We've Moved

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

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Update Your Links and Feeds, This Blog Has Moved

Since June 21, Ecology of Absence has had a new home, at www.preservationresearch.com.

Please update your links and feeds and keep reading. I appreciate your support!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Apartment Therapy Looks at a Ridgewood Ranch

Now Apartment Therapy casts its keen eye toward St. Louis' Ridgewood subdivision, located in suburban Crestwood. The specific subject is the delightfully rejuvenated ranch home of Nathan and Hannah Wilber, which I had the pleasure of seeing myself last week. Nathan is co-author of the Modern Ridgewood blog and devoted to helping others learn about and appreciate St. Louis' wealth of mid-century modern architecture. Yet Nathan and Hannah's house is no museum -- rather, like the best rehabs we may more often associate with 19th century town houses, it is an effort that balances reverence and the demands of daily life beautifully.

See the Apartment Therapy house tour here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Villain Plots to Melt All of the Brick in St. Louis

The annual frenzy of the 48 Hour Film Project is over, and I am catching up on submissions. One of interest to readers is the Thomas Crone-directed Tales of Templar, in which a villain plots to melt all of the brick in St. Louis. Tales of Templar includes scenes filmed at the fire-damaged Fourth Baptist Church in Old North St. Louis and the Nord St. Louis Turnverein in Hyde Park. If only Templar had been around to stop the blazes that struck those buildings!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Old Stix Baer & Fuller Building Re-Emerging

The spirit of John Mauran might be pleased to float down Washington Avenue nowadays. With demolition of the St. Louis Centre skybridge comes the first clear view of the Washington Avenue elevation of the building that originally housed Stix Baer and Fuller Company's Grand-Leader Department Store. Mauran's firm of Mauran, Russell & Garden designed the eight-story eastern section, built in 1906. The successor firm Mauran Russell & Crowell designed the nearly-identically-articulated ten-story western section, completed in 1919.

Photograph by Landmarks Association of St. Louis, 1982.

The firm's later incarnation of Russell, Mullgardt & Schwartz designed a contrasting modern rooftop addition on the eight-story section that was built in 1949, but otherwise the department store building stood unsullied until the start of construction of the St. Louis Centre skybridge in 1984. Fortunately, the bridge has not taken nearly as long to destroy as it did to build, and 25 years of an occluded Stix facade are over. The Washington elevation looks decent underneath, too. The damage is minimal and shall be easily overcome when the building is rehabilitated starting this year.

One of the small joys of the skybridge demolition is the revelation that one of the eastern section's iron balconies has been intact under the bridge all this time. The use of the balconies remains undocumented, but they are an original feature of the building.

The view of the old Stix building gets better every day.

'27 Tornado Survivors on Montgomery Street

I have long admired the group of four narrow-faced, one-story houses on the 3000 block of Montgomery Street. Located on a little wedge between Garrison and Coleman streets, the four houses seem to comprise a coherent group of small shaped-parapet dwellings. The western two, 3005 and 3007 Montgomery (left), have front entrances. The other two, 3001 and 3003 Montgomery (right), have side entrances and paired windows on their faces. All are clad in machine-rolled, rough-faced brown brick with abundant white bakery brick patterns. Raised basements provide well-lit potential additional living space.

The setting is enhanced by the placement of the houses not parallel to Montgomery Street, but parallel to the side lines of the irregular lots on which they sit. Thus the houses roughly step out from east to west, creating visual interest from the side.

These houses have always been architecturally compatible, but there is a twist -- or twister, if you will. These houses began their days as stone-faced homes built around the turn of the twentieth century. One block west stood the massive Mullanphy Hospital. In 1927, the great tornado ran northeast across the city and struck this block. Like most buildings that survived the disaster, the buildings were rebuilt using contemporary masonry rather than restored. While the repairs are within a common range, the grouping and the deliberate effort to match all four houses is unusual.

While not stone-clad, the three one-story, flat-roofed houses one block to the east on the south face of Montgomery Street give some indication of the form of the re-clad homes. The decorated wooden cornices were common on these small raised-basement houses built across north city roughly from 1880 through 1905. Often the high porches sheltered stairwells that led to basement apartments. The three houses pictured above are now so decimated by brick thieves that their demolition is inevitable.

Alas, the four houses to the west are also vacant -- three owned by Northside Regeneration and one by the Land Reutilization Authority -- and unprotected by landmarks status or demolition review. However, they are not sitting alone.

The four tornado survivor, marked by a yellow asterisk on the map above, are adjacent to blocks built up again by Habitat for Humanity. The four small historic houses could some day sit amid a rebuilt neighborhood, reminding people of a time when the city had the fortune and foresight to rebuild even small one-story houses. The brick-rustled neighbors here bear a strange resemblance to houses depicted in photographs of 1927 tornado damage. Houses that went through the tornado and back remind us that even the worst disaster is not the end of the world -- not even necessarily the end of a building.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Friends of the San Luis Not Appealing Ruling; Legislative Change Needed

Today's press release from the Friends of the San Luis (for which I serve as president):

While the Friends of the San Luis had hoped for a ruling by the Court of Appeals that would have affirmed the public interest rights of the community, we accept the ruling issued last week. We will not appeal the cause further, but instead will rededicate ourselves to the outreach and education needed to prevent future losses.

At the start, we sought remedy to a loophole in the St. Louis preservation ordinance (Ordinance 64689) that requires a stay of demolition to appeal meaningfully an action by the Preservation Board. We have always maintained that stakeholders should not have to undertake extraordinary legal measures to assert a right of standing implicit in the ordinance.

However, we appealed the circuit court ruling expressly to clarify that right for future preservation battles – even after we lost the building that united us. Our hope has been that no other citizens would have to go to the troubles that we have. Unfortunately, they probably will. While the aldermen who passed the ordinance apparently intended for there to be a legitimate right to appeal – a necessary check and balance system -- the Court has found that the wording is insufficient to explicitly endorse that right.

The Court of Appeals ruling suggests that the ultimate remedy is not judicial but legislative. The city preservation law is a wonderful example of government recognition of the public interest in historic preservation and urban planning, but it has a major weakness in leaving the public right to appeal as clear as red brick. That should change.

While we are disappointed, we are at least encouraged that the ruling has unequivocally identified an aspect of the city's preservation ordinance that needs to be clarified by our representatives in order to ensure due process in the fair and transparent mediation of disputes.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Murphy Residence Listed in National Register

On May 10, the National Park Service listed in the Joseph and Ann Murphy Residence at 7901 Stanford Avenue in University City in the National Register of Historic Places. The Murphy Residence, owned by Joseph Murphy's daughter Caroline and her husband Vincent DeForest, is one of St. Louis' first truly modern residential designs. Completed in 1939 and expanded in 1950 and 1962, the home was key in introducing International Style-inspired modernist design to the St. Louis region. While Murphy became best known for his later work, including the Climatron and Olin Library at Washington University, this house represented an early accomplishment in his career and in the story of modern architecture in St. Louis.

Read the full text of my National Register of Historic Places nomination here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Park Service Offering Bike Tours of the North Riverfront Trail

Via the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the The National Park Service is offering free ranger-led bike tours of the North Riverfront Trail this summer. The North Riverfront Trail passes through or near many historic sites ranging from still-active industry to the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Untold Story of the Gateway Arch

by Rick Rosen

Over the course of a century a community took shape on the riverfront in St. Louis. At the same time, what happened in that community shaped the history of the nation. Finally, as those years of destiny unfolded, St. Louis came to see itself as a capital, as the great center of the Midwest.

But then, the currents of history changed. The river of history shifted its course and bypassed that community. Chicago, not St. Louis, became the capital of the Midwest.

Ever so gradually, the riverfront was forgotten. Then it decayed. Finally, it became an embarrassment to the still thriving but less influential community that had grown up around it following its century of greatness.

In that larger community, the humiliation of having lost out to Chicago lingered on. The embarrassment ran deep and it was accompanied by amnesia -- a defense mechanism to cope with humiliation. The amnesia masqueraded as conventional wisdom: the riverfront is economically obsolete with regard to its building stock; the riverfront is obsolete in relation to advances in transportation technology; the riverfront is out of date in comparison to current styles of architecture.

All this conventional wisdom was, of course, true. However, it took hold not because it was true, but because it addressed a psychic need to mask the profound sense of loss that ate at the community’s identity, a loss for which the decaying riverfront was a constant reminder.

And then the great depression arrived. Luther Ely Smith, a man of great vision and a respected leader in his deeply embarrassed community, remembered that first century of greatness -- and was appalled by its decadent reflection in the mirror of the nearly abandoned riverfront. He dreamed of something to replace the decadence, something that would bring back to life that lost century of greatness. Smith prevailed on the federal government -- in response to the depression—to build a national park on the riverfront. Then he organized a design competition to create a new vision for the site.

And of course he succeeded -- beyond his wildest dreams -- with the Gateway Arch and its surrounding park grounds. But there was a cost.

A city's built environment is nothing less than the accretion of its history. Whenever elements of that environment are wiped away, the material record of that history is lost. When the riverfront was cleared after 1939, the elements that were lost were the very elements Luther Ely Smith sought so hard to recover.

Any built environment tells the story of its history. But it’s also true that it tells that story in a special language, an arcane language that only people who are drawn to history, and those whose personal memories are embedded in its buildings, can easily understand. Still, despite its weaknesses, it is by far the best language for telling a community’s story. When it's silenced, other languages must be found if the story is to be remembered at all.

Today, a second design competition for the riverfront is in progress. This competition presents a magnificent opportunity for St. Louis and it has already generated widespread excitement. Most of the excitement focuses on possibilities for new connections between the arch grounds and the rest of the city. However, with the original built environment of the riverfront long since gone and forgotten, the hidden challenge of the competition is to find the next best language to tell that lost story. Then, and only then, can the amnesia that has prevailed for so long in St. Louis finally be healed.

Rick Rosen is an architectural historian and downtown resident. Contact him at RARstl2@aol.com.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Saint Louis is Ready for This

by Jeff Vines

While your editor is traveling, I turn over the blog to my dear friend Jeff Vines of STL-Style.com to keep the conversation going. Jeff and I were in Philadelphia together for the inspiring Next American Vanguard. Philadelphia left us inspired by practices that we saw there and the ideas shared among the Vanguard participants.

Fresh back from the Next American Vanguard conference in Philadelphia, and what an incredible experience it was! The conference included an extensive bus tour of gritty North Philly neighborhoods, and I couldn't help but feel slightly envious. Not because Saint Louis' historic urban fabric can't stand with the greatest cities in America (Philly included)-- it certainly can. But in terms of contemporary residential architecture, Saint Louis falls painfully short. The City of Brotherly Love-- a town that celebrates its history perhaps more proudly than any other in America-- also manages to embrace bold modern design, and such a contrast of new and old is striking, refreshing and inspiring.
One particularly fine development in the Northern Liberties section knocked my socks off.

The Piazza!

This sleek, modern development incorporates apartments, dining, retail and public gathering spaces, and it does it beautifully.
Balancing contemporary urban design with the dense, historic neighborhood that surrounds it, The Piazza is more than a complex of buildings, it's a community.

Philly gets it right!
Enough with the faux-historic clocktowers and phony brick facades that St. Louis developers seem preoccupied with-- it's not 1915 anymore. The proposed City Walk development on the former Doctors Building site at Euclid and West Pine could be and should be a truly transformative project, yet the renderings are contrived, underwhelming and overdone. It's time we aim higher.
Saint Louis deserves it.

Tour Southwest Garden by Bike

Saturday, June 5, 10 am to 12 noon, Architectural Tour by Bicycle of Southwest Garden Neighborhood, led by architectural historian Lynn Josse.

Meet at the Southwest Garden office, 4950 Southwest Ave, at 10 am. Bring a water bottle and wear a helmet.

We’ll have coffee available. The ride is free but small donations to help cover the cost of insurance are gladly accepted.

Organized in partnership with the St. Louis Bicycle Federation

Monday, May 31, 2010

Why Save This Building?

This two-story reinforced concrete industrial building stands on N. 25th Street just north of Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis Place. It is owned by Northside Regeneration LLC. Beyond some concrete block infill of first floor window openings and a painted southern elevation, the building does not look much different than it did when built some 90 years ago. In the parlance of the National Register for Historic Places, the building substantially retains its integrity.

Of course, the building is more isolated than ever, and across 25th Street is the hulking Sullivan Place building with its gated grounds. No one could claim that the building is essential to preserving a historic built landscape. So why would anyone preserve it?

The first reason would be moral imperative. One version of that is tracing the building's use to a significant company or product. That is unlikely. Another moral imperative, which all good people now claim to endorse, is the mantra of "sustainability": demolition is like driving an Escalade to work every day. Right? A tangential moral imperative is that with each demolition, we lose more of St. Louis itself, thus diminishing the physical city itself. Readers know that I meditate on this idea frequently, and sometimes inconclusively.

The other reason that this building would be saved is economic. Someone may find a new purpose, or resurrect an old purpose, for the building. Reuse of this building might reduce capital needs of start-up. That's the kind of reuse that I would love to see envisioned for a relic like this. More likely, though, redevelopment here will be incentive-driven. In fact, it already is.

The irony is that not long ago this building was still in continuous use, despite loss of context, age and general neighborhood decline. It was just an industrial building in a neighborhood. Now, due to conjoined acts of government and capital, its existence is in question. Many prettier buildings are in the same situation, but advocacy is far easier for them. Who sees the potential here? Well, the potential was already realized. Don't forget that. Jobs were located here. Taxes generated. Not much is required to return the building to taxable production. Perhaps in our political economy those facts justify preservation better than any other.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Interview: Why Residents Want the Fox Park Local Historic District Expanded

On Monday the Preservation Board granted preliminary approval to a proposed expansion of the Fox Park Local Historic District (local historic districts explained here) in south city. The proposal was strongly supported by the Fox Park Neighborhood Association. The Preservation Board considers local historic district petitions twice on an advisory basis before they are introduced in ordinance form at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, where the Housing Urban Development and Zoning Committee again holds a public hearing.

After preliminary approval this week, I interviewed Fox Park Neighborhood Association President Ian Simmons about the ins and outs of the proposal.

The proposed boundaries of the expanded Fox Park Local Historic District. Courtesy of the Fox Park Neighborhood Association.

Why do people in Fox Park want to expand the local historic district?

Ian Simmons: We want a cohesive neighborhood. All of the homes in our neighborhood are basically of the same stock and are all equally part of Fox Park, so there is no good reason why they should not be part of the district. Neighbors, who have lived in Fox Park for longer than I, have seen tremendous growth and prosperity enrich the neighborhood, but at a far greater pace and scale in the northern half that is within the historic district. We believe that distinction is related to the presence of historic standards guiding rehabilitation and restoration, as well as, of course, the availability of historic tax credits. While the expansion of the local historic district will not directly make those tax credits available (that will take a National Historic Register nomination), there is a danger that, in the absence of historic standards in the proposed expansion area, we may lose our historic structures, features, and value.

This landmark corner commercial building at the northwest corner of Magnolia and California is inside of the district expansion.

What outreach has the Fox Park Neighborhood Association done to build support for the expansion?

Simmons: During the early stages of this process, I reached out to just about every neighbor I knew or ran into that lived in the proposed expansion area and asked them if they would support the initiative; everyone was positive and enthusiastic about the idea. Once our Board formed an ad hoc committee to handle the exploration and initial steps, we added some of those supporters to our committee, and also reached out to and obtained the support of the DeSales Housing Corporation (which owns and/or manages over ten percent of the homes in the expansion area). Then we reached out to our elected officials about writing the petition. At the request and direction of Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, we held three informal community meetings to reach and inform the neighbors that we had not run into, who are not members of the Association, and/or who do not attend Association meetings.

These meetings were prior to the drafting of any petition, and were held on different days and different times, so as to allow neighbors who wanted to attend the opportunity. We mailed postcard notices to all the recorded owners of the properties in the proposed expansion area. I also wrote about the meetings and the proposed expansion in our spring newsletter, a copy of which was posted on the doorstep of every home in our neighborhood weeks before the first meeting. The meetings gave the neighbors a chance to have their questions answered about how the expansion would affect them, and to express any opposition. Besides at the one which was held during our March Association Meeting, attendance at the community meeting was lighter than expected, but supportive -- there was no showing of opposition.

This lovely residential row is on the north side of Russell Boulevard just east of California Avenue within the existing local historic district.

Can you talk a little bit about the boundaries and why the current boundaries are proposed?

Simmons: The route we are taking expands the boundaries of an existing district. This approach was chosen instead of creating a new district next to the existing one. For the same rationale as described above, we felt it would be better to have the same historic standards apply throughout the whole neighborhood. Also, this way, if we want to change our standards, we only have to change one ordinance. So, the boundaries of the expanded district will be Highway 44 (to the North), Nebraska Avenue (to the West), Jefferson Avenue (to the East), and Gravois Ave. (to the South). Those boundaries are proposed because they are also the boundaries of the Fox Park neighborhood. The expanded district basically moves the existing Southern boundary from the alley South of Shenandoah Avenue and Victor Street, to Gravois.

What, if anything, are you changing in the existing standards? Have you found that some of those standards are now out-dated?

Simmons: At this time, no changes are proposed to the existing standards; if signed into law, they would apply as they stand now to the proposed extension area. The only instance of "out-dated" standards, which was identified by one of our Board members, is that the existing standards do not allow the use of "green" roofing materials. It is possible that changes to the standards may be made at a later date, once the district is extended; of course, any changes would come at the request of neighbors, and only after much discussion and input from them.

If you could advise another neighborhood looking to enact a local historic district ordinance, what would you say?

Simmons: Don't be discouraged and don't give up! If the membership is supportive, the neighborhood association has a few people who are willing to step up, do a little footwork, and be patient, and the alderperson(s) in the proposed district are hard-working and in favor, it can be done! Even if rejected the first time, or the steps along the way take what seems like forever, at least the conversation has been started and you have moved this important process forward.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Have You Seen These Interior Pediments?

Photograph by Landmarks Association of St. Louis, 1982.

Have you seen this lovely dentillated pediment? It once was the crown of a door casing inside of the first floor hall of the James Clemens, Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis.

The four pediments from the center hall door openings are now missing, as these photographs show.

However, the pediments were in place in the following photographs taken by this author on May 13, 2007.

If you have any information about these stolen pediments, please drop a line. Architects at Klitzing Welsch (314-772-8073) are looking for them. It's urgent, too -- they are preparing plans for rehabilitation and need them back! Even one would be very helpful.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Soulard Stable Hootenanny Boosts Preservation Efforts

Last night's historic preservation benefit, the Anti-Wrecking Ball's Soulard Stable Hootenanny, was a success -- at least judging from the money raised and the good time had by all. There's something about rock 'n' roll, red brick and the early summer heat that makes a warehouse party just plain logical.

The show's proceeds were split evenly between the Friends of the San Luis' remaining legal costs and the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation's capital campaign for its conservatory in Sauget, Illinois.

The event was held at the Foundation's former warehouse in Soulard. Most people had never been inside of the historic former livery stable and its amazing space. The space, it turns out, was the perfect setting for a show.

One of the highlights of the evening was Bill Streeter's unveiling of the trailer for Brick by Chance and Fortune -- I can't wait to see more!

The Union Electric, pictured above, Leadville and Pretty Little Empire rocked the house. These bands gave the gig their all. The brick and wood of the stable made the sound echo loud and clear throughout the building.

Galen Gondolfi and Dabney Frake donated a wide array of mid-century items for the raffle, which also included prizes from STL Style, St. Louis Cinemas and Schlafly. (And, yes, the pink lamp went first with winner's choice!)

Who says preservation isn't fun?

Bill Streeter has more photographs here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

St. Louis Centre Skybridge Coming Down

At about 5:05 p.m., wreckers from Environmental Operations Incorporated made first contact between the wrecking ball and the Washington Avenue skybridge between the old St. Louis Centre mall and the former Stix, Baer and Fuller building. Wreckers used the ball to knock out some glass for a few minutes, but stopped short of inflicting major damage. Heavy wrecking has already begun, with the roof already removed before today's ceremonial demolition.

Long forgotten, it seems, are the proclamations of urban renewal made in 1985 when St. Louis Centre opened. In a 1985 Fortune article on St. Louis' supposed rebound, Edmund Faltermeyer wrote:

Amid great hoopla -- appearances by Bob Hope and child actor Ricky Schroder and thousands of balloons -- the glittering $150-million St. Louis Centre opened in August after 16 years of gestation. It is the largest enclosed downtown shopping mall in the U.S., with 1.4 million square feet.

At least Ricky Schroeder is still around.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Scenes from Downtown, 1988 and 1989

Here are photographs of downtown St. Louis taken in 1988 and 1989 by Philip Schroth (1913-2001). Schroth's son David kindly shared these with me. Philip Schroth captured downtown at a period of both grit and active street life, reminding us that downtown before recent redevelopment efforts was far from dead.

Here is a view looking west down St. Charles Avenue from east of Ninth Street. The loggia of the Orpheum Theater -- then named the American -- is at left. The Roberts Brothers just completed restoration of the loggia. The view forward shows the old Statler Hotel garage in the foreground and on of the Merchandise Mart bridges in the background. Both are now gone, and St. Charles no longer runs between Ninth and Tenth streets because that is where the Renaissance Grand Hotel parking garage, completed in 2003, stands. The legendary Jimmie's restaurant was in a small building wedged between the Statler garage and Ninth Street.

Here is the A. Amitin Bookshop at 711 Washington Avenue. The store would move by the end of 1989 to 1205 Washington Avenue in the Lesser-Goldman Building. In 2003, the store closed and eventually the Lesser-Goldman Building was rehabilitated for condominiums dubbed the "Bogen." Ironically, most of the retail spaces are vacant.

Here are two shots of the 700 block of Washington, which would be demolished one year later to make way for the new entrance to the America's Center. The building at left is the lobby of the old Loew's State Theater. None of the storefronts in sight here are vacant.

These old buildings were underutilized, certainly, with upper floors vacant or used for storage. Still, the first floors offered cheap rents to small retailers whose likes are all but extinct in today's downtown.

View from St. Louis Centre's Washington Avenue Skybridge, 1988

Reader David Schroth sent me this photographs taken by his father, Philip Schroth, on September 1, 1988. The photograph was taken from the Washington Avenue skybridge at St. Louis Centre, and shows a Washington west of Seventh street before the Convention Center expansion and hotel were built.

The skybridge is under demolition now, and will receive the first blow of the wrecking ball on Friday at 5:00 p.m. (or, 5:10 p.m. so that television news can pick it up live).

Sneak Peak at St. Louis Brick Film Saturday

This Just In: Bill Streeter will be screening a two-minute clip from his anticipated upcoming film Brick by Chance and Fortune this Saturday at the "Anti-Wrecking Ball: Soulard Stable Hootenanny."

Streeter's film will examine the history of brick in St. Louis as well as what happens to brick buildings in their lifespans.

More information about the event here.

What: Anti-Wrecking Ball: Soulard Stable Hootenanny
Where: Stahl Stable, 2412 Menard Street
When: 8:00 p.m. this Saturday, May 22
Cost: $10 benefits the Friends of the San Luis and the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fairfax House, Rock Hill Presbyterian Church, Route 66 Bridge Make Statewide Endangered List

This week, Missouri Preservation announced its 2010 Most Endangered Properties list. St. Louis area listings are the Route 66 Bridge over the Meramec River as well as the adjacent Fairfax House and Rock Hill Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill.

Rock Hill Presbyterian Church is in urgent need of a preservation plan. From Missouri Preservation's announcement:

After being moved several times because of increasing commercial and residential development, the Fairfax House has ended up on another former Marshall property. In February 2010, it was discovered that the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery was seeking to sell the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church, presenting a threat to the historic church building and an additional threat to Fairfax House. This property is now situated at the intersection of two busy St. Louis county roads. It is a target for commercial development as the City of Rock Hill, which does its own zoning and has no current historic preservation ordinance, has zoned this property “commercial.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Some Frame Houses in the Ville

The Ville has lost plenty of buildings in the last fifty years, but remarkably many frame houses remain from early development. Still, the frame houses don't last long when abandoned. The photograph above shows three similar frame houses in the 2500 block of Whittier (across from the old Homer G. Phillips Hospital) back in 2004.

The house at 2420 Whittier dated to 1885 and was built by James Chadwick, an active developer in what was then known as Elleardsville. This house was for sale in 2004. The original clapboard siding was still in place under later asbestos tile siding. Now it is a burned out pile of building debris. The fire revealed that the original wooden shingles were still present under layers of newer roofing!

The only house remaining from the group of three that I photographed in 2004 is the house in the middle at 2518 Whittier. The date of construction is unknown, but it was probably built around 1885 too. In 1906, it was moved to this site. Today it is well-kept (although the original siding is either missing or covered) and occupied. The house at 2518 Whittier is included in an architectural survey of the Ville neighborhood conducted by Lynn Josse and myself under the supervision of the city's Cultural Resources Office.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A (Legitimate) Look Inside of the Clemens House

On Sunday, Landmarks Association of St. Louis wrapped up its annual Preservation Week with a tour of the James Clemens, Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis Place. That's right -- Landmarks offered a tour of a vacant building! While there have been many "before" tours of historic St. Louis buildings, none has offered a look at such an early phase of a rehabilitation project.

Landmarks Association Executive Director Jeff Mansell welcomes the crowd along with Dan Holak of Robert Wood Realty and David Lorentz of Klitzing Welsh.

Developers Robert Wood Realty and McEagle along with architects Klitzing Welsh Associates bravely threw open the door (okay, unscrewed the plywood) to the James Clemens House to the public for Landmarks. There was a small charge, a limited number of tour spots and a mandatory liability waiver, but all of those were necessary to make the tour work. Hopefully it can be offered again!

The developers started the tour by explaining the redevelopment plan, which calls for senior apartments in the mansion, dormitory and first floor of the chapel with an educational use in the chapel space. Nothing has been firmed up about the chapel use yet, but the original volume of the space will be restored for the first time in generations. The use of the chapel will allow for public access to the grounds, which will be opened up by removing the brick wall (built in 1887 and somewhat removed now) and building an iron fence similar to the original long lost fence on Cass Avenue. The Clemens House complex will again be easy to locate, and will open up a relationship with its neighborhood once more.

The apartment use precludes public access to the mansion and its lavish interior, and will entail some tricky accommodations like kitchenettes and bathrooms in the first floor parlors. (The dormitory is a perfect fit.) However, the project will follow the Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic rehabilitation, and all original fabric will be retained. The extensive cast iron work will be refurbished and missing parts replicated (albeit probably in a fiberglass-based casts). I have yet to thoroughly study the details of the rehabilitation, and will continue to observe.

The tour offered a very limited view inside. Visitors entered at the rear of the dormitory and proceeded about fifteen feet from the front door. Structural problems in the partly-collapsed chapel and the house itself precluded further adventure. Still, what was open was lit up brightly than ever. This photographer was able to re-do some old clandestine photography!

Paul J. McKee, Jr. was prominent in the group, and was freely talking with guests. There is a long road ahead for the developer's Northside Regeneration project, and many unanswered questions. (This post is not about them.) Yet the one certain fact is that McKee is starting the project with rescuing the James Clemens House, and that has become the early symbol of the project. It's easy to point out how much this move benefits McKee -- but easy to guess that it's not necessarily the first move he wanted to make.

The truth is that those who benefit the most from the rehabilitation of the Clemens House, however, are residents of surrounding St. Louis Place who have long suffered from the abandonment in the heart of a largely stable area. Oh -- and everyone who wants St. Louis to have an indelible, storied historic character benefits from saving this city's most architecturally significant pre-Civil War mansion. There are eternal essences that make this city what it is, and their defense should be more fiercely and continually waged than momentary battles. After all, brick walls last longer than fleeting political maneuvers.

As an aside, Landmarks Association of St. Louis is at its best when it offers the community the chance to directly interact with historic architecture in unexpected ways. While its board has spent considerable time, effort and money on the Architecture St. Louis space downtown, the organization's most unique strength remains the ability to forge connections out in the places where we live. Kudos to current Executive Director Jeff Mansell for doing just that with this tour!

Saturday: Preservation Month Party

As this year's Historic Preservation Month winds down, it's time to celebrate!
What: Anti-Wrecking Ball: Soulard Stable Hootenanny
Where: Stahl Stable, 2412 Menard Street
When: 8:00 p.m. this Saturday, May 22

Cost: $10 benefits the Friends of the San Luis and the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation

What's this all about? Well, for those new to the story, the Friends of the San Luis went to court to try to stop the demolition of the mid-century San Luis Apartments on Lindell Boulevard. The effort was slapped down by a circuit court judge who ruled not only to allow demolition to proceed but that no citizen has a right to appeal a St. Louis Preservation Board decision without a direct financial interest in a property.

The Friends could have stopped right there, since they lost their beloved space-age building. Instead, they filed an appeal to challenge the basis of the judge's ruling for the benefit of all future preservation efforts. On May 5, the Missouri Court of Appeals heard the case. During arguments that day, we received more favorable consideration than expected, so we are confident that the ruling will benefit future preservation efforts.

This effort was not free, and attorneys Jonathan Beck and Ian Simmons have shown themselves well worth our expenses. With the matter past us, it's time to toast preservation efforts past, present and future and make a little money to pay off those legal bills. (If you cannot attend but want to help that cause, send me a note at michael@preservationresearch.com).

The St. Louis Building Arts Foundation is on the bill as well, for providing an amazing historic space for the event and for efforts to preserve our architectural heritage more enduring than the soon-to-sunset Friends of the San Luis. There is a link between the long-term visionary efforts of the Foundation and the take-action single-mission Friends of the San Luis. We need both levels of action to make historic preservation matter in St. Louis. (This is not to slight all of the other worthy organizations that compose the effort here -- these two are far from the only organizations in town doing this hard work well.)

On Saturday, let's celebrate a strong preservation effort and look toward the future!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Free Screening of "Beyond the Motor City" on Monday

"The old system hasn't died, and the new system hasn't been born yet," says one of the subjects in Beyond the Motor City. He's talking about urban transportation.

Beyond the Motor City is a critical look at the intersection between mass transit and the renewal of post-industrial Detroit. Director Aaron Wolf is best known for his documentary King Corn, which examined the terrible impact of federal agricultural policy on the American diet and on the small farm.

Thanks to the sponsorship of Citizens for Modern Transit, St. Louis is fortunate to be one of eight cities where Beyond the Motor City is being screened free -- Monday, May 17th at 7:00 p.m. at the Tivoli. Appropriately, this event falls in Historic Preservation Month. The role of public transportation in cities is often left out of the historic preservation discussion.

From the film's website:

Beyond the Motor City examines how Detroit, a grim symbol of America’s diminishing status in the world, may come to represent the future of transportation and progress in this country. The film explores Detroit’s historic investments in infrastructure—from early 19th-century canals to the urban freeways that gave The Motor City its name and made America’s transportation system the envy of the world. But it also reveals that over the last 30 years, much of the world has left Detroit—and America—behind, choosing faster, cleaner, more modern transportation.

In a journey that takes us into the neighborhoods of Detroit and then beyond to Spain, California, and our nation’s capital, Beyond the Motor City urges us to ask how a symbol of America’s urban decay might transform itself into a model of urban revitalization. Can we finally push America’s transit system into the 21st century?

Immediately following the film, there will be a panel discussion moderated by KETC’s Patrick Murphy with Congressman Russ Carnahan, director Woolf, and Citizen for Modern Transit’s Tom Shrout.

Tax Credit Battle Almost Over -- For Now

The Missouri General Assembly's session ends on Friday. So far, no proposals to change tax credit programs have been taken up this week in the Senate or House. There may be a last-minute push in the Senate to pass a bill that would include the following changes:

Capping historic tax credits at $75 million per year but retaining the exemption for projects with under $1.1 million in qualified rehabilitation expenditures (the "small deal" exemption);

Create legislative appropriation of funding in future years.

Observers do not expect this measure to make it out of the Senate. If it does, the House Republican leadership has pledged to kill it.

There is no doubt, however, that the reprieve is momentary. Next session Governor Jay Nixon and his allies will get an earlier start on pushing reform, in the sense that they started next session's fight in this session.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bert's Chuck Wagon in Collinsville to Fall for Highway Widening

The Madison County Journal reports that Collinsville mid-century landmark Bert's Chuck Wagon Bar-B-Q (see "Heavenly Bar-B-Q" will be demolished soon for widening of Illinois Highway 159. Bert's Chuck Wagon will relocate to a nearby location on Main Street and move the fine conestoga sign to the new location. The A-frame building with the vivid religious scenes painted in its gable end windows, however, will be history.

The widening of Illinois 159 costs the state $56 million, and the sites of several tax-paying small businesses -- not to mention at least one landmark mid-century building. Such an expensive project in recession may very well take away more economic activity over the long run than it generates.

See also "Mid-Century Modernism in Collinsville" (August 8, 2008).

Bye-Bye, Corner Commercial

Today I saw that the two-story brick corner commercial building at Page and Walton avenues in Fountain Park was mostly gone, and I snapped this sad scene. The heartbeat of the city always grows a little more faint whenever a corner store gets wrecked. Gone is a point of exchange -- a point for drawing people together, for employment, for tax revenue generation and for provision of goods near people's houses.

St. Louis remains far outside of the relevance of the recently-publicized writings by economist Edward Glaeser. In the New York Times yesterday, Glaeser argued against hard-line preservation: "[i]f a successful city doesn't build, its prices will skyrocket and it can turn into an exclusive, elite enclave."

Perhaps true, but too often in St. Louis we never get to that conundrum. We take down a building and leave its site empty for generations. Not only are we not building, but we are not preserving. Often, physical condition of buildings demands demolition, and I can assent to protecting public safety. Yet the building at Page and Walton was in fine shape. Located in the 18th ward outside of preservation review, however, there was not even a moment's deliberation once the owner applied to take it down. And I don't know the circumstances -- perhaps there is a good reason for demolition.

Yet as I passed the largely intact residential block to the east -- the 4700 block of Page Boulevard -- I thought about how many people would be able to walk to that corner storefront easily. I also thought about how there are no storefronts on the other end of that block. This has been the case for some time, of course, since the corner building was vacant for over 20 years. Yet the past could have been rendered future with rehabilitation. A blocked network of social relations, between residents of Page and that corner store, is now effectively dead.

Preservation here would not have raised prices, but maintained the potential for recreating a beneficial pedestrian experience. The lost building reinforces the high prices in other neighborhood, like the nearby Central West End, that retain their density, walkability and their commercial activity. Also reinforced are prices in other cities where preservation has indeed led to excessively high real estate prices -- but you can read about those in the New York Times.