Fire Hospitals South St. Louis

St. Mary’s Infirmary

We were saddened to get the news this morning that the historic St. Mary’s Infirmary suffered a three-alarm fire last night. Perhaps the most significant association of the building is its connection to African-American history. The hospital entered an important new phase in 1933, when it became the city’s second African-American hospital with the city’s first-ever racially integrated medical staff. Later that year, the Sisters of St. Mary also opened a nursing school for African-American candidates, creating the city’s second school of nursing open to African-Americans and the nation’s first Catholic nursing school that admitted African-Americans.

Here we are posting the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the complex, written by Michael R. Allen.

Chouteaus Landing Fire Industrial Buildings

Crunden-Martin After the Fire

by Michaela Burwell-Taylor

“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps…every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” – Italo Calvino

Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor

Chouteau’s Landing, a quiet industrial district south of downtown St. Louis, seems to have been frozen in time. Known to many St. Louisans as a place to park before attending a Cardinals game, this area currently contains a handful of existing businesses. This urban landscape is defined by a once thriving river industry that was the center of the St. Louis economy. A landscape of elevated railways that weave their way through the old industrial complexes and the towering concrete interstate columns, which have detached this area from the rest of the city. The original function of these buildings has long since passed, yet something remains. Something special lingers in Chouteau’s Landing and the seven historic buildings that comprise the former Crunden-Martin Manufacturing Company complex are a large part of that something.

Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor
Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor
Fire North St. Louis St. Louis Place

Lost: Corner Store, 20th & Warren

by Michael R. Allen

Last week, St. Louis Place lost one of its few remaining corner commercial buildings to a fire. The vacant three-story building at the southeast corner of 20th and Warren Streets was deteriorating, and had recently shown signs of a failing I-beam over the storefront. Still, the fire and the totality of destruction were startling. This was the end point of a street wall that was largely intact, so the hole is starkly apparent.

After the fire.

The adjacent four-family building survived. Both of these buildings were built circa 1890, and were fairly typical vernacular masonry buildings. The corner building, with its partially mansard-roofed third floor, galvanized cornices, foundry-bought iron columns and chamfered store entrance was not unique to the neighborhood, the north side or the city. Yet in an age when there were dozens of this type of building in this neighborhood, instead of less than a dozen, its fate would not have been noteworthy. Nowadays, its loss inflicts a huge blow to the neighborhood.

Last year.

The building was included in the 1986 addition to the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District, a National Register of Historic Places district first listed in 1984 (see the nominations and maps on this page. At the time of listing, most corner buildings of this type in this part of the St. Louis Place neighborhood were already gone.

The corner storefront was located in the Union Addition, laid out by Col. John O’Fallon and other investors in 1850 — five years before this area would become part of the city of St. Louis. Development was slow in the area south of North Market Street, because the city reservoir was drained in 1871 and its ruins not demolished until 1887. That same year, the Visintandines (headquartered in the Visitation Academy at Cass Avenue and 17th Street) subdivided the land between Mullanphy, 17th, Madison and Hogan streets. Upon removal of the reservoir’s earthen walls, and the platting of four new city blocks on its site, development of buildings along 20th Street (then 17th Street) took off. Additionally, the Columbia Brewery broke ground on its impressive new plant at 20th and Madison Streets in 1890. A streetcar line ran along 20th between Cass and North Market Streets in the middle 1890s, making this area more attractive for corner stores and commercial sites.

A corner commercial building probably located at 20th and Montgomery streets. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

A historic photograph in the collection of the State Historical Society of Missouri likely depicts a corner commercial building at the southeast corner of 20th and Montgomery streets just a block north of the now-lost building. While there are differences in details, the configuration of the storefront and the use of painted advertisements is similar. This photograph dates to 1955, when these buildings and their shopkeepers were essential parts of neighborhood life.

By 1997, the Building Division listed the building at 20th and Warren on its vacant buildings list. Owner Lillian Reeves stopped paying property taxes after 2008, meaning that the building would have soon gone to tax auction. Sadly, a chance at a new life for the building was close at hand.

College Hill Fire LRA North St. Louis

Fire Strikes College Hill Building

Yesterday evening, a fire raced through the vacant, Land Reutilization Authority-owned four-family building at 4411 N. 20th Street in College Hill. The building’s timber elements quickly gave way to the flames, and within an hour the building was reduced to its still-solid brick walls and smoldering wood inside.  Alas, the building is not an isolated one but part of a row of historic buildings, some of which are occupied.

Fire South St. Louis Tower Grove South

If The Front Wall Remains…

by Michael R. Allen

View looking southeast toward the building.

What a way to start a fire, what a way to break it in
Your kiss could have killed me, baby
If it were not for the rain

Scout Niblett ft. Bonnie Prince Billy, “Kiss” (This Fool Can Die Now, 2007)

Did a fire destroy the commercial building on South Kingshighway two doors north from the Royale, or did a fire bring into being the birth of a new building? Time will tell. Surely the ashen and roofless wreck, with side wall fallen to let the world gaze into a tangle of charred building fiber, evokes some bit of hopelessness. Without a roof, a building is still a building. Without four walls and horizontal structural members, a building becomes rubble.

View looking southwest from the alley.

Or does it? Looking out across the remnant body of what was a fine but not remarkable stock-from-the-catalog hydraulic press brick and terra cotta essay in the revival style, my eye cannot see total loss. I look at that front wall, that strong and still intact front wall, and I see the first wall of the next building. Now this building was not built through completed walls laid up in detail one by one, but through the slow and integrated rise of building material from beneath the soil up to the sky. The burned building’s front wall was never meant to stand isolated from the other brick walls that bound together in architectural union.

Yet there is a basic fact: that front wall is solid, attractive and integral to that street wall’s humane relationship with the sidewalk. While there is a car lot immediately to the north, and the neighboring Modern Kitchens and Baths has an inset parking lot unmitigated in its utility, this single building provides a humane and urban link between a corner tavern and Tower Grove Park. Although Kingshighway south of Arsenal street has a schizophrenic street wall, and offers few spots of continuous urban character to the pedestrian, this little place works. Here there is a place where a person can walk and feel that there is some vital link between this place and the living city around. Those places are sadly few and far between on St. Louis’ major commercial streets, and should be categorically protected and constantly expanded. The only reason we don’t have more places like this is our casual use of the wrecking ball, and our lack of zoning based on quality of life.

Should this city want to ensure our future is one in which the name “St. Louis” could pass through the lips of those people who value urban places teeming with the lifeblood of commerce and culture, we would never let a front wall be torn down after a fire unless it fell for a greater replacement. We should pass an ordinance preventing demolition of commercial buildings that hug the sidewalk with storefronts unless like replacement follows. Otherwise we will continue to be a city of great residential neighborhoods isolated through dismal expanses of arterial streets.

Should the building owner or the Building Commissioner protest that preserving this front wall on Kingshighway is an impossible feat, or a difficult one, their cries should be dismissed. This is a solid masonry wall, and its stabilization and integration into a new building is an easy task. At least, having seen such work as a matter of course in cities as diverse as Boston and Louisville, it seems like a city as great as ours can rise to a small job like this — a small job that serves the greater good of making a place where people enjoy walking, talking and conducting commerce.

Although our eyes’ gaze may be stubborn and myopic at times, we should look upon this front wall on Kingshighway not as a ruin but as something we can use. We should rejoice that the fire consumed not the most vital and urbane part of this building, and we should strive to build something that carries that vitality forward to the future. Sometimes it does seem that a kiss — the kiss of greatness — would kill this city, but deep down we know that the kiss could end generations of that far more fatal feeling of complacency. That damn front wall didn’t build itself.

Carondelet Fire Parks

Building a New Bandstand

by Michael R. Allen

The Soulard Blues Band plays on the bandstand, summer 2010. Photograph by Tom Lampe.

Unfortunately, wood is both a common architectural material and highly combustible. These traits were apparent Wednesday when the beloved Carondelet Park bandstand, which was built after 1916, was destroyed by fire. All that remains of the bandstand are the concrete piers, ash and charred pieces of the historic structure. The bandstand was totally lost. Or was it?

The Parks Department is proposing that the structure quickly be replaced by a “fire resistant”” version of what was lost. The phrase “metal and fiberglass that looks like Victorian-style structures” even appeared in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article this week, followed by the notion that other wooden structures in Carondelet Park be coated with fire-proofing.

Certainly, the way forward is a dual look at the past and the future, but the Parks Department is looking the wrong ways. For starters, the lost bandstand built in St. Louis’ fruitful City Beautiful period and fifteen years after Queen Victoria’s death is far from a “Victorian” structure. The bandstand was an elegant, purposeful and picturesque structure set deliberately into Carondelet Park’s romantic landscape. The landscape was developed starting in 1876 following principles of landscape architecture that were indeed Victorian, but the bandstand came in the era of City Beautiful park planning and was a monument to St. Louis’ early 20th century development of public amenities and park improvements following the publication of our first Comprehensive Plan in 1907.

Thus the bandstand married the ideals of its time with those of earlier era. That is exactly what its replacement should do. A good architect will be able to join the setting in Carondelet Park with the needs of a 21st century bandstand as well as the aspirations of St. Louis today. The Parks Department should be looking for that good architect instead of rushing to build a replacement structure that would be hasty and anachronistic. Few people’s depiction of the modern character of this city would include the words “fiberglass” or “Victorian.”

As for fire-proofing other wooden structures, that is a troubling proposal. Coated wood may not burn easily, but it will trap moisture that will lack a way out. The parks department might find that flash fires are not as expensive or common a problem as slow rot of wooden structures coated with inappropriate and impermeable materials. After all, the Carondelet Park bandstand – may it rest in peace – stood strong for over 90 years.

This post appeared yesterday on

Belleville, Illinois Demolition Fire Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

Opportunity Lost in Belleville

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

In a strange move, on October 19 the Belleville (Illinois) City Council voted 14-1 to approve a plan that would replace the former Meredith Home with a park. The Meredith Home is the six-story former Hotel Belleville at the southeast corner of Illinois and Main streets at the fountain circle. Built in 1931, the hotel has art deco stylistic elements expressed through brick and terra cotta. Between 1962 and earlier this year, the hotel served as retirement home operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville.

How the City Council came to vote away the sales and property tax revenues the building might generate in the future is uncertain. Using a loan, the city purchased the occupied building for $487,500 in February when the Diocese placed the building for sale. The sale generated some raised eyebrows in light of how the city of Belleville has cited lack of funds as a reason for not assisting the effort to save the former Belleville Turner Hall.

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

After discussing redevelopment with a boutique hotel developer from St. Louis, Belleville officials abruptly changed course. Suddenly, attorney Bruce Cook stepped forward with an offer to pay off the loan on the property if the old hotel were demolished and the site became a park memorial for his late daughter. The park plan — a noble purpose best suited for a site whose development would cost less — lacks funding for demolition and construction. Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert has stated that the city might help with the cost, even though it has steadfastly refused to help the citizens trying to turn the Turner Hall into an arts center.

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

Downtown Belleville has many vacant lots and surface parking lots well suited for a small memorial park. The city could easily have helped Cook find another site, and just as easily not purchased a large building that private developers may have purchased. The city does not have another building like the Meredith Home, which has not generated revenues in nearly 40 years. Beyond the preservation issue, it is odd that the city — with its revenues strained like every city’s — would not have jumped at the chance to move a prominent downtown parcel from tax-exempt status to a taxable piece of land. Cities thrive when private initiative, not government control, is the driving force in commercial districts. Belleville has missed a big opportunity with the Meredith Home.

Photograph by Chad Briesacher.

Another Belleville opportunity that hopefully won’t be squandered is a few blocks east at the northeast corner of Main and Jackson streets. In May, a corner building and part of the slipcover-clad former Fellner’s Department Store were destroyed by fire. The taller, more stylized section of the Fellner’s building survives, to the delight of the region’s mid-century modern aficionados.  Hopefully the city of Belleville will support new urban infill on this prime corner.

Fire Shaw South St. Louis

The Lost Twin at Shaw and 39th

by Michael R. Allen

At the northeast corner of 39th and Shaw avenues stands a three story brick building at 3867 Shaw Avenue that has been fully rehabilitated.    The building sports newly-painted wooden replacement windows and a developer’s sign out front.  Where once its red-brown brick walls showed signs of the grime of age, now is is clean testament to a building’s redemption.

The building, which dates to 1914, is a handsome example of our city’s eclectic Craftsman vein of building and the concurrent rise of mass-produced building products.  The Hydraulic pressed brick, the machine-cut limestone that sparingly adorns the wall and the galvanized metal cornice with its perfectly stamped brackets all show the creative potential of machine age ingenuity.  The stone entrance set into jack-on-jack brick (brick laid corner to corner) within a round-top relieving arch is a particularly fine feature.

The building at 39th and Shaw also stands as the remainder of a set of perpendicular twins that doubled the density of the corner parcel. The twin neighbor of the same age met a horrible end just a few years ago yesterday. I took the photographs here on October 31, 2004.

Between the hours of 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. on October 26, 2004, the St. Louis Fire Department responded to three alarms within a four-block radius. Three buildings — all owned then by the Garden District Commission — were ablaze: a two-flat in the 4000 block of Folsom Avenue, a house in the 4000 block of McRee Avenue and the three-story apartment building at 1854 South 39th Street. All would be demolished in subsequent months.

The twin neighbor was obviously damaged severely by the fire. Rescue would have been possible, but expensive since the roof and top floor had completely collapsed at the building’s north end.

Demolition of the apartment building at 1854 S. 39th Street took away one contributing resource from the Shaw Historic District as well as the existing residential density of the site. Perhaps some day the site will again give rise to a building. Mean time, the next door neighbor stands as a reborn twin separated at death.

Abandonment East St. Louis, Illinois Fire

Suspicious Fires, Crisis in East St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The Arch design competition winner has leaked this week, and that means we have some glimpse at what the East St. Louis waterfront could look like in five years.  Yet more immediate, less hopeful news arrived this week too: KTVI television reports that there have been three suspicious fires at abandoned buildings in East St. Louis in a two-hour span early today. The fires were at a house the 600 block of 22nd Street, a building at 14th and Cleveland and a building in the 12-hundred block of Missouri burned.

The house in the 1200 block of Missouri Avenue is at left in the following photograph.

Meanwhile, back at the start of this month, the state Financial Advisory Authority voted unanimously to seize all state revenues in East St. Louis. Such revenues include all of the state gambling taxes from the Casino Queen, which comprise 50% of the revenues of the city. The Authority will now control at least half of the city’s budget, a move some say has long been needed. Whatever the politics, the effect is that a struggling city government is put further at risk of not being able to survive.

Yet amid this period of turmoil, a major design competition concluded that had half of its land area inside of East St. Louis. Even submissions that did not address the urbanized parts of East St. Louis all had elaborate plans for the east riverfront. Whatever gets built will be a bigger moment for East St. Louis in some ways, because it will be create a master plan for the riverfront and a totally new major metropolitan park.

What does that park mean for an East St. Louis with struggling finances, arrested revenue and massive abandonment? We will find out. If it means that a new park isolated from the city is built and business as usual continues to push the historic second city of the metropolitan area into the ground of history, then the region will be worse off. We can ignore East St. Louis at our own risk, and at the risk of the forthcoming investment in the riverfront.

As for the spate of fires, I can think of nothing more sad for the city at this time. The television report quotes from a neighbor of one of the burned abandoned houses, who says the house needed to go. He reported that bodies had been dumped there. That opinion is a micro version of the regional attitude toward the physical fabric of East St. Louis, and is based in despair. A hopeful mind could envision something greater than removal of the city bit by bit, or in large swaths. East St. Louis residents have more of a right than St. Louisans to see despair in the old great city, but neither of us should let the hope extinguish. The design competition and the radical change to city government ought to spark a revolution in East St. Louis.

One more reason — and a big one at that — for a revolution: next year, 2011, is the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of East St. Louis.  In 1861, dusty Illinoistown grew up and became East St. Louis.  The new name started a period of explosive growth and massive industrial development.  St. Louis would never have become the major city that it did without the workshops of its neighbor across the river.  East St. Louis would reach a population over 82,000 in 1960 before beginning massive decline, but it retains a central position in the region.  Its anniversary provides a crucial occasion to imagine its next life.  The entire region should seize the opportunity.  After all, never was East St. Louis fully a creature of Illinois, and never will it be again.  At the least, the City+Arch+River 2015 Foundation does not think so.

Fire West End

Lost: Wabash Triangle Café

by Thomas Crone

The Wabash Triangle Café. Photograph by King Schoenfeld.

The Wabash Triangle Café burned on Friday, March 18, 1994, its last day of business. Though that date’s one I needed to look up, the timing’s also quite vivid in my memory. I was in Austin, TX, on that morning, attending the South by Southwest Music Festival. Though I’d have a couple more days of music, Shiner Bocks and cavorting ahead of me, I distinctly remember that the phone call from home, a co-worker at the RFT detailing only the barest facts about the Wabash fire. It was a call that pretty well squashed any fun for the rest of the weekend.

Calvin Case behind the espresso machine. Photograph by King Schoenfeld.

For a chunk of my early 20s, the Wabash Triangle was my default destination, a venue that brought nightly music and culture to the very footprint that would eventually become the Halo and the Pageant. In the golden days before cell phones and instant communication of all sorts, it was the kind of place you could roll into with the reasonable assumption that something interesting was happening and someone you knew would be home. And “home” is the feeling that the place gave off. Part diner, part coffeehouse, part bar and full-time oasis to the misfits, the Wabash allowed for interesting conversations to blossom and for friendships to grow in a room that never quite felt like the rest of that moment’s St. Louis.

Partially, that disconnection was a result of location. Though owner Calvin Case had a building found just east of the University City Loop on Delmar, the mental and physical geography of Delmar in the early-’90s was different than today. Few, if any, of the Loop’s regulars walked as far east as the Wabash. If you bought books at Paul’s, or caught a movie at the Tivoli, or headed to Cicero’s for a band-and-pizza, you tended to stay on the west side of Skinker. Without the Metrolink stretching the block, and with east-side-of-Skinker destinations like Pi and Big Shark Bicycle far-off in the future, the Loop really was limited to University City’s piece of the map. And those heading from down the busier end of Delmar often drove the few blocks, rather than heading there on foot.

The area may’ve been a smidgen rough, but once inside the mood was always upbeat. Except when it wasn’t. On some nights, slam poets took over the entire space and the energy was raw and palpable. Other days, especially in the early evenings, you’d find just a couple people playing board games in a corner, while Calvin held court with his tiny cast of workers at the bar. Most days, Calvin was up; some days, Calvin was down. Kinda depended upon business. And on a lot of business days, the dozen customers each buying a cup of coffee didn’t exactly keep the register ringing.

Calvin Case and the chef. Photograph by King Schoenfeld.

Even before the fire, there was always the vague sense that the Wabash Triangle could be gone. Calvin tried everything to make the space click. Early morning hours. Late hours and some Sundays. Menu changes a’plenty, along with “a real chef” in the kitchen. Matching the crazy-quilt interior, musicians of every possible stripe were booked, with varying degrees of success, from Calvin’s preferred folk to hardcore to indie.

In that space, they performed to an odd cast of regulars and an equally odd decor. Dozens of Michael Draga photographs ringed the ceiling of the former automobile showroom. A huge painting of western pioneers dominated the wall behind the stage. And throughout the venue, a mish-mash of retro furniture, true antiques and alley-rescued castoffs provided all the bohemia any post-collegian could want. The odd, low-slung building was even attached to an auto glass business, which seemed odd at the time, but now seems just right. Describing the look’n’feel of the Wabash is tough, but if you’ve been to a show at the old Frederick’s Music Lounge, or the newer Fred’s Six Foot Under, you’d have an idea of the vibe, with the substitute of Calvin Case for Fred Friction. Calvin was the constant, consistently tossing out ideas, suggestions and bits of collected wisdom.

And while Calvin provided the room’s heartbeat, there were many elements of the space that made it what it was, from the staff (Beth, Rich and Brett), to the crazy clientele, to the impression that you were crashing a space that not everyone knew about. Just blocks from the center of alterna-culture in St. Louis, there you were, in the City’s true underground.

To date, I’ve shamefully not yet seen David Dandridge’s new documentary, The Roof is on Fire, a look-back at the room and its then-prolific slam scene. Maybe it’s because I have a feeling that the memories would be a little bit too… much. With due respect to the Way Out Club, the self-professed “home away from home,” there are only so many places you can truly call that in your lifetime.

The Wabash Triangle Café. The three-story building at left still stands, Photograph by King Schoenfeld.

For a couple of too-brief years in the early ’90s, the Wabash Triangle Cafe was my home.

I miss that special place, still.

Thomas Crone publishes; and hosts “Silver Tray” on KDHX, Fridays @ noon.