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.
Academy Neighborhood Kingsway East Urban Assets LLC

Three More “Urban Assets”

by Michael R. Allen

In the fall, the “other” North St. Louis assemblage team picked up three more beautiful historic buildings at the Sheriff’s land tax auction. These companies are those represented by Eagle Realty Company and its agent Harvey Noble that include Urban Assets LLC, Prudent Investor LLC, Feasible Projects LLC, Diligent Properties LLC, Incentive Properties LLC and others (see “Private LRA in the Works Across North St. Louis?”, May 21, 2009). No ownership link is definite, but the companies are buying in the same wide swath of north city using the same real estate firm that handled acquisition for the Northside Regeneration LLC shell companies.

The building at 5172 Page Boulevard.

The multi-family building at 5172 Page Boulevard is located inside of the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District in the Academy Neighborhood. The building is in the 26th Ward. Feasible Properties LLC purchased it for $3,000 at the auction held on September 21, 2010. Because the 26th ward has demolition review, and because the building is a contributing resource to a National Register of Historic Places historic district, the building has some demolition protection.

The house at 5134 Wells Avenue is at right in this photograph.

The two-flat at 5134 Wells Avenue is located on the very dense but increasingly vacant 5100 block of Wells Avenue. Feasible Projects LLC purchased the building for $2,878 at the Sheriff’s auction on September 21, 2010. The building is located in the 26th Ward. Because the 26th ward has demolition review, thanks to Alderman Frank Williamson (D-26th), the building has some demolition protection.

The house at 4946 Wabada Avenue.

The house at 4946 Wabada Avenue may be the saddest story of the three new purchases. This house was under rehabilitation, and the owner applied for a building permit after the sale to shell company Inventive Properties LLC. I suppose that party did not realize that its property taxes were unpaid for the three years prior to the auction. Incentive paid $4,500 at the Sheriff’s auction on September 21, 2010. This lovely single-family American Foursquare is the only vacant house on its block in the Kingsway East neighborhood of the 18th Ward. The 4900 block of Wabada is an immaculately maintained block — the sort of block where owners will utilize nuisance laws against a negligent owner. Unfortunately the house is not in a historic district and the 18th Ward lacks demolition review, so there is no protection against demolition of the house at 4946 Wabada Avenue.

The Eagle Realty-managed shell companies have not recorded any purchases since these three on September 21, 2010. Still, their holdings number nearly 300 parcels inclusive of over 90 historic buildings across the city’s 4th, 5th, 18th, 19th, 21st, 22nd and 26th wards. The parcels remain too spread out to add up to a real development plan, but too numerous to ignore.

Academy Neighborhood James Clemens House North St. Louis St. Louis Place

MHDC Approves Two Major North St. Louis Projects

by Michael R. Allen

Last Friday, the Missouri Housing Development Commission met and approved financing for two projects involving large historic buildings in north St. Louis.

The former Blind Girls Home at 5235 Page (1908; J. Hal. Lynch, architect) will receive 4% low-income housing tax credits for Places for Page. Places for People states that the residents of the building will be “individuals living with severe mental illness who can and want to live independently, but who may need the attention and support provided by on-site staff.” Places for Page is a project that would not happen without these credits, and not devised by a developer because of the incentive program (some applications seem to be, but usually aren’t approved).

The second major north side project involving a large historic landmark approved last week was the James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue (1860-1896; Patrick Walsh and Aloysius Gillick, architects). McEagle Properties and Robert Wood Realty requested and received approval for MHDC to issue tax-exempt bonds for the rehabilitation of the buildings into senior apartments as well as museum space. The Clemens House, at long last, will be rehabilitated!

Academy Neighborhood Demolition North St. Louis Preservation Board Schools SLPS

Good News and Bad News on Page Boulevard

by Michael R. Allen

Preservationists should send their thanks to Better Family Life, a cultural and educational organization that is uplifting African-American St. Louis while rehabilitating one of our city’s irreplaceable historic schools. In 2005, Better Family Life purchased the shuttered Ralph Waldo Emerson School at 5415 Page Boulevard. This year, the organization began a $4.5 million rehabilitation that will convert the school into an educational and cultural center.

Currently, a construction fence surrounds the school. Workers are on site most days, and a lift was in front today. The daily activity at Emerson School has not been this high since the school’s last day of classes in June 2003. When the school closed, few predicted that any serious buyer would step forward so soon. The landmark could have become an abandoned wreck.

Designed by William B. Ittner and completed in 1901, the brick school is one of the earliest of Ittner’s schools in the hybrid “Jacobethan” style that he helped popularize. Ittner began working for the St. Louis Board of Education in 1898, and did not turn to the Renaissance styles until a few years into his tenure. Emerson School is a handsome early work utilizing the architect’s open floor plan. The grace of the landmark shall be with us for generations, thanks to Better Family Life.

If only all good news from St. Louis’ built environment did not have to be counterbalanced by bad news. Just two blocks east of Emerson on the south side of mighty Page Boulevard at Union Boulevards, another north side landmark is meeting a sad end. The corner commercial block at 5986-98 Page Boulevard, written about on this blog several times before, is finally falling to the wreckers. I offer here an image of the building in better days, and will spare readers yet another demolition photograph.

The corner building is a younger building than Emerson School, with a completion date at 1905. The two-story building is part of the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District and could have been reused utilizing historic tax credit programs. Surely, commercial storefronts and apartments enjoy far more demand in the city than cultural centers. However, the building had the wrong owner, the Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church, which will be building a parking lot on the site.

In February 2008, the city’s Preservation Board voted 5-2 to deny a demolition permit for this building. Then, in June 2009, the city’s Planning Commission arbitrarily overturned the Preservation Board decision.

The story got stranger after that when the church failed to meet the requirements of the Planning Commission decision but began demolition this summer without a permit. City officials called a halt to the wrecking, but the wreckers had already delivered fatal damage by removing most of the roof. Now the rest of the building will be removed legally. Page Boulevard will have a completely disjointed, unhinged intersection with Union Boulevard. Two prominent thoroughfares shall meet at an intersection as full of character as any generic suburban intersection anywhere in the United States. This city, it should be stated, deserves better. It deserves what it had before.

Academy Neighborhood Demolition North St. Louis Old North Preservation Board

Planning Commission Overturns Two Preservation Board Decisions

by Michael R. Allen

On June 3, the Planning Commission unanimously adopted a resolution to grant demolition of the corner commercial building at 5286-98 Page Boulevard if owner Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church met several conditions. Those conditions are completion of permit-appropriate construction drawings for the proposed surface parking lot within 30 days and securing of construction financing within 90 days. If those dates are not met, the permit stands denied and the church will have to appeal the denial to the St. Louis Circuit Court.

How did the demolition permit end up at the Planning Commission, and why would that body approve demolition for a parking lot? In January 2008, the Preservation Board upheld Cultural Resources Office staff denial of the demolition permit by a vote of 5-2. Per city preservation law, Berean appealed this decision to the Planning Commission. The next step in the appeals process would be court. The Planning Commission has authority to review and “modify” decisions of the Preservation Board, which is what the June 3 decision is considered. (Note that the Planning Commission does not typically solicit or accept citizen testimony, although the public may attend its meetings.)

At the behest of the Planning Commission, the Berean church worked with Dale Ruthsatz at the St. Louis Development Corporation to improve the original plan for a parking lot. The new plan calls for “green” features such as permeable paving and landscaping. Parking entrances have been moved off of Page and Union and onto the alley, so that pedestrians on these streets won’t be bothered by traffic. Eventually, the church wants to build a community center on the site. Planning Commission members expressed the sentiment that they wanted to exercise leverage over the parking lot design rather than let the matter go to court where the city might lose its case and its design review.

Back in April, the Planning Commission also overturned — or, rather, modified — the Preservation Board decision on a certain house at 2619-21 Hadley Street. The back story is slightly complicated. Suffice to say that the Haven of Grace, a shelter for homeless pregnant women, wanted the old house gone — after it had resolved to rehabilitate it in order to secure a demolition permit for another historic building.

The Haven of Grace pursued demolition relentlessly. After the Preservation Board in August 2008 reaffirmed its original decision, the organization appealed to the Planning Commission. The legal strategy of the Haven of Grace was effective enough to lead to the Planning Commission’s vote to overturn the Preservation Board decision, but not enough to do so without penalty. The Planning Commission stipulated that the Haven of Grace must pay $25,000 to city that will be used for building stabilization by the Cultural Resources Office.

While there are few chances for the city to secure $25,000 for stabilization, the Planning Commission action may be a dangerous precedent. My hope is that it is an isolated instance of such a questionable outcome. It’s certainly better than a victory for demolition with no trade-off.

The house on Hadley Street is now gone. Watching the demolition, it was clear to me that the house was in much better condition that I had assumed. The floors looked sturdy, original millwork abounded and even the plaster walls looked to be in fair condition. An expenditure of $25,000 could have mothballed this house for better days.

The Planning Commission’s compromises demonstrate the flaws in our current system or preservation review and planning. In fairness to the Planning Commission, the city lacks progressive ordinances here. I understand the inclination toward meting out compromise rather than take matter into lengthy circuit court battles. However, if the Preservation Board’s decisions on these matters were made fairly and by wide margins of voting members, they should be upheld on appeal.

The Planning Commission should not feel trapped. The Preservation Board should not be rendered powerless because an applicant (or elected official) has the money and time to make things difficult for the city. We need better design ordinances and city agencies empowered to do more than just say “no.” Ultimately, we need a better framework in which to make planning decisions.

Abandonment Academy Neighborhood North St. Louis Schools SLPS

A St. Louis Public School Not Designed by Ittner or Milligan

by Michael R. Allen

The large vacant brick building at 5234 Wells Avenue in the Academy Neighborhood bears a sign reading “St. Louis Public Schools / Area 1 Offices.” The imposing Jacobethan building has the symmetry, grace and quality of construction that is consistent with the stock of the St. Louis Public Schools, but it really does not resemble the buildings designed by William B. Ittner or Rockwell Milligan. Stylistically, there is some connection, but the plan, siting, lack of ornamentation on the side elevation and detailing is different. The massive terra cotta heraldic shield that caps the central entrance bay as well as the cartouches under the flanking window bays are clearly the work of another architect.

There’s a good reason for this: the building was not built for the St. Louis Public Schools. The Mt. Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church built this building in 1928 as a private religious school (cost was $40,000). Architect Albert Meyer designed the building, likely trying to match the renowned architecture of the public school district. Eventually, however, the congregation moved west and the closed school met the needs of an expanding St. Louis Public School district. Yes, the district expanded to the point of buying other school buildings within the lifetimes of many living city residents.

The Mt. Calvary school became Wells School and then Emerson Branch School. The last use was as the Area 1 Offices, housing regional administration for the Northwest, Soldan and Southwest high schools. The district closed the building in 1995 and sold it in 2006 to Grizzly LLC, a St. Charles-based firm. Today the building sits empty with no plans for reuse.

MGT of America recommended that the St. Louis Public Schools consider selling the downtown headquarters building and reusing existing schools for offices. This building, already converted, would have fit the bill. Its small size would also have made it a suitable alternative school. Too bad the district sold it.

Area 1 Offices building in September 2006.

Area 1 Offices building in May 1988 (photograph by Landmarks Association of St. Louis).

Academy Neighborhood Historic Preservation North St. Louis Preservation Board South St. Louis

No Bad News from Monday’s Preservation Board Meeting

by Michael R. Allen

On Monday, the St. Louis Preservation Board meeting yielded no bad news:

  • Washington University withdrew from preliminary consideration plans to demolish a one-story commercial building at 622 N. Skinker in order to build parking for the “Corner Building” at Skinker and Delmar, which the university is rehabbing. The Board granted preliminary approval for a variance that allows for wind turbines to be built atop the Corner Building. The university is exploring other options for parking, including building a new multi-story building that would extend along Skinker from the corner building to Enright Avenue.
  • The board denied preliminary applications for demolition for houses at 1826 Warren Street in St. Louis Place and 5155 Cates Avenue in the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District. Neither owner bothered to attend the meeting!
  • At the request of a representative of the New Life Evangelistic Center, the Board will defer consideration of an appeal of staff denial of a demolition permit for the house at 4722 Tennessee Avenue in Dutchtown. The matter will likely be placed on the January board agenda since the December meetings are traditionally short and free of review or appeal items.
  • The board approved on preliminary review a plan to demolish a two-story brick garage at 1106 Dolman Avenue in Lafayette Square. The garage has a split foundation and is beginning to collapse. Owner Mike Drinen plans to reconstruct the building, which likely dates to the 1920s.
  • The board voted to deny a permit to retain seven windows installed without a permit at 2003 Senate Street in Benton Park. The owner installed a total of 18 windows on the house between 2004 and 2008, and wrapped the sides with aluminum. In 2006, Benton Park became a local historic district and wrapping was prohibited by district standards. Although the seven windows are not exclusively on the front elevation and not all front windows are in the seven now denied, all denied windows were installed since the local district standards went into effect. The board’s vote is an endorsement of honoring local district standards, and sets a good precedent. Work at 2003 Senate had stopped for two years before the last seven windows went in. While the old work was legal, the new work was not. Some projects evolve for years or decades and the start date of local standards should be enforced, not the start date of slow-moving projects. Ambiguity there would undermine citizen efforts to establish local district standards.
  • Categories
    Academy Neighborhood Historic Preservation North St. Louis Preservation Board

    No Reason to Demolish Fine House on Cates

    by Michael R. Allen

    The house at 5115 Cates Avenue in the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District is on tomorrow’s St. Louis Preservation Board Agenda. The owner is seeking a preliminary review on demolition, via the Department of Public Safety. (That arrangement is supposed to allow the owners to “test” the Preservation Board before hiring a demolition contract and shelling out a down payment.)

    There is absolutely no reason for demolishing this house. Built in 1901 and designed by Benjamin Cunliff, the only major alteration to the house has been the replacement of the original porch columns. The stately Classical Revival house is perfectly sound, with all four walls solid as the day they were finished. The roof seems intact. Most window and door openings are secured. Under the city’s preservation ordinance, the condition of the property and proposed re-use of the site (crabgrass farm) do not meet the criteria set forth that allow the Preservation Board to grant demolition. For that reason, the city’s Cultural Resources Office is recommending denial of the preliminary review.

    Beyond the house itself, this block is a largely intact one lined with rows of homes just like these — American Foursquares designed in a range of revival styles. The streetscapes here bear a resemblance to those of Tower Grove South and Shaw. The potential for this neighborhood — technically the Academy neighborhood — to become as healthy as its south side counterparts is strong, but rests on preservation of its distinctive architecture.

    The Preservation Board meets at 4:00 p.m. Monday, November 24, in the 12th floor conference room at 1015 Locust Street downtown. The meeting agenda is online. Correspondence to the board may be sent to

    Academy Neighborhood Demolition Lafayette Square North St. Louis Preservation Board Shaw South St. Louis St. Louis Place

    Preservation Board to Consider Five Demolition Proposals on Monday

    by Michael R. Allen

    The preliminary agenda for the St. Louis Preservation Board’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, November 24 is now available. The agenda contains five demolition proposals.

    Three proposals are preliminary reviews requested by the Department of Public Safety, seeking condemnation for demolition on private properties located at 1824 Warren Street in the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District (St. Louis Place), 5115 Cates Avenue in the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place Historic District (Academy) and 3927-29 Shenandoah Avenue in the Shaw Historic District. The fourth preliminary review is requested by a homeowner for a historic garage at 1106 Dolman Street in the Lafayette Square Historic District.

    Then there is a staff denial of a demolition permit for the frame 19th century house at 4722 Tennessee Avenue in Dutchtown South. A different owner went through the same motions last year, and in June 2007 the Preservation Board upheld staff denial of the demolition permit. The current owner, New Life Evangelistic Center, is a tenacious organization, so this may be the most contentious item on the agenda.

    Academy Neighborhood Demolition Historic Preservation North St. Louis

    Another Fine Building on Page Boulevard

    by Michael R. Allen

    The original version of the agenda for the January 28, 2008 meeting of the St. Louis Preservation Board included an appeal of staff denial of demolition of the commercial building at 5100 Page Boulevard. This building stands just east of another building whose fate on the same agenda, 5286-98 Page. The final agenda did not include the appeal. Whether or not it returns is up to the owner of the building, Rosie Love.

    Curiosity sent me to look at the building. I was pleasantly surprised to find a sturdy three-story building with a mansard-style roof and lovely masonry details. The stepped-down parapet alongside the mansard gives the corner some pizazz, while a terra cotta cornice below the mansard has an eye-catching swag garland motif. The brick cornice on the secondary east elevation adds a less formal vertical line.

    What is perhaps most intriguing is the bricked-in storefront configuration on the east wall. Under a continuous cornice with an egg-and-dart pattern are some strange capitals; these top brick false pilasters that run vertically between the storefront opening. Looking at the painted wall closely, one can see the distinct vertical lines between the pilasters and the infill. How wonderful it must have been to have the storefront opened up to both the main and side streets!

    The building is, of course, vacant and deteriorating. It’s been empty for some time. Geo St. Louis shows records of an occupancy permit for a convenience store in 1995 and a permit for a “grandfathered pay phone” in 1998.

    The front wall has some damage at the cornice line, while missing downspouts on the rear elevation has caused severe mortar erosion. Still, there are no collapsed wall sections yet. Numerous buildings in worse condition have been spared demolition by the Cultural Resources Office and the Preservation Board.

    The Academy neighborhood (and the Mount Cabanne-Raymond Place National Historic District that encompasses much of the neighborhood) needs its commercial edges to remain strong. Delmar on the south has become a lost cause, but Page retains many corner commercial buildings like this one and the one at 5286-98 Page, which bookend rows of historic residences. With its proximity to the Central West End and its largely intact building stock, this area is bound to be an emergent rehabbing neighborhood. We need to keep the neighborhood’s buildings around for the new day ahead.