by Michael R. Allen
A distinctive building in the northern reaches of The Ville is no more. In late August, the city wrecked the two-story, mansard-atop-brick mass at 4159 Ashland Avenue. This strange specimen sat on the sidewalk line on a block where remaining buildings — fewer in number than ever — maintain a general setback of ten feet, and are residential. This building had traces of a storefront opening (see the painted, nearly-concealed I-beam above a new entrance at left) suggesting a commercial past.
Indeed, the building was built by David Carter as a saloon and grocery around 1890. Then, the building was the first masonry structure on its block, and sat facing the head of a section of Fair Avenue, which bent around its block to run northward to O’Fallon Park. The building probably looked much as it did before its demolition — a brick base with a frame second floor, done up as a mansard roof. The second floor would have been clad in slate shingles, not cedar, however.
The St. Louis Republic carried a story in its August 2, 1901 edition reporting that Carter’s sheds had burned the previous night, causing $800 in damage to his own property and neighboring parcels. With the title “Fire Destroys Sheds,” the story demonstrates the hyper-local reach of newspapers at the turn of the last century. Perhaps this post is the 21st-century equivalent.
The last owner of the building was the Land Reutilization Authority, which tore it down after brick thieves struck a big hole in the eastern wall. Today Tim Logan published a long-view account of preservation in The Ville that searches for causes and solutions. In the case of Carter’s saloon and grocery, the list of causes would include building condition, population loss in the neighborhood, scale of retail desired by city planners and politicians (Save-A-Lot over the corner store) and lack of neighborhood or citywide planning.
Recognizing those causes is a weak palliative for the building loss, however, but a sobering reminder that cities are ephemeral bodies built to serve economic systems. There will be other north side grocery stores, but not likely at this site and almost certainly not this micro-economic size. The Ville is not urban-chic, so the artists aren’t a-coming in the meantime, save on the occasional ruin porn sortie. Preservation of a building like this would mean creating and sustaining an economy that can use it.