by Michael R. Allen
This striking urban view in St. Louis Place includes four one-story, shaped-parapet houses on Sullivan Avenue and the imposing Gothic roof line of St. Augustine’s Church. This is the sort of view that doesn’t happen overnight, and benefits from inherent architectural differences between forms, styles, heights and uses. The church, designed by noted ecclesiastical architect Louis Wessbecher, came first in 1896. Wessbecher also designed the majestic Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Salisbury Avenue in Hyde Park. The church served a largely working-class German parish, and its style is very influenced by North German Gothic architecture. Clearly, the church expresses the highest aspirations of the neighborhood at the turn of the last century. That aspiration has been recognized through both City Landmark and National Register of Historic Places designations.
The houses — part of a longer row between Parnell and Lismore — arrived in the first decade of the twentieth century. In contrast to the church, the houses were designed with great modesty by local builders. The one-story homes are mainly decorated with the shapes of the front parapets and simple tin cornices (some removed). Yet the buildings were sturdy and practical for their residents, offering a single-family home rather than a space in a tenement. The houses are not part of any historic district, locally or nationally. In this view, three of the four houses shown are owned by holding companies controlled by Paul J. McKee, Jr.
Here we have high style and vernacular, a spire reaching upward to the maker and the houses laid out low to the earth of the workaday world. While the contrast is strong, the image tells a very coherent story about the origin of this part of the neighborhood. The tale told about the future is less clear. The long-suppressed parish church has found new use as the home of a mission, but its repair needs seem extensive. The houses sit largely empty and in limbo as part of a development project with no clear parameters or timeline.
The narrative of our past that is embodied in these buildings built itself over time. All it takes is a moment for us to decide that their preservation is a worthy goal.