Cherokee Street Historic Preservation Old North Shaw

Cities Change, But Big Projects Remain the Same

by Michael R. Allen

The dean of New York history, Kenneth T. Jackson, recently published a salvo in the New York Times intended to advance the argument that New York’s neighborhood preservation movement was stifling the city’s chance to build new high rises. In his article “Gotham’s Towering Ambitions” Jackson argued that without new office buildings, New York could fall behind other global cities.

This week, Roberta Brandes Gratz published a very sensible, lyrical response to Jackson in The Huffington Post (“Urban Change to Believe In”. Gratz challenged Jackson’s view, arguing that New York has experienced a transformative change without giant new buildings –and that change is more impactful and long-lasting. In fact, Gratz argues that those voices Jackson called obstructionist actually are at the forefront of celebrating urban change.

“[I]t is time to celebrate the new kind of change that manages growth by balancing old and new and recognizes that the new derives its value from existing in the midst of the old,” writes Gratz, in an essay that captures what actually covers a larger context than just Manhattan. The larger context is the future of the American legacy city, and the past few decades of incremental urban change that has stabilized cities once in free fall.

Accrued urban change on Cherokee Street.

While St. Louis is several shades removed from the cosmopolitan metropolis of New York, the lilt of development debate has a few parallels. While New York is a high-demand market, St. Louis city remains fairly low-demand. In fact, we may still be losing residents. Yet our mythology of growth keeps city officials chasing big projects – not skyscrapers, but strip malls, warehouses, entertainment “districts,” and occasionally sports facilities. None of these projects seems to be very good at embracing the existing city fabric, and we are often told than none can afford to be – X number of jobs is more important than anything else.

The rallying cry in St. Louis is not a Jacksonian ode to the skyscraper jungle we could become, but rather the hegemonic official searches for “jobs” and “retail.” As Jackson criticized preservationists, St. Louis developers and officials are prone to blame a similar crowd — preservationists, urban design activists, boulevardiers — for the supposed push-back on projects like Northside Regeneration and City+Arch+River. In both cities, the supposed rabble of agenda-pushing activists actually looks more like average citizens demanding accountability and protection of their neighborhood quality of life. At the recent TIF Commission hearing on Northside Regeneration, none of the speakers against the project — panned as “barking dogs” by the developer — was a preservation or urban design activist.

The powers that want-to-be succeeded in attaining green lights for Ballpark Village, Northside Regeneration and City+Arch+River. If anything, the rallying against elements of these projects ultimately had little impact. Certainly, critical voices have been accused of tampering with all three of these projects, yet in the end the slow pace is only the fault of the projects’ own designers — and the forces of the real estate market. Perhaps people just don’t want these projects in the same way they want rehabbed houses on tree-lined streets, or restaurants in imaginatively adapted spaces, or small-scale public spaces like Citygarden that are based on delightful experience. Why do officials keep chasing the urbanist magic bullets in the name of economic growth, when these projects aren’t truly growing the city?

Gratz points out that New York’s meteoric spreading gentrification, which transformed a late mid-century SoHo loft trickle into a multi-borough flood, balanced and slow development has made the city more liveable and the values of buildings higher. The same dynamic, ever-slower, operates in St. Louis. The city’s evident comeback has little relation to mega-projects. Neighborhood revitalization has had few subsidies and little in the way of political favors. That’s why it makes so much economic sense — it is demand-driven and has an output greater than its cost.

Sudden urban change’s worst case scenario in St. Louis looks like Ballpark Village.

While city leaders decimated row houses in Mill Creek Valley for short-lived low-density urban “renewal” in the 1950s and 1960s, rehabbers set into motion long-term, sustainable reclamation of Soulard, Lafayette Square and the Central West End. Decades later, that momentum is evident in the spread of stabilized fabric, and in the amount of infill construction taking aim at the empty spaces in the early rehab neighborhoods. Earlier rehabber protections in the form of historic district ordinances are accommodating of change, too. I live in Shaw, where we have a local historic district with fairly strict standards. Two blocks away, in a few months some very different contemporary housing will rise as DeTonty Commons — and the Preservation Board approved the project after some careful review against our local historic district standards.

Today, from Cherokee Street to Old North to Fountain Park to Bevo, people are still doing the same thing: rehabbing houses, opening small businesses, and rebuilding the density of activity the neighborhoods’ architectural frameworks still can support. The litany of hot-shot big-ticket projects, from St. Louis Centre to Chouteau’s Lake, have either failed to survive despite high subsidy or have never materialized at all. The supposed game-changing projects of today languish, and force their success stories through mediocre over-priced “development” that likely removes more tax dollars than it ever returns.

Drastic change, represented by Northside Regeneration’s computer model. Where are the people?

The city’s only new high-rise built during the market boom, downtown’s Roberts Tower, was completed only to sit empty before going to foreclosure. Meanwhile, the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market grows and thrives amid the influx of families to the area around Tower Grove Park in south city. The McRee Town neighborhood, just twelve years ago considered one of the city’s most dangerous parts, now boasts a patisserie across the street from a wine bar in a converted gas station. Picnic tables and benches in O’Fallon Park are hard to come by following major park improvements in the last years, and that is not even when the annual summer concerts are going. All over the city, incremental change has built community, while high-cost development has either floundered or simply supported changes already underway.

Citizens who are skeptical of big fixes for their cities, in St. Louis or New York, aren’t naysayers. They are stewards of the gradual transformation of legacy cities that is ground-level, economic and communitarian. They embrace change. These are people who say yes to continuing to develop cities in ways that are responsive to their users, so that the profits of development are socially distributed rather than individually concentrated. Development is not inherently a threat to smart urban growth, but when it ignores actual economic demand and social needs, it can be everyone’s worst enemy.

New Yorkers may see tall towers as a threat. In St. Louis, the biggest threat to sustainable change is more likely embodied in the Ballpark Village parking lot. If the vernacular red brick building has become the symbol of what St. Louis adores, it’s not so much because of nostalgia or fanaticism — it’s because that building represents a bona fide economic and visual asset built at a human scale (not an ethereal promise based on a profit motive or an inflated sense of civic identity). The alternative often is too ugly to love. As Gratz writes, “Change worth celebrating values the distinguished and ever functional old and shuns the new for the sake of what’s new, too often banal and surely big.”

Slow change, as represented by the intersection of Euclid and Maryland in the Central West End. Streets for people, and even new buildings.

Architect and friend Ann Wimsatt often talks about the “four corners” urbanism that St. Louisans like, embodied best perhaps by the intersection of Euclid and Maryland avenues. There, the intersection is held by four historic buildings, none higher than four stories and three of which are brick. All have wide ground-level storefronts, which are full of activity into the night. Here, the buildings are supporting human activity — buying, selling, shopping, dining, conversing — in approachable forms. Anything new that could be as functional, attractive, storied and beloved as that intersection would be a hit in St. Louis. Perhaps city officials hear the voices at public meetings as growls, but I hear them as odes to the urbanism that works — and that we already have.

Historic Preservation Philadelphia Planning Rightsizing

What Does “Right Size” Mean for Historic Preservation?

by Michael R. Allen

Last week I participated in two gatherings held consecutively in St. Louis’ kindred city, Philadelphia: the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, hosted by the Center for Community Progress, and the Right Size, Right Place Forum hosted by the emergent Preservation Rightsizing Network. While I was a session moderator and presenter, respectively, I would have attended each of these events regardless. The preservationist impulse of my younger career has hit head-on the realization that historic district creation, demolition protest and the fabled building “mothballing” are transitory tools at best — not options that resolve vacancy and threats, but stabs at creating possibilities. The hard work lies within those possibilities.

Right-sizing could mean surveying fragile resources in neighborhoods like The Ville in St. Louis. These buildings on Aldine Avenue were included in a 2009-10 survey that concluded there was no National Register historic district possible that would include them.

The first challenge remains framing the term “rightsizing.” Our panel took aim at the prevalent and oversimplified connotation that “rightsizing” means demolition of supposed liability properties. Perhaps we erred in our offensive, as we received very intelligent critique reminding the panel that “right size” need not be restricted to subtractive activities. Indeed, “right-sizing” can also refer to infill projects that add density to stable neighborhoods, renovation of historic buildings that add new residents or businesses, interim or permanent uses for vacant lots, and the creation of historic districts to guide policy-making. The “right size” of every American city is not necessarily smaller. However, much of the discussion on “rightsizing” (or “managed decline,” or “shrinking cities”) nearly obsesses over population loss and resource scarcity, without being more accurate about the complexity of planning in what are more accurately called changing rather than shrinking cities.

Thus, the realm of Reclaiming Vacant Properties might seem to be foreign soil for the preservationist, and there were but a handful of us practitioners amid the critical mass of landbank professionals, planners and community development folks. Yet the opening plenary showed a wider recognition that existing buildings are assets than some might expect. A panel of mayors from South Bend, Gary, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Allenton — company St. Louis should embrace, not shun — turned up some interesting comments by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. Mallory admitted that he personally joins a city staffer on drives to look at each building on the city’s demolition lists. The mayor then makes his recommendations for demolition to the city. Mallory explained that he doesn’t want demolition to create holes in viable blocks, lowering property values and removing potential city revenue and population.

The 2006 restoration of the  Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit's depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.
The 2006 restoration of the Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit’s depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.

Still, a questioner at the end of the plenary posed the oft-stated opinion that rehabilitation of historic buildings is usually more expensive than new construction, a false dichotomy. The dichotomy that is more likely in cities with significant vacancy is the gap between a renovated historic building and a long-term vacant lot. The question underscored that the language of historic preservation has yet to reach many people working in community development. Yet the panel that I moderated, “Building on Historic Assets,’ attracted over 60 people even put up against the Detroit Future City panel. There is an intersection of interest when preservation practitioners show up in unlikely places.

Our challenge in the right-sizing world is posing historic preservation as practice, specialized knowledge about place that is as essentially to good planning as the knowledge brought by tax foreclosure experts, architects and urban planners. Yet our key values should not be diluted in the process. As Advisory Council on Historic Preservation member Brad White stated on our panel at Reclaiming Vacant Cities, the message is not even that historic buildings have value, it’s that buildings have value. Period. Buildings have economic value, social value, artistic value and ecological value. All of these are traits that planners tout with new green space projects, affordable housing developments, downtown retail, and other endeavors based on new construction. How do we remind people that existing buildings offer every bit of the value of new buildings, with the added values of energy conserved by already being built, and material quality that this country will never see again?

Renovating 27 historic buildings and removing a failed pedestrian mall in St. Louis’ Old North is also right-sizing.

Two preservation professionals who are working on strategies for asset-based “right size” planning are Donovan Rypkema and Cara Bertron at PlaceEconomics. The PlaceEconomics Rightsizing Cities Initiative promotes “planning decisions and regenerative opportunities that are deeply rooted in local landscapes and character.” So far, PlaceEconomics has worked on a pilot ReLocal program in Muncie, Indiana. Although the project delves into decisions about demolition, the goal is to get planning agencies to consider the economic benefits of preservation and the costs of demolition — to look beyond policies that encourage demolition as the only blight remedy. As Rypkema often says in his frequent lectures, demolishing a building removes one option for a property — and why would cities want to narrow their options?

Government officials are not our only needed allies — we must reach people who live in places whose revitalization we can foresee and assist. The people who live in neighborhoods affected by right-size initiatives, or just large housing or redevelopment projects, are predominantly poor and in many cases largely African-American. The historic preservation movement has never done well at reaching out to these groups, in some cases because we aren’t listening. I work with urban preservation groups in St. Louis and other cities, and none have more than a few African-Americans on their boards or staffs. Poor people aren’t represented at all. If we are going to help right-size cities, we have to realize that cities are collections of people before they are collections of buildings — and we are going to have to treat urban neighborhoods as something other than the frontiers we seek to intellectually colonize.

Two houses sit alone on Garfield Avenue in the Greater Ville in St. Louis. The vacant houses are assessed at a higher property tax rate than any of the numerous vacant lots around them. Preservation is not just about saving buildings, it is about working to retain value when possible.

Building real alliances in distressed neighborhoods will entail listening, building more inclusive leadership structures on preservation campaigns and within preservation organizations. We need to shed some of our old skin. Many preservation battles don’t involve demolition — they involve keeping homeowners and renters in their homes, so buildings don’t go vacant. Foreclosure mediation, home repair, eminent domain resistance, mediation with code compliance are all aspects of preservation work that historic preservationists need to get better at. Communities typically welcome practitioners who offer resources for them. We have to develop capacity to provide those resources, and then remember that they are in service to the real ground-level leaders.

Preservation practitioners have the chance to help define “rightsizing,” and through that process redefine urban preservation so that it is more responsive to 21st century needs and possibilities. Historic preservationists should have been talking to urban planners and residents of poor neighborhoods more often for decades. What happened in Philadelphia is just part of a larger and long-term dialogue that will place historic preservation more centrally in urban development and right-sizing — alongside disciplines that are not questioned when they claim seats at the table. We should not be shy about taking a seat, but we should make sure we are ready to collaborate, listen, and develop new methods.


TOUR 9/7: Reber Place in Southwest Garden

Why is there a large Foursquare next to a a four-family on a "Place"? Come on the tour to find out!
Why is there a large Foursquare next to a a four-family on a “Place”? Come on the tour to find out!

Come enjoy a Walking Tour of the Reber Place Historic District this Saturday, Saturday Sept. 7, 10:30 to noon.  Meet at 4900 Reber Place at 10:30 am to begin the tour.  Register at the link below, or just show up.

Preservation Research Office Affiliate Architectural Historian Lynn Josse wrote the historic district nomination for the Reber Place Historic District (with assistance from Michael R. Allen). Lynn has graciously agreed to lead a tour of this historic area, beginning at the corner of Reber and Kingshighway. The tour is free. Donations are gladly accepted. This historic district designation enables property owners to apply for historic tax credits on major renovation projects.

Historic tax credits have had a positive impact on economic development; spurring investment, construction jobs, and enticing new families to the area. Learn about the architecture, the families that originally developed the neighborhood, and the businesses that once existed in the Reber Place Historic District.

(Note: If you took Michael Allen’s Reber Place tour in 2012, you should come get Lynn’s version just to be sure you have the right information!)

JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Place

The Sisyphean Footsteps of Northside Regeneration

by Michael R. Allen

Recently I read a newspaper article about a major urban development project that included these two sentences: “He received hundreds of millions of dollars in public cash and incentives. But after a long public review process, the developer was buffeted by a recession, community opposition and a weak market.”

Here “he” is Bruce Ratner, the project is that foam-finger to Brooklyn called Atlantic Yards, and the article appeared in the New York Times on August 21. St. Louis reporters got the chance this week to avoid plagiarizing that depiction, because it could have applied to coverage of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration project in wake of its hearing at the Tax Increment Financing Commission on August 28. (The Commission will vote on whether to recommend a $390 million TIF to the Board of Aldermen at a separate meeting on September 11.) The parallels are dramatically similar despite very different physical settings: these two projects took aim at vacant public land, were subsidized by state governments after local governments started scrutinizing them, have involved ridiculous amounts of campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats, have been pitched as solutions to urban unemployment and have withered in implementation as the economy has changed.

This poster can be found on an empty billboard at Madison Street and North Florissant Avenue.

In New York, Ratner is selling as much as 80% of Atlantic Yards. That outcome should catch attention here, because those locals who think that Northside Regeneration will always have one face – one target for activist scorn – should be ready for the dozens of developers who will end up eventually working in the project area. While McKee’s name has a tarnish that brings scrutiny to every action of his company, the new names may not – and may have a lot more to do with actual decisions about condemnation of private property. Mayor Francis Slay, Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard and other cheerleaders for the project will not be around either, rendering their promises of the good life for north siders fairly innocuous at best, blind at worst.

A home once occupied, now vacant under the ownership of Northside Regeneration. The house stands on Magazine Street in JeffVanderLou.

As we deliberate on “activating” tax increment financing for Northside Regeneration, familiar repetitious cycles emerge. McKee on Wednesday presented a rather amorphous Powerpoint show whose oldest slides are now five years old, and reiterated even older claims about the jobs he could create and the $8 billion in “development” (unspecified as to specific activity) that the project would complete. The exact completion date has pushed forward, but the timeline and promises seem very much like those advanced in 2009.

The project itself remains very much the urban renewal behemoth McKee admits to hatching over a decade ago – when lending was liberal and palpable small-scale development on the near north side was less obvious to the untrained eye. McKee has been quick with excuses for his project’s lethargic pace. First there was the need for a state tax credit, then tax increment financing, then overcoming Judge Dierker’s ruling, then waiting for the pending Supreme Court decision, then extending the state tax credit (which did not happen), and now the need for a tax increment financing ordinance again. What shall be next?

People wonder why it takes Northside Regeneration so long to demolish brick-rustled buildings, like this one on Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis Place.

As usual, McKee’s company posits Northside Regeneration as a social reform mission that will transform lives as much as land. McKee’s wife Midge McKee spoke on the Demetrious Johnson radio show recently about how she had a dream about the project, and how it would serve residents. Her dream was replete with churches, a sign that existing residents were staying and thriving.

That dream should not be dismissed, but it runs counter to the entire program of the development and its current operational practice. Clearly, for the last decade the McKees’ dream has cost the near north side hundreds of residents who have moved out of houses and apartments sold to their shell holding companies. Who knows how many people fled as they saw the Northside Regeneration properties torched, brick rustled and otherwise left to rot. Blockbusting need not be intentional, after all. Myself and others have counted how many irreplaceable architectural treasures have been lost to the scheme.

This Northside Regeration-owned historic building stands on Blair Avenue near Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North, abutting a $37 million community-led renewal project. The building is one of 62 properties in Old North still owned by the company, even though it removed most of the neighborhood from the project boundary.

Still, the McKees espouse very sincere intentions about uplifting the north side. Unfortunately they have chosen to do so through real estate development, mass demolition and land assemblage. These tools have only been used to disintegrate the near north side, and not for one day have they ever created permanent jobs for poor African-Americans, or stabilized a community of humans, or benefited anyone except government agencies and politicians, real estate developers, construction companies and trade unions, and others who either realized profits or power from destroying historic neighborhoods. Today, the profits and power look anemic in comparison; Northside Regeneration’s first retail “deal” may be a Dollar General store. If the developers are reeling in such small fish to stay afloat, what will residents get to catch?

The north side half of St. Louis’ Model Cities area, from the city’s 1973 interim comprehensive plan.

Little discussion of Northside Regeneration has examined the similarity of its program and boundary to the city’s north side Model Cities zone. Created by the Johnson administration, the federal Model Cities program provided funds for urban “reconstruction” of older neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. In St. Louis, the city’s Model Cities Agency designated a wide swath of the inner city for the program in 1966, and maintained activities there until the program’s dissolution after 1974. The north side area included Old North, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou – almost identically to McKee’s original footprint (Old North is largely carved out now).

This map of the Northside Regeneration boundary appeared in Development Strategies’ 2009 blighting study of the project area.

Model Cities was supposed to regenerate the near north side. The program gave city officials funds for demolishing nearly 1,100 housing units in St. Louis Place, converting the 14th Street shopping district in Old North into a pedestrian mall, and building new housing. In the end, the “too big to fail” approach led to embarrassingly haphazard implementation of the city’s programmatic master plan.

Most of what Model Cities achieved was housing demolition, with funding for new construction delayed or non-existent. Clearance depleted vitality and disrupted social life, causing a downward spiral. When McKee shows slides of conditions in the area, he never mentions that the federally-funded version of his project helped create them — and that its aims were very similar.

The “Blighted and Obsolete Districts” map included in the city’s 1947 comprehensive plan.

Supporters of Northside Regeneration’s aims are fast to join in the chorus proclaiming “McKee did not create the blight he is trying to fix.” Despite some truth to the contrary with conditions of his company’s properties, that chorus sings a true tune. Yet the song bends the ear with the refrain “other large scale projects did this.” Model Cities followed the city’s implementation of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan, drafted under the direction of Harland Bartholomew. That plan infamously included a map with a black zone showing “obsolete” housing — the oldest neighborhoods, which were also the poorest.

Bartholomew’s concentric zone approach led to the city’s using the bulk of its federal funds from the 1949 Housing Act to demolish swaths of the near north and near south sides, while trying to take on more. Today’s urbanists are proud that they dwell in places like Old North and Lafayette Square, both inked black in the 1947 plan. Yet they might not see how the plan’s implementation is ongoing on the north side.

The results of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan's implementation: the Pruitt-Igoe (left) and George L. Vaughn (right) housing projects, both completed by 1958, ad lots of clearance. View toward the northwest.
The results of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan’s implementation: the Pruitt-Igoe (left) and George L. Vaughn (right) housing projects, both completed by 1958, ad lots of clearance. View toward the northwest.

The near north’s most frightening large-scale redevelopment project was the combined Pruitt and Igoe housing projects, completed between 1954 and 1956. The Pruitt Igoe-Myth renewed a generation’s awareness of not only the projects’ histories but the social and political context in which it happened. That film makes painfully clear that architecture – essentially development of land – cannot solve social problems, no matter what its design intent, how high its construction cost, how great its architect or how blind its political supports are to what they are doing.

Pruitt-Igoe, unlike Northside Regeneration, was built by an accountable federal government and managed by an accountable local government. Pruitt-Igoe was built to house poor people — directly serving them. The project failed to do anything completely save clear 25 blocks of African-American residents and businesses, and scatter them across the region.

What we cleared last time: DeSoto-Carr residents await their relocation for the Pruitt and Igoe projects in the early 1950s. Source: State Historical Society of Missouri.

Today, Northside Regeneration is not dealing with the same density. There are no 25-block areas housing over ten thousand people within the project footprint. In fact, St. Louis Place has a mere 2,900 residents. Total. The dispersal of people reached its peak, and the population is very small. Yet the near north side is showing population growth for the first time in sixty years, according to the 2010 Census. Since Northside Regeneration has yet to develop any housing, we know it is not through that project but through other people’s hard work. Residents who remain are more likely to enjoy the area and hope for its growth than ever before. There is exactly the sort of community that Midge McKee sees, but it is more likely to be negatively altered by a giant project than not.

Northside Regeneration owns the historic Christian Niedringahaus Residence at 19th and Warren Streets in St. Louis Place. The home is a contributing resource to the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District.

As the TIF Commission stares at the same giant project, unchanged, and as the Board of Aldermen looks at needed legislation this fall, perhaps some member of one of these bodies will examine Northside Regeneration against historic precedent, against its invented promises (jobs, $8 billion) and against the needs of the people who inhabit the soil the project aims to reorder. Any one of those factors renders the current project a cousin to the wrong way of thinking about community and redevelopment – ways rightfully slammed, in light of another local clearance project, by Tracy Campbell in his new book The Gateway Arch: A Biography. All of us should look instead at Northside Regeneration’s lease of vacant lots to neighborhood urban farmers — an unheralded good deed by the company — as the sort of synthesis of microdevelopment and existing community that actually could create wealth for people in the neighborhood.

Agriculture on a large scale, planted around people’s homes, thanks to Northside Regeneration’s land leases.

St. Louis, like many peer cities, chose to assume the stance of Sisyphus to the stone of urban renewal. Once that stone was a near-match for the public good, and now it resembles private interest. Either way, tax funds pay for its construction – and it never rests where it is supposed to (rebuilt neighborhoods, job creation, increased tax revenues, poverty alleviation, sustainable new urbanism). Intentionally or not, Northside Regeneration has inured itself to forces that have perpetuated failed approaches to rebuilding the city.

Chasing large-scale projects has drained the city of over a half-million people, making the 2,900 people in St. Louis Place more consequential than ever. Dollar Generals hastily built to create development cash flow are not going to change the city’s fortunes, but will follow in the foot steps of redevelopment projects that already have drained the same area of the city of historic character, residents, jobs and wealth. McKee and city officials could work on “Plan B,” or they could perpetuate the heavily-subsidized forces of urban disruption.

PRO Projects

PRO on STL TV’s “City Corner” Program

Host Sarah Thompson recently interviewed PRO Director Michael Allen for STL TV’s “City Corner” program. Allen discussed some of the Office’s recent work, his thoughts on ways preservation can be more engaging to the public, the Pruitt Igoe site and mid century modern preservation.


PRO TOUR: That Summer Fields Grew High: Agriculture & Architecture in St. Louis Place


Saturday, August 24
11:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Meet across from Crown Candy Kitchen, 1401 St. Louis Avenue

St. Louis Place is one of the city’s most time-altered neighborhoods — but that makes it a place of uncanny possibilities. Platted in 1850, built up by 1900, and ravaged by federal and local clearance policies in the late 20th century, the neighborhood survives with resilience. Come see historic architecture and activist agriculture — architecture and horticulture — people and place.

The tour led by architectural historian Michael R. Allen starts at Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North and moves from there. The former Pruitt-Igoe site is included.

Presented by Preservation Research Office. $5 per person (cash please).

Questions? or 314-920-5680.



Mid-Century Modern National Register PRO Projects Shaw

Thurman Station: Where It All Began For Me

by Dave Brownell

The National Park Service placed “Thurman Station,” the former Standard Oil station at Thurman and Cleveland avenues in Shaw, in the National Register of Historic Places on July 23. Preservation Research Office prepared the building’s nomination for new owners who are converting the building into the home of The Social Affair, a catering business, small market and cooking class facility. Literally as soon as listing was official, crews were at work converting this long-vacant neighborhood into a active part of Shaw’s economic life. We received this article while awaiting listing.


When friends visiting from St. Louis brought this internet article to my attention, my thoughts quickly turned into a little reminiscing:

This relic of a Standard Oil station turns out to be the very place, fifty-two years ago, where I grew from being a Car Fan into a Car Guy. From my sixteenth birthday until I qualified for a commercial driver’s license at eighteen, this is the place where the boy became a man. And reading and reflecting on the renewal plans in 2013 is when the man becomes a boy once again.

This corner gas station is where my father (and much of the surrounding Shaw neighbors) would drive a car for a weekly “two Dollars, Regular” experience in buying gasoline. In the late fifties, bars and taverns outnumbered gas stations three to one, so there wasn’t a lot of competition nearby. John Wolf, a very young looking Korean War veteran, was the station’s proprietor. John noticed that Pop’s cars were almost always very clean. He asked how my father managed it and was told “the Kid does it, mostly without asking.” John mentioned that he could use such a talent around the station, especially on Friday afternoons and Saturdays, when there were too many customers who wanted their cars washed and serviced in time for the weekend. Pop told me to go down and make official what I had been doing for our neighbors for several years, saying that I might even dare to ask for a dollar an hour, a big jump from the seventy-five cents I got for washing and sweep out a neighbor’s car. A dozen or so of these folks had trusted me with their cars and keys, beginning about age fourteen, to keep their cars clean, so here was my chance to enter into the big time as a professional.

John Wolf hired me that summer afternoon and my education began the very next morning. He showed me how to quickly and efficiently wash a customer’s car, starting with a hose at the roof, working down, with the wheels done last with a separate sponge. Five minutes per car was his goal and maybe an hour for “Simonizing” if the sun was not too hot and direct. I clearly remember that first “professional” car wash was a new 1960 Chevy Impala 409 hardtop with a four-speed. The crew-cutted owner watched me carefully position his treasure without stalling it before cleaning its new white paint back to a factory shine. This guy, with his beautiful car, continued to became a weekly wash customer, so I must have done well while under intense observation from both client and boss.

Within the first few days John taught me how to “count up” change, deal with the new Addressograph credit card imprinter, handle the cash register, pump gas, check oil and tire pressure without prompting, and sell a new set of Anco wiper blades or Atlas tires to those who needed it. Teaching me how to measure the underground gas tanks with a long wooden pole and then reconciling fuel delivery amounts took a bit of patience. A week later I was putting cars on one of the two lifts, changing oil, sucking oil out of Chevy canister filters, and pumping grease into several dozen fittings on the average car. All of this had to be done with a smile and more than a bit of hustle. On slow days, I did things like painting the curbing with white paint and every Saturday night, before the station was finally closed for the weekend, the lube bays were scrubbed and mopped clean for a Monday opening. John entrusted me with the keys to his 1940 Ford coupe “parts car” and the International tow truck that seemed to hate me and anyone but John on its first attempt to start each day. Ever resourceful and frugal, John developed a system where we’d drain the last drops from the emptied fiber oil cans, eventually collecting a stew of fresh oil, enough to give us a “free” oil change for each of our personal and station vehicles every month!

A few weeks before my summer vacation job was to come to an end, John trusted me enough to be left in charge while he took a week’s vacation with his family. Little did I know that his former boss, who had trained him in much the same way at about the same age, had been asked to drive by or stop in, posing as an customer, just to see how I was doing. Apparently, I did just fine because my job was extended almost another year as after-school work.

If this station someday makes it onto a list or historical registry, it will represent, for me, a personal landmark for kind and patient mentoring. John Wolf was among the youngest children from a baker with a large (17?) family and shop less than a block away. By being among the youngest, he must have learned the value of instructing and encouraging someone younger and did it very effectively. These days, all of my five children have picked up a treasure of automotive tips learned at this station. Passing on some of the automotive and interpersonal skills I picked up that year is perhaps the best way a Car Guy knows how to say thank you.

Dave Brownell ( is president of the Corvette Club of Atlanta, Georgia.

Demolition Public Policy

We Can’t Outlaw Water or Stupid Men (But We Still Can Preserve Buildings)

by Michael R. Allen

Chicago’s renegade activist Richard Nickel, whose passion inspired a generation of preservationists, once stated: “Great architecture has two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”

Too bad neither can be avoided on this planet.

Even in 2010, the roof of Cupples 7 was not too far gone to be temporarily stabilized. No action was taken.

Whether the onset of actual demolition of the Graham Paper Company Warehouse — known colloquially as “Cupples 7” — supports this theory is a sour-grapes hornet’s nest, but some things are certain. The building’s physical death was due to water. Lots of water over lots of time. And that time, presided over by men ranging from officials at Washington University to developer Kevin McGowan to former Treasurer Larry Williams, was long enough that the water could have been stopped. Ten years ago, a temporary roof may have cost as little as $100,000. Today, stabilization would cost over $5 million and demolition at least $250,000.

“Cupples 7” as the Graham Paper Company Warehouse after its completion in 1907.
Demolition is about to start at “Cupples 7.”

This demolition could have been avoided, and shows the folly of letting city agencies spend tax dollars on land acquisition and demolition. We won’t know the real costs of demolishing the building until later, when the potential profits and revenues generated by an elegant five-story mass will linger only as ethereal presences invisible to most eyes. What will be visible will be a fenced-off patch of grass and the cold hard slab of a parking garage staring out at pedestrians.

Still, this is a teaching moment. This week Mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford told the St Louis Post-Dispatch that the city was ready to learn lessons from the demolition. Here are a few that this preservation practitioner sees:

1. New ordinances won’t save buildings. There has been talk of a “demolition by neglect” ordinance. While politically the stuff of good theater, such an ordinance is redundant. The building code already makes willful neglect illegal. The Building Division and the City Counselor struggle to enforce the code with limited resources. Instead of a new wrist-slap law that will cost as much to enforce as it would collect (see the city’s dubious “Vacant Building Registration” ordinance), the city needs to do smarter things.

This is already violating city ordinances. The rear wall of St. Mary’s Infirmary at 1536 Papin Street.

2. Code enforcement could be improved. Technically, having a giant hole in the roof of a building – or a collapsing back wall – is illegal. Cities like Baltimore have targeted code enforcement to deal with vacant property. St. Louis can do the same.

3. Existing redevelopment agreements offer the city plenty of leverage, but the city needs to use it. Cupples 7 actually was governed by a redevelopment ordinance for a multi-building project. Nowhere did that ordinance, passed by the Board of Aldermen and signed by the Mayor, spell out any requirements for stabilization of the worst building in the mix. The city can’t force property owners to save their buildings — but when an owner comes to the city looking for incentives and subsidies, the city has the power to set conditions that safeguard buildings. The city has an agency, the Cultural Resources Office, that can consult on these agreements with professional expertise on issues like stabilization and demolition.

Will the city require Northside Regeneration to stabilize the James Clemens, Jr. House before it activates a $390 million tax increment financing package?

4. The city has another chance to prevent another “Cupples 7”: Northside Regeneration. This week the Tax Increment Financing Commission approved a public hearing on August 28 for activation of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s $390 million tax increment financing package for Northside Regeneration. Northside Regeneration owns scores of historic buildings, including the James Clemens Jr. House — the city’s only pre-Civil War mansion to sit vacant. Water is working on the Clemens House. Why won’t City Hall use leverage to get a roof on the building?

The last part of “Fout Place” (1892) sits vacant at 4200 Cook Avenue. Owned by shell company Urban Assets LLC, the historic house is one of those neighborhood anchor buildings that would benefit from a new way of dealing with vacant buildings.

5. The city needs to follow its own Sustainability Plan. The plan itself should have guided a different outcome for Cupples 7. Under “Urban Character, Vitality & Ecology,” Objective F, Strategy 4: “Provide resources to preserve and prevent demolition of key historic structures that do not have parties immediately interested in investing in the building.” The plan lists the time frame for implementation as “short term.” It’s unfortunate that the first test of this part of the new plan leads to a failure by multiple city departments to follow the plan. Yet there are other tests ahead: Crunden-Martin Building 5, St. Mary’s Infirmary and smaller buildings across the city.

Not much has happened with Building 5 at the Crunden-Martin Manufacturing complex south of the Arch since it caught fire in December 2011.

6. Create policies that recognize that there are two options for buildings: Demolish OR repair. While $250,000 might not have saved Cupples 7, it could have helped. The demolition budgets for smaller buildings often are higher than the cost of roof patches, temporary gutters and other short-term repairs. Rainford discussed the possibility of using demolition money to repair buildings and then placing a lien against the owner. Preservationists and neighborhood activists have called on the city to do that for years – what a relief to read that the mayor’s office is on the same page. Whatever that takes, let’s do it.

The Mullanphy Emigrant Home at North 14th Street and West Florissant Avenue in Old North still stands because preservationists and neighborhood leaders raised money and materials to rebuild its collapsed walls in 2007.

7. Preservationists need to be willing to help the city raise money. This isn’t a lesson for City Hall, but for all of us who are looking to the city to change its ways. We need to change our own. This city lacks a preservation fund for repairing buildings, ever since Landmarks Association of St. Louis killed its Revolving Fund in the early 1980s. Rainford talked about creating a fund administered by the city. That would be great, but preservation advocates need to do their part and building funding mechanisms instead of complaining about city inaction. The same part of the Sustainability Plan quoted above implores the city to “Establish a local funding stream for preservation work which directly contributes to the City’s economic growth.” Such a stream won’t build itself, and if it is not attenuated with private donations, would never be of use on the scale of a building like Cupples 7. We have to help the city build the fund.

We can’t stop the rain, and we can’t keep property owners from making bad decisions. Yet coordinated, strategic vacant building preservation efforts — wiser code enforcement, smarter redevelopment agreements, changes in city demolition funding and preservation community hustle — could send water and stupid men on the run.

Housing Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Harwood Hills: A Preservation Challenge

by Michael R. Allen

I provided this essay for the brochure that was distributed at Modern STL’s Harwood Hills House Tour on May 19, 2013.

The brochure used to market Harwood Hills epitomizes the claims that drove St. Louis’ mid-century suburban expansion in its subtitle: “contemporary design in a natural setting.” Influences as wide as Mies van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Cliff May’s California ranches and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses widely influenced modern ranch houses built in St. Louis County in the 1950s, with a uniting principle being minimalism in design set against largely untouched natural sites. Builder Burton Duenke, developer of Harwood Hills, embraced these principles again and again in developments that include Arrowhead, Ridgewood and Craigwoods. Collaborating with architect Ralph Fournier for most of these projects, Duenke built some of the County’s strongest enclaves of mass-produced residential modernism. Today, Duenke and Fournier’s collaborations are widely held to be the finest examples of “subdivision modernism” in the region.

The cover of Harwood Hills’ original brochure.
The Westerly was one of Harwood Hills’ five model houses.

The designs found in Harwood Hills meld the California ranch aesthetic — the long, low forms with low-pitched gable roofs — with the open planning found in Wright’s small houses as well as larger homes by William Bernoudy, Isadore Shank and others. The Skylark seems to be appropriated from the streets of USONIA, while the larger two-level Fairways sits nicely among designs by Shank and Harris Armstrong. Fournier’s influences are wide, but his authorship is evident. Each of the homes in Harwood Hills has a resolute economy of plan that produces extremely balanced and proportional forms. Harwood Hills’ houses endure because they advance the classical principles of architecture eternal instead of simply copying dominant modern forms. The “cookie cutter” stamped out other houses, but none here.

A house built from “The Fairways” model. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.
A renewed interior at one of Harwood Hills’ beautiful homes. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

Leaving detailing to owner discretion led to a polyglot vocabulary here; not every house is modernist in exterior treatment. Still, even decorated houses have spare bodies emphasizing horizontality and material over style, and the plans are as modern as any else here. The genius of Fournier’s planning is evident in the provision of large, open living and dining areas, attached garages, open utility space that could later be finished, and (in the two-level designs) space for future expansion. Moreover, each house is emphatically tied to nature through ample windows in the public rooms and provisions for patios that allowed nearly year-round outdoor living. All of these characteristics are sought after by families today, making the demolitions here all the more strange.

Modernism in St. Louis County

World War II slowed American construction considerably, but immediately after the war the nation entered rapid suburban growth. The victorious nation threw itself into remaking itself, giving itself a new image for new times. Mass construction spurred by the 1948 federal home loan guarantee program allowed for the triumph of modernist design in St. Louis County.

Another example of “The Fairways” that makes use of brick. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

According to architectural historian Eric Mumford, “by the mid-1950s, modern architecture had become the norm in St. Louis” with construction especially high in St. Louis County. This reflected the national acceptance of Modern architecture. Webb writes that “in the 1950s, most progressive architects took modernism for granted—it was Local interest in non-derivative design was not widespread before the war, when most new houses built in St. Louis County were built in revival styles. However, after the war architects in America began to implement the influence of the International Style, the Prairie School and other modern schools of architectural thought.

A more traditionally detailed house based on “The Skylark” model. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.
Minimalism and a strong connection between indoor and outdoor spaces typify this Harwood Hills house. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

The hallmarks of new design were minimal detailing as opposed to referential ornament, asymmetry as opposed to formalism, use of mass-produced hardware and building materials as opposed to custom-built items. The Modern Movement had roots in early twentieth century designs that, according to historian Esley Hamilton, “rejected the popular historical styles of the time, in fact the whole idea of styles.” Mid-Century Modern Architecture in St. Louis County: Outstanding Examples Worthy of Preservation includes 35 houses built between 1935 and 1961. According to Hamilton, interest in Modern architecture in St. Louis County began in the 1930s and dwindled in the 1970s. By then Harwood Hills was fully developed.

The Teardown Threat

Teardowns in Harwood Hills have led to new homes of radically different scales and styles. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

Today, preservation of Harwood Hills raises some challenges in local policy that are yet unresolved. In suburban neighborhoods across the nation, the current crisis is known as the “teardown.” Speculators or homeowners have targeted mid-century ranch houses because of their large, naturally-attractive lots and the stability of their surrounding areas. Armed with a questionable rationale — that these houses are too “small” or “inefficient” – and the support of the real estate community, those who tear down mid-century modern homes often remove more than just one building. In St. Louis, famous “tear downs” include Samuel Marx’s spectacular International Style residence for Morton D. May (1941), lost in 2004.

However, most lost Modern houses are noted less in their individual removal but in their cumulative absence. This impact mirrors national trends. For instance, reports from California last year suggest that Eichler houses are at risk for mass disappearance in Palo Alto and elsewhere. From Tulsa to Philadelphia, small modern houses that compose leafy, human-scaled places are falling for often over-sized and insensitive new buildings. Of course, houses are only part of ongoing deliberations over how to protect the nation’s vast array of modernist buildings and structures. To date, the easy consignment to rubble of major works by designers like Richard Neutra and Bertrand Goldberg gives one pause. Protecting ranch houses by regional architects and homebuilders is an even taller order – but one that holds communities together.

Juxtaposition in Harwood Hills. Photograph by Toby Weiss for Modern STL.

Tear downs actually are not that different from waves of demolition that have damaged historic neighborhoods in the city. Across St. Louis, houses have disappeared one at a time until entire block faces barely resemble anything historic. However, in the city usually demolition leads to vacant lots while in the County demolition leads to incompatible new houses. Both rob historic landscapes of their integrity. Demolition can disqualify neighborhoods from attaining historic district status at the local or state levels. Without such status, regulating demolition and using historic tax credits are impossible – making it likely that more will be lost. Teardowns can lead to dismissal of vast areas of important modern residential architecture because the general appearance is no longer visually cohesive.

The Skylark model.

At Harwood Hills, there’s still a chance to stem the tide despite what has happened in recent years. The start to all preservation efforts is education, which is why this year’s house tour is significant for the neighborhood’s future. However a vital second factor is legal protection of the remaining historic houses. Until Des Peres enacts a historic preservation ordinance, there will be no local demolition or design guidelines. Lest one judge Des Peres harshly now, consider that only nine of St. Louis County’s 91 municipalities have any preservation ordinances and that there is no regulation in unincorporated areas. Harwood Hills’ plight is not isolated, but sadly is part of the norm.

The Harwood Hills brochure’s end page extols its convenient suburban location.

Harwood Hills reminds us that we are not doing enough to create frameworks that protect our abundant and ever-beautiful modern residential fabric. Fournier’s designs are eminently rich with details and concern for siting, natural light, layout and material harmony. These traits are not exhausted by today’s concerns for energy efficiency and modern kitchens and bathrooms. Instead, Fournier’s designs have a resilient vocabulary that can and should be adapted by new owners. Harwood Hills could be at the forefront of raising County preservation standards to the level of design seen in its threatened resources.

More Harwood Hills photos are online here.

Edwardsville, Illinois Metro East National Register PRO Projects

Surveying Edwardsville’s Historic Leclaire Neighborhood

by Laura Jablonski

Edwardsville’s Leclaire neighborhood began in 1890 as a collaborative living experiment and soon became a model of sustained working class success. St. Louis manufacturer N.O. Nelson built his factories in the Leclaire area, constructing quaint cottages and houses near them to draw employees and their families. Homes were fully equipped with electricity, running water, and green lawns, while the brick factories were innovative and efficient. Respected and treated well, workers were offered pension among other benefits. The combination fostered a pleasant lifestyle both in and outside the workplace. A baseball diamond, bowling alley, a lake for boating, as well as community buildings for school, clubs, and concerts were free to all Leclaire residents.

One Leclaire’s historic houses.

Nelson’s Leclaire project set the national standard in working class dignity. Ensuring an enjoyable work and home life encouraged care for the whole person. Nelson’s premise is simple: Happy, fulfilled people are the solution to labor conflict. Those who can both provide for their families and enjoy their work can more fully contribute to a thriving community. And so Leclaire thrived: families flourished and businesses blossomed as Nelson’s formula for collaborative living saw continued harmony.

This summer, Preservation Research Office will be conducting the first-ever architectural survey of Leclaire. Our work comes at the request of the Edwardsville Historic Preservation Commission. PRO also will update and rewrite the district’s existing National Register of Historic Place’s nomination, create an inventory clearly identifying which buildings do or do not contribute to the area’s architectural or social significance, and identify the style of each building in order to determine the appropriate design work needed. The project is made possible through a grant from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Laura Jablonski, a marketing and social entrepreneurship major at Creighton University, is serving as an intern at PRO this summer.