Abandonment Architecture North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North

How Not to Board Up a Broken Window

by Michael R. Allen

Here is the entrance to the Fourth Baptist Church at 13th and Sullivan in Old North St. Louis. You can see that someone has broken the window at right, and that someone has very poorly attempted to board over the damage. Hint: If the broken area still shows, you haven’t boarded over the damage.

In August 2007, someone threw a rock at the window and caused the spider-web-like broken lines. Neighbors tried to get the owner, a nearly-defunct congregation, to board up the broken window. I cut my hand taping the damage to stabilize the glass. Several Citizens’ Service Bureau complaints led to the congregation’s finally boarding up the broken glass. Then, this December, the other side of the doorway gets the same treatment — from vandal and owner. Neighbors still haven’t seen a full repair.

The church building itself is an important landmark, and deserves better treatment. The congregation does not have the funds to maintain the building; they vacated in 2002. Meanwhile, the building has become a nuisance to neighbors as the congregation refuses to commit to selling and won’t make even small efforts to stay abreast of vandalism.  Hopefully Fourth Baptist will board up the broken window and sell their church to someone who will invest in the future of the church and the neighborhood.

Architecture Central West End Demolition Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

The Doctors Building: An Obituary

by Michael R. Allen

Streamlined and sleek, sophisticated and subtle – these are attributes of the Doctors Building at the northeast corner or Euclid and West Pine. The Modern Movement medical office building has offered a hint of space age glamor to the Central West End for nearly fifty years. Nestled among elegant Renaissance Revival apartment buildings, art deco storefronts and minimalist contemporary condominium buildings, the modernist tower provided just the right balance to the mix of jazz age architecture. Think of the Doctors Building as a minor bop number in a sea of buildings that span a range of jazz period from ragtime to tonal. The Doctors Building is that smooth, modern breakthrough that plays back to its predecessors without upstaging them and that teaches its successors a thing or two.

Too bad that’s all ending before our eyes. The Doctors Building is under demolition as I type. I wish I could report that the proposed replacement is worth the urbane environment of the Central West End, but that simply is not the case. We’re discarding modern jazz for contemporary pop drivel.

We are losing a building that is almost a time capsule from our recent past. Some would assert that the 1950s was an age of conservatism, forced conformity or destructive Cold War politics, but that view neglects to account for the cultural production of the era. How did the Beats, jazz music, streamlined industrial design and modernist architecture fit into the rubric of Joseph McCarthy and Leave It To Beaver? The answer is “not well.” More surely, the arts that persisted in the 1950s were cool and subversive of other tendencies. Artists were taking the tools of regimentation — the straight line, the machine — and turning them into expressive instruments. The best work of the 1950s plays on the tension between conformity and rebellion.

The Doctors Building straddles that fine line itself. After all, this is a medical office building — a tool of discipline and science. Yet the envelope is almost sensual — warm orange brick, window groups punctuated by aqua aluminum panels, a shiny granite base with quintessentially modern anodized aluminum details including an upward-curved canopy. Each elevation of the building is different, and on the east side wide projecting bands of brick that wrap the corners makes the wall plane sculptural. The pattern runs down the center of the Euclid Avenue elevation, marking the entrance. The tall form of the building gives way to two-story sections on the east and north, providing contrasting elements at different scales.

Of course, however attractive, the Doctors Building is no master work. It’s a minor modernist accomplishment that benefits greatly from its context. As the only tall mid-century building on Euclid, the building stands out in ways it might not had further development occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. The building avoids the swagger of Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, falling into the background. It’s a really cool but not very showy B-side from an artist no one remembers no matter how many times they hear the name.

The building permit for the building is dated January 1955, with cost of the 11-story building estimated at $900,000. The architect was a little-known designer named Paul Valenti, who taught in the School of Architecture at Washington University from the 1940s into the 1960s. This author knows of no other work by Valenti, and has searched mostly in vain to glean biographical details. The two-story section on Euclid dates to a permit issued in July 1955; Wells and Wells, Inc. is listed as engineer on this section as well as the tower. The two-story section to the east corresponds to a permit issued in August 1961; E. Donald Goret was the architect. Erstwhile Millstone Corporation was the developer and builder of the building and its additions.

The building originally had that one distinguishing mid-century flaw: adjacent parking as part of the building design. The original adjacent small surface lot on West Pine took on its own life and grew as the owners tore down a few houses to make an unsightly large lot that inadvertently created a wonderful view in which one can see both the Doctors Building and that 1929 art deco landmark, the Park Plaza Hotel.

With the huge parking lot, the Doctors Building site proved irresistible to developers during the recent hyperactive swing in the market. The Mills Group proposed demolishing the elegant building and replacing it with twin 30-story towers of ridiculous bulk and exaggerated detail. Jazz would have been replaced with buildings that reminded me of overwrought sappy love ballads. Then the market downturn set in and the project fell apart. Unfortunately, another plan emerged – demolish the building and replace it with a shorter new building. The new building is best left without description — its designers’ strained attempts at referencing historic details like quoins and a clock tower would only be remarkable if not already tried on thousands of suburban branch banks around the country. Alas, we lose the Doctors Building for something that doesn’t even forge a relationship with the Central West End. Sophistication falls to smugness. A minor pleasure gives way to a minor travesty. Hopefully the jazzy architecture around the new building will be enough to drown out the intrusion.

Architecture Fire Historic Preservation Missouri

Inn St. Gemme Beauvais Survives Fire

by Michael R. Allen

News of the demise of the Inn St. Gemme Beauvais on Main Street in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, was premature. The historic home was severely damaged by an electrical fire on February 22, leading to reports of total destruction. However, the fire seems to have hit the interior hard but spared the shell of the building. The brick walls are intact, without any collapses, and most of the roof is intact. Windows and doors are charred or stained, and much glass has been broken, but only a few were lost completely. Overall, the exterior is remarkably intact.

The worst damage is on the rear section of the home, where it appears that the roof has partly collapsed.

After the fire, the Colonial Revival style building was boarded up. The roof condition will prevent thorough water infiltration as the owners’ insurance claim is processed. The owner, Janet Joggerst, plans to rebuild and reopen the bed and breakfast.

The Inn St. Gemme Beauvais was built in 1848 by prominent citizen Felix Rozier as his mansion. The home’s rear faced the Mississippi River, and the front faced to the town. Over time, this section of Main Street became commercial in character and the house remained as a counterpoint to the surrounding storefronts, shops and apartment houses.

Photograph by Lynn Josse.
Architecture Demolition Fountain Park Historic Preservation North St. Louis

Demolition Imminent at Page and Kingshighway?

by Michael R. Allen

On January 10, the city’s Building Division issued emergency condemnation (for demolition) of the landmark building at the southeast corner of Page and Kingshighway boulevards. The Roberts Brothers Properties LLC owns the building and two adjacent two-story commercial buildings. A motorist struck and toppled the corner iron column on the building, which has been vacant for a year or two since Golden Furniture moved out. The Building Division has not yet followed up with any emergency demolition permit, although such action is almost certain. (Curious Feet St. Louis reported the news awhile ago.)

The loss of the corner column has already led to significant shifting of the building’s weight downward at the corner. The brick wall shows how the bottom of the second floor is pulling downward. At the moment, this is a problem that can be corrected with a jack or another iron column. (What happened to the building’s original column? Why not just re-install it?)

The situation has become one of those self-fulfilling prophecies that dampens one’s attempt to be hopeful for the commercial buildings of north St. Louis. Here we have beautiful commercial buildings that define a major intersection, and which were in use until recently. A big-time owner lets leases lapse, perhaps plotting demolition for replacement with some silly strip mall like the owner’s project across Page. Then, an accident happens. The Building Division steps in, goes through its procedures, while the owner does nothing. The owner does not jack up the corner with a support, which would avert further damage. The corner pulls down, triggering a major collapse. The Building Division rushes in to get demolition started. The owner sits back and lets events unfold, while hatching plans for new development. Preservation and minimal code enforcement never had chances.

This is frustrating because the building is elegant and obviously in decent shape. The Roberts brothers could view ownership of these buildings as great fortune — they get to possess unique historic buildings at a major intersection. They get to take a step to ensure that north city retains the level of historic character that makes real estate in south city so valuable. They could renew a cultural resources and pave the way for long-term rising of real estate values in north city, instead of falling into the temptation to build a short-lived retail center with short-term pay-off.

The Building Division is not a preservation agency. Yet the Building Division could step in and make the owners put a support at the corner. After all, that’s stipulated by the building code. The owners’ intentions should not influence the Building Division’s enforcement. Whether or not the owners want to tear down the buildings is a moot point until there is a demolition permit. Up to that point, the division should seek to force the owners to make repairs of structural necessity.

Beyond code enforcement, preservation makes sense. Page Boulevard has many threats to corner commercial buildings at the moment, and has already lost several. Kingshighway north of Delmar is likewise losing its lines of commercial buildings. Presence of anchor landmarks sometimes makes the difference between people remembering having been to a neighborhood or not. These buildings are in Fountain Park, which possesses a memorable interior. Yet its perimeter would lose a little less character with the loss of these buildings. The oval park, the famous curved storefront, the historic homes, schools and churches present a distinct and impressive identity. A corner strip mall, festooned with a developer’s name, with litter blowing across black asphalt in front of squat little retail boxes demonstrates no distinct character and in fact could have a blighting effect on neighboring block that retain their character. Fountain Park is a little less remarkable with every lost landmark.

These buildings are inherently remarkable, too. Built between 1904 and 1908 from designs by architect Otto J. Wilhelmi, the group shows a mix of modern sensibility and Victorian-era stylishness. The two-story buildings are rather plain expressions of the commercial storefront form while three three-story building is a blend of stark iron storefronts, paired Romanesque windows with pronounced archivolts on the second floor and windows with terra cotta keystones and voussoirs that suggest the Georgia Revival style. Then there is the white glazed terra cotta ornament of the parapet, which draws upon Classical Revival styles and features a projecting acanthus and the corner and near the south end. The building permit for the building mentions a galvanized cornice, long-gone. All three buildings are clad in buff speckled brick prevalent in north city commercial architecture of the period. In all, the buildings are unusually eclectic for this part of north city — and that statement means a lot. If only the owners recognized the treasures that they already have.

Architecture Housing Midtown

Art House Could Help Grand Center Come to Life

by Michael R. Allen

Would you believe that there could be an attractive row of contemporary townhouses within a short walk of Grand Avenue in Midtown?

Behold the Art House, proposed for construction on Grandel just west of the perpetually-under-rehabilitation Merriwether House. Sage Homebuilders is the pioneering company daring to build actual housing in “Grand Center.” Forum Studio designed the townhouses.

So far, you can only see it in a Flash animation on your computer. Hopefully soon you will be able to walk through the completed buildings themselves and enjoy the smart views their generous windows will create.

Despite many visible failings in historic preservation and urban planning, somehow Midtown has attained two of the finest contemporary buildings in the city, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the Contemporary Art Museum buildings. Art House would add one more unique contemporary building to the confused Midtown landscape. Amid parking lots and surviving historic buildings, perhaps we will find a crop of thoughtful, elegant, humanely-scaled residential architecture. If Art House can prove its own success by selling quickly, Grand Center’s longtime refusal to seriously consider the need for residents might start to wither as other developers get in line.

As we have seen downtown, a healthy market cuts through bureaucracy pretty quickly — and solidly on the side of more people, more buildings and more life.

Architecture Historic Preservation LRA North St. Louis Old North

A Middle Path?

by Michael R. Allen

Above is the grim scene that I encountered two weeks ago after a blustery winter storm: the vacant city-owned building at 2917-21 N. 13th Street in Old North St. Louis had suffered a roof collapse. The building, built around 1880, stands one block north from my house in the densest section of a neighborhood famed for its loss of building density. Mt neighbors and I were aghast to see what misfortune had struck a vacant building already beset by misfortune.

The building and an adjacent building to the north form a graceful row that hugs the sidewalk line. Before, the buildings’ back walls had fallen. Loose bricks on the parapet of the alley side elevation had caused the Land Reutilization Authority to consider emergency demolition, but LRA backed off after the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group reminded LRA that they were trying to market the poor buildings for historic rehabilitation.

Now, the mansard roof with its two dormers had completely collapsed outward and the flat roof above had fallen inside of this part of the row. But again the Restoration Group acted quickly. Development Coordinator Karen Heet fended off the Building Division and managed to get the debris out of the public right-of-way (a favorite demolition excuse) within 24 hours of the collapse.

Karen has posed a very interesting idea for reusing the buildings. A look at the rear of the row helps underscore her logic.

Rather than try to rebuild the buildings, which have lost significant building material, Karen would like to try something else. She suggests demolishing the interiors and retaining only the front and side elevations. Inside, a developer could build a new building on the old foundations using the existing brick walls as facades. The new building could be modular and modern, allowing Old North to offer a different housing unit while retaining the impressive street face of this row. I think that idea is worth attempting.

There are many historic buildings in the city with severe damage that are ineligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits. Some of these buildings are located outside of historic districts and are never going to eligible for such designation. Others are buildings that once were contributing to historic districts but have had so many sections collapse their rebuilding would count as “reconstruction” and not “rehabilitation” and thus would be ineligible for both state and federal historic rehab credits. Still others are badly remuddled old buildings that don’t count as contributing resources in districts.

In such cases, a straightforward attempt at replicating the old building fabric may be cost-prohibitive or simply limiting. The old Archigram concept of using masonry walls as armaments for modular housing offers an intriguing solution to situations where we have a pretty wall and little else. In other cases, more of the original building may be retained than in others. The important thing is that we don’t commit to a dichotomy in which the only common form of rehab is the tax-credit project and the only alternative is demolition for new construction. There is a full spectrum of architectural options, and saving any of the embodied energy in an old building at all is far more green than starting completely fresh.

Anyone interested in purchasing and rebuilding the buildings on 13th Street can call Karen at 314-241-5031.

More information on the row, including earlier photographs, can be found here.

Architecture Historic Preservation LRA National Register North St. Louis Wells-Goodfellow

Two Craftsman Buildings in Wells-Goodfellow

by Michael R. Allen

While photographing a building across the street for work, I stumbled across this Craftsman gem on Ridge Avenue (just west of Hamilton Avenue) in Wells-Goodfellow. The size of the brackets on the porch end of the roof is incredible. Brackets, half-timbering and wide gable roofs were hallmarks of the Craftsman style, which was part of the revival style craze that dominated American residential architecture between 1890 and 1930. The Craftsman style drew upon the Arts & Crafts movement as well as historic rural European vernacular styles. St. Louis has great examples in north and south city, especially west of O’Fallon Park and in Tower Grove South.

Coincidentally, this home is only a few blocks from one of the city’s most prominent Craftsman landmarks, the Wellston Station at 6111 Martin Luther King Drive.

Photo by Rob Powers for Built St. Louis

I don’t know much about the house on Ridge, but I co-wrote the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Wellston Station. The Station was built in 1911 and designed by Martin Arhelger for the St. Louis Transit Company, the streetcar arm of United Railways. United Railways held the monopoly on mass transit in the city until 1963 when it was subsumed into the Bi-State Development Agency.

Under its wide roof, the Wellston Station provided covered boarding, and a shelter with waiting rooms and toilets, for the first fixed-track streetcars on Easton Avenue (now MLK). Wellston Station was the destination for the last streetcar run in the city’s history: the run of the Hodiamont street car in 1966. For years after that, the building served as a bus shelter, but the grandeur was out of scale with cash-strapped Bi-State. Bi-State aimed to convert the building to a farmers’ market, but in 2006 abruptly turned it over to the Land Reutilization Authority. In May 2007, the National Park Service placed the Wellston Station on the National Register. That designation has not yet led to redevelopment, although a burger joint still rents the front end of the waiting room area. (The waiting room has always had a storefront at the street side.)

Two Craftsman gabled buildings in Wells-Goodfellow — one a domestic building, the other a remnant of a once-robust public sector economy. May they both be part of the city’s future.

Architecture CORTEX Historic Preservation

Old Printing Building Slated for Demolition as Part of CORTEX

by Michael R. Allen

Washington University recently purchased this building, located at 4340 Duncan Avenue in the central corridor. The university’s master plan for the Medical Center calls for demolition as part of the CORTEX redevelopment project. Although unadorned, and perhaps a bit sepulchral, the brick industrial building possesses several unique architectural features. Built in 1936 for a printing company, the building is the work of the noted firm Mauran, Russell and Crowell. The firm employed its characteristic genius here. While the concrete-framed fireproof building appears as a four story building, the second and third floors are actually a second floor and mezzanine. This arrangement allowed for production using machinery with overhead components on the second floor and distribution on the first floor, with loading bays lining the east wall (see the photo above). The floor arrangement allowed for the building to have a smaller footprint, saving room and creating a more urban form. The mezzanine arrangement is reflected in tall exterior windows that call to mind the same firm’s earlier Federal Reserve Bank Building (1924) at Broadway and Locust downtown.

In 1946, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch acquired the building and put it to use printing its popular Sunday lifestyle magazines. The Post expanded the building in 1959. In recent years, the building housed Crescent Electrical Supply. The former owner recently began clearing the building in preparation of its impending demolition. The loss is a shame. The lack of lavish ornament no doubt seals the fate, but that same quality gives the building an appearance consistent with its original use. While not a masterpiece, the building is a handsome modern industrial composition that is an important part of the character of Duncan Avenue. Besides, the building is almost built with adaptation in mind. All we need is a little imagination — the sort of big thinking that led our leaders to envision CORTEX in the first place.

Architecture Historic Preservation Midtown Storefront Addition

Thoughts on Storefront Additions

by Michael R. Allen

Sometimes I wonder if the mid-twentieth century practice of adding storefront sections to the front of historic homes is a St. Louis phenomenon. Certainly, we have many interesting examples here on major east-west streets like Delmar, Natural Bridge, Cherokee and Forest Park. These are symptoms of explosive population growth and changing land uses.

The example shown here is located at 3808 Olive Street, between Spring and Vandeventer, in Midtown. (The Central Apartments stood across the street.) Here we have a limestone-faced Queen Anne home dating to the 1890s. The architect may be Jerome Bibb Legg, a prolific residential architect who designed the other home remaining on this desolate block; Legg’s name appears as owner or architect on several building permits on this block.

In front we have a pressed-brick storefront from the middle part of the twentieth century. A door at right leads to the original entrance of the home. This photo does not show the quirky gesture in which the builder reused stone from the porch to build a side wall that connects the house to the storefront.

Weird? Yes. Useful? Also, yes. While not a candidate for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a 19th century house, the hybrid building offers some interesting potential for reuse. Perhaps the alteration of the house itself could make it eligible for National Register listing. What is needed is a local survey of such storefront-bearing houses, followed by national comparison. This strange building could be a treasure!

Architecture Events Louis Sullivan Salvage

Elmslie and Sullivan Exhibit Opens With Talk by Tim Samuelson

by Michael R. Allen

Over 150 people attended the opening.

On Friday, January 25, the Architectural Museum at the City Museum opened its new exhibit Elmslie and Sullivan to a packed house. Architectural Museum founder Bruce Gerrie curated the exhibit. While featuring terra cotta ornament from the buildings of George Grant Elmslie, once Louis Sullivan’s chief draftsman, as well as those of Sullivan himself, most of the exhibit incorporated ornament from the Morton and Thomas Alva Edison public schools designed by Elmslie that were built in Hammond, Indiana during the 1930s. The Hammond school district demolished these schools in 1991, but recovered much of the terra cotta. Some of the terra cotta ended up in use in new school buildings, but most has ended up in storage under the city’s ownership. The last exhibition of the terra cotta in the region was in 1998 when University of Illinois professors Paul Kruty and Ronald Schmitt organized an exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The highlight of the evening may very well have been Tim Samuelson‘s rousing welcoming speech. Tim is the Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago and one of the leading scholars of Sullivan and the Prairie School. He also is a gifted orator with a compelling imagination. Tim Samuelson feels architecture, and he has that rare gift of being able to articulate that feeling. His talk began with a summary of the architectural theory of Louis Sullivan and led to a celebration of Elmslie, a quiet man who was the subject of somewhat disparaging remarks in Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography. Wright was Sullivan’s chief draftsman before Elmslie, and the two shared an office for years. Seems that Wright didn’t see much beneath Elmslie’s cool exterior. Fortunately, Tim does and shared with the crowd his understanding of Elmslie’s singular vision — a vision powerfully manifest in the Hammond schools and one on par with Wright’s.

Elmslie’s unique terra cotta designs show a mind engaging both Sullivan’s principles and the machine age architectural principles of the Art Deco style. And Elmslie’s buildings reveal the conscious effort of one designer to reconcile organic lines with geometric mass. Some of Elmslie’s work, like the Old Second National Bank (1924), almost heads off the rise of Art Deco by creating an American alternative firmly rooted in both the ideals of modernism and Midwestern regionalism.

Ever-animated Tim Samuelson speaks at the opening reception.

In all, the opening demonstrates the strong continued interest in the work of Elmslie and the Prairie School as well as the large audience for architectural programming in St. Louis. While the exhibit opening was supposed to last until 9:00 p.m., people were still viewing it and conversing with each other until well past 11:00 p.m.

The exhibit will be on display through December 2008 to anyone purchasing a City Museum admission ($12). More information here.