Historic Preservation James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Clemens House Wall Collapse Highlights Continuing Neglect

by Michael R. Allen

Over a week ago, gaping hole appeared in the front yard wall at the James Clemens, Jr. House (1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis Place). The cause of the collapse was structural failure, but the hole and its resulting brick debris attracted a truck load of thieves warded away by vigilant neighbors. Since the wall’s partial collapse, the hole has attracted photographer, a television news crew, concerned neighbors and property owners, thieves and — not surprising — no maintenance crews from Clemens House owner McEagle properties.

The wall remains breached, and the brick bats piled behind the breach right where they fell. When McEagle’s representatives talk about saving the Clemens House, what do they mean? A June draft of the revised tax increment financing (TIF) application for the NorthSide project showed an $8.6 million budget for rehabilitation of the Clemens House — in the project’s second phase with no item for repairs in the first phase — with 100% of the funds to come from TIF funds (at least prior to historic tac credit reimbursement).

While the final TIF application due out tomorrow may not include that line item, the draft idea is discouraging. What if the TIF does not pass the Board of Aldermen, or what if it passes without city backing and McEagle cannot monetize the TIF? The most pressing point is that there is no indication that structural issues like this fence failure or last year’s chapel wall and roof collapse will be abated before TIF funds are available.

This photograph of the wall that I took before the collapse shows the massive inward bow of the wall. The wall’s weight load was shifted askew. Additionally, the wall is tuckpointed incorrectly with a hard mortar, which forces moisture weeping through the bricks instead of the mortar joints. Over times, the bricks in the bow have split due to shifted weight load’s resulting stress, and have been weakened by the hard mortar. A collapse was building.

Of course, this is not the first part of the wall to fall. The limestone return of wall on the east is missing, all of the way through the corner at Cass Avenue.

There is also a partly-collapsed section in front of the chapel at this end. This section collapsed in 2005.

A central feature of the wall was the wrought iron gates, crudely removed by a thief after the Berean Missionary Baptist Association vacated the Clemens House in 2000. This photograph comes from the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and dates to 1980.

Here’s the reverse view in early 2008, showing the damage to the wall caused by hasty removal. My guess is that the thieves tied each gate to a pick-up truck, and pulled them off by accelerating. Perhaps the gates were mangled in the process and ended up in the scrap yard instead of the salvage shop. (Any dealer who accepted and then sold these gates deserves prison time, by the way.)

So now the Clemens House sits behind an unstable, damaged high brick wall missing its iron gates.

Once upon a time, back in 1860 when this silver albumen print was made, the mansion sat behind an elegant iron fence. The iron fence was low and afforded great views of the majestic house. The fence ended at the wooden fencing that surrounded the rest of the Clemens estate.

Preservation of the Clemens House need not retain the later brick wall, which suffers disrepair and obscured views of the house and its later chapel addition. One possible plan would be demolition of the later brick wall and replication of the original iron fence, would would reconnect the Clemens House to the Cass Avenue streetscape and surroudning neighborhood.

However, the fence plan would have to be made as part of a total preservation plan for the site that would take into account use of historic tax credit programs that come with review guidelines that may necessitate retention of the existing wall. To date, there has been no preservation plan produced for the Clemens House — no historic structures report, no structural assessment, nothing. Until McEagle produces a plan, the brick wall needs to be stabilized. The breaches should be closed, and the wall should be braced. If the wall comes down, that act should be planned.

For now, the gaping hole stands as naked testament to the lack of planning for the future of the Clemens House. I want the house to be saved, and I want McEagle to make preservation a priority that is not tied to the outcome of the TIF financing. The Clemens House remains one of the city’s most important 19th century buildings, and its fate truly is of regional concern. McEagle should fix the wall and then work on a serious preservation plan with stabilization work occurring in the first phase of the NorthSide project. Can you imagine a better good will gesture than prompt maintenance and early stabilization? Once stabilized, as the Mullanphy Emigrant Home demonstrates, a building will buy significant time for reuse planning. No preservationist that I know is hollering for McEagle to reopen a fully-restored Clemens House immediately. We just want to make sure than no part of it — including the chapel, which is not far gone despite visible damage — falls down.

James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Clemens House in the News

Maria Altman, KWMU: “Future of pre-Civil War mansion rests with north side developer” (June 2)

Dale Singer, St. Louis Beacon: “Clemens mansion may find new life as museum, says developer McKee” (May 28)

Architecture Events Housing James Clemens House Missouri

Tonight: Lecture and Book Signing on the Houses of Missouri

This evening, learn about the houses of Missouri at one of Missouri’s most important historic homes:

Lecture and Book Signing: Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940
Monday, May 11, 2009
7:00-9:00 P.M.

Carol Grove and Cydney Millstein’s Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940 is the first comprehensive account of the development of residential architecture in the state. With nearly 300 archival photographs, drawings, and original floor plans, the book offers an intimate tour behind the facades of 45 purely American houses ranging from pastoral retreats to mid-century modern mansions. The authors will discuss the book project at the historic Chatillon-DeMenil House, with a reception and signing to follow. Copies of the book (retail price $65) will be on sale, but the reception is complimentary.

The Chatillon-Demenil House is located at 3352 DeMenil Place.

This event is part of Preservation Week, a whirlwind of exciting events offered by Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Come out this week to learn and celebrate our region’s great architecture!

Speaking of historic houses, my talk yesterday at Architecture St. Louis on the James Clemens, Jr. House drew a spirited crowd of people who learned about the history of the house, its namesake, and the current threat to the house and its attached buildings. This was a great kick-off to Preservation Week! Hopefully one year from now I can report back with good news about the Clemens House. Meantime, expect an update based on the talk here.

Events Historic Preservation James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Lecture: The James Clemens House: Past, Present, Future

Volunteers for the Landmarks Association of St. Louis standing on the porch of the James Clemens, Jr. House in 1960.

“The James Clemens House, Past, Present and Future”
When: Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 2:00 p.m.
Where: Architecture St. Louis, 911 Washington Avenue #170

Join Michael Allen, Assistant Director of Landmarks Association, as he offers a look at one of the most significant endangered houses in St. Louis. Built in 1858 for James Clemens, Jr., the house at 1849 Cass Avenue is one of the few remaining antebellum mansions in the city. Later life included expansion of the house and use as a convent and several ministries. For the last decade, the fate of the vacant complex has been uncertain. Collapse of a chapel wall last year sent shock waves throughout the preservation community. Explore the fascinating history of this St. Louis landmark and discover what hope remains.

Lecture is free and open to the public, but reservations are requested, please call 421-6474.

The lecture is part of Preservation Week, a week-long series of events centered on historic preservation. The full schedule is online here.

James Clemens House Media North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

McEagle Spokesman: Clemens Chapel Safe, Sale Still On

by Michael R. Allen

According to an article in Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, McEagle Properties indicates that the chapel at the James Clemens House is safe from imminent destruction:

Dan Brungard, a spokesman for McEagle, a development company from O’Fallon, Mo., said a St. Louis inspector said the damage was weather-related. Brungard said that the property is under contract and that the damage would likely not affect that contract.

“We will do whatever repairs are necessary,” he vowed.

Again, McEagle mentions a sales contract. Who is the mystery party?

Speaking of McEagle getting serious about maintenance, Kathleen McLaughlin’s article from last week’s Riverfront Times, “Mow Your Lawn, Mister?”, reveals that a federally-funded job program will be used for grass cutting at the “Blairmont” properties this summer.

Abandonment Collapse Historic Preservation James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Clemens House Chapel Suffers Localized Collapse

In a move unsurprising to long-time observers, a section of the roof and the eastern wall of the chapel wing at the James Clemens House collapsed in heavy rains yesterday. The collapse took down a section of roof that was sagging severely in recent months and three bays of the east wall above the first floor. The section that collapsed ran between two interior partitions that prevented further roof damage by supporting additional weight and tying the side walls together.

The roof had demonstrated severe local failure, and the western wall had substantially bowed outward in just the least year under pressure from the failing roof trusses. Recent observation showed imminent failure.

However, the chapel shows few signs of further immediate danger. The Building Division may swoop in soon to demolish the chapel, but that would be hasty. Here’s why:

  • The collapse was localized. The roof trusses run the width of the chapel, not the length, so the loss of those that fell yesterday does not necessarily mean others will fail.
  • Adjacent wall and roof sections seem fair. While the roof is in poor condition, the worst parts were those lost. The masonry walls and foundation, on the other hand, show excellent pointing and soundness. The wall section that collapsed did so because the roof pushed it out, not because the wall itself was inherently deficient.

    Built in 1896, the chapel was designed by Carondelet resident Aloysius Gillick, architect of several other Archdiocese buildings including the 1889 St. Mary’s Infirmary. The Sisters of St. Joseph built the chapel after taking ownership of the Clemens House earlier, in 1888. The front-gabled brick building features red sandstone ornament and sills, an ornate front porch and a high body visible from long distances to the east and north. The chapel itself is located on the second floor, and featured a suspended vaulted ceiling (mostly collapsed). The ornate marble altar and stained glass windows are both nearly completely missing.

    Still, preservation of the chapel is important in retaining the historic integrity of the complex. The current configuration reflects the House’s years of religious service rather than its original mansion life, and any restoration should retain the evolved form to show the layers of historic presence.

    Now is the time for the owner of the Clemens House, Paul McKee, to come forward and announce his intention. Inaction will mean certain loss of the chapel and further deterioration of the Clemens House buildings. Immediate stabilization should commence. If McKee is unwilling to do that, he should say so and offer others a chance.

    Television stations KSDK and KTVI (oddly speculating that the chapel was a cathedral) covered the collapse.

  • Categories
    Historic Preservation James Clemens House Metal Theft North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

    Blairmont Secures Clemens House During Historic Preservation Week

    by Michael R. Allen

    Blairmont Associates celebrated Historic Preservation Week with the belated action of securing the James Clemens, Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis Place. According yo a KMOX radio news report, Blairmont parent company McEagle Properties claims that the Clemens House is under contract to another owner and the work is being done as part of the sale.

    The house has sat unsecured for the better part of the last year, with even the front door wide open and unboarded in recent months. Many parts of the building have disappeared in recent years, and during the recent unsecured period millwork began to leave the house.

    On Wednesday, May 14, Blairmont had a crew at the site, cutting and affixing fresh plywood for the numerous unboarded windows and doors as well as bricking in a hole in the rear wall of the dormitory wing. (The masonry repair used an incorrect mortar mix for the historic masonry.)

    Other work included building a chain link fence across the open front entrance in the brick wall along Cass Avenue, where an iron gate once hung.

    The workers did not remove the numerous trees growing out of the original house’s upper floors, not did they take any action to remove collapsed brickwork from the roof and attic of the house. Bricks falling from the taller dormitory have caused significant damage to the house’s northwest corner, collapsing roof joists and causing the third floor to sag. The chapel wing’s condition is severe, with the west wall bowing outward due to ongoing roof collapse.

    Meanwhile, the cast iron portico on the house continues to lean away from the house, causing the limestone porch walls to shift with it. The painted sandstone entrance surround and porch on the chapel is eroding badly.

    During the work, the city’s Building Division came and issued a stop work order. Oddly, Blairmont did not have a building permit for any of the work. While the law is the law, it’s hard to want to stop any step Blairmont is actually taking to secure one of the city’s most important and most endangered landmarks.

    Historic Preservation James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

    McKee to Rehab Clemens House?

    by Michael R. Allen

    A recent post on Urban St. Louis about the James Clemens House caught my attention:

    A co-worker and I were out on the north side this morning and since he had his camera with him we decided to get some pics of the place. When we got there a man was walking around the property looking it over and talking on a cell phone. He asked who we were and said he was talking to the property owner who wanted to know who we were and why we were there. I took the phone and explained that we were just taking pictures. I asked if he really was the owner and he said that he was. I asked what he was planning to do with the place. He said he was going to rehab it. That he was accepting bids and that the work will begin in September.

    Read more here.

    James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

    Deadline for Sale of Clemens House Is Today

    by Michael R. Allen

    Readers may recall that on February 10, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Lisa Van Amburg dismissed without prejudice a lawsuit by the Building Division against Blairmont Associates Limited Corporation over that company’s neglect of the Clemens House. The dismissal was based upon an agreement between Blairmont and the City Counselor’s office that gave the absentee owners 90 days to sell the house or face re-filing of the suit.

    The 90-day deadline is May 10, today.

    Blairmont still owns the Clemens House. Unless a last-minute sale has yet to be reported, Blairmont has failed to meet the terms of the agreement. Hopefully the City Counselor’s Office will not fail to meet their terms and will re-file the case.

    If rumors that Blairmont is a front for McEagle Development and/or the Pyramid Companies are true, one wonders why they would continue to show such reckless attention-getting behavior. Then again, aside from a handful of blogs, who is reporting on Blairmont or the Clemens House? The Post-Dispatch published one article by Jake Wagman in December but has been silent ever since.

    James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

    James Clemens, Jr. House: Stabilization?

    by Michael R. Allen

    On February 10, 2006, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Lisa Van Amburg approval a motion to dismiss, without prejudice, the case of The City of St. Louis Building Division vs. Blairmont Associates LC. This case concerns Blairmont’s inability to stabilize and repair the Clemens House property, which it purchased in 2004. The reason for dismissal is that the City Counselor’s office was successful in getting Blairmont to agree to sell the house within 90 days; if the effort is unsuccessful the city may refile its suit.

    While the dismissal stems more from the agreement than Blairmont’s bringing the buildings’ conditions in line with the demands of the Building Division, before the dismissal Blairmont made an attempt to stabilize the porch and cast iron on the main house. This effort was limited to removal of iron, draping of tarps and placement of temporary fencing around the porch. The massive holes in the chapel’s roof remain uncovered, and no masonry stabilization seems to have been performed.

    These photographs — from February 18 — show the current state of the Clemens House.

    Blairmont seems very committed to the sale, since they are trying to prevent their real identities from being revealed. What they are hiding is not known; we only know that they have done little to safeguard the cultural heritage that is in their legal possession.