Flounder House JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Flounder House on Cass Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

Tucked alongside a commercial building, sometimes obscured by trees and with a partly collapsed roof, the one-story flounder house at 2704 Cass Avenue evades attention.  Yet the small house’s craftsmanship shows in details like the dentillated cornice on the side elevation.  There are signs that the front originally had a wooden or galvanized cornice, but the chance that anyone will ever know for certain is slim.  The chance that the house will survive the next decade may be slimmer still.

The house may date to 1885, but could be older.  It stands on City Block 1843, bounded by Cass, Elliott, Sheridan and Leffingwell avenues — a city block that has never had an alley.  This house and much of the rest of the block is owned by Northside Regeneration LLC.  Once part of dense urban fabric, the little house has become doubly noteworthy: it is one of only three buildings left on this block, and one of perhaps as few as 160 remaining flounder houses in St. Louis.

Flounder House North St. Louis Old North

A New Flounder House in Old North

by Michael R. Allen

After nearly 120 years since the last documented flounder house was built in the city of St. Louis — and so many have gone undocumented, so who knows when the last was built — the flounder house is back! A new flounder house is under construction in Old North St. Louis on Hebert Street just west of 19th Street. Habitat for Humanity is building the house, continuing its commitment to both green construction and smart modern design. The rendering above shows what the house will look like when completed.

The house prominently displays the characteristic that makes a flounder house a unique building type: a roof that slopes from one side of the building to the other with no offset. Many flounders display this plain, simple slope, a roof form that has been traced back to southern European architecture of the Renaissance. Other flounders have a front hip with part of the roof sloping down toward the front. In the United States, the flounder form has been found mostly in the south. New Orleans, Savannah and Alexandria all have documented flounders. Philadelphia has flounders. St. Louis has as many as 160, but probably had many more at the end of the 19th century. Almost all surviving local examples are brick, but there are several frame flounder houses remaining in New Orleans. For a long time, architectural historians studied the flounder as a phenomenon but recent study has found traceable historic roots and has turned up more examples in a diverse range of cities. Still unknown is why flounders are found some places but not others, and why St. Louis has so many.

Here is what the flounder looked like under construction last week. The juxtaposition with the stately Second Empire home to the west is provocative. Cities need such diversity of forms.

Here’s the view of the back. The finish will be a concrete board, so this house will be one of the only frame flounder houses in the city when completed.

There are other flounder houses remaining in Old North. This selection leaves a few out, so go take a look around for yourself to see more.

The one-and-a half-story flounder at 1422 Hebert Street is owned by Paul J. McKee’s Northside Regeneration LLC, as is the small side-gabled home next door and a larger brick house at the alley behind 1422. The future of all three sadly remains uncertain.

At 1115 Tyler is a flounder house with a front hip. The roof overhangs an intact two-story gallery porch on the east elevation. The house sits back from the street.

This tall flounder sits on the alley at 1455 Clinton Street. The brown-painted area at top is mortar parging (or covering) over the brick.

The owner of the flounder house at 1905 Dodier applied for a demolition permit last year, but agreed to defer an appeal to the Preservation Board to work on a preservation solution.

This flounder house at 1453 Monroe Street is not long for this world. The south elevation is largely missing and the north elevation has several large holes. The joists have started descending.

Flounder House Housing LRA North St. Louis Old North

Old North, Infill and Historic Reference

by Michael R. Allen

Image courtesy of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

Last week, residents of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood got a look at a preliminary site plan and renderings for 17 new homes to be built by Habitat for Humanity and five homes to be built by EcoUrban homes. As the plan above shows, these houses will be built on Dodier, Sullivan and Hebert streets between Blair and Florissant Avenue. All will take the place of vacant lots owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority in a part of Old North adjacent to the neighborhood’s most dense northern section.

Amid deep recession, this is great news. Old North will get its first-ever major wave of new construction not developed with the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group as a partner. This private market activity is essential for the neighborhood, and the timing is hopeful that even more development will arrive when the economy recovers. Most important, the new development expands homeownership without compromising the economic diversity of Old North.

Image courtesy of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

On top of the other positive aspects of the development, the design of the new Habitat homes is most certainly contemporary. (EcoUrban has yet to submit elevations.) The homes at left above are two-story, narrow, modified flounder houses. The others are basic modern flat-roofed, single-story homes. The houses share a design vocabulary, eschewing any historic reference or even material use. The lines are rectilinear and crisp. The cladding for all of the new houses will be concrete fiber board on the front sections in a jack-on-jack layout, with concrete weatherboard on the rear elevations. My one concern is that the deep recess of the entrances makes each home’s connection with the sidewalk needlessly remote.

There is nothing about the designs that make them inappropriate to Old North. In fact, their juxtaposition with existing historic brick buildings will make for a pleasant realization of the neighborhood’s aspirations of continued development. If Old North is to grow in the 21st century, it will grow with 21st century architecture. To date, save for the handful of Section 235 houses built there in the 1970s, neighborhood infill efforts there have relied on historical reference that has been pleasant if not progressive.

Historic reference is infill is not necessarily undesirable or inappropriate in Old North or other city neighborhoods. Perhaps the lack of solid materials and smart use of historic elements has soured referential infill to many critics and designers. There certainly are few examples of “faux” historic homes in the city worth their architectural salt. However, the anti-replica argument ignores the fact that the city’s prized 19th century styles, such as Italianate or Second Empire, were in their heyday referencing European styles. Early 20th century styles like Georgian Revival or William B. Ittner’s Jacobethan school style were attempts to renew and reinterpret older styles. Few today complain about the results.

Still, the Habitat and EcoUrban homes bring architectural sensibility that is of its own time. While many city neighborhoods have local historic district ordinances that forbid minimalist infill, Old North does not. The loss of historic fabric there makes any such design code unworkable. A neighborhood with more vacant lots than buildings cannot hold new construction to standards set by its buildings — they will some day be outnumbered by new. The new buildings might as well be good work from their time, as the proposed buildings are. The remote possibility that someone might intelligently revive a historic style found within Old North, however, should not be foreclosed by current fashion.

Flounder House Historic Preservation JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Snapshots from JeffVanderLou

by Michael R. Allen

I have been working on an architectural survey in JeffVanderLou (details to come) and wanted to share some images from the area just west of Parnell and north of Cass avenues. This is a neat urban pocket filled with historic buildings dating from 1870 – 1910 that is located in the fourth phase of the proposed NorthSide project. There is the abandonment and building loss typical of this neighborhood, JeffVanderLou, but the level of historic integrity remaining is actually strong. A historic district is certainly possible here.

The image above shows one of the most splendid rows in the area: the 1700-1800 block of Leffingwell Avenue, just south of North Market. This intact street wall faces Yeatman Park (which, by the way, happens to have excellent tennis courts). Of course, this photograph shows that the four of the eight buildings at the left are vacant. However, only one of these buildings is owned by a holding company controlled by McEagle Properties LLC. Three are owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (and likely to be purchased by McEagle) and the corner unit of the corner building is owned by one Hillmon Bonds.

This image cuts against the stereotype that the NorthSide area is an urban prairie with a few decrepit houses here and there. This is a block of historic homes comparable to blocks found across the city, with as many houses occupied as vacant. Every time I am on this block, people are around tending to their yards or cars. While the fates of the four vacant houses concerns this architectural historian, those fates concern the residents and owners of the remaining four buildings even more.

Take away half of this row, and what is left is diminished. The quality of life on this block would be much improved if the vacant houses were again occupied by families. The difference between a fully occupied row of historic homes facing a lovely city park and a group of isolated survivors ringed by vacant lots could not be more stark.

There is a flounder-style house at 2627 Howard Street. Flounders are indigenous to St. Louis, Philadelphia and Alexandria, Virginia, and feature a roof slope (sometimes hipped) that runs from one side of the building to the other. The origin is unknown and the prevalence unaccounted for. All we know is that these are a precious American architectural resource. This one is owned by Dodier Investors LLC, a McEagle holding company.

The rest of this block of Howard is the typical mix of vacant and occupied for the neighborhood. This photographs shows a typical density of remaining historic resources — too dense to ignore. Second from left is a one-story flounder house that is occupied. Once again, we see that historic preservation planning in the NorthSide project is crucial. Preservation here is preservation of the livability of whole city blocks.

Brick Theft Flounder House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Brick Thieves Return to St. Louis Place

by Michael R. Allen

By March 2009, things were not good for the unusual two-and-half-story flounder house located at 2543 Maiden Lane in St. Louis Place. The house was sporting a small hole at the base of its west wall as well as a major stress crack. The hole was strange because there was no apparent structural problem causing it. Urban Solutions, the consulting firm performing maintenance on behalf of owner McEagle Properties, placed one of its orange construction fences around the building in response to the conditions. Then the building just sat, with most window and door openings unsecured.

On April 2, the Building Division condemned the house for demolition, but so far has not placed the demolition out to bid.

The house stands out not only for a height rare for a flounder house, but also because it actually faced out toward Maiden Lane, an east-west street that is almost alley-like. The flounder sits on the north end of its lot, directly on the alley between Maiden Lane and North Market. The one-story flounder addition in front is a unique feature as well. The east side contains a gallery porch with access to the two flats inside of the building.

The north face shows the full height of the house, as well as some original six-over-six wooden window sash.

Last week, I noticed that the hole had grown bigger, with a pile of bricks at the base covered in lime mortar dust. I wondered if recent windy days had taken their toll until today, when I realized that a more common culprit is at work here.

That’s right, the brick thieves are back in action. They have made short work of the one story addition, and have made the hole in the main house bigger (although their clumsy methods have broken many bricks).

The tire tracks running through the high grass on the vacant lot next door provide clear evidence of thievery.

Strange that the thieves have evaded detection here — the west wall faces out at busy Jefferson Avenue, not far from the police station. I’m also perplexed by the fact that of all of the brick buildings with wall damage in this vicinity, the thieves have struck this one. Is the recent condemnation for demolition a prompt? Perhaps the thieves saw the building on a demolition bid list.

In the middle of a flagging economy, brick theft could be elevated this summer. It’s time for all of us to get tough — city government, police and neighbors. If you see people removing bricks from a building and there is any suspicion of theft, call 911. If you have the constitution, take photographs of the activity and wait for police to arrive. Unfortunately, police will not always respond seriously to a brick theft call. A legitimate wrecker with demolition rights will be able to show police a demolition permit.

Let’s hope this summer does not see a wave of destruction like the ones that hit the north side in the past two years.

Flounder House JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Storefront Addition

Storefront Addition to Flounder House

by Michael R. Allen

Just west of the Pruitt-Igoe Nature Reserve at 2719 James Cool Papa Bell Avenue in JeffVanderLou is this fine storefront addition dating to 1912. Now used as a residence, the structure is attached to a two-story flounder house! No attempt to match that house’s dentillated cornice was made by the builders of the addition.

Benton Park Collapse Flounder House South St. Louis

Benton Park Flounder Needs Repair After Collapse

by Michael R. Allen

Earlier this month, the flounder house at 2809 McNair (Rear) in Benton Park endured a collapse of part of one of its side walls as well as part of a its front (east) wall. The damage is severe, but the condition is not beyond the reach of some temporary telescoping jacks. In fact, the side wall that bears the roof weight is studded out, so there is a wall in place holding that weight for now. Of course, that wall is made of new soft pine and is not a long-term guarantee of survival. The building needs the corner relayed. No big deal!

As the photograph shows, the flounder consists of an original one-and-a-half story section and an addition at the low end of the roof. Building permits date the original house to 1884, and the addition to before 1900. the house has been vacant for the past five years, with some deterioration and structural problems.

The south side of the buidling has prominent stress cracks, but shows no imminent danger. If the owner doesn’t have fund to repair the collapse, he could remove the addition and restore the original flounder house, which probably had a gallery porch in the spot wher ethe addition now stands. There are always so many solutions that are not total demolition. Will our Buidling Division urge one of these other solutions this time?

A short walk down the alley and back onto Lynch Street, one finds an intact and lived-in flounder house. This flounder has a front-hipped roof instead of the severe side slope seen on others. The group of buildings in which it plays a part is a great example of how diverse forms, styles, materials and setbacks can create a unique urban street face.

Flounder House Historic Preservation Soulard South St. Louis

Menard Triplets

by Michael R. Allen

The “Menard triplets” are three 19th century flounder houses in Soulard located on the west side of Menard Street just south of Russell. Many flounder roofs simply form a half-gable, running down from one side of the building to the other. These houses have a hip to their roofs that allows for a front-facing dormer. Still, the roof form is within the flounder house range. St. Louis seems to have the largest concentration of flounder houses, which are found in few American cities (Alexandria, Virginia and Philadelphia have them).

The center house (left here) was extended to the south to meet the northern house, creating a “mousehole” entrance to the gangway.

A plaque on the wall of the center house tells some of the story of the houses, including a wide range of salvage pieces that went into rehabilitation of the center house. Plaques like these are a great part of the urban fabric in that they allow buildings to tell some of their own story. Forget the Internet or a guidebook — the best way to explore is on foot, and the best way to learn about historic architecture is to study the buildings themselves. A few more clues always help.

Flounder House Housing Hyde Park North St. Louis

Small Houses on Vest Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

This house stands in Hyde Park on the west side of Vest Avenue just north of Bremen Avenue. Despite some obvious maintenance needs, the house is a treasure. This is one of the small houses that have a front-gabled salt box roof profile. I think of these houses as cousins to our city’s flounder houses, whose roofs make a slope from one side to the other. The salt box variation has a roof profile common around the country, but the basic form and size of the house is akin to the small flounder houses that one still finds all over the city east of Grand Avenue.

On the next block of Vest to the south stands another small house. This one is of a different but common type, that of the two-story mansard-roofed home in which the mansard roof forms the second floor. These houses are more common than either the flounder or the saltbox, but typically are also small in size.

Taking the wide view of this block, we see two other small houses and some vacant lots. Some two-story houses are down the block and across the street.

Looking up to the next block north, we find vacant land and the one-story salt box house. Some two-story houses are down the block and across the street.

This west end of Hyde Park developed slowly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the results are neither as consistent or as dense as the eastern part of the neighborhood. The west end was far less desirable as a place to live due to the presence of the meat packing industry, which was centered on Florissant Avenue. The Krey’s Packing plant and a few other packing-related buildings stand, but much of the rest is gone. The packing industry was largely lost to the National City Stockyards in Illinois by the early 20th century, so later residential development in western Hyde Park produced larger buildings. The early houses were modest in scale, many only one story tall. The residents worked nearby at the packing houses or the Hyde Park brewery.

The 1909 Sanborn fire insurance map shows over a dozen one-story houses on the two blocks of Vest Avenue profiled here. Less than six remain. The remaining small houses point to a residential economy lost to rising Gilded Age fortunes. Nowadays, in the wake of the McMansion glut and with the American economy on the brink of collapse, small houses do not seem so bad. Necessity led to construction of the small houses on Vest, and necessity may make them attractive 21st century housing options.

A new ballpark is proposed east of here on Florissant Avenue, and revitalization efforts around Bethlehem Lutheran Church and Irving School have changed this west end of the neighborhood into a livable place. New housing has gone up on 22nd and 25th streets, but the larger market-rate homes have limited demand. Perhaps an alternative market-rate infill project is in order on Vest Avenue. The vacant lots offer the opportunity to again build small houses there to create affordable, low-energy houses. Small houses already cost less to heat and cool, and are easier to make passive than larger homes. The size makes them more affordable, and also expandable. The first home shown above has an addition on its south side, and others shown on the Sanborn map have one or two rear additions. Such flexible, small houses are in short supply in St. Louis. Development of more needs to happen.

Flounder House Historic Preservation Housing Hyde Park LRA North St. Louis

Floundering Frame Flounder House

by Michael R. Allen

This morning, I attended a meeting where Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr. (D-3rd) pledged to never support another demolition in Hyde Park again. Historic buildings’ value will surely increase, reasoned the alderman, “even the ones with only one wall left.” On the way back, I passed a Hyde Park house that nearly matches the alderman’s welcome remarks.

The frame house at 2911 N. Florissant Avenue is, to put it mildly, derelict. The rear half of the house has collapsed and the front has a severe lean. Owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority and vacant since 1996, the house has reached a point where demolition — either by condemnation or simple collapse — is a foregone conclusion.

That conclusion is sad, because the house itself is quite a unique specimen of that peculiar house type known as the flounder house. Historians have only found the flounder house form in St. Louis and parts of eastern Virginia. The origin of the flounder house is unknown, but the form is easy to spot: the roof slopes sharply from one side of the building to the other. The form garnered its name because the roof pitch made the house look like half of the head of a flounder fish.

In St. Louis, there are probably less than 30 flounder houses left. Most are small one-and-a-half-story homes, but a few are two-and-a-half stories tall. Benton Park, Gravois Park, Marine Villa, Soulard, Old North St. Louis, St. Louis Place and Hyde Park all have flounder houses. The noteworthy thing is that, of all of the examples that are known to survive, the house on North Florissant is the only frame flounder house. While others may exist, perhaps altered beyond recognition, none have been identified by historians at the Cultural Resources Office or Landmarks Association of St. Louis. The house in Hyde Park is quite unique.

Another interesting element to the house is that the side walls of the foundation seems to consist of two wooden sills spaced by a fachwerk wall atop a shallow rubble stone base. Fachwerk is essentially the use of covered masonry to fill in spaces between studs. Outside, a fachwerk wall looks like clapboard, timbered stucco or whatever cladding conceals it. This foundation’s original cladding and masonry are gone, with concrete block and weatherboard substituted.

Alas, being a badly-deteriorated frame building in Hyde Park does not distinguish the house. Hyde Park has many ailing frame structures that are worthy of preservation. Most are in better shape than the flounder house.