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Showing posts with label urban renewal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label urban renewal. Show all posts

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Dynamic American City (or..."Old Buildings Stand in the Way of Progress")

(Updated: Now with comments and minute marks)

These videos, obtained from, are a wonderful look into the mindset of circa 1956 modern planners and "city builders". They're also painful to watch. Dozens of cities' historic building stocks crumble, tumble, and fall before your eyes. Why? Because their lots are small and they're not new. Simple as that.

While a lot of what the narrator observes is "true", little attention is paid to the force of American public policy in shaping these realities. What is most striking, though, is the sheer confidence that starting over and building anew was naturally superior. There is almost a point in this video where you hear the crisis of modernism in the context of the city: the narrator must defend density as a part of urban life while simultaneously arguing that the previous way of urban life was deficient, outmoded, obsolete. Yet cities were more dense with their scores of small- and mid-scale architecture than they became, in so many American downtowns, when office towers and parking lots replaced whole blocks.

These must be watched to be believed.


0:00 - 3:49 - Introduction (rambling about how there are proven ways "to make your city better".

3:50 - The "Dynamic American City" documentary begins.

5:04 - "The American city is dense with a narrow lot pattern". Here there is an unbelievable row of homes, all identical, probably in Baltimore (?)

5:46 - "A question of importance therefore is: why did all city dwellers adjust their lives to narrow lots?"

6:25 - ..."Throughout most of the history of civilization, man has been dependent upon animals for transportation...Man built densely because of his reliance on horses. Having built densely, on narrow lots, we created many interesting and peculiar properties..."

7:55 - "We see a typical horse and buggy lot still remaining on one of the busy Radio City corners. Thus we see that the narrow lot pattern tends to endure and can exert its influence on the mightiest of our commercial developments. Indeed, the density of all real estate, wherever it exists, stems from the primitive horse and buggy plan..."

8:48 - "What a revolutionary power the Steam Engine brought! The Steam Engine made possible for the first time in history a release from the bondage of density."

9:45 - "We still have, and urgently need, rapid transit. But the old time trolley has all but passed with the horse."

11:08 - The automobile and electricity have thrust the nation into a state of competitive change.

12:20 - Shopping Centers taking over farms is great!

13:40 - The most powerful competitive force of all is the new shopping center with its landscaped mall...surely the most competitive force of new shopping centers is abundant space for free parking at the very door of outlying stores.


0:10 - "The problems of our cities are real, however, because of the heavy hand of old-fashioned design."

0:45 - There is a twofold problem: architectural obsolescence and narrow lot patterns.

1:06 - Compete with the suburbs by demolishing all of these obsolete structures on small lots and merge them!

1:17 - "Often the substance of our urban structures is such as to resist the power of the demolition hammer. As a people however we are steadfast as we tackle problems, and the hammer of demolition will be sure to swing with determination. In this jet age, events move fast...our progress is certain to be steady as we clear away the structures that block progress..."

1:20-8:00 - Cities are innovating by building parking garages, new office buildings, beautifying and modernizing commercial buildings, etc.

8:30 - St. Louis!

12:15 - The tallest building in America to be demolished for progress ("to start over")...

13:00 - We'll be seeing lots of demolition now. The continent has not yet reached its manifest destiny because cities will, and have to, be rebuilt.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In the old Mill Creek Valley "Slum"

2723 Pine Street -- September 1936.

Today, a part of the A.G. Edwards (I mean...Wachovia) campus.


3127 Laclede (circa 1960?).

Today, part of the SLU campus.

Thank you, Midtown Institutions, for your stewardship.

While we're on the topic, check out the sliver of a historic building just west of the still present Cupples House on West Pine in the heart of the SLU campus (photo circa 1988). They sure do have a thing for demolishing historic mansions.

Thanks, HABS, for depressing me as usual.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Urban Renewal, 21st Century

Many of us urban planners like to think that the days where planning comes from a group of well dressed middle aged white men and is passed down to communities of all colors, ages, and incomes is over.

Really, though, it's not. Urban renewal is alive and well across the country. New Orleans is deadset on tearing down a 16 square block neighborhood known as Tulane/Gravier (or Lower Mid City) for a new Louisiana State University and V.A. combined hospital complex. Likewise, Baltimore has already torn down a swath of "Middle East Baltimore" for an expansion of Johns Hopkins.

I know, in New Orleans' case, sensible alternatives abound for the siting of these two important hospitals. There's, in fact, a moribund medical district already just to the east of their desired footprint that contains more parking garages and surface lots than buildings. It's ripe for redevelopment. But the city wants to build the hospital atop Tulane/Gravier--a poor neighborhood that was heavily flooded during Katrina. An unlikely renaissance seemed possible just post-storm, when a Tulane medical student organized the neighborhood with a new group called "Phoenix of New Orleans". But the LSU/VA Medical Complex talks led the city to declare the Tulane/Gravier neighborhood a no-permit zone. That's right. Since December 2007, the city will not issue building or demolition or rehabilitation permits for the entire area.

A row of houses--in varying conditions--in the Medical District footprint. Whole blocks of these distinctively New Orleans homes, some dating to the Civil War, will be torn down soon if current plans are approved. Photograph by Becky Houtman.

Ultimately, Tulane/Gravier will likely be felled (even as a National Register historic district). Why, in a city with an affordable housing shortage, in a city that has recently demolished nearly every public housing unit (attractive and sturdy as they were), in a city where there are many vacant and underutilized parcels in the current medical district, are they tackling Tulane/Gravier? It's a poor neighborhood with rundown housing. The development team wants that site "development ready". It's often that simple. That's all the justification that's needed.

“It was obvious the community was falling apart,” said Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean of the medical faculty and chief executive of the hospital since 1997. “I could see drug deals from my office.”

An East Baltimore row. Is this torn down now? I don't know. I'm trying to find pictures of the redevelopment area. But this should give a proper context. Photograph courtesy of bing7220's flickr page.

It's funny: it's as if poverty is synonymous with blight to the average person. It's an impediment to investment rather than an economic state of a neighborhood populated by people who have lower earnings, yes, but also hopes, goals, lives, jobs, dogs, front porches and back yards...

To my knowledge, though, St. Louis may be one of the biggest proponents of a "New Urban Renewal". Late 20th and early 21st Century neighborhoods that were "redeveloped" include McRee Town, Gaslight Square, and Bohemian Hill.

Perhaps these developments, especially the former two, seem beneficial to the city in the end. Slums were cleared away; poverty scattered; aging and unkempt buildings rendered nuisances no longer. McRee Town and Gaslight Square seem to have caught on to that elusive middle class population that the city has been seeking for so long.

But these developments have set an alarming precedent: that after enough decline, neighborhoods are unsalvageable and must be torn down. Imagine if this scenario had played out in Soulard, which it almost did, and Soulard were redeveloped into the neighborhood of Garden Apartments that St. Louis's hotshot planner Harland Bartholomew actually wanted.

Better yet, imagine the impoverished residents of McRee Town suing the Garden District Commission before they planted the current crop of passably urban but uninspired homes that replaced the neighborhood's history. Pretend that they won; that the redevelopment could have demolished only those buildings that could not have been saved. Imagine that a thoughtful cohesion of old and new breathed new life into McRee Town, rather than a coalition of wealthier neighborhoods and a self-interested major institution razing it and renaming it "Botanical Heights" in shameless self-promotion.

Might we be having so many problems with Blairmont? If McRee had somehow informed our elected leadership and citizenry that it's possible to forge a new neighborhood identity without all new buildings; that poor people can be mobilized to better their community if they see some investment and new jobs come with it--what would be happening on the Near North Side this day? Blairmont is simply a clever form of urban renewal, Smart Shrink, take your planning poison pick. It's secretive. It's top down. Though, after five years, we still know of no specific plans. Given this economy, whatever plans there were may even be scaled back at this point. But it doesn't matter. Irreplaceable architecture, St. Louis's best economic development asset, is being lost and there's no leadership to stop it, to stem it, to plan it. Citizens don't have the keys to that proverbial backroom where these dealings take place. So many have grown indifferent or inured to our city's stagnation.

The New Urban Renewal is much like the old in its mentality. Impoverished neighborhoods have, by virtue of their struggle, proven themselves not viable. The N.U.R. states that, once someone with greater access to capital comes along and sees a way to squeeze tax revenue out of an area, it should be torn down. There is too rarely the question: can we improve the neighborhood without replacing it?

But the newness of this round of Urban Renewal is that it's only those neighborhoods that have demonstrated a prolonged resistance to the recent better times for cities that are being bulldozed. Aren't these neighborhoods the ones that need the benefits of bottom-up planning and community sensitivity the most?

It is important not to forget, post-Barack Obama, that top-down planning still occurs. And it's still quite often wrong and misguided.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The poor fate of the St. Louis Greek Revival

Greek Revival architecture in St. Louis is critically endangered. First, what is Greek Revival?

Here is an example from St. Paul, Minnesota. This is the more luxurious and less urban form of Greek Revivals.

Here's a New Orleans style urbanized form:

The uniting features of a Greek Revival are:

> A construction date between 1825 and 1860. In St. Louis, they were probably built until 1870, albeit in a transitional form suggestive of the successor--Italianate.

> An entry porch is typical. These are usually supported by columns (Doric on the first floor, Ionic on the second if multi-story). The columns have no bases--that was a feature added in the revival styles of the early 20th century.

> Sometimes, Greek Revivals have elaborate entries. Transom windows will surround the doors. A pediment (a blocky triangle) is very common and is a good indicator of a Greek Revival.

> Above windows and at the cornice line, a simple horizontal band usually exists. Sometimes, tooth-like "dentils" will be featured on the cornice. This is a holdover from the earlier Federal, or "Adam" style, which faded in most places around 1840. Some Federal townhouses can be difficult to distinguish from Greek Revival.

> Roofs typically have a low pitch or are gabled.

(Partial source: Virginia and Lee McAllester's A Field Guide to American Houses)

Greek Revivals are found all over New Orleans. That makes sense, since that city's major boom period occurred at about 1840, when cotton catapulted the city to heights of wealth unseen for a city its size. Greek Revival was the in-vogue house style at the time.

GR's used to be a common feature of the St. Louis landscape, though St. Louis saw its own zenith later on, past the Civil War. Neighborhoods east of Grand used to feature the occasional GR country home--miniature Greek temples. After all, the then-new republic wanted to amp up its connections with the foundations of democracy--Democratic Greece.

Neighborhoods like Old North St. Louis and Soulard as well as now-demolished Kosciusko, Mill Creek Valley, Lucas Place, and DeSoto-Carr were some of the city's oldest, and so could claim many of this then-popular style of home.

The Campbell House, circa 1851, is a later Greek Revival construction that is starting to resemble its cornice-heavy younger cousin, the Italianate. It is the last remaining structure from Lucas Place. At least it's incredibly well preserved.

Recognize this one? No, it's not New Orleans...

It's the 1848 Chatillon-DeMenil House in the city's Benton Park neighborhood--almost sacrificed (needlessly, obviously) for Interstate 55 right-of-way in the 1960s.

Other Greek Revivals in St. Louis were not so lucky.

Those above were located on the south side of Market Street between Jefferson and Beaumont [Source]. This was Mill Creek Valley, mostly constructed around the Civil War. Mill Creek had many late Greek Revival structures before it was completely demolished in 1959.

Ecology of Absence ran a great post a couple weeks back about a north side Greek Revival in its death throes. Michael Allen's picture of the home is below:

Says Allen:

The poor old house at 1219 Clinton Street in Old North St. Louis may be headed toward the end of a long death cycle. The beautiful side-gabled brick house is one of those Federal or Greek Revival-inspired row houses that lines streets in Old North in the middle 19th century. Prior to the popularity of the Italianate and Second Empire styles in the 1870s, and with materials like tin not widely available for ornamental cornices, builders tended toward a restrained, elegant form. These houses had segmental arches or flat (sometimes arched) stone lintels over doors and windows. They were two stories with an attic in the roof. Cornices were usually simple dentillated rows or wooden boards with beading or other patterns. Mostly tenements, these houses had gallery porches in back with staircases leading to second floor flats. Amid dense blocks, with buildings attached, mouse holes opening to gangways were necessary to allow for the passage of residents to and from the streets.

Part of the reason for the diminution of the Greek Revival stock in the city has to do with its Great Fire in 1849, where a lot of said structures downtown were wiped out. The other main reason is that urban renewal during the late 1950s and early 1960s destroyed most of St. Louis's oldest remaining neighborhoods. Planners of the time wanted to rid of Soulard as well, one of the only remaining areas of the city with any notable concentration of the house style.

Here is a Soulard Greek Revival, located at 1019 Shenandoah.

View Larger Map

Here is an Old North example, on the 2500 block of Blair:

View Larger Map

Unfortunately, the increasingly rare St. Louis Greek Revival is not receiving the level of protection it needs. The city and its mayor sit in the sidelines as McKee systematically destroys the last of them--and so many other styles--all within some of St. Louis's oldest neighborhoods. Just in case you fell out of habit of checking Rob Power's Daily Dose of Blairmont series, we're on Day 155!

Okay. So most of the structures remaining in the neighborhood are either transitional structures with more Italianate (heavy cornices with brackets) or Second Empire (mansard roofs) features. But many date to the end period of Greek Revival fame--and they share its quiet, often subdued urban elegance.

We should be identifying our remaining Greek Revival resources and protect them under an innovative arrangement--a local historic district that is non-contiguous, scatter site. If not, they will nearly all be lost, save for the grandest of them or those protected already by local HD's.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spanish Government House - St. Louis, 1783-1804

This Colonial structure is long gone, submerged first by a manufacturing/warehousing district along the riverfront and next by the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Still, HABS has some drawings of site plans that were researched back in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

That's the Spanish Government house. A series of similar structures lent St. Louis a French/Spanish Creole feel that is now only truly possible to experience here in New Orleans' own French Quarter.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Valentine Street: gone, like much of the rest of downtown

In an 1868 map of the city of St. Louis, an inconspicuous five blocks along the St. Louis riverfront bore the name of Almond Street.

At some unknown point, Almond became Valentine Street, named after St. Louis's first resident Catholic priest.

HABS has a photo of one of the buildings that used to line the street:

The intimate interaction with the street is, of course, unrivaled today. This photo was taken in 1936. Valentine, an east-west street that ran just between Spruce and Poplar and ended at Broadway, was erased for the Arch Grounds.

It's easy to pick out these HABS photos and note the mass devastation to the St. Louis built environment the clearance for the Arch project caused. But perhaps the piecemeal destruction of downtown post-Arch is worse--the Gateway Mall's replacement of Real Estate Row, the Mercantile (now US) Bank building's destruction of the Ambassador, the senseless loss of the Century Building to petty and shortsighted politics, and all stories of corporate boxes replacing real urbanism downtown.

Will we ever see a downtown St. Louis with lively blocks, human scale architecture, pedestrian friendliness at the expense of interstates, corporate boxes, etc.?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

When Credit is Due...

I have to hand it to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at times. Just when I'm ready to write it off as a tabloid unconcerned with St. Louis's myriad urban issues, it produces an article of journalistic excellence.

A previous such article is "A Tax-Credit Bill for One Man?" by Jake Wagman (written on my birthday in 2007 (June 17)--a present just for me?). Wagman's article was so balanced (perhaps even biased towards the beleaguered Blairmont-afflicted neighborhoods) that it drew fire from Mayor Slay. In a city where Mr. Slay was able to recruit the National Trust for Historic Preservation to supply a fluff piece about the "unfortunate need" to demolish the Century Building in that same newspaper, Wagman's criticism of the deathly silence at City Hall was astonishing.

The latest gold star for the P-D comes in the form of "Charles Lee 'Cookie' Thornton: Behind the smile". The shootings at the Kirkwood City Hall back in February of this year by "Cookie" shocked the nation. But the article seems to indicate that the city of Kirkwood had become inured to Cookie's explosive behavior, watching his deterioration without wondering why.

My point is not to exonerate Cookie. What happened at City Hall is inexcusable. But the article does display the bitter irony of Negro Removal that I hinted at in my previous post, which also mentioned Cookie's Meacham Park neighborhood.

Poor African American neighborhoods are often so neglected that, when they do get any sort of attention, even if the form of urban renewal, the residents are often complicit in the plans. City leaders can then point to residents' willingness to sell their homes as evidence that there's no will or way to salvage these neighborhoods.

Truly, the burden of proof should be on the municipalities who neglected the neighborhoods, who ushered in or failed to halt the decline in the first place.

Instead, they become humanitarians--givers of fresh new housing, destroyers of dilapidated old housing; bringers of Wal-Mart and Target, takers of hopelessness and blight.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

"Negro Removal" stalled in Richmond Heights' Hadley Township: given St. Louis history, it will likely go through

Another St. Louis area historic black community has been under siege--but Richmond Heights' Hadley Township may just get a reprieve.

Developers of the $190 million "Hadley Center"--to include "a 150-room hotel, offices, shops, restaurants, 153 houses and 48 condos on 50 acres south of Highway 40 (Interstate 64) and east of Hanley Road"--have been stuck in litigation with area homeowners and now are unsure whether the project will move forward in light of the recent economic downturn.

Take a look at one of the model homes proposed for the development:

If you think it looks like a McBride & Son Homes concoction, then you've won the grand prize! The design is strikingly similar to a group of homes featured at their other Negro Removal project that went through in 2004--McRee Town's razing for Botanical Heights.

Margaret Gillerman of the Post writes:

Hadley Township was founded in 1907 as a company town for Evens-Howard brick workers, many of whom were blacks migrating from the South. Some residents' families have been there for several generations.In the two years since the plan was revealed, some residents moved, some died and at least one house burned. The neighborhood still appears vibrant, if fraying.

Bert Coleman said he needs to be paid so he can put his 91-year-old mother in assisted living.Another resident, JoAnn Bailey, said: "If we can stay, we will stay and be happy. If not, give us our money in 30 days and stop holding us hostage."

Sure, you could make the argument that race has little to do with this urban renewal scheme. The dreary shopping center and squandered transit-oriented development opportunity known as Maplewood Commons has already risen and delivered the area into the open arms of big box commerce. I'm not sure I would want to remain in the area given its character now as an imitation of congested exurbia complete with a super-sized Wal Mart.

Still, the "coincidence" that another black neighborhood would be sacrificed for the goal to transform Mid-County into one big strip shopping center is nevertheless disappointing.

The city of Kirkwood annexed the controversial and mostly African-American Meacham Park neighborhood in 1991. Previously, it was an unicorporated area. What did they do with the land they acquired via annexation? Eminent domain the western 1/3 for a Target store, a couple outparcel mini-boxes, and, of course, a Wal Mart.

The city of Kinloch--the state of Missouri's first incorporated black community--has been assaulted by airport expansion. It lost three quarters of its population and housing in 1990s. Ironically, Paul McKee, Jr.'s own NorthPark development rests within the boundaries of Kinloch. McKee plans to use the land that was taken from the former residents of Kinloch to develop a sprawling industrial park with ample water features. Maybe he would be good for redeveloping St. Louis's north side!

Of course, the list of black neighborhoods demolished by the City of St. Louis during the official urban renewal days is quite sad. The largest are DeSoto-Carr, which gave way to Pruitt Igoe, and Mill Creek Valley, a neighborhood of some 20,000 residents. More recent examples include aforementioned McRee Town as well as Blairmont's demolition by neglect and brick rustling neighborhoods (St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou, chiefly).

The St. Louis area has a long history of ignoring its African American population until it is convenient to seize their low-valued land and "humanely" remove them from the blight that failed urban policy and structural racism helped to create in the first place.

It's all very convenient for the private developers of publicly subsidized big box shopping centers and industrial park developers in Missouri and in St. Louis, the state's most reliable and willing experimenter.

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Call to Paul (McKee, Jr.)

[Dials McEagle Properties at 636-561-9300]

Upbeat Woman: McEagle Properties! How may I help you?

Me: I'd like to speak with someone familiar with the Blairmont holdings in north St. Louis City.

Upbeat Woman: I'll put you through to [name spoken too fast]. He's the representative you'll need to speak to.

Me: Okay.

Man: [Says his name, which, again, I miss]

Me: Hi. Do you represent Paul McKee, Jr.?

Man: On some matters, yes.

Me: Well, I am calling in reference to the Blairmont holding companies on the north side of St. Louis. I am an avid reader of Robert Powers' Built St. Louis blog. He has documented some of Mr. McKee's properties every day for nearly the past 50 days now. The pictures show homes that have been brick rustled, demolished by neglect, you name it.

Man: All right. Who is this, if I may ask?

Me: My name is Matt. I'm just a concerned citizen.

Man: That's actually a blog we're not going to comment on at this time.

Me: Is there anyone I could speak to that will offer a comment?

Man: Well, I believe that blog encouraged readers to call the police if they see brick rustlers, which is totally legitimate. We share your concerns.

Me: But is there any way any specific concerns could be addressed?

Man: That is all I can offer you. I thank you for your comments and I will definitely make a note of them.

Me: All right. Thanks for your time.

Note: This was not tape recorded. This is how the conversation went as I recalled. Nothing is an exact quote, though the statement in italics is pretty close, if not exact.

The Gateway Arch vs. St. Louis's long gone Warehouse District

Sure, Laclede's Landing survives as a portion of the 40-some blocks of commercial and manufacturing buildings that used to cling to the riverfront. It'd be great if this remnant were as cherished as it deserved to be; sadly, Laclede's Landing's magnificent stock of buildings has continued to decay despite its "entertainment district" status, and roughly half of the lots in the district are surface parking now.

Take a look at the picture below. This is South Main St., now covered by the depressed section of I-70, as well as Memorial Drive. Walnut is the cross street, as is evident by the street sign in the picture. That means that the Old Cathedral is on the east side of the block that is barely visible. [Edit: Actually, the Old Cathedral is located on what was Third and Walnut, not Main, but this is close nevertheless.]

Sure makes you rethink whether or not the Gateway Arch was a successful urban renewal program. (Yes, I am aware these blocks pictured were torn down in the 1930s, prior to any official "urban renewal" policy. And yes, I am aware they sat as a parking lot until the Arch's construction. So don't quite blame the Arch entirely! Blame the circa 1930s administration who thought these "outmoded" warehouses would never again have a useful function!)

This photo is courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a Depression-era program that put civil engineers and architects to work documenting America's historic buildings, starting in the early 1930s.

Here's a bonus, of North First Street, demolished in 1940.

And N. 1st and Market:

And another view of the same block:

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Why is everything brick?"

That is a quote from a new St. Louisan, as found on this topic on the Urban St. Louis forums.

And it's a valid point. More so than almost any other city, St. Louis's cache of historic homes has a decidedly pronounced bias towards brick.

Fortuitously, the St. Louis Public Library can tell us just why:

Several factors led to St. Louis's brick atmosphere. First was ready availability: St. Louis was underlain by dozens of high-quality clay deposits. Dogtown and the Hill were both neighborhoods shaped by immigrant groups who moved there to work the clay mines.
To put some numbers behind the words:

By 1839, [St. Louis's] brickyards were turning out better than 20 million bricks a year.

Certainly, though, 19th century builders would have wanted to cut costs and avoid masonry construction in a working class area. In many cities, wood frame buildings were common. In St. Louis, though:

In 1849, the steamboat White Cloud caught fire and drifted onto the riverfront wharves; a third of the city was destroyed in the subsequent blaze. A hurriedly-passed local ordinance forbade the construction of wooden buildings, and St. Louis became even more predominantly brick.

I think we're blessed as a city for this ordinance. Sure, some blocks border on monotony at first glance, with almost too bulky rows of ruddiness dominating sometimes intimidating streetscapes. Perhaps a New Orleans inspired splash of color (through frame or stucco/paint) might spice up a couple of these more robust-looking streets.

Really, though, it's those red bricks that scream St. Louis.

I can't tell you how many times I drive through the streets of New Orleans and am simply in awe of the liveliness of the blocks, both in color and human activity, and in architectural diversity as well.

But as my mother, who came to New Orleans for her very first visit back in January, noted of New Orleans: it's pretty, it's eye-popping but it doesn't look as impressive as St. Louis.

I took her words to mean that it seems like St. Louis's brick-laden blocks took more craftsmanship and appear more sturdy and serious than the whimsy of the Crescent City. And so, while New Orleans has one of the most enviable housing stocks in the country, there is something to be said of the presence of St. Louis's brick Victorians and bungalows; their ability to command respect even when they've been allowed to precipitously deteriorate.

Enough on that. I was quite surprised to see that "St. Louis bricks" were not featured on the site of the largest historic brick supplier in the country, Gavin Historical Bricks in Iowa City, Iowa. This company offers several types of salvaged (rustled?) bricks from "towns all over the Midwest."

Sure says a lot about the economy of the Midwest, doesn't it?

Chicago is featured pretty prominently.
These are "Antique Chicago Blended Cobblestones"--

These are "Old Chicago Brick Floor Tile"--

Are these more accurately "Urban Renewal" bricks? Probably.
Lastly, one interested, rather than averse to St. Louis bricks, must check out St. Louis Bricks blog--a catalog of all the interesting masonry acrobatics this fine red (and tan and brown and yellow, etc.) brick city has to offer.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Demolition Alert [St. Louis University edition]: the Wagner House

Unconscionable. St. Louis University continues to deface the built environment and derail the very stability they’re typically credited with bestowing upon the Midtown and Grand Center neighborhoods. The latest victim of SLU’s parking preference is the demolition of the Wagner House at 3438 Samuel Shepard, as reported first by Vanishing STL. (The photographs below are all property of Vanishing STL.)

I call it the “parking preference” because parking lots, chiefly, and garages, secondarily, receive preferential treatment among land uses by officials at St. Louis University.

The Wagner House is one of the few remaining row houses in St. Louis’s central corridor. If within a series of intact rows, this structure on Samuel Shepard would have appeared a member of a stately block more typical of urban Brooklyn than somewhat spread-out St. Louis.

But SLU has been given a pass by an unwitting or indifferent public. Typically, you will hear the remark that the university "saved" Midtown and that there's simply no saying what the neighborhood would be like without the strong institutional anchor that is SLU. Father Lawrence Biondi, S.J. (President of SLU) was even named "Citizen of the Year" in 2005 by a group of former recipients who had received the award themselves for demonstrating "concern for St. Louis' growth and vitality," presumably for redevelopment efforts and those same attributions of SLU to the health of Midtown.

Yes, there's the Moolah, the Continental Life Building, the Coronado, and the Warehouse of Fixtures that all saw rebirth either on direct or indirect account of SLU's presence. The importance of each one of these buildings cannot be overstated.

And yet, as always, it's the architectural "little guy" that's allowed to atrophy: the one that's off the beaten path; the one that's been vacant for years; the one that's stately but not imposing; the one that it takes just an ounce of vision to respect and recognize that it is vital to the future of its home block. Perhaps, more simply, the one that's on a small enough scale to easily demolish.

While I would argue the Wagner House is a profound, elegant example of a limestone faced Italianate Row House, it still appears quite forlorn as a vacant building on a street now sadly devoid of almost any residential use (one of the many of that type found in St. Louis's illustrious and almost single-use arts district, Grand Center).

The cycle takes one step further here. With each footing of urbanity lost, another demolition is justified. The loss of the Livery Stable just to the east in the burgeoning Locust Business District quite likely represented a vindictive land grab by a powerful institution with a pretty public face. The turn of the century historic building was felled for a surface parking lot--in 2007 (this century)--all to serve the rather distant new SLU sports arena on Compton. The June 20, 2007 Riverfront Times Article "Rebuilt to Suit" is an illuminating investigative piece on SLU's bullying of business district entrepreneurs in order that they might demolish the very stock of buildings that makes the district a prime candidate for reinvigoration and is the only hope of an adjacent, pedestrian-friendly retail area to serve the university.

The salt in the wound is that SLU represents a top-down planning approach inspired by the Urban Renewal mentality that awarded them half of their campus's land--an approach diametrically opposed to the smaller scale, more organic approach of the Locust Business District and its associated partners.

Thirty-seven forty Lindell, right on SLU's campus, was also lost, this time to plans for a new law school:

[Edit (3/20/08): Just drove by the site today. Woops! Didn't realize this building was still up. I'm pretty sure that SLU's plans are still to tear it down for the new law school.]

Without going into SLU's more distant past of demolitions, the case can be made that SLU is a detriment to the neighborhood in which it is situated for no greater reason than that it has effectively dismantled whatever neighborhood existed.

If the argument is whether SLU has presented an economic boon to the city, then I would argue on the side that it is very beneficial for the city. Does that mean it's been kind to its neighbors? Not at all. In fact, if SLU were in a preservation-friendly neighborhood that would have reigned in its quest to acquire land for new construction at any cost, we might have seen a mutual benefit, a kind interplay between institution and neighborhood that can prove a best case scenario. Tulane and Loyola Universities in New Orleans, while not perfect, are good examples of universities that remained sensitive and complementary to historic neighborhoods and their unrivaled amenities: historic buildings and lively public spaces.

A friend of mine here in New Orleans comes to mind. She was speaking on her neighborhood association--located in a very stable, middle class Uptown enclave--and its responsibilities. I inquired as to what major concerns the neighborhood, called Touro after its institutional anchor (a healthcare facility), has.

Bluntly, she responded, "Well, sometimes the hospital's an asshole."

As a struggling city, St. Louis must not fear to oppose its institutions, which should be lifebloods rather than bloodletters, when they are, in fact, being assholes.

And, of course, please contact 19th Ward Alderperson Marlene Davis and let her know your concerns over this demolition.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mill Creek Valley - Urban Renewal circa 1972

© 2005 St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri St. Louis

Here is the description, courtesy of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL:

St. Louis - Seventy-five new apartments have been erected just west of LaClede Town, foreground. The apartments are part of Operation Breakthrough and the LaClede Town Corporation is to be the rental agent. Compton Avenue is in the foreground and Laclede Avenue is at the left in this aerial view. 14 February 1972 by Paul Ockrassa.

Note that Laclede Town itself was torn down in the 1990s. The beneficiary? Greenspace for SLU, a SLU parking garage, an expansion of Harris Stowe, and a stadium for SLU--but no residential (not counting a nearby student dorm for Harris Stowe students). Further note that Mill Creek once had 20,000 residents and all types of land uses, like most urban neighborhoods originating from the late 19th century.

Let's try this again: Bohemian Hill--A Victim of St. Louis Politics, Planning, and Parochialism

I posted the following on a previous blog that, for whatever reason, failed to stir any passion in my blood to the point that I would continue to update it. But I enjoyed doing research-lite for Bohemian Hill, a small, insular neighborhood now almost completely lost to a development of a new shopping center. Though written last year, this piece is still applicable, sadly. As we have witnessed the demolitions of Gaslight Square, McRee Town, the Century Building, and now the "Blairmont" neighborhoods (primarily St. Louis Place and Jeffvanderlou), all within the last decade, and some ongoing, the story of one of these places can perhaps illuminate the others.

If there is a major unifying element, it is that loss of the built environment tends to be incremental. Even McRee, which was mostly a wholesale demolition urban renewal-style redevelopment, saw phased demolition. In addition, the western portion of the neighborhood remains intact for now. The others gradually declined and became the sorts of neighborhoods where people questioned that very designation--this collection of rundown, old, dreary buildings is a neighborhood? Well, of course it is, and was. Even in their only partially intact states, they hearken to a past of sound and attractive design. They recall a city whose denizens lacked automobility; when the sidewalk was a place of interaction and when that popular venue, the sidewalk, boasted throngs of pedestrians in comparison to today. More importantly, we've seen that these structures offer a real, tangible benefit. Look no further than the rehabilitated neighborhoods of Soulard, Lafayette Square, Benton Park, and others. So why should we remove anything from the built enviroment that has been there for over a century, that has a demonstrable (if presently unrealized) commercial value, that is (or could be) an attractive contributor to a streetscape--if none of us expects the replacement to last in its soon-to-be iteration even half as long?

And yet, even some "hardline" preservationists let these cases slip by. "Well, Lafayette Square and Soulard residents do need a grocery store," we might remark, with little regard for how much vacant land there is elsewhere for such a store. Or, we might plead, "Well, they need that location right alongside the highways for visibility," which is simply the developer's way of justifying their best case scenario while offering the city its worst.

In this light, the potential loss of St. Louis Place--the continued and deliberate corrosion of its urban fabric by Blairmont--is truly par for the course in a city where old school politics, planning, and parochialism reign. And these sometimes slow, incremental losses to our cityscape reinforce in barely noticeable gradients that each successively destroyed house, or block, or neighborhood was an unnecessary relic of urbanity, rather than a success against all odds. Our urban context has been redefined by our own acquiescence to piecemeal replacement.

Even as a preservationist, I would argue that partial rebuilding of the physical environment happens and that sometimes historicity is sacrificed for the current culture's appeals to newness and contemporary design. And yet, in St. Louis, there are so few examples of successful infill, whether commercial or residential architecture, that even the most sympathetic and "realistic" preservationist cannot help but decry nearly any hit to our built environment.

Keep in mind, this post was written with the belief that the development would subsume the buildings that remain on Tucker and on 13th Street. While officially, this is not true (and apparently was not at the time--the city reneged on its eminent domain attempts for "Phase 2" of the "Georgian Square"), I still believe the remaining block of Bohemian Hill is on the built environment's "endangered species" list. But I will let you read below to determine for yourself.

On with the post: Part 1 of 2
October 4, 2007

In a recent visit to New Orleans, St. Louis Planning Director Rollin Stanley asserted that St. Louis has finally realized the benefit of historic preservation and its role in economic development.

So why can I present two wholly demolished neighborhoods of St. Louis to you in the esteemed Slay-Stanley administration? The story of McRee Town and its demise–a truly sad loss of dozens of venerable buildings and a neighborhood once integrally linked with the now more prosperous neighborhoods to the south–is better told by Ecology of Absence. But Bohemian Hill has stirred less blood, if even receiving as much attention as McRee. After all, circa 2007, the “neighborhood” is merely a partially vacant city block with ten or so structures.

Today, the remaining fabric of Bohemian Hill has been chopped up by the I-44/I-55 interchange; has been stigmatized and isolated due to its proximity to the notorious and now razed Darst-Webbe housing projects; and has been itself under attack by developer Gilded Age, who wishes to bring Walgreens, Starbucks, and a large grocer to the area. Over the past two years, several buildings in various stages of decline fell victim to the redevelopment plans. As a result, the entire western section of the remaining area was demolished.

At one time, Bohemian Hill was part of a larger network of neighborhoods collectively known as Frenchtown. Czech immigrants populated the area between 7th and 18th, Lafayette and Russell starting in 1848. Much of this former settlement is now known as Soulard, though in the nineteenth century, it was Bohemian Hill that claimed the iconic Bohemian church St. John Nepomuk and row upon row of imitable red brick St. Louis row houses and Second Empires. Bohemian Hill at one point stretched as far north as Park Avenue, where Darst-Webbe’s construction in the 1950s required partial demolition of the dense, old Czech neighborhood. Completing Frenchtown were Lafayette Square and LaSalle Park.

Viewed in light of its positioning within a greater neighborhood, and thus wider historical context, Bohemian Hill is not merely a city block. It is in fact the remnant of an architecturally profound district of St. Louis that has lost so much of its physical integrity to urban renewal and interstate building.

Surprisingly, despite the prosperity now enjoyed by Soulard, Lafayette Square, and LaSalle Park, all have sustained an astounding loss of their unique, French-influenced architecture. The 1947 Comprehensive Plan for the City of St. Louis calls for the outright demolition of the Soulard neighborhood to create a garden suburb characterized by an excess of greenery and a lack of a street grid. Below is the “new Soulard” - a response to what the city deemed the most obsolete neighborhood in the city (along with DeSoto-Carr, which ultimately was cleared for the defunct Pruitt-Igoe housing project, itself demolished in 1972.)

While the plan thankfully never came into fruition, Soulard did see the craze of circa 1950s planners–the urban expressway–realized in the form of I-55, whose paved width is probably wider than Bohemian Hill itself. The construction of the interstate, of course, claimed Soulardian homes and businesses and forever cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city.

According to the day’s wisdom, Lafayette Square, too, was outmoded:

The Lafayette Neighborhood is an obsolete area for the most part. There is an incongruous inter-mixture of all types of use. The reconstruction of this neighborhood is anticipated by the proposed zoning.

With the construction of I-44 in the 1970s, several homes on the southern end of the Square saw their demise.

Perhaps most devastating of all, the late 1960s saw a slum clearance project for the majority of LaSalle Park sponsored by corporate neighbor Purina. In March 1969, according to the neighborhood’s official website, 137 acres were reduced to rubble. In its place today are a series of parking lots to serve Purina, questionable infill, and gated public housing.

And so Bohemian Hill’s disappearance was largely the result of Frenchtown’s multilateral infiltration from encroaching “renewal”. In the center of Frenchtown, it was most affected by the construction of I-44 and I-55 and the Darst-Webbe projects. Even despite the fact that 75 percent of LaSalle Park was razed, its survivors quickly attracted the attention of rehabbers. Today, a popular Bed and Breakfast, Dwell 912, calls the neighborhood home, and the residents of the small ‘hood have embraced its insularity, calling it one of St. Louis’s best kept secrets. Bohemian Hill, however, has not been able to escape the stigma of its isolation. It is regularly regarded as “too far gone,” “not a neighborhood,” or simply too lucrative a site for retail development to continue to justify its meager existence.

The erosion of Bohemian Hill today represents another conscious effort to “renew” a Frenchtown neighborhood. And for what? While Gilded Age promises a mixed use development and special attention to design compatible with the surrounding historic neighborhoods, it does not disguise the fact that still more of Frenchtown’s history will be forever lost.

Ironically, the structures that remain are from the Gilded Age in American history–the late 1800’s. Structures that in other cities might be seen as veritable architectural monuments are, to St. Louisans who will gladly point to similar housing just down the street, decidedly dispensable in order that we might have a Walgreens close to downtown with excellent interstate access.

Tomorrow, I will go through the political process that allowed a turn-of-the-century neighborhood (or a fraction of one, if you will) to undergo systematic dismantling for retail that can never hope to last half that long in whatever form will rise on the vacant lots of today. I will also detail the redevelopment plan that was deemed award-worthy by the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation as recently as 2001.

In the meantime, reflect on Rob Powers’s (of Built St. Louis) visceral shot of the future victims that currently call South Tucker Boulevard home. No wintry, leafless snapshot can belie the beauty of these structures.

And here is a likely model of what will enter the site, from Des Peres, Missouri:

I leave you to see which future you would like for St. Louis.

‘Til tomorrow.

–Matthew Mourning

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