This blog continues to chronicle the loss of north St. Louis building stock. Our goal is to illuminate the repetitive impact of careless demolition policy, and the social impact of individual demolitions. There is a special problem posed by demolitions in neighborhoods that are proximate to parts of the north side that have retained architectural integrity and are already listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Demolitions across the north side don’t just remove problem properties. They remove housing stock and reduce the voter rolls. Demolitions destabilize neighborhoods. They erode sense of place, which turns owner-occupants away from neighborhoods, or north St. Louis entirely. Demolitions and persistent vacant lots lower land values. Expedient, perhaps. Damaging, for sure. The long-term impact of demolishing vacant buildings is the fulfillment of the “Team Four Plan” mythology: a depleted half-city easy to dismiss and lacking in density needed for truly flourishing urban life.
It’s a good thing that we have the myth of a “Team Four Plan,” because that allows us to ignore the convergence of neglectful property owners, ineffective aldermen, minimal city planning oversight and new-development-obsessed community development corporations that are more responsible for the depletion of north St. Louis than consultants who prepared a memorandum nearly forty years ago. A close read of that document does not yield the phrase “College Hill” even once, so the blame for that neighborhood’s despair lies elsewhere.
The blame for the impending demolition of the privately-owned one-part commercial block at 3773-3783 West Florissant Avenue, at the intersection of Prairie Avenue, can at least partially be laid upon recent rains that besieged a weak parapet wall that has now fallen into the building. Yet the rains are not why the building has been listed as a vacant building since 1990, and when the waters pour upon a vacant lot for the next few decades we will have to trace the demise of commercial life at the intersection further back than 2012.
On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article by reporter Tim Logan that raised the issue of the city’s lack of citywide demolition review. The article, which ran on the front page above the fold, took as a starting point the sudden, lonesome death of the Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway. Since the Avalon was outside of one of the city’s preservation review districts, it bit the dust — or, rather, became dust bitten by passers-by — without any review.
Logan’s article included a promising set of quotes from two aldermen. The first came from Carol Howard (D-14th), who represents the eastern part of the Southampton neighborhood where the Avalon was located. The demolition experience has spurred Howard to seek demolition review for her ward, one of south city’s only wards that lacks review. Howard also endorses a return to citywide review, which St. Louis had before 1999. “It’s a tool, I think, that makes for better decisions,” she told Logan.
A view that could be read as dissenting came from Alderman Antonio French (D-21st), whose constituents include this writer. French’s first bill upon being elected in 2009 put the 21st Ward into preservation review for the first time since 1999. Yet the alderman wants to remove review for part of the College Hill neighborhood added to his ward in redistricting. French wants to concentrate preservation efforts on the intact largely Penrose and O’Fallon neighborhoods in his ward. “What works for Penrose and O’Fallon may not work for College Hill,” said the alderman.
Am I the only person who sees that both Alderwoman Howard and Alderman French are right? St. Louis does need citywide review, and building conservation strategies for depleted neighborhoods like College Hill — where many blocks are devoid of more than five or six historic buildings — need not entail preserving every remaining historic building.
Yet the crux of these two points’ convergence is that these decisions need to be made by qualified professional planners working in the interest of all city residents. Aldermen who serve geographic areas whose boundaries change every ten years, who lack training in urban planning and historic preservation, and who have to seek re-election are not the best people to make decisions for the long-term interests of the city’s built environment. Yet aldermen create the legislation under which review takes place, establishing guidelines that represent the public interest.
Alderman French might be suggesting that a citywide demolition review ordinance be informed by theories of planned shrinkage. Again, having professionals examining demolition seems like the best way to make that happen. Citywide review does not mean preservation of everything in the city, it means a system in which preservation planning is made under legal criteria interpreted by professionals who are free from political motivations. Applicants for demolition, aldermen, neighbors and preservationists will have a predictable public process with the same rule for every building.
If that sounds familiar, it’s what this city had before the Board of Aldermen passed the current preservation ordinance in 1999.
Yesterday evening, a fire raced through the vacant, Land Reutilization Authority-owned four-family building at 4411 N. 20th Street in College Hill. The building’s timber elements quickly gave way to the flames, and within an hour the building was reduced to its still-solid brick walls and smoldering wood inside. Alas, the building is not an isolated one but part of a row of historic buildings, some of which are occupied.
The single-family house at 2441 Laflin Street in JeffVanderLou (1893) bears a resemblance to a house that I wrote about recently (see “Architectural Creativity on Prairie Avenue”, August 18). That duplex at 2111 East Prairie Avenue in College Hill (1884) appears below.
Both have a projecting trapezoidal bay and a brick cornice as defining architectural features. However, the house on Laflin is a single house of only 660 square feet with the entrance to the left of the bay. There may be more houses like this across the city — post their addresses in the comments section.
I absolutely love this two-car garage that becomes part of the retaining wall! This garage is located behind the house at 2101 E. DeSoto Avenue, and faces out onto Emily Avenue. The roof of the garage is close enough to yard level that it could easily be used for a patio or garden space with necessary modification of the roof structure.
Unfortunately, the house — built in 1893 and missing many of its College Hill neighbors — has been vacant since 2007. The corner entrance through the retaining wall is another thoughtful feature. Under the layers of siding, there may be the home’s original wooden siding. The cornice is long gone. Still, rehabilitation would be easy, with the two-story frame house in great shape for a building of its age and construction method.
Two blocks of Prairie Avenue on each side of West Florissant Avenue are home to some of the most interesting small houses from St. Louis’ 19th century vernacular past. Above is the two-flat at 2111 East Prairie. This unique duplex dates to 1884 and is the lone survivor of a row of four. The trapezoidal entrance bay with its tall, narrow windows gives an otherwise conventional box a commanding street presence. The contrast between the masonry cornice work on this bay and the rest of the building reinforces the presence of the entrance. Now, this has been converted into a single-family home.
Across the street toward Florissant Avenue is the side-gabled house at 2144 East Prairie, built in 1885. Homes like this are common across St. Louis, but how many have Roman arches over all window and door openings — not just on the front, but on the sides as well?
While not eccentric like the others here, I had to mention the frame house at 2128 East Prairie, built in 1884. This side-entrance house is in fine shape, and worthy of preservation. Owned by the Land Reutilization Authority and located in the ailing College Hill neighborhood, there are already two strikes against the house.
One block west across Florissant stands one of the coolest shotgun houses ever built in our fair city. The house at 4316 Prairie (the bend in the street changes numbering from east-west to north-south) dates to 1896 and is fully within the fin de siecle eclectic vein of American architecture. The double pyramidal roof may be unique to a house of this size in St. Louis. Alas, this house is also a survivor of a row of four identical houses. The houses at 4312 and 4314 were LRA-owned and demolished in 2004, while the fourth house at 4310 was lost before 1980. In 2002, Landmarks Association of St. Louis prepared a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places of the three remaining house paid for by Community Development Block Grant funds, but for some reason the organization and Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd), who represents this area, never proceeded with submission of the nomination.
These two blocks of Prairie Avenue lie in different neighborhoods — east of West Florissant is College Hill, and west is Fairground. Both neighborhoods are within the city’s Third Ward. These blocks are each largely devoid of houses at all these days, with over 50% of the parcels on each street face vacant. Thus, the odd houses stand out more. However, I think their unique qualities must have seemed even stranger when contrasted with so many more conventional vernacular buildings around them. Context is always key.