Adaptive Reuse Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis SLPS

Harrison School Slated for Rehabilitation

by Michael R. Allen

On December 12, the Missouri Housing Development Commission approved issuance of 4% low income housing tax credits to the Harrison School Apartments project. Developer George Kruntchev’s North Tower Group plans to rehabilitate the historic Harrison School at 4163 Green Lea Place in the Fairground neighborhood as affordable rental apartments.

Harrison School has sat vacant since its closure by the St. Louis Public Schools in 1996. In 2003, the building was finally put up for sale at the behest of a new majority on the Board of Education that sought to lower the district inventory. In 2007, after sitting nearly four years on the market, a developer purchased the school and secured listing in the National Register of Historic Places before selling the school to North Tower Group.

Benjamin Harrison School is a magnificent example of the earlier St. Louis Public School buildings. The basic plan comes from architect August H. Kirchner, who designed the original 1895 section of the building. (Coincidentally, Kruntchev’s other school project, Grant School in Tower Grove East, also involved a Kirchner school.) That one-story, four-room section was designed for expansion. After all, the city and the Fairgrounds neighborhood were growing rapidly, and until construction of Harrison the only other school in the vicinity was Ashland School, first opened in 1870. Kirchner made attempts to overcome the limitations of previous school buildings, which were dour, crowded and devoid of proper ventilation and light. Kirchner made the classrooms large with substantial windows for light and air. His ideas would influence his successor as district architect, William B. Ittner, who expanded Harrison School with additions in both 1899 (adding additional floors to the 1895 section) and 1909 (adding the north wing).

The result of the architectural evolution is an imposing Romanesque Revival school whose brick body is articulated through buff brick and red Iowa sandstone. The design is very similar to other Kirchner schools later expanded by Ittner, including Adams and Euclid schools. One of the striking features of Harrison is a kindergarten in the 1909 addition that placed two trapezoidal bay windows on either side of a hearth, an Ittner innovation that was not repeated.

Now, over twelve years since closing, the school finally is finding a new life. That’s a cautionary lesson to the Special Administrative Board (SAB) governing the St. Louis Public Schools. The SAB will be approving a facilities management plan early in the new year that will include what is anticipated as as substantial round of schools closings. Hopefully successful conversion projects like the one at Harrison will convince the board that there are many possibilities other than demolition or abandonment. I remain impressed by the wide array of adaptive reuse plans that developers have found for St. Louis schools. The again, the architecture itself, with its spaciousness and care for natural light, is hospitable to almost any human activity.

Adaptive Reuse City Hospital Historic Preservation Hospitals South St. Louis

City Hospital Laundry Building Rehabilitation Moving to Completion

by Michael R. Allen

One encouraging recent turn in local development is nearing completion: the start of the second phase of rehabilitation of the remaining buildings at City Hospital. Gilded Age, the developer, has embarked on a $27 million project that involves rehabilitation of the Laundry Building as an event space operated by Butler’s Pantry, construction of a new headquarters for Butler’s Pantry on Park Avenue and renovation of the Power Plant as a restaurant and office building. The Laundry Building is nearing completion, with the exterior sporting a cupola for the first time in decades.

Built in 1939 and designed by Albert Osburg, chief architect for the city’s Board of Public Service, the Laundry Building was once a hub of activity at the municipal hospital. The spacious, tile-walled interior housed a bustling laundry operation that kept thousands of linens used for bedding as well as staff uniforms clean and suitable for a medical environment. This efficient interior was artfully concealed behind a Georgian Revival exterior that referenced the earlier buildings of the hospital.

The large multi-paned windows, now replicated in aluminum, have always given away the building’s use. Those are industrial windows, made to light a work space. The town homes of Georgian London did not have such prosaic glazing. Here the modern meets the classical, and the Laundry Building melds the two with style. The dormers and cupola on the hipped roof add a welcome note of whimsy. While the hospital complex lost some fine buildings as part of the redevelopment, luckily the utilitarian Laundry and Power Plant buildings were spared. Buildings such as these can be hard to adapt, but when the right use comes along preservation seems completely logical. The Laundry Building will be a wonderful event space, and watching it regain its beauty is very satisfying.

Adaptive Reuse Historic Preservation Mullanphy Emigrant Home North St. Louis Old North Streets

Moonlight Ramble Included the Mullanphy Emigrant Home

by Michael R. Allen

Early Sunday morning, cyclists on this year’s Moonlight Ramble made a north turn to ride by the historic Mullanphy Emigrant Home in Old North St. Louis. The Ramble, organized each year since 1964 by the Gateway Council of Hostelling International USA, is a midnight bike ride held on the Saturday night nearest the full moon in August. Over 15,000 riders participated this year, and each one got to see first-hand what could be an exciting new home for Hostelling International’s local chapter.
While the route of the ride was a secret, word had already spread that this year’s ride proceeds would benefit the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, envisioned as a world-class hostel by the Gateway Council. Hostelling International hopes to continue rehabilitation of the Emigrant Home, hit by devastating storms in 2006 and 2007 and now largely stabilized through the efforts of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

The hostel plan would both restore the historic architecture of a building built in 1867 from plans by renowned architects George Barnett and Alfred Piquenard and also rededicate the building to housing the itinerant. The Emigrant Home originally housed immigrants headed westward through St. Louis from New York and other eastern ports. Hosteling International would provide lodging for a different sort of migrant — travelers exploring the United States. If the hostel opens it would be a serendipitous revival of the building’s original purpose.

Meanwhile, residents of Old North are enthusiastic about the prospects for the building’s future, and the legions of travelers who might come through their neighborhood as they travel this country. That enthusiasm was on display in full force last night, and a throng of neighbors (including people from the block facing the Emigrant home) welcomed thousands of riders for well over an hour. To learn more about the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, visit

All photographs by Lynn Josse.

Adaptive Reuse Architecture Downtown

Model Project

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by the author.

At last week’s grand opening for “The Laurel” condominiums in the former Grand Leader Department Store Building on Washington Avenue, the Pyramid Companies unveiled this model of the building.

Adaptive Reuse Historic Preservation Mullanphy Emigrant Home North St. Louis Old North

New Life for the Mullanphy Emigrant Home

by Michael R. Allen

Given its institutional form and floor plan, and the dire need to retain and restore its special architectural character, the Mullanphy Emigrant Home seems best suited to an institutional or cultural use rather than any of the most likely prospects for reuse.

The building would make an excellent museum or exhibit center, library, school or hostel. I think that adapting it for use as apartments, condominiums or offices might involve architectural compromises and inefficient floor plans. Perhaps now is the time for near north side leaders and city officials to figure out what the building should become, and how the new use could be endowed.

Due to shrinking funding under the Bush and Blunt administrations, this is a bad moment to launch a new museum or cultural center. Yet the Mullanphy Emigrant Home would make an excellent museum of the city’s ethnic heritage, an outstanding small art museum, a cool alternative school, a great architectural center emphasizing vernacular forms and styles, or a youth hostel in conjunction with more public uses. Rarely does the city have the chance to restore such an old and important civic building. This is a momentous opportunity for the city, and time for creative thought.

Adaptive Reuse Housing Schools South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Grant School

by Michael R. Allen

LOCATION: 3009 Pennsylvania Avenue; Tower Grove East Neighborhood; Saint Louis, Missouri
DATES OF CONSTRUCTION: 1893; 1902 (southern addition); 1965 (gymnasium)
ARCHITECTS: August H. Kirchner (original building); William B. Ittner (1902 addition only)
OWNER: Cohen-Esrey Development LLC

A dramatic transformation took the abandoned Grant School, which the St. Louis Public Schools closed in 1983, from a state of decay to one of restoration. Cohen-Esrey Development purchased the school building in 2005 and completed a multi-million-dollar renovation using state historic rehab tax credits. The new use is a complete change from the original purpose: now Grant School houses apartments for senior citizens.

This is a good turn in the life of the school, which was on the brink of terrible changes. Water coming in through the broken cupola had rotted a lot of the flooring and compromised structural timbers. The hipped-roof school building is one of the schools built while August Kirchner was chief architect for the Board of Education and was completed in 1893. Kirchner’s symmetrical Romanesque Revival design with prominent center gable is not as innovate as the later schools of architect William B. Ittner, but nonetheless is a significant expression of the local vernacular in native red brick and limestone. A later addition by Ittner is unobtrusive and adds a distinctive projecting bay that was hidden for many years behind a modern gymnasium addition that the developers demolished. The school building, named for Ulysses S. Grant, replaced the old Gravois School at Gravois Avenue and Wyoming Street that had opened in 1867 to serve the growing south side.

Photographs from August 17, 2006 (Michael R. Allen)

Photographs from November 2003 (Michael R. Allen)

Abandonment Adaptive Reuse Gary, Indiana Midtown

Plans for Church Ruins Gardens Going Nowhere in Gary and St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

Apparently the City Methodist Church in Gary, Indiana still stands abandoned. Last summer, the city came up with a plan to demolish an annex and retain the sanctuary as a ruins garden, but that plan has not advanced due to lack of funding.

Meanwhile, the National Memorial Church of God in Christ in Midtown St. Louis also still stands abandoned, although more secure and completely gutted. When will Grand Center, Inc., the owner of the church, make good on their promise to turn that church into a ruins garden? The last time workers were on site was in 2004, when a crew filled the basement with gravel.

The delay in Gary is due in large part because there are no private interests who want to lay claim to City Methodist, either for preservation or clearance. The burden of dedicating the church to a new future falls onto local government, which is grossly underfunded. Chicago preservation groups have no interest in getting involved in Gary, which is separated by both state lines and states of mind.

In St. Louis, though, the Church of God in Christ is owned by a non-profit redevelopment corporation that is pretty good at fundraising, even if it produces lousy urban planning. Here they have a really great idea and the financial health to pursue further fundraising, but oddly have let the plan go dormant.

Converting damaged church sanctuaries into ruins gardens is a great idea that repurposed spaces difficult to convert for profitable uses. The architecture of these two churches in particular inspires contemplation and hope. City Methodist has to be one of the most humane giant buildings I’ve ever seen, while Church of God in Christ is relatively small and austere. These buildings have each suffered fires and have passed any point at which church life would have returned. While restoration for other uses is feasible, these spaces have gained wonderful second lives as great, if illicit, public spaces. Purposeful conversion to ruins gardens would make their second-hand functions safer for all and socially acknowledged. Hopefully, these projects can be revived.

Adaptive Reuse Downtown

A Dying Mall Gets to Live

by Michael R. Allen

The press is reporting that the Mayor’s office has successfully gotten St. Louis Centre into the hands of one of its favored developers, the Pyramid Companies. Pyramid aims to introduce condominiums into the twenty-one-year-old grimy mall. Pyramid’s track record downtown has been good, including some thoughtful rehabilitation of historic buildings like the Paul Brown. Their architecture staff is dynamic and young, and should handle the challenge well.

Odd that the fortune of a place can change so quickly; in two decades, the downtown shopping mall rose and fell like a bird, to borrow from the Handsome Family. Its birth in fad is met in rebirth through another, hopefully more vital fad: condominium conversion of commercial space.

St. Louis Centre has changed quite a bit since its grand opening in 1985, which was replete with a ceremonial balloon launch and the styling of the late comedian Bob Hope. The downtown mall was the brainchild of city planners with block grant money and big dreams — big dreams that were articulated in the muddled form of the place and in its name. To boast that the “centre” of St. Louis was downtown in 1985 was very optimistic. To claim that a shopping mall there was that center was quixotic, eroding the importance of the name. To use “centre” was so silly as to suggest the mall’s planners did not take it very seriously.

The design, by famed 1980s “urban mall” experts RTKL Associates, grafted a postmodern pastiche of London’s Crystal Palace with onto an awkward box with green-and-white (officially “light gray”) aluminum walls. The box supported a 25-story shiny granite office tower that does not share any public connection with the mall, in one of the most puzzling aspects of the mall. Another confusing design feature is the fact that the mall’s first level is actually the second floor, so mall-goers have to take escalators through two unconnected lobbies at different ends of the building in order to reach the first full floor of shops. The building overhangs the sidewalk with a garish barrel vault arcade, another effort at pastiche that only makes the mall less humane. Then there are the sky bridges that connect the second through fourth levels to the department stores, Famous -Barr on the south end and the shuttered Dillard’s on the north. The sky bridges are overly wide, overly tall (why not a connection at one level?) and only have glass on one side with the dreaded aluminum wall on the other. Furthermore, these bridges have the glass on different sides. They block the views one would have down Washington Avenue and Locust Street, obscures the facades of the department store buildings and create dark spots on the streets below.

The one redeeming feature of St. Louis Centre is the sun-filled main arcade. It follows a traditional long-form plan, much like Milwaukee’s Plankington Arcade. The three levels of shops are punctured by an open atrium. Everything is white, from the railings along the atrium to most of the tiles on the floor. (At least, they used to be white.) The whole effect is bright and comfortable — not a great space, but not as badly disarming as the rest of the mall.

All of the design flaws create a building that is wholly resistant to natural circulation. Beside the fact that downtown is not a place where a shopping mall will help create life, the mall’s architecture is too confused to be inviting and too confusing to be useful. Consequently, the mall has been in decline since its opening. Nowadays, the mall has hit the bottom of its life. More store spaces are closed than open. Nearly every original “name” store is gone, leaving behind a handful of super-discount shops and junk food vendors. Dillard’s has closed, and the new owners of Dillard’s are eager to demolish the sky bridge to their building. The new owners of Famous-Barr, Federated Department Stores, will be changing that store to the posh Macy’s name; they weren’t likely to keep the sky bridge for long.

In the meantime, the mall has had an owner who never seemed certain what to do with it. Barry Cohen purchased the giant block grant project for a mere $4.5 million in foreclosure, and has proceeded to preside over accelerated obsolescence. Maintenance has become a lost idea at the mall. St. Louis Centre lingers, losing shops and shoppers but picking up the occasional improbable new tenant (an art gallery and a well-known gym moved into the mall in 2005). The slow decay and deferred maintenance combined with the anemic flow of people inside provide the perfect space to meditate on the future of the city. To anyone who was here when the mall was a bit busier, traces of history emerge. A memory of a shop, a cup of espresso consumed (there was an espresso shop when I was younger), a photo-booth adventure (the photo-booth, with its radiant Technicolor, remained until fall 2005) — it’s all still here, just as the memories of lost buildings and stores infuse our neighborhoods with a secret counter-narrative that either infuses new uses with life or curses them to death.

One can offer an easy guess as to which way these ghosts are carrying St. Louis Centre, but the mall itself may disagree. Windowpanes on fake Victorian greenhouse may be boarded and the floors may be unwashed, but what about those thirty-somethings jogging in place in their clinging, sweaty workout gear in plain view of passers-by on Locust? Death may be at hand, but in a fashion consistent with the mall’s own style, it arrives slow and confused. What could have been a death of the building — a fate that many found hard to oppose — is just a death of use, form and style. What remains after those three elements are removed is any one’s guess, but it will not be St. Louis Centre.

Adaptive Reuse Art

Building: An Instrument

by Michael R. Allen

David Byrne’s installation Playing the Building is intriguing:

“Playing the building is a sound installation in which the infrastructure, the physical plant of the building, is converted into a giant musical instrument. Devices are attached to the building structure — to the metal beams and pillars, the heating pipes, the water pipes — and are used to make these things produce sound. The activations will be of three types: wind, vibration, striking. The devices do not produce sound themselves, but they cause the building elements to vibrate, resonate and oscillate so that the building itself becomes a very large musical instrument.”

It’s different than other sonic projects involving buildings. Two of which I am aware employ buildings as amplifiers of recorded sound rather than instruments with which to make sound. Unlike Silophone, the production and reception of sound in Playing the Building each take place in the same space at the same time, and uses that space itself to produce the initial sound. Unlike Northampton State Hospital: In Memoriam, Playing the Building involves the manipulation of the physical elements of the building.

How do we get the installation to St. Louis?

Abandonment Adaptive Reuse Industrial Buildings North St. Louis

What To Do With The Army Ammunition Plant?

by Michael R. Allen

What to do with a huge, transite-clad steel-framed building? That’s the question to ask about the Army Ammunition Plant at Goodfellow and I-70 in north St. Louis.

The answer that the Mayor offers is demolition for retail construction.

Of course, removal of the transite covering and thorough abatement would leave a highly-adaptable steel frame in a highly-interesting shape. Re-cladding in any number of materials is feasible, and the resulting big retail outlet would be less of a big box and more of a big curiosity. The rumor is that Home Depot is interested in the site. Don’t they want to open the world’s coolest Home Depot?