Brick Theft Historic Preservation North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place Theft

A Hebert Street Story

by Michael R. Allen

Our story starts in the heat of the summer, 2007. Two one-story shotgun houses sit on a block of Hebert Street between 25th Street and Parnell in St. Louis Place. Both houses have sat side by side since 1895, when they were built. On the left, 2530 Hebert Street is occupied by a family. On the right, 2532 Hebert is boarded up and has been owned by a holding company called N & G Ventures since December 2005. The overgrowth is evident, with tall woody growth and mosquitoes presenting a nuisance to the family next door.

Draw back for a bigger picture, and we see that the two-story house to the east of the occupied house is also vacant and boarded. A company called MLK 3000 purchased that house in March 2007, requiring that its owner evict the tenants before the sale closed. We see that other buildings have fallen vacant and been demolished on this block, leaving vacant lots in varying degrees of maintenance.

The family living at 2530 Hebert Street have lived through tough times that got worse. In 2007, the identity of the holding company owner became public knowledge. McEagle Properties was buying land and buildings in north St. Louis for a large development. Details of the plan were unknown.

In May 2008, a string of arson hit this area of St. Louis Place. Ten vacant buildings went up in flames within a three day period. Police arrested a suspect who was released uncharged. No one has been charged with the arson. However, off the record officers say that the arsons were connected to the brick theft that has plagued north St. Louis for years and has escalated in St. Louis Place since 2006.

Perhaps it is not surprising that our family on Hebert Street sold their home to a McEagle holding company, Union Marin, in July 2008, for $75,000. Who else would have paid the family that much to relieve them of living on what had become a desolate block? They could have sold directly to McEagle for a decent price, or to one of the middle-man speculators who would have paid them $50,000 and sold to McEagle at $75,000.

Let’s move forward a year and see what happened to the houses on Hebert Street.

Ah, the brick thieves struck the fine little homes! On May 25, 2009, not only was 2532 Hebert Street reduced to a foundation, but the house that had been occupied less than a year earlier was down to three walls. That’s what happens when there are no eyes and ears on a block to watch out for criminals.

The brick thieves have been striking this area for years, often taking their bricks to nearby dealers around 25th and University streets. The thieves work in broad daylight and on weekends, and yet few ever get caught by police.

No matter — this week the house at 2530 Hebert Street is down to fewer than two full walls. The scene is garish, with the well-painted front doors and their decorative surrounds leading into a wrecked home. The water runs in the basement, where a washing machine can be seen. The sagging floors are ready to collapse any day now.

Next door, the formerly-solid two-story house has now been hit. The thieves have struck this house since May 25, because there was no damage evident then. What sort of city lets this sort of crime happen so brazenly? That’s a question for another story.

Perhaps none of this matters at all: on the slides that McEagle showed at a meeting on May 21, this block was part of a large “employment center” where many extant historic buildings were replaced by large new ones. If the city assents to this plan through a redevelopment ordinance, many other buildings will disappear. However, the shocking and illegal campaign of brick theft is not a fair or civilized way to prepare the development area.

I hope that our story ends with the arrest and conviction of the thieves who destroyed the house son Hebert as well as the dealers who fence brick knowing the illicit source. In fact, a happy end would have the larger penalties assessed against those who profit the most from brick theft — not the poor guys with pick axes, but the people who sell the brick out of town to build the McMansions of the Sun Belt. Then, we would have an open conversation about historic preservation and the McEagle project, reach consensus, watch a great project get built and all would live happily ever after.

Brick Theft North St. Louis St. Louis Building Division

How Brick Thieves Do It

This Pub Def video features Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) explaining how brick thieves do their work. This first appeared in August 2007, but it is relevant this summer as the streets of north St. Louis gear up against this wave of criminal activity.

Moore’s comment that “somebody is doing it from the inside” of the Building Division still rings loud and clear. Has the Building Division ever investigated links between thieves and its demolition staff? If not, Alderman Moore and his colleagues on the Board of Aldermen should.

Brick Theft Flounder House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Brick Thieves Return to St. Louis Place

by Michael R. Allen

By March 2009, things were not good for the unusual two-and-half-story flounder house located at 2543 Maiden Lane in St. Louis Place. The house was sporting a small hole at the base of its west wall as well as a major stress crack. The hole was strange because there was no apparent structural problem causing it. Urban Solutions, the consulting firm performing maintenance on behalf of owner McEagle Properties, placed one of its orange construction fences around the building in response to the conditions. Then the building just sat, with most window and door openings unsecured.

On April 2, the Building Division condemned the house for demolition, but so far has not placed the demolition out to bid.

The house stands out not only for a height rare for a flounder house, but also because it actually faced out toward Maiden Lane, an east-west street that is almost alley-like. The flounder sits on the north end of its lot, directly on the alley between Maiden Lane and North Market. The one-story flounder addition in front is a unique feature as well. The east side contains a gallery porch with access to the two flats inside of the building.

The north face shows the full height of the house, as well as some original six-over-six wooden window sash.

Last week, I noticed that the hole had grown bigger, with a pile of bricks at the base covered in lime mortar dust. I wondered if recent windy days had taken their toll until today, when I realized that a more common culprit is at work here.

That’s right, the brick thieves are back in action. They have made short work of the one story addition, and have made the hole in the main house bigger (although their clumsy methods have broken many bricks).

The tire tracks running through the high grass on the vacant lot next door provide clear evidence of thievery.

Strange that the thieves have evaded detection here — the west wall faces out at busy Jefferson Avenue, not far from the police station. I’m also perplexed by the fact that of all of the brick buildings with wall damage in this vicinity, the thieves have struck this one. Is the recent condemnation for demolition a prompt? Perhaps the thieves saw the building on a demolition bid list.

In the middle of a flagging economy, brick theft could be elevated this summer. It’s time for all of us to get tough — city government, police and neighbors. If you see people removing bricks from a building and there is any suspicion of theft, call 911. If you have the constitution, take photographs of the activity and wait for police to arrive. Unfortunately, police will not always respond seriously to a brick theft call. A legitimate wrecker with demolition rights will be able to show police a demolition permit.

Let’s hope this summer does not see a wave of destruction like the ones that hit the north side in the past two years.

Brick Theft North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Brick Theft Suspect Charged With Felony

by Michael R. Allen

This morning was a momentous event in efforts to crack down on the plague of brick theft that has hit the north St. Louis neighborhoods of St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou and the Ville. This morning Judge Cale Stovall-Reid held a preliminary hearing in the case of the City of St. Louis vs. Samuel K. Ivory.

Ivory, known as a demolition crew worker, faces the misdemeanor charge of Theft/Stealing (Value Of Property Or Services Is Less Than $500) and, most important, a felony charge of Property Damage 1st Degree. Judge Stovall-Reid has also ordered Ivory confined to the city of St. Louis pending trial. Earlier this year, police from the Fifth District arrested Ivory at the scene of 2569 Montgomery Street, where allegedly Ivory and others were taking down a house owned by one of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s holding companies. The house has since been demolished due to its destabilization by brick thieves (see “Cut Off, Cut Down”, July 25).

North side residents have been demanding justice against the brick thieves for the last two years. That justice may be coming, at least to one of the perpetrators.

Brick Theft Demolition North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Cut Off, Cut Down

by Michael R. Allen

Three weeks ago I wrote about the loss of a house at 2569 Montgomery Street in St. Louis Place (see “Cut Off”, July 25, 2008). The house and the house next door were owned by companies tied to developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. and had suffered severe damage at the hands of criminals who steal brick. Now the house next door, at 2571 Montgomery Street, is gone. This photo dates to the demolition last week. Now this block is down to two remaining houses across the street from each other to the west. One of those houses is owned by a McKee holding company.

Preservation planning, anyone? It’s much cleaner and safer than demolition through the urban warfare of brick theft.

Brick Theft Demolition North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Cut Off

by Michael R. Allen

Shown here is the house at 2569 Montgomery Street in St. Louis Place before its demise at the hands of brick thieves earlier this year. When I took this photograph in February, thieves had already taken down much of the western wall of the house, causing interior collapses. Not long after I took this photograph, a brick wall collapsed on some thieves working on this house and, in the ensuing attempt to dig out one of the wreckers, police arrived on the scene to ticket the “crew” with trespassing. At least, that’s the word on the street — court records don’t turn up anything.

The false-mansard-faced two-story house was built in 1888, long before Parnell Avenue to its east was widened out of proportion with demands. This house stood on a block orphaned between the needless expanse of Parnell — a formidable pedestrian boundary — and the expansion of industries to the west that involved major street closures. The life-flow of cities and blood alike is circulation. Any part cut off from circulation eventually dies. This house ended up in the possession of Blairmont Associates in 2005. No surprise that the owners of the house next door sold to Blairmont sister company Sheridan Place in 2006.

Brick Theft North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Brick Rustlers Decimate Wright Street Block

Five years ago, almost every residential unit on the 1900 block of Wright Street in St. Louis Place was occupied. These units were rentals in conditions ranging from good to poor. None of this housing was rehabilitated, but the buildings on the block were in solid condition with average deterioration for their age.

The buildings formed a balanced array of different vernacular styles. On the south side of the street, east of a vacant lot, was a brick-faced, mansard-roofed, three-story former single-family home. That house was vacant. East of that, a side-gabled two-story two-flat. East of there was a row of flats — two stories with attic, side-gabled brick with striking and simple details.

Across the street was a flat-roofed two-flat probably built a little later than its neighbors. (See photgraphs of this side of the block before rustling.) This building had a Romanesque Revival arched window on the first floor and a dentillated tin cornice above terra cotta garlands. To the west was a two-story alley house reconfigured to face Wright Street, probably after the demolition of the house that stood in front of it.

West of that, another house set back — three stories, dormer on the front of the roof, corbeled brick cornice. That house stood next to a few vacant lots. Completing the north street face was a three-story half-flounder two-flat with a front dormer. The house had brick corbels at its cornice, perhaps replacing an earlier wooden cornice. This house was very typical of late 19th century vernacular tenement buildings in the city. It shared a wall with the block’s crown jewel, a three-story row of flats with mansard roofs, cast iron balconies, detailed limestone keystones and decorative brickwork.

The block’s architecture was amazing, yet typical of the stock of the near north side. The conditions of the buildings were likewise typical. The block needed improvement, and the houses rehabilitation, but in many ways the block was doing a lot better than most in the neighborhood.

Then, in 2005, came an investor from St. Charles County. Not Paul McKee, but another notorious large-scale developer named Doug Hartmann. Hartmann bought the ornate row on the north side of the street, relocated the tenants and started rehabbing the building. Then his mortgage scheme caught up with him, work stopped, and the building sat open and empty.

Later that year, the other big developer came to the block. McKee’s holding companies started with the flat-roofed house and evicted the tenants. The holding companies took another 18 months to acquire the rest of the block, save Hartmann’s property and the vacant house. Everyone moved out. A small glimmer of hope emerged when the titles to Hartmann’s properties were cleared and some of his investors acquired the row, but no work resumed. Last spring, illegal dumping started at one of the McKee houses (see my post “Silence is Golden” from May 2007). Then a plague descended on this block and all over St. Louis Place — brick thieves.

Never before had north city seen such a geographically-concentrated amount of brick rustling. Brick rustling is the activity in which unlicensed workers demolish abandoned properties solely to steal the bricks and sell them to brick yards for quick cash. What happened on Wright Street happened on Montgomery, St. Louis, Coleman, Garrison and many other streets in St. Louis Place and Jeff VanderLou. The rustling began in early 2007 and continues to this day. The targets seem to primarily be McKee-owned property. While the buildings are easy opportunities, and many of these buildings had been occupied only recently and thus unavailable for rustling, the timing has prompted much suspicion of a concerted effort on someone’s part.

Earlier this year, the thieves had made their way through most of the buildings. The flat-roofed building and the exquisite row were standing intact until this February, when rustlers hit hard and fast, taking out pivotal front corners. For some reason, the thieves didn’t tackle the alley house. On a vacant block, brick rustling goes undetected. Even when someone sees it happening, chances are good that the person will dismiss the work as legitimate — or simply not care. Those who do need to call 911 at every instance; some reported instances have indeed led to arrests of thieves.

In February, Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) responded to the situation on this block by ordering emergency demolition of all of the buildings, including the alley house. Demolition is nearly complete. Who can blame her? With no hope for the buildings, their condition posed a public safety hazard as well as a sign of neglect. No one wants to live near the spectacle of a group of rustled buildings — it’s a frightening sight, one that drives visitors and homeowners alike to prettier places. The rewards of rustling to the thieves are small and immediate, but the reward to anyone wanting to buy out more residents of St. Louis Place is large and enduring.

The irony is that under the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit, McKee can receive tax credit money for the emergency demolition work that Alderwoman Ford-Griffin ordered, should he pay his bills before applying. Demolition work is reimbursed 100% by the credits. Attractive nuisances, indeed.

Additional coverage is available at St. Louis Patina: “St. Louis Place Blockbusting” (March 8, 2008) and “I Would Have Lived There” (March 6, 2008).

Brick Theft St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Bosley Wants to Get Strict With Brick Dealers

Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr. (D-3rd) has introduced Board Bill 232 to increase the regulation of brick recyclers in the city of St. Louis. The bill has two aims:

– To require that brick dealers videotape all transactions on their yards, keep the tapes for thirty days afterwards and make tapes available to the police department.

– To limit the hours of operation of brick yards so that they close at 6:00 p.m. on Fridays and do not reopen until 5:00 a.m. on Monday.

Bosley’s bill imposes the punishment of fines not to exceed $500.00 and imprisonment not to exceed ninety days for each violation of the bill by a dealer.

These measures are practical and seem to be effective steps to combat the rising tide of brick theft that is decimating vacant buildings in St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou and Hyde Park. While the theft occurs at all hours, theft is increased during late night and weekend hours, and most thieves lack storage space and money, and thus quickly sell the stolen goods to yards. Late-night sales are not uncommon at some yards.

While the bill does not harm dealers in the suburbs who are also buying stolen brick, perhaps it will inspire ordinances in St. Louis County and other areas where dealers operate. The punishment called for in Bosley’s bill may also not be severe enough to serve as a major deterrent. However, the provision for use of cameras will no doubt have a major impact on the incomes of those who profit from dealing stolen bricks.

Hopefully, the Board of Aldermen will swiftly pass Bosley’s bill.

Brick Theft LCRA LRA North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Pruitt Igoe St. Louis Place

Latest Brick Rustling Casualty in St. Louis Place

by Michael R. Allen

In the last two weeks, brick rustlers have reduced this Romanesque Revival two-flat at 2318 Howard Street to the tell-tale mess of sagging floors supported by internal walls. The four brick walls are completely gone, with the bricks taken to one of the yards that gladly fence bricks stolen from the north side. Some veneered McMansion in the Phoenix suburbs could end up with a thin face of brick taken from this house to raise money for rent, crack cocaine or any number of other needs and desires. I took the photograph above last summer; the building was remarkably intact

The building stands (barely) on city block 2318, bounded by Howard on the north, 25th on the west, Mullanphy on the south and 23rd on the east. This is two blocks north of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project site in an area of St. Louis Place that resembles

The ownership pattern on the block is rather strange:

1617 N 23RD ST LRA

In addition to one LCRA holding here we have the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIE), Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), N & G Ventures LC and Blairmont Associates LC, two of Paul McKee’s companies, and a smattering of private owners.

Brick Theft Media North St. Louis

NPR Covers St. Louis Brick Rustling

by Michael R. Allen

KWMU’s Matt Sepic is back with another built environment story, this time for NPR’s national “Marketplace” program. “Brick rustling on the rise in St. Louis” provides an overview of the problem plaguing parts of the city where there is more masonry than money — but brick yards offer a tempting conversion rate. The story features interviews with salvage specialist Larry Giles, brick dealer Bud Boldt and myself.