Lately, the unkempt stretch of dirt — not shown here, too bleak for the holiday season — where the Avalon Theater once stood has sported a for-sale sign with a slapped-on price of $125,000. That price seems to be missing one zero, compared to where the price for that parcel stood in 2009:
Avalon Theater Site Pricing
2009: $1,000,000 (with building and unrealistic asking price)
2011: $249,000 (with building)
2013: $125,000 (without building)
According to the 2011 demolition permit, the demolition cost $27,500. That non-deferred expenditure removed $124,000 for the sales price, and who knows what really from the final sales price. In 2012, when the building fell, many rejoiced that an “eyesore” was coming down. Yet today the demolition seems economically questionable.
The economics of demolition are simple: removal of buildings almost always decreases the worth of a property. The years of having the building listed at an artificial price, the years of city officials not taking reuse proposals seriously, the expenditure of city time and money to get the building demolished — all add up to reducing the parcel value and lowering revenues to city government.
Demolishing the Avalon Theater has already reduced the property taxes on the parcel:
Avalon Theater Assessed Valuation
2011: $111,700 (with building)
2013: $80,300 (without building)
If the city of St. Louis wants to be “open for business,” as elected officials often claim, it must retain assets that drive economic activity. Demolishing the Avalon Theater was a step in the wrong direction for South Kingshighway.
On October 17, Grand Center, Inc. applied for a demolition permit for the curious hybrid building at 3808 Olive Street. Today, crews were “doing taps” — removing the connections between the building and the cityâ€™s water and gas lines. Soon, yet another small-scaled, perfectly usable building will disappear from the purported intersection of “art and life” — raising the question of what Grand Center has in store for other smaller buildings in the district.
On the face, perhaps the doomed building is a tricky concoction to admire. Yet the turret and stone-faced town house that rises above an appended, plain red brick storefront is every bit as beautiful today as it was when built in the 1880s. The storefront is an added bonus, that could be utilized or removed depending on future plans. In sound condition and potentially eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation (likely if the addition came off), the house with storefront addition should be marketed as a redevelopment opportunity.
Grand Center’s streets are notably absent of the small-scale, affordable buildings that incubate small businesses, artists’ studios and apartments. These are the building types whose graceful practicality define areas like Cherokee Street and the Central West End, whose street-level vitality outshines Grand Centerâ€™s cycles of big-show and dead-empty. While Grand Center has improved a lot lately, much of that change comes from smaller spaces on Locust Street and in retail storefronts that have generated commercial activities long absent from the mix.
The 3700-3800 block of Olive Street is bereft of density, to be sure. From the Sim-City view, it may look like the sort of place to bulldoze and build again. Yet that approach would be utopian and short-sighted — although the view of cleared land from Spring to Vandeventer would be a very long, and anti-urban, view. Unfortunately, Grand Center has already started removingassets on this block, with nothing in their place to indicate demolition brings anything beneficial.
Rather than forecast utopian redevelopment, Grand Center might look at a building like 3808 Olive Street as an asset: a building with immediate economic utility, indelible architectural character and enduring contribution to a citywide sense of place. Neighbors of the building even include two buildings that are listed in the National register of Historic Places: the William Cuthbert Jones House (1886), designed by St. Louis architect Jerome B. Legg; and the former Lindell Telephone Exchange/Wolfner Memorial Library for the Blind (1899-1902), whose original Renaissance Revival front was designed by the not-so-insignificant firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge. Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge also designed the Art Institute of Chicago (1893) and many other architecturally-renowned works in the US and Canada â€“ a plus for a district that touts its concentration of works by important architects across time like Tadao Ando and William B. Ittner.
â€œRightsizingâ€ need not mean the casual removal of viable buildings on admittedly depleting blocks. Too often, however, that is how it is done. Effective rightsizing can be posing those remaining assets as catalysts for regeneration. In Grand Center, there is plenty of large-scale (ART), but not enough small-scale (LIFE) to make the district into anything approaching a real neighborhood. Retaining buildings like 3808 Olive Street and offering them for sale to small developers would be a step toward a compelling and complex urbanism.
Grand plans are invisible on vacant lots, and diminish feelings of safety as well as sense of place. Buildings are assets, even the small and weird ones. Buildings generate activities that tell people where they are â€“- and give them something to do. Grand Center needs these little buildings on Olive Street. The city can grow again, and we should not be throwing away any potential building block for our future.
In St. Louis, the city’s preservation ordinance creates review of demolition permits on architectural and historic merits only in designated districts. These districts are designated by aldermen and generally follow ward boundaries, although with redistricting and the coming ward reduction these boundaries increasingly make little sense. While the review system established by ordinance is professional, and professionals review the demolition permits, the creation of review boundaries has been political since the city revamped the preservation ordinance in 1999. The politics of review have actually led to increased coverage of demolition review, however, but some areas seem perpetually left out.
In one of the wards in which does not have review, the 19th Ward, stands the Charles H. Duncker Residence — at least for another few weeks before the stone castle falls forever into a grassy abyss. Alas, the stately former dwelling has neither a City Landmark nor a National Register of Historic Places listing, both of which would have placed its demolition under review. (Ever-vigilant Paul Hohmann already alerted us to the demolition in Vanishing STL; then he took excellent interior photographs.)
Located at 3636 Page Boulevard, the Duncker Residence has a storied life that draws heavy in arenas of our past that affect almost all of us. First, the house was built by a distinguished German-American capitalist, who elected to build a French Renaissance Revival design in league with City Hall and other landmarks. Then, upon the original owner’s departure to tranquil Clayton, the house had new life as the Jewish Community Center. Finally, as the Jewish community’s geographic center left, the house became a celebrated African-American retirement home. Today, much of the house is rubble.
The Charles H. Duncker Residence and the French Renaissance Revival Style in St. Louis
The Charles H. Duncker Residence and its carriage house was built at a time of stylistic transition in the high-style residential architecture of the city. The house’s stylistic traits would straddle somewhat the waning Romanesque Revival and short-lived French Renaissance Revival styles, showing the eclectic tendencies of 1890s St. Louis. The house was built toward the end of the 19th century’s last decades; the city issued a building permit to Charles H. Duncker on December 3, 1896. According to the permit, the construction cost was $15,000. The St. Louis Daily Record provides a scant clue as to the designer of the house: “contract to be sublet” is listed under “architect.”
The Duncker Residence was built as a two story house with attic story tucked under a high-pitched hipped roof. Rough-faced ashlar limestone cladding, a wrap-around porch with stone columns of the Ionic order, a short front and west side turreted bows with low dormer and a full-height three-story eastern turreted side bow were defining characteristics of the large dwelling. The preponderant orientation of the house is toward the French Renaissance Revival style, although the prominent turreted bows suggest Romanesque Revival influences and recall buildings like Link & Cameron’s Union Station (1894) or H.H. Richardson’s John Lionberger House (1888). Yet the square-headed windows, recessed entrance columns with Ionic capitals and high-pitched roof are all elements associated with the French Renaissance Revival.
The French Renaissance Revival style employed traits of the Romanesque Revival: tall roofs often with dormers, bows or turrets, large stone elements and picturesque massing. However, the French Renaissance Revival drew upon ornamental elements that were classically oriented, breaking from the austerity of H.H. Richardson’s forms. The French Renaissance Revival style popularized in St. Louis upon the winning submission in the City Hall design competition was Eckel & Mann’s plan, drawn by Harvey Ellis, based on the Hotel de Ville in Paris. St. Louis City Hall (1898) joined Barnett, Haynes & Barnett’s Visitation Academy (1892, demolished) and Ellis’ St. Vincent’s Sanitarium (1894) in Normandy as a prominent exemplar of the style.
By the late 1890s, St. Louis’ wealthy families were choosing a wide range of styles. The completion of the John L. Davis Residence on 1893 (Peabody, Stearns & Furber) brought the Italian Renaissance style into prominence, and broke a streak of Romanesque Revival popularity. The French Renaissance Revival allowed for a gentle transition between the heavier Roman forms and the more ornate appearances coming into vogue.
Around the Midtown and Vandeventer area are several works that compare to the Duncker Residence. The last building at Fout Place, located very close by at Cook and Whittier, dates to 1892 and offers a more pronounced Romanesque influence. However, the massing and main entrance are very similar. The Robert Henry Stockton House at 3508 Samuel Shepard Drive, designed in 1890 by Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, offers another Romanesque Revival dwelling that challenges the heaviness of the style through use of flat-faced ornamental elements and a compositional delicacy. The limestone classing and massing are in league with Duncker’s residence. Most closely related to the Duncker Residence may be Weber & Groves’ Frederick Newton Judson Residence on Washington Avenue (1892), a red brick and sandstone cousin with comparable execution of entrance, massing and roof form.
According to the 1906 edition of The Book of St. Louisans, Charles H. Duncker (1865-1952) was a carpet merchant who served as vice president of Trolicht, Duncker & Renard Carpet Company (then located at the southeast corner of 4th and Washington streets downtown). Duncker had wed Pauline Doerr and together they had two children. Duncker was a member of the Union and Missouri Athletic Clubs. By the 1912 edition of The Book of St. Louisans, Duncker’s firm had changed its name to Trolicht & Duncker in 1907, and Duncker was now company president. The Republican Duncker was a member of the progressive Civic League as well as the Academy of Science of St. Louis.
The Dunckers kept up with both architectural and geographic fashion, and departed Page Boulevard in 1916. The family built a new house at 15 Brentmoor Park in a picturesque garden subdivision designed by Henry Wright. The new Duncker mansion, which would later be published in Missouri’s Contribution to American Architecture, was a resplendent Jacobethan mass adorned with patterned matte brickwork, ornate vergeboards, applied timbering and tall chimneys. Cann & Corrubia designed the house, and landscape architect John Noyes designed the grounds.
Later, the Dunckers lost son Charles Jr. when he fell in combat in France in 1917. The family funded a memorial hall on Washington University’s campus, completed in 1923 as Charles H. Duncker Hall (or, Duncker Hall, where the English Department now can be found). Charles H. Duncker insisted that Cann & Corrubia design the hall, making it the only hall built in the historic hilltop main quadrangle not primarily designed by Cope & Stewardson or James P. Jamieson.
Reborn as the Jewish Community Center
In 1919, the United Hebrew Association acquired the Duncker Mansion, and converted it into the precursor of today’s Jewish Community Center. By this time, St. Louis’ Jewish population had largely relocated from inner city neighborhoods east of Grand Avenue. Concentrations of Jewish population found north of downtown, like Carr Square and around Biddle Street had shifted westward along street car lines into more suburban enclaves including Mt. Cabanne-Raymond Place and the area of Hamilton Heights south of Easton Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive). The Duncker residence was on the eastern end of Jewish world at the time, but its location along the Page Boulevard street car line made it convenient to much of the Jewish population in the city.
In Zion of the Valley, historian Walter Ehrlich writes that it was at the Duncker residence on April 4, 1921 that the Federation of Orthodox Jewish Charitable and Educational Institutions of St. Louis was born. Despite some dissent within the community, over 200 prominent Orthodox Jewish leaders met that day to unify Orthodox institutions through a new federation similar to one that the Reform community has just created. The federation’s first president was Hyman Cohen, who led a structure that included a board of directors and an impressive 60-person advisory board. The congregations Chesed Shel Emeth (located in a synagogue at Page and Euclid since 1919) and Shaare Zedek (located at Page and West End since 1914, in a building that is now Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church) were member organizations, alongside Orthdox Jewish Old Folks Home (located nearby on North Grand Avenue; still extant) and other institutions.
Some members of the Orthdox community felt that the formal separation of Orthodox institutions reinforced existing needless divides, and their views prevailed soon. In 1925, the Orthdox federation merged with the Federation of Jewish Charities of St. Louis. The unified organization to this day remains named the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Inside of the stone castle on Page, this organization and others were very prosperous in the 1920s and 1930s. The United Hebrew Association is responsible for the addition of a two-story brick addition at the rear of the building. The city issued a building permit for that addition on May 10, 1920; the construction cost was $19,500. The two-story flat-roofed brick addition houses class and meeting rooms.
As the Jewish population continued to move away from Grand Avenue during the Depression years, the location of the Jewish Community Center became an inconvenient anachronism, and the center moved in 1943. Eventually, the Jewish Community Center would built a new facility in Creve Couer called the I.E. Millston Campus, which opened in 1963. That center remains open today, disconnected in all but perhaps a fraction of regional memory from the turreted mansion on Page Boulevard.
From the Colored Old Folks’ Home to Page Manor
In 1943, the Colored Old Folks’ Home purchased the property. Founded in 1902 by the Woman’s Wednesday Sewing Club, whose members raised funds to create it, the Home later became the Ferrier-Harris Home. Rose Ferrier-Harris had been first president of the Sewing Club. For decades, this building was a landmark to the charitable efforts of African-American women, and the home merited listing in John A. Wright’s Discovering African-American St. Louis. Upon purchase, the Colored Old Folks’ Home spent a reported $3,000 to alter the building, according to a building permit issued on January 27, 1943. However, the character of the main section and rear carriage house were left intact.
Eventually the revered Ferrier-Harris Home became the Page Manor, which did not sustain the good quality and noble purpose of the prior operator. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services notified Page Manor’s owners of major violations starting in 2012, and earlier this year succeeded in revoking the license of the facility. Page Manor closed, and its owners decided to apply for a demolition permit for the complex.
Since the city’s preservation review system is based on political considerations, not professional standards, neither the architectural grandeur nor the varied history of the former Duncker residence slowed demolition. The city’s Cultural Resources Office never had any authority to review the demolition application, and there was no public meeting or call for public comments. Instead, the Building Commissioner issued a demolition permit with little public attention, and a very significant part of the city’s history began to be erased.
Lest one assume that this pocket of the 19th Ward is bereft of context, or that this author is guilty of inordinate adulation of old building fiber, consider the surrounding urban fabric in which the Duncker residence played a role. While across Page is the suburban expanse of a strip retail center, the block on which the house had stood includes several significant historic dwellings. Along Grand Boulevard around the corner are historic houses, including one designed by the quintessential local architectural firm of Barnett, Haynes & Barnett. All lack any demolition protection, since none are official City Landmarks and none is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Chicago’s renegade activist Richard Nickel, whose passion inspired a generation of preservationists, once stated: â€œGreat architecture has two natural enemies: water and stupid men.â€
Too bad neither can be avoided on this planet.
Whether the onset of actual demolition of the Graham Paper Company Warehouse — known colloquially as “Cupples 7” — supports this theory is a sour-grapes hornet’s nest, but some things are certain. The building’s physical death was due to water. Lots of water over lots of time. And that time, presided over by men ranging from officials at Washington University to developer Kevin McGowan to former Treasurer Larry Williams, was long enough that the water could have been stopped. Ten years ago, a temporary roof may have cost as little as $100,000. Today, stabilization would cost over $5 million and demolition at least $250,000.
This demolition could have been avoided, and shows the folly of letting city agencies spend tax dollars on land acquisition and demolition. We wonâ€™t know the real costs of demolishing the building until later, when the potential profits and revenues generated by an elegant five-story mass will linger only as ethereal presences invisible to most eyes. What will be visible will be a fenced-off patch of grass and the cold hard slab of a parking garage staring out at pedestrians.
Still, this is a teaching moment. This week Mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford told the St Louis Post-Dispatch that the city was ready to learn lessons from the demolition. Here are a few that this preservation practitioner sees:
1. New ordinances won’t save buildings. There has been talk of a â€œdemolition by neglectâ€ ordinance. While politically the stuff of good theater, such an ordinance is redundant. The building code already makes willful neglect illegal. The Building Division and the City Counselor struggle to enforce the code with limited resources. Instead of a new wrist-slap law that will cost as much to enforce as it would collect (see the city’s dubious â€œVacant Building Registrationâ€ ordinance), the city needs to do smarter things.
2. Code enforcement could be improved. Technically, having a giant hole in the roof of a building â€“ or a collapsing back wall â€“ is illegal. Cities like Baltimore have targeted code enforcement to deal with vacant property. St. Louis can do the same.
3. Existing redevelopment agreements offer the city plenty of leverage, but the city needs to use it. Cupples 7 actually was governed by a redevelopment ordinance for a multi-building project. Nowhere did that ordinance, passed by the Board of Aldermen and signed by the Mayor, spell out any requirements for stabilization of the worst building in the mix. The city can’t force property owners to save their buildings — but when an owner comes to the city looking for incentives and subsidies, the city has the power to set conditions that safeguard buildings. The city has an agency, the Cultural Resources Office, that can consult on these agreements with professional expertise on issues like stabilization and demolition.
4. The city has another chance to prevent another “Cupples 7”: Northside Regeneration. This week the Tax Increment Financing Commission approved a public hearing on August 28 for activation of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s $390 million tax increment financing package for Northside Regeneration. Northside Regeneration owns scores of historic buildings, including the James Clemens Jr. House — the city’s only pre-Civil War mansion to sit vacant. Water is working on the Clemens House. Why wonâ€™t City Hall use leverage to get a roof on the building?
5. The city needs to follow its own Sustainability Plan. The plan itself should have guided a different outcome for Cupples 7. Under “Urban Character, Vitality & Ecology,” Objective F, Strategy 4: “Provide resources to preserve and prevent demolition of key historic structures that do not have parties immediately interested in investing in the building.” The plan lists the time frame for implementation as â€œshort term.â€ Itâ€™s unfortunate that the first test of this part of the new plan leads to a failure by multiple city departments to follow the plan. Yet there are other tests ahead: Crunden-Martin Building 5, St. Mary’s Infirmary and smaller buildings across the city.
6. Create policies that recognize that there are two options for buildings: Demolish OR repair. While $250,000 might not have saved Cupples 7, it could have helped. The demolition budgets for smaller buildings often are higher than the cost of roof patches, temporary gutters and other short-term repairs. Rainford discussed the possibility of using demolition money to repair buildings and then placing a lien against the owner. Preservationists and neighborhood activists have called on the city to do that for years â€“ what a relief to read that the mayorâ€™s office is on the same page. Whatever that takes, letâ€™s do it.
7. Preservationists need to be willing to help the city raise money. This isn’t a lesson for City Hall, but for all of us who are looking to the city to change its ways. We need to change our own. This city lacks a preservation fund for repairing buildings, ever since Landmarks Association of St. Louis killed its Revolving Fund in the early 1980s. Rainford talked about creating a fund administered by the city. That would be great, but preservation advocates need to do their part and building funding mechanisms instead of complaining about city inaction. The same part of the Sustainability Plan quoted above implores the city to “Establish a local funding stream for preservation work which directly contributes to the City’s economic growth.” Such a stream wonâ€™t build itself, and if it is not attenuated with private donations, would never be of use on the scale of a building like Cupples 7. We have to help the city build the fund.
We can’t stop the rain, and we can’t keep property owners from making bad decisions. Yet coordinated, strategic vacant building preservation efforts — wiser code enforcement, smarter redevelopment agreements, changes in city demolition funding and preservation community hustle — could send water and stupid men on the run.
As a dry heat settled across the downtown streets yesterday, cloaked by lilting cloud cover, workers from Spirtas Wrecking Company descended upon the Cupples Station warehouse known as Cupples 7. At the end of the business day, two red trucks and a Bobcat were parked behind the fence as workers took the sure steps toward setting up a full-scale demolition site.
The city’s own application for demolition (number 506242; application date, May 22) has not yet been approved by Building Commissioner Frank Oswald. Thus the machine wrecking of Cupples 7 won’t start immediately, but the portent of a start date renders the facts mere trivia. Demolition looms.
On Twitter, a dizzying exchange between a principal of Vertical Realty Advisors, Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Treasurer’s adviser (and father) Virvus Jones and Preservation Board Chairman (and Francis Slay’s campaign manager) Richard Callow was either surface-level shimmer of real negotiations or just a diversion for bored urbanistas at their desk jobs. In a thread on my Facebook wall, Virvus Jones made it clear that any savior of Cupples 7 will have to assume the Treasurer’s contract to buy the building’s mortgage from Montgomery Bank (the pay-it-forward albatross left by former Treasurer Larry Williams). Apparently Vertical Realty Advisors is not offering to do that.
When city officials made the call for last-minute proposals for Cupples 7, they should have clarified that parties would need to buy that note. As I wrote in the St. Louis Beaconlast month: “What sort of offer will the city actually entertain now? Without a formal RFP to answer, the anecdotes offered in the mayor’s press release donâ€™t offer developers specific details sought by the city.” And of course, amid the city’s talks of sustainability the fact that $1.7 million in public funds can be used to demolish a building but no public dollar can be found to stabilize one is atrocious. Mayor Francis Slay should take the lead on changing that; his own Sustainability Plan recommends that he do so.
Of course, local preservationists have known that the eleventh hour was coming for this building at least since the Preservation Board denied demolition in 2011. The gap between feasible rehab financing and the full cost of repairing the masonry treasure designed by Eames & Young has been our collective problem. Once upon a time — a time still within some memories even — Landmarks Association of St. Louis had a “Revolving Fund” used to purchase, stabilize and rehab houses in Soulard, Hyde Park and fragile neighborhoods. The fund ended a long time ago, but the need did not. If Cupples 7 falls in the next few weeks, the goal of establishing a new preservation fund could be one thing that rises in the wake. We don’t want to be in this spot again.
Last month my friend Emily Hemeyer invited me to contribute to a sprawling, wood-made installation called the Migratory Hive Project. The Migratory Hive Project was exhibited outdoors in Columbia, Missouri during the annual True/False Film Festival, and hopefully can find life space in St. Louis soon.
Emily assigned me the task of constructing an installation that would fit inside of a wooden box (in fact, one that we had utilized for our collaborative St. Louis Mythtory Tour in 2011). After contemplating ideas ranging from packing the box densely with parts of a soon-to-be-demolished certain former funeral home to constructing a scale model of another house inside of the box, I decided instead to curate a bit of personal pschogeography.
Today Riverfront Times reporter Sam Levin has a good article about the status of the Pevely Dairy building at Grand and Chouteau. The main question on people’s minds: What is going on with the Pevely Dairy building?
This week St. Louis University started wrecking a historic industrial building near the intersection of Chouteau and Grand avenues — not the Pevely Dairy Company Building, but the old Goodwin Manufacturing Company warehouse most recently owned by CATCO. The two-story mill method brick building dates to 1887, and features handsome corbelling and a recessed, raised entrance (its most curious feature). While the building is not greatly uncommon, it has the human scale now largely gone from its surroundings.
Ever-alert explorer and geographer Paul Fehler, one of the extraordinary producers behind The Pruitt-Igoe Myth altered me to the fact that something is happening to make St. Louis a whole lot less weird: our last gasometer is being dismantled. The word “gasometer” is not the only weird thing here. The cylindrical steel structure that dominates Laclede Gas Pumping Station N at 3615 Chervolet Avenue near Goody Goody diner in north city is a quirky landmark, whose skeletal form evokes wonder from many.
Alas, not for much longer. Laclede Gas is pulling the gasometer down as fast as one can type “scrap metal prices are high” (the likely cause of this and the removal of the wrecked USS Inaugural on the south riverfront).
The building known as “Powell Square,” located at Third and Cedar streets near downtown, was built in 1917 as the pharmaceutical factory of the John T. Milliken Chemical Company. Later users included the Fulton Bag Company and Dan Powell Company, which both used the building for warehouse space. A company controlled by attorney Stephen Murphy has owned the building since 2001. Murphy, who owns neighboring buildings in the south riverfront area, planned to rehabilitate the building into artists’ studios and other uses, but eventually abandoned the project.
On December 28, 2012, the Building Commissioner Frank Oswald approved a permit to demolish the building as an emergency order. The City of St. Louis is paying for the demolition, which will be billed to the owner. We asked local entrepreneur Ryan Albritton to discuss the demolition and what it means to the city.