We've Moved

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

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"The Junction" and Old North's Housing Balance

The massive Meier and Pohlmann Furniture Company factory stands on the south side of Palm Street between 14th and Blair in Old North St. Louis. Built between 1891 and 1901, the factory has always been a formidable mass whose form and use are at odds with the surrounding patchwork of homes, corner stores and flats. Now a proposed development might accentuate that separation.

Developer George Kruntchev proposes to rehabilitate the factory into 54 income-restricted apartments called "The Junction." Old North residents have risen against the development, and with good reason. For one thing, the 54 units include many three-bedroom units that might push the building's occupancy to well over 150 residents. That is quite a social shift in a neighborhood that to date has been absorbing new residents one small building at a time. Another reason for the opposition is the concentration of type of housing unit, again an unprecedented shift in a neighborhood known for its amazing economic diversity. Old North has always been an antidote to cookie-cutter, stack 'em high housing development, be it condominiums or subsidized housing.

The most troubling aspect of the project may be the last-minute nature of community awareness. The Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) will consider issuance of 9% tax credits for the project on December 12. The first neighborhood meeting on the project was last Saturday, November 22. At the meeting, residents learned that Mayor Francis Slay and Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) support the project, apparently without the benefit of neighborhood consultation. Not a single resident spoke in favor of The Junction project as it stands. The range of residents at the meeting went from middle-class rehabbers to renters to long-time residents. I've never seen Old North reach such a solid consensus on any development issue.

The news of the project shocked many because residents knew of a very different project called The Junction. Kathy Sorkin, Vice President of E.M. Harris Construction, had purchased the Meier & Pohlmann factory a few years ago for a multi-unit residential project that would have mixed market-rate and "affordable" (i.e., MHDC-financed) units. That project was appropriate to Old North, with a creative mix of units styles and prices. Unfortunately, MHDC did not approve and the project faded away. At some point, Sorkin sold the building to another party who sold it to Kruntchev.

Kruntchev has a range of impressive development accomplishments to his credit, including the rehabilitation of Grant School in Tower Grove East. Kruntchev even attended the November 22 meeting in Old North, directly facing community opposition. Much of the developer's work consists of MHDC-financed projects that involves historic preservation. Had Kruntchev and the community engaged each other long ahead of the scheduled MHDC meeting, I doubt that the situation would be polarized. Alas, somehow there was a communication breakdown as those who should have brought the community to the table failed to do so.

Of course, as Kruntchev pointed out to residents, one might assume that The Junction would sit well with a neighborhood whose neighborhood organization has been co-developer on some fairly sizable MHDC-backed projects. That's a good point, although neither North Market Place nor the 154th Street project has concentrated as many as 54 units in one building.

Still, Old North residents have grown weary of the arrival of more MHDC income-restricted housing. That housing serves a purpose, but when it overwhelms the owner-occupied and market-rate development of a neighborhood, real trouble begins. The harsh neighborhood opposition to The Junction shows a palpable fear that Old North could very well lose the balance needed to attract homeowners to the neighborhood.

When I gave a tour fo the near north side for listeners of the Charlie Brennan show in May, people were very excited by the development progress that they saw in Old North and St. Louis Place. Yet one question that came up was when will homeownership catch up with the newly-built or rehabbed rentals all around. People noticed the imbalance, not with fear but with genuine curiosity. Anyone who has visited successful urban places see diversity -- in people, in housing, in uses. When you don't see it, you wonder why it's missing.

After all, the quality of a neighborhood is not measured in dollars invested, units created or ribbons cut. Awhile ago, perhaps the Junction would not have thrown Old North off balance. Now, it very well could. It's time to adjust and figure out a different path for that project so it does not disrupt Old North. Now is a tough time to spur new development, but it's also a tough time to risk the future of an entire neighborhood.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The "Mini Mansion" on Palm Street Needs Urgent Assistance

The house at 1501 Palm Street in April 2005.

The house at 1501 Palm Street in November 2008.

Sixteen years means a lot in the life of a vacant building. To the house at 1501 Palm Street, owned now by by Blaimont Associates LC, the past three years have been rough. The beautiful mansard-roofed "mini mansion" dates to 1883, and is a great example of the small scale use of the Second Empire style. The house is singular for the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, and it has marked the corner of 14th and Palm streets for 125 years. In the vast scheme of its life, the past 16 years are a small part of the history. If they prove fatal, however, those years will be the most definitive.

The house sat vacant for a long time before Blairmont purchased it, and the previous owner is to blame for some of its current woes. In 2005 that owner, George Roberts, began demolition halted by the city's Cultural Resources Office, which had not yet reviewed the demolition permit. That work left a large hole on the west wall. Three years later, the hole is agape, and the roof structure above in terrible disrepair. Thank goodness for partition walls -- without them, the roof would have collapsed by now.

The roof sheathing is missing on over half of the house, and the joists collapsed in many places. The amount of water that entered the house in 2008 is frightening to contemplate.

One of the finest details of the house was the repeat of its slate-clad mansard roof on the rear elevation, replete with tin-framed dormers. That roof collapsed in 2007, and is now almost completely gone.

As the photographs show, the masonry walls remain sound, and that condition has prevented a catastrophic collapse. However, the south chimney has lost its top courses in the past three years.

Recently, Blairmont maintenance contractor Urban Solutions cleared the yard of debris and erected a temporary fence around the house. What's next? The house is in imminent danger of a roof collapse and requires serious structural work. As far as I can tell, under the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit, repairs to prevent this house from collapsing are eligible for 100% reimbursement just like the fencing, trash hauling and lawn work. If a developer were applying for that credit, the cost of such work would only be carried until the issuance of the credits. The issuance, of course, requires a redevelopment ordinance and political support. In preservation-minded Old North, there is a clear way to gain respect and built support: save buildings like the house at 1501 Palm Street.

No Bad News from Monday's Preservation Board Meeting

On Monday, the St. Louis Preservation Board meeting yielded no bad news:

  • Washington University withdrew from preliminary consideration plans to demolish a one-story commercial building at 622 N. Skinker in order to build parking for the "Corner Building" at Skinker and Delmar, which the university is rehabbing. The Board granted preliminary approval for a variance that allows for wind turbines to be built atop the Corner Building. The university is exploring other options for parking, including building a new multi-story building that would extend along Skinker from the corner building to Enright Avenue.

  • The board denied preliminary applications for demolition for houses at 1826 Warren Street in St. Louis Place and 5155 Cates Avenue in the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District. Neither owner bothered to attend the meeting!

  • At the request of a representative of the New Life Evangelistic Center, the Board will defer consideration of an appeal of staff denial of a demolition permit for the house at 4722 Tennessee Avenue in Dutchtown. The matter will likely be placed on the January board agenda since the December meetings are traditionally short and free of review or appeal items.

  • The board approved on preliminary review a plan to demolish a two-story brick garage at 1106 Dolman Avenue in Lafayette Square. The garage has a split foundation and is beginning to collapse. Owner Mike Drinen plans to reconstruct the building, which likely dates to the 1920s.

  • The board voted to deny a permit to retain seven windows installed without a permit at 2003 Senate Street in Benton Park. The owner installed a total of 18 windows on the house between 2004 and 2008, and wrapped the sides with aluminum. In 2006, Benton Park became a local historic district and wrapping was prohibited by district standards. Although the seven windows are not exclusively on the front elevation and not all front windows are in the seven now denied, all denied windows were installed since the local district standards went into effect. The board's vote is an endorsement of honoring local district standards, and sets a good precedent. Work at 2003 Senate had stopped for two years before the last seven windows went in. While the old work was legal, the new work was not. Some projects evolve for years or decades and the start date of local standards should be enforced, not the start date of slow-moving projects. Ambiguity there would undermine citizen efforts to establish local district standards.
  • Monday, November 24, 2008

    Danforth Withdraws Museum Plan? (Updated)


    The rumor of complete withdrawal was premature, and Edde Roth has the Danforth Foundation version:

    The foundation did write a letter to the Interior Department saying that the stock market drop would make it difficult to fund such a project at the $50 million it had pledged, according to the spokesman, but the Foundation “remains as interested in ever in the museum concept” and “if and when the (National Park Service) comes back with a proposal that the Foundation can support, the Foundation will support it at the level its finances will permit.”

    This is an inversion of Danforth's original call for a museum, and is exactly where the parties need to be. Danforth has sparked a public debate, and now the government entity responsible for the Memorial has responded with an official planning process. Danforth is no longer the voice in the wild, but part of an emerging coalition of stakeholders with different visions for the Memorial. At this stage, the National Park Service should lead to ensure that private visions are mediated through a public process. Danforth and others can take or leave the end result which, as with all things meted out through democratic process, will be a compromise of visions within the legal limits set forth by our government. I think that the Danforth Foundation should be commended for its proper response to the National Park Service draft management plan. This is a graceful step that will enable the draft management plan to be released and reviewed without unnecessary controversy.


    Late last week, John Danforth sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne stating that the Danforth Foundation no longer intends to build a museum on the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. According to Danforth, his foundation's financial health has weakened in the current economic downturn.

    Sunday, November 23, 2008

    Christian Niedringhaus' Endangered Warren Street Residences

    The Christian Niedringhaus residence at 1826 Warren Street in November 2008.

    On the 1800 block of Warren Street stand two houses tied to the history of one of St. Louis' foremost industrialist families, the Niedringhauses. Brothers William F. and Frederick G. Niedringhaus are the best known members. The brothers founded the St. Louis Stamping Company in 1866, and oversaw the growth of the tinware maker into an industrial giant that took out the first patent for enameled "Graniteware" and grew so large that the company created its own city across the river, Granite City. (Read more here.)

    The two famous German-born brothers worked closely with their other brothers and relatives, with many family members working for the Stamping Company. Like the Anheuser-Busch and Lemp breweries or other German-owned industrial companies, the St. Louis Stamping Company was a family affair. One of the key first-generation brothers was Christian Niedringhaus, who served as Superintendent of the Stamping Company for its meteoric rise before eventually turning the job to his nephew William H. Niedringhaus, son of Frederick W. (not G.) Niedringhaus. (The repetition of names in various combinations makes the family tree complicated.)

    In the 19th century, most of the family lived on the near north side. Few addresses where family members resided remain standing. Two homes occupied by William H. Niedringhaus remain on Sullivan Avenue in Old North (both are occupied, including one by this author), and two homes occupied by Christian Niedringhaus remain on Warren Street in St. Louis Place. A small home briefly occupied by Frederick W. Nideringhaus remains on Knapp Street in Old North. Later addresses in the Central West End -- where the family members migrated as wealth grew -- are still extant.

    The two homes on Warren Street are vacant and endangered. In fact, the owners of Christian Niedringhaus' home at 1826 Warren are seeking demolition, with the matter on tomorrow's Preservation Board agenda.

    The house at 1826 Warren Street in August 2007.

    Niedringhaus built the house at 1826 Warren in 1892. In style and pedigree, the home is distinctive for this pocket of St. Louis Place. The house is built in the American Foursquare form with deep roof overhang, a form not widely used in St. Louis Place aside from the showy residences on st. Louis Avenue. The other distinction is that Niedringhaus hired the well-known architectural firm of Beinke & Wees to design the house; few homes off of St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis Place can be attributed to architects. The home is fairly modest for a person of Niedringhaus' station, showing the family's trademark practicality.

    Details like an egg and dart sandstone course above the foundation, granite front steps (get the reference?) and a finely-detailed front porch add elegance to a very simple home. The interior is similarly elegant -- spacious rooms detailed precisely but not extravagantly. Alas, the house has been vacant for a decade and in disrepair. For some reason, the roof has experienced damage in the passage of the last year. After unsuccessfully seeking rehabilitation financing, the owners are now pursuing demolition. The Department of Public Safety is submitting the demolition to the Preservation Board for preliminary review. The Cultural Resources Office is recommending denial, and Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) is opposed to demolition.

    This house and Niedringhaus' previous residence next door at 1820-22 Warren are two of the dwindling number of remaining contributing resources to the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District. That district cannot afford to lose any more buildings. Both 1826 and 1820-22 Warren are irreplaceable parts of a fragile, but beautiful historic district.

    1820-22 Warren Street in November 2008.

    1820-22 Warren in August 2007.

    The house at 1820-22 Warren Street is more modest than 1826 and more typical of the vernacular houses of St. Louis Place. Built in 1883 for Niedringhaus by a contractor, the simple brick facade terminates in its one ornamental part -- a wooden cornice that retains most of its details after years of neglect. This double house has split ownership that raises concerns: 1820 Warren Street is owned by a holding company controlled by Paul J. McKee, Jr., while 1822 Warren is the property of the city's Land Reutilization authority. For some reason, the boards securing first-floor entrances have been removed in the past year.

    The 1800 and 1900 blocks of Warren are pretty well-kept. There is a lot of vacant land but most of the remaining buildings are occupied, including two multi-family buildings built by Frederick w. and William H. Niedringhaus on the 1900 block. Preservation of the Christian Niedringhaus residences is crucial to saving the sense of place of these two blocks.

    Beyond stopping the demolition of 1826 Warren, what can be done? That's a question that Alderwoman Ford-Griffin and McKee need to help answer. Obviously, large redevelopment will be a long process, even if McKee could make an announcement tomorrow. Meantime, how can we safeguard the historic buildings that should be integral to future plans? Divided ownership puts the burden for mothballing on several owners, including owners who can barely afford demolition. Public funding is needed as well as private responsibility. With the market down, a big rehab wave in not likely. However, that does not mean demolition is the only course -- that means we need a smart preservation plan for the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District.

    The Preservation Board meets at 4:00 p.m. Monday, November 24, in the 12th floor conference room at 1015 Locust Street downtown. The meeting agenda is online. Correspondence to the board may be sent to BufordA@stlouiscity.com.

    NLEC Seeks Demolition of Frame Center Hall House on Tennessee

    The New Life Evangelistic Center (NLEC) has appealed the Cultural Resources Office's denial of a demolition permit for the 19th centuery center-hall house at 4722 Tennessee Avenue. The house in Dutchtown went through the same ordeal last year when developers sought its demolition. On appeal, the Preservation Board denied the permit. The developers then sold the property to the NLEC for a controversial homeless facility.

    To its credit, NLEC secured the house after purchase. While there is some deterioration of concern, the house is sound and in its present state secure against water and trespass. The Cultural Resources Office is wisely recommending that the Board uphold its denial, and Alderwoman Dorothy Kirner (D-25th) also supports preservation of the unique house.

    There are a small number of center-hall homes remaining in the city, and less than ten frame examples. These homes mostly date to 19th century pre-subdivision settlement of neighborhoods, and some were part of farms. The house on Tennessee is probably the most intact example of a frame center-hall house in the city, and located in a stable neighborhood where rehabilitation is not only desirable but completely feasible.

    The Preservation Board meets at 4:00 p.m. Monday, November 24, in the 12th floor conference room at 1015 Locust Street downtown. The meeting agenda is online. Correspondence to the board may be sent to BufordA@stlouiscity.com.

    No Reason to Demolish Fine House on Cates

    The house at 5115 Cates Avenue in the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District is on tomorrow's St. Louis Preservation Board Agenda. The owner is seeking a preliminary review on demolition, via the Department of Public Safety. (That arrangement is supposed to allow the owners to "test" the Preservation Board before hiring a demolition contract and shelling out a down payment.)

    There is absolutely no reason for demolishing this house. Built in 1901 and designed by Benjamin Cunliff, the only major alteration to the house has been the replacement of the original porch columns. The stately Classical Revival house is perfectly sound, with all four walls solid as the day they were finished. The roof seems intact. Most window and door openings are secured. Under the city's preservation ordinance, the condition of the property and proposed re-use of the site (crabgrass farm) do not meet the criteria set forth that allow the Preservation Board to grant demolition. For that reason, the city's Cultural Resources Office is recommending denial of the preliminary review.

    Beyond the house itself, this block is a largely intact one lined with rows of homes just like these -- American Foursquares designed in a range of revival styles. The streetscapes here bear a resemblance to those of Tower Grove South and Shaw. The potential for this neighborhood -- technically the Academy neighborhood -- to become as healthy as its south side counterparts is strong, but rests on preservation of its distinctive architecture.

    The Preservation Board meets at 4:00 p.m. Monday, November 24, in the 12th floor conference room at 1015 Locust Street downtown. The meeting agenda is online. Correspondence to the board may be sent to BufordA@stlouiscity.com.

    Friday, November 21, 2008

    Blagojevich Cuts Historic Sites Out of Restored Funding

    Rod Blagojevich, America's least popular governor with approval ratings consistently lower than President George W. Bush, has again taken aim at Illinois' state historic sites. Yesterday, Blagojevich signed part of a $230 million state budget passed by the legislature that restored funding cuts made to state parks and historic sites. The part that Blagojevich vetoed, however, included all of the funding needed to prevent closure of 13 state historic sites. The governor claimed that the funds that the legislature allocated for historic sites is federally prohibited from being used that way -- and he may be right. Still, there are other sources of funding, including revenues the governor approved being used to spare the 11 state parks that had been slated for closure.

    Blagojevich's move seems extraordinarily petty and intended to marginalize the struggle to keep the state historic sites open. By removing that struggle from the struggle to reopen the state parks, the governor is trying to divide the army of advocates fighting both sites of closures.

    Once again, though, Blagojevich has made a huge mistake. Citizens across the state -- and, really, the nation -- will not back down in efforts to keep the sites open. From the Dana Thomas House in Springfield (pictured above), an internationally-revered work of Frank Lloyd Wright, to Fort de Chartres in Prairie du Rocher, the oldest building in the state, the historic sites are the lifeblood of historians and towns whose economies benefit from the tourist economy. Expect an outcry that will grow as strong as the importance of the 13 sites -- one that will not be silenced by reactionary politicking in Springfield.

    A Randolph County where the Fort and the Pierre Menard Home are closed is a frightening prospect to area residents. The Vandalia Statehouse, Carl Sandburg birthplace and Dana Thomas House are as ingrained in the hearts of Illinoisans as the Sears Tower and the capitol, and people are not going to let them meet uncertain fates. This matter will be brought back to the budget or to the ballot box. The legislature is now on board. The governor may be the only person in the state on the other side.

    Thursday, November 20, 2008

    Missouri State Historic Preservation Office Turns 40

    Among Missourians celebrating 40th birthdays this year is the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Believe it or not, Missouri's SHPO was first in the nation to be officially recognized by the Department of the Interior after passage of the federal Historic Preservation Act in 1966. While other states followed soon after, it's reassuring that Missouri was at the head of the pack on preservation. That is no surprise to those who know that today Missouri leads the nation is use of state and federal historic rehabilitation programs. The "Show Me" state has seen the economic benefits and cultural importance of historic preservation for a long time now.

    The full story of last week's 40th anniversary celebration is on Landmarks Association of St. Louis' website.

    Re-Enactors Rally in Springfield Against Historic Site Closings

    KSDK reports on yesterday's spirited demonstration at the Illinois state capital against closures of 13 historic sites. Over 50 re-enactors and their supporters came to the Illinois capital, many in historical costume, to urge Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to sign the bill on his desk to reinstate funding for the sites that otherwise close on November 30.

    While the intractable governor is sticking to his penny unwise, pound very foolish stance, the most encouraging part of the rally is that those assembled have formed a new coalition called Save Illinois History to concentrate lobbying efforts. That's a smart move, as the struggle seems to be a long one. In January, when the legislature reconvenes, there will be much work to do to try to ensure that the state budget provides full funding again, and that the governor's stance changes.

    Pinnacle Chief: S.S. Admiral Has "A Few Years Left"

    Yesterday's article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the fate of the S.S. Admiral ("Boat my move north" by Gail Appleson) reported on both the short-term and long-term fates of the Art Moderne vessel. Pinnacle Entertainment, owner of the boat, plans to move the Admiral to a site just north of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. This move could take place in 2009, if the Missouri Gaming Commission approves.

    The more troubling news comes in a quote from Pinnacle Chief Executive Office Dan Lee. According to Lee, the Admiral is close to needing its 100-year-old-hull (the Art Moderne section was built atop an existing 1907 hull) rebuilt, and Pinnacle has no interest in making that repair. Lee told the Post that re-hulling "wouldn't be economical" but he thinks that "there are a few more years left on that hull." How long the S.S. Admiral can survive remains uncertain.

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    Long Lost: First Home of Bremen Bank

    The following scanned clipping comes from the January 9, 1949 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

    Some readers know of the 1927 Bremen Bank building diagonally across the intersection of Broadway and Mallinckrodt streets; that lovely historic building remains the home of the Bremen Bank.

    This clipping is interesting because its caption tells the story of what has happened to large buildings built for specific large tenants when the original tenant moves out. First another large user might come along, with a less prominent use of the space (her, a real estate office). Then comes a second wave of office use, and further depreciation of value. Finally, the property is eyed for a larger development. The story here ends a few months after this blurb appeared in the newspaper. After Mallinckrodt purchased the lovely old bank building, it wrecked it. While the blurb mentions federally-subsidized atomic energy activity, Mallinckrodt actually wrecked the Bremen Bank for a worker parking lot. To this day, the site remains vacant save a small building built on the east end if the parcel in 1994.

    In 1949, such industrial expansion along Broadway north and south of downtown was not uncommon. Such expansion came on the heels of the 1947 city Comprehensive Plan, which streamlined land uses to industrial in formerly mixed-use areas along the riverfront while calling for a zoning plan that would allow such anti-urban uses as surface parking on a major thoroughfare. Alas, that zoning plan remains in place, while the land use plan finally changed in 2005. Also remaining is the notion that industrial sites need to spread outward, surrounded by parking and open land, and not be more integrated into city neighborhoods. A clipping like this demonstrates that there are formidable constants in historic preservation and urban design. Nearly sixty years later, a lot remains the same.

    North Broadway around Bremen Bank, however, does not remain the same. Mallinckrodt's expansion -- much of it for parking -- erased most of the pedestrian quality of that street scape. Besides the bank, only a few other small businesses are open there. Interstate 70 forms a barrier between this area and the populated section of the Hyde Park Park neighborhood to the west. The city government officially draws the Old North and Hyde Park boundaries at I-70, further enforcing the separation. Had things progressed differently, the old Bremen Bank could have been retained along with other buildings on Broadway, with Hyde Park connected to its major employer and to the riverfront.

    What is puzzling is that at the same time the 1947 Comprehensive Plan's call for creating an industrial wall along the river was being drafted, civic leaders were also plotting the construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial downtown in order to improve the central riverfront. Did no one see the conflict between the policies? There was already an organic urban connection to the river, and it could have been enhanced as the city began its loss of industry. Industrial expansion policies -- and, I should point out, the Memorial itself -- decimated the street grids, neighborhoods and buildings that bound the city to the Mississippi. The long-term consequences of the old policies are haunting us today. And we don't have as many resources like the Bremen Bank building around to help reconnect us to the riverfront as we started with.

    Clay: Arch Grounds Bill "Technical Placeholder" for Next Congress

    Today's Riverfront Times carries an article by Kristin Hinman, "Shaky Grounds: Congress may consider putting the Arch's riverfront park in private hands", in which Congressman William Clay states on the record the intention behind HR 7252, the bill that he introduced in October to cede control of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to a private group.

    Clay's statement is encouraging:

    In a written statement to Riverfront Times, he describes the bill as a "technical placeholder" for the 111th Congress, which begins in January.

    "The potential loss of a portion of a national park, even for a worthy public purpose, is a very serious matter," Clay writes. "And it will require extensive public input and community engagement before anything happens."

    The congressman is correct. I am glad that Clay put his intentions on the record and supports a public process for considering changes. Hopefully, when the next Congress convenes, Clay refrains from introducing any bill until the National Park Service draft management plan is reviewed by the public and formally adopted in the spring.

    Preservation Board to Consider Five Demolition Proposals on Monday

    The preliminary agenda for the St. Louis Preservation Board's regular monthly meeting on Monday, November 24 is now available. The agenda contains five demolition proposals.

    Three proposals are preliminary reviews requested by the Department of Public Safety, seeking condemnation for demolition on private properties located at 1824 Warren Street in the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District (St. Louis Place), 5115 Cates Avenue in the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District (Academy) and 3927-29 Shenandoah Avenue in the Shaw Historic District. The fourth preliminary review is requested by a homeowner for a historic garage at 1106 Dolman Street in the Lafayette Square Historic District.

    Then there is a staff denial of a demolition permit for the frame 19th century house at 4722 Tennessee Avenue in Dutchtown South. A different owner went through the same motions last year, and in June 2007 the Preservation Board upheld staff denial of the demolition permit. The current owner, New Life Evangelistic Center, is a tenacious organization, so this may be the most contentious item on the agenda.

    Monday, November 17, 2008

    Lost: 4405 & 4409 Evans Avenue

    I have taken so many photographs of north St. Louis buildings that I often fall behind in tracking the subjects. The buildings shown above are a good example, since this photograph dates to August 2005, their demolition took place in 2006 and I noticed their loss in 2008.

    When I stumbled upon this pair on Evans Avenue in Lewis Place I was struck by the versatility of the pyramidal turret. At left, the house at 4409 Evans Avenue uses the turret to punctuate the top of a projecting bay window.

    The otherwise plain house stood out with the addition of that striking but basic architectural form. Next door, the flats at 4405 Evans use the turret in a different way.

    Brick quoins and terra cotta panels adorned the Classical Revival building, but that center-placed turret was the crown. Rising above the flared gable's peak, the turret drew the eye toward the sky, balancing the view of the building with a strong sense of the natural world around it. The architect's skyward aspirations were immodest but also inspiring. Here, as in so many other instances in St. Louis, a building for the common person was addressing the street with architectural finery and any power above with a tall turret.

    The vacant lot now on this site draws the eye downward, at ragged grass and the droppings of careless pedestrians and motorists. There is nothing transformational about the vacant lot, and no hint of any aspiration -- even toward reuse of the site.

    More Time Needed for Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Planning

    I was out of town Friday when KWMU aired my most recent guest commentary:

    More Time Needed for Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Planning

    Sunday, November 16, 2008

    Lost: Tudor Revival Apartment Building on Warne Avenue

    The other day, I passed the southwest corner of Warne and Greelea avenues in the O'Fallon neighborhood and noticed that the apartment building once on the site was gone. The photograph above shows that building, whose address was 4225 Warne, in August 2005. The Land Reutilization Authority wrecked the building in August 2007. Vacant since 1991, the building deteriorated badly under the ownership of Jourdan and Jo Ann Jordan who finally defaulted on taxes, although the couple took out small building permits for work in 2004. Once LRA obtained the property, the roof was missing over half of the building, with massive water damage inside.

    So went one of the city's most picturesque multi-family buildings. The Tudor Revival building had a sense of whimsy, as evidenced by the irresistible small turret and the crenellation. The differentiation of setbacks also showed a smart sensibility on the part of the architect. From among a cluster of modest frame buildings arose this masonry jewel on Warne Avenue. Just west, on the opposite side of the street, is Harrison School. Just north is the commercial strip on Florissant Avenue with its southern dip down Warne. This building clearly intended to line up alongside the fancy commercial buildings and hold its own architecturally. For many years, it did.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2008

    Needed: Public Input

    As I sat in the Steinberg auditorium on Friday night waiting for the start of a panel discussion on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, I wondered where the crowd might be. The panel discussion was part of this weekend's student charrette sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Transportation Engineering Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, and featured the public match-up of Danforth Foundation President Peter Sortino and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley. Joining the panel were moderator Robert Duffy of the St. Louis Beacon, George Nicolajevich of Cannon Design and Professor Eric Mumford of Washington University. The line-up promised to be provocative.

    Alas, the spirit of debate was rather tepid, although the panelists were in top form. First, the critical mass of interested citizens that I expected did not attend. Most of the audience were students participating in the charrette, university faculty and charrette speakers. Curious citizens were not present, nor was the pack of urbanist bloggers who usually pack meetings. The panel was widely advertised, too, so people did know this was going on.

    At Sunday, student presentations at Mansion House, I felt the same disappointment. Where were my fellow St. Louisans? Where were even those people already disposed to caring? Where was Sortino? The press, aside from intrepid Post-Dispatch editorial writer Eddie Roth? (Tom Bradley was present.) Even I was late, scheduling something else during that time. The students put considerable intellectual energy into their projects and presentations, and generated many useful ideas. The students were, quite frankly, buzzed by the charrette. There were even smiles!

    I am wondering what sort of attention the region's citizens have paid the Arch grounds debate. With minimal attention and input, proceeding with any plan now is reckless. First, the public needs to be drawn out from whatever barriers that keep them from caring about the fate of the region's front door. Perhaps the distance of the Arch from our citizens' daily lives is a block to investment in discussion about design changes. The Arch grounds occupy a spot on the far east edge of the city, and terrible highway infrastructure cuts them off from even immediate urban surroundings. Maybe people don't think of the Arch grounds as "theirs."

    Perhaps the debate has been too mired in polarization to draw interest. If the discussion is framed in terms of the Danforth proposal, the outcome may seem quite the fait accompli to most people familiar with business as usual in Mound City. The discussion needs to be recast. After all, we are talking about the future of public land. It belongs to the people, and the people ought to direct or at least inform the future of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

    One thing that I think is keeping people from becoming interested: there are no visuals to back up any of the ideas about the grounds. The Arch itself is such a powerful visual symbol. Every St. Louisans knows it. Few know what the Danforth Plan looks like, or what a revamped Memorial Drive looks like or even what a lid over I-70 looks like. To most people, ideas for changing the grounds are painfully abstract. To build public excitement, visuals are needed -- showing problems and solutions.

    Good news: the students participating in the charrette just created a bunch of such images. Hopefully the student charrette ideas can be spread around -- the proposals will be exibited starting in late November -- and amplified. The Memorial is public land, and we are the owners -- that is, as long as we act like we are.

    TAKE A LOOK YOURSELF: Over at the Post-Dispatch's blog The Platform, Eddie Roth has posted his thoughts and a lovely, impressionistic video featuring sounds and sights from Sunday's presentations. Check it out here.

    Floundering Frame Flounder House

    This morning, I attended a meeting where Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr. (D-3rd) pledged to never support another demolition in Hyde Park again. Historic buildings' value will surely increase, reasoned the alderman, "even the ones with only one wall left." On the way back, I passed a Hyde Park house that nearly matches the alderman's welcome remarks.

    The frame house at 2911 N. Florissant Avenue is, to put it mildly, derelict. The rear half of the house has collapsed and the front has a severe lean. Owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority and vacant since 1996, the house has reached a point where demolition -- either by condemnation or simple collapse -- is a foregone conclusion.

    That conclusion is sad, because the house itself is quite a unique specimen of that peculiar house type known as the flounder house. Historians have only found the flounder house form in St. Louis and parts of eastern Virginia. The origin of the flounder house is unknown, but the form is easy to spot: the roof slopes sharply from one side of the building to the other. The form garnered its name because the roof pitch made the house look like half of the head of a flounder fish.

    In St. Louis, there are probably less than 30 flounder houses left. Most are small one-and-a-half-story homes, but a few are two-and-a-half stories tall. Benton Park, Gravois Park, Marine Villa, Soulard, Old North St. Louis, St. Louis Place and Hyde Park all have flounder houses. The noteworthy thing is that, of all of the examples that are known to survive, the house on North Florissant is the only frame flounder house. While others may exist, perhaps altered beyond recognition, none have been identified by historians at the Cultural Resources Office or Landmarks Association of St. Louis. The house in Hyde Park is quite unique.

    Another interesting element to the house is that the side walls of the foundation seems to consist of two wooden sills spaced by a fachwerk wall atop a shallow rubble stone base. Fachwerk is essentially the use of covered masonry to fill in spaces between studs. Outside, a fachwerk wall looks like clapboard, timbered stucco or whatever cladding conceals it. This foundation's original cladding and masonry are gone, with concrete block and weatherboard substituted.

    Alas, being a badly-deteriorated frame building in Hyde Park does not distinguish the house. Hyde Park has many ailing frame structures that are worthy of preservation. Most are in better shape than the flounder house.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2008

    Side by Side on Sheridan Avenue

    Left: 2944 Sheridan Avenue, abandoned and owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority. Right: 2946 Sheridan, privately owned and well maintained. Left to right: one historic building in the city's JeffVanderLou neighborhood.

    Abandoned in Less Than Thirty Years

    The sight of abandoned buildings less than thirty years old can be particularly unsettling. Urban housing that has been built and abandoned within a thirty year time frame tells a tale of acute failure. Blame it on the design, cheap construction, bad tenants or shady landlords -- no matter. That a society can discard relatively new buildings shows fundamental problems with our values.

    These buildings in JeffVanderLou are good examples.

    The two-story apartment building at 3032 Sheridan Avenue was built in 1980 and boarded up in 2008. The owner is JVL 1998 Apartments LLC, whose organizers are Mark Jaffe and Martin Jaffe according to the Secretary of State's Office. The frame building stands on a concrete foundation. While not particularly attractive, the scale, fenestration and setback are fairly urban. The high basement creates another level of living space and maxinmizes density -- perhaps that is too much when there are not separate external entrances?

    The two-story apartment building at 3042 Sheridan Avenue was built in 1980 and vacated in 2002. The owner is JVL 1998 Apartments LLC. Even smaller than its next-door neighbor, this building is not doomed by its decent (not great) design.

    This pair of two-story apartment buidlings on platform founations stands east of the other two, at 148 and 1418 Glasgow Avenue. City records indicate that these buildings were built in 1978. Now owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority, the buildings were owned in 2007 by JVL Affordable Housing LP, a subsidiary of Austin, Texas-based Delphi Affordable Housing Group. Delphi must have defaulted on its property taxes here. Delphi purchased these and dozens more in JVL, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou from an Arizona-based company in 2005. The Arizona company had run the properties in the ground. Delphi rehabilitated most of its inventory, but many of its buidlings again have become the source of frequent citizen complaints about nuisances and drug dealing.

    Monday, November 10, 2008

    Learning Lessons from Soulard

    Photographs taken in the 1970s (probably in 1977) by a Soulard resident and now in the collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis provide interesting parallels between that neighborhood's renaissance and current efforts underway to renew near north side neighborhoods like Old North St. Louis and St. Louis Place.

    The photographs here show derelict historic buildings. From condition to building type, these shots are a lot like those from the north side that have flooded urbanist blogs in the last two years. Perhaps few in Soulard then would have imagined that thirty-one years later the same conditions would persist and remain the subject of controversy. Certainly that neighborhood's history is testament to the power of concerted effort to resolve thse conditions through smart historic preservation strategy. Still, there were glaring blunders in Soulard that north siders today can avoid. While Soulard in the 1970s faced a dense neighborhood with a high level of vacancy, the north side today faces conditions that combine low density with a rising level of building vacancy. Soulard could not afford the losses shown here; we really can't afford to lose another building!

    Here is the southeast corner of Menard and Shenandoah streets. One of the striking features of the row are four nearly-identical side-hall signle-family dwellings dating to the 1850s. Those first floor pediments are cast iron. Clearly, the row has experienced hard times, but the vernacular buildings retain their architectural beauty. Again, I can't help but think of a project like Rob Powers' "Daily Dose of Blairmont" series. This is the sort of urban grouping Powers and others have documented with passionate cries for preservation.

    Here is the rear of that row. Again, conditions we now as common -- and reversible. Surely, that is what happened to this row. Wrong. Developers Guy McClellan and Sedge Mead wrecked all but the corner building after these photographs were taken. Their firm, Mead McClellan, was widely recognized as the private developer that tackled Soulard on a large scale. Mead McClellan rehabbed dozens of Soulard buildings, but tore down a few as well. In the 1980s, the firm also demolished downtown's "terra cotta" district on Olive Street These buildings would have been gold when the 1998 Missouri rehab tax credit went into effect, but their existence didn't suit the incentives that existed before.

    The hard lesson learned -- and one that Paul McKee ought to consider in north city -- is that large scale development tends to create collateral damage among historic properties. No developer can do it all, and none should try. The second lesson is that historic buildings will simultaneously be subjects to and victims of tax credit incentive programs. Developers will always try to discard buildings that are "unworkable" under incentive programs. That's where city preservation ordinances do their duty.

    Another sad tale from Soulard concerns this Romanesque Revival six-flat in the 2300 block of South Seventh Street. Union Electric demolished this house for a sub-station. The trade-off was so lop-sided, it is mind-boggling. No doubt the location on a neighborhood edge made the demolition more palatable. The lesson here is that neighborhood edges tend to attract retail, gas stations, utility stations and other projects that are unsightly and entail demolition. While it may seem sensible to locate such things on the perimeter off a neighborhood, every neighborhood does the same thing to the point where once-grand streets like South Seventh, Gravois, and North Florissant have become placeless seas of marginal uses.

    These next two photograph show unidentified buildings.

    Please send identification if you know what these photographs show.

    There are obvious and much-mentioned good lessons for near north St. Louis neighborhoods to take from Soulard, but the harder lessons need to be heeded as well. The situation on the near north side makes each historic building extremely fragile, and preservation an urgent cause. McKee's project lurks in every discussion of the area because it involves so much of the area's remaining historic building stock. Mead McClellan never owned enough of Soulard to remove the neighborhood character from whole swaths; in St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou, McKee does. What he intends to do with that power is unknown, but what residents want him to do with it should be clear. Other property owners -- ranging from churches to out-of-town landlords -- also hold the future of many near north side buildings in jeopardy.

    The best lesson from Soulard may be the power of vigilance at the community level. So many residents decided that they simply would not let the buildings be lost. While not always successful in individual attempts, Soulard's residents won the larger battle of retaining the historic character of the neighborhood. Can near north side residents do the same? Can we draw the line on preserving our buildings? At this critical point, we must. Even Soulard lost the beautiful buildings I've shown above, and many others.

    Friday, November 7, 2008

    Obama's House

    Photograph by Katherine Hodges.

    Illinois Senator Barack Obama will soon be living in a famous historic home, and for that we are thankful, but his current residence is not unremarkable. Famously an owner of only one house, Obama resides in a spacious, historic home in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood. The hipped-roof Colonial Revival home and adjacent lot -- regrettably made infamous during the campaign -- are found on a block familiar to millions of urban Americans.

    While we all don't live in homes as large as Obama's or in neighborhoods as tony as Obama's pocket of Kenwood Kenwood, us city-dwellers can see ourselves in Obama more so than in any president in our lifetimes. Obama lives in a red brick house close to the sidewalk on a public street in a densely-populated neighborhood. Near the Obama family home is Washington Park, a magnificent but somewhat-untended city park. Washington Park mixes the aesthetics of Gilded Age aspiration with the contemporary reality of human life. Its paths are mostly full of people enjoying the beauty, but it has its share of vice and crime. West of the park is the CTA's Green Line, an elevated train line that carries thousands of Chicagoans to work, school church and nightlife.

    To the south, Hyde Park and the University of Chicago place academic refinement smack-dab against neighborhoods where poverty is a real problem. North of Kenwood are neighborhoods whose fortunes are equally mixed. Barack Obama bought a wonderful home for his family, surrounded by the urban reality of his city. Obama's life is sheltered by necessity, but not by location. His home is in the middle of the diversity, wonder, agony and mystery of American urban life -- "real America" to many Americans. At times, cities seem to be as real as it gets.

    Many American presidents -- including Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton -- have relocated to New York City at points in their career, but none in the last fifty years have come straight out of an urban neighborhood to the White House. These past fifty years have been terrible years for American cities. Seems like little coincidence that we have had presidents who come from that ether between the real life of the cities and the real life of the rural areas -- one place widely defamed by national politicians, the other mythologized in speech and neglected by policy.

    Barack Obama has walked streets like ours and lived in a red brick house in the city. He has called an urban neighborhood in south Chicago home. At last, America has an urban president. At times, Obama will displease urban Americans -- after all, he is governing a nation with a suburban culture that is entrenched in national government. Yet Obama has actually lived urban America, and I can't help but think that will make a crucial difference in transportation policy, housing allocation, block grant funding and other areas.

    Of course, Obama holds only the pen that signs the laws. The laws originate with our representatives. We have an urban president, and to make the most of that, urban America needs to step up and make its voice heard. Change doesn't end with Obama, it starts with us.

    Pinnacle Third Quarter Report Mentions Admiral Relocation

    Pinnacle's third quarter earnings report, released yeterday, contains this sentence:

    The Company is evaluating the feasibility, subject to gaming commission and other regulatory approvals, of relocating The Admiral Riverboat Casino to another location within the city of St. Louis.

    Tell Senator McCaskill There's No Need to Pass Arch Grounds Legislation Now

    On October 3, Congressman William Clay (D-MO 1st) introduced HR 7252, which would downgrade the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds from the current National Historic Landmark status to listing on the National Register of Historic Places and, most important, authorize the Secretary of the Interior to enter into an agreement with the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Trust that would allow the Trust to manage the Memorial grounds and construct a museum there. The Danforth Foundation incorporated the Trust in June, with Peter Raven, Walter Metcalfe and Bob Archibald as the corporation's directors.

    Now, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has felt pressure to introduce a companion in the Senate. Believe it or not, word is that some parties want the bill to pass in the current lame duck Congress, while privatization-friendly President George W. Bush and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne are still in office. McCaskill has yet to cave to the pressure. If she did, and the bill were to become law, a public process already underway for planning improvements to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial would be stopped, and a private vision would be enshrined in federal law.

    Clay's bill is inappropriate on several fronts:

  • The bill short-changes the public, which has yet to see the National Park Service's draft management plan for the Memorial or participate in the planned 45-day public comment period. NPS has released a summary of its preferred alternative, but has not issued the actual draft General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. NPS will release that draft in January, with the comment period immediately afterward.
  • The National Park Service has called for an international design competition to be held next year where changes to the grounds could be visualized and a winning entry would be selected by a jury. This process would allow for a wide range of possibilities to be explored. The winning entry might call for something other than a museum on the grounds.
  • Congress should not exercise the power to remove National Historic Landmark status for political reasons (there is a formal process for removing the designation in place within the Department of the Interior).
  • It is an abuse of the purpose of the National Park system for Congress to direct the National Park Service to lease a National Park to a private group solely for construction. We can build a museum at the Memorial -- although we already have two there -- but we need not cede control to a private entity to do so. Without a public input process, we have no idea if there is support for the museum idea or what sort of museum is appropriate for the site.

    I urge my readers to contact Senator McCaskill (via this page) and tell her that the Clay bill is flawed and premature. Sending the same thoughts to Representative Clay (via this page) would be helpful as well.
  • Wednesday, November 5, 2008

    Six Months is Easy, Ten Years is Hard

    Here is the sanctuary of the Fourth Baptist Church at 13th and Sullivan in Old North St. Louis after the devastating fire on September 20 (see "Beautiful Fourth Baptist Church," September 24). As we come upon winter, the condition of the destabilized complex is heavy on my mind. Will the church make it to spring? Of course; gravity is a slow process, and this building will resist its pull. Will it still stand ten years hence? I have no idea. The old church can stand another six months if its fate is left to chance. Chance, however, is no guarantor of a future; after all, chance brought the flames that engulfed the sanctuary less than two months ago. A ten-year plan will take planning, and action. The church can win its war with gravity, but not by itself.

    Walking Tour of Southwest Garden This Saturday

    Landmarks Association Sponsors Tour of Southwest Garden Neighborhood Led by Edna Gravenhorst

    When: Saturday, November 8 at 10:30 a.m.

    Where: Meet at the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association Office, 4950 Southwest Avenue

    Contact: Landmarks Association, 314-421-6474


    On November 8, Landmarks Association sponsors a free walking tour of the Southwest Garden neighborhood, one of south city's best-kept secrets. Edna Campos Gravenhorst, author of the new pictorial history Southwest Garden, will lead people down charming residential streets, robust commercial districts and the scene of the famous Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.

    The tour starts at 10:30 a.m. at the office of the ever-busy Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association (4950 Southwest Avenue), where President Floyd Wright will welcome the crowd and discuss current projects in the neighborhood. Then the tour moves to the Southwest bank where former bank president Ed Berra will provide a tour and tell people about the famous 1953 robbery that was immortalized in the Steve McQueen film The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery. After the bank, Edna will narrate a walk to houses ranging from 20th century Craftsmans to 19th century revival-style beauties. The tour will include Gurney and Heger Courts as well as the storefront commercial architecture of the area. Visitors will see all sides of a beautiful neighborhood near the garden.

    Southwest Garden was commissioned by the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association in celebration of the association╩╝s 30th anniversary. The book is divided into four historical walking tours with twenty sites in each tour. The oldest landmarks in the book are the Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Park, the State Hospital, Campbell Plaza and Fire Station 35.

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008

    The Shady Oak Theater and the Big Box

    Photograph by Lynn Josse.

    Wreckers started taking down the shuttered one-screen Shady Oak Theater at 7630 Forsyth Boulevard. While not dazzling, the Colonial Revival building was a handsome building. Built in 1933 and designed by architects Frederick Dunn and Campbell Alden Scott, the theater was a reminder of the genteel character that Clayton once possessed. The theater's small scale was once part and parcel of the residential suburb's architectural character, but in the past twenty years was an antidote to the giantism and automobile storage worship that has befell Clayton.

    On November 2, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story on the demolition that quoted Thomas Stern, president of Solon Gershman, the company that is wrecking the theater for surface parking. According to Stern, "[n]ow if you don't have 16 screens it doesn't make sense to run a movie theater. It has more value to us now for parking in the intermediate term."

    In light of current economic circumstances, Stern's first statement is as baffling as it is illuminating. Even at the height of our recent credit glut, theater operators in the region's urban core had backed away from the super-sized multi-plex in favor of theaters of six screens or less. A one-screen move house is perfect for an urban area like downtown Clayton, where a residential population lies within an easy walk and land for a larger theater would be difficult to assemble.

    With credit slow, I doubt that even the most exurban reaches of the St. Louis area will see a new 16-screen theater in the next few years. However, smaller movie houses with less overhead and closer to dense populations (especially wealthy populations like in Clayton) should do well. Stern's comment suggests an uncritical embrace of large scale development -- the attitude that has eroded Clayton's charm, killed off the Shady Oak and damaged our economy. While there are signs that attitude has lost much of its momentum, there is also the possibility that the economic crisis has only momentarily slowed down the pace of the big box culture. Let's hope that the big box is headed for the destruction that it has wrought on urban areas.

    Sugar Loaf Mound for Sale

    Mound City's only remaining prehistoric mound is now for sale. Sugar Loaf Mound, a burial mound older than 1,000 years, is located on the side of the Mississippi River aside I-55 near the South Broadway exit. Readers probably know the visible small white house on the hill at that location. The hill is only the most obvious part of the mound, which is larger than it appears. The house and the mound are now listed for $400,000. Realtor Leigh Maibes of Circa Properties has started a blog on the mound, its history and the sale. Check out the blog, Sugar Loaf Mound Saint Louis. The curious can also visit the site this weekend at an open house:

    The Sugar Loaf Mound House will be open this Sunday November 9, 2008 from 1-4 pm. Please feel free to stop by even if you are just a curiosity seeker. I will be on hand to answer any questions that you may have about the property and house. Please park on the side of the road opposite from the house if at all possible. Hopefully, it will be a lovely day and we will have tons of fun.

    The house is located at 4420 Ohio St. Saint Louis, MO 63111 near highway 55 and Broadway. Please feel free to post questions here!

    The sale raises the issue of stewardship. For over 50 years, the mound has been owned by the family that lives in the house. The family has left the mound alone, preserving what is left. Now that the family is selling the property, there is the opportunity for a preservation plan for the city's most historic structure. Tourists love the "very old" Old Courthouse and Old Cathedral, and Cahokia Mounds in Illinois has the prestige of being a United Nations World Heritage Site. Imagine the potential for Sugar Loaf Mound as a protected public site with a solid interpretive center. Mound City could have the chance to celebrate its ancient roots, and take pride in a landmark unlike any other in the city.

    Monday, November 3, 2008

    A is Not for the Admiral

    While Missouri Proposition A is not directly about historic preservation, there is a preservation-related consequence: the shuttering of the S.S. Admiral on the St. Louis riverfront. First built in 1907 and rebuilt to jazz-age standards in 1940, the beleaguered Art Moderne boat has lost its engine and much of its original interior, but it retains sophisticated, cool lines on the exterior. Of course, the body of the S.S. Admiral is hidden behind an ugly floating structure on the riverfront side, placing the only clear view from the river channel.

    Currently, Pinnacle Entertainment owns both the Admiral and Lumiere Place uphill. Pinnacle's ownership prevents local competition as well as provides a close place where patrons can continue gambling after reaching loss limits at Lumiere. It's a bad system, and I am not arguing that Pinnacle should continue it.

    Personally, I support allowing people to decide what to do with their own money. That support extends both to gamblers looking to lay some money down at a casino as well as casino operators looking to open new casinos. Proposition A doesn't allow for a free market in casinos. Rather, it acts as a form of protectionism for current operators. The proposition would lift Missouri's loss limits -- the last left in the nation, but would also limit Missouri's casino licenses to 13. Currently, there are 12 licenses and Pinnacle Entertainment is seeking to secure one for a new casino in Lemay. Obviously, Proposition A is a windfall for Pinnacle and other operators, and a roadblock to competition. I hope that the measure fails and a smarter, competition-oriented policy is adopted. After all, if gamblers will be pouring more money into casinos, they deserve choices.

    Back to the Admiral: If Proposition A passes, Pinnacle won't need the old boat. Dan Lee, head of Pinnacle, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in September that he might move the boat to a new city location temporarily, but eventually ditch it for a new facility that would assume the Admiral's license. Should that course of events happen, no other operator will be able to buy the Admiral and obtain a gaming license. Any use for the Admiral that does not include gambling probably will fail. Stripped of so many other things, the Admiral has survived. Stripped of a gaming license, the boat won't have much of a future. The threat to the Admiral is not a good reason to vote against Proposition A, but it will be a consequence of its passage.

    Looking at the 2800 Block of St. Louis Avenue

    Behold the remaining homes of the north face of the 2800 block of St. Louis Avenue, between Leffingwell and Glasgow. This photograph suggests a block of density and varied residential architecture. Unfortunately, this photograph lies by omission.

    The realistic view is offered through this altered shot of the 1909 Sanborn fire insurance map page for the block. I have placed a red "x" over each demolished building. As you can see, most of the block's fabric is long gone. Seven historic buildings remain.

    That number was nine at the start of 2008, before the city wrecked the westernmost two buildings. (See We're Losing the Intersection of Glasgow and St. Louis", January 16, 2008.) The wedge-shaped western building was a two story storefront building with an amazing corner turret. The demolition of the westernmost buildings came at the same time as three buildings across the street were demolished. The city's Building Division's over-eager Demolition Division pursued mass demolition, taking down five buildings because one had suffered damage from brick rustlers. Companies controlled by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. owned four of the five buildings. The loss was visually devastating, but a look at the Sanborn map shows that a lot of other buildings were lost before those without any fanfare. And the fact remains that what is left is not insignificant or unworthy of conservation.

    The four two-story homes are all accentuated by varying street setbacks. All are painted, but still show the full force of late 19th century St. Louis machine-pressed brick facades with limestone dressing. Despite different styles, sizes and placement, the homes all have doorways on the westernmost side of the first floor. At the east (right here), 2833 St. Louis Avenue is a strong example of the Second Empire style, with a Roman arch entrance dating it to the early 1890s. Next door, at 2835, is a lovely Italianate home with a low mansard roof rising above a cornice of patterned ornamental brick. The composition of the home is echoed somewhat in the next house to the west, at 2837, although eclecticism has freer hand. The westernmost of the group, at 2841, has a stepped front parapet that likely is not original. These houses started as single-family homes, but were later divided, un-divided and re-divided again.

    The eastern three houses show even more diversity of height, style and setback. There are two one-story side-entrance houses, with the boarded western one (2829, owned by N & G Ventures LC) having a front addition that extended it out to the sidewalk. The easternmost house (2825, owned by Larmer LC), is more typical of the block's once-prevalent two-story homes. The house has a stepped front parapet and side entrance. The flat limestone arches are striking. Again, all three started as single-family homes. The one-story homes show us that the homeowners in the late 19th century here were of diverse means. The family that could build the Second Empire town home lived smack-dab, next-door to the family that built a three-room one-story shotgun and later saved up enough to expand it one room forward.

    The arrangement and condition of these seven homes compel preservation and residential infill on this block face. Despite loss and abandonment, the homes are a fine group that gives a forlorn stretch of St. Louis Avenue needed urban character. To the immediate west of Glasgow on the north face begins the dense, intact residential neighborhood of Lindell Park. Lindell Park's homes are different than those on the 2800 block of St. Louis. The prevalent styles are later, lots are wider and homes are set further back. North of the 2800 block of St. Louis, homes are smaller, with one and one-and-a-half story homes dominant. This section of St. Louis Avenue shows an attempt to carry the architectural majesty of the section of St. Louis Avenue between Jefferson and Parnell -- once known as "Millionaire's Row" -- westward to Grand. Little survives, but what does shows a section of St. Louis Avenue far less segregated than the celebrated section to the east. Just as Millionaire's Row tells an important story, so do these houses. Like the first photograph shown here, north St. Louis without this part of St. Louis Avenue tells a lie through omission.