Abandonment Downtown

Downtown St. Louis Has a Secret Ballroom

by Michael R. Allen

The Hotel Jefferson as it appeared in a 1912 issue of The Mirror.

The relocation of St. Louis University’s School of Law into a transformed building at Tucker and Pine streets has helped Tucker Boulevard regain some its lost title to being downtown’s most important north-south street. Students and faculty circulate around what was once one of the city’s most tragic and downright ugly modernist boxes, giving Tucker Boulevard hopeful human energy. New cafes and restaurants suggest that the law school could have a catalyst impact.

Should the footsteps of the repopulated species of the Tucker pedestrian march toward Washington Avenue, they will pass by one of the street’s proudest achievements, the neoclassical mass of the Hotel Jefferson. Located between Locust and St. Charles streets, the old hotel is punctuated by climbing bay-window appendages and up-top truncated floral ornament that once cradled rounded windows. The Hotel Jefferson proclaims an architectural imperiousness befitting its origin as a hotel built for the visitors to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.

In 1928, ahead of the Depression, the hotel developers built a major addition to the hotel designed by Teich & Sullivan of Chicago. Teich & Sullivan redesigned the lobby of the original Barnett, Haynes & Barnett-designed building, creating an overlook to the first floor lobby encircled by balustrade. The mezzanine level became the home of two new major public spaces in the new addition.

The Hotel Jefferson today, better known by its last name, The Jefferson Arms.

Boarded-up base keeps pedestrians from glancing into its hidden inner mysteries — but hopefully not for long. Those who know the building for its final use, a warren of cheap studio apartments called the “Jefferson Arms,” might not suspect there are any mysteries lingering beyond untold mortal affairs (best left untold). Wrong. Inside of the old Hotel Jefferson is a lost golden dance hall, left nearly unaltered for 85 years and locked off from the tenants of the Jefferson Arms. (Still, one long-gone former tenant once told me over a drink at lost Dapper Dan’s across the street that he had found the way into a “gold ballroom.”)

A 1928 Globe-Democrat advertisement for the Gold Room at the Hotel Jefferson.

The old hotel’s biggest secret is the Gold Room, whose floor has rested from dancers’ feet for decades. The Gold Room is one of the vestiges of the Jefferson’s late Jazz Age remodel. Today, the lobby sports just a few traces of its 1928 look, including white marble staircases hiding out in the dark, unlit interior. The overlook was covered over after the 1950s, when the hotel briefly operated as a Sheraton. The public spaces read as cross between the would-be mid-century urban streamline and 1980s economical apartment styles. The marble stairs lead to the mezzanine level, where the grandest space in the Jefferson can be found, untouched by all of the modern changes that robbed the interior of complex beauty.

The Gold Room is labeled “Banquet Hall” on this 1928 floor plan that appeared in Hotel Monthly in September 1929.
One of the entrances to the Gold Room on the mezzanine level.

The Gold Room is a gently baroque artifact, with paneled and mirrored plaster walls, gold-painted accents, undulating balconies, and a ponderous crystal chandelier. Corinthian pilasters set against the walls provide a note of classicism to the space, but not one overtly staid. This room is a room set for fantastic happenings, not business luncheons. The Gold Room is also large: underneath its two-story ceiling, the room could accommodate as many as 1200 people, according to hotel brochures. Although the 1928 floor plan for the hotel has it labeled as a “Banquet Hall,” and it hosted many large dinners, the original design anticipated its use for dances — and the floor is a dance floor.

Does a swan song for the good old days play in the Gold Room today?
The Gold Room floor has attained a layer of broken plaster bits, and piles of discards.

For almost four decades, the Gold Room served thousands of people through many large and lavish events. Debutantes came out annually at the Veiled Prophet Dinner in the Gold Room into the 1950s. Eventually, however, the Gold Room was shuttered to wait for a new era’s users. Planned renovation of the Hotel Jefferson by the Pyramid Companies — one of the building’s recent mysteries — came and went. The Gold Room will have to await new plans to return to its formerly busy social schedule. Meanwhile, inside of the dim interior of the Jefferson, the golden splendor of the hotel ballroom looks barely different than it did when the the city’s elite were celebrating the admiring gaze of the entire world.

When will we next dance in the Gold Room?
Abandonment Art Events

Following Time and Trauma Across the City: Two Exhibitions Opening This Weekend

by Michael R. Allen

The City Inside/Out
Opening Friday, June 7 from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Sheldon Art Galleries

St. Louis’ built environment has been a yielding subject to many photographers over the years, from Emil Boehl to Charles Cushman to Toby Weiss. Each view transports us to a different city with the same name — or so the frozen images tease us to believe. The week closes with the opening of a large polyphonic urban photographic exhibit at the Sheldon Art Galleries, in which we find not only different cities but different frames.

meyerowitzAmid our current fascination with remaking the Arch grounds, and consideration of our ongoing vacancy crisis, Joel Meyerowitz’s St. Louis and the Arch (1979-1982) series should be of heightened interest. Meyerowitz depicts the relationship between a modern monument and a city in transition. Roland Barthes’ punctum — defined in Camera Lucida as that photographic element that “pierces the viewer” — may well be off-frame, wherever the people missing from so many of the images may be (South County? Clayton?). The Meyerowitz images are over thirty years old now, and recent urban regeneration might cast them in a new light.

raimistOther photographers with work in The City Inside/Out include Andrew Raimist, Ken Konchel, David Johnson, Demond Meek, Alise O’Brien and Richard Sprengeler. Raimist drills down in Meyerowitz’s world to the surface of the Arch itself, capturing the vandal-created surface texture that belies its unitary skyline presence. Meek’s images of abandoned buildings, largely in isolation as if sprung from the unconscious upon the landscape, provide a reminder of the more troublesome impact of time on architectural beauty.

Shifting Terrains: Works By Carlie Trosclair
Opening Saturday, June 8 from 7:00 – 11:00 p.m.
Drew Henry salon&gallery, 2309 Cherokee Street

Saturday, on kinetic Cherokee Street, the south side’s fastest-changing artery, there is another noteworthy opening. Carlie Trosclair will exhibit recent works in a show entitled Shifting Terrains at the Drew Henry salon&gallery. Some may recall being captured by Trosclair’s soft sculpture installations at various venues (although perhaps not in a river stream in Vermont). These fervent spatial occupations evince an originality desperately lacking in local hard-architecture practice and a searing psychological intensity that can simultaneously intimidate and mesmerize.


In Shifting Terrains, Trosclair offers an array of impressionistic entry points into constructed space. Her alterations to photographs of decayed interiors are a welcome break from the traditional gaze upon architectural ruin. By casting aside photorealism, these works evoke their subjects’ dreamlike — perhaps sometimes nightmarish — experiential nature more vividly than straight-on documents.

Architect Eric Mendelsohn wrote in Amerika that the American city was “unbridled, mad, frenetic, lusting for life.” While Mendelsohn was capturing traits of the twentieth century’s rapid urban pulse, Trosclair’s works suggest that even in decay our cities possess an energetic secret life. Perhaps even that life is more terrifying now that it comes from urban free-fall instead of controlled growth. Yet there may be a quiet order in urban trauma we don’t always detect — and Trosclair seems intent on finding that order.

Abandonment Events Old North

Sustainable Land Lab Winners Revealed Next Week

by Michael R. Allen

A vacant lot on 14th Street in Old North.

In St. Louis, vacant land is a huge problem. Yet the details are small: a single lot here, a moribund city-owned red-brick house there, or a dead gas station down the block. As the city struggles to conjure systematic strategies for dealing with the vacancy and to gain rapid demand for land reuse — big solutions — some small solutions are emerging. Many business owners, neighbors and dreamers have conquered a building or a lot, often making a critical impact for a larger area.

Bistro Box, a finalist in the Sustainable Land Lab Competition.

The Sustainable Land Lab Competition, sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis, offers a moderate-sized method for vacant land reclamation. The competition secured four vacant parcels in the heart of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, and funds to offer both two-year leases and $5,000 to implement practical, ready-to-build ideas for reusing them. The proximity of the lots might provide a sizable visual impact, depending on the four winners announced next week.

Sunflower+Project: STL, a finalist in the Sustainable Land Lab Competition.

Among the eight finalists chosen from the initial 48 submissions are the “Bistro Box,” a container cafe placed on 14th Street near Crown Candy Kitchen, and the Sunflower Project, which envisions an interim use of sunflower cultivation that also would aid soil remediation on a polluted vacant lot. Some might argue that these ideas are impractical or ephemeral — but they are not much like projects this city has ever tried before. New ideas are not “destined” to fail or work. New ideas carry the pulse of city’s best minds, without guaranteed results.

The great part about the Sustainable Land Lab Competition process is that these solutions are both malleable (a two-year lease offers a good test period) and transportable (they could be done on different sites, multiple sites or better sites). Also, the competition should encourage neighborhoods to take action now. All we have is now, the song goes — so let these ideas inspire more local, less-structured actions regionally. After all, the whole city came into being by furtive, sustainable land development. St. Louis remains an experiment.



Thursday, April 11
6:30 PM
Bridge, 1004 Locust Street

Disclaimer: I serve on the Sustainable Land Lab Competition Advisory Committee.


Abandonment Demolition North St. Louis Old North

Seven Lost Buildings in Old North

by Michael R. Allen

Last month my friend Emily Hemeyer invited me to contribute to a sprawling, wood-made installation called the Migratory Hive Project. The Migratory Hive Project was exhibited outdoors in Columbia, Missouri during the annual True/False Film Festival, and hopefully can find life space in St. Louis soon.

Migratory Hive Project. Photograph by Emily Hemeyer.

Emily assigned me the task of constructing an installation that would fit inside of a wooden box (in fact, one that we had utilized for our collaborative St. Louis Mythtory Tour in 2011). After contemplating ideas ranging from packing the box densely with parts of a soon-to-be-demolished certain former funeral home to constructing a scale model of another house inside of the box, I decided instead to curate a bit of personal pschogeography.

Abandonment Academy Neighborhood North St. Louis

Vacancy on Kensington Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

Currently we are working on preparing a historic tax credit application for a property on the 5200 block of Kensington Avenue. The block is located behind the mighty, proud building housing Soldan High School, and slopes downward into one of the city’s hidden gem neighborhoods, Academy. Most of the Academy neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Mt. Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District (nomination by Lynn Josse). The streets in the area are lined with a classic array of St. Louis brick (and a few stone) houses and two-flats, sporting the latest fashions in architecture at the turn of the twentieth century.

However, vacancy is a problem. Vacant lots dot a still very cohesive landscape, but vacant houses may start to dominate. On our first day of work, we spotted a hand-written for-sale sign in front of a vacant house across the street.

5207 Kensington Avenue in the Academy neighborhood.
Abandonment North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Pruitt Igoe

“The Viability of St. Louis as an Urban Place”: Karrie Jacobs on Pruitt-Igoe and Northside Regeneration

Sumac and the skyline: Downtown St. Louis viewed from inside of the Pruitt-Igoe forest.

In her Metropolis column this month, under the title of “Saint Louis Blues”, Karrie Jacobs reflects on her fall visit to St. Louis (she was keynote speaker at the FORM Contemporary Design Show). The column takes on both the Northside Regeneration project (“[n]o one could explain what he was doing, aside from getting compensated for his land purchases by a peculiar piece of Missouri legislation”) and the winners of the Pruitt Igoe Now design competition: “I’m sorry that most of the finalists have given up on the viability of St. Louis as an urban place. Residents here have nothing to feel inferior about. The component parts of a great city are still there.”

Abandonment North St. Louis Old North Planning

Sustainable Land Lab Competition First Phase Submission Due December 10

Led by Washington University in St. Louis, the Sustainable Land Lab kicked off with an event on Friday, November 2 at the Contemporary Art Museum. (By the way, Ron Sims’ moving talk from the kick-off is now available on the website as a podcast.) The Sustainable Land Lab picks up the intellectual threads of GOOD Ideas for Cities and Pruitt Igoe Now and attempts to weave a program in which innovative urban land use projects are implements on vacant parcels in Old North — a neighborhood where experimenting with the urban condition is welcome.

Sustainable Land Lab is focused on implementation: teams that win will get land and money, and the chance to make things actually happen. Preservation Research Office is delighted to advise the competition and help teams with our knowledge of Old North and urban abandonment.

The first round of submissions is due December 10, so there is not much time to create your concept. Get details here and join in an amazing and spirited experiment.

Abandonment Demolition LRA North St. Louis The Ville

Losing More Buildings on Martin Luther King Drive

by Michael R. Allen

4220, 4222 and 4224 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive during demolition in fall 2007.

In September and October 2007, the Land Reutilization Authority wrecked the three two-part commercial buildings at 4220, 4222 and 4224 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville. The demolitions hardly were startling. Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th), then in his first year of service, requested the demolition as part of his efforts to deal with abandoned properties. Then, the center building collapsed. The Preservation Board unanimously approved demolition at its September 2007 meeting, based on a report by then-Cultural Resources Office Director Kate Shea that recommended approval.

Next up: 4234 and 4236 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
Abandonment North St. Louis Urban Assets LLC Vandeventer

Fout Place Fading Away at Cook and Whittier

by Michael R. Allen

Looking west across Whittier Avenue at the remaining house built by Frederick W. Fout after 1892.

Although heavily deteriorated, and possessed by a shadowy real estate speculator, the lonely large residence at the southwest corner of Cook and Whittier avenues remains a stunning example of local Richardsonian Romanesque residential design. The house was built around 1892, with its definite architect a mystery and its origin enmeshed in a design exercise whose details are also elusive. Underneath a high-pitched slate-clad hipped roof with dormers is a two-story brick building on raised basement. A curious corner bow is open at the second story, framed by Iowa sandstone elements and rising to an intersecting rounded hip.

The main entrance on Whittier Avenue.
Abandonment Benton Park West South St. Louis

Two Blocks of Utah Street

by Michael R. Allen

Now that I live south of Tower Grove Park and work at Cherokee and Jefferson, my daily path has taken me through Benton Park West’s grid of state streets. Some blocks and buildings are familiar from my previous years living in Tower Grove East, but others are new. The dense cavalcade of vernacular red-brick (and some frame) buildings seems unending, and any way to and from the office seems to be the perfect way.

Still, as an architectural historian who works in historic preservation, my eye tends to wander toward the broken, the changing and the potential-filled buildings. The streets around Cherokee Street are changing a lot, but not always in concert with the renewal that is changing Cherokee almost-universally for the better. As with the relationship between Manchester Avenue and the rest of Forest Park Southeast, the relationship between Cherokee Street and its surrounding neighborhoods evokes a sense of social and architectural division. Then, of course, within the streets around Cherokee blocks are different from each other in unforeseen ways.

View southeast toward the house of the 2700 block of Utah Street.

This week a journey down Utah Street brought me into contact with two blocks in the midst of changes wrought by abandonment. The first of these is the 2700 block, between Iowa and California. On the south side of this block is a row of six houses marred by a vacant lot. Flat-roofed, with overhanging hoods and other elements, the brick houses are typical early twentieth century dwellings for this part of the city. Some people know these houses due to an unfortunate abnormality: several of these are crooked, sinking lop-sided below their lawns. The vacant lot marks the site of the first demolition, necessitated by a severe structural failure caused by subsidence. This demolition very likely won’t be the last.