Columbus Square Downtown Neon Northside Regeneration

Does the Vess Bottle Belong in the Bottle District?

by Michael R. Allen

The Vess Bottle, viewed from the north.

Now that the “Bottle District” — that mass of spread gravel north of our football stadium — is poised to become part of the Northside Regeneration project, perhaps it is time to evaluate the fate of the Vess bottle sign that gave the now-merged project its name. Dan McGuire of McGuire Moving and Storage, the longtime former occupant of a nearby historic warehouse building at Sixth and O’Fallon streets, invented the Bottle District trope in 2006 to market an ambitious mixed-use high-rise redevelopment project designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The Libeskind plans are long gone, and now developers Larry Chapman and Paul J. McKee, Jr. are trying to market a now-cleared site between O’Fallon and Cole streets west of Broadway. What the bottle has to do with the new project is unclear.

Columbus Square North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Signs

Cass Bank Sign Missing

by Michael R. Allen

There have been more than a few changes around the intersection of North Florissant Avenue, 13th Street and Cass Avenue lately. In the past, I have lamented the destruction of the Crunden Library at 14th and Cass and the Brecht Butcher Supply Company buildings on Cass, noted (with a degree of lament) the fiery loss of an old bus maintenance garage on 14th and recently observed the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the old Cass Bank and Trust Company Building at 13th and Cass. Once upon a time, before a change in plans in 2007, I protested the proposed ramp system feeding the Mississippi River Bridge that would have cut right across the intersection and severed downtown from Old North forever.

Oh, and then there is the whole matter of Northside Regeneration! A lot can change a small area in five years’ time.  Northside Regeneration, then known as Allston Alliance LC, purchased the old Schnucks store on Cass Avenue and eventually persuaded the Missouri Department of Transportation to route the bridge landing across that site to connect with Tucker Boulevard.  Tucker is now being rebuilt by the removal and infill of the Illinois Traction System cut upon which it was built in 1932.

All of those big changes entailed removal of a very small thing, the once-shining Cass Bank sign that faced the northbound interurban trains of the Illinois Traction System.  The sign was incandescent, with bulbs placed in channels spelling the bank’s name.

Deposit with us, the sign beckoned to all those yearning for a place to put their hard-earned money. All others could enjoy its bright lights which would have shone in the fall-winter dusk on their ride home from downtown.

The lights went out years ago, after the trains stopped running in 1956, but the Cass Bank sign stood amid the jungle growing from the cut.

Standing behind the current Cass Bank home on North 13th Street, the sign was in the way of the new bridge-to-Tucker connection. And it disappeared earlier this year. Does anyone know what happened to it? Could its pointed wedge have been spared as a reminder of part of the history of a site now flattened into the future?

Columbus Square Midtown National Register North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Cass Bank, Castle Ballroom Nominated to National Register

by Michael R. Allen

On Monday, the St. Louis Preservation Board approved two National Register of Historic Places nominations of historic buildings.

The first nomination is for the Cass Bank and Trust Company Building at 1450 N. 13th Street in the Columbus Square area. The building dates to 1927 and was designed by the prolific Bank Building and Equipment Company. In the last few years, after the departure of long-time tenant Greyhound Lines, the building has been vacant.  The neo-classical, Bedford limestone-clad building replaced the earlier Cass Avenue Bank building at 1501 Cass Avenue built in 1915 and designed by Wedmeyer & Stiegemeyer. One year after completion of the Cass Bank and Trust Company Building, the Chippewa Trust Company completed a similarly-styled two-story building at the southwest corner of Chippewa and Broadway streets also by the Bank Building and Equipment Company.

Melinda Winchester of Lafser & Associates wrote the nomination for Northside Regeneration LLC, but the building is owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). The nomination states that Northside Regeneration has the building under contract.

The second nomination is for the former Castle Ballroom at 2831-45 Olive Street in midtown. Prepared by PRO’s Lynn Josse, the nomination recognizes the social history of a building best known in recent years for its slather of goldenrod paint. The building was built in 1908 as Cave Hall, a dance hall that replaced popular Uhrig’s Cave when it was closed to build the Coliseum. Later it became the Castle Ballroom, which served African-Americans from the surrounding Mill Creek and Yeatman neighborhoods. When Mill Creek Valley was cleared up to the south side of Olive Street in the 1950s, the Castle Ballroom survived as one of the few remaining traces of the once-vibrant neighborhood.

As part of a Certified Local Government — a local government with a preservation ordinance certified by the State Historic Preservation Office — the board reviews National Register nominations and sends recommendations to the state Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (MOACHP). MOACHP will consider these nominations at a meeting on November 19, and forward approved nominations to the National Park Service for listing. The most extensive National Register nomination review takes place at the state level.

Architecture Columbus Square Downtown Housing Mid-Century Modern

Cochran Gardens Replacement Complete

by Michael R. Allen

Looking northeast from the intersection of 9th and Carr streets, September 2009.

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.

Cochran Gardens after completion, 1952. From the collection of the St. Louis Housing Authority.

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.

See also:

“Cochran Gardens Demolition Nearing Completion” (March 25, 2008)

“Historic Cochran Gardens” (August 8, 2007)

Architecture Columbus Square Demolition Housing Mid-Century Modern Pruitt Igoe

Cochran Gardens Demolition Nearing Completion

by Michael R. Allen

Demolition work at the Cochran Gardens housing complex north of downtown is nearing completion. After demolition of three low-rise buildings, wreckers are working to finish demolition of one of the two tall buildings at the former public housing complex.

Completed in 1953 and designed by architectural firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber, Cochran Gardens was the first project built by the St. Louis Housing Authority that made use of high-rise buildings. However, the complex balanced three tall buildings with low-rise buildings. Cochran included twelve buildings, and six were six stories each, two were seven stories, and four were twelve stories. Nevertheless, Cochran Gardens set the stage for the Pruitt, Igoe, Darst, Webbe, Vaughn and Blumeyer housing complexes that were composed exclusively of tall buildings. In time, all of these projects have been cleared and redeveloped, most using the federal HOPE VI program.

Cochran Gardens will retain its second tower, transformed in 1980 into elderly housing. That tower will remain as the first and last tall public housing building in St. Louis.

Columbus Square Downtown Housing Mid-Century Modern Pruitt Igoe

"Historic" Cochran Gardens

by Michael R. Allen

One local television station’s report on today’s fire at one of the Cochran Gardens buildings on Seventh Street north of downtown called the building “historic.”

The use of that adjective was bittersweet. The six red brick apartment buildings — including two buildings reputed to be the first high-rise public housing buildings in the city — are a handsome example of relatively sensitive mid-century design. Designed by George Hellmuth and completed in 1953, Cochran Gardens was the city’s third federally-funded housing project built by the St. Louis Housing Authority. It also was the scene for one of the nation’s earliest and most successful tenant management programs. For better or for worse, Cochran Gardens survived its contemporaries, form Pruitt-Igoe to Darst-Webbe. Tenant management helped, as did a modern design much more humanely scaled than the successor projects with uniform heights and building types.

Demolition of Cochran Gardens is currently underway, with five of the six buildings slated for eventual demolition. One of the taller buildings will remain. The replacement HOPE VI project is under construction, and seems better-designed than many recent examples. One wonders what sort of viability the Cochran Gardens buildings could have had in today’s downtown housing market. Next door, the stunning rehabilitation of the Neighborhood Gardens Apartments demonstrates that much can be done to creatively transform mass housing, and that there is demand for the end products. Whereas the intended tenants of high-rise public housing may have desired housing more along the lines of what HOPE VI projects provide, some people do choose to live in basic, sturdy spaces off of the ground. After all, the transformation of the wholesale buildings of Washington Avenue into desired housing suggests that just about any kind of building can be someone’s house. Why not a building design for housing in the first place? No matter — we lost the chance with Cochran Gardens. Next time?

Columbus Square North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Blairmont: 1617 N. 10th Street

Part of the Photographic Survey of Blairmont Buildings.

Date of photograph: August 17, 2006.

LOCATION: 1617 N. 10th Street; Saint Louis, Missouri

Columbus Square JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Place

Photographic Survey of Blairmont Buildings

by Michael R. Allen and Claire Nowak-Boyd

2933 Montgomery Street, owned by Sheridan Place LC.

Wonder what exactly we keep talking about when we bemoan the treatment of historic north side buildings by the “Blairmont” companies?

Now you can see for yourself by looking at our photographic survey of their buildings. This project is a work in progress, and will be greatly expanded, but already the survey includes recent photographs of over 50 of their buildings in Old North St. Louis, Columbus Square, JeffVanderLou and St. Louis Place.

Columbus Square

1617 N. 10th Street


2400-2500 Block of Coleman Street

2900 Block of Montgomery Street

Other JeffVanderLouBuildings

2629 St. Louis Avenue

2800 Block of St. Louis Avenue

Old North St. Louis

The Old North Buildings

St. Louis Place

1900 Block of Wright Street

Some of the St. Louis Place Buildings

St. Louis Avenue Buildings in St. Louis Place

Columbus Square Housing Mid-Century Modern

Open House at Neighborhood Gardens

by Michael R. Allen

On the weekend of October 21-22, 2006, Spanish Lake Development Company held an open house at Neighborhood Gardens to display the results of their two-year rehabilitation project. The event coincided with the annual Downtown Housing Tour. After a long period of rehab and an even longer period of decay, the buildings looked alive again!

The renovated buildings look much as they did when they opened over seventy years ago. The vision of Spanish Lake Development principals Jim and Dan Dalton was to restore the buildings to their true architectural qualities. Thus, they restored or rebuilt almost all of the original steel sash windows with new double glazing, retained exposed block walls and concrete floors in the stairwells and put ceramic tile over the floors rather than carpeting. The only real change to the buildings were the creation of larger apartments through doubling of the small original units. Mostly, the Daltons have kept the timeless qualities of the buildings — qualities created by durable materials that allowed the buildings to survive dereliction without major damage.

The project is nearing total completion, but some buildings are already ready for leasing. Unlike the proposed Bottle District across the street, the redevelopment of these buildings has happened on a short schedule, without the Mayor’s smiling support and without huge fanfare. The persistence of the Daltons has taught the city that even a troubled, iconic abandoned place is not too far gone if someone dares to bring it back to life. That someone need not be a famous developer, either — it can be two guys who care. May the “new” Neighborhood Gardens thrive.

Columbus Square Downtown

Neighborhood Gardens Memories

by Kathy Davis

The following comes from e-mail correspondence between the author and editor Michael Allen.

I grew up in the Neighborhood Gardens. My parents moved there in 1939. They raised three children there, including myself. We lived there until 1969, the year I graduated from high school. I have so many memories as I lived there the first eighteen years of my life. As a child I loved the pool and the courtyards. The south courtyard was where we played softball and football and the north courtyard was a basketball court. It also had great sidewalks for rollerskating.

The smell of honeysuckle was strong in the summer as there were a number of bushes throughout the complex. I was always told that there was almost every plant that was native to our state planted there. It was truly beautiful and well kept by the workmen. I remember three men who were maintenance. I went to school at St. Patrick’s grade school. I was baptized at St. Patrick’s Church and there is a picture of my family at the ground breaking of the new school in 1953. The Church was gone in 1969 or 70.

There was a Tom-Boy store on seventh street where we shopped and my brother worked as a bagger. There were also a cleaners, a tavern and an ice cream/confectionery. There were a few famous people who lived for a time at the apartments. William Inge was one.

I have many, many memories. There was nothing or nowhere prettier than there after a snowfall. There were so many trees that it was a wonderland.

I don’t remember it as a complex for low income. It was mostly single people or couples who worked downtown. Teachers and lawyers and women who worked for the phone company.Writers and artists also lived there. There were only about six kids by the time I came along. But we sure had fun.

This was a thriving neighborhood — very Italian, Catholic and strong. We used to have processions from St. Patrick’s to St. Joseph’s on Mayday. Seventh street had many markets like Tocco brothers, Valenti market where you could buy bags of olives and pumpkin seeds and just about everything. After Cochran was built there were many big families who moved in. I would go to sleep at night listening to groups of people singing across the street, as I lived at 1212 North 8th street.

We lived in a two bedroom on the first floor. No air, just window fans that my mother was very good at positioning so you got max air flow. The kitchens were small but efficient. The basements connected to other entrances and everyone would come down when it stormed. It could turn into quite the party for all the mothers with children. We all had our own locker areas to hang up laundry to dry.

Kids that went to St. Patrick’s grade school were very involved with St. Pat’s day. We performed for many priest in the area and we were the original Irish dance troop in the city. Our Troop leader was Connie O’Sullivan. He was quite the leader. Still to this day it’s like a national holiday to me.

Back to the apartments: We had a wading pool that had metal pipes at each end that made a fountain when turned on and we all swam many hots days away. Also there were two big sand boxes on each side of the pool with benches everywhere to sit and enjoy the tranquility of the courtyards. There were brick walls we would climb with statues on top. There were rails running around the grass areas we would walk on and see how far we could go before falling off. (They were two feet off the ground).

I would make out like a bandit on Halloween because there were not many kids that lived in the gardens — so I got spoiled.

My father was an iron worker and my mother a housewife. My sister and brother also graduated from St. Patrick’s and my brother was also married there.

I truly hope the renovations keep the spirit alive. To me it was home, to my family it was our little haven in the midst of a busy downtown district. You could walk downtown and shop and go to the show. You would walk and look at the Christmas displays in the windows of Famous-Barr and Scruggs, and Stix, Baer and Fuller (later Dillard’s). We watched the Arch being built — now that was something. We would skip church and walk downtown and hide out at Katz’ drugstore to get fries and a cherry coke. We would go to the Loew’s State theater on a Sunday. And watch every parade that went down Washington avenue.

Thank you for giving me a reason to reflect. I have truly enjoyed telling someone who holds an interest. It’s history and it’s my family’s life.