Abandonment Regionalism

Magic & Life

What has become of the abandoned buildings mentioned in my whimsical short essay “Abandoned Buildings in Saint Louis: Magic & Death,” published in 2004?

Enright Middle School: Under renovation.

Carondelet Coke plant: Scheduled for demolition.

City Hospital Tower: Already gone then (although it still haunts the dreams of the restless); site still undeveloped.

Armour Packing Plant: Proposed for demolition; site now for sale.

St. Mary’s Infirmary: Purchased for renovation; listing on National Register of Historic Places in process.

These are big changes. In a few short years, the architectural narrative of the region has changed as major abandoned buildings have been renovated or demolished. Urban explorers occasionally complain that there are no “big buildings” left accessible. That’s not entirely true, especially on the Illinois side of the river, but reflects a distinct reclamation by developers. While my theoretical bearings are still formative, I see abandonment diminishing in favor of reclamation as the dominant narrative of marginal property around St. Louis. Reclamation is value-neutral, though, so this shift in the major narrative is no guarantee that the stewards of these places are making wise decisions.

Reclamation demands a counter-movement that clearly and consistently promotes an ethic of architectural stewardship based on a respect for history, knowledge of ecology and an embrace of urbanity. That’s a lot more difficult than waxing poetic and punch-drunk about the views from the rooftops of forgotten factories (although I do that), or automatically celebrating new development because it replaces something troublesome and frightening.

How about a counter-movement that aims to resolve the contradictions of reclamation in order to rededicate St. Louis to metropolitan life? Who’s in?

Unexpected magic lives on, though, as long as there are buildings, full moons and flowing rivers. As I age, I take less advantage of these moments than I did even three years ago — but seek them out as much as I can. The rest of the time I spend on the ideas needed to ensure that no matter how much our region changes we still have the places that fill us with awe.