We've Moved

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

Friday, January 29, 2010

Metro Funding Serves County's Interest

This week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried a commentary by NiNi Harris entitled "County residents should vote own interests". Harris makes the case for St. Louis County voters' approving the sales tax measure for Metro that will appear on the April 6 ballot.

Instead of the usual -- and correct -- arguments in favor of mass transit as something the region needs to have to be competitive and maintain an urban quality of life, Harris demonstrates that the sales tax measure will help St. Louis County maintain its quality of life. The services that county voters take for granted are dependent on workers' being able to easily get to jobs in the county. For many workers, that means catching the bus.

Voters might not consider the fact that even health care costs are associated with the availability of public transportation:

The quality of hospital care is not only determined by the physicians and registered nurses, but also by the LPNs, the people who do the laundry and cleaning and food service staffs. The quality of overall care can be maintained without mass transit only by increasing wages or providing other transportation.

After all, according to Harris:

It's not just a few workers about whom we are talking. Last year, Metro buses, MetroLink and the Metro service for the disabled provided rides for almost 53 million boarders.

Can the county maintain its quality of life with diminished Metro service? Absolutely not.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mayor's Budget Suggestions Include Planning Cut

On January 18, Mayor Francis Slay released a list of budget changes he is suggesting to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to address this year's shortfall. Neither any alderman or Comptroller Darlene Green released any ideas ahead of the mayor, and none has released any since. Hopefully, we won't just see a round of orders from the mayor's menu -- take this, leave that. After all, we are not discussing mere numbers but actual functions of government. The budget debate is as much about public service priorities as it is about money.

Readers of this blog will be most interested in the suggestion that the city eliminate the $130,000 annual payment from general revenue to the city's Planning and Urban Design Agency. According to the mayor's proposal, eliminating that subsidy will remove two full-time positions from the agency. One of those might be the Preservation Planner position in the Cultural Resources Office created by the Board of Aldermen in 2007. The Planning and Urban Design Agency has not even had a permanent director since Rollin Stanley's departure in December 2007.

If we actually wanted a strong, pro-active planning agency, we would need more than the current staff level. Cutting two positions to save money is a step in the wrong direction, and the savings realized minuscule. Scratch that one off the list.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Chatillon-DeMenil House Trivia Night, February 13th

Undated photograph of the Chatillon-DeMenil House by Dr. William G. Swekosky, from the collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

The October 1966 issue of the Landmarks Letter, newsletter of preservation group Landmarks Association of St. Louis, reports on notice of the newly-restored Chatillon-DeMenil House in the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune's feature article on St. Louis "glowingly described the Chatillon-DeMenil House." Furthermore, "[t]hree recent out-of-town visitors to the house said they came to St. Louis to see it after reading the newspaper story." Over forty years later, the Chatillon-DeMenil House continues to attract visitors from around the nation (although the house is closed for January).

Interior view of the Chatillon-DeMenil House in 1962 prior to restoration, from the collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

St. Louis is very fortunate that the Chatillon-DeMenil House was spared from the path of I-55 through purchase by Landmarks Association of St. Louis (via a gift from Union Electric Company), and that the foundation that assumed ownership afterward has operated the house as a museum for over four decades. Thousands of people have been able to set foot in a fully restored 19th century Greek Revival mansion through tours and interesting programs. We could very well have had greater numbers hurtling over the site at 65 miles per hour if not for the swift, smart work of St. Louis' early preservation leaders. We all should support the less dramatic stewardship that allows the house to remain an active part of St. Louis' public life.

That is a roundabout prelude to announcing that the Chatillon-DeMenil House is having a trivia night fundraiser next month:

Trivia Night to Benefit the Chatillon-DeMenil House Foundation

Date: Saturday, February 13, 2010
Time: 6:30pm - 9:30pm
Location: St. Wenceslaus Parish Hall, 3014 Oregon Ave

Everyone's an expert on something, and a little bit of everything (and anything) can be expected at our first trivia night. 80s TV shows? Come on down. St. Louis history? That could be useful too. Who knows?

Cost is $20 per person, 8 people to a table. Beer and soda provided. Come alone, come with 1 or 2 friends, come with a bunch of friends, just come! Don't think you have to fill a table to attend!

Doors open at 6:30pm, trivia starts at 7 p.m. All proceeds from this event go to the historic Chatillon-DeMenil House. For more information or to make your reservation, please call Jim Hubbard at 314-578-0798.

Missouri Rural Preservation Organization Launched

On Saturday, January 23, a group of barn owners, architectural historians and craftspeople met near New Bloomfield, Missouri, to discuss creating a new statewide preservation group focused on rural structures. Bill Hart, Field Representative for Missouri Preservation, called the meeting. Bill and Susan Miller graciously hosted the meeting at their home, a bright red barn that they have converted into a unique home. The group had the honor of the wise counsel of Osmund Overby, the dean of Missouri's preservation movement, and farmer and humorist Lewis Baumgartner, the "World's Worst Farmer."

Meeting participants decided to launch a new organization, the Missouri Barn Alliance and Rural Network. Preliminary goals include a statewide survey of barns and farms, educational programs and development of a resource clearinghouse for owners of rural structures in need of technical assistance and skilled contractors.

The group will meet again in early May. Those wishing to participate should send an e-mail to Bill Hart at billhartxx@aol.com. Additionally, Bill will be discussing the new organization and its goals at a brown bag lunch talk at Architecture St. Louis, 911 Washington #170, starting at noon on Friday, March 12th.

Bravo to SLU for Casa de Salud

Late last year, St. Louis University opened the Casa de Salud (House of Health, more or less), a clinic aimed at the city's Latino population. The university made a smart move, choosing to house the clinic in a modest former auto parts building at the southwest corner of Compton and Chouteau. The building dates to the 1950s and is quintessentially modern. SLU's renovation was basic, and left all of the mid-century features intact. The new sign is stylistically appropriate and provides some night time interest to a fairly dormant intersection. The old aluminum storefront system's ample windows open the building up to the sidewalk, and at night provide a bright, colorful view. SLU took an existing building, retained and enhanced its architectural features and converted it to a new use. Bravo!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Big Plans for Jefferson Barracks

Friday's South County Times carried the article "Plans In Place To Transform Jefferson Barracks Complex Into A National Tourist Destination". The article reports that the St. Louis County Economic Council has developed a master plan for $68 million in improvements, including an interpretive center and a "presidential museum/library":

According to the master plan, the complex would be transformed into a regional and national visitor attraction, done so in phases over the course of 20 years.

Jefferson Barracks is indeed an underutilized cultural asset to the region. Many other places have promoted military history, a substantial sector of American tourism. It's about time that the county thought seriously about Jefferson Barracks. Still, it's important to note that there are existing efforts to draw visitors to the historic barracks. For instance, the Missouri Civil War Museum has been feverishly working on renovating a building and is set to open soon.

There is a presentation on the master plan today:

The St. Louis County Economic Council will hold open house to unveil the master plan on Monday, Jan. 25, 4 to 7 p.m. at the Jefferson Barracks Visitor's Center. A presentation will be held at 6 p.m. Jefferson Barracks County Park is located at the end of South Broadway.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Federal Historic Preservation Fund Effort Continues

Efforts to secure Congressional passage of a fully funded Historic Preservation Fund have changed direction (see "More Federal Money for Historic Preservation Exists, Needs to be Appropriated"). Now that it is clear that the majority Democratic Party will not support full funding, the Coalition for Full Permanent Funding of the Historic Preservation Fund is pushing for annual allocation of the $50 million that Congress has appropriated to the fund since its creation.

Please contact your Congressperson today to state your support for full funding and urge as a minimum support for the same allocation level as last year.

Despite the impossibility, on January 22 the Coalition announced that the Coalition for Full Funding now has 111 members from 42 States and the District of Columbia. These preservation-related organizations and businesses are endorsing full funding. Perhaps in the future the Democratic majority will embrace funding the Historic Preservation Fund to the level authorized by the Reagan administration in 1982. The administration of President Barack Obama, who is a champion of public policy that encourages sustainability, would be the best time for full funding.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Untitled Saint Louis Brick Film

Detail of entrance to the Mullanphy Tenement, 2118 Mullanphy Street in St. Louis Place.

Bill Streeter, the video genius behind Lo-Fi St. Louis, is working on a documentary about St. Louis brick known for now as the "Untitled Saint Louis Brick Film". The documentary is funded by the Commission for Access and Local Original Programming (CALOP), local funder of many worthwhile projects. According to the production notes blog, the crew includes Bill Streeter (Director/Producer/Editor), Jeannette Hoss (Managing Producer), Virginia Lee Hunter (Director of Photography) and Greer Lange (Assistant Editor).

"Up in the Air": A Shining Moment for St. Louis' Modern Architecture

Finally seeing Up in the Air this week, I was able to relish a great moment for St. Louis modern architecture. Readers know that much of the film was shot in St. Louis, and the film rolls out familiar scenes: a street in Lafayette Square, Flora Place, the Cheshire Inn, the Gateway One building downtown, Mansion House and the interior of the General American Life Insurance Building are all spotted. Fans of local postmodern design no doubt took comfort in the fact that our downtown landmarks of the 1980s are so generic that they can double for Omaha's. That placelessness is a triumph for the style, at least by Fredric Jameson's measure.

However, the actual shining moment for St. Louis was the prominent feature of the main terminal at Lambert International Airport (shown above unsullied in 1970). Lots of the film takes place inside of the airport -- again, the triumph of place-erasing architecture -- but there is a splendid moment in front. George Clooney's character Ryan Bingham has to get a snapshot of a cut-out of his sister and her fiancee in St. Louis for a display board of such photos at their rehearsal dinner. Bingham selects Lambert Airport, a choice questioned by his colleague Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick).

The doubt pulls from Bingham a soliloquy about the role of the Lambert terminal in the development of modern airport architecture. Of course the soon-to-be newlyweds would want their cut-out photographed in front of the Lambert terminal. After all, this is the first modern terminal that set the standard before JFK or DeGaulle were designed. Despite the clutter we have tacked onto Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber's 1956 terminal, it looks great in this scene. The terminal's modernity shines through, and provokes one of several moment in which Bingham seems to break from his detachment to show love.

Bingham basically reiterates the words of critic Robert W. Duffy, who wrote a few years back that the Lambert terminal was "the first airport building to make a formal statement about aviation and aerodynamics." The thin-cast concrete shell demonstrated that architecture could respond to the curves and contours of industrial design in an original expression.

Coincidentally, St. Louis' other great modernist temple of travel also had a moment of film fame. Schwarz and Van Hoefen's Greyhound Terminal (1964) on Broadway (interior seen here), demolished for the domed stadium we seem posed to soon demolish, was used in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. John Hughes chose to shoot the interior scene elsewhere, but the exterior was projected onto thousands of screens around the nation.

To some, the idea that St. Louis and modern jet-set travel -- of which I make no claim that Greyhound is a part -- are intertwined would seem foolish. Yet how did a supposedly complacent region embrace and build one of the landmarks of postwar international travel, and a bus station finer than almost any other ever built? We had great designers whose wellspring of innovation was too great to be harnessed by innate local conservatism. That conservatism was as strong in 1956 as it is in 2009, too, so we don't get to cop out and rest on our cynicism. If a place-loathing cynic like Ryan Bingham can show some love for St. Louis' modern architecture, why can't we?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Looking at the Original Plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

This snapshot from the Old Courthouse exhibit on the original Jefferson National Expansion Memorial design competition shows the winning site plan submitted by architect Eero Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley in 1948. Below is an illustrated version of that plan.

This site plan was not built due to programmatic changes by the architects and the National Park Service (NPS). Obstacles that forced site changes included the agreement between NPS and the Terminal Railroad Association to retain the railroad tracks through the site and the need to elevate I-70 over the tunnel at the Eads Bridge. The original design placed the Arch closer to the river in anticipation of railroad removal, and placed the interstate in a tunnel (shown at top) with a Third Avenue at grade above not unlike the one envisioned by advocates today.

Other changes from the original plan:

Kiley reoriented the layout of the Memorial for a nearly symmetrical plan.

The Campfire Theater was a programmatic requirement of all national parks when the competition was held, but dropped before completion of the Memorial.

Restaurants perched over the riverfront were never built due to the railroad issue. The tunnel required high flood walls that changed the east end of the site that was originally supposed to slope down to meet the levee.

The designers and NPS abandoned plans for an architectural museum on the grounds and placed the "Historic Museum" under ground (the Museum of Westward Expansion).

The designers and NPS abandoned plans for a "frontier village" of reconstructed French Colonial buildings in the northwest part of the site, as well as a group of such buildings around the Old Cathedral.

Entrance to the Arch trams would have been through the reconstructed Old Rock House, shown here between the Arch legs.

The park would have extended all of the way north to the Eads Bridge.

The final landscape work at the Memorial took place in 1982, nearly forty years after the selection of the plan by Saarinen and Kiley. Congressional funding delays are largely responsible for the slow implementation. The Gateway Arch was completed in 1965, after Saarinen's death. This slow pace of development of one of the nation's grandest integrated works of modern landscape and architecture no doubt was frustrating, but the result was worth the wait.

Preservation of the relatively young landscape is integral to the current design competition. Still, some of the early ideas of Saarinen and Kiley may be worth contemplation by designers in the current competition. Part of the Memorial enjoys the protection of the nation's highest level of historic designation, that of the National Historic Landmark. The rest does not. That is not an invitation to alter the landscape, but a potential window for sensitive changes.

Any changes made will be interpretive, and interpreting what is authentic about the landscape is a huge challenge. Architects by nature wish to transform places, and that inclination must be tempered by understanding of Saarinen and Kiley's plan and its evolution. That's why the competition requires teams to include someone who understands federal preservation laws -- laws that are not prohibitions on change but guiding restrictions.

Certainly, there are two parts of the Memorial that developed due to utilitarian need rather than architectural inspiration -- the north and south nodes, where the hulking parking garage and the south maintenance building stand. The maintenance building and the parking garage should be moved off of the grounds, and those sites thrown open to new purposes. Many of us advised Senator John Danforth that should he wish to build a museum at either site, he would have faced little serious opposition. In fact, the south end was where Saarinen and Kiley placed their main museum building in the first plan. Removal of the garage would allow for another intriguing change -- removal of the too-wide and underused extension of Washington Avenue on the north side of the Memorial.

Many of the needed changes that sponsors of the design competition seek -- better connections, stronger link to river and programmatic venues that attract visitors -- are in the original plan. Saarinen and Kiley's original plan would have made moot any future design competition focused on activation and connectivity.

The inclusion of an architectural museum was prescient, given today's St. Louis Building Arts Foundation effort. Retention of some sense of the historic riverfront buildings is in keeping with later preservation philosophy that holds that total destruction is never desirable, even in large-scale renewal. Most of all, the designers blended the landscape into the city by bridging the interstate and drawing the Memorial straight into the north riverfront we now call Laclede's Landing. Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley left a blueprint for a connected, active Memorial that the current design competition may realize. That blueprint was bestowed with genius and care for the site's designed beauty. Before designers attempt to rise to that level of genius, they should take a look at the original winning entry.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Magic City

The translucent nature of all light that could penetrate the fog that descended over St. Louis last night illuminated one thousand dreams. The city's landscape this year has been flooded with rain and buried under powdery snow, but the swift, balmy fog last night was the first weather of the year that truly made the city surreal. Here are a few images from Forest Park.

News from Route 66

The Route 66 Association of Missouri sends along the following news:

The National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is pleased to announce it is accepting applications for the 2010 cost-share grant cycle.

Applications may be submitted to the program office until April 2, 2010. Awards will be announced on or before May 21, 2010.

Read more here.

Also, the Route 66 Corridor Management Plan meetings are coming up in January and February. Details online here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jefferson Arms Up For Sale

The old Jefferson Arms Hotel at 415 N. Tucker Boulevard, shown at left in the postcard view above, is again for sale. Citicorp foreclosed on the failed Pyramid Companies, the owner, last year. In 2008 after Pyramid's collapse, Sherman Associates of Minneapolis announced that it had the Jefferson Arms under contract, but the contract was nullified by foreclosure.

The Jefferson Arms was built in 1904 from plans by Barnett, Haynes & Barnett, the renowned St. Louis firm that would design the city's Cathedral. The hotel opened in time for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition's throngs of tourists, but remained successful. The owners expanded the hotel to the west in 1928. Eventually, in the 1980s, the old hotel was converted into studio apartments. This use was again successful; the Jefferson Arms was 80% full in 2006 when Pyramid purchased the building for $19 million. Pyramid evicted all of the tenants and boarded the building up.

The Jefferson Arms was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

North End of Venice

If you have not read the Riverfront Times cover story "Meltdown in Venice" by Keegan Hamilton, please do so. The photograph above shows one of the houses in the very north end of Venice whose residents literally have the former Dow Chemical plant in their backyards. There is a pocket literally surrounded by that plant on the west, the field where Dow and its successors dumped PCB-tainted waste on the north and a foundry on the east. At the foot of this neighborhood is the city's elementary school. The creation of such a landscape is hardly unique, and its abdication by those who shaped it only commonplace.

Harter's Hobby House Sign Removed

For decades, Harter's Hobby House at 1001 West Main in Belleville beckoned hobbyists with its colorful sign, which resembled a blue pin-striped stick of dynamite with a starlight mint-like pinwheel fuse. The sign is no more, having been replaced recently with a simple new sign.

The old sign was a complex metal sign with three plastic back-lit name boards, an enameled body and neon tubing on the pinwheel. The letters in the possessive "Harter's" were proper cursive fit for business, while the words "Hobby House" had a carefree lettering somewhere between kindergarten script and a typesetter's mistake.

Where did the sign go? Anyone with information is welcome to post in the comments section or email the editor, who missed the changeover.

Friday, January 15, 2010

State Senator Crowell Bills Threatens Historic Tax Credits

Senate Bill 728 Wipes Out the Historic Tax Credit Legislation Passed Last Year

For Immediate Release
Contact:Eric Friedman
Coalition for Historic Preservation And Economic Development
Office: 314.367.2800 ext. 23, Cell 314.369.4702

ST. LOUIS (January 14, 2010) – Senator Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau) introduced S.B. 728 which places nearly all state tax credits under the budget appropriation process which eliminates all legislative language on historic tax credits approved last year by the Missouri General Assembly. The ability for smaller historic restoration projects to not be counted against the cap has been eliminated. In addition, the application procedures for projects that ensure equity for small and large projects submitted to the Department of Economic Development will be eliminated. All tax credit programs will expire on June 30 2011 unless an allocation is made by the legislature, both chambers , for that specific year, through the appropriations process. This would not impact projects authorized or tax credits issued.
This bill pits all tax credit programs against one another to compete for a specific allocation.

Food pantry, neighborhood assistance, shelters for domestic violence victims, quality jobs, low income housing, brownfields, family farm livestock, pregnancy resource centers, youth opportunities and historic renovation tax credits are just a few of the programs that will be forced to fight for their existence each year and to fight for how much money they get each year. The financial uncertainty that would result from the passage of this bill will end historic preservation projects in cities and towns throughout Missouri, including the 30 Dream communities.

In an article in yesterday’s Southeast Missourian newspaper, Senator Crowell tried to portray these tax credits as a corporate bail-out for big business although, it is the small contractors, their employee, their suppliers and projects that will be hardest hit if the tax credit process is changed. These changes would devastate the construction industry and their suppliers in Missouri as it struggles to recover from the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression. The Department of Economic Development shows that this program generated 4,000 jobs in one year. We know of no other program that has done that.

At the time of most serious financial and housing crisis since the Great Depression we need stability for investment in our communities and for the Historic tax credit program to continue to be the best Jobs, Housing, Green, Sustainable and Smart Development program in the country. Without that stability and predictability we will not get investments, and jobs we so desperately need in our communities across our state.

# # #

Thursday, January 14, 2010

An Update on the Louis Sullivan Film

Two years ago, Mark Richard Smith began filming Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture. He visited St. Louis that year, shooting in the city at and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and I spent some time with him talking about the Union Trust Building.

Mark is a remarkably driven first-time filmmaker who spent twenty years as a graphic designer before switching paths. Wanting to make films that visualize history, Mark enrolled in the graduate history program at Loyola University Chicago. In Chicago, Mark saw the photographs of Richard Nickel and their poetic grace drew him to the subject matter of his first film.

Last year, Mark posted a trailer on YouTube.

Then, one month ago, an unfinished scene about the Trading Room of Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange.

Momentary Reprieve for Two of Lindell's Modern Buildings

The view here might exist for awhile longer. Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that CVS' plan to demolish the three buildings at the southwest corner of Sarah and Lindell avenues is off. CVS no longer plans to pursue purchase of the buildings. Observers had seen a conspicuous for-sale sign go up in front of one of the buildings a few weeks ago.

Sometimes the market is the strongest preservation force. Of course, the market will be up again, and financing for new construction on the sites of these buildings could be easy to obtain. Thus what happens next is important. These three buildings are attractive, usable urban buildings.

On the corner, at 4100 Lindell, we have Hellmuth Obata Kassebaum's Sperry-Rand Building (1956), most recently the home of the St. Louis Housing Authority. The minimalist modernism has a lot of potential for commercial or retail space.

The small building next door at 4108 Lindell, originally home of the St. Louis Society for Crippled Children, dates to 1960. This is a supporting player in the cast of local modern architecture, but handsome in its own right. The St. Louis Housing Authority also owns this building.

The final building, located at 4120 Lindell Boulevard, is a two-story Colonial Revival office building from 1937 much larger than its front elevation suggests. The setback may not meet the urbanist formula, but the density of site use is pretty solid. However elegant, the Colonial Revival buildings on Lindell are admittedly not as architecturally significant as their modern brethren.

The modern buildings form an architectural context recently demonstrated in the successful listing in the National Register of Historic Places nomination of the at 4630 Lindell. Not all of the modern buildings on Lindell can be listed individually. Clearly, however, the modern buildings on Lindell as a group have sufficient significance to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places under a multiple-property cover. That action would make it easier for interested owners to list their buildings and be eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits. Then, the market might be more than a momentary ally in preservation efforts.

Duffy: Design Competition Promises to Be Bold

Bob Duffy has an insightful commentary in the St. Louis Beacon entitled "The competition to improve Arch grounds promises to be bold, creative". I recommend a full read. However, Duffy's recap of yesterday's briefing for potential competitors in the design competition includes some hopeful signs that the competition process will be fruitful for visionary thinking.

For one thing, the competitors will be forbidden contact with the sponsors and jurors. Writes Duffy:

Competitors are forbidden contact with competition sponsors and jurors, and if this rule is broken, the offending team will be disqualified. There is to be no corporate or personal lobbying. Strict communications protocols have been established, and all information must be requested through competition management.

Competition manager Don Stastny also reiterates that the process and short timeline is meant to guarantee, not stifle, visionary solution-making. From Bob Duffy:

The guidelines and timelines for the competition are meant not to put obstacles in the paths of designers, architects and artists who may compete, but to create an environment in which the teams might do their best work.

Sounds good to me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Getting Creative with the River Des Peres

Yesterday, after successfully keeping the project under wraps for some time, Thomas Crone launched his new website Creative St. Louis: A Conversation on Creativity.

The site is "dedicated to celebrating the creative people, places, things, history and traditions that make St. Louis a great place to live and work." I can't wait to see what Thomas does with the site.

Meantime, I have the first Tuesday "Creative Places" spot with a history of the River Des Peres that examines the creativity of engineers as well as what a new future for the channelized river-sewer could look like.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Design Competition's Jury, and Its Grand Jury

This morning, the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation announced the jury that ultimately will select the winning entry in the International Gateway Arch Design Competition. The eight jurors are:

Robert Campbell, architecture critic at The Boston Globe and contributing editor for Architectural Record;

Gerald Early, Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and Director of the African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis;

Denis P. Galvin, former Deputy Director of the National Park Service;

Alex Krieger, founding principal of Chan Krieger Sieniewicz, architecture and urban design firm and professor at the Harvard School of Design, Cambridge, Mass.;

David C. Leland, an urban strategist and managing director of the Leland Consulting Group, Portland, Ore.;

Cara McCarty, curator of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York City;

Laurie D. Olin, partner and landscape architect of the OLIN Studio, Philadelphia;

Carol Ross Barney, founder and Principal of Ross Barney Architects, Chicago.

Notably, there is only one St. Louis resident on the panel, Gerald Early. However, the fact that the local juror is a scholar of cultural history and not someone deeply tied to the local architectural community is refreshing. Cara McCarty is also a scholar with a local connection; she used to serve as a curator at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Some wonder why there is not more local representation on the jury, and that is a valid question. Certainly there are local architectural critics, professors of architectural history, architects and designers whose credentials match or trump those found in this jury. There has been rumbling from local architects that the program requirements for the competition is out of reach for local firms, and jury spots could have provided consolation.

However, the jury would not do well for St. Louis if it were fraught with the politics of representing local talent or special interests. The jury must be able to independently evaluate the submissions free from the wires of local politics. That goal has been accomplished. We now will have a rare opportunity to watch architectural heavyweights from other places examine St. Louis, which should be a welcome breath of fresh air.

The jury's composition, however, should not consign local critics to passivity. In fact, having St. Louis' leading critics and designers outside of the official process allows them the free reign of critical engagement that only those with deep local understanding can offer. All of us concerned with the competition should step up to demand excellence, praise good decisions, call out bad decisions and work to guarantee that the design competition is truly a great moment for our city.

The decision to have a competition, after all, is political. Politics can water down great ideas. The ambitious deadline for completing the winning design is a political threat to realizing a transformative change in connections between downtown and the riverfront. The jury can't tackle that problem -- that's up to the rest of us. Citizens remain the grand jury.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

East St. Louis Videos on New Geography

Last month, New Geography uploaded the third of a three-part video series on East St. Louis. Alex Lotz created the videos, which started with a whirlwind tour that I gave him and St. Louis University history professor Flannery Burke on New Year's Day last year. Alex shot footage on that day of the various places we saw, including downtown, Alta Sita and the stockyards district. Then he interviewed me and located archival footage to develop the videos.

Watch the videos:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Friday, January 8, 2010

Yamasaki, Inc. Closes

The Detroit Free Press reports that Yamasaki, Inc. has closed. This is the end of one of modern architecture's most illustrious American firms. Founded by Minoru Yamasaki in 1959, the firm's name is found on the drawings for the ill-fated World Trade Center as well as many significant modernist designs.

The firm marked the departure of Yamasaki from the Detroit-based firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber, which Yamasaki had founded in 1949 with St. Louisan George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber. The three had worked together at Detroit firm Smith Hinchman & Grylls. Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber left a tremendous impact in St. Louis, designing the terminal at Lambert Airport (1956) and most of the St. Louis Housing Authority's projects from the early postwar era, including the Pruitt-Igoe project (1954). When the firm split, Hellmuth created the firm Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum in St. Louis, which went on to become the world's largest architectural firm and continues to be a giant among American firms.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kansas City Seeks Change to Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit

Once again, state Senator Yvonne Wilson (D-Kansas City) has offered a bill to reduce the acreage ownership requirement of the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act from 50 to 30 acres. This bill is SB 682 and was first read on January 6. Wilson's past attempts to pass this bill have gone nowhere.

However, the bill certainly has merit. If the courts uphold the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit, and the legislature lacks the will to kill it, the credit should be reformed. Wilson and Kansas City lawmakers would like to use the credit to aid in a Kansas City redevelopment project. Why shouldn't they be able to get the credit changed, if it is truly a public benefit law under the Missouri Constitution?

Of course, the premise of the tax credit remains as dangerous as it was when first proposed in 2007, and the effect of the type of real estate activity it encourages is terrible for struggling neighborhoods. The tax credit's main beneficiary has spawned copycat buying across north St. Louis. All we have to show are lost buildings, vacant buildings and neighborhoods caught up in a broadly-drawn development project that may not ultimately include them. It's bad public policy, plain and simple. It could be a little better, though.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Now That McKee Has His Money, City Should Slow Process

At the end of 2009, developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. received $19.62 million in Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits. According to the developer's application, McKee's Northside Regeneration LLC claims a little over $25 million in assemblage, interest and maintenance costs to date, and projects an additional $66 million in acquisition costs. Only part of the application has been released publicly, so a breakdown of those figures is not yet available.

The $25 million figure corresponds to the amount of a $25 million Second Mortgage and Deed of Trust filed with the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds by Northside Regeneration LLC on December 10. That second deed of trust is guaranteed by Paric Corporation, the construction company founded by McKee and now headed by his son Joe McKee.

Now that McKee has the tax credits he claimed all last year he needed to proceed, what will the developer do with the proceeds of selling them? Pay down his debt.

That use of the credits may surprise those who put stock in the words of supporters of the tax credit, including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who claimed those credits would enable development of north St. Louis. Those who read the tax credit bill realized that it was in effect remuneration for questionable acquisition activity already underway.

Now that McKee has received his first payment and announced his intended use of the proceeds, we know that he will have paid down most of his claimed debt. Since McKee's company continues to fail to secure and adequately maintain holdings, his holding costs must be minimal. This payment enables him to sit for another length of time.

More importantly, however, this payment enables city government to look more carefully at the Northside Regeneration project. McKee can no longer claim that the Board of Alderman's lack of action is keeping him from money he needs to survive. The developer has redevelopment rights and TIF financing secured through the ordinances passed in October 2009. Both sides are even. There are going to be additional bills needed to enable redevelopment of the four areas McKee has divided the project into, and to activate the tax increment financing. This time, the Board of Aldermen and Mayor Francis Slay should not rush the process.

There needs to be a full and open debate of whether or not the project's boundaries are appropriate, whether eminent domain restrictions need to be stronger, whether historic preservation planning ought to be included in additional ordinances, and what happens to McKee's holdings outside of his project boundaries in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood.

Let's lay this all on the table before passing more enabling ordinances.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Two Buildings in the Fairgrounds Neighborhood

This solid corner building anchors the northwest corner of the intersection of Pleasant Street and Lee Avenue in the Fairgrounds neighborhood. The composition is a classic example of the local Romanesque Revival vernacular, with striking use of rounded corner, rusticated limestone, ornamental pressed bricks and Roman arches. Vacant since 2007, the building recently had a collapse of the outer wythes of a chimney of the Lee Avenue elevation.

This collapse is no big deal. The building's walls are otherwise straight and sound. However, instead of forcing owner Timothy Williams to make the needed repairs, or doing the work and billing him, the city's Building Division condemned the building for demolition on August 28, 2009.

The building is located in the city's 3rd ward, which has preservation review, so demolition is not a foregone conclusion. Still, why can't the Building Division deal with a small problem like this without resorting to condemnation?

Meanwhile, the small house at 4160 Grove Street sits vacant and for sale. Only two other buildings stand on this block face, and they are located far down the block. This little house is surrounded by vacant lots, many of which are owned by the same owner. This is an urban farmstead in the making! The phone number on the house is 732-5080.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Accomplishments and Opportunities in St. Louis Place

People walk past a house on St. Louis Avenue and 22nd Street during the September 2009 Rehabbers Club tour.

The year 2010 could bring better fortunes to the St. Louis Place neighborhood on the near north side, but that fortune may be wayward and abstract. What the new year ought to bring is strength to the community and its historic fabric. Beset by decades of neglect and targeted land banking, the neighborhood deserves a strong future. St. Louis Place ought to get more attention for what it already has: beautiful historic buildings, an elegant Victorian Park and wonderful proximity to downtown.

In September, the monthly Rehabbers Club tour visited the neighborhood. While the tour included a realistic discussion of problems and a trip to the James Clemens House, the tour started with tours of amazing historic buildings -- one being restored and one ready for restoration.

The historic house at 3001 Rauschenbach Avenue dates to the 1890s and fronts St. Louis Place Park (laid out in 1850 and lanscaped in the early 1870s). The rambling mansion was once transformed into a retirement home but the current owner has been restoring the house. She has made great progress.

Inside, historic millwork, tall pocket doors, glowing wooden floors and other historic features dazzled those on the tour.

The second stop on the tour was a stone-faced mansion at 2223 St. Louis Avenue built in 1879 but later converted to the Henry Leidner Funeral Home. The connected white glazed terra cotta-faced chapel in the Gothic Revival style dates to 1921. In recent years, the former funeral home has housed the Greater Bible Way Community Church. The church recently moved across the street into a Gothic Revival church at 2246 St. Louis Avenue, and has placed this building for sale. Pastor Tommie Harsley kindly led people through the giant mansion and chapel.

The old Leidner funeral home needs a great deal of work that was beyond the church's needs. The chapel roof suffered a bad leak, and the house needs new systems and a lot of plaster work upstairs. However, little of the historic fabric has ever been altered. Much of the millwork is unpainted. The funeral home installed the strange, awesome ceiling fan fixtures shown below.

The building at 2223 St. Louis Avenue has the raw historic character sought by rehabbers across the city. No wonder the Rehabbers Club wanted to visit!

The only problem with the Rehabbers Club tour is that its participants included few neighborhood residents and that it only happened once in 2009. St. Louis Place could use regular tours of the wonderful accomplishments and opportunities there. Leaders who support large redevelopment like the Northside Regeneration project ought to invest in educational efforts suited to current and potential neighborhood residents and property owners. Face it: large-scale redevelopment is an unproven strategy. It's wiser to invest in the proven work of the people already making St. Louis Place tick.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Jobs for Main Street or Sprawl Road?

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist published an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer that lays out the problems in the "Jobs for Main Street" bill that Congressional Democrats pushed through the House of Representatives. The bill is yet another instance where the Democratic Party has missed the boat on urban policy under the guise of helping cities and small towns. While the bill includes $8.4 billion for transit and $800 million for Amtrack, its biggest component is a $27.5 billion appropriation for highway construction!

According to Norquist:

The $27.5 billion isn't targeted to rebuild streets at the heart of older cities and towns. No, it will mostly go to the expansion of wide, motor-vehicle-only highways that go hand-in-hand with energy-wasting sprawl. This follows the earlier stimulus bill that favored massive highway projects, including a batch of expensive "highways to nowhere," which an examination by the Infrastructurist Web site concluded "make no sense."