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Monday, October 20, 2008

Lemonade: A Remade Section 235 House

A row of Section 235 Houses on North Market Street west of 25th Street in St. Louis Place.

The 1968 federal Housing Act created the Section 235 Program administered by the new Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Section 235 Program enabled many Americans to become homeowners through its generous assistance: HUD made interest payments to lenders on behalf of homeowners in the program to effective reduce their monthly loan interest. The amount paid was based on the borrower's income. In the 1970s, when interest rates were often above 10%, this program's need was clear. The authors of Section 235 intended the program to move low-income residents as well as federal subsidy away from mass housing projects and into neighborhoods and suburbs. Of course, the lofty dreams trickled down into something less idealistic.

In reality, the program was a boon to lenders and builders but less freeing to participants. Section 235 mostly shuffled people around decaying neighborhoods, and its implementation was rarely coordinated with other programs to stabilize these places. In St. Louis, the use of the program was extensive in the 1970s and created several distinct forms spread across north St. Louis and parts of the near south side. One of these is the ubiquitous "Section 235 House," a two-story platform-framed house with a low-pitched front gable and a second floor that overhangs the first.

There are variations on cladding, but the St. Louis Section 235 Houses mostly resemble each other. The St. Louis Section 235 House mostly interjected intself out of context, alongside historic homes that dwarfed and mocked the banal newcomers. What could have been very modern was often festooned with mock shutters, brick veneer on the first floor (improbably holding up an overhang) and other architectural absurdity. The homes set back too far from the street and from each other to mimic the truly urban forms of the St. Louis vernacular, and tended to stick out as proverbially sore thumbs.

The Section 235 House at 2322 Montgomery.

Meanwhile, other, better-off St. Louisans stayed in the city by moving into Modern Movement high-rise towers designed by "name" firms. Still, owners of the Sction 235 Houses often cast their own designs on the houses, leaving us with a legacy of rebellion against the planned form. One of the best examples stands at 2322 Montgomery Avenue in St. Louis Place. Built in 1971 and now vacant, the house barely registers as a Section 235 House. The overhangs were elminated, the gabled roof removed and rebuilt as an asymmetrical modern roof, and the front clad in a tasteful brick. Someone made this house his or her own, and the result is quite lovely. unfortunately the house, which city records show as owned by Larmer LC, stands vacant. While the house might be out of place in St. Louis Place, it sits on a block that has lost architectural consistency. Preservation seems wise and, to this writer, desirable.

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