by Michael R. Allen
This week St. Louis University started wrecking a historic industrial building near the intersection of Chouteau and Grand avenues — not the Pevely Dairy Company Building, but the old Goodwin Manufacturing Company warehouse most recently owned by CATCO. The two-story mill method brick building dates to 1887, and features handsome corbelling and a recessed, raised entrance (its most curious feature). While the building is not greatly uncommon, it has the human scale now largely gone from its surroundings.
Demolition proceeded without fanfare because the historic warehouse lacked any protection under city law. The building is in the 19th Ward, whose Alderwoman Marlene Davis will not put her ward under preservation review that might enable preservation of buildings like this one. The building is not a City Landmark and is not listed in the National Register of Historic Places, either (although it might have been eligible).
The lost building was part of a larger manufacturing complex on Chouteau between Virginia and Ranken avenues built and operated by the Goodwin Manufacturing Company. The Goodwin plant did some dirty business: making candles and other products from tallow purchased as byproduct from area meat packing houses. The factory buildings that perforated the city air with awful rendering smells are long gone, but the warehouse that held finished products is a fine remainder of the plant.
According to historian Andrew Hurley in his essay “Regulation of Nuisance Trades in St. Louis,” in the volume Common Fields, a group of fifty residents attended a Board of Health meeting in 1893 to complain about the activities of the Goodwin Manufacturing Company. Hurley provides the accounts of a widow whose tenants had moved out due to the odors from the candle works and a property owner who claimed that the nuisance industry was going to cause his property value to drop by half. These complaints did not force the Goodwin Manufacturing Company to close; instead the surrounding area grew more industrial in character in the next thirty years. (The idea that property values dropping is a cause for government action has some ironic weight given that now much of the area is owned by nonprofit SLU, exempt from property taxes.)
Demolition of the warehouse seems to be less than an acute blow to an area whose character is hardly conducive to pedestrian life and economic activity. Yet the building had structural and economic life left, and the university’s tax-exempt status means that the site loses not only potential economic productivity but even basic property tax revenue. St. Louis University’s plans for the site are not known.
Of course, the CATCO building sat on the market for months, and was not exactly priced high. The university reported a sale price of $179,000 on December 14, 2012. Preservationists could well have bought and spared the building, as with many others. While demolition review is a worthy protection, ultimately preservationists need to engage the economics of old buildings in addition to the legalities. The Brickstarter effort in Old North and the Cotton Belt Building mural on Rally STL are just small examples of how enterprise is becoming the new frontier for historic preservation in St. Louis.
Yet St. Louis University definitely could learn about the economics of adaptive reuse too. That warehouse, the Pevely Dairy complex and other buildings wrecked by the university in recent years could have instead become spaces for support functions that would build up the medical center area. The area lacks housing, retail and space for vendor companies to set up shop. A medical center should be the nucleus of dense interrelated activity, and the magnet for jobs. Instead, St. Louis University is following the dated modernist planning theory of use segregation. The result is that Grand and Chouteau, a stone’s throw from a MetroLink stop and a major mid-city crossroads, has just one business at its corners: a Captain D’s.
Naysayers might take heed by nearby activity on St. Louis University land at Compton and Park avenues. From the looks of the scene, the university is about to demolish a vacant lot!