by Michael R. Allen
When development firm Sangita proposed demolition of the three Midtown buildings at 3834-38 Laclede Avenue last May, this writer offered no protest. Later last year the two two-story buildings, built as stores and flats, and the one-story storefront fell to the blows of wreckers, and soon spring up a double-pen drive-though building housing not just Jimmy but also Papa John.
I am sorry to report that the result is a step backward for the urban character of the street. The bigger outrage is not so much the demolition of average vernacular buildings, but their replacement by architecture of far inferior design and character. Cities are inherently changing bodies, and demolition and replacement shape great streets. Without demolition, there would be no Wainwright Building, no “flying saucer” at Council Plaza and no great hotel at Lindell and Kingshighway, let alone two. Still, changes that are willfully regressive movements in architectural detail, urban form and construction quality are detrimental. Simply: not all change is bad, but some change really is bad.
The new fast food restaurant fails to advance the architectural lifespan of its real estate. Where three buildings with distinct separation and setback stood now is a unitary, flat mass. The building’s primary site factor is placement of a drive-through lane and giant parking area, which mitigates any positive benefit of the placement of the building form closer to the sidewalk than most drive-through buildings. The building also alters the sidewalk relationship, since its raised patio is much differently accessed than three buildings at sidewalk level (even if two had ten foot setbacks).
While the new building is clad in brick and mocks a second floor, its design is flat and its elements undifferentiated. Oh, there are the raised entrance bays, but the brick work and fenestration is almost seamless, unlike the careful attention to relief seen in the buildings demolished here. The old buildings were designed with basic learned knowledge of how to relieve a brick mass through careful projection of courses and window surrounds. Nothing fancy — just effective techniques as old as brick masonry itself. Also, the width and warmth of the cast iron storefronts is lost in the first story of the new building, with its comparatively narrow openings.
For now, Laclede Avenue gets a building that reminds us that urbanity is more than simply appropriating forms, heights and abstract ideals of materiality (like red brick). Although Steven W. Semes was writing about building additions, his statement in his essay “From Contrast to Compatibility: A New Preservation Philosophy” comes to mind: “In the absence of a common architectural language, the juxtaposition of merely abstract ‘compatibilities’ can create visual dissonance rather than the desired harmony.”