Abandonment North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe Public Policy

Is St. Louis Ready for a “Land Run”?

by Michael R. Allen

On June 25, the Pruitt Igoe Now design competition (staffed by the Preservation Research Office) announced its three winners, selected from its thirty-one finalists. The scope of the initial 346 submissions that envisions a new life for the 33 vacant, forested acres of the Pruitt-Igoe site included many submissions that examined the preponderance of vacant land around the site. These submissions generally tended to look at the southern end of the St. Louis Place neighborhood, just across Cass Avenue from the site, or the eastern end of JeffVanderLou, just across Jefferson.

One of the competition finalists, a video submission entitled “LandRun,” whimsically suggests that the vacant land in and around Pruitt-Igoe be opened to development via an annual “land run” reminiscent of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. That event brought sudden and frenetic development, with the cities of Guthrie and Oklahoma City ending up with over 10,000 residents in one day. The impetus for settlement was the availability of plentiful undeveloped publicly-held land. North St. Louis around Cass and Jefferson remains partially settled, and has been settled through urbanization in the 19th century, but it now has vast acres of unused land. (Admittedly much of what was publicly-owned land when Pruitt Igoe Now opened in 2011 is now owned by one developer, Northside Regeneration LLC.)

“LandRun” envisions a lively and diverse re-settlement effort, and casts its prediction toward hand-tended agriculture instead of dense urban development. With the North Side Regeneration project in the area, there won’t be a land run in the area around the Pruitt-Igoe site. Yet other parts of the city, and East St. Louis, have tracts of non-taxed land currently costing local government money to maintain. Large-scale redevelopment has proven to be a perpetual myth whose pursuit only drains tax dollars and population. The 1889 land run divested the federal government of the costs of long-term land ownership while stimulating economic development and tax revenues. Could St. Louis dream of doing the same through a Land Reutilization Land Run?

“LandRun” was created by Julien Domingue, student in architecture, ENSA – Paris Belleville, Paris; Bernardo Robles Hidalgo; student in architecture, ENSA – Paris Belleville, Paris; Camille Lemeunier; student in architecture, ENSA – Paris Belleville, Paris; Laetitia Anding-Malandin; student in applied arts, visual communication, DSAA Jacques Prévert, Paris.

Abandonment North St. Louis

The Daily Mail Does the Ruins of St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

Over the weekend, several friends alerted my attention to a rather naive essay in the Daily Mail showing “abandoned” St. Louis buildings. Two of these friends own one of the houses depicted in the arresting images by Demond Meek thay provoked the articles, entitled “City of ghosts: Haunting abandoned buildings of St Louis after the city’s population FELL by 70 per cent in a century”. These friends are rehabbing a small house in Old North St. Louis that may seem neglected to a passer-by lacking the local knowledge that helps differentiate the holdings of slumlords and city agencies from the hopeful projects of urban caretakers.

The one-and-a-half story house in the 1900 block of Palm Street was included in the Daily Mail article. This 1972 photograph from the Heritage/St. Louis survey shows how is once appeared, and hints and how it will appear again.

The Daily Mail article makes a generic argument about St. Louis not caring about its beautiful buildings, but its reporter chose the wrong photographs to make that point. The first image used shows a building in the 1500 block of Palm Avenue owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority, but available for rehab through a partnership between LRA and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. The second photograph depicts the massive Second Empire Loler Residence at 2135-37 St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis Place, dating to 1871 and definitely in need of care. Yet that need is partially addressed by a new historic district designation for St. Louis Place that makes rehabilitation tax credits available for the house.

The other houses include my friends’ “cottage”, a few buildings owned by Northside Regeneration LLC — which now apparently is studying rehabilitation of many buildings — a foreclosure or two, some LRA-owned houses and even one house on Chambers Avenue in Old North that is occupied. I wonder whether an the residents of that house have seen the essay and what they would make of being included in an international chronicle of the ravages of abandonment. Whoever they are, their presence is keeping that building off of the list of endangered north side homes.

A few years ago, the New York Times used a photograph of Old North St. Louis to demonstrate the ravages of abandonment in this city. Oops. The photograph that august paper chose for its urban-decay-in-St. Louis article showed a historic two-story house at the corner of Monroe and 13th streets. Today, that house has been stabilized and made ready for rehabilitation by the Old North St. Louis Restoration group using a grant from a large national bank. Oops, again.

I doubt that the Daily Mail will follow up on its article, but if it does it should look again. Behind some of the buildings in this weekend’s articles are people who care about the future of the buildings depicted. Their stories would add some complexity to the supposed ruins, and some sense of moral urgency. Perhaps readers in London can afford to sublimate the gaze upon vacant St. Louis buildings, but St. Louisans cannot — and, largely, do not. The real story, underreported even locally, is that people do care about these buildings.

Abandonment Housing Hyde Park

Frame House, North Florissant at Newhouse

by Michael R. Allen

Nearly every day I pass by this lonely two-story frame house at the northwest corner of North Florissant and Newhouse avenues in Hyde Park. While this stretch of North Florissant has its gaps, the east side is a nearly-continuous line of flats, houses and storefronts. Pietkutowski’s is not far. Yet this house stands alone at the intersection. Original weatherboard siding peaks out from failing rolled asphalt siding that mocks red brick (note the faux keystones on the front elevation!). Above, the slates on the mansard roof are in place, shedding water as they should. The side entrance is covered by a Craftsman-influenced open hood, a later addition marking stylistic changes since the nineteenth century when the house was built. Many frame houses in Hyde Park have been lost, and few have the solid and straight lines of this one. Yet I suspect one day my travels will take me past its grave-site, mud marked by bulldozer tracks.

Abandonment North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Pruitt Igoe Now Submissions Due March 16

The start of the new year puts us two and a half months out from the deadline for the Pruitt Igoe Now ideas competition. The competition brief and submission requirements are posted at

The competition takes as its starting point imagined futures that involve the remaining 33 vacant acres of the former Pruitt and Igoe housing projects. Submissions need not be architectural, and need not include a building program for the 33 acres. Essentially, entrants are creating their own programs and geographic boundaries. Pruitt Igoe Now’s organizers hope that submissions consider the larger geographic context of the site as well as the backdrop of land abandonment in the city.

Recent coverage of the competition has come from The Atlantic Cities.

In November, competition co-manager and Preservation Research Office Director Michael R. Allen published an essay on the competition process in Next American City, entitled “What Remains”.

Abandonment North St. Louis

Cotton Belt Freight Depot: RFT’s Best Old Building

Looking south down the side of the Cotton Belt Freight Depot.

The Riverfront Times occasionally slips in a “Best Old Building” among its annual “bests.” This year, to our delight, it is the cementitious wonder of the north riverfront, the Cotton Belt Freight Depot. The honor is timely; the city issued the building permit for the 750’ x 30’ transfer depot on October 18, 1911. The five-story warehouse cost $165,000 to build and was completed in 1913.  Currently the distinctive building awaits reuse.

Abandonment Demolition Fairground LRA North St. Louis

How Easy Death, How Easy Life

by Michael R. Allen

The house at 3839 Lee Avenue as it looked this afternoon.

This unusual cross-gabled house with striking dormers, located at 3839 Lee Avenue in the Fairground neighborhood, is about to be demolished. Once it is gone, an irreplaceable building — seriously, what else looks like this in the entire city? — will be lost and a predictable death pattern will conclude. Fairground and the Third Ward will lose yet another building that could house people, maintain surrounding property values and generate city revenues.

This particular house was first noted as vacant by the Building Division in 1989. The house returned to that status in 1998, and never was occupied again. The downward spiral is evident in the collapsed gable end and mess of bricks below, but also in the ownership. In 2001, after owner Albert Martin defaulted on real property taxes, the house was auctioned by the Sheriff. No one bid. The house reverted to the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), which did little except keep the plywood boards on. LRA’s lack of enterprise is somewhat understandable given the house’s condition at acceptance. On February 24, 2000, the Building Commissioner condemned the house for demolition. (Even a preservationist is baffled at how long it has taken to get this one down.)

The odd little house on Lee Avenue’s tale is not exceptional, although it should be. A negligent owner let the building fall into disrepair, stops paying taxes, lets it get condemned and then lets it lapse to city ownership. The city lacked the means to reverse long-term decay, and did no marketing of the house. By the time the wrecker put his sign in the front lawn, the story was written and only needed the detail of when demolition would start.

However, this easy and certain death could just as well have been an easy and certain rebirth. The Assessor’s Office shows that the assessed value of land and improvements at 3839 Lee Avenue were a mere $670 in 2000. Again, this is not exceptional. Many houses like this one across the city — but especially in north St. Louis — go to tax sale with low assessments and low tax liens. The economics of preservation of many of these buildings are pretty favorable to a buyer.

Where are the buyers? There are few smart people starting to use the tax auctions for preservation. For instance, artist Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation has purchased at least one Hyde Park building at tax auction for rehabilitation projects. With a plentiful supply of great buildings, many of which could be eligible for historic tax credits, and few competing bidders, there seems to be a hidden buyers’ market in this city. Hidden for long, however, and we could lose quite a bit of St. Louis.

Abandonment LRA Midtown Theaters

Bright Days Ahead for the Sun Theater?

by Michael R. Allen

The front elevation of the Sun Theater. Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

There seems to be some confusion as to the fate of the elegant, vacant Sun Theater at 3627 Grandel Square in midtown. The sumptuously-ornamented theater has been owned by the Land Reutilization Authority since 2009, when long-time owner Grand Center, Inc. conveyed the theater to the city. Before and after that transaction, news about the theater has ranged from an absurd plan to dismantle the front elevation and rebuild it on Grand Avenue adjacent to Powell Hall to a promising but unsuccessful effort by KDHX to convert the building to its studios. The Sun was on Landmarks Association’s 2007 Most Endangered Places list.

The western wall. Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

Currently, according to Grand Center, Inc., the nearly-completed rehab of the Pythian Building to the east for the Grand Center Arts Academy will be followed by rehabilitation of the Sun Theater into the school’s auditorium and performance space. Yet after a storm in late February caused masonry damage to the western wall of the Sun, the LRA issued a request for proposals (RFP) to demolition contractors for demolishing the venerable theater. One demolition contractor reports that LRA would not allow interior access to prospective bidders.

Abandonment North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Pruitt Igoe Today

This afternoon I gave a tour of the Pruitt-Igoe site to a group of bicyclists en route to see The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Myth meets reality, big time, on the 33 wooded vacant acres of the site. Here are few scenes. – M.R.A.

Walking the former Dickson Street.
Many participants likened the site to familiar state parks around the area.
Abandonment Industrial Buildings JeffVanderLou

EPA: Carter Carburetor Building Will Be Demolished

by Michael R. Allen

On March 31, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an Action Memorandum for the cleanup of the Carter Carburetor plant at St. Louis and Grand avenues in JeffVanderLou. This action surprised residents of surrounding neighborhoods, who had hoped for more time to understand the science behind the cleanup methods. In February, after the close of the public comment period for the action, the EPA provided a citizens’ group with a Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) consultant who is still in the process of getting answers for the citizens.

The western elevation of the Carter Carburetor building on Spring Avenue.

Among the questions is whether the Carter Carburetor building should be demolished. The EPA’s preferred alternative of total demolition has become the action proposed in the action memorandum:

The Carter Building, Inc. (CBI) Building – The action for this area is demolition and off-site disposal. After completing the remediation of asbestos-containing material, the CBI building will be demolished and building materials disposed based on PCB concentrations.

This action uses federal funding and will trigger a Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act, since the Carter Carburetor plant is likely to be eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing. The less-significant Willco Plastics building could be retained, however:

The Willco Building – Because PCB contamination in the Willco Building is relatively low, a thorough cleaning may be sufficient. If the cleaning does not reduce the contamination to below acceptable levels, the first and second floor slabs would be partially removed and replaced.

The owners of the Carter Carburetor building want to retain it and reuse it. At issue is whether heavy PCB contamination can be removed successfully from the building. Concrete floor slabs will have to be replaced, according to the EPA, but that still leaves upright and vertical concrete structural components that cannot be removed and replaced. The EPA states that these would have to be coated with epoxy that would need 5-year maintenance in order to be safe for workday exposure.

One question posed to the TASC consultant is whether such epoxy coating has ever been done on the scale of Carter Carburetor, and whether it can be effective. Also unknown, because PCB contamination usually leads to demolition, is whether there are other methods for remediation than those the EPA has offered. Anyone know of any case studies?

Abandonment Demolition Fairground O'Fallon

Six Years Pass on Warne Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

The row of houses in March 2005.

When I first photographed these six vacant buildings in the 4200 block of Warne in the Fairground neighborhood in March 2005, I was struck by what a statement they made as a row. Besides the four-flat shown at left, the rest of the group consisted of St. Louis’ bread-and-butter building, the two-flat. The variety of styles in the group could very well have been a textbook illustration of St. Louis’ streetcar-fueled late 19th and early 20th century neighborhood development.  Instead, in abandonment, the row served as a different, disturbing illustration.

The block in August 2009.

By August 2009, the four-family building was demolished. An amazing apartment building across the street was also gone. The rest of the row was in bad shape, although each building was structurally sound. I confess to having low hopes for the group. Located in the city’s Third Ward, the five remaining buildings were owned by the Land Reutilization Authority and outside of any historic district. Had these buildings been inside of a historic district, they would have made a great historic tax credit project for a community development corporation.

The row in March 2011.

In the last three weeks, the row has finally disappeared. These buildings were on the edge of Fairground, located across the street from the O’Fallon neighborhood. Their loss is felt strongest in the O’Fallon neighborhood, where a historic district nomination is underway, by dissolving a visual edge.