating Fire

This post is a frustrating and sad one to write, even though its eventuality has crossed my mind before. Living across the street from the church, I have felt deep sorrow and needed time to grieve before writing about this weekend's tragedy.

On Saturday morning at around 9:45 a.m., a large fire erupted at the vacant Fourth Baptist Church at the northwest corner of 13th and Sullivan avenues in Old North St. Louis. After several hours, firefighters extinguished a fire that left the three buildings of the complex in various states of instability, a small congregation with a huge difficulty and a neighborhood that has enjoyed much progress and positive publicity with a stern reminder of the reality of urban abandonment. The congregation moved out in 2002 after a boiler break-down, and has not been able to find funds to repair the building and return. Nor has a buyer been found for the church complex, which needed extensive rehabilitation. Now Fourth Baptist joins plentiful ranks of the near north side's many handsome institutional buildings wrecked by fire and severe weather.

No one yet knows the fire's cause, which is under investigation. Although the church has been unsecured in recent months (see "How Now to Board Up a Broken Window," February 27, 2008), Fourth Baptist had been tightly boarded for the last six months. Usual points of entrance in the rear seemed secure after the fire was over. Still, neighborhood speculation fingers ever-present metal thieves working with torches or other spark-creating devices, arsonists looking for kicks and brick thieves looking to get a new project underway. Another possible cause is the electrical service, which may or may not have still been live on Saturday. (The service was active as recently as winter 2007.)

As with other landmarks left similarly crippled, cause is not as important as result. Fourth Baptist's condition had been stable; there were small roof failure points and minor masonry issues, but overall the buildings comprising the church complex -- four in number -- were intact and clearly ready for renovation. The fire leaves behind an uncertain structural condition yet to be formally assessed. Some damage is obvious: the roof structure of the sanctuary is damaged badly at the crest, and the interior wood structure seems severely compromised; the "annex" (actually an older sanctuary later expanded) had half of its front elevation knocked off by firefighters' aggressive hose work; there is a hole in the old house at 1309 Sullivan Avenue connected to the church. However, much stability is obvious, too.

The city is poised to issue an emergency demolition order, which Fourth Baptist pastor Richard Taylor vows to fight. The condition of the three buildings absolutely does not warrant demolition of the entire complex, as examination of the individual parts makes clear.


The sanctuary, completed in 1924 in a modern Greek Revival style, is one of the starkest and most urban churches in north city. The dark machine-raked brick walls are placed right at the sidewalk line, with simple white terra cotta pilasters and spandrels providing ornament. The congregation made the best use of a constrained site, building the whole plot out to connect with an adjacent house and their earlier building. This is anathema to today's climate, where city churches build mega-plexes with pristine green lawns and plenty of parking.

The fire hit the sanctuary the hardest of the buildings, although its robust masonry walls were scarcely scratched. Alas, the sanctuary seems to have been fully gutted by the fire, with wooden joists and floorboards scorched beyond salvage in many places. Given the age of the building, it's possible that steel beams were used across the floor joists. Even the ornamental soffit running along Sullivan Avenue was not completely destroyed. What is most troubling is that the roof suffered intense heat, and most of its shingles burned away or fell off. The exposed decking shows sections near the crest that are gone, other areas that are severely burned, and some sections that are intact. The trusses on the western end are failing, but those on the eastern half seem solid.

The sanctuary's walls are in no danger of collapse. The 2004 theft and return of the church's stained glass windows led to their storage elsewhere, so all but one that remained are intact. One possibility for the sanctuary is swift repair of the roof and boarding of all openings; such mothballing could buy time. Another option is removal of all wooden structural elements and bracing of the masonry walls, but that only makes sense of permanent stabilization would come in the near future.


The "annex" north of the sanctuary on 13th street is actually an earlier sanctuary. Fourth Baptist had its start in 1859 on the site now occupied by Grace Hill's campus. In 1892, the church hired architects Matthews, Clarke and James to design a one-story front-gabled church at this site. That building, became the first story of the present annex. In 1937, after completing the new sanctuary, the congregation raised this building up one story and combined the sections with an orange-brick Georgian Revival front elevation. Through the windows of the first floor, one can see the original front wall of the church. The structure served as the Sunday school and church office, among other things.

The annex suffered the worst damage of the church buildings, but not necessarily due to the fire. The fire damaged the roof structure and second floor, but did not cause the second floor wall to collapse outward. While the roof fire ate away the wall's connection to the roof, the pressurized spray of fire hoses after the fire was largely extinguished caused the wall to fall outward into the street.

Unfortunately, that damage may lead to the sure loss of this section. Without a plan for rebuilding the front section, or some temporary shoring, weather and wind will cause further failure of this building. Neighbors have banded together to remove and safely store bricks piled at the base of the building, in case rebuilding will ever begin.

1309 Sullivan Avenue
This modest brick house with dentillated cornice and side mousehole is shown on Compton and Dry's 1875 Pictorial St. Louis; construction could date to the late 1850's. The church acquired the house while building the sanctuary, and connected it internally for use as a parsonage. In 1952, the church built a long two-story addition at rear to house more classrooms and a basement kitchen. That steel-framed section was not significantly damaged by the fire, although it is the only section considered noncontributing to the Murphy-Blair Historic District. The house seems to have escaped extensive fire damage, although again pressurized spray damaged the masonry on the front elevation, precipitating additional brick loss and weather infiltration.


Immediately following the fire, the church complex was boarded back up. However, an immediate need for stabilization and roof repair would prolong the period for careful decision-making. The annex requires an immediate plan for masonry reconstruction and roof repair if it is to survive the coming year. The house at 1309 Sullivan, meanwhile, would survive indefinitely with immediate masonry repair of the front elevation, secured openings and a new roof. The sanctuary's walls should be braced immediately.

The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group is still working to complete stabilization and repair of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, and is an unlikely party to take on ownership of the church. Now seems to be the time for the region's Baptist churches to rally around Fourth Baptist and help raise the funds needed to stabilize their beleaguered home. Fourth Baptist's active membership is probably less than 20, and its financial ability not in the league needed to face this challenge. Still, the story of Fourth Baptist's buildings should not end with total destruction. At the very least, whatever can be saved should be saved for the future of a neighborhood Fourth Baptist has called home for nearly 150 years.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Where is the Pig Weather Vane?

Where in St. Louis is this quirky pig weather vane located? Perhaps the owner or builder had a "when pigs can fly" thought when building the house.

I know where it is, but do you? Post your answers in the comments section. (No prize.)

UPDATE: An anonymous reader correctly guessed the location -- it's the house at 3915 West Pine in the Central West End, just west of Vandeventer and just east of the building housing the new Cafe Ventana.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rust Belt Readings Inaugural is September 26

Rust Belt Readings is pleased to present:

An evening of poetry with
winner of the 2008 T.S. Eliot Prize
(Buffalo, NY)

(St. Louis, MO)

When: Friday, September 26 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts, 3151 Cherokee Street (http://www.fortgondo/. com)

About the readers:

Missouri native Victoria Brockmeier's first book, my maiden cowboy names, won the 2008 T.S. Eliot Prize. This is the latest accomplishment for someone who has worked as a waitress, a web designer, a drive-thru girl, an artist's model, an Air Force marketing specialist, & a palmist. Her poetry has appeared in LIT, Boston Review, Natural Bridge, The Texas Review, & Inkwell. Brockmeier currently is a candidate for a PhD in poetics at the University at Buffalo, where she teaches. She earned her MFA in poetry at Louisiana State University in 2004. She believes that poetry can save the world.

Best known as an architectural writer, Michael R. Allen edits Ecology of Absence. Allen also has published poetry, drama and prose in journals including flim, Can we have our ball back?, The Adirondack Review and The Implosion. Additionally, he co-edited MPRSND: A Journal of Experimental Writing from 2001-2005 and has read at venues ranging from the River Styx Hungry Young Poets series to anachist book fairs to a morning television news program.

More information: Email or call 314-920-5680.

Albert Aloe Opticians

En route to another building, I passed the home of Albert Aloe Opticians at 138 West Adams Avenue in Kirkwood. What a stunning mid-century building, replete with its vintage yard sign! The simple geometry of red brick and native limestone provides a backdrop for colorful tile work. I read the colored rectangles like punched out sections of early punched paper data cards. The second floor window ribbon is even shaped like an early computer punch card, with the common tile color suggestive of old paper stock. (Surely some readers will recall the very floppy disks of old.)

It's as if the architect saw patterns in a punch card and abstracted them into tile work patterns. Either that, or the architect embedded a message in secret geometric code.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Illinois Historic Sites and Parks Closures Pushed Back Two Weeks

The Peoria Journal-Star reports that Illinois will delay closures of historic sites to October 15 and state parks to November 30. This move partly is due to impact bargaining by the state employees union, but also may be due to to poor planning by the governor's office. The Illinois House of Representatives met last week and approved a budget that restored most cuts; the Senate does not reconvene until November, after the historic sites will close.

Meanwhile, there have been protests against the cuts in Springfield and at least one lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against the park closures.

Lovely Row on Hickory Street

The so-called Gate District in south city is bounded roughly by I-44 on the south, Jefferson on the east, Compton on the west and Chouteau on the north. In that area, so much fabric was lost between 1970 and the present that whole blocks are devoid of a single historic building. For a number of years, the city planning agency was preoccupied by a concept called a "Town in Town" that consisted of wholesale clearance of town and construction of a new district with a lake, homes, warehouses and the like placed on new streets. This plan was way too unrealistic to come to fruition -- didn't anyone price the removal of every part of infrastructure in the area? -- but it was distilled into the Gate District plan drafted by Duane-Plater Zyberk and implemented piecemeal since 1985.

The piecemeal implementation is the saving grace of the planning for this area. Written off as a wasteland by some urbanists, the Gate District actually retains some pockets of fabulous historic architecture. One of these is the north face of the 2800 block of Hickory Street, between California and Ewing. Although four of the eight houses remaining are vacant, and a ninth house was wrecked over the summer, the block face carries with it a distinct vernacular charm.

The inadvertent symmetry of the block is wonderful. The center group of five brick shaped-parapet shotgun houses is flanked on either side by two-story cousins. One other single-story house is located west of this group. The shotgun homes are a proud showcase of the variety of St. Louis masonry -- each parapet has different treatment, and all variety comes through different installation of the same bricks. The homes also make use of the Roman arch, dating their construction to 1890 or later. The bookend two-story homes contrast with the others. Although larger, their masonry is more restrained, and they employ flat arches on their front elevations. Each has a front porch. These houses are probably at least a decade newer than their neighbors.

Altogether, the group is quite distinguished and worthy of preservation. To the east are sections of urban prairie that put St. Louis Place to shame, and to the north is the Chouteau industrial corridor that has been encroaching for over half of a century. Part of the Sixth Ward, this area lacks preservation review for demolition. The open land and shifting land use could portend the erasure of this group, or the creation of a new context that marries old and new architecture in urban harmony.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Jeff Mansell is Landmarks Association's New Executive Director

Jefferson Mansell is the new Executive Director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Jeff replaces Carolyn Hewes Toft, retiring after 32 years leading our only regional advocacy organization devoted to historic preservation and urban planning. Read more about Jeff below:

St. Louis Beacon: Take Five: Interview with Landmarks' new director

Landmarks Association: Jeff Mansell Named Landmarks’ New Executive Director

Jeff is going to be a great boss!

A Dead House on Clinton Street

One gets the sense that the city of St. Louis cannot get a high wind without having a historic north side building crippled. This weekend, the remnants of Ike struck Old North St. Louis, causing more damage. Oddly, soon afterwards a truckload of St. Louis firemen arrived and struck the buidling with pressurized water spray for minutes, delving the final blow to the long-suffering house at 1219 Clinton Street. No one knows why the Fire Department showed up and performed pointless and destructive work. The vacant house had its first major blow back in the freak storm of July 2006. (See "A Dying House on Clinton Street", July 11, 2008.)

Whereas some semblance of the front elevation remained intact throughout years of eroding fabric, now the house is a barely recognizable pile of materials destined for demolition. The loss had been inevitable for some time, although the opportunity for prevention was within reach until quite recently. The trouble with old buildings is that their economic rescue is calculated in price per square of rehabilitation, and once a building slips past a certain price it passes beyond the point of profit or even break-even. If a developer cannot break even, the only imperative for rehabilitation is a moral one. Even those who wish to lose money doing the right thing cannot do so if they don't have the money. No bank will finance a project that creates negative equity, no matter how much money the building could be worth in ten years.

The house on Clinton had passed the reasonable price-per-square-foot point awhile ago. Compounding its problems is the fact that it's the last house left on its block, and the other side of its block is faced with residences built in the 1980s.

Contrast the house on Clinton with some of the recent products of the ongoing Crown Square project. Four buildings on the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Warren Street are completed. Looking at the photographs below, one sees that these houses fit into streetscapes of other historic buildings. While these blocks are not fully intact, they are intact to the extent where further loss would be much more harmful than the loss of a single house on a block.

With limited funds available and the rules of finance at play, most developers are going to select to rehab buildings like those on Warren over the house on Clinton. By doing so, these developers aren't doing anything wrong. In fact, many bankers and developers would not even touch houses like those on Warren. The developers who did were non-profit organizations (the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group). If it takes a non-profit to rehab the houses on Warren right now, it would have taken a charity to tackle the house on Clinton.

None off this explanation justifies the loss of a great house like the one on Clinton Street. Really, the loss could have been prevented if a new roof and boards had been installed three years ago. But who would have picked up the tab? Back then, the house had a private owner who had stopped paying taxes on the property. Alter, the city's Land Reutilization Authority owned the house. The first part was unwilling to do the right thing, the second unable.

Preservationists would be willing, be we aren't able. St. Louis lacks a bridge over the the preservation gap between the right thing and the possible thing. Can we build one?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Illinois Legislature Should Reverse Closure of Sites and Parks

The wonderful St. Louis Beacon has published my commentary on the closure of 13 Illinois state historic sites; read it here.

Thompson Coburn Garage and the Economics of Parking Downtown

Today, the St. Louis Business Journal is reporting that giant law firm Thompson Coburn announced today that it has signed a 12-year lease to remain in the US Bank Tower at 7th and Washington downtown. The lease comes with city incentives totalling $700,000 and, most interesting and unusual, a state-financed $15 million parking garage on the site of the Ambassador Building at 7th and Locust streets, currently a lifeless and unattractive "plaza."

The announcement comes after speculation that the law firm would relocate to the planned Brown Shoe Company campus on Maryland Avenue in Clayton. Clayton is still luring major businesses out of downtown, and snagging some that have also looked at moving downtown. Thus, the announcement is good news for a downtown that is seeing a decline in residential projects and a small, hopeful rise in the creation of rehabbed office space.

The parking garage component is predictable, although undesirable in terms of planning. Sadly, we live in a city with a parking economy built on an inverse ratio of supply and demand. Downtown St. Louis has more parking spaces than residents, and probably more spaces than daily workers. Parking is cheap and easy. Parking is not quite free, like in the suburbs, but in this dense urban core, it barely costs anyone to park at all. In these cirumstances, any major employer who wants copious and adjacent parking gets it -- either by building a new garage, leasing existing spaces or moving out of downtown where parking doesn't cost employees at all.

Obviously, downtown has an excess of parking. Lots are obvious visual blight, but garages aren't much better. Even with street level retail, a garage doesn't generate the same level of activity, visual interest and use as a building. That a garage on the Ambassador site is an improvement over the plaza says little about the new garage and a lot about the inadequacies of the protected private plaza.

Pine Street suffers from a glut of parking garages, and has little to recommend it as an attractive street on which to do muchy more than park or grab a quick lunch. Locust Street is much better, although the recent addition of the Ninth Street Garage chips away at its urban character. The Thompson Coburn garage will be two blocks from the Nonth Street Garage, and only one block from one of downtown's ugliest garages on Seventh Street, the so-called Hubcap Palace at Seventh and Olive streets.

This proximity is not good for developing a downtown that is a compelling, lively, architecturally distiguished place. The economics of parking and land values downtown allow such proximity, while the planning apparatus off city government remains weak. Rather than examine the health of street life or even desirable land uses for downtown, all decisions are subsumed by economic logic. That's well and good for function, yet we must remember downtown is not simply a series of useful structures, but also the core of our city that defines its architectural character to the world.

Obviously, we need Thompson Coburn and other employers downtown. The firm needs parking. But we all need a downtown that compells the world to respect the great city of St. Louis. (In other words, this had better be the best damn parking garage in the world!)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness" Screens Thursday

Ever wonder what it's like to prowl an abandoned asylum in the night? What you'll find in the darkest corners of Paris' catacombs? Who is sleeping in an abandoned, moldy "house of the future" on a Florida roadside?

Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness follows people who have sought answers to these questions. One of the best things about the film is that rather than make itself about places that are featured in two hundred photos on Flickr, the director hits at a more elusive aspect of urban exploration: the personalities and motivations of those who self-identify as explorers. The film is more of an inquiry into the handful of explorers profiled, and includes great interviews and some laugh-out-load hijinks.

The film screens at 7pm Thursday, September 11 at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University, 470 E. Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves.

Thomas Crone has an interview with directory Melody Gilbert here.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

New Merry Widow Theater

Located at 1539 Chouteau Avenue, near the Truman Parkway, stands a somewhat-isolated relic of an urban commercial district that flourished on Chouteau in the LaSalle Park and Lafayette Square neighborhoods. The liveliness is hard to believe now, with the decrepit rear wall of St. Mary's Infirmary looming behind it, the questionable premises of a grocery store next door, AmerenUE's hulking campus to the west and the Truman Parkway walling vital Lafayette Square from this stretch. The building has been used for storage for decades, and is now owned by the utility giant across the street. Yet at the dawn of World War II, this neat little moderne building was the brand-new New Merry Widow Theatre, a neighborhood movie house replacing the old Merry Widow Theater one black east.

The theater was not lavish as local theaters were, but that barely mattered at a time when theater chains like Komm Theatres, which built and operated the New Merry Widow, gave even the smallest theater palatial terra cotta, winsome interior decoration and the right atmosphere for a dreamy night out. For a theater named after a motion picture itself (Von Stroheim's 1925 Merry Widow, which preceded the original theater), style started with the name and worked itself into each detail.

The building permit for the New Merry Widow is dated November 12, 1941, with Stamm Construction Company listed as general contractor and a reported cost of $25,000. Now-obscure architect Jack Shawcross designed the building, making the most of s restrained budget. Three portal windows dominate the front elevation like a mutated set of eyes, while four lines of dark brick rise at each side and another line defines the crown. Buff brick is punctuated by carefully-placed slightly-contrasting buff terra cotta. The city issued a second permit on December 23, 1941 for a $500 canopy and marquee; unfortunately, I have not located any photograph showing that feature. Overall, Shawcross manged to make a rather economical building as striking and dashing as anything Cedric Gibbons could concoct -- not an uncommon feat in St. Louis.

Inside, a terrazzo-floored lobby led to the 920-seat auditorium, where chandeliers and draped walls added elegance. The theater opened in March 1942, and quickly became one of the mainstays of night life for residents of the city's first public housing project, the Clinton-Peabody Homes located across Chouteau that also opened in 1942. However, the New Merry Widow's life span was short. After a name change that dropped the "New" from the name in 1951, the theater was open for only five more years before closing. The new life of the building certainly would have none of the glamour of Hollywood.

Occupancy permits from 1958 show that the Underwriters Salvage Corps used the building for storage of salvaged materials. In 1960, Tom & Sons Truck Repair converted the building into a repair shop. This alteration gave the building the garage door on its western wall and the infill of the original center theater entrance on Chouteau. In 1973, Affton Delivery Service took over the building and by the 1980s the New Merry Widow entered a long stretch of ownership by Hibdon Hardwoods, a wholesale lumber dealer. Although its original use is long gone, and much of the historic appearance eroded, the fine lines of the New Merry Widow are still evident. We're lucky that the old theater still stands to delight the curious passer-by, and give some sense of the urban culture that once thrived on Chouteau.

Readers might note a formal resemblance between the Merry Widow and the Massac Theater in Metropolis, Illinois. (See "Massac Theater Crumbles in Metropolis, Illinois", November 13, 2007.)

Industrial Inspiration?

There seems to be more than a passing resemblance between the Forest Park Southeast hotel designs that Drury Inn presented at a recent neighborhood meeting and the abandoned Lever Soap Plant in Pagedale. The three-dimensional renderings of two hotel buildings planned for a site at the southeast corner of the Kingshighway and I-64/40 interchange are in a conceptual phase, but their apparent industrial inspiration is somewhat encouraging.

Here is a close-up of one of the hotels:

Here is the Lever Plant, a lovely composition of industrial economy:
Just sayin'.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fire in Fountain Park

A sweltering, humid afternoon yesterday broke what had been a string of some of the most pleasant St. Louis summer days in recent years. In the Fountain Park neighborhood, the dog day brought more than just unpleasant weather. At around 12:40 p.m., a fire broke out at the abandoned home at 1124 Bayard Avenue. The blaze roared through a modest two-story home that has experiences fire twice before, according to a neighbor.

Neighbors who had been hanging out indoors in search of air conditioning came outside to watch a mid-day spectacle that is unfortunately a common occurrence in much of north St. Louis. Firefighters were quick to respond, and had the fire under control quickly. The firefighters surely earned the respect of the assembled crowd on Labor Day afternoon.

The house was not one of the stunning homes that line Fountain park proper, nor was it the nearby "castle" building. (The sight of dark smoke coming from near that structure made me shiver.) The brick home has acquired permastone on the first floor and flimsy siding above. Still, it had been a solid residence until going vacant two years ago. Its altered facade still made up part of a street scape wall that joins others to form the architectural context of life in Fountain Park. The house had a supporting role to the fancier buildings, but its loss will make the drama a little less full.

The neighborhood atmosphere yesterday was a far cry of the vision of John Lay, the Virginia farmer who platted 158 acres of his land just west of the city limits in 1857. Dubbing the subdivision "Aubert Place," Lay envisioned a fashionable middle-class enclave centered on an elegant park, like those he had seen in London. Early advertisements suggest that Aubert Place was a country retreat, and certainly the character of this area supported that assertion. Development was slow, even though half of the lots sold at auction in 1857. One reason for slow growth was the distance for public transit, which would not come for nearly another twenty years.

Most early homes here were frame, and only forty had been built by 1883. Still, annexation into the city in 1876 encouraged growth, as did the continued westward growth of the city. Streetcars came down Delmar to the south and Easton to the north, with a line also running straight down Euclid through the heart of the development. Development of the Central West End in the early 1890s coincided with the city's investment in the park in 1889. The city took the undeveloped central feature of Aubert Place and built amenities, including the fountain that would lead to the gradual name change of the neighborhood. Lay's charming suburb had been missing the elegance of a well-planned park. With lots reserved for single-family homes and a required twenty-foot set-back, Aubert Place was destined to be genteel. Building was rapid between 1892 and 1897, when two brothers named Davis built many homes. A second boom covers the years of 1903 through 1925, when unrestricted blocks around the original subdivision were developed with two-flats and other multi-family properties. Now known as Fountain Park, the neighborhood thrived with middle-class residents.

In the 1940s, Africa-Americans began piercing the housing restrictions in Fountain Park, at the time when many whites were leaving for more fashionable addresses west and north. A renewal took place, and the community remained strong for several decades until signs of decay crept in. To this day, there is amazing dichotomy in Fountain Park. Many blocks are very well-kept and retain their original beauty, while other blocks are marked by vacant lots, boarded buildings and vestiges of vice. Not surprising, the original Aubert Place is stronger than the outer tier of multi-family buildings. The posh Victorian middle-class suburb is now a problem-ridden 21st-century American urban neighborhood. That is to say, that for every day like yesterday, it has another good day. And for every beautiful home on Fountain, there's a house like 1124 Bayard.

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