Fire JeffVanderLou Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis

3850 Martin Luther King, Destroyed by Fire Today

by Michael R. Allen

Here is a photograph from December 2009 showing the two-story commercial building at 3850 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive that was destroyed by fire this afternoon (at left here).  The building and its neighbors dated to the 19th century but were damaged in the tornado of 1927.  After the tornado, the owners rebuilt the front elevations in modern white bakery brick with green glazed brick accents.

Fire JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Fires Plague JeffVanderLou

by Michael R. Allen

Last week, on the way to a meeting in JeffVanderLou, I noticed a recently — judging by scent — fire-ravaged house on Bacon Street, shown here.

Then, early this week, I learned of a two-night wave of four fires. These fires hit vacant buildings in a small area. The buildings lost to the firebug share two characteristics: all were historic buildings in decent repair and all were vacant and unboarded. Since the location of all but one of these houses is within the footprint of McEagle’s NorthSide project, the press has been quick to report these fires, and the loose tongues of conspiracy have been wagging.

The sad fact is that arson claims vacant buildings across north St. Louis every month, and mostly the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its cloaked comments-section pundits take no notice. The culprits in many of these cases are never caught, let alone charged. Neighborhood residents, who know best, generally suspect brick thieves.

Arson on the near north side also is an old problem. In the 1960s, some white property owners fleeing the near north side torched their own homes to collect insurance money. As time moved on, and buildings went vacant, assorted firebugs, vandals, bored teenagers, firework-launching revelers and brick thieves have done more damage. In 1997, Old North St. Louis suffered a rash of arsons that included a massive fire at the five-story former Peters Shoe Company factory just south of Jackson Park (since demolished).

A building on the 1800 block of Bacon Street lost this week. I could not find a pre-fire photograph.

Then there are the fires that never happened. Neighborhood patrols, starting in the evening and sometimes going to the early morning, have kept many buildings standing. Rarely do neighborhoods get the assistance of owners of the vacant buildings, or the busy police department. Still, many people have taken action to prevent senseless destruction of their neighborhood fabric.

What gets lost through arson are indelible parts of city neighborhoods. The brick piles and half-collapsed buildings are easy picking for brick thieves, and not enticing enough to those who enjoy arson. Most targets are buildings in sound condition, that are stores of community wealth. Negligent ownership is definitely a root cause that must be addressed systematically, but the arsonists aren’t going to be affected by scorn heaped upon McEagle or the Land Reutilization Authority.

Robbing neighborhoods of community wealth is a base crime. The police and the circuit attorney need to step up efforts to send neighborhood arsonists away for as long as statues allow.

Two houses on the 1900 block of Bacon Street before last week.

Two houses on the 1900 block of Bacon Street this week.

The house at 1721 N. Grand Avenue last week.

The house at 1721 N. Grand Avenue this week.
Two row houses at 3508-10 Cozens Avenue in 2007. The configuration is unique — the two houses adjoin at the back with a center gangway leading to secondary entrances.

The two row houses this week. The house hit by fire is owned by McEagle.
Fire Industrial Buildings North St. Louis

Old Factory in New Bridge Path Destroyed in Fire

by Michael R. Allen

This morning, a huge blaze destroyed the oldest building remaining at the historic Nixdorff-Krein Company factory located at the southwest corner of 9th and Howard Streets just north of downtown. The destroyed building was slated to be demolished as part of construction of the new Mississippi River Bridge project. The building dates to the 1880s and was one of the remaining mill method buildings of the north riverfront industrial corridor.

Founded in the 1850s, he Nixdorff-Krein Company once manufactured wagon parts and chain. Many companies on Howard Street west of Broadway were involved in wagon manufacturing in the 19th century. Later, the company switched to basketball and sports gear and continues to exist. A subsidiary of the company still owned the vacant buildings on Howard Street.

The 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map below shows the building (top right corner) that was destroyed today. Nixdorff-Krein added additional buildings throughout the 20th Century, and eventually expanded south by closing Mullanphy Street and connecting to the old Joseph Wangler Boiler and Sheet Metal Works.

Churches Fire Fountain Park

New Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church Suffers Christmas Fire

by Michael R. Allen

On Christmas, terrible tragedy struck the New Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church in Fountain Park: the church caught fire and was severely damaged after the morning service. The Fire Department considers the four-alarm fire suspicious.

Pastor Hosea Gales told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat that the church found a home for its Sunday service and that it will rebuild. What is uncertain is the fate of the historic church building at 1260 N. Euclid Avenue, built in the late 1890s as the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church. The preservation community should offer all possible assistance to the congregation.

Fire North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Another McEagle Building Lost to Fire

by Michael R. Allen

Sure, the house at 1925-27 Madison Street in St. Louis Place had its front wall rebuilt in a 1950s brick that clashes with its 19th century slate mansard. Yes, its immediate neighbors were gone when I took the above photograph in 2006. Still the old house was solid as one of its wall bricks and close to the dense cluster of redeveloped property around the Falstaff Brewery at 20th and Madison. To boot, the house was included as a contributing resource to the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District, so rehabbing this building could land someone — like its owner, McEagle Properties — historic tax credits.

The happy ending never came. On early Monday morning, September 21, a blaze consumed the building causing severe damage. Strangely, the city’s Building Division had recently boarded all of the building’s first floor doors and windows with the red composite boards now being used.

On the night of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission advisory vote on the first part of McEagle’s NorthSide TIF, I left the meeting early after not being able to get inside. I drove up to check out the damage, which had been reported on KTVI. I came across a man picking intact bricks out of the rubble. At the curb was a car without plates or a dealer’s sticker. I called 911.

Collapse Fire Historic Preservation South St. Louis

Unknown Buyer of Pevely Dairy Complex May Back Off

by Michael R. Allen

The Post-Dispatch reports that the pending Pevely Dairy complex sale may stall after the spectacular loss on Sunday of one of the largest buildings on the site to a fire. The fire destroyed one of the two nearly identical production buildings. The lost building dated to 1943 and copied the original 1917 building design by architect Leonard Hager.

A big question since the St. Louis Business Journal first reported news of the contract on the complex is who is the prospective buyer (logical buyer St. Louis University has been rumored to be the shadow party). Scratch that — the bigger question since the abrupt closure of the complex by Prairie Farms in October was whether there would be a buyer in the near future. The speed of a sales contract on a formidable development project amid a general recession was, until Sunday, a relief to those who would like to see the landmark buildings revitalized. Hopefully the deal is still on, because what is left is still eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing and ripe for redevelopment.

At any rate the size of the project suddenly has changed.

Collapse Fire South St. Louis

Pevely Dairy Collapse Video

by Michael R. Allen

(From YouTube user “ahoock” via Bill Michalski.)

Abandonment Demolition Fire LRA North St. Louis The Ville

Lost: The Store at Maffitt & Lambdin

by Michael R. Allen

I was looking through old photographs and found this one, taken in June 2004. The subject matter is the peculiar corner storefront once located at the southeast corner of Maffitt and Lambdin avenues in the Ville. (The address properly is 4282 Maffitt Avenue.) The Land Reutilization Authority still owns the lot on which the store buidling and a smaller concrete block building on the alley stood, and has owned the lot since at least 1989.

As the photograph indicates, a fire had struck the building and eaten much of its structural timbers, flooring and roof sheathing. What testament to our city’s masonry that the walls held despite the loss of many joists. The building truly was an exquisite wreck. I remember looking down into the basement from where the corner stoop would have been, and seeing charred wood from the upper levels atop years of accumulated debris. A man walking by said that demolition was on the way. He was proven right when the Building Division issued its demolition permits in January 2005.

The building had been vacant nearly twenty years at that point, although its architectural character was still evident. The chamfered, recessed entrance tucked under the projecting corner bay was a wonderful way to both call attention to the commercial tenant and shelter those entering and leaving the store. The tiled, sloped third floor with its timbered dormer was another fine trait. There aren’t many corner storefront buildings like this in the city, and we will never know for sure how many there ever were.

Churches Fire North St. Louis Old North

Inside Fourth Baptist Church

A Flickr photographer has posted despressing photographs from the interior of the Fourth Baptist Church at 13th and Sullivan in Old North St. Louis. The worst part of these photographs is how much combustible material is evident.

Readers may recall that the church was struck by a huge fire on September 20, 2008. The fire severely damaged the sanctuary, while firefighters’ hose spray caused structural damage to an adjacent house and an attached annex. To date, a fence has been erected on the sidewalks around the wrecked church, but the windows are not yet boarded and evidently the interior is accessible. The small congregation has promised that stabilization work will begin in the spring, and assistance from the St. Louis Baptist community is on the way. Hopefully this promise holds true, because the Fourth Baptist Church, founded in 1851, is one of the region’s oldest congregations and deserves wide support in a heroic effort to save the church building.

The photographer concludes that “even after such a gigantic disaster, one can still see how reposed and fine it once was.” I concur, although I hold little hope that the entire complex will be rescued from tremendous damage. The sanctuary is vital, however, because it anchors not only the corner but site lines from the south on 13th Street and east on Sullivan Avenue. One can see the church from as far south as Warren Street, and from the east at Ames School. To have that view opened would be a tremendous loss to Old North.

Demolition Fire Historic Preservation Shaw South St. Louis

Lost Chance on Shenandoah

by Michael R. Allen

The 2007 fire that struck the four-flat at 3927-29 Shenandoah Avenue in the Shaw neighborhood eventually proved fatal. The building had been under rehabilitation when fire struck. The owners stopped paying taxes and mortgage payments, and ownership somehow split between Heartland Bank and the Land Reutilization Authority (the building straddles a lot line).

Obviously, the building was struck severely by the fire. Like most house fires, the fire spread upward and consumed the roof and second floor worst. Most of the roof sheathing was lost in the fire, leaving the building open to the elements. However, the walls had been tuckpointed and remained solid until the last days.

In October 2008, the Building Division condemned the building for demolition and sought demolition. Neighbors had filed many complaints on the condition of the house. Immediately to the west, a developer is rehabbing a similar building using historic rehab tax credits and understandably did not want a big question-mark next door.

After first being placed on the November 2008 agenda of the Preservation Board, the demolition shifted into high gear. Suddenly, the Building Division issued an emergency demolition order and paid to wreck the building. By the middle of December, it was gone. (Wonder if owner Heartland Bank got a bill for half of the cost?)

While the condition of the building was extreme, it was far from being a total loss. With solid masonry, the building was in no danger of immediate collapse. This could have been a great reconstruction project. Instead, the house went through the motions of our failed public safety laws: damage and abandonment, citizen complaints, emergency tear-down order. As the developers next door show, there is more than one way to fix a broken building, but the Building Division never seems to grasp that fact. Nor does the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) possess sufficient legal authority to prevent a senseless demolition like this one; the office and the Preservation Board were at the mercy of the Building Division, which controls what matters reach consideration of our preservation agency and its citizen commission. The CRO cannot override an emergency order, no matter how silly it is (and many are).

The neighbors’ momentary complaints are addressed, but they ultimately lose a remarkable street scape. On a block with only two gaps in continuous historic building line, both across the street, this demolition stands out. The demolition stands out even more since the demolished house is one of a row of five near-copies of the same plan built in 1903. defined by rusticated limestone front elevations, central porches and projecting bays on each end, the row was a handsome group.

Looking at one of the extant members of this group, one sees the potential that the house at 3927-29 Shenandoah Avenue had, even in its fire-damaged state.

Demolition matters as much in a neighborhood as dense as Shaw as it does in a ravaged built environment like Old North. I would write that the only difference is why the buildings matter, but that would be false. The reason senseless demolitions harm our neighborhoods is because they erode the sense of place. Take away the last two buildings on a north side block, and the last vestige of the block’s urban character is gone forever. Take away one house on an intact block face in Shaw, and that block face is no longer intact. That brings a difference as big as taking down the last building standing. Besides, it’s not just a matter of blocks or neighborhoods but ultimately a matter of stewardship of this interconnected mass of resources we call St. Louis.