by Michael R. Allen
Sometimes, it seems like historic buildings have to be demolished wholesale before their replicas get praised. The site of the public housing project Cochran Gardens between 9th and 7th streets north of downtown illustrates the rise, fall and kinda-sorta-rise again of vernacular American architecture. The site’s mostly brick tenements were in a range of styles — Greek Revival, Italianate, Federal — typical of the 19th century. Some of these buildings were 100 years old when the site was cleared in 1950 and 1951.
The replacement was the unitary modern order of low-rise and mid-rise apartment housing. The crowded high-ceilinged large rooms were replaced by theoretically uncrowded low-ceilinged small rooms. People still lived in brick buildings. Rather than live within earshot of the community’s sidewalk life, many people lived far above. However, there was a lot more green space — something the tight-knit “slum” really didn’t have or need in such overabundance before — and the modern miracle of indoor plumbing.
Of course, the modernist vision for housing the poor fell apart, and all save one building at Cochran were wrecked two years ago under the federal HOPE VI program. What housing rises in the clearing? Well, that would be ersatz vernacular tenements! The two-story town-house style units now on the site return residents to the sidewalk realm, albeit in buildings that have shorter floor heights and thin platform-framed walls. Also, the residents are not living here on their own but through the determinations of federal housing subsidy — a major departure from the much-maligned “slums” of old St. Louis that were also places free from the ravages of government control.
The details are suggestive of historic styles that were not really found in this part of the city in great abundance. There is an architectural ordering of the space through style that quintessentially does not differ from the modern order that George Hellmuth gave to Cochran Gardens.
Yet the new modern order embraces at least the symbolism of the neighborhood that the housing project replaced. Will this new neighborhood persist without another physical upheaval? Will these wood-wrought nostalgic houses withstand decay that the sturdy towers of Cochran could have fended off for another century? Time will tell, but I doubt that the buildings will last longer than 30 years. The residents will move on if they improve their lives. Most will move on regardless. (That’s not much different than how the neighborhood operated before, except that the choices were made as freely as possible without being tied to housing vouchers.) However, in the meantime the residents will have the semblance of urban life that Cochran Gardens obliterated. Hopefully that makes some difference in this world.
“Cochran Gardens Demolition Nearing Completion” (March 25, 2008)
“Historic Cochran Gardens” (August 8, 2007)