We've Moved

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Our Gasometer(s)

The impending demolition of the two gasometers in Shrewsbury draws me back to the demolition of the gasometer in Forest Park Southeast. Once one of two gasometers at Laclede Gas Company's Pumping Station G and built in 1901 (rebuilt in 1942), the Forest Park Southeast gasometer was a landmark for over a century. When Highway 40 was first built, the gasometer's prominence greatly increased, and it was one of several iconic structures -- the St. Louis Science Center's McDonnell Planetarium, the grain elevator at Sarah and Duncan, Barnes Hospital -- that gave a magically urban character to an otherwise dull trip down the highway. Within Forest Park Southeast, the gasometer's web of steel served as a backdrop to views from backyards, bedrooms and sidewalks. The gasometer was a strange remnant that had outlived its purpose -- regulating the supply of the city's gas system -- but not its industrial charm and connection to the past.

In 2006, developers successfully listed Pumping Station G in the National Register of Historic Places (read the nomination by Susan Sheppard and Doug Johnson here). The State Historic Preservation Office insisted that the gasometer be included, and the gasometer was listed as a contributing structure. However, the official landmark status provided no protection. The developers had never intended to try to save the structure.

An eloquent plea for preservation from historian and then-St. Louis University professor Joseph Heathcott, "Getting creative with the region's exceptional industrial heritage", appeared in the February 8, 2007 issue of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, but there was no strong effort to preserve the gasometer. There was plenty of discussion, however, among architects, Forest Park Southeast residents and preservationists. The alternative ends for the gasometer were obvious. Several European cities, including London and Vienna, have converted iconic gasometers into equally iconic apartment and office buildings. Others have maintained the structures as urban artifacts. Heathcott's article alluded to the imaginative possibilities.

Photograph of Viennese gasometer reuse project from Wikipedia.

Alas, imagination did not win out. Neither did National Register protection; the city's Cultural Resources Office approved demolition of the gasometer without bringing the matter to a public hearing at the Preservation Board. Demolition of the gasometer was completed in the middle of 2007.

Today, the Pumping Station G site is largely vacant. The pumping house (1911) still stands, vacant but slated for rehabilitation. The developers who wrecked the gasometer sold the site to different developers, who have yet to devise plans for the site. In the end, the gasometer could have remained standing as a resource for its neighborhood and a icon for the city. Perhaps a new owner would have been interested in the challenge of finding a new use for the structure. Now, the gasometer is gone, and two of its three sisters soon also will be gone.

That leaves St. Louis only one chance to reclaim a gasometer: the gasometer at the vacant Pumping Station N, located just south of Natural Bridge Road on Chevrolet Avenue in north St. Louis. Can we rise to the challenge of retaining an endangered structural type, or will we let it fall too?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Chicago Still Destroying Gropius' Work

St. Louis has a long way to go to catch up to Chicago. While our Archdiocese senselessly demolished a motel by Charles Colbert this year, Chicago city government has been working to demolish the Michael Reese Hospital campus planned and co-designed by Walter Gropius. This week, the city's wreckers demolished the power plant shown above, which was completed in 1953 and designed by Gropius' The Architects Collaborative. Only five buildings associated with Gropius remain out of the eight that stood earlier this year, and the landscape is ruined.

The Michael Reese campus was Gropius' only work in Chicago. In Chicago during the twentieth century, American eyes gazed upon some of the finest modern architecture in the history of the world, from Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe to Walter Gropius. As we know, the Windy City's regard for the work of Sullivan has been spotty at best. Gropius' work at least enjoys good company in its flagrant disregard.

While the city of Chicago is now bound by its contract with the demolition company, one wonders why the city even rushed to get into such an arrangement not knowing the outcome of its Olympics bid. Why did Alderwoman Toni Preckwinkle deign to play architectural historian and dispute the well-documented role of Gropius? Why did Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the supposed "Green Mayor," rush to throw away irreplaceable, internationally significant modern architecture and already-built building stock? Don't ask. Irrational acts of destruction lack any rational explanation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Aerial View of Downtown, 1926

Following up on Monday's article about the Railton Residence, here is an aerial photograph of the area of downtown around the Railton site from 1926. This photograph is from the collection of the City Plan Commission. At right, one sees the tower of Union Station. At center is the full-block-sized 18th Street Garage, designed by Klipstein & Rathmann and completed in 1924. The cleared site for the Robert E. Lee Hotel (now the Railton) is just diagonally down to the left of the large parking garage. (A larger cleared site is on the block east, or up from this perspective.)

Beside Union Station, the 18th Street Garage and a few wholesale buildings, most of the buildings in this image are two to three stories and more typical of St. Louis' neighborhood vernacular forms than our modern downtown architecture. This area was an eastern extension of Mill Creek Valley, with a largely African-American and exclusively poor and working-class population. City leaders took aim at this "slum" as early as the 1890s. Starting in 1928, using money from the $87 million raised in a 1923 multi-part bond issue, the city would clear the block across the street from Union Station for a large plaza (now Aloe Plaza). The new post office and Municipal (later Kiel) Auditorium east of Union Station would claim more of the western downtown area's small buildings. By 1961, the city would have obliterated over 75% of the building stock seen in this view.

More Federal Money for Historic Preservation Exists, Needs to be Appropriated

In 1976, the U.S. Congress created the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF). Funded by offshore oil leases, the $150 million fund is supposed to be available for matching grants to state and territorial historic preservation offices, tribal historic preservation offices, historically black colleges and universities and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Recipients must provide a 40% match for preservation planning, bricks and mortar projects, resources and neighborhood surveys and educational programs.

Furthermore, 10% of each state's allocation must be passed through to certified local governments (CLGs). In the St. Louis area, CLGs include the City of St. Louis, Chesterfield, Cottleville, Ferguson, Florissant, Kirkwood, Manchester, Oakland, Pasadena Hills, St. Charles, University City, Webster Groves and Wildwood. Imagine what a source of new funding for surveys and education could do for preservation efforts in these cities.

In 1980, Congress authorized deposit of the full $150 million annual revenue amount into the fund. However, since then, Congress has never appropriated more than one-third of the fund for its intended use. In this Congress, we have a chance to change that.

Over 40 organizations and companies in 26 states have joined the Coalition for Full Permanent Funding of the Historic Preservation Fund. (The Preservation Research Office, the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation and the Friends of the San Luis from St. Louis have signed on.) The Coalition is seeking more support to show Congress that there is wide support for full appropriate; contact the Coalition at infor@fullyfundhpf.org to sign on.

The bill that could cut through 29 years of Congressional neglect is the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act of 2009 (H.R. 3534). The bill was introduced into the House Natural Resources Committee by Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall from West Virginia. Currently, it includes full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which draws from the same off-shore oil revenues and has traditionally been appropriated at the same time as the Historic Preservation Fund. The Coalition hopes to add a provision for full funding of the Historic Preservation Fund.

Congressman Rahall is friendly to the Coalition, but needs support to bring forward the necessary amendment to fully fund the HPF. Contact Rahall online, by phone at (202) 225-3452 or by postal mail at:

Hon. Nick Rahall
2307 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Railton Residence Reopens

On November 12, Salvation Army officials cut the ribbon on the beautifully rehabilitated Railton Residence at 205 N. 18th Street downtown. The project cost $14 million and produces 102 workforce housing units in the heart of downtown. Major assistance came from the St. Louis Equity Fund, and the project would not have happened without the use of state historic rehabilitation tax credits and the state low income housing tax credit.

The Salvation Army has owned the Railton since 1939, when it acquired the former hotel for use as one of the Army's Evangeline residences. Named for Evangeline Booth, first female "general" of the Salvation Army, the residences provided single-room-occupancy lodging for single women working jobs downtown. In 1974, the Salvation Army removed restrictions on male occupants and renamed the building the Railton Residence. In recent years, the Railton's future has been important in a downtown housing market lacking adequate workforce housing. The Salvation Army is doing a good thing in keeping the Railton reserved for people priced out of most recent downtown development. We just need more units like these.

As the author of the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Railton, I could elaborate at length on the history of the building. Instead I'll offer a nutshell and recommend reading Section 8 of the nomination. The 14-story Railton started as the Robert E. Lee Hotel, completed in 1928 and designed by Kansas City architect Alonzo H. Gentry. Originally, the Renaissance Revival hotel had 221 rooms. Nearby Union Station fueled a district of hotels along 18th Street -- there were ten operating between Market and Washington in 1928 -- of which the old Lee Hotel is the sole survivor. (The Marquette Hotel was the northern anchor, and fell in 1988).

The Lee was marketed to traveling businessmen who arrived by train and had business in the wholesale business. Unlike other more lavish or plain seedy lodgings, the Lee was envisioned by its developers as a moderately-priced, economical hotel -- a precursor of the motel. In fact, the Lee was part of a chain that capitalized on the St. Louis-Texas trade route by operating hotels in St. Louis, Kansas City, Laredo and San Antonio. In 1935, the Lee became the Auditorium Hotel.

In 1958, the terra cotta belt course between the third and fourth floors was removed. The current rehabilitation could not cover the cost of replicating the lost cornice, but it did change out later aluminum windows for new ones that replicate the original two-over-two pattern. Overall, the Railton is a fairly austere building, but the next time you are nearby look up to the top -- those round terra cotta medallions are lion's heads!

The lobby of the Railton is not highly ornamented, but it has fine terrazzo floors, millwork and plaster moldings. Two years ago, a drop ceiling concealed the plasterwork and old carpets covered the terrazo. The lobby has been restored. Meeting rooms and a small gym are among the amenities offered.

The Salvation Army did decide to abandon the SRO model and expand the suites, so that 221 rooms became 102 apartments. This was a wise move because the original rooms were crowded with low-ceilings and no kitchens. The new rooms have kitchens and bathrooms as well as wonderful views of downtown.

Of course, the signature sign on the roof was retained. The sign structure was put up in the early 1930s and the sign itself in 1946.

The Salvation Army is discussing following up the Railton rehabilitation with a similar project at the Harbor Light in Midtown. Hopefully, that project gets underway in the near future. Affordable housing in the heart of the city needs to be retained and expanded. Historic buildings, especially those like the Railton that have not seen great deterioration, reduce construction costs and thus reduce the cost of housing units.

Today's Preservation Board Meeting: Old North and Hyde Park Buildings, But No Southwest Avenue

UPDATE 12:09 p.m.: The Old North item has been pulled from the agenda.

The final agenda of today's Preservation Board meeting is online.

The two buildings on Southwest Avenue that this blog covered on November 14 are no longer on the agenda.

However, one of the several city-proposed demolitions in Old North St. Louis remains on the agenda on preliminary review: demolition of the building at 1942-44 Hebert Street. Typically, requests from the Building Division to demolish city-owned buildings appear on the preliminary agendas of the Preservation Board but get denied by the staff of the Cultural Resources Office prior to Board meetings.

On this building, the staff is seeking direction from the Preservation Board rather than making a recommendation. The direction needs to be denial. Last month, a contributing building in the Murphy-Blair Historic District collapsed. Others are vulnerable. In light of the ongoing near north building depletion and possible wave of demolitions for the NorthSide project, preservation in Old North has become very important. The condition of 1942-44 Hebert Street is rough, but certainly not fatal. Perhaps the city can apply the $25,000 paid by the Haven of Grace to demolish building at 2619-21 Hadley Street in Old North toward the stabilization of this fine building on Hebert.

Another item on today's agenda is the appeal of CRO denial of a demolition permit for the building at 3959 N. 11th Street in Hyde Park. The Preservation Board heard this item in October, and upheld denial. Not sure why the item is back.

As usual, the meeting begins today at 4:00 p.m. on the 12th floor of the building at 105 Locust Street. Citizens may send comments to Preservation Board Secretary Adona Buford at BufordA@stlouiscity.com. Note that in a preliminary review, the Board is not required to review e-mailed comments before making a decision.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Historic Stahl Stables in Soulard For Sale

Now there is a rare opportunity: the chance to purchase the historic Stahl stables at 2414-16 Menard Street in Soulard and an adjacent house at 2412 Menard Street. Rehabilitated in the 1970s to house the St. Louis Architectural Art Company, the spacious stables consist of a rear building dating to 1866 and the front section, which dates to 1891. There are few comparable buildings in Soulard. The sale will benefit the current owner of the property, the non-profit St. Louis Building Arts Foundation. Read more about the buildings in the sale brochure.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How Many Louis Sullivan Buildings Can You See from the Ballpark Village Site?

There were those who made the audacious claim that demolition of the San Luis Apartments for a parking lot would "open" up views of the Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard. Were there people who said that demolition of the old Busch Stadium would give the public better views of the tops of the works of Louis Sullivan? If so, they were right.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reconnection in Old North, and a Suggestion for McEagle

Days that came, years again
Came in here once again

-- John Cale, "Big White Cloud"

One of the highlights of this gloomy week has been a look at one of the north side's biggest development stories: the removal of the failed pedestrian mall on 14th Street in Old North. As part of the $35 million Crown Square project, the city has removed the street closures and is working on reconstructing both the two closed blocks of 14th Street between St. Louis Avenue and Warren Street and the two closed blocks of Montgomery Street between Blair Avenue and 13th Street. While work on the 27 historic buildings being rehabilitated has been underway since September 2007 and is nearing completion, delays forced the actual street work to this fall. The streets should be reopened in the spring.

Already the removal of the mall's pavement, trees and light posts has opened views around the now-rehabilitated historic buildings. The sense of connection to the surrounding neighborhood slowly lost after the pedestrian mall opened in 1977 has returned. All that awaits are actual sidewalks, street lights and the centerpiece street.

People are already there. Headhunters Salon has remained open on the mall during construction, and Peter Sparks has been working on his building at the northwest corner of Montgomery and 14th. Sparks envisions a gallery and art studios. More recently, residents have moved into many of the units in the buildings on 14th Street. For now, they enter through rear entrances. In the future, the residents will be able to walk up and down 14th Street.

One of the first storefront spaces to be occupied is the new office of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group at 2700 N. 14th Street. Built in 1925, the one-story commercial building had been robbed of its shaped parapet and clad in enamel panels in 1955. Through design by Rosemann Associates and historic research by Matt Bivens of the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance (RHCDA), the building has been returned to historic appearance. Inside is both the office of the Restoration group and a large community exhibit and meeting space, shown below.

The office features sliding doors made of slavaged floor boards and a reception desk made of timbers that once were part of the floor system in the building.

The view from that desk shows the fruits of the organization's hard work. The Restoration Group is a development partner with RHCDA in Crown Square. The community development corporation spent over a decade trying to spur redevelopment of the pedestrian mall area. Now that the redevelopment is almost done, the organization appropriately has moved into a new space in the heart of the project and at the center of the neighborhood. Once the street reopens, the office will be easy to find. Large windows provide a visual connection to neighborhood.

Another north side development story this week involved the formal announcement of a redevelopment agreement for the Northside Regeneration project. That project's developer, McEagle Properties, has a long way to go before it completes its first $35 million is actual redevelopment. Meanwhile, McEagle needs the support and good will of the north side residents and businesspeople its project aims to serve. Why not open a field office like the new Old North St. Louis Restoration Group office? McEagle's physical presence has been limited to vacant buildings, orange construction fencing and hired lawn mowing crews. That's quite a contrast to a pleasant office and community space with big storefront windows, a friendly staff and a welcome mat. Presence in the community doesn't happen at press conferences, on Twitter or through fancy websites -- it happens on the street, where eveyone can find it.

Theodore Link Exhibit Runs Through January 8th

Rare are those photographs of architecture that truly inform the viewer about a building's details. Most architectural photography -- even excellent architectural photography -- memorializes a beautiful building in whole or part without revealing anything particularly magical. Since architecture is a three-dimensional art, its representation can literally be very flat. Not so with Gary R. Tetley's images of the architecture of Theordore C. Link, currently on display at Landmarks Association of St. Louis' Carolyn Hewes Toft Gallery.

The dynamic image shown here in miniature captures a view of the Mississippi State Capitol. Others in the exhibit present views of the Second Presbyterian Church, Union Station, the Barr Branch Library and Link buildings from other parts of the nation. All are clearly labeled to reconcile the photography with the buildings one must really see in person to know well. Tetley's photographs are vivid in their color, popping with the energy he finds in the design of one of St. Louis' most interesting architects.

The exhibit runs through January 8 at the Gallery, 911 Washington Avenue #170 in the Lammert Building. Alas, gallery hours are only 9:00 a.m. through 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, requiring time off from work for a proper viewing. (I'd recommend spending a good length of time at the exhibit.) See it soon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paradowski's Cool New Home

For the past year, Paradowski Creative has been working on rehabilitation of the old Missouri Electric Light and Power Company building at 1906 Locust Street. The power plant, most recently used as a show room and warehouse for a restaurant fixture company, will be reborn as a home fitting for one of the city's top creative agencies. Paradowski has been posting photographs of the progess on Flickr; see them here. Read the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the buildings here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Great Lakes Urban Exchange Looks at Building Rehabilitation

This month, the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE) has turned its attention toward the role that building rehabilitation plays in renewing the Rust Belt. Perhaps not surprising is that GLUE co-founder Sarah Szurpicki was inspired to examine the policies that shape rehabilitation after a recent visit to St. Louis.

Readers not familiar with GLUE should peruse the organization's excellent website, which features a blog that chronicles efforts across the larger Great Lakes region -- large enough to include St. Louis -- to promote economic and cultural development, public policy change and inter-city dialogue.

GLUE's mission statement starts with the goal "to bolster regional identity amongst older industrial urban centers in the American Great Lakes region by connecting the people who love them to each other." Second is "to advocate for policies that promote sustainable and equitable growth for Great Lakes cities." Clearly, in St. Louis we see how rehabilitation serves both of these goals.

As part of the feature on rehabilitation, Sarah interviewed me on historic preservation efforts in St. Louis, Missouri's model historic rehabilitation tax credit and federal legislation that would make existing rehabilitation tax credits more useful to older cities. That interview can be found here.

Depletion, West Sullivan Avenue

The north face of the 2500 block of West Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis Place, May 2008.

The same view, October 2009.

Out of this row of eleven small shaped-parapet brick houses, six have been destroyed by brick thieves in the last two years. Seven are owned by McEagle affiliates. These houses are within the footprint of one of the "employment centers" in the NorthSide project. The row would have been eligible for listing as a small historic district. Perhaps the ultimate fate under the redevelopment plan would have been demolition, but the availaibility of histoic tax credits here might have spared the row and its remaining residents' quality of life.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Two Buildings on Southwest Avenue Threatened

In August, the owners of the historic Hill restaurant Favazza's applied to demolish two buildings to the west of the restaurant's building. These buildings are located at 5209 (right in the photograph above) and 5211-23 (left) Southwest Avenue. These are finely-detailed brick buildings that help define the street wall. Of course, the residential building at 5211-13 Southwest Avenue sports a fine storefront addition that extends the building to the sidewalk line. The original section appears on the 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map as one of the few brick buildings in the largely undeveloped area.

Although not in any historic district, the buildings are within the 10th Ward Preservation Review district. The city's Cultural Resources Office has denied the demolition permits. The owners of the buildings have appealed. The proposed new use is unknown to this writer.

The Preservation Board will consider the appeal at its monthly meeting on November 23 at 4:00 p.m. (The meeting takes place downtown at 1015 Locust Street, 12th floor.)

Citizens can testify on the matter at the meeting or send comments to:

Preservation Board c/o
Adonna Buford, Secretary
1015 Locust Street, Suite 1100
St. Louis, MO 63101

Alderman Joseph Vollmer
Board of Aldermen
Room 230
City Hall
1200 Market Street
St. Louis, MO 63103

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Time Passing on Cote Brilliante

3901 (right) and 3909 Cote Brilliante Avenue in July 2008. This is at the northwest corner of Cote Brilliante's intersection with Vandeventer Avenue.

The same scene in November 2009.

3909 Cote Brilliante, owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority, was wrecked in August 2008. 3901 Cote Brilliante remains owned by Kathleen and Leslie Ann Cannon.

Video Tour of the James Clemens, Jr. House

In September, as part of a tour of St. Louis Place and Old North, I guided the Rehabbers Club around the grounds of the James Clemens, Jr. House. Jeff Seelig captured the end of the tour on video. Better days could be ahead.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

From Laundry Building to Palladium, From Great Depression to New Recession

Photograph by Lynn M. Josse taken in 2000.

The 50th anniversary gala for Landmarks Association of St. Louis this past weekend took place at a venue called Palladium St. Louis but better known as the Laundry Building at the former City Hospital complex. Since 2003, Gilded Age Development has been working on rehabilitating the remaining buildings of the long-vacant municipal hospital. Thanks to the Butler's Pantry, which built a new building next door for its headquarters, the Laundry Building is now complete.

Landmarks' choice of venue for its half-century birthday was fitting; without an active preservation movement, City Hospital would not have survived nearly twenty years of abandonment to find new investment and new uses. There is another timely coincidence with the re-opening of the Laundry at this time. The National Register of Historic Places nomination for City Hospital by Lynn M. Josse reminds us that the Laundry Building was part of a Depression-era modernization of City Hospital funded by a combination of local and federal funds. Voters approved municipal bond issues in 1933 and 1934 to fund major expansion, and the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works provided several matching grants. According to Josse, federal funds covered 45% of the costs of the 1939 round of construction that included the Laundry Building as well as a now-demolished 14-story hospital building. Albert Osburg, Chief Architect of the Board of Public Service, probably designed these new buildings.

The following photograph, taken by Dr. George W. Salmon, shows the corner of the newly-completed Laundry Building amid a modernized hospital complex and a dense, if smoky, metropolis.

Public investment amid economic downtown led to the creation of the Laundry Building in the first place. The rebirth comes in a time when such public investment is viewed through an engrained, misplaced anti-government lense. However, Missouri's state historic tax credit program -- an incentive, of course, rather than a public investment -- returned the Laundry Building to life. In this recession, St. Louis doesn't have the impressive public investment of the New Deal era, but it does have a proven incentive that does a lot of good.

And what good has been done at the Laundry Building! Here's a look at the changes using photographs that I took in 2004 and photographs taken this weekend after the gala.

The two views above are looking west inside of the building. The two images below are aimed at the northwest corner. What a change! (The fate of that laundry machine is unknown.)

As the photographs above show, the steel balcony running on the south and west walls remains in place. A lot of the glazed structural clay tile has been covered by drywall, but some exposed sections in the corners show off the lovely old walls. Some of those walls needed repair.

For years, the Laundry Building's windows were boarded with ugly boards painted City-Owned Red. The cupola that echoes the cupolas of the Administration Building and Ward Wings on Lafayette Avenue was destroyed by thieve sin the 1980s. Now, the composition's elegant strength is fully evident. Designed in the Georgian Revival style to blend with the rest of the historic hospital complex, the Laundry Building is really a functional modern box. Yet its architect gave this utilitarian building the dignity and hopeful beauty demanded by a city hospital building built amid a major national public works effort.

Near North Neighborhoods Standing Strong

My latest commentary for St. Louis Public Radio of the same title aired today; read and listen to it here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Stained Glass Theft On the Rise Again

This morning, there were three messages posted on Rehabbers Club list serve about recent theft of stained glass windows. Three of the five incidents reported were in Tower Grove South. All of the thefts took place in the last month.

Owners of vacant and for-sale buildings with stained glass windows should protect the windows by boarding them up. Architectural antique dealers should ask for proof of legal ownership before buying stained glass windows.

We all should be vigilant when we are at local antique stores. Are the windows for sale legally obtained? Find out. If you have doubts, call the police.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Minnesota State Senator: Historic Tax Credit Needed to Create Jobs

Yesterday's issue of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune carried a commentary by State Senator Tom Bakk. Bakk's commentary focused on ways to get Minnesotans back to work. Among his ideas is a state historic rehabilitation tax credit.

Writes Senator Bakk:

A historic building rehabilitation tax credit would create jobs immediately, spur economic development in our communities and help develop affordable housing -- not to mention preserve some of our state's most beautiful heritage.

Missouri legislators should be pleased that a state often cited as more progressive than us wants to emulate one of our economic development incentives.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Transformation on Forest Park Avenue

Step one: Take one leap of faith to believe that underneath an ugly slipcover is a building that can be rehabilitated. Take a peak under that cover.

Step two: Utilize historic rehabilitation tax credits, get your drawings and permits in hand, find financing and start the recovery of a badly-remuddled building.

Step three: Keep going.

Step four: Complete work and enjoy the good work done.

I'm oversimplifying the many steps that went into the transformation of the building at 3963 Forest Park Avenue (at Spring Avenue) into the lovely Spring Street Lofts. The story actually started back in 1923, when the Davis Boring Machine Company built the west side of the three-story factory. Designed by C.G. Schoelch, this fine brick factory building originally was symmetrical. The shaped parapet, classical terra cotta entrance and decorative brickwork on the front elevation gave a basic concrete box some style.

By 1929, the Davis company ceded the building to the Ramsey Accessories Manufacturing Company. This was a shift from one automobile-related factory to another; the Davis company manufactured machine tools for engine boring and the Ramsey company made piston rings. Both businesses were part of a vibrant St. Louis automotive industry centered around the Midtown area with showrooms and distributors on Locust Street and large-scale manufacturing on Forest Park and adjacent streets. In the late 1920s, St. Louis was in a close second behind Detroit as the center of American automobile manufacturing.

Ramsey expanded the building in 1934 from plans by Brussel and Vitterbo. Later, in 1969 after the automotive heyday, Victoria Products company "modernized" the building with a stucco veneer. Help arrived in 2006, when McGowan Brothers Development sized up a diamond in the rough. Complications ensued with the developers not wanting to remove the slipcover without some certainty on use of historic tax credits. The National Register of Historic Place designation that would allow tax credits to be used on the rehab required architectural integrity of the building. Fortunately, the slipcover did not destroy the original front elevation. Historian Matt Bivens' persistence with a draft nomination and Karen Bode Baxter's assistance allowed for eventual listing on April 16, 2008 -- in time for the depth of recession.

The McGowan Brothers plunged ahead, though, and the project today is complete. Only five of the 48 apartment units are available, according to the building's web site. A bar is set to open in the first floor. St. Louis University gains more urban activity just a block away, and a historic building again looks historic.

Of course, this dramatic transformation is not new to Forest Park. Just across Spring from the Spring Street Lofts is the home of the Aquinas Institute. Built in 1903 as the home of Standard Adding Company (G.N. Hinchman was the architect), the building had been partially clad in corrugated metal siding. The Institute opened its doors in the beautifully rehabilitated space in 2006, and the project won one of Landmarks Association of St. Louis' Most Enhanced Places awards that year.

NorthSide Depletion Continues

The corner commercial building at 2501 Glasgow Avenue in better days, 2007.

Call it collateral damage, block busting, destruction or just the cost of large-scale development -- the term doesn't matter. The reality is that within the boundaries of McEagle Properties' NorthSide project, historic buildings continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Natural forces have claimed a few buildings, but brick thieves and scavengers are slaying the rest.

Let us look at the loss of buildings on a single city block in the last two months. Our city block is 2539 in JeffVanderLou, which is bounded by Montgomery, Slattery, Benton and Glasgow streets. Now, the condition two months ago was not great: in the sixty years preceding, some 75% of the historic building fabric on the block was lost. Yet what was left three years ago was nearly all occupied. McEagle's purchases changed that.

Two months ago, enough of the block's historic fabric remained for at least the possibility of inclusion in a historic district. Even if a district was impossible or undesired, the block's remaining owners -- including the St. Louis Equity Fund -- are keeping their buildings in good shape. The Equity Fund is rehabbing its building on Glasgow Avenue. Building loss through neglect is an insult to the owners and residents keeping this block alive.

At the start of this essay is an image of the corner storefront building at 2501 Glasgow (at Benton) in 2007. Owned by a McEagle affiliate, this building suffered a partial collapse in storms in September. Brick thieves have started picking, and the photo above taken in early October looks idyllic compared to the current scene.

Up the block to the north stands an imperiled row of three historic houses owned by the city's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). The front has been altered to shrink the size of window openings, but a magnificent wooden cornice remains. However, the back and sides of the row were part of this fall's brick harvest at the hands of thieves.

Across the alley on Slattery Street, both the houses at 2616 (owned by Carmen McBride) and 2614 Slattery (McEagle) have been brazenly damaged by thieves. The front walls are being picked apart in plain view of the few remaining residents of the block. Conditions like these explain the continued fear and resentment expressed toward McEagle by north side residents. While there are many residents of the project area hoping for McEagle's development to transform their blocks, there are many who look at scenes like this one and find little good faith effort on the developer's part.

During the aldermanic committee hearing on the first bills relating to the NorthSide redevelopment agreement, Paul J. McKee, Jr. stated that his company could not deal with problems like the brick-rustled buildings until after he received the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits later this year. Of course, those credits reimburse 100% of demolition and maintenance costs, so both security of intact buildings and clearance of destroyed ones could happen now. Why didn't McKee direct his companies to engage in clean-up before seeking the largest tax increment financing deal in city history?

McKee and his consultants talk a lot about preservation, urbanism and sustainability. In no way is willful neglect of once-occupied historic buildings compatible with any of those values. Depletion of historic housing stock destroys urban character, wastes precious and irreplaceable natural resources and robs neighborhoods of affordable housing and small business spaces. We are losing solidly built, easily rehabilitated buildings for the uncertainty of a multi-phased project that places areas of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou dead last in order of development attention.

Don't get me wrong: Much progress has been made toward making the NorthSide project better for everyone. I am willing to applaud -- and have applauded -- real steps that safeguard north side neighborhoods. The redevelopment agreement binds McEagle to identify buildings for preservation and demolition by the end of 2010 -- albeit without professional preservation planning. While the contracts and ordinances contain hopeful language, however, the reality is contradictory -- and it's a long way toward the end of 2010.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Alderman French Looking Toward the Future of North City

This video footage from Friday's meeting of the St. Louis Board of Alderman shows Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) stating why he would vote against both board bills 218 and 219 which enable the McEagle NorthSide project. French's words on the problem posed to the rest of north city by the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit are right on.

Have You Seen Our Downtown Model?

Recently, I received an email from a person living on another continent asking me if St. Louis had a model of the city and, if not, what organizations would sponsor such a model. Before I sent my first response, I did not think to mention the model of downtown St. Louis that once sat in the storefront window of Downtown Now! at 16th and Washington (now the TrailNet office).

Perhaps one of the reasons for forgetting is that the model is now tucked away out of the sight of the general public. Our downtown model, updated through 1999, now sits in the entrance lobby of the Planning and Urban Design Agency on the 11th floor of the office building at 1015 Locust Street. That space is public, but few people know that the model is there on display. I don't know the particulars, but my guess is that the city took it because it had space for it.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation maintains a scale model of the Loop in the ArchiCenter that is a continual draw of tourist traffic. Would our downtown model generate such interest? I think so. Storefront window space is a lot more precious now than it was in 1999, but we have obvious gathering spaces -- the Old Post Office atrium, the St. Louis Visitors Center, a window at a remodeled Macy's -- where the model might edify downtown visitors.