We've Moved

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

Friday, October 30, 2009

Adaptive Reuse of Nashville Iron Works

While in Nashville recently, I spotted the Riverfront Condominiums along the Cumberland River just south of the Jefferson Street Bridge in the old stockyards area. From a distance, I thought that I had spotted a former fabrication shed, and I was right. Perhaps the recent demolition of much of the General Steel Casting foundry, with its magnificent sheds, in Granite City was on my mind. While lacking a river view, that complex was ripe for creative reuse.

The Riverfront Condominiums utilize what was the main shed of the Kerrigan Iron Works (which was actually a steel fabricator, not a foundry). While the shed is not restored, it and a smokestack on the site were both incorporated into the redevelopment. In 1985, a developer built new apartment buildings along the river and around the smokestack base, deciding to retain the industrial structures in the new project.

Since the foundry sat back from the river, the main new building -- converted into condominiums in the 1990s -- is adjacent to the shed, not inside of it. The shed is used as covered parking.

Here is one flaw -- this interesting covered space is the primary entrance into the condominiums, and it is used only for parking cars. There is not much decoration or lighting here.

On the First Avenue North side, where one enters the project, the side wall was stripped of cladding with some steel window sash left in place. However, the impact is not as stunning a sit could be. Again, having the undershed area devoted only to parking mitigates the "wow" factor.

The buildings around the smokestack, however, form a pleasant courtyard -- again, mostly devoted to parking. While the Riverfront Condominiums have a few design issues relating to placement of parking and approach, the actual living spaces on the river face are unique in Nashville. The developer who sought to retain the foundry shed and the smokestack did so with little incentive. There is no income tax in Tennessee and hence no state development tax credits. According to a local architectural consultant, development culture in Nashville long ago embraced creative contemporary design. The Riverfront Condominiums, however imperfect, demonstrate that mindset. St. Louis developers dealing with industrial property should take heed.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

In Chicago, Walter Gropius' Work is Fair Game

The power plant at Michael Reese Hospital dates to 1953.

Readers know the story: Modern buildings targeted for demolition by powerful interests. Preservationists work to publicize the beauty and reuse potential of modern buildings. Apologists for power claim that modern buildings' architectural significance is unclear. Back, forth. A few concessions on "major" buildings. Every major preservation voice and even the major newspaper calls for preservation. Then demolition of the "unimportant" buildings begins.

This story is not happening in St. Louis, but in Chicago. The modern buildings are those that comprise the postwar campus of Michael Reese Hospital on the city's south side. The planner who designed the campus and collaborated on designing eight of the campus buildings is Walter Gropius. (The close proximity of a Gropius-planned campus to a Mies van Der Rohe-planned campus, that of the Illinois Institute of Technology, is unique in North America.) Strange that there would be any confusion over the work of an internationally-renowned modern designer, but in Chicago under the administration of Mayor Richard Daley, such obvious contribution to the worldwide evolution of architecture is no brake on the acts of power. Demolition started yesterday.

Apparently, common sense is also being wrecked, because the original reason for the City of Chicago's acquisition of the Michael Reese campus was to prepare a residential village for the 2016 Olympic Games. After that bid failed -- and many residents of the south side breathed a sigh of relief -- the city ramped up the push for demolition with no real development plan. There is vague talk of "mixed use" development, but nothing that compels demolition now other than the absurd conviction that sticking to a senseless plan is righteous. Only two concessions for "major" buildings have been made -- one early and one, for Gropius' Singe Pavilion, last week. Context eludes the ham fists at Chicago City Hall, however.

Landmarks Illinois even offered a preservation compromise that would have targeted some buildings for preservation and allowed others to be wrecked. Daley's administration had no interest. Never mind that there is a pending National Register of Historic Places nomination for the campus prepared by Grahm Balkany and the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, which will be considered by Illinois state government on December 10. Since no state and federal funds are being used to directly pay the wreckers, there will be no government review of demolition any way.

Showing a better form of conviction than the city of Chicago, the Gropius in Chicago Coalition trudges onward. Although the landscape by Sasaky DeMay and Associates is ruined, and one of the eight Gropius buildings is now lost, there is still something to be spared.

In a move unsurprising to preservationists, the City of Chicago early on decided to spare the main hospital building from 1907 by Schmidt, Garden & Martin from demolition. Widely hailed as a landmark in Chicago's beloved Prairie School style, the main building would have engendered a preservation war.

However, some perfectly sound pre-Gropius buildings are also threatened, including the one pictured here:

While organized primarily to protect Gropius' legacy, the Coalition has fought to preserve these buildings too. In fact, I expect Grahm to work until every last part of the complex is torn down. To date, his work has resulted in the sounding of every major Chicago voice on architecture, from the Tribune editorial board to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Midwest Office, in support of preservation. Just this week a letter with impressive signatories went out.

It's not too late to make a difference. Contact information for Mayor Daley and key city officials is posted here. Raise your voice for internationally significant modern architecture.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ranch House Renewal in Ferguson

Today's St. Louis Beacon carries an article about the inner-ring St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson's attempt to revitalize neighborhoods composed largely of small postwar ranch houses. Rosalind Williams, director of planning and development for the city, has plans to save some of these homes by expanding them. From the article by Mary Delach Leonard:

Williams says the plan is to buy the homes and then "right-size" them by adding a bedroom or bathroom to make them more attractive to home buyers. The long-term goal: neighborhood stabilization.

Ferguson has continued its efforts to identify potential historic districts, including neighborhoods of smaller mid-century homes. In today's economy, those smaller houses might be looking as good as they did fifty years ago.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Grand-Bates Historic District Listed; More to Come

On September 16, the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places listed the Grand-Bates Suburb Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. The district encompasses the residential area roughly bounded by Grand Avenue on the west, Bates Avenue on the north, I-55 on the east and Iron Street on the south. the nomination was written by Andrew Weil, Research Associate for Landmarks Association of St. Louis and funded through the work of Alderman Matt Villa (D-11th).

Missing from the nomination is an area between Iron and Carondelet Park that could not be included due to the architectural gulf between it and the more consistent part of the district. Thus, landmarks like the Corinthian Baptist Church on Idaho Avenue (anchor of Carondelet's historic African-American enclave), First District Police Station and the Seventh Church of Christ Scientist on Holly Hills Boulevard, the Southern Funeral Home on Grand Boulevard -- all eligible for listing as single sites or as part of another district -- are not covered. Hopefully they will get listed as well.

Matta-Clark in St. Louis: Welcome to the Desert of the Real

This Friday, October 30, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (3716 Washington) opens Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark from 5:00 - 9:00 p.m. Matta-Clark (1943-1978) trained as an architect but ended up as an artist working architecturally. That is, Matta-Clark took to buildings to create his art. Literally. Matta-Clark cut sections of buildings, cut pieces out of and into buildings and rearranged and played with existing architecture. Out of his brutal dissection emerged works that raise more questions about the contemporary urban condition than can ever be answered.

The Pulitzer's press release contains an evocative quote from the artist, who said that his work engaged buildings "for these comprise both a miniature cultural evolution and a model of prevailing social structures. Consequently, what I do to buildings is what some do with languages and others with groups of people: I organize them in order to explain and defend the need for change." Matta-Clark's buildings were slated for demolition and already deemed trash to the modern capitalist economy. From their doomed bodies, Matta-Clark raised out "hope and fantasy" that challenged

Matta-Clark worked in the early 1970s when urban renewal's bulldozer binge was at its peak. In this time, famously, salvager Richard Nickel in 1972 met his death saving intact pieces of Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building in Chicago. Matta-Clark's death only six years later was due to cancer, but there is some mystic coincidence in the untimely deaths of the artifact-seeker and the playfully artistic vivisectionist. Both met the same fate as so many of their subjects did, in the period where American cities lost more historic architecture than ever before or since.

The arrival of the work of Matta-Clark in St. Louis in 2009 evokes another coincidence: the arrival of the exhibition at a great moment in the historic redevelopment of north St. Louis, when Paul J. McKee Jr. is attempting to reinvent urban renewal as a private-side endeavor, with his own company leading and government following. The old model is inverted, but historic architecture -- and the social relationships its endurance enables -- is as much at risk as it was when Matta-Clark was at over work thirty years ago. The image that I share above is not the result of McKee's ongoing effort, but it could be. The NorthSide project has created more cut-through buildings than Matta-Clark made, or Nickel ever entered, through the dollars-and-cents underground economy of brick theft.

In the past two years, St. Louisans have seen -- or, perhaps more commonly, seen images of -- buildings gruesomely reinvented at the hands of people needing quick money to pay a bill or get a fix. The horror is unimaginable for those who live around the shells that haunt north city. Can the aesthetic counterpart found in Matta-Clark's work draw from this region's citizens a meaningful discussion on the future of our own historic architecture? Matta-Clark's work has the power to provoke, inspire and motivate us to move from our own complacent disregard for the inner city. May we not sublimate what is lived as a crisis.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Preservation and Online Media

Preservation Ohio, the statewide advocacy organization serving the Buckeye State, is the most-followed state preservation group on Twitter. I have been following Preservation Ohio's media efforts for the past month, and am amazed at the innovation in and consistency of its efforts. In fact, on Friday, October 23, Preservation Ohio hosted a live blog on "Preservation and Social Media." Hopefully other Midwestern preservation groups tuned in for some much-needed training.

According to the organization's website, the premise was simple and familiar to preservationists across the country: "Ohio’s preservation community suffers from a lack of cohesion and from multiple groups working in ways that waste resources and produce a disjointed message."

Here's what Preservation Ohio has done to combat that problem in the past year:

* Launched The Ohio Preservation Network, America’s first social network designed exclusively for statewide preservation and revitalization. Through the site, Ohioans can now easily share preservation news, stories, events, opportunities and enthusiasm, and gain access to key resources.
* Forged new ground in the use of online social networking to build a strong, cohesive community for preservation, and to provide public relations opportunities for our members and affiliate communities.
* Hosted the most-followed organizational Twitter page of any statewide preservation organization in the country. Each month, our stories and links are now re-posted, and our stories are clicked, over 1,000 times. We continue to build a strong presence on Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube and other forms of social media.
* We continue to publish America’s first and oldest self-authored statewide preservation blog, MyHometownOhio, which celebrated its third anniversary this summer.
* Worked with statewide and regional preservation organizations in other parts of the country to share best practices and tips on social media.
* Hosted National Preservation Conference Twitter Central, the only location online for access to all Twitter entries from the 2009 Nashville Conference, including photos and videos.

While most of effective preservation advocacy happens offline, and some constituents are missed by social media, Preservation Ohio's work demonstrates a welcome openness. Meeting people where they are is key to successful preservation outreach, and online media are key to meeting a wide spectrum of the public, especially younger people often under-engaged by preservation groups. Alongside traditional outreach, Preservation Ohio's online media strategy has made it into the most visible Midwestern preservation organization. Will others follow?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cultural Resources Office Stands Up for House in Soulard

The city's Cultural Resource Office (CRO) has published the final agenda for Monday's Preservation Board meeting. CRO recommends that the Board uphold denial of the house at 1925-27 S. 10th Street in Soulard. The report clears up any doubt that Rehab Girls LLC is tied to developer Pete Rothschild. This action is inconsistent with Rothschild's lauded track record on preservation.

On Public Record McKee Denies Connection to Urban Assets

Douglas Duckworth posted this video that he took at yesterday's aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning committee meeting. Toward the end of questioning by Alderman Antonio French (D-21st), Paul J. McKee Jr. -- on public record -- denies any intention to purchase land outside of the NorthSide project area and any involvement in land-grabbing shell company Urban Assets LLC.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Future, Past: Meet the Present

With tomorrow's aldermanic hearing on the NorthSide bills, I think back to September 23. This was the date of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission's meeting in which that body unanimously approved the TIF for the first two phases of the NorthSide project. I think of that meeting as the "Night of Dichotomy" because just a few block away at Left Bank Books' downtown store was another gathering: a panel discussion sponsored by Next American City called Urbanexus.

I missed most of the Urbanexus panel unsuccessfully trying to get a seat at the TIF Commission, but I know that the panel featured some of our town's best and brightest minds, including moderator Chris King, editorial director for the St. Louis American, Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) and Cherokee Street gadabout Galen Gondolfi. The crowd was as interesting as the panel. The store was jam-packed, with many faces that I had never seen before. Something magical is afoot when the Jeremiah, the Amish hobo of the north riverfront, is one of the most familiar faces in sight!

I don't really recall much from the panel discussion, save Antonio French's rousing call to change the city's zoning code. What I can't stop thinking about was how there was this ideas-focused, future-oriented convergence taking place at the same time and in the same radius as a public meting fraught with the predictable tensions and turmoil of the city's past sixty years. The old scene was mired in age-old divisions and rife with anger, while the new scene was full of ideas but a little disconnected from the harsh reality of civic heavy-lifting.

I was able to plug into the Urbanexus events earlier in the day. My day started with a driving tour of the city that I led with Jeff and Randy Vines. In attendance were Diana Lind and Pooja Shah of Next American City, Sarah Szurpicki of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange, Sharon Carney from the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and Payton Chung of Chicago. The tour was a mad dash starting downtown and winding through everywhere from Old North to Clayton.

Steven Smith, Pooja Shah, Diana Lind, Sharon Carney and Jeff Vines discuss St. Louis at The Royale.

The tour was a hit! Our out of town guests loved the city and its neighborhoods. One comment that came up again and again was how the city neighborhoods have strong identities and how even the most distressed areas retain street life and commercial cores. The tour-goers were very impressed by the north side, which they had read about in relation to the NorthSide project. No one saw the wasteland they had suspected might be there. In fact, the Detroit contingent was a little jealous!

Sarah Szurpicki and the Vines brothers outside of Urban Eats in Dutchtown.

After the tour, there was a lunch meeting called the Vanguard Regional Roundup. Next American City has kindly posted a recap here. That meeting was held at Urban Eats in Dutchtown, the brainchild of John Chen and Caya Aufiero. I left in a mood unwilling to deal with the TIF Commission hearing later that day. We had a great discussion about St. Louis that included not only some usual-suspects locals but people from Chicago, Philadelphia, Asheville and Detroit -- and it was refreshing, insightful, realistic and productive. Then it was back to work. However, work imbued with such deliberation and connection to the outside world felt a little more purposeful.

You know that future we are all talking about? We're building it now.

Aldermanic Hearing on NorthSide Project Tomorrow

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen's Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on the two board bills -- 218 and 219 -- that would enact a redevelopment agreement for the McEagle NorthSide project and allocate Tax increment financing to the project's first two phases.

The meeting will take place at 10:00 a.m. in the Kennedy Room, formerly the City Council chamber when the city had a bicameral legislature (Room 208).

Word is buzzing about lawsuits against the project and a recall effort against Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th), but the legislation that will give McEagle development power marches along. Does the haste to pass the bill and the fervor to kill it create a situation where smart changes will have little political support? No doubt that McEagle has the votes it needs to pass these ordinances as they have been introduced. The only part of the deal that would probably fail at the Board is public guarantee of the TIF, and that proposal has not been introduced as a bill. Many aldermen have stated total opposition to public guarantee but support for the project itself with the TIF currently proposed.

Thus, there is only a small amount of time in which real changes to these bills can be crafted and proposed. Let's get those changes on the table quickly. What should they be? Post them here and bring them tomorrow morning.

Government Officials and Preservation Action

Preservationists are pretty used to lobbying government officials. Yet sometimes those officials are the ones doing the lobbying. That's what attendees saw at the October 16 membership meeting of Preservation Action, held during the National Trust for Historic Preservation's conference in Nashville.

One of the first speakers was Brian Goeken, who is Deputy Commissioner in the Department of Planning and Development for Chicago. Then there was a rousing talk by Joel Burns, a City Council member in Forth Worth who spoke about how vital smart federal historic preservation laws are to local redevelopment efforts.

Rounding out the meeting were short presentations by Anna Glover, Preservation Planner for San Antonio, and Shannon Wasielewski, the Historic Preservation Officer for that city. Glover is helping boost Preservation Action's efforts to sign up coordinators in each state who will ensure that federal elected officials hear from their constituents on preservation policy. Glover also serves on the board of directors of Preservation Texas, that state's non-profit statewide advocacy organization. Wasielewski serves as Preservation Action's Vice Chair for Finance and Administration.

While Preservation Action limits its lobbying to federal policy, preventing these officials from conflicts with their local city governments, their involvement is still laudable. City Council members should have a lot to say about federal policies that affect their own policy-making, and appointed officials should share their knowledge of best policy practices -- and push for changes when needed.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Rehab Girls" Seek Soulard Demolition

The most troubling item on the October 26 agenda for the St. Louis Preservation Board is the only actual demolition permit on the agenda, for a house at 1927-9 S. 10th Street in Soulard. While any demolition permit for a perfectly sound historic building is troubling, this one is egregious. For one thing, the two-and-a-half brick house is located in a dense and stable part of one of the city's most dense and stable historic districts. For another, the house at 1927-9 S. 10th Street is one of the number of remaining St. Louis buildings that appear in the pages of Pictorial St. Louis, the 1875 atlas by Richard Compton and Camille Dry. The simple brick dentils on the cornice indicate an age even earlier than the atlas -- perhaps in the 1850s or 1860s, before wooden cornices began appearing on modest housing like this. Such buildings are rare enough that the Preservation Board should never permit their demolition.

What this writer knows about the back story here provides little clue as to why the owner, Rehab Girls LLC, is pushing demolition. In its fictitious registration of the name Rehab Girls, Rehab Girls LLC -- registered through a third-party registrar -- reported that Peggy Sheffold is Vice President and that the company office is the same as Rothschild Development Ltd., Sheffold's employer. Rothschild owns a lot of Soulard property, including a corner mixed-use building directly north of this house.

Rehab Girls LLC purchased the house on South 10th for $50,000 on December 19, 2006. Recently, the house was listed for sale by Red Brick Management, a Rothschild company, with a $136,000 asking price. Since the purchase, there are no recorded building permits despite a full recent reconstruction of the cornice.

The work performed on the cornice indicates that the building's brick work is fully repairable. Why Rehab Girls aborted the work and decided to pursue demolition is unfathomable. Soulard is a neighborhood that long has moved past dark days of demolition and on to significant infill construction. The "Rehab Girls" should stick to their name or sell this fine building. Meanwhile, the Preservation Board should deny the demolition request.

The Preservation Board meets at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, October 26 in the offices of the St. Louis Development Corporation, 1015 Locust Street, 12th floor.

However, citizens need not be present to submit written testimony. Testimony can be sent to the board via its secretary, Adona Buford, at BufordA@stlouiscity.com or care of the Cultural Resources Office, 1015 Locust Street, Suite 1200, St. Louis MO 63101.

Laclede Town Remembered

Photograph from the Place and Memory Project.

Byron Kerman altered me to the fact that Laclede Town now has its own page in the Space and Memory Project database. The abandoned vestige of Laclede Town stood long enough to muddy the history of what was a noble and thriving community development experiment in Midtown.

The Laclede Town page includes an essay by Dominic Schaeffer that addresses the later perception and the early reality of Laclede Town. Here's an excerpt:

Unfortunately, the abandoned, boarded-up houses stood far too long, leaving the impression to those passing by that it must have been a failure, "the end of an error." But to those of us who were there, it was by no means a failure. Far from it.

Laclede Town's success came as much from its social architecture as its physical design. In fact, architecturally Laclede Town was fairly middling for the 1960s. What distinguished Laclede Town from other urban renewal projects was that its layout accommodated gathering places -- a coffee house, pub and small businesses. Laclede Town had a "town circle" that may not have mimicked the organically-occurring retail hubs of old city neighborhoods at least provided the sorts of uses found in them. Thus, Laclede Town mixed uses, and had a gathering place inside of its boundaries. On top of that, the legendary manager of the project, Jerome Berger, spent more time working with residents than on cutting ribbons.

The result of the arrangement was that Laclede Town's residents could actually create community -- not "community" epitomized by sterile award-winning housing towers, or community enshrined in a pretty rendering on a developer's wall, but community that was happening within the development itself. That's the type of social life that makes urban places livable. That's something that must be able to happen architecturally as well as socially. Clearly, the architecture was not the only factor, because after Berger departed Laclede Town hit its decline and eventually fell abandoned.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

RFT Throws Spotlight on Esley Hamilton, Preservationist

Esley Hamilton discussed Greek Revival architecture in America at the Chatillon-DeMenil House on September 27.

This week's issue of the Riverfront Times carries a feature article by Aimee Levitt on the inimitable Esley Hamilton, Historian for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation. The article, entitled "To Preserve and Protect: Esley Hamilton has a boundless passion for St. Louis' architectural past", provides a good overview of Esley's career and contributions to preservation efforts in St. Louis. Esley probably would rather see a feature article on an endangered building, but he's earned the attention.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Farm and Home Building Looking Spiffy

Here's a brief follow-up on the ongoing renovation of the Farm and Home Building -- now dubbed the "411" after its north 10th Street address -- at 10th and Locust streets downtown (see "Farm & Home Building's Modern Slipcover Now Historic", March 9). The building looks great! Once again, Craig Heller and his LoftWorks company has accomplished a sensitive rehabilitation of a difficult building.

Now, work on the exterior is almost totally done. The 1954 slip-cover, once a dingy mask that even Heller wanted to remove, again radiates modern optimism. The message is the same as ever: what is old is new again, downtown is back in action and we'll beat the darned Soviets through our superior modern architecture. Okay, I jest, but the point is that few would have thought the Farm and Home could ever look this great. I can't wait to raise a martini (but of course!) at the grand opening, and to see what mid-century modern building will be the next to catch a clever developer's eye.

Moving Ahead on South Fourth Street

The on-again, off-again rehab of the elegant commercial building at 904 S. Fourth Street just south of downtown is definitely "on" again. That's a good sign in this slow market, and hopefully a good sign for the larger but slow-moving Chouteau's Landing project of which this building is part. The "other" Landing's developer, Chivvis, has succeeded in rehabbing two other commercial buildings on Fourth Street, and is planning a major rehab of the Powell Square into studio space with a photography museum as an anchor.

Located just a stone's throw from Busch Stadium, the South Fourth area is ripe for redevelopment. One of the problems, of course, is that are retains few historic buildings, having lost many to the construction of surface parking for the old stadium and downtown workers. What's left is scattered, but that provides interesting opportunities for new construction.

The building at 904 S. Fourth Street is part of a more intact section on the east side of the street north of the MacArthur Bridge. That area is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the South Fourth Street Commercial Historic District (nomination by Karen Bode Baxter, Tim Maloney and others.) According to the nomination, the building at 904 S. Fourth dates to between the publication of Pictorial St. Louis in 1875 and the Hopkins Fire Insurance Map in 1883. Since St. Louis building permit records from before 1876 no longer exist and permits from the next decade are often incomplete, those two references are invaluable at assigning dates to buildings without permit records.

There are two noteworthy features of the Italianate-style building. First, its cast iron storefront carries the maker's mark "Christopher & Company" rather than Christoper & Simpson, which was the maker's name after 1874 and is more commonly seen. However, the building does not appear on the 1875 atlas. The second oddity here is that the south bays of the building were lopped off around 1917 to make way for the railroad approach to the Municipal (later MacArthur) Bridge. Originally, this building was symmetrical. The nomination states that the Eberle & Keyes Undertaking Company -- as in bodies -- was an early tenant.

Across a parking lot to the north is an intriguing building with a tower-style rounded corner. This building dates to 1887 and housed many doctor's offices over the years. The back drop here is stunning -- the majestic bridge approach still active with rail traffic, the rising masses of the industrial buildings closer to the river, and the downtown street canyon to the north. South Fourth might lack an intact built environment, but it has an urban scenic quality that is very attractive. Imagining the potential is not difficult.

There are some connectivity problems. The rail bridges are visual barriers, but they add to the charm. The barrier here is to the east, where I-55 walls off Fourth Street from Chouteau's Landing proper. Something has to be done there before this area will really "pop" with development. The likely major design competition surrounding the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial next year provides a great opportunity to examine the connection between this south end of downtown and the river. Removal of I-55 is not possible, but removal of I-70 on the other side of the Poplar Street Bridge could open up an easy walk to the river from South Fourth. Whatever happens, the design competition ought to be open to big-picture thinking that would benefit the development efforts on South Fourth as much as the downtown tourist experience.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Topic A Tonight

Tonight, I will be a guest on KDHX's Topic A program. Host Amanda Doyle will interview me on a range of topics, including new federal preservation legislation, a St. Louis museum project located in Illinois and, of course, the status of the NorthSide project.

Readers should already be tuned into to Topic A this month because it's Built Environment Month on the program. Last week's guest was Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series of books; listen online here.

Topic A broadcasts each Monday at 7:30 p.m. on KDHX, 88.1 FM.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Adams Warns of More School Closings Ahead

An article that appeared this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "St. Louis schools must cut $18 million more" (by David Hunn, October 9) quoted St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent predicting more school closings next year:

In addition, Adams said the district will almost certainly have to close more schools next summer. Some schools have feverishly hunted for students and are now enrolled over capacity. But 14 of the district's 74 schools are below 50 percent full.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Federal Bills Would Help Neighborhood Preservation Efforts

Public policy has a tremendous impact on the chance that historic buildings have for survival. St. Louisans know well how many buildings are still standing, gloriously rehabilitated, because of the Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credit adopted in 1998. Many remember what happened to rehab efforts here when the 1986 federal tax act removed the major federal rehabilitation tax credit. Some of us have concerns about the impact of the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act, which was passed in 2007 to encourage large-scale urban development without any preservation safeguards.

Two bills recently introduced in the U.S. Congress offer smart policy changes that could help us save thousands of historic buildings in St. Louis and communities across the nation. In Missouri, we have had an inverted policy situation where our state's laws are more helpful to preservation efforts than the federal laws. In most states, however, it's the other way around -- and the federal laws are very restrictive, with no practical use to homeowners and small developers. That could change if we work to pass these bills.

Historic Homeowners Revitalization Act (HR 3670)

U.S. Representative Russ Carnahan (D-MO) has long been a supporter of changing federal laws to adopt preservation policies that benefit homeowners instead of just developers. On September 29, our hometown Congressman introduced the Historic Homeowners Revitalization Act (HR 3670), which has already gained 28 co-sponsors. Here's a run-down of the changes it would make to the existing federal historic rehabilitation tax credit:

  • The bill would create a 20% tax credit -- capped at $60,000 -- for qualified expenses rehabbing primary residences that are certified historic buildings; currently, only income-producing properties are eligible for this credit.

  • The bill would allow buyers of rehabilitated homes to capture the credits for which sellers are eligible, thus creating a useful form of transfer.

  • The bill would allow federal historic rehabilitation tax credits to be transferable for homeowners. Without this feature, homeowners would have a tough time trying to use the new credits. Many small developers can't use the existing federal historic rehabilitation credits because they cannot be transferred.

  • The bill changes the existing tax credit to allow issuance of credits totaling 130% of eligible rehabilitation costs on residential rental buildings in distressed census tracts. Thus, the bill widens the incentive for retention and enhancement of rental housing where it is needed. If an owner can get 100% for a condo conversion or 130% for retaining rental units, that owner just might go with the higher credit amount -- and help neighborhoods retain quality affordable housing.

    Representatives William Clay (D-MO) and Ike Skelton (D-MO) are among the co-sponsors, which include a few Republicans. We need to get all of Missouri and Illinois' representatives on board!

    Community Restoration and Revitalization Act (H.R. 3715 and S. 1743)

    On October 1, Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Olympia Snow (R-ME) introduced the Senate version of the Community Restoration and Revitalization Act (S. 1743) and Representative Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) and Pat Tiberi (R-OH) introduced the House companion (H.R. 3715). This bill provides a nice companion to Carnahan's measure.

    The Community Restoration and Revitalization Act would amend Section 47 of the U.S. Tax Code to do the following:

  • The bill would raise from 20% to 30% the percentage of qualified rehabilitation costs that can be returned in credits for projects of $5 million or less. These credits would become transferable under the bill.

  • The 10% rehabilitation tax credit for non-historic buildings -- the federal rehab tax credit not often mentioned locally -- would be able to be used for residential rental properties. This would allow for mixed-use and apartment buildings to use this credit, instead of only all-commercial buildings.

  • Very important among the bill's changes is removing the 1986 tax law's provision that set 1936 in place as the cut-off date for buildings eligible for that 10% federal credit. That year marks 50 years back from 1986, but the year itself is codified so now buildings must be 73 years old to use the credit Instead, this bill would change it to a floating 50-year mark.

  • Energy efficiency would be rewarded, with up to $5 per square foot in extra credits for projects that increase efficiency of historic buildings by 30% of more.

  • State historic rehabilitation tax credits would no longer be treated as income for federal tax purposes.

  • The bill would remove restrictions on "disqualified leases" that currently prevent user of the credit from leasing space in rehabilitated buildings to non-profit or civic organizations.

    The Community Restoration and Revitalization Act has only one Senate co-sponsor (Snowe, since only one senator can be a sponsor) but 44 House co-sponsors. The Missouri and Illinois delegations need to sign on to this one too -- only Representative Carnahan and Illinois Representatives Jerry Costello (D) and Danny Davis (D) have signed on.

    Time to make calls and send letters to your representatives and our senators. Forget bailouts and giant projects. In this recession, the real economic stimulus we need is to widen the amount of money accessible to every citizen that stays at work renewing our homes, shops and communities.

    More information on both bills, including full text, is available on the Preservation Action website.
  • Vacant McEagle Houses Next to New Habitat for Humanity Homes

    What's wrong with this picture of Bacon Street in JeffVanderLou?

    I think that the problem is obvious: There are brand-new houses next door to vacant buildings. However, in this strange case, the new houses were built before the houses next door went vacant.

    There are three vacant houses at 2731, 2733 and 2735 Bacon Street adjacent to the three new houses built lovingly by Habitat for Humanity. Across the street are more new homes by Habitat. This block has turned around from a drug-infested, vacant-lot-strewn area into a stable place.

    However, in the midst of this uplift came a company called Sheridan Place LC, controlled by McEagle Properties. In 2006 and 2007, Sheridan Place bought up dozens of houses like these, making sure the residents moved out before closing the sales. That's right -- all three of the houses on Bacon were occupied before being purchased by McEagle.

    Why did McEagle need to buy these houses at all? By the time the purchases happened, the Habitat for Humanity development was completed, and new residents had moved in. The three well-kept homes next door were a sign of stability to newcomers on Bacon, but not for long.

    On the other side of the new houses on this side of Bacon is another Sheridan Place special at 2745 Bacon Street, missing its windows and wearing the red boards put on it by the Building Division. The Habitat for Humanity homes are book-ended by vacant buildings that were purchased for a large-scale project that has little to do with this block. Because of Habitat's fine work, which should be honored and not insulted by crass speculation, this block can't be subsumed by development. But its vacant homes can be held hostage in a phased development where JeffVanderLou is the last phase scheduled to be completed. These houses still could be vacant in 2025 or later.

    McEagle has no business owning these houses. The city should not follow good money with bad by letting the developer hoard houses around areas that have been successfully redeveloped. The city's redevelopment agreement with McEagle should require the sale of houses like these on Bacon. If McEagle receives 50% of the purchase prices back in Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits, as is expected, then the developer should be able to quickly sell off houses like these at affordable prices. After all, the NorthSide project is supposed to fill in the gaps, not create more.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009

    Bay Front Houses in North City

    The single-family house at 2441 Laflin Street in JeffVanderLou (1893) bears a resemblance to a house that I wrote about recently (see "Architectural Creativity on Prairie Avenue", August 18). That duplex at 2111 East Prairie Avenue in College Hill (1884) appears below.

    Both have a projecting trapezoidal bay and a brick cornice as defining architectural features. However, the house on Laflin is a single house of only 660 square feet with the entrance to the left of the bay. There may be more houses like this across the city -- post their addresses in the comments section.

    Want a Robinson in Your Historic District?

    Strong lines, pronounced modern styling, a narrow, low form and neutral coloring (save the orange section) draw one's eyes to the house at 4237 McPherson Avenue in the Central West End. Inside, spaces flow into each other, and the compact front elevation dissolves into a voluminous open floor plan. This modern house, built last year, is like few other in the city.

    While the modern design is worthy of our consideration alone, the siting opens all sorts of possibilities -- and questions for residents of of historic districts. See, the house is not one of a row of new houses, like those found in the old Gaslight Square two blocks to the north. See, 4237 McPherson fits in between two historic revival-style homes. That siting is deliberate.

    Anthony Robinson designed and developed this house, and is planning to build more on blocks in the eastern end of the Central West End. Nicknamed the "Robinson," the architect's contemporary town house primarily will fill gaps in parts of the Central West End that have seen substantial building loss. The "Robinson" offers a fresh way to introduce a new house into historic context.

    Perhaps these houses aren't totally fresh; modernists experimented with slipping streamlined designs into the city in the twentieth century. The commercial and apartment architecture of Lindell Boulevard between Grand and Kingshighway contains many examples of minimalist, geometric design smack-dab next to ornament-heavy mansions and apartment buildings. That mix works, but it's not widespread in St. Louis. Anthony Robinson comes nearly fifty years later doing the same in the Central West End's side streets. His designs are new, but there is a fine precedent for his work.

    Robinson's first realized modern home design is located across the street from the house at 4237 McPherson. Built a few years earlier, this home shares much in common with the house across the street. Still, there are key differences. There is a projecting vertical pier next to the entrance, that rises up through the roof line. The second floor porch is cantilevered, not built over the first floor.

    Both houses finely balance the emphasis on height the narrow form brings with horizontal lines reminiscent of the Prairie School. However, these houses break from even the infill tradition on this block. The 4200 block of McPherson has seen a lot of loss and some rebuilding in the last 15 years. There are a number of Italianate-inspired townhouses on the block built by the Pyramid Companies in the 1990s. Just as Robinson's distinctive design has a signature look, Pyramid's townhouses are readily identifiable as that company's work.

    Many residents of historic districts across the city would probably rather see a Pyramid -- or something similar -- than a Robinson next door to their historic home. Most of our city's local historic district ordinances mandate attempts at architectural imitation and curtail original design. A "model example" is required in many cases, although often designs proposed borrow freely across "model examples" for hybrid designs. The result of these ordinances has been some very strong replica houses and a whole lot of really weak ones. The Pyramid houses are fairly simple, but they don't really resemble any houses built in St. Louis during the 19th and early 20th century.

    The 4200 block of McPherson, however, is located in the Central West End local historic district. The Central West End historic district's standards, which date to 1974 and were written by Donald Royse and Carolyn Hewes Toft, expressly encourage quality contemporary architecture while discouraging historically imitative design. As we can see, both types of design have been built under those standards.

    Attempts at historicization of new housing often have a negative impact in a historic district, because the new houses offer mongrel specimens of historical styles found in the neighborhood. One of the biggest problems is the replication of historical elements using cheap modern materials and factory-ordered pieces. Improvisation was the lifeblood of builders in our past, and new "historic" homes don't carry that tradition forward. Houses like the "Robinson" do.

    Future local historic districts in the city have the chance to allow some design flexibility. In areas of St. Louis where there is a lot of vacant land, allowing truly original design in historic districts is logical. The truth about local historic districts under St. Louis preservation law is that citizens can adopt a wide range of design standards, from minimal to thorough. The aspirations of today's architects and builders can even be accommodated.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009

    Clayton Tear Down

    A CraigsList ad offers for sale parts of a "large house in [C]layton to be demolished." It's a remove-yourself sale at 57 Broadview in Clayon's Clavarach Park neighborhood, recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. Clayton lacks a historic preservation ordinance. According to Esley Hamilton, Historian at the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation, the house dtaes to 1958 and was designed by Ralph Fournier.

    Arch View

    View looking southwest from the intersection of Cole and Broadway. Lovely, isn't it?

    Monday, October 5, 2009

    Near Twins on Toenges Avenue

    Toenges Avenue has a three block run west of Carondelet Park. Its street faces are lined with the outstanding 20th century revival-style masonry architecture that prevails across the Holly Hills neighborhood. On Toenges, as with each of the city's streets, the saying that no two houses in St. Louis are completely alike rings true. Want proof for the saying? Take your pick from ten thousand examples.

    Today's proof are near-twin houses on the north side of Toenges between Ray and Leona. Shown above is the two-story house at 4079 Toenges, built in 1928. The wide eclectic net of Craftsman practice in St. Louis was cast upon this dwelling, producing a marvelously lop-sided gable and a finely-detailed front chimney. In fact, sight of that chimney caused this writer to take the photograph shown here. (I was out in the field on a subcontractor assignment, surveying garages in the area of Holly Hills north of Holly Hills Avenue.)

    The step, shed rise of the chimney is made even more lovely by the red brick trace course against the ochre brick body. That same rise pattern repeats on the buttress at left, except only the shed bricks are in red. Then the red segmental arches and earmolds above each window play a trick on the first floor, where unlike the second floor tried-and-true arch profile the arches are set within a square-cornered head. Delightfully strange, to be sure!

    Back to the premise of the no-two-houses saying. Just a few doors east is the house at 4071 Toenges, also dating to 1928 and nearly identical to the other house. Of course, the fenestration, roof line and side buttress are copied, but little of the detailing is similar. (The false stone porch cladding is nor original, by the way.) The brick body is a robust brown, with none of the dazzling drama of the ochre and red contrast. The biggest difference is that the chimney profile here is a simple shed-slant style, with no stepped rise.

    Two houses -- so close and yet so distinctly unique! Ah, but in St. Louis this relationship is not news, so forgive this writer for taking your time on just one of thousands of such discoveries across our built environment.

    Sunday, October 4, 2009

    Sunday Morning Reading

    Francine Stock's excellent Regional Modernism reports that St. Louis is not the only city taking aim at the work of New Orleans modernist Charles Colbert. Colbert's hometown wants to level the playing field: the Recovery School District wants to demolish Colbert's Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School (1955) as well as Curtis & Davis's Thomy Lafron Elementary School (1954), also a modern landmark.

    The New York Times reports on one man's grassroots effort to save Admiral Row in Brooklyn, a row of stately 19th century houses once occupied by the Navy Yard's highest-ranking officers. Architect Scott Witter's crusade involves a curious home-grown museum, Brooklyn's Other Museum of Brooklyn, which has found one of the best uses for blue painter's tape that I've seen.

    Saturday, October 3, 2009

    Energy Efficiency Act Snubs Missouri Historic Tax Credit

    Missouri State Senator Brad Lager (R-Savannah) won a legislative victory this year when his Energy Efficient Investment Act passed the General Assembly and was signed into law by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon.

    The bill's chief purpose is to allow utilities to recover costs of energy efficiency measures to deter construction of new power plants. Lager wisely has opposed public subsidy to power plant construction. The state's Public Service Commission's rule is that Missouri's electric companies only raise rates if the rates are equal to or less than the rates that the companies would have charged if the company had built a new power plant. That rule encourages more energy output without addressing efficiency.

    The bill allows utilities to count toward output energy not being consumed and enables utilities to establish programs where customers receive benefits for demand-side efficiency upgrades.

    However, Lager could not resist riding his favorite hobby horse into the bill -- opposition to the state's historic rehabilitation tax credit, which was modified for the first time ever this year in response to Lager's efforts to kill it.

    Section 14 of the act states:

    Any customer of an electrical corporation who has received a state tax credit under sections 135.350 to 135.362, RSMo, or received under sections 253.545 to 253.561, RSMo, shall not be eligible for participation in any demand-side program offered by an electrical corporation under this section if such program offers a monetary incentive to the customer.

    Sections 135.350-362 deal with a range of tax credit programs that Lager also opposes, including the state's low income housing tax credit, but sections 253.545-561 enable the state historic rehabilitation tax credit. Vigilance on the rehabilitation tax credit remains crucial in this post-Jeff Smith era.

    Friday, October 2, 2009

    U.S.S. Inaugural Still a Fixture on the Riverfront

    The U.S.S. Inaugural remains a fixture on the St. Louis riverfront, just south of the MacArthur Bridge. Since breaking loose from its moorings and capsizing in a bizarre incident during the great flood of 1993, the old minesweeper has been stuck on the riverfront. After spending a generation as a tourist attraction, the war vessel has become part of the lore of local urban explorers -- and the subject of many schemes to profit from the tragedy.

    The ship's remains are almost too easy to find, located just a short walk through a gate in the flood wall. On a sunny Indian summer day, the wreck conveys a sense of tranquility. Later, in the winter, when the water gets lower the ship will beckon explorers. John Patzius has held the salvage rights to the boat since 1998, and had attempted to move the Inaugural out of the river. The mighty gun from the bow of the Inagural is located at Bob Cassilly's Cementland; that relocation by Patzius is theft by his own admission (although rightful theft, by his judgment). Future plans remain unknown. For now, the wreck is a splendid landmark to behold on a weekend ramble. Some days one will find artists hard at work creating murals on the flood wall, almost always atop the work of others. Inexplicably, no one has ever tagged the wreck just a few yards away. (Red Foxx, are you reading?)

    More information is available in the U.S.S. Inaugural Online Scrapbook.

    Community Benefits

    This video from last week's Tax Increment Finance Commission meeting on the NorthSide project comes from Douglas Duckworth. The best part is first, when Sheila Rendon, President of the Northside Community Benefits Alliance, speaks. Sheila delivers a list of reasonable, clear suggestions for improving the NorthSide redevelopment agreement.