We've Moved

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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Osage Nation Purchasing Sugarloaf Mound

According to the office of U.S. Representative Russ Carnahan (D-3rd), the Osage Nation will purchase the property that includes Sugar Loaf Mound near I-55 and Broadway in south St. Louis. The Osage Nation plan to use the site for interpretive and educational purposes. Sugarloaf Mound is the last remaining mound in a city once nicknamed "Mound City."

The news brings to a close efforts to preserve the mound, which had been for sale since last year since the owner had to vacate the house on the property due to health reasons. Representative Carnahan convened a task force last year to secure a buyer that would preserve the mound and dedicate it to educational purposes. With that work done, a new chapter in the effort begins. Perhaps some day St. Louisans will be able to tour a mound site in their own city and learn about part of their built past that has been almost entirely lost.

Andrew Weil, Research associate at Landmarks Association of St. Louis, published an excellent history of the mound in November 2008: "The Last Standing Mound In Mound St. Louis City Is For Sale."

Also, filmmaker Kevin Cook made a documentary about Sugar Loaf Mound in March 2008, and it is available on YouTube in two sections included here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

From Done Deal to Dead Deal?

Next American City has an article by Katherine Mella entitled "Atlantic Yards: A Crash Course" that provides a great overview of Forest City Ratner's controversial Brooklyn mega-project centered around a new sports arena.

The supposedly "done deal" project was pushed through at the state rather than local level to head off opposition. Aggressive agents made over-market-value offers to secure control of key property around desired public land (underused Metropolitan Transit Authority rail yards). Atlantic Yards bolstered political support by lining up labor leaders, clergy and others who typically might oppose a large project and mass use of eminent domain. To woo the urbanist community, Forest City Ratner hired superstar architect Frank Gehry to design the complex. Residents who would be pushed out by the project have always had an uphill struggle.

There are many parallels to the NorthSide project. However, one thing about Atlantic Yards that we have not seen with NorthSide is a political swing in favor of opposition. Mella's article concludes by noting that Atlantic Yards has lost much of its initial advantages:

Being able to borrow money and raise capital in this fiscal climate has placed the project at a severe disadvantage. And with a less than exciting main attraction, resolute local opposition, and legal and financial hurdles, it is hard to say if Ratner's Atlantic Yards will ever -- or even ought to -- come to fruition.

I suppose the perils of large-scale development have never been as clear as now. Atlantic Yards may have killed itself through sheer folly of its ambitious scope and clumsy execution. The development team behind NorthSide should take heed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Certainly This Will Be an Impressive Monument"

On the afternoon of Monday, July 20, Building Commissioner Frank Oswald officially issued the demolition permit for the DeVille Motor Hotel (formerly the San Luis Apartments) at 4483 Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End. Ahrens Demolition had already been working on interior demolition and abatement, and wasted no time removing windows and concrete panels. By mid-week, the east wing of the old modern motel was reduced to a shell after Ahrens obliterated the exterior envelope and started in on the concrete structure.

The previous Friday, July 17, the Friends of the San Luis filed a petition for injunctive relief in circuit court. We contended that our right to appeal issuance of the demolition permit, which could only be exercised after the permit was issued, was moot if the wrecking ball was swinging. Judge Rober J. Dierker, Jr. denied our initial motion for a temporary restraining order and then, on Monday July 27, dismissed our petition. The legal wrangling had no impact on demolition activity, of course, but the loss is now a fact of life.

This is a sad end to a building whose idiosyncratic modern form was once hailed as innovative. Architect Charles Colbert designed the motel to rise far above the ranks of the Holiday Inns and Downtowners springing up in urban settings across the country. While definitely automobile-oriented, the DeVille had a sense of urban setting many of its contemporaries lacked. The motel made deft use of its site, reserving only the existing setback on Lindell for a lawn and building out the rest of the site.

Yet the mass, site and style were not the only features noted in the press. When the builders broke ground in October 1961, they were making local building history. The new DeVille Motor Hotel would be the first major building built after the city's adoption of a new building code earlier that year.

Prior to the 1961 building code, large buildings were restrained by requirements that the majority of wall surface area meet a defined thickness. Materials like concrete panels and glass had to be employed within larger wall systems, and could not be used to clad an entire building. Before 1961, construction of a glass high-rise in St. Louis was not permitted by code. The removal of the old restrictions allowed St. Louis to embrace the building technologies that allowed for fully modern architectural expression.

Mayor Raymond Tucker was an enthusiast for the DeVille project. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article from 1961 ("$4,500,000 Hotel to Be Built at Corner of Lindell, Taylor," September 30, 1961), the mayor raved: "Certainly, this will be an impressive monument to the perseverance of those far-sighted citizens who worked on our code for more than five years."

Greater modern expressions would rise in St. Louis, of course, but the DeVille was the first to fully embrace the code. For 46 years, the DeVille remained an impressive monument to the potential of modern design.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Hyde Park Area Rehabilitation"

In 1953, the City Plan Commission published a tri-fold pamphlet entitled Hyde Park Area Rehabilitation. The 56-year-old pamphlet is a sore reminder of how long we have been dealing with the problem of aging north side neighborhoods, and how long we have failed to solve that problem.

Preservation Board Approved BJC Demolitions, Denies Alterations to Mid-Century Wohl Recreation Center

Yesterday, the St. Louis Preservation Board approved on a preliminary basis demolition of the Ettrick, Schoenberg Residence Hall and the two buildings at 3-17 N. Euclid. The Board voted 4-1, with members Mary Johnson, David Visintainer, Phyllis Young and John Burse voting in favor, and Mike Killeen opposed. I testified against demolition, and two citizens sent tesimony by e-mail. After last month's packed meeting, I was surprised that the Board was back to its usual sparse crowd.

The Board also unanimously denied the Board of Public Service's application to replace the doors at the Wohl Recreation Center swimming pool with a storefront system. The doors are an essential design feature of the mid-century modern building at 1515 N. Kingshighway in Sherman Park. The Wohl Recreation Center was built in 1959 and designed by Russell, Mullgardt, Scwartz and Van Hoefen -- architects of Northland Shopping Center, the Engineers Club, Steinberg Hall and other local modern landmarks. Cultural Resources Office (CRO) Director Kate Shea laudably stood up against the plan, despite the clout of the other city agency. I was glad to see the CRO stand up for the design integrity of a modern public building.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Medical Center Creeping Into the Central West End

Ecology of Absence has long covered the creep of the BJC medical center into surrounding urban fabric. Now we look at a (hopefully) rare instance of the corporation extending its reach north of the Forest Park Parkway into the southern end of the Central West End. Euclid's pedestrian-friendly streetscape has long been an antidote to the medical center's monotony, but now the architectural characteristics of each area will collide.

On Monday, the Preservation Board will consider on a preliminary basis demolition of the Ettrick (shown above) and three other buildings to make way for a new 12-story clinic building at the corner of Euclid and Forest Park as well as a new park further west. (Read the Cultural Resources Office staff report here.) Since the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) staff is strongly supportive of the demolition, and many urbanists seem comfortable with the new building, approval may be a foregone conclusion. Still, I think that preserving the Ettrick deserves more consideration. The current plan was enshrined in 2007 by the Board of Aldermen through Ordinance 67939, so the demolition plans are not news. However, a rush to approve the concept and the related park plan would be a mistake on the part of the Preservation Board.

The Ettrick is one of the city's oldest apartment buildings and dates to 1905. A. Blair Ridington, an English-born architect and amateur Egyptologist who designed the Melrose Apartments at 206 N. Sarah (1907) as well as many houses across the city, designed the Ettrick. (Ettrick, by the way, is a region on the Scottish borders containing a large forest.)

Construction of the Ettrick was part of a trend toward the relatively-new apartment-style building for multi-family middle class housing. Previously, most people lives in tenements, which are so defined by having separate exterior entrances for each unit. Apartments provided elegant foyers and enclosed staircases. Within a year of the Ettrick's completion, the first luxury apartment building, the Colchester (later dubbed "the ABCs"), would be built a block away at Kingsighway and Laclede.

The Cultural Resources Office claims that getting the Ettrick listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a single site would be difficult, but overlooks the fact that the later Melrose and Colchester were easily listed. The Ettrick is much more significant to the development of the apartment building and Ridington's career than the Melrose.

The Ettrick's style is decidedly Craftsman, and its details are lovely. The Flemish bond masonry, the use of cut stone, the hoods over the entrances -- all provide expression of the building that is elegant as well as humane. The details are sized to the scale of the human hand. People often comment on the awkward below-grade entrances; these were created later when the raised lawn was removed and the basement converted into commercial space. The original design was more satisfying and in keeping with the setback and lawn shape of Forest Park.

Across Forest Park Parkway from the craftsman-detailed Ettrick stands a cavalcade of sanitized, machine-scaled giant buildings. BJC has done much to build up its campus, but little to address the life of the pedestrian.

I suppose that the medical center is the domain of its employees, patients and vendors, rather than an extension of the neighborhood. However, the Central West End MetroLink station lies just a few yards south of this intersection. Crossing Forest Park here is like leaving St. Louis and entering Campus Anywhere, USA. A few vestiges of the historic medical center remain, but the new architecture generally rises only to the level of need and no further. (The Siteman Center is an exception in form, although not in material.)

At any rate, transpose the medical center scale with that of Euclid Avenue to the north, and one sees exactly what the stakes are: architecture that reaches out to human beings could be wiped out for architecture designed by computer modeling, equations and corporate intelligence. The new building's street-level retail simply is a programmatic improvement over the historic buildings that occupy the site.

The joined apartment buildings to the north of the Ettrick, alas, have been marred by re-facing and infill. These buildings date to 1905 and originally set back from Euclid with front lawns. The rise of the first floor above the sidewalk indicates that this was not originally a mixed-use building. If the storefronts below sidewalk level feel like basement space, that is because they are.

While the loss of a usable building is regrettable, this is one building whose future is negotiable. If BJC wishes to take it down to building something more urban, let it. However, let the new design be every inch original, and let the skin be other than "rental tan" concrete panels and teal-tinged glass. The Park East Tower has already introduced a new scale to this stretch of Euclid, and that is fine, but that is no reason to surplant the existing character wholesale. Hopefully BJC's clinic is the last incursion north of Forest Park Parkway.

Even in its current state, this muddled old building has more heart and soul than much of the new construction that BJC has built in the last 30 years. Demolition in favor of a building that is architecturally sensitive to Euclid and its pedestrians -- no matter how tall -- would be a positive change. Demolition for another unmemorable hospital building -- in a nation chock full of them, no less -- would be a detriment.

The other part of the application to the Cultural Resources Office is demolition of the Schoenberg Residence Hall at 4949 Forest Park, west of the abysmal parking garage west of the Ettrick. This fine, restrained work of Georgian Revival design would be replaced by park space. Jewish Hospital, whose building on Kingshighway BJC plan to preserve, built this building in 1934 as a residential hall for its student nurses.

CRO Director Kathleen Shea errantly states in her recommendation to the Preservation Board that there is no possible way to stage construction of the 12-story clinic building without demolition of this building first to create a staging site. Shea's claim is undercut by countless instances of high-rise construction within the restricted core of downtowns across the country, from Chicago to Des Moines. Closure of Forest Park and Euclid are impossible, of course, but there are numerous ways to stage the project without demolition of Schoenberg.

The urban voices who do not share my view on the Ettrick seem united against demolition of Schoenberg. The replacement of a viable building with a viable building is contested territory, but the replacement with empty space is not -- as the San Luis Apartments effort demonstrates. The absurdity of creating a new park a half-block from Forest Park is obvious, and the Preservation Board should deny the demolition of Schoenberg no matter what its majority thinks of the other two demolitions.

Generally, the land use planning here is spotty. BJC owns much vacant land and surface parking, including frontage on Forest Park Parkway. There seems to be a way to preserve either or both the Ettrick and the Schoenberg Residence Hall while building the new clinic. Why does the Preservation Board only now get review of a plan approved by ordinance in 2007? Well, the preservation ordinance does not authorize preservation review of redevelopment ordinances even though those ordinances often bind the CRO and the Board. Of course, the city needs more sensible urban design laws that would coordinate decision-making rather than hand off deals to the Preservation Board.

Still, this is no done deal, at least under the preservation ordinance. Let's see what happens Monday.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

San Luis Plight Gets National Attention

The national publication The Architect's Newspaper covers the San Luis Apartments demolition in its blog today. The coverage shows how the issue resonates on a national level, with its questions of preservation law, mid-century modern preservation and politics.

Amid reasonable quotes in the blog post, Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th) makes one error. (While I clearly have a major disagreement with the alderwoman here, I understand her perception of the political quandry of the matter and am not intending to attack her.) Krewson states that "it's not a contributing building [in the Central West End Historic District]. Until recently, there was no outcry about the architectural wonders of this building."

Actually, the building is indeed a contributing building in the Central West End Historic District. That local district was created by ordinance in 1974 and the ordinance does not exempt a single building from its standards. The standards laud modern buildings, expressly state that imitation-historic architecture should not be built in the district and require that parking be shielded by being placed behind or to the side of buildings and not visible from the street.

Krewson would be correct to point out that the San Luis is not noted as a contributing building in the 1979 certification of the district by the National Park Service. That certification, however, serves a different purpose than the local historic district: it defines which buildings are eligible for the use of state and federal tax credits tied to federal historic status. That's it. Just because the San Luis, only 16 years old in 1979, was not considered contributing then does not exempt it from the provisions of a local law.

Also, the certification is out-dated and based on a 1979 rule of thumb. Why would the federal government permit the owner of a 16-year-old building to reap the benefit historic tax credits? The equation changes greatly when the same building becomes 46 years old and its architectural significance more clear across time. However, the local district ordinance (fundamentally a design ordinance) still applies.

I concur with Alderwoman Krewson that local preservationists should have been less reactionary on this issue, but why fault today's crop for the inaction of a past generation? Additionally, the San Luis was hailed at the times of its construction, but that shall be the subject of another essay.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Friends of the San Luis Seek Demolition Halt, Right to Appeal

From the Friends of the San Luis (of which I am now President):


On July 17, the Friends of the San Luis, Inc. filed a petition in Circuit Court to obtain a temporary injunction that would prohibit the Archdiocese of St. Louis from proceeding with any demolition work at the San Luis Apartments until our organization has exhausted its legal appeal of the approval of the demolition permit. While we do not have a final judgment, Judge Robert Dierker, Jr. has denied our motion for a temporary restraining order. The Building Division issued a demolition permit on Monday, July 20, and preliminary demolition work is now underway.

Our mission is to preserve the San Luis Apartments, and at this eleventh hour we press onward with that basic mission but also a larger one. After the Preservation Board granted preliminary approval to the demolition by a narrow vote, we intended to appeal that decision through our right under the city’s preservation ordinance. We think that the Preservation Board’s action was made through incorrect application of the law. Furthermore, we think that that the Cultural Resources Office report on the issue misled citizens and Preservation Board members through imprecise legal reasoning that made it unclear what laws were in play. Since the Preservation Board acts only to enforce city ordinances, without clarity of which laws are being enforced there is no due process.

Under the preservation ordinance, however, we have only the right to appeal an approved demolition permit. We filed the injunction petition to ensure that we were still fighting for an actual building rather than a rubble pile. Unfortunately, Judge Dierker is not stopping demolition as well as challenging our legal standing to bring forth an appeal of the Preservation Board decision. Thus begins our larger cause.

Our preservation ordinance allows an aggrieved party to bring forth an appeal. The preservation ordinance was passed by the Board of Aldermen for the benefit of the entire city, and its stakeholders are all citizens who share the duty of protecting the city’s heritage. The law enjoins us to become stewards of our architectural heritage, and the Friends of the San Luis gladly step forward to answer that call.

We contend that citizen right to appeal the decision of the Preservation Board is a fundamental part of due process and essential to the enforcement of the preservation review ordinance. Without the right to appeal, citizen participation has severely limited impact. Citizens must have the right to act when they feel that the preservation review ordinance has been violated by its own custodians. The right to appeal is a basic legal principle, and it must be part of St. Louis' preservation law.

While we hold out weary hope of preserving the San Luis, we must assert the right of the citizen to bring forth an appeal under preservation law. We believe that future efforts will benefit from legal protection of that right, and that its fundamental sanctity is worth pursuing no matter what happens to the San Luis.


A Weekend of Twentieth Century Architecture Ahead

First, Landmarks Association of St. Louis brings an exciting Architecture Weekend:

Architecture Weekend Lecture: Modern Religious Architecture in St. Louis
Date: Friday, July 24 at Noon
Location: Architecture St. Louis, 911 Washington Avenue #170

Esley Hamilton, Preservation Historian for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation, will provide an overview of the influence of the modern movement on religious architecture across the St. Louis region. Hamilton's illustrated lecture will cover examples of modernist church design from the city and county in the 20th century. Places of worship designed by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassebaum, Nagel & Dunn, Joseph Murphy and other architects of St. Louis' modern era will be included.

Architecture Weekend Tour: Two Modern Churches in Kirkwood
Date: Saturday, July 25 from 10:00 a.m. - noon.
Location: Start at First Presbyterian Church, 100 East Adams in Kirkwood

Suburban Kirkwood is blessed with several notable examples of mid-century modern religious architecture. On Saturday, two of Kirkwood's most splendid modern churches will open their doors for us. We'll start with a guided tour at First Presbyterian Church (1956-7, Fisher & Campbell), 100 East Adams. After that, make the short walk or drive to the Kirkwood United Methodist Church (1964, Schmidt, Perlsee & Black), which will be open for self-guided tours. On your way out of town, you may wish to pass by Grace Episcopal Church, 514 E. Argonne (1964, Frederick Dunn) or St. Peter's Catholic Church, 237 W. Argonne (1955, Joseph Murphy), Kirkwood's other modern churches.

Then, a new group has its first meeting:

St. Louis Arts and Crafts Society Open House
Sunday, July 26 from 2:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.
700 Bellerive Boulevard in south St. Louis

Are you interested in St. Louis architecture from 1900 to 1940? Do you describe your home as Arts and Crafts, Craftsman, Mission, Bungalow or Prairie? Does your vocabulary include: exposed rafters, corbels, mortised & tenoned, pergola, Inglenook and thru-tenon-keyed? St. Louis has a rich stock of Arts and Crafts architecture that is often overlooked.

Please join us if you are interested in becoming a member of the St. Louis Arts and Crafts Society. Bring pictures of your home or furniture to discuss with other enthusiasts. FOR more information, call Patrice at 314-412-1382 OR e-mail at rjppwp@charter.net

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forestry Division Hard at Work in St. Louis Place

A worker from the city Forestry Division was out today cutting weeds in front of the house locates at 2004 North Market Street in St. Louis Place. That vacant historic house and the lot to the west are owned by N & G Ventures LC, a holding company controlled by McEagle Properties.

Last summer, McEagle hired Marvin Steele to coordinate maintenance on its inventory of around 1,000 vacant properties in north St. Louis. Steele set up a new company, Urban Solutions, to handle the maintenance work, placed signs around JeffVanderLou and St. Louis Place with his company's hot-line number (946-7333) and promised to handle citizen complaints within 48 hours. After a big initial push to get work done last summer and fall, Urban Solutions seems to have withered like a weed doused with RoundUp.

McEagle and Steele's actions came after intense complaints from north side residents about McEagle's inaction on maintenance and reliance on city government services to handle citizen complaints. Also, in August 2007, the Missouri General Assembly revised the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act before passage to forbid use of the credit to cover payments to municipal government for remediation of code violations like high weeds and unboarded windows.

At a public meeting on May 21, McEagle disclosed that the company has spent $1.4 million to date on maintenance of north side holdings. At the same meeting, McEagle revealed that some sections of its proposed "NorthSide" project may not be developed until after 2016 or later, sparking renewed concerns about long-term maintenance problems.

Meanwhile, residents continue to deal with the high weeds and unboarded boards the way that they always have: by calling the Citizens' Service Bureau, which dispatches the resources of city government. City government fronts the bill, and McEagle pays the city. The city collects a mark-up fee, sure. Yet the cycle is not comforting to residents who have to wait for city codes to be broken and their blocks to look bad before they can get action. These people have every right to be skeptical that McEagle deserves a $400 million tax increment financing package with city backing as well as development rights to an area the developer can't seem to keep under control.

If the developer and City Hall want to make the deal look better to residents, making the properties look better is a great step. If Urban Solutions cannot handle the job, McEagle should hire a company that can do the job with diligence. Look at the house in the photograph above. Here's the needed work:

- cut down the trees and woody growth along the side wall
- board up the third floor (at least) and second floor windows
- install temporary plastic cutter trough and elbow on front elevation

Perhaps McEagle considers the installation of temporary guttering to be more than maintenance, but it is needed to keep the house standing. The other items are basic, and would take less than a half-day. (Really, cutting overgrowth and boarding windows are among the first skills a rehabber learns.)

Since maintenance costs incurred privately are covered by the DALATC, then there is no reason at all for McEagle not to spend the necessary money to address maintenance needs. With a project timeline extending to 2030, good maintenance will be needed for a long time -- and the sooner it starts, the better. Forestry can't do it all.

Trenton City Hall

A night ride back from the Clinton County Fair in Carlyle, Illinois took us through Trenton, Illinois over the weekend. Trenton is a small town with a small City Hall, but their City Hall is no cookie-cutter box or faux colonial meeting hall. No, Trenton has a cool modernist building that was probably inexpensive to build -- again, small town with small city hall probably has small budget -- but is a delight to behold.

The entire front wall consists of patterned glass blocks laid in between black-painted steel piers. these glass blocks are laid in a neat pattern. At center is a simple, common metal door with a delightfully curved handle. Across the top is the name of the building on a backlit plastic board (paging Robert Venturi). While the plastic board is a little out of synch with the simple, smart design below, the composition works. Trenton's leaders settled on distilling the importance of municipal government into as direct an architectural statement as possible.

While many towns across Illinois opt for allusions to classical architecture, or headquarter their government in plain-ugly, workable buildings, Trenton chose modern. Oh, I hope that their future leaders recognize and cherish the small wonder of City Hall!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Old Armour Company Warehouse Lost

The Schaeffer Moving Company had long occupied the three-story building at 2422 North Broadway, and its red enameled sign (once ablaze through neon tubing) was a familiar site to those who work and live around the area. The steel-framed building actually began its life around the turn of the century as a two-story distribution warehouse for meat-packing giant the Armour Company. The third floor was added in 1911.

The side elevation facing Benton Street (now legally vacated) was an impressive run of steel-sash windows. After the moving company vacated the building about a decade ago, the possibility for reuse easily was apparent.

Instead of reuse, however, the holding company that owns the large row of warehouses to the north (2508 N. Broadway LLC) opted to demolish the old building this month. With the street now vacated, that company can assemble a large parking lot for those buildings.

Since the old Armour building lies in the Fifth Ward, there is no preservation review that might have prevented this senseless loss. The Fifth Ward is one of eight wards out of 28 that does not participate in the city's preservation review program. (More here.)

Hence, this is what the building looked like yesterday afternoon. Gone. Soon, the ruinous Armour Packing Plant in East St. Louis will also fall, and we will have few tangible traces to our city's crucial role in the development of the company that turned meatpacking into a science. Yet we will have a few more places to park our cars -- not bad, eh?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

St. Louis Housing Authority Building to Be Replaced by CVS or Tower?

Word is circulating that the St. Louis Housing Authority is considering selling its headquarters building at 4100 Lindell Boulevard to a group of investors who seek to demolish it and build a CVS Pharmacy to compete with the nearby Walgreens. The St. Louis Housing Authority's three-story modern building began life in 1956 as the St. Louis office of the Sperry-Rand Corporation. The architect was then-fledgling Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum. The Sperry-Rand Building is derived from International Style principles, especially the neutral colors, the recessed floors, the concrete piers, wide large windows and the applied outer metal bars. While not as accomplished as the firm's later National Register-listed Plaza Square Apartments, this is a fine building and a subtle component of the group of modern buildings on Lindell Boulevard west of Grand Avenue. Its loss, especially at the hands of a public entity, would be a blow to the already-threatened modern landscape of Lindell Boulevard.

UPDATE: A reader sent me a note to state that there has also been discussion about replacing the building with a taller residential building.

Old North Offering Six Rehab Opportunities

New houses adjacent to a historic house on the 1300 block of North Market in Old North.

Old North's North Market Place development, started in 2005, focused on constructing new houses like the ones shown here alongside historic buildings rehabilitated for apartments. The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and its development partner, the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, reserved some historic homes in the project area for private investment. Some of those houses and others are now offered for sale to qualified buyers. Those that don't sell immediately as-is will be stabilized and then offered for sale. From Karen Heet, Real Estate Coordinator for the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group:

The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group is a not-for-profit community development corporation whose mission is to revitalize the physical and social dimensions of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood in a manner that respects the community’s historic, cultural, and urban character.

ONSLRG is in possession of six buildings available for purchase and renovation. All six buildings will be offered in a first round of RFPs in their current condition, with a deadline of August 14, 2009 for proposal submissions. If there is no suitable offer for a building, ONSLRG will pay for the stabilization of the building and then offer the building in a second round of RFPs at a purchase price that reflects ONSLRG’s additional costs for stabilization.

One of the houses offered for sale is 1312 Warren Street, shown at center surrounded by fully-rehabbed buildings.

ONSLRG is seeking to increase home-ownership in the neighborhood, so preference will be given to proposals from:

* a developer who will rehab the building and sell to an owner-occupant( s), OR
* an owner-occupant who purchases a building and completes the renovations.

Of special interest will be the applicant’s residential rehab experience, the proposed timeframe for the completion of the project, and the applicant’s understanding of and commitment to compliance with standards for historic restoration.

All buildings are in the Murphy-Blair National Historic District and therefore may qualify for Historic Tax Credits. All buildings are in the N Florissant/N Market/Hadley/ Warren Redevelopment Area and are therefore eligible for property tax abatement. Selected buyers will be encouraged to apply for historic tax credits, property tax abatement, and Neighborhood Preservation Tax Credits.

All proposed construction is expected to be consistent with applicable neighborhood plans and city building codes.

Upon selection, the applicant will have a 3-month option period in which time all construction documents and financing must be finalized prior to the scheduling of a closing date. Construction documents must be sealed by a licensed architect.

ONSLRG will retain an 18-month Right of Re-entry on the property after closing, meaning that if substantial completion has not taken place in 18 months from the date of closing, ONSLRG has the right to take back the property, paying the buyer for any materials and labor for which invoices can be produced.

Please see the attached document for the proposal format and information on the buildings.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Storefront Additions: The Bars of Laclede Avenue

Where do thirsty Billikens go? Why, they are likely to head to a storefront addition on Laclede Avenue. Both of the street's off-campus bars are located in former nineteenth century residences that were converted to commercial use in the twentieth century.

The venerable bar Humphrey's at the southwest corner of Laclede and Spring Avenue has been around since 1976. The building housing the bar dates first to 1891, when the two-story row of flats were built. While some of the window openings are bricked in or altered, and the building is covered in a stark paint scheme, the building's Romanesque cornice is fully intact. The wide commercial addition with its chamfered (architecture speak for "angled") corner entrance dates to 1939. The first tenants in the storefront were Oscay McCoy, confectioner, at the corner, and Vernal Ragsdale, barber, at the next door.

One block west at 3818 Laclede Street is the Laclede Street Bar and Grill, an establishment that is not as old as Humphrey's. Neither is the building, since the house dates to 1895 with a back addition for the Ortleb Machinery Company built in 1947. The storefront and side additions, however, are not as old as they look. The additions date to 1968, when the building opened as Caleco's bar. This storefront addition has always served university students.

NorthSide Discussions

McEagle Properties made an unprecedented and commendable move for a developer: the company launched an interactive discussion board for its "NorthSide" project. The idea was that rather than hear rumors about the project, citizens could get their questions and concerns answered directly and publicly by the developer.

As someone who complained for years that McEagle was avoiding all public engagement, I was pleased. Of course, not everyone concerned about the project spends time online, but many of the most vocal critics do. The discussion board is at least a start at dialogue.

However, so far the discussion board has generated a scant 12 posts, and questions and comments directed at McEagle going back to July 7 have been left unanswered by McEagle.

Meanwhile, the discussion board of the newly-organized North Side Community Benefits Alliance has been home of much discussion among many different people. There have been 56 posts, and the threads read like conversations.

Of course, most conversation is happening offline -- at City Hall, block parties, neighborhood meetings, non-profit board meetings and even at the neighborhood saloon. McEagle has certainly generated a lot of discussion, but little of it has turned up online.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

More Demolition in Downtown Granite City

Last year, the building at 1310 Niedringhaus Avenue in downtown Granite City burned. The neighbor at 1308 Niedringhaus (at right above) suffered some damage, but nothing that compromised its structural integrity.

Here's a look at those two buildings three years ago, seen at right below:
One can see that these buildings were part of an uninterrupted row of downtown buildings with storefront retail activity. Such blocks are few and far between in Granite City these days. Now there is one less, because the government of Granite City successfully pushed to have both the buildings at 1308 and 1310 Niedringhaus Avenue demolished. Today, the site is a gaping hole in the street wall.

Like many municipalities in the St. Louis area, Granite City lacks a local preservation ordinance that would establish a citizen review commission for demolitions -- and the ability to seek federal grants for preservation planning. Such an ordinance would enable Granite City to become a Certified Local Government under federal rules, a status enjoyed by Belleville, Collinsville, Alton and Edwardsville. (Read more about Illinois' Certified Local Government program here.) If Granite City had a preservation ordinance, the city might have a shot at stopping the steady spate of demolitions that have been eroding the downtown area in the past decade.

Friday, July 10, 2009

State Auditor: Changes Needed With Healthy Home Repair Program, LRA

In April 2009, Missouri State Auditor Susan Montee completed an audit of the development agencies of the City of St. Louis. The full report is available online here. There are some routine discrepancies noted as well as some very serious ones.

The two that are most relevant to distressed neighborhoods in the city concern the Healthy Home Repair program's dependence on ward-based allocation rather than on actual need, and Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) sales policy.

According to the report, "[t]he city usually allocates the same amount of Healthy Home Repair Program monies to each aldermanic ward, and it appears the city does not allocate the monies based on the area of greatest need. As of August 28, 2008, there were 3,325 clients on waiting lists mainly in wards with little or no unspent monies, while there were 4 wards with unspent balances that exceeded $120,000 each with small or no waiting lists."

While all homeowners in the city have a right to access that money, the surplus situation essentially means that many people are not getting money or experiencing delays because some money cannot be spent. That's absurd. Why not restructure the program so that the pool of money is allocation through citywide open application? that way, every dollar of this precious and important fund would be spent. In many distressed neighborhoods, this money is crucial to stabilization.

The audit's statements on the LRA are not as specific, but do note the absence of good record-keeping ("LRA does not have contracts related to costs incurred for property maintenance and upkeep"), maintenance policy ("[e]xpenses incurred for maintenance and upkeep are not allocated to individual properties as required by state law") and sales ("policies for land sale pricing are outdated or not adequately documented").

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Records Left at Arlington School

A fascinating report on KTVI news covers the discovery of children psychiatric records found inside of a portable classroom at the abandoned Arlington School at 1617 Burd Avenue in Wells-Goodfellow. I have been all over inside of the historic building for documentation work, but never inside of the classrooms built in 1961. However, I have been inside enough abandoned buildings to know that the abandonment of private employee and medical records is far too common.

The story also hits on the upcoming renovation of Arlington, quoting Alderman Jeffrey Boyd (D-22nd) saying: "For some people, it is an eyesore. I see it as an opportunity."

Good attitude.

St. Charles City Council Grants Landmark Status to Structure Built in 1969

On Tuesday, the St. Charles City Council voted 9-0 to declare the Lt. Robert E. Lee "boat" an official city landmark. While I am often in favor of preservation protection for structures built in the 1960s, this is one case where I have to side against landmark designation. The "boat" is actually an ersatz old-time riverboat whose wooden superstructure dates to 1969. The hull dates to the 1930s. The Lee opened as a moored restaurant on the St. Louis riverfront in 1970, but closed in 2006. The current owners wish to relocate the boat to St. Charles, where there is an ordinance barring wood multi-story construction on structures brought into the city. The landmark status trumps that ordinance.

However, the use of the landmark status here is an abuse. The council subordinated reasonable interpretation of city landmark law as well as the formal recommendation of the city planning staff against designation. Economic development should not shape preservation law. If the council needed to exempt the boat from the ordinance forbidding the Lee's relocation to the city riverfront, its members should have used different legislation.

I wonder how many St. Charles buildings built in the 1960s have ever received landmark status.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How to Spot an Urban Assets Property

How does one identify the holdings of Urban Assets LLC? Of course, the most reliable method is to use the plat maps at the Assessor's office and then examine deeds at the Recorder of Deeds' office. Geo St. Louis is a good back-up. Still, when one is far from City Hall or the Internet, there is a fairly reliable way of telling.

Look at the photograph above, showing the north face of the 4200 block of Page Boulevard in the Vandeventer neighborhood (officially "West Page" here.) See the Urban Assets property?

Aha! Here it is: the lovely home at 4255 W. Page Boulevard. Unfortunately, the house was condemned for demolition on June 1 and sits in the 19th Ward, where there is no preservation review.

How about across the street? My guess is that this one is obvious.

Yes, it's the fine old house at 4230 W. Page. The tell-tale sign of Urban Assets is the use of unpainted OSB boards to cover window and door openings. OSB board is not the most water- or vandal-proof material out there -- how about 3/4" plywood or breathable metal covers used widely in Chicago on vacant buildings -- but it's better than nothing. This is the same style of board-up used by Urban Solutions on McEagle's properties.

The Land Reutilization Authority mostly uses plywood for board-up and always paints the boards it installs. Urban Assets' board-up jobs are stark and easy to spot. On one hand, a bright new OSB board is a sign of neglect, but on the other it is a canvas for aspiring artists of every medium. Is there a connection between Urban Assets and the Heidelberg Project?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Urban Assets LLC May Not Be the Last of Them

In February, Eagle Realty broker Harvey Noble registered a few new holding companies with the State of Missouri. The companies are:

- Diligent Property LLC
- Feasible Projects LLC
- Incentive Properties LLC
- Marketable Property LLC
- Premises Property LLC
- Prudent Investor LLC

North St. Louis aldermen should beware these names turning up on new deeds. Noble is the broker behind both McEagle's secretive buying scheme and the new slumlord machine Urban Assets LLC. So far, these new companies have not made any moves beyond one purchase by Prudent Investor LLC, and their purposes are unknown. Urban Assets remains at large.

Cool, Fun Hotel Indigo

Last week, brothers Michael and Steven Roberts cut the ribbon at the Hotel Indigo, formerly the Bel Air Motel at 4630 Lindell Boulevard. I have written about the importance of this project's demonstration of how a mid-century motel can be preserved while being creatively renovated. I will not repeat that message here (see "Realizing the Potential of a Mid-Century Motel", June 9). However, until last week, I had not seen the interior or courtyards since renovation was completed.

Architect Michael Killeen did a great job restoring the streamline beauty of the old Bel Air. The fresh white of the piers, coping and windows makes the motel sing out from its perch above the Lindell sidewalk. In the sunlight, the motel shines and beckons with a tempting jet-set modern facade. The white imparts a lightness appropriate to the American spirit of travel and vacation -- a spirit fresh and novel when the Bel Air was built in 1958. The courtyard echoes the design program of the front section, with private balconies on its north side. The opaque dividers are a neat solution to the need for privacy between rooms. (One complaint here: why gaudy iron furniture in the courtyard of a modernist motor hotel? Ah, well. That's a small problem.)

The lobby and coffee shop are open, bright spaces exposed by the large windows facing Lindell. Here, the architect makes use of the curve to direct gently those who arrive through the front door.

The rooms are fine, and a few have architectural details like etched brick. All have magnificently large windows and great, urbane views.

The narrow hallways are as utilitarian as one can expect, but Killeen and crew cut against the boring factor by using a splashy lime green for the walls and blue carpeting. Even the stairwells are done in that green. Yowza! All in all, the Hotel Indigo is cool.

Apparently, the Central West End could stand another project like this one. At the ribbon cutting, Convention and Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe stated that she often cuts ribbons in area where the hotel markets are over-served, but that she could definitely not say that about the Hotel Indigo and the Central West End.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Block of Montgomery Street Two Years Later

Yes, the congregation eventually sold the church voluntarily. I still remember the day back in 2006 when the pastor of the North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church at called us at Landmarks Association of St. Louis asking for help with a real estate agent who had approached the church for an offer. Our advice was that the buyer was likely Paul McKee, Jr. and McEagle Properties, and the church should not worry about standing firm because this was a big, long-term project and there was no need to move out right away. However, by summer 2007, North Galilee was long gone.

Now, in 2009, the cornerstone is removed. North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church has moved to Moline Acres in St. Louis County. The building that housed African-American Christian worship since 1906 -- over 100 years -- sits empty, with its front door constantly pried apart by vandals seeking copper. The block that the church anchored was once proud -- a solid part of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood. Now, the block barely recognizes the state it was in in January 2007 when I first photographed it.

At that point, the church was surrounded by fairly well-kept brick housing that was privately owned. This block stood out in a neighborhood where much of the remaining historic housing stock east of Grand is owned by a few large owners, including the valiant St. Louis Equity Fund. Here was a block that spoke not only to the past but to the future -- institutional stability, private ownership and safety. Needless to say, McEagle got a foothold in 2006 and proceeded to buy out every private owner in the next two years.

It's day and night. When I now set foot on the block, I feel a heavy sense of loss.

Here is the view of the church and three neighboring shotgun-style houses in January 2007:

One of the houses was occupied then, while one was owned by McEagle and another by the city's Land Reutilization Authority. The three houses remain:

Across the street stood three two-story houses. The center house still had its elaborate historic wooden porch in January 2007:

East of the group of three houses stood an already-boarded one-story shotgun house. Apparently, life at this house was happy, as now-covered graffiti left by its occupants indicated two years ago:

This side of the block has changed radically in the past two years as McEagle finished acquisition and brick thieves destroyed the group of three houses. Here's a recent view:

When McEagle discusses saving all buildings that can be saved, what does that statement mean? For the 2900 block of Montgomery Avenue, a block that would have been an ideal block for preservation and infill, that promise is retroactive and meaningless. The buildings fell. The church moved to the county. Day is night, up is down, and the neighborhood is out one of its most hopeful blocks and a historic African-American house of worship.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Good and Bad on Locust Street

The PW Shoe Lofts project is heading toward completion at the northeast corner of Locust and Theresa avenues in the emerging Locust Street Business District. The project is an exciting step in the connection of the Grand Center district, with its large institutions and emphasis on arts, with the Locust Street area, a more organic mix of pedestrian-scaled development. The PW Shoe Lofts is the connector between the two area, and its occupancy will do a lot to help bridge an abrupt gap.

When complete, there will be 33 loft apartments inside of the former Pedigo-Weber Shoe Factory. Albert Groves, architect of the Masonic Temple, the front buildings at City Hospital and other buildings, designed the plain, handsome building, which was built by Murch Brothers and completed in 1918. (The one-story addition dates to 1948.) The Zane Williams company, former occupant, hired Renaissance Development to develop the building and Garen Miller to design the rehab. One of the best parts of the project is that the 33 units will be served by only 15 internal parking spaces, so the project does not create too much new parking in an area that has excessive supply. The end result will be a cool, urbane housing option near St. Louis University.

However, there are a few urban design problems on this end of Locust Street. Beside the blank back wall of the Moto Museum across the street, there is a bigger gulf here: the space immediately east of the PW Shoe Lofts.

East of the PW Shoe Lofts is the vacant lot where once stood a fine two-story livery stable. St. Louis University demolished the building in 2007, after it was included in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the West Locust and Olive Streets Historic District. In the place of the livery stable, built in 1885-1889 and later remodeled as an automobile dealership, stands a pernicious auto-related use: a seldom-used parking lot serving Chaifetz Arena. East of that lot, the university and Alderwoman Marlene Davis )D-19th) vacated Josephine Baker Avenue to create an even larger urban gulf between the vibrant end of Locust Street and Midtown.

Moving east, we have a fine row of four historic buildings -- two of which are owned by St. Louis University, which promises eventual rehabilitation. These are the two at left in the photograph above. At very left is a fine, broad-front automobile sales building built in 1914 and designed by Clymer & Drischler (3331-9 Locust Street). To its right is an older three-story brick building with a fine iron fire escape on its front elevation (3327-9 Locust Street). Designed by Godfrey Hirsch, this building started life as a carriage repository owned by Joseph Long. These buildings are vacant.

The other two buildings in this row are in active use. There is the refaced building with a modern front at 3323 Locust Street, first built in 1891 but altered later to keep up with the demands of tenants trying to hawk cars on Automobile Row. Its more iconic neighbor at 3321 Locust Street is the firehouse-like Underwriters Salvage Corps No. 3 building, built in 1892 and designed by K.S. Evans. That building serves as a private residence.

All in all, these four buildings showcase a breadth of age, height, material and storefront treatment common in a historic commercial district. The variety is held together by the common vocabulary of human-scaled materials and ample fenestration.

What impulse compelled St. Louis University to place a windowless monster next to these four buildings? While the university's new library warehouse is essentially a remodeling of a building that had long lost its windows, the completion was earlier this year. The university had the choice to place this warehouse in many locations, and it chose a pivotal connecting block in a commercial district trying to renew itself. Wealthy St. Louis University could have funded any number of architectural programs on the important Locust Street elevation, but it chose to go with a forbidding, bland EIFS wall interrupted only by utilitarian steel entrance and garage doors.

Plainly, the warehouse is a disruptive force in the Locust Street Business district. The placement of dumpsters in front on the building on Locust is yet another failing. Here, the university could have invested in the pedestrian scale of Locust Street, and instead it bluntly subsumed the commercial district to its own utility -- just as it did with the livery stable demolition.

Meanwhile, two blocks east, Renaissance is working on the old Kardell Motor Company Building at 3141 Locust Street and an adjacent United States Tire Company building at 3147 Locust Street. Once covered by a nasty slipcover, the old showroom's fine glazed terra cotta has been restored. The Kardell Motor Company Building dates to 1916 and was designed by Preston J. Brashaw, while the United States Tire Company Building is the work of Stephens and Pearson. Bradshaw's mastery of ceramic expression is concentrated here, while in larger works like the Chase Hotel, the Paul Brown Building and the Coronado Hotel it is more diffused through large brick masses. The Kardell building is an architectural cream puff, and its restoration is testament to the vision of Renaissance and other parties working to revive Locust Street.

On one block, a developer is going so far as to remove slipcovers and restore damaged terra cotta. On another, there is a new faceless warehouse. Such contradiction cries out for resolution through a sensible master plan. Much of Locust Street between Jefferson and Theresa is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. How about design guidelines for new construction as well as rules and restraints on parking for a next step?

Prominent Corner, Vacant Lot

Vacant lot, major street, prominent corner...are there shades of the DeVille Motor Hotel issue at the southwest corner of 14th and Washington downtown? Yes, there are. This would have been the site of the SkyHouse, if the developers had closed on financing and built anything after they demolished the two buildings on this site.

In 2007, I wrote somewhat favorably of the SkyHouse project. Yet in retrospect I should have applied the precautionary principle. Two years later, Washington Avenue has a vacant corner where it previously had a corner-hugging building. While that building's preservation value was debatable, its urban form was superior to a vacant lot.

The DeVille situation is different because the best case (a cleared lot) is the same as the SkyHouse worst case. St. Louis is worthy of a better case.