Documentation Events Gaslight Square People

Crone Reading from "Gaslight Square" at Gaslight Square

Thomas Crone will be reading from his book Gaslight Square: An Oral History on Thursday, March 29 at 6:00 p.m. in Gaslight Square. Well, our literary friend will be reading at one of the new houses standing where this history went down — at 4155 Olive Street, to be exact.

The event is sponsored by Metropolis St. Louis, which asks that people RSVP to

Documentation People

Collecting Stories

by Michael R. Allen

I just stumbled onto an article on Gaper’s Block about last year’s visit of StoryCorps to Chicago. Following up on the amazing work of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration to document oral history and folklore during the Great Depression, StoryCorps traveled the United States last year over six months to record the tales of today’s Americans:

The aim of StoryCorps is to continue that work; listening to today’s accounts and allowing for a shift in some of the particulars, you quickly realize that’s exactly what it’s doing. And, just as the WPA interviews were archived, with the permission of participants, their present-day counterparts are submitted to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress as well.

The Chicago visit began with an interview of our friend Tim Samuelson, the city’s official cultural historina, and his wife Barbara Koenen. However, StoryCorps selected a wide range of culturally-connected participants and, perhaps most important, interviewed many volunteers of all backgrounds.

Reading this article coincided with an invitation that Claire Nowak-Boyd and I received to appear in a similar film project. The coincidence has got me thinking: Why doesn’t someone set out to document the oral histories alive in St. Louis?

While many people are doing the great work of photographing and researching places, some of the strongest and most compelling accounts of places come through stories, anecdotes and amazing recollections of this city. Many of the most astute observations about the places of this region have come to me from conversations with people who have never published a word.

Obviously, a total historical documentation effort aimed at the built environemnt of St. Louis is impossible. There have been some impressive efforts, like the mostly-forgotten Heritage/St. Louis photographic survey of the 1970s that endeavored to photgraph every historic building in the city. There is the work of Larry Giles to collect and conserve hundreds of thousands of physical artifacts related to the story of this region and its architectural life. There are numerous collections of literature, artifacts and other items in institutions ranging from the St. Louis Public Library to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

However, one thing not being documented much are the statements of those who have shaped and been shaped by the architecture and unique places of St. Louis. At a moment when we still have access to the people who participated in the early rehab boom of the 1970s as well as those involved in the urban renewal era before that, we have the chance to record those stories and idea that won’t make it into print or into the form of a building. We could save the stories that we will regret losing.

StoryCorps and other efforts do great work that inexpensive media makes very possible today. St. Louisans should consider whether or not such an effort would be beneficial here. At a time of great change in the shape and form of the city, when massive rebuilding efforts are underway, an oral history project centered on the built environment seems particularly useful.

Demolition Documentation People

Worth Watching: Vanishing STL

by Michael R. Allen

Anyone who spends much time studying the lost buildings of the city — especially those in the central corridor — is bound to run into architect Paul Hohmann. Now chief architect for Pyramid Architects, Paul has been involved in many rehabilitation projects over the years. Privately, Paul has studied our city’s historic architecture and amassed a wealth of knowledge and photographs. Sometimes I have concluded that Paul and I are the among only a handful of people in the city to have paid attention to an obscure building that was demolished — or at least the among the few who still mourn its loss and recall its details.

Now, Paul is sharing his record of lost buildings through a new blog specifically dedicated to local buildings that have been demolished since 1990, Vanishing STL. So far, Paul has posted two entries. The most recent is on the well-known Beaumont Medical Building on Olive Street, wrecked for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts building. The other entry is about the lesser-known Olympia Apartments at Vandeventer and West Pine.

The entries have abundant photographs to covey both the facts and the beauty of these lost buildings. While the perspective is retrospective, notice the present perfect tense of the blog name. The name is apt given that the vanishing of the historic city is far from over, and far from slowing.

Documentation People

Jill Mead’s Photographs

Jill Mead has started posting architectural photographs from St. Louis and Kansas City to Flickr. Her photographs show a compelling level of detail, from terra cotta pieces to old enamel neon sign boards.

View the photographs here.

Abandonment Documentation Theory

Ruins and Ideology

by Michael R. Allen

A new online journal of urban exploration, Liminal City, is in the works. The first issue is not yet published, but the site hosts an engrossing essay by Michael Cook entitled “On the Excavation of Space and Our Narratives of Urban Exploration.” His essay takes aim at the “endless cataloguing of the picturesque” by documentary photographers and writers who study ruins as well as the restoration of ruins. Cook wants more narrative and less science in the representation of urban exploration.

Not surprising, then, that Cook critiques my essay “Narrating Abandonment” (see page two of his essay) and finds my arguments too hostile to mystery and awe. However, his description of my essay’s larger point as a call for “a politics of urban exploration that would build a radical counter-hegemonic discourse” is the best summary I have read. Cook seems opposed to “civilized time,” which is all well and good except the stance side-steps every social problem ruins pose. I can’t apologize for looking at an abandoned building and thinking that it is resource that people need for shelter of lives or activities, and that the architecture of an abandoned building is socially beneficial and should be restored and conserved. The social imbalance caused by capital distribution hardly afford most people the romance of the picturesque. Exploring abandoned places is exciting, but mostly depressing; and abandoned factory reminds me of the structural un- and under-employment of our times, while and abandoned house reminds me that affordable, clean housing is scarce in this nation. Ruins can be aesthetically and experientially stimulating, but rarely to those people who live amid — or inside of — them. What some people call “scientism” others might see as steps toward resolution of great social problems. Rehabbing a vacant building often creates expensive housing, but also creates affordable housing and jobs. Romanticism is an ideology with resonance among the middle and upper classes.

Or, to put it simply for those who have been following Ecology of Absence: I once enjoyed exploring derelict buildings; now I live in one. That is an oversimplification, but it’s not far from the truth. Cook raises good points, but from a framework at odds with mine, which is driven not by my own desires but by the needs I see around me as I live in a city recovering from de-industrialization and massive decay.

Chicago Documentation Louis Sullivan People Salvage

Anniversary of Richard Nickel’s Death Passes

by Michael R. Allen

Thirty-four years ago day, Chicago photographer, historian and salvager Richard Nickel was killed when several thousand pounds of the steel and concrete guts of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building fell on him. Nickel was inside of the building — designed by Louis Sullivan — on the first floor, having come to the building to rescue a stair stringer and a few other items after repeated warnings from wreckers to stay away. Nickel stepped forward a few years too far ahead of the preservation game to have had things easy. He saw destruction around him, especially of the works of the now-lauded Sullivan, and set out to at least document condemned buildings through photographs. Then he made the fatal discovery that he could recover parts of these buildings that would otherwise never be seen again. Motivated only by a love for preserving knowledge, and often privately very bitter, Nickel took over 11,000 photographs and saved countless pieces of architectural ornament, most of which now belongs to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Nickel rarely made a dime from his efforts, and never held a steady job except for the one that he assigned himself. He was somehat reclusive and shunned public attention, instead exerting influence through relationships with writers, architects and historians whom he thought were sympathetic to his lonely cause.

Nickel’s work demonstrated that systematic efforts for photographic documentation and architectural ornament recovery were as important to architectural history as theory and research. While his amateur salvage efforts pale in comparison to those of St. Louis’ own Larry Giles, at the time Nickel started saving parts of Sullivan buildings in the 1950s scholarly interest in architectural salvage was non-existent. Nickel blazed his own path, and influenced architectural historians and preservationists that have come since his departure. Without Nickel, so much that I hold as certain may not even exist at all — buildings and ideas both.

Documentation People Urban Exploration

Matthew Coolidge Coming to Town

Thanks to Larry Giles for the heads up on this.

Looking for St. Louis

Matthew Coolidge, founder of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, to explore St. Louis urban landscape Oct. 26-29

Oct. 12, 2005 — Forget purple mountains and fruited plains. The contemporary American landscape is more typically composed of parking lots and shopping malls, factory towns and industrial developments, argues Matthew Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Los Angeles. Later this month, Coolidge will host a series of events investigating St. Louis’ urban landscape.

The visit — co-sponsored by the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University — comes as part of “Unsettled Ground: Nature, Landscape, and Ecology Now!” a yearlong series of lectures, panel discussions, artistic interventions and workshops exploring the intersection of contemporary architecture, art, ecology and urban design.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, Coolidge will lecture on “Interpreting Anthropogeomorphology: Programs and Projects of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.” (“Anthropogeomorphology,” a phrase Coolidge coined, refers to the landscape as altered by humans.)

The talk is free and open to the public and takes place in the Sam Fox School’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, located near the intersection of Forsyth and Skinker boulevards.

On Thursday and Friday, Oct. 27 and 28, Coolidge and Washington University students will examine a variety of “unusual and exemplary” St. Louis sites through a series of workshops collectively titled “Looking for St. Louis.”

On Saturday, Oct. 29, workshop participants will in turn lead additional volunteers over “routes” established by Coolidge.

Events conclude from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday with a special, one-night-only exhibition, also titled “Looking for St. Louis,” at the Sam Fox School’s Des Lee Gallery, 1627 Washington Ave. The exhibition will include images, texts, artifacts and diagrams drawn from the workshops.

For more information, call (314) 935-9347 or email