by Michael R. Allen
The 2800 block of Lafayette Avenue, between California and Nebraska in the so-called Gate District, is a mixed bag of a street scape. Gone is the continuity of historic brick buildings. There are vacant buildings, heavily altered buildings (see last month’s post on 2831 Lafayette) and the graceful corner commercial building at the northeast corner of Nebraska and Lafayette that bears the colorful enamel sign board of the shuttered Garavaglia Market. Most notable, though, there are vacant lots.
This is the diminished state that has led developers to take other blocks in the Gate District and transform them into unrecognizable mixes of old buildings and large platform-framed homes that seem more appropriate to Wildwood than the near south side. Without any historic districts in the Gate District, there is neither incentive for historic rehabilitation work nor mandates for new construction. The area reflects its lack of any legal design framework. Fortunately, on the 2800 block of Lafayette, developer Cheryl Walker of Obasi Enterprises is taking vacant land and doing something that provides new market-rate homes while adding a new and compatible character to the neighborhood.
The project is called Vivienne on Lafayette, and it entails the construction of four adjacent homes. The two that are complete are show here. HKW Architects designed the homes; that firm has done extensive design work for Restoration St. Louis including the rehabilitation of the Moolah Theater building.
One is immediately struck by how different Vivienne is from its contemporaries. The houses actually look like original designs! There is absolutely no quotation of historic architectural styles here. Nor is there imitation of historic styles of cornices, brackets, balustrades, window sills or other building parts. The designers instead very earnestly engaged the project location and standard available materials to produce homes that are urban and attractive.
The front walls of these homes are brick, with some rowlock courses as sills and headers on each metal-framed window. The basements are high, which is one nod to historic tradition that make the homes taller than other new infill houses. The side walls are clad in stucco, indicative of the fact that these are not authentic masonry buildings. The builders could have used some sort of vinyl or board siding, but chose something more compatible with brick. The roofs are flat — something that minimizes the home volume and allows for potential greening.
The homes are not quite perfect in design; I think that a monotone brick color would have made each better, and that the stucco color is a bit bland. Some more play with masonry details could have added interest. The homes could be placed closer together. Still, such concerns are minor. The homes at Vivienne Place offer sorely-needed innovation in infill housing in St. Louis, where too often we have settled on worse than mediocre design that offers an unpleasant contrast with our excellent historic building stock.
In neighborhoods with challenging conditions, where historic fabric is spotty, homes like these make a lot of sense. They maintain the traditions of density and best use of widely available materials that typifies our neighborhoods without denying us the chance to leave our own mark in time.