We've Moved

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

Monday, March 30, 2009

Memorial Boulevard

Yesterday evening I happened to be driving south on I-70 through downtown St. Louis. Often this drive passes by and barely registers in my mind, but this time I could not help but vividly see something -- something that was not there. As I rode the elevated lanes that divide and conquer the area between downtown and the riverfront, I looked south at the point where 4th Street comes close to I-70. There, the highway and the street form a wedge shape filled by overabundant sidewalk space, a parking lot and the Hampton Inn.

I imagined that instead of being elevated ahead of a descent, I was driving at grade from Cass Avenue all of the way to the Poplar Street Bridge. The highway became an urban thoroughfare allowing for easy local access and great views. I could foresee stopping at traffic lights as pedestrians walked from the casino over to restaurants on Washington Avenue, or from downtown apartments to the river for a stroll. Instead of a gravel lot, I saw a completed Bottle District with modern mid-rise residential buildings. Lumiere Place presented an attractive face to downtown.

Straight ahead, I did not see the weary concrete sidewalks and parking lot ahead of the Hampton Inn, but a new flatiron office building with a fountain in the middle of the plaza where traffic between the boulevard merged with Fourth Street. The sensation was akin to the view of downtown Chicago offered at the point near the Drake Hotel where Lake Shore Drive meets the north end of Michigan Avenue. That view always gives me a giddy feeling, because the essence of the entire urban density of Chicago seems to come into view there. The options there are staying on Lake Shore Drive for the breathtaking view of the lake or turning off onto the Magnificent Mile. There is no mediocrity in sight.

Yesterday, I saw a similar picture. I could make a right turn and veer off into the excitement of downtown, lured by the refined architecture of the Missouri Athletic Club, or head straight for that section of downtown that is right at the Gateway Arch. Either way I was going to see our urban core at its best. When I was right at the Arch, instead of dangerously looking up through aging concrete infrastructure, I caught a red light and had at least 20 seconds to take in the glistening sheen of the Arch skin reflecting the golden sunset.

Storefront Addition: "Plumber"

The storefront at 3747 Arsenal Street in Benton Park West is an addition to a small, two-room side-gabled brick house built in 1880. The 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map shows the storefront addition marked "plumber." The storefront here is free of major changes, with its glazing in a historic (although not likely to be original) configuration. The building is now for sale.

Saving a Sense of the City

If you haven't seen it yet, last week's South City Journal feature "Saving a sense of the city" offers an overview of endangered south city buildings, ranging from the Avalon Theater to the smokestack at the Carondelet Coke plant. Sean Clubb assembled the story and Erica Burrus photographed the sites.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Race With Gravity

No building better captures the sense of nonchalant destruction that permeates Hyde Park than the house at 3802 Blair Avenue. Sitting alone after the deaths of its neighbors over the last thirty years, the building has put on a long, slow architectural striptease. First, its cornice started spalling. Bricks fell. Then, its front wall unzipped to reveal the stuffer brick behind the face brick. Then, off with most of the face brick. Last year, the Forestry Division came and cut down all of the ghetto palms in front to give us a nice clear view of the front wall. Now, the stuffer brick is starting to fall back into the house to reveal even more.

Not exactly sexy stuff.

The house is owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority and has been vacant for a generation. The brick loss started about a decade ago, and is reaching a finale. Why no one thought to stabilize or even demolish the house is a mystery. A wistful for-sale sign put up by the Neighborhood Council even hangs on the building. Then again, in Hyde Park, decline is nothing out of the ordinary.

Interesting that the side walls are intact and the building is relatively sound. Someone could even rebuild the front wall, although I doubt that simply relaying the face brick is possible at this point. The Neighborhood Council deserves credit for recognizing that the face brick loss was more cosmetic damage and that rehabilitation was not impossible. Some key details are still intact, like the mansard roof and dormers. There's no push to demolish the house -- just time to watch more pieces come off of the house. The house is well-paced in its race with gravity. There seems to always be more time for a vacant brick building to collapse -- and always time to come to the rescue.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Small Town Missouri Needs the Historic Tax Credit

The last time that I drove back from Jefferson City on Highway 94, I snapped this photograph of a historic store building in Tebbetts, Missouri. Who wants to be that this building will still be standing in ten years if Missouri greatly caps the state historic rehabilitation tax credit?

The real reason that Missouri senators should oppose the cap on historic tax credits proposed by Senator Brad Lager (R) is not because St. Louis' "tall hogs" are hungry. The reason is because small towns across this state have only started figuring out how to use the tax credit to save their heritage and bring economic development to Main Street. In the past five years there has been a spate of tax credit activity outside of St. Louis and Kansas City. It's not nearly as much as the activity in those big cities, but it will never grow if the credit is capped.

If the credit is capped, and the credit run through an appropriations process, issuance of the credit will become a political process. Currently, all one needs is a completed project and the right forms filled out -- do the work, get the credit. A cap and appropriation will benefit the big developers who can afford to gain influence and work at getting credits full time. The Lager cap would end up benefiting those who are already good at using the credit (big cities) and stunt the growth of tax credit activity in small towns across Missouri.

I am a St. Louisan who knows this building in Tebbetts needs the historic tax credit just as much as the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, or houses in Benton Park. We can't write off the rest of the state. Ironically, Lager's proposal might do just that. Rural areas are always at a disadvantage when it comes to economic development. The historic tax credit is the antidote, and with time and training -- would Lager support a state-funded tax credit training program? -- the small towns will use this credit to remake themselves. All of the Lager changes work against small towns trying to survive, and play right into the hands of politically-connected developers.

Benton Park Flounder Needs Repair After Collapse

Earlier this month, the flounder house at 2809 McNair (Rear) in Benton Park endured a collapse of part of one of its side walls as well as part of a its front (east) wall. The damage is severe, but the condition is not beyond the reach of some temporary telescoping jacks. In fact, the side wall that bears the roof weight is studded out, so there is a wall in place holding that weight for now. Of course, that wall is made of new soft pine and is not a long-term guarantee of survival. The building needs the corner relayed. No big deal!

As the photograph shows, the flounder consists of an original one-and-a-half story section and an addition at the low end of the roof. Building permits date the original house to 1884, and the addition to before 1900. the house has been vacant for the past five years, with some deterioration and structural problems.

The south side of the buidling has prominent stress cracks, but shows no imminent danger. If the owner doesn't have fund to repair the collapse, he could remove the addition and restore the original flounder house, which probably had a gallery porch in the spot wher ethe addition now stands. There are always so many solutions that are not total demolition. Will our Buidling Division urge one of these other solutions this time?

A short walk down the alley and back onto Lynch Street, one finds an intact and lived-in flounder house. This flounder has a front-hipped roof instead of the severe side slope seen on others. The group of buildings in which it plays a part is a great example of how diverse forms, styles, materials and setbacks can create a unique urban street face.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Senator Lager Introduces $75 Million Cap on Missouri Historic Rehab Tax Credit

At around 4:30 p.m., Senator Brad Lager (R) introduced a substitute to SB 45 that would cap the Missouri historic rehab tax credit at $75 million. Floor debate is proceeding with Senators Jeff Smith and Rita Days on the floor now speaking about the success of the program.

UPDATE at 5:50 p.m.: The Senate has moved on to the education bill. The majority pulled SB 45 from further consideration.

Listen to floor debate here here.

Anti-Historic Tax Credit Gang Lacking Consistent Records

Here's what some Missouri state senators are saying about the successful state historic rehabilitation tax credit that they are trying to destroy (the Senate will take up one proposal today):

"Tall hogs don't like to move off the trough. This process will move the tall hogs off the trough." --Senator Matt Bartle (R) quoted in the Columbia Tribune (March 12, 2009)

"Why is it that tax credits only benefit big businesses when most Missourians work for small businesses?" --Senator Jason Crowell (R) quoted in the Kansas City Star (March 24, 2009)

Do they think we have short memories in Missouri?

The economic development bill (SB1) passed during the special session of the Missouri General Assembly in August 2007 contained many provisions. One of the most publicized new tax credit programs created by that bill was the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit (DALATC), a $95 million program with annual appropriations of no more than $12.5 million. DALATC is available to developers in economically depressed areas of the state who are assembling projects of more than 75 acres -- i.e., big developers. The credit can be issued before development has started, and in fact contains few provisions to guarantee development would occur. The DALATC idea isn't bad but the version that passed is weak public policy.

Senator Frank Barnitz (D) proposed an amendment to eliminate DALATC from HB1, and his amendment failed 8-25. Those supporting the amendment were Senators Barnitz, Maida Coleman (D), Joan Bray (D), Wes Shoemeyer (D), Chuck Puragson (R), Brad Lager (R), Matt Bartle (R) and Yvonne Wilson (D). All other Senators voted to retain the new program with an annual cost to the state of at least $12.5 million and provisions that all but state that the program would only benefit the city of St. Louis.

Among those who voted against removing this section were Senator Luann Ridgeway (R) and Sen. Jason Crowell (R), who are leading the current charge against the state historic rehabilitation tax credit along with their more consistent colleagues Lager, Bartle and Purgason. When Ridgeway and Crowell lecture us on the historic tax credit costing too much, benefiting the big cities and not producing enough economic return they aren't explaining why less than two years ago they voted to create a new development tax credit with no guarantee for job creation that probably will be used exclusively in St. Louis and Kansas City.

When the final vote on HB 1 was taken, Bartle was the only member of the current gang pushing to cut the state historic rehab tax credit who voted "nay." A lot of "tall hogs" were served up a big meal by HB 1, and Crowell, Purgason, Crowell, Ridgeway and Lager helped feed them. These senators voted in favor of a bill that dramatically increased the cost of tax credit programs to the state. Now they want us to forget that?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Unknown Buyer of Pevely Dairy Complex May Back Off

The Post-Dispatch reports that the pending Pevely Dairy complex sale may stall after the spectacular loss on Sunday of one of the largest buildings on the site to a fire. The fire destroyed one of the two nearly identical -- in design and square footage -- warehouse buildings designed by Leonard Hager and built in 1917 (extant building shown above).

A big question since the St. Louis Business Journal first reported news of the contract on the complex is who is the prospective buyer (logical buyer St. Louis University has been rumored to be the shadow party). Scratch that -- the bigger question since the abrupt closure of the complex by Prairie Farms in October was whether there would be a buyer in the near future. The speed of a sales contract on a formidable development project amid a general recession was, until Sunday, a relief to those who would like to see the landmark buildings revitalized. Hopefully the deal is still on, because what is left is still eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing and ripe for redevelopment.

At any rate the size of the project suddenly has changed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

See Cool Rehabs Underway in Old North Tomorrow

The Rehabbers Club is hosting a great Old North tour tomorrow -- these are some of the most exciting projects in the neighborhood!

Saturday, March 21 at 9:30 AM
Meet at 1303 North Market

We'll begin at 1303 North Market, 63106, the old 6,000 SF Ford Charcoal plant currently being renovated into a live/work space by sculptor Graham Lane and his wife Viveca; next we'll get a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the $35 million Crown Square renovations [formerly the 14th Street Mall]; and finally we'll take a look at Ben and Heidi Sever's original three-wall LRA project, well on it's way to being finished. Thankfully, it has four walls now, and much more!

Join us for a very interesting morning as we see these urban transformations take shape!

Consider staying in the area for lunch at Crown Candy at 1401 St. Louis Avenue, 63106 or Cornerstone Cafe at 1436 Salisbury Street, 63107.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Central West End View from 1953

This view of the Central West End dates to 1953 and was taken by the City Plan Commission to show the parking facilities available in the vicinity of Barnes Hospital. The photographer took the photograph from the twelfth floor of McMillan Hospital and aimed north up Euclid Avenue (left). In the foreground is the depressed railroad tracks now used by MetroLink.

Ballpark Farms

Today's announcement that the St. Louis Cardinals will build out the Ballpark Village site with a softball field and parking lot in time for this year's All-Star Game is no big surprise. We all knew that Ballpark Village development was behind schedule, that the recession would stall the project further and that the Cardinals would hastily concoct some beautification plan before the All-Star Game. Yet this is definitely not what we wanted to show the world this year -- a surface parking lot instead of an urban development under construction.

The softball field, however, is a good idea that echoes one offered by Rick Bonasch in a blog post on STL Rising dated March 27, 2008:

What about bringing the site to grade, removing the Ballpark Village Parking Lot, planting sod, and building one or two small diamonds for amateur games?

Sometimes good ideas take time to be adopted. One year isn't bad in St. Louis!

The problem is the huge amount of surface parking that will be built on the site. While a softball field is whimsical, attractive and useful, a parking lot is the ultimate sign of the failure of civic imagination. Transitional uses can be helpful to an urban environment if they offer an activity as people await a development project. A new surface parking lot is not helpful to a downtown that has shed its stagnation for a new life as a vibrant cosmopolitan center.

I propose an alternative for the remainder of the Ballpark Village site that will represent the imagination that we all know St. Louis has. Here is my crude rendering of Ballpark Farms

Instead of a sea of asphalt, how about bumper crops of turnips, corn, greens and tomatoes growing in a new downtown farm? Ballpark Farms would offer more green space, an activity node, and educational possibilities for young fans. (High fencing around crops is required, though, to prevent trampling.) Ballpark Farms would show All Star Game attendees that St. Louis is good at coming up with creative, productive plans for its vacant land -- that even a patch of downtown dirt is an opportunity we know how to seize.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Landmarks Association Comment on JNEM Management Plan Calls for Better Connections

Landmarks Association of St. Louis submitted the following comment on the draft General Management Plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to the National Park Service:

Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc. was founded in 1959 with a mission to "promote, preserve and enhance St. Louis' architectural heritage and encourage sound planning and good contemporary design." Both facets of our mission statement compel our comment on the draft General Management Plan (GMP) for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM).

Generally, we find that the GMP includes many strong and useful ideas for a future design program that would preserve the unique modern landscape of the Arch grounds while transforming the connections between the landscape and surrounding urban fabric. Landmarks Association commends the National Park Service (NPS) on recognizing the extent to which the condition of the existing connections are a hindrance to both JNEM and downtown St. Louis. We are supportive of many of the ideas common to all of the Alternatives under consideration, including streetscape unification plans, improvements to interpretive programming and museum exhibits, increased visitor activities, improved pedestrian access and encouragement of development of the east riverfront.

True to our mission, Landmarks Association makes the following recommendations for the final GMP to clarify preservation of the Arch grounds and expand the range of possible options for improving connectivity:

1. The NPS should allow removal of I-70 in the GMP. The presence of I-70 at the western edge of the Arch grounds is the biggest obstacle to pedestrian access, at the Old Courthouse, Washington Avenue and other major entrance points. With the projected opening in 2012 of a new Mississippi River Bridge carrying I-70, the elevated and depressed lanes that sever the Arch grounds from downtown will no longer be necessary interstate lanes. One possibility at that time would be exploring a merger of I-70 and Memorial Drive into an attractive at-grade boulevard that would carry through traffic while creating a softer, pedestrian-friendly western edge to the Arch grounds. This idea could be explored through a design competition and traffic study. The current GMP alternatives would not allow exploration of this idea. The final GMP should include removal of I-70 within the parameters of a design competition.

2. The GMP should contain other options for a design competition. The NPS has included in the GMP alternatives a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the problems and opportunities of improved access to the Arch grounds. The preferred alternative calls for a major design competition for resolution of these issues, but we think that NPS has already created a framework for practical, incremental solutions. We think that a major design competition has the potential to generate design ideas incompatible with a landscape designated as a National Historic Landmark containing an iconic work of modern architecture. Division of the competition into phases based on specific areas where there are access problems could allow for an incremental implementation that resolves design problems faster and preserves the integrity of the JNEM landscape. An incremental approach would also allow time to build needed alliances with public and private entities that control infrastructure crucial to improved access but not contained within JNEM. The GMP should not bind the process to a single major design competition.

3. Site history must be part of program expansion. The St. Louis riverfront was the entry point into the city for nearly 200 years. The riverfront's architectural, commercial and cultural history is key to understanding the significance of the JNEM site, and current interpretive program could be expanded to better tell that story. Architectural elements and artifacts from the riverfront could be prominently displayed in existing or new JNEM cultural facilities or made part of new construction.

4. The GMP should improve access and connections at all sides of the Arch grounds. The current GMP alternatives are weighted toward improvement of access at the western side of the grounds. Improved access at both the south and north ends of the grounds could forge connections between JNEM and the Chouteau's Landing and Laclede's Landing areas, both of whose development have suffered from circulation problems. The north end of the Arch grounds are adjacent to the historic Eads Bridge and its MetroLink station, but currently access and visibility of those resources from JNEM is impaired. The central riverfront is unattractive and lacks adequate pedestrian access. We strongly feel that preservation of the cobblestone levee is crucial to the integrity of the riverfront, but feel that parking is an inappropriate use of that levee. While not directly under NPS control, the riverfront offers possibilities for destination-type activity ranging from heritage education to restaurants or other venues on boats and moored structures. Improving activity on the levee itself is key to drawing JNEM visitors to the river itself.

Grand Avenue Water Tower in 1957

This view looking east at the Grand Avenue Water Tower dates to February 1957 and was taken by the City Plan Commission.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Treasurer's Office Takes Down More of Hyde Park History

Did you ever see this lovely building at the southeast corner of 20th and Farragut streets? Too late now. While you soon can park on top of the site in a city-funded parking lot, you won't be able to ever look at this corner store in Hyde Park again. Demolition of this building and two others on north 20th street between Penrose and Farragut -- all contributing resources top the Hyde Park Historic District -- started in February and wrapped up this week.

How did demolition pass by the Cultural Resources Office and the Preservation Board? As is often the case, the Building Division issued an emergency demolition order (on December 16, 2008) that trumped preservation review. Never mind that these buildings were sound under both the city's preservation ordinance and public safety laws. The Building Division deemed that their sound condition somehow was an imminent danger to public safety. Or, perhaps, imminent danger to the neighboring occupant of the old Penrose Police Station at 1901 Penrose: the parking meter division of the City Treasurer's Office.

The building at the northwest corner of Penrose and 20th streets.

The City Treasurer's Office has owned the lots on which the buildings sat for years. While these buildings could have been sold to tax-paying developers, the Treasurer's Office decided to instead wreck them, remove taxable improvements from the land and keep the land under city ownership. Perhaps there is an ultimate development plan (hopefully not a parking lot, which would be absurd). For now, though, there is just another vacant lot in an area where there seem to be more vacant lots than buildings.

The lost buildings formed a remarkable group worthy of protection, and I regret never photographing them until demolition had commenced. The corner storefront at 20th and Penrose dated to 1895 and, while not overly ornamented, had a handsome cast iron storefront and chamfered corner. I don't recall much about the house across the alley to the north, but its history was interlocked with its lavish neighbor to the north, shown in the first photograph above. That house, located at 4220 N. 20th, was home of Charles A. Roettger, who developed the storefront at 4222-24 N. 20th in 1907. According to its permit, the new building cost $9,800 to build -- no small sum then. To design this building, Roettger employed a distinguished north St. Louis architect, Otto J. Boehmer. Boehmer designed the perpendicular Gothic sanctuary of Friedens United Church of Christ (1908) nearby at the southwest corner of 19th & Newhouse streets. Boehmer also resided at 3500 Palm Street in Lindell Park from 1914 through 1933 -- the house now occupied by former mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr., son of the alderman who represents the site of the new parking lot. The contractor for the new building was also a north side of German ancestry: Leo Motzel of 2217 College Avenue.

The corner storefront was a masterpiece of vernacular use of the Tudor Revival style. The corner turret, tiled roof with its false dormers, half-timbering and copper cornices are all fine decorative elements that created one of Hyde Park's most picturesque corner stores. The building housed Frank C. Roettger's (Charles' brother) meat shop at the corner for decades following its construction. Another early tenant was Flora Loewenthal's cigar shop at 4222 N. 20th.

The city directory listings name tenant after tenant in these buildings. The names shift from German-American to African-American at some point, until the word "vacant" pops up. Reading the names in the city directory and thinking about the loss of the buildings, one tracks not simply a loss of architectural stock, but a loss of life -- lost names, lost uses and lost activity.

Storefront Addition: Hudson's Embassy

I don't have much to write about the architectural character of the storefront addition located at 3818 Page Boulevard. The building, with a storefront dating to 1924, could definitely have more of its historical character. That's obvious. What I want to point out is how cool the name "Hudson's Embassy" is for a record store, and how there is a certain thrill I get from looking at the proud lettering announcing the store's name to passers by like myself. Hudson's Embassy was one of many "one stop" retail/wholesale record dealers that emerged in the 1960s to sell records from labels like Atlantic and Stax to department stores and radio deejays alike. The store is a link with a golden era of American urban music -- it ought to have a proud sign.

Friday, March 13, 2009

SAB Approves Superintendent's Recommended Facilities Plan

Last night, the Special Administrative Board unanimously approved the Facilities Management Plan recommended by St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams. The recommendations call for 17 school closures and the possible demolition of Mann School in Tower Grove South. (The summary and list are available here.) Adams first presented his recommendations to the SAB on February 26.

At last night's meeting, three individuals spoke on behalf of Mann School during the public comment period, but the SAB ignored the pleas to keep the school open. However, the plan approved by the SAB would not close Mann until 2011 with a decision made next year, providing time for community input and reversal of the recommendations. Tower Grove South residents including the Block Captains association as well as Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15th) oppose closing Mann and any plan that would call for its demolition.

Houska Benefit for ReVitalize St. Louis

From Gayle Van Dyke of ReVitalize St. Louis:

Local artist Charlie Houska recently created and donated a unique painting of a St. Louis cityscape to a local non-profit. To benefit that non-profit [ReVitalize St. Louis], he is going to be signing limited edition giclée prints this evening. Details are below. These high-quality prints are $40 each and can be pre-ordered online or purchased and picked up at the Reception. There will be very cool $10
t-shirts available too.

Charlie Houska Artist Reception and Signing
Friday, March 13th
5:00 to 8:00 PM
at Blu CitySpaces
210 N. 17th Street, 63103

RSVPs to 314-495-2681 are appreciated.

Anyone wanting to purchase online, visit www.bigbigtour.org
for details.

By the way, if you haven't had an opportunity to see the hip, contemporary condos at Blu CitySpaces, the 12th floor will be open for viewing during the reception.

I'll be there and hope to see many of you there too!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Fate of Mann School

Photograph of Mann School in 1989 from Landmarks Association of St. Louis' survey of St. Louis Public Schools buidlings.

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams relieved many city residents with his closure recommendations, which number 17 as opposed to the 29 schools proposed by a team of consultants hired by the district in January. However, Adams raised the threat to Mann School at 4047 Juniata in Tower Grove South, which Admas is proposing not only for closure but also for possible demolition and replacement with a new building.

This recommendation is actually the one point where Adams is actually pushing a more severe threat to the district's historic architecture than did the old-building-fearing consultants from MGT of America. MGT proposed closing Mann along with Shenandoah and Sherman schools, with all three south side elementaries combined at a new super-school in Tower Grove East. Adams wants Shenandoah to remain open, but is proposing a merger of Mann and Sherman in a new building he thinks could be built on the Mann site. A final decision would be made next year, but the crucial step is taken tonight when the facilities management plan is ratified.

The Mann site must be the most poorly-suited site in the district for construction of a new school building. When Mann was built in 1901 to designs by William Ittner, the ornate Jacobethen revival school was a compact two-story building on a compact site. Unlike those of other Ittner schools, the Mann site was not expansive and landscaped; it was small and paved, used for playground space. The school was in close proximity to buildings across the alley and across the street, in a siting beautifully urban. A 1916 addition that doubled Mann's size maintained the relationship of the school to the neighborhood. (Paul Hohmann has great photographs in a recent blog post at Vanishing STL.)

Now, the school is landlocked in one of the city's most stable and densely populated neighborhoods. Furthermore, the elementary school is doing well -- enrollment is around 80%, the student base is 52% ESOL so south city's immigrants are well-served, and 12 different organizations provide services at the school to students neighborhood children. This is a model neighborhood school. In fact, the state of Mann sounds a lot like the vision that members of the Special Administrative Board have for other elementary schools in the district.

Tonight (Thursday, March 12), the Special Administrative Board has a chance to save that model school. The Board will approve a facilities plan and closure list at its meeting, 6:00 p.m. at the Gateway Schools complex gymnasium, 1200 N. Jefferson. the public may address the Board at this meeting.

The largest step that the SAB could take would be removing Mann from the closure list altogether to safeguard its success and connection to the neighborhood. However, under any circumstances, demolition of Mann School should not be an option in the facilities plan. The SAB must amend Adams' recommendations to prohibit demolition of Mann or any other historic school building -- a condition now placed by the SAB in all sales contracts to private owners. Besides, rehabbing Mann or Sherman, or both, would be far more economical than building new.

This building, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 for architectural significance, is a unique gem in a strong urban setting. The site is too small for a new school. The school is doing well. Why force an awkward fit, lose a great building and tamper with a stable neighborhood?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dead Zone

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the site on Locust Street where the livery stable demolished by St. Louis University in 2007 once stood. The site would be located at the northwest corner of Locust and Josephine Baker Avenue, except that the university requested that Josephine Baker be removed.

The occasion was the filming of This Was the Future, a short documentary on the efforts to save the DeVille Motor Hotel (more on that film later). For the film, interview subjects were invited to select a site where a historic building once stood that is now an empty hole in a vibrant area. While it is hard to choose from some of the harsh empty lots we have in this city, I settled on what has to be one of the worst urban planning disasters in recent years.

The two-story livery stable building was a bridge between the emergent renewal in the Locust Street Business District and the more established revitalization of Grand Center. Grand Center's motto is "the intersection of art and life," an acknowledgment of the power of crossroads. Here stood a building that was a crossroads, and now we have an asphalt chasm, and not even a literal crossroads since one of the two streets here is now gone.

Even as a warehouse, the livery stable exuded more life than the parking lot on a busy night. On a Saturday afternoon, not a single car was parked on the lot, and few were parked at nearby meters. Clearly, the lot is there for special events. However, trading the potential of daily urban activity in a rehabilitated building for the occasional overuse of a parking lot makes no sense in a central city location. Not at all.

The side effect of the livery stable debacle is the spatial segregation (through building density) of Grand Center from the emergent area on Locust and of Renaissance Place (through removal of Josephine Baker) from St. Louis University and Locust Street. Human-scale urban renewal has finally come to Midtown on Locust Street and at Renaissance Place, and a potential connection between those successes is lost, and replaced with a land use that not only divides but is totally alien to the surrounding urban fabric. We could have done so much better.

National Park Service Video on Arch Grounds

The public has only until Monday, March 16 to submit comments on the National Park Service's draft General Management Plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Read the draft plan here. Make your comments online here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Storefront Addition: Porch Roof

The storefront addition at 2620 S. Jefferson in Benton Park was perhaps inevitable. The three-story house with an unusually tall wrap-around mansard roof was built in 1900, and soon afterward was the only building in a quarter-block stretch to not sit at the sidewalk line. When a building was built at 2618 S. Jefferson next door in 1916, any advantage to having a proper front lawn eroded. This was a commercial district now.

The addition sits at the house floor level rather than at the sidewalk level, so its entrance is atop a few steps. The curved wall at the entrance sweeps one's eye to the door. What is most lovely about this storefront addition is that its roof is actually a porch for the house, which received a door to access the space. The parapet wall even has a cut-away center carrying a section of iron railing -- a charming gesture in keeping with the gentility of the elegant late Second Empire house. (Who was building Second Empire houses in 1900 anyhow? People who liked strange mansard dimensions, I guess.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

100 Supporters March and Rally to Save Public Schools

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – One hundred public school supporters held a Save Our Schools Rally at Shepard Elementary School at 3405 Wisconsin this morning to show support for keeping the school open. They then marched to Monroe Elementary, Carnahan High School, Meramec Elementary, three schools that have been recommended to stay open, with a concluding rally at Cleveland High School on S. Grand (which was closed three years ago).

At Shepard Alderman Craig Schmid urged participants to sign a petition opposing the closure of St. Louis Public Schools such as Shepard (e-MINTS) Elementary, Meramec Elementary, Cleveland High and Scruggs Elementary. “There are plenty of children in the area, but we have not seen sufficient efforts to market or recruit students to participate in quality St. Louis Public School programming,” Schmid said. Shepard pre-schoolers led those gathered in saying the pledge of allegiance to the flag and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” before reciting a portion of a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At Monroe Elementary, Schmid told the history of the school’s successful re-opening after almost 20 years of being closed. He questioned whether charter schools would be accountable to the community for quality education and noted that charter schools already operating in the area do not compare well with student achievement at Monroe.

At Carnahan High School and Meramec Elementary School, marchers stopped to celebrate successes, including recent awards given to Dr. Alice Roach, principal of Carnahan. Student ambassadors told about high tech classroom aids available at the school and announced that Carnahan had just received accreditation through the North Central Association.

John Chen of The Alliance to Save Cleveland High greeted marchers at the final stop of the Save Our Schools event and told them about work that citizens are doing to get the high school re-opened. Chen said they hope to see the building used as a much-needed community center and “as a collection of small learning communities in one large building.” Such a model has operated successfully, according to Cleveland supporters who have been researching “best practices” in other cities.

Alderwoman Dorothy Kirner (Ward 25) and State Representative Jeanette Mott Oxford (District 59) were also present to show support for keeping the schools open. Those interested in joining efforts to support any of these schools are invited to call Schmid at 314-589-6816 or Oxford at 314-771-8882.

Storefront Addition: Virginia and Meramec

Just south of the intersection of Virginia and Meramec in downtown Dutchtown stands the storefront addition at 4212 Virginia Avenue. Records indicate the mansard-roofed house was built in 1889. The storefront has an early twentieth century shaped parapet as well as later modern elements like the steel canopy and glass block.

Missing Medallion

Anyone see the terra cotta medallion that belongs to this building at 2952 Martin Luther King Drive? Since it's been missing for a year now, perhaps the search should start in Chicago or Phoenix.

A local search would be fruitless since dealers of architectural antiques are not required by city law to maintain records on purchases that would help catch a thief -- like a driver's license or photo ID, photograph of artifact in place showing its original location and proof that the seller had legal permission to remove it. I wonder if that lack of requirement dates to the tear-em-down days of the 1970s when so many buildings were falling so quickly that city government barely tried to regulate the demolition binge. Now it's hard to explain why we don't have basic laws governing the sale of what often are stolen artifacts.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Menard Triplets

The "Menard triplets" are three 19th century flounder houses in Soulard located on the west side of Menard Street just south of Russell. Many flounder roofs simply form a half-gable, running down from one side of the building to the other. These houses have a hip to their roofs that allows for a front-facing dormer. Still, the roof form is within the flounder house range. St. Louis seems to have the largest concentration of flounder houses, which are found in few American cities (Alexandria, Virginia and Philadelphia have them).

The center house (left here) was extended to the south to meet the northern house, creating a "mousehole" entrance to the gangway.

A plaque on the wall of the center house tells some of the story of the houses, including a wide range of salvage pieces that went into rehabilitation of the center house. Plaques like these are a great part of the urban fabric in that they allow buildings to tell some of their own story. Forget the Internet or a guidebook -- the best way to explore is on foot, and the best way to learn about historic architecture is to study the buildings themselves. A few more clues always help.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Farm & Home Building's Modern Slipcover Now Historic

Downtown development may be crawling along right now, but one stand-out project is leaping ahead. LoftWorks is redeveloping the Farm and Home Building (to be known by its 10th Street address as the "411") at the northwest corner of 10th and Locust streets. Several things are notable about the project, which is well underway and due for completion next year. For one thing, the end use will be the original -- office space with ground-floor retail. For another, the 60,000 square-foot building will get a green rehab, with a vegetation roof and gray- and rainwater recycling systems. The $12.7 million project shows that LoftWorks is downtown's Little Engine That Will. LoftWorks just completed rehabilitation of the Syndicate Trust Building, opened Left Bank Books across the street from the Farm and Home.

What is most astounding to me, however, is that the rehabilitation will preserve the existing exterior appearance of the building. In most cases, that's a given, but the Farm and Home Building is actually a morphed version of the Kinloch Building. In 1954, the owners of the Classical Revival building designed by Widmann, Walsh and Boisselier decided to join the downtown modernization trend. With construction materials scarce and expensive after World War II, many owners tried inexpensive projects to give their buildings a mid-century vibe. Some simply removed cornices. Others reclad just the ground floors so that the sidewalk views were clean and modern. Others went all-out and completely clad historic buildings in modern materials.

The Farm and Home Building is one of the most extensive of these projects -- not only was the masonry building reclad, but its terra cotta ornament ground off to accept the new granite, concrete and metal panels. (Other notable projects from this period include the Dorsa Building, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Building and the Mercantile Library Building.)

While the Farm and Home is not a knock-out work of mid-century slipcover design, it's handsome. Other recladding jobs, like the garish work that covered the Post-Dispatch Building at 1139 Olive Street, dated rather quickly and raised the question of whether or not they were actually an improvement. Many developers have chosen to remove their cladding, like at the Post-Dispatch Building, and mostly the recladding work has proven reversible. Not so at Farm and Home.

In order to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places and thus for state historic rehabilitation tax credits, a building must exhibit integrity of historic design. To nominate the Farm and Home Building as the Kinloch Building would have required extensive reconstruction work -- not eligible for credits -- before a nomination could even take place. Hence, LoftWorks successfully explored a different strategy: list the Farm and Home for what it now is, an early example of extensive mid-century modernization design. The National Park Service listed the Farm and Home Building on the National Register on October 29, 2008. The Farm and Home Building now is officially historic because of its slipcover.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How About Condemnation for Repair?

Here's the sort of neighborhood stabilization issue that you probably won't hear being discussed by any mayoral candidates. Above is the corner storefront at 2001 S. Jefferson (at Allen) in Fox Park. Built in 1892, the two-story building is a contributing resource to the Compton Hill Certified Local Historic District, and anchors the first solid corner of Fox Park on Jefferson south of I-44.

Believe it or not, this building has been condemned for demolition by the Building Division! (Of course, the New Vision Demolition banner on the front takes some of the surprise out.) In June 2007, the Building Division issued a condemnation for demolition order. Why? Take a look.

This is definitely not a good situation here, but it is hardly grounds for demolition. This building has that great detail found on some of the city's neighborhood commercial buildings: the wall extends to shield the end of a multi-story gallery porch at the rear that provides access to residential flats above.

Obviously, the porch collapsed. Permit records show that a permit to replace the "rear deck" was issued on April 2, 2007. Obviously, the owners failed to replace the porch and left the building in terrible shape. The Building Division was wise to act with condemnation, by why is the order "for demolition"? The Building Division is allowed to condemn buildings "for repair," and in this case should have done so. The loss of the porch caused damage, but not anything that makes the building unsound.

Of course, a condemnation for demolition order could scare a problem property owner to sell. However, that order could also lead to a building's being placed in a city demolition package down the road, no matter if the building truly is unsound under the definitions established in our public safety laws and preservation ordinances. The good thing is that a demolition permit in a local historic district will go to the Cultural Resources Office. In this case, neither owner nor the Building Division has pursued demolition -- for now.

What is then accomplished by this condemnation order? Very little, except creating another threat to this building. Clearly, the order has made no impact on the owners, who have not even removed much of the debris behind the building.

Instead of condemnation for demolition, an order used too often, why not condemn buildings for repair with enforceable deadlines? There is, after all, more than one way to enforce the public safety laws, but the Building Division too often relies on the ineffective, destructive "condemnation for demolition." The Building Division would do well to help neighborhoods stabilize their neighborhoods while preserving valuable buildings. Clearly, demolition contractors would not get as much work but hopefully better-paying construction work would be encouraged.

Whoever is Mayor on April 7 should make changes at the Building Division. At the very least, all demolition decisions should be made by a qualified structural engineer. At the most, there should be a reorientation of code enforcement away from the mindset that the Division should eliminate all that is broken. The Building Division's goal should be fixing all that is broken for the benefit of our citizens, and reserving demolition orders for those cases where public safety is truly threatened.

An Election Day Wish

Only city that we know, we shall know you the same tomorrow. On your streets shall be the friends, strangers, houses and gardens that we cherish as the city of St. Louis. In our minds will be desires to make this home a better place. Our hands will be as ready for the hard work ahead as ever. No matter what happens to the candidates who promise to join us in the struggle, we shall continue unabated.

Let us not be misled by false prophets or opportunists, or see the need for our own labors and desires as the need to boost someone else's fortune. Let us not hate the powerful, or extol those who would turn our dreams into weapons. Through our dreams we have the power to see this place as we wish. Allow our hearts to be open to great change, but humble enough to toil even if the next day be as dark as the one before.

We understand that politics is the way we treat our neighbors and our neighborhoods. Let that treatment stand as testament to the honor of this city's people. Great river city, wash away our fears today.

Storefront Addition: A Corner in JeffVanderLou

Here is another corner storefront addition in located at 2800 James Cool Papa Bell (at Leffingwell) JeffVanderLou. This is made for high density, with a storefront on James Cool papa Bell and two additional (although now filled) storefront bays on Leffingwell. Although vacant and now owned by Union Martin LLC, the house and the addition are in good condition. Note the dentillated cornice on the storefront, and the intact dormer details on the main house.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Ramshackle Masterpiece

Welcome to the Family Thrift Store loacted on Fitzgerald Avenue in Gerald, Missouri. Gerald is a small town in Franklin County southwest of St. Louis. The Family Thrift Store building is a tour de force of homemade architecture. Literally, there may be no common American building material not used in the construction of this ramshackle masterpiece. This building has it all -- brick, clay tile, concrete block, metal siding, wood, vinyl siding, polished granite, limestone and even a piece of terrazzo embedded in the wall.

The construction uses a lot of plausible leftover materials, but also some salvage parts. Many of these salvaged pieces appear to come from a Roman Catholic Church, with a stone bearing the name of Joseph Cardinal Ritter and a date in 1967. There is even a carved limestone cross -- much earlier than 1967 -- over the rear garage door.

While the colorful mess of materials is the piecemeal handiwork of a builder, there seems to be a unitary component on the east side, where a brick wall on the first floor uses the matching bricks laid conventionally across its run. This appears to be the remnant of either a destroyed, altered or unfinished building.

The wood-heated thrift store is open to the public, but its wares are not as exotic as the exterior would suggest. The origin of the thrift store building remains unknown to this writer, who would love to learn how the brick wall became an unfinished, gaudy and unique work of folk architecture. Does Missouri have anything else like this? This building is as idiosyncratic, hand-made and strangely alluring as the Watts Towers. All my notions of architectural propriety wither in the face of the Family Thrift Store. I dig it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Adams Recommends Keeping Ames School Open

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams is recommending that Ames Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) Elementary School at 2900 Hadley Street in Old North St. Louis remain open. On Thursday, February 26, Adams recommended to the Special Administrative Board (SAB) that the Board reject the proposal from consultants MGT of America that Ames combine with Shaw VPA Elementary School at the Blewett Middle School on Cass Avenue, and the two schools' buildings close.

While the SAB will not approve Adams' recommendations until March 12, the shift from the consultants' recommendations is welcome in Old North, a neighborhood that remains beset by an earlier school closure. In 2007, the Board of Education closed Webster Middle School at 2127 N. 11th Street. Webster is a large historic school whose site encompasses an entire city block. Since its closure, which came after the opening of charter school Confluence Academy in Old North, the district has not placed Webster for sale nor determined its future use. The building sits vacant in a neighborhood saddled with many large, vacant historic buildings, including the partly-stabilized Mullanphy Emigrant Home, the Meier and Pohlmann factory and the burned-out Fourth Baptist Church. The neighborhood did not need another building added to that list.

Opened in 1956, Ames is a fine mid-century building that provides a pleasant contrast with its 19th-century red-brick surroundings. Ames closes eastward views down both Wright and Sullivan streets. In 1992 under the Capital Improvement Program, Ames was expanded with a substantial addition. Later, in 2006, Ames closed for a period to be fully air-conditioned. Ames is a polling place, community meeting space and has been a source for student volunteers in neighborhood garden programs.