On November 19, the Building Division issued a demolition permit for the historic house at the northwest corner of Soulard Avenue and Tucker Boulevard on Bohemian Hill. The Building Division paid over $7,000 for the demolition as part of routine city demolition package for condemned buildings. This house was condemned for demolition in August 2007 and its owners were AWOL. Yet the house was likely to go to Sheriff’s land tax auction in 2013, and could have been purchased by a rehabber for less than $2,000.
In September and October 2007, the Land Reutilization Authority wrecked the three two-part commercial buildings at 4220, 4222 and 4224 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville. The demolitions hardly were startling. Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th), then in his first year of service, requested the demolition as part of his efforts to deal with abandoned properties. Then, the center building collapsed. The Preservation Board unanimously approved demolition at its September 2007 meeting, based on a report by then-Cultural Resources Office Director Kate Shea that recommended approval.
Perhaps right now the Pevely Dairy Plant office building at the southwest corner of Grand and Chouteau seems like the back half of the Titanic, shorn from the rest of the ship and poised to sink out of sight. On October 9, the city watched a distress call when the “P” from the neon sign on the roof fell crashing to the ground. Quickly wreckers from Ahrens Contracting removed the center of the sign and all of the letters, leaving the sign looking punched out. The west side sports a mangled hole, and the rest of the site is covered in rubble. Pevelyâ€™s death warrant already was signed by the cityâ€™s Planning Commission, which offered a Kevorkian comfort in its stipulation that the National Register of Historic Places-listed corner building could not fall until owner St. Louis University had obtained a permit to construct a supposedly equally meritorious new ambulatory care center.
A distinctive building in the northern reaches of The Ville is no more. In late August, the city wrecked the two-story, mansard-atop-brick mass at 4159 Ashland Avenue. This strange specimen sat on the sidewalk line on a block where remaining buildings — fewer in number than ever — maintain a general setback of ten feet, and are residential. This building had traces of a storefront opening (see the painted, nearly-concealed I-beam above a new entrance at left) suggesting a commercial past.
When development firm Sangita proposed demolition of the three Midtown buildings at 3834-38 Laclede Avenue last May, this writer offered no protest. Later last year the two two-story buildings, built as stores and flats, and the one-story storefront fell to the blows of wreckers, and soon spring up a double-pen drive-though building housing not just Jimmy but also Papa John.
If the reader has had the sense that something is missing from St. Louis, that feeling has at least one concrete cause. The city stands bereft of one more monument to its former aspirations, the red brick Hodgen School that stood at California and Henrietta avenues until just two weeks ago. Yesterday, workers from Ahrens Contracting had already filled and graded the depression in which Hodgen’s foundation walls had begun rising in 1884. Now, a fragment of school yard fence, a tangled pile of pipes and wires and a stone retaining wall are the only traces on the site indicating that once something great stood here.
The Hodgen School rose from the good soil of St. Louis in stages starting in 1884. Then, 128 years later, the St. Louis Public Schools destroyed it. The Hodgen School displayed no signs of stress, decay or lack of reuse potential. Its limestone foundation and brick walls were sturdy, and its ornamental details — carved limestone blocks, rounded bows, sheet metal cornices — all were proof of the prowess of St. Louis craftsmen during the Gilded Age.
Do the blows dealt by the demolition team’s sledge hammers match the precise gestures by stonemasons long ago? Of course not. Yet they exemplify the change in attitude from the era in which St. Louis’ aspirations were palpable in the designs of architects like Otto Wilhelmi, who designed Hodgen’s main section. Today, as Hodgen School falls to create playground space serving an underwhelming replacement building, we can see this city’s casual disregard for its own future. The St. Louis Public Schools’ choice to use funds raised by the sales tax for building renovations is a travesty.
The underutilized park wast of the new Hodgen could have accommodated a playground. The old Hodgen building was deemed eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office last year, based on an eligibility assessment prepared by Lindsey Derrington of Preservation Research Office. National Register listing would have allowed historic rehabilitation tax credits to be used for reuse. The building’s views of the Gateway Arch and near south side location made it a likely — if not immediate — candidate for reuse. Sustainability — embodied by reusing second-nature resources that include whole buildings — ought to be a value that the St. Louis Public Schools teaches its students.
The Special Administrative Board raised $150 million for building improvements through Proposition S in August 2010. Voters did not know that any of this money would be used to demolish a historic, National Register-eligible building — a use that does nothing to help education in a struggling school district. The district instead could have raised money by selling Hodgen School, which taxpayers had already renovated at a cost over a half million dollars around 1990. The Special Administrative Board not only wasted money today, they wasted money spent 22 years ago. Yet St. Louis is not alone, which is why statewide advocacy group Missouri Preservation categorically placed School Buildings of Missouri on this year’s statewide Most Endangered Places List. That listing and the Hodgen demolition should make St. Louisans mindful of what built record of our values we are giving to the next generations.
“Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe should yawn at alteration.”
– Othello, Act 5, Scene 2
Yesterday, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival ended this year’s run of Othello, and the quote included here reminded me of where I had been on Saturday. On Saturday, I spent some time with a journalist examining the sites of north city buildings that were sound and saveable but whose ends were near or already passed. While the ongoing depletion of north city’s neighborhoods is not the sudden and intense calamity that fell upon Cyprus in the play, it certainly represents a tragic eclipse occurring slowly and deliberately.
The globe of the city seems to yawn in response indeed, even though the results of building loss render some corners more rural than the Bootheel. At the northwest corner of Evans and Newstead avenues, we came upon the unearthed foundation of a corner storefront freshly demolished. Seven years ago, I walked this block of Evans to be greeted by a medley of brick buildings richly detailed with abundant ornamental brick, terra cotta, stamped metal and carved wood.
Now, the view from the corner makes the eye aim a half-block to hit a building wall. What the eye catches there is a vacant building, whose own life seems at a close. To the north, there is meadow and tree line for two blocks. Upon the soil no longer is rendered city, but some decomposed self. Like Othello, we have been blinded to the truth of our condition. Yet no schemer’s machinations lead us astray — just the neglect of inadequate policy.
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.
Fifty-two years ago, Charles Limberg and Suzanne Shapleigh moved into their new home at 22 Fordyce Lane in Ladue. Their two-story home spread out horizontally across a sloping site largely disrupted by construction. Red brick, plate glass and fir provided a rich material palate for a work of modern architecture designed by Isadore Shank (1902-1992), an architect whose work already had included several significant modern buildings in and around St. Louis.
Today, the house is gone, except for elements that have been lovingly salvaged by the architectsâ€™ sons Peter and Stephen. The new owners of the Limberg House had it torn down this month. Wrecking equipment destroyed landscape elements that almost concealed the home. The glass shattered, the mortar was ground out for brick salvage and much of the house was smashed and crushed.
The tragic end of the Limberg House is symptomatic of the plight of significant mid-century modern houses in Ladue. Ladue may have the regionâ€™s finest collection of significant large modern homes, but it lacks any historic preservation ordinance whatsoever. Owners can demolish homes, no matter how important they are. In 2006, the Louis Zorensky Residence off of Warson Road bit the dust. Two years prior, the neighboring Morton D. May House fell, despite its status as the work of Los Angeles-based modern master Samuel Marx. The architectural heritage of Ladue could very well be temporary, in the absence of dedicated owners. A for-sale sign may well be an early obituary.