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.
This unusual cross-gabled house with striking dormers, located at 3839 Lee Avenue in the Fairground neighborhood, is about to be demolished. Once it is gone, an irreplaceable building — seriously, what else looks like this in the entire city? — will be lost and a predictable death pattern will conclude. Fairground and the Third Ward will lose yet another building that could house people, maintain surrounding property values and generate city revenues.
This particular house was first noted as vacant by the Building Division in 1989. The house returned to that status in 1998, and never was occupied again. The downward spiral is evident in the collapsed gable end and mess of bricks below, but also in the ownership. In 2001, after owner Albert Martin defaulted on real property taxes, the house was auctioned by the Sheriff. No one bid. The house reverted to the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), which did little except keep the plywood boards on. LRA’s lack of enterprise is somewhat understandable given the house’s condition at acceptance. On February 24, 2000, the Building Commissioner condemned the house for demolition. (Even a preservationist is baffled at how long it has taken to get this one down.)
The odd little house on Lee Avenue’s tale is not exceptional, although it should be. A negligent owner let the building fall into disrepair, stops paying taxes, lets it get condemned and then lets it lapse to city ownership. The city lacked the means to reverse long-term decay, and did no marketing of the house. By the time the wrecker put his sign in the front lawn, the story was written and only needed the detail of when demolition would start.
However, this easy and certain death could just as well have been an easy and certain rebirth. The Assessor’s Office shows that the assessed value of land and improvements at 3839 Lee Avenue were a mere $670 in 2000. Again, this is not exceptional. Many houses like this one across the city — but especially in north St. Louis — go to tax sale with low assessments and low tax liens. The economics of preservation of many of these buildings are pretty favorable to a buyer.
Where are the buyers? There are few smart people starting to use the tax auctions for preservation. For instance, artist Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation has purchased at least one Hyde Park building at tax auction for rehabilitation projects. With a plentiful supply of great buildings, many of which could be eligible for historic tax credits, and few competing bidders, there seems to be a hidden buyers’ market in this city. Hidden for long, however, and we could lose quite a bit of St. Louis.
When I first photographed these six vacant buildings in the 4200 block of Warne in the Fairground neighborhood in March 2005, I was struck by what a statement they made as a row. Besides the four-flat shown at left, the rest of the group consisted of St. Louis’ bread-and-butter building, the two-flat. The variety of styles in the group could very well have been a textbook illustration of St. Louis’ streetcar-fueled late 19th and early 20th century neighborhood development. Instead, in abandonment, the row served as a different, disturbing illustration.
By August 2009, the four-family building was demolished. An amazing apartment building across the street was also gone. The rest of the row was in bad shape, although each building was structurally sound. I confess to having low hopes for the group. Located in the city’s Third Ward, the five remaining buildings were owned by the Land Reutilization Authority and outside of any historic district. Had these buildings been inside of a historic district, they would have made a great historic tax credit project for a community development corporation.
In the last three weeks, the row has finally disappeared. These buildings were on the edge of Fairground, located across the street from the O’Fallon neighborhood. Their loss is felt strongest in the O’Fallon neighborhood, where a historic district nomination is underway, by dissolving a visual edge.
This solid corner building anchors the northwest corner of the intersection of Pleasant Street and Lee Avenue in the Fairground neighborhood. The composition is a classic example of the local Romanesque Revival vernacular, with striking use of rounded corner, rusticated limestone, ornamental pressed bricks and Roman arches. Vacant since 2007, the building recently had a collapse of the outer wythes of a chimney of the Lee Avenue elevation.
This collapse is no big deal. The building’s walls are otherwise straight and sound. However, instead of forcing owner Timothy Williams to make the needed repairs, or doing the work and billing him, the city’s Building Division condemned the building for demolition on August 28, 2009.
The building is located in the city’s 3rd ward, which has preservation review, so demolition is not a foregone conclusion. Still, why can’t the Building Division deal with a small problem like this without resorting to condemnation?
Meanwhile, the small house at 4160 Grove Street sits vacant and for sale. Only two other buildings stand on this block face, and they are located far down the block. This little house is surrounded by vacant lots, many of which are owned by the same owner. This is an urban farmstead in the making! The phone number on the house is 732-5080.
The striking group of vacant buildings at the northwest corner of West Florissant and Linton Avenues (3900-4 West Florissant Avenue, technically) in the Fairgrounds neighborhood has long attracted the attention of photographers, amateur architectural historians and passer-by. The colorful name on the liquor store sign at the corner, Lucille McQuade, tempts the imagination to conjure Lucille. Sassy liquor store owner, sitting behind the corner with a quick no bullshit face for the teenagers trying to buy a Colt? I don’t know, but I do know Lucille’s old store is not long for this world.
Two years have passed since I took the first photograph in this post. The three buildings now look even worse. Well, the corner building (built in 1933) is same and sound, although the enamelled sign board has been crumpled by a would-be thief. The two-story house, built in 1896, was first robbed of limestone keystone and voussoirs above the second floor windows. Then came the fire in May of this year that triggered collapse of most of the building structure. The formal front elevation struggles to maintain its composure, and the side walls are largely intact. However, anything wooden has fallen down where gravity has lured all buildings forever.
Yet all is not lost, because the house’s commercial front (built some time after 1933) is intact. This front actually covers the front and wraps around the side. Bricks from the house have fallen through the roof, perhaps, but this fireproof building addition is intact and could be rescued from its crippled parent. The pale-toned tapestry brick and the terracotta shields are particularly bright on this building. Notice how the new front is built over the pier of the one-story corner store, which shares some of its vocabulary.
If we lose the buildings on one side of Linton, we have two other storefront additions on the other. United Railways built a street car line on West Florissant between 1910 and 1915, and as residents of older neighborhoods like Old North and Hyde Park moved in this direction, there was demand for more retail. The residential buildings around this intersection were located near earlier commercial buildings, and adaptation into commercial use was logical for owners. The tenement building above, located at 3856 West Florissant Avenue, was built in 1890 and built out to the sidewalk with a store in 1927.
On the same block at the alley line is the building at 3848 West Florissant Avenue. The house is a small brick shaped-parapet structure on a raised foundation dating to 1892. The commercial addition dates to some time after 1910. Use has come full circle, as the storefront is now used as a residence.
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.