Bridges Fountain Park Martin Luther King Drive Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis St. Louis County

Finding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The city's Land Reutilization Authority owns the vacant building at 4553 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Greater Ville.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Bridge at sunrise. Photograph from Wikipedia Commons.

Our city’s enduring legacy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. consists of the renamed Veterans Memorial Bridge (built 1951, renamed 1968) and the several-miles of combined Franklin and Easton avenues (renamed in 1968). The bridge is ever-functional and well-maintained, but the street honoring America’s greatest twentieth century political leader generally is a poor testament to the man. No matter how many miles of fresh concrete sidewalks and pink granitoid old-fashioned street lights go up on Martin Luther King Drive, the street’s condition generally is depressing, and most of its miles lack even basic beautification measures like street trees. (Of course, that street named for the slave-owning founder Thomas Jefferson is not much better off in many stretches.)

Demolition Fountain Park North St. Louis

Bye-Bye, Corner Commercial

by Michael R. Allen

Today I saw that the two-story brick corner commercial building at Page and Walton avenues in Fountain Park was mostly gone, and I snapped this sad scene. The heartbeat of the city always grows a little more faint whenever a corner store gets wrecked. Gone is a point of exchange — a point for drawing people together, for employment, for tax revenue generation and for provision of goods near people’s houses.

St. Louis remains far outside of the relevance of the recently-publicized writings by economist Edward Glaeser. In the New York Times yesterday, Glaeser argued against hard-line preservation: “[i]f a successful city doesn’t build, its prices will skyrocket and it can turn into an exclusive, elite enclave.”

Perhaps true, but too often in St. Louis we never get to that conundrum. We take down a building and leave its site empty for generations. Not only are we not building, but we are not preserving. Often, physical condition of buildings demands demolition, and I can assent to protecting public safety. Yet the building at Page and Walton was in fine shape. Located in the 18th ward outside of preservation review, however, there was not even a moment’s deliberation once the owner applied to take it down. And I don’t know the circumstances — perhaps there is a good reason for demolition.

Yet as I passed the largely intact residential block to the east — the 4700 block of Page Boulevard — I thought about how many people would be able to walk to that corner storefront easily. I also thought about how there are no storefronts on the other end of that block. This has been the case for some time, of course, since the corner building was vacant for over 20 years. Yet the past could have been rendered future with rehabilitation. A blocked network of social relations, between residents of Page and that corner store, is now effectively dead.

Preservation here would not have raised prices, but maintained the potential for recreating a beneficial pedestrian experience. The lost building reinforces the high prices in other neighborhood, like the nearby Central West End, that retain their density, walkability and their commercial activity. Also reinforced are prices in other cities where preservation has indeed led to excessively high real estate prices — but you can read about those in the New York Times.

Abandonment Fountain Park North St. Louis Urban Assets LLC

Harvey Noble Buys Again

by Michael R. Allen

The house at 1352-4 Bayard Avenue on May 11, 2010.

Harvey Noble, Vice President of Eagle Realty Company and agent for many of the holding companies used by Paul J. McKee Jr. for his Northside Regeneration project, is back in action. On May 4th, Noble used his shell company Feasible Projects LLC to acquire the house pictured above, located at 1352-4 Bayard Avenue in Fountain Park (18th Ward). After McKee went public with his project, Noble emerged again as the agent for a holding company called Urban Assets LLC as well as six new companies incorporated in February 2009. Those companies are Diligent Property LLC, Feasible Projects LLC, Incentive Properties LLC, Marketable Property LLC, Premises Property LLC and Prudent Investor LLC.

As of last July, Urban Assets owned 230 properties, Diligent Property owned three properties and Prudent Investor owned one. No purchased had been made since then until last week. The properties owned by these companies are located in a wide swath of north city that includes wards 1, 3, 4, 5, 18, 19, 21, 22 and 26. McKee as well as Michael Roberts have denied to reporters having any involvement with the operation fronted by Noble.

The most recent deed reveals little information except that one of the dormant shell company names is now being used. Here’s a look at the top of the first page:

And here is Noble’s signature on the last page:

The signature line states that Noble personally is the sole member of Feasible Projects LLC. That could be true. Although Eagle Realty is best known as a broker/agent and appraiser used by city development agencies, its officers — Noble and President Steve Goldman — have owned property in north St. Louis since the 1950s under various company names. On deeds for McKee’s holding companies, Noble signed as “Manager” rather than “Member” of the shell companies.

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.

Fountain Park North St. Louis Storefront Addition

Small Storefront Addition

Southeast corner of Vernon and Walton Avenues, Fountain Park.

Fountain Park North St. Louis Urban Assets LLC

Board Up Award

by Michael R. Allen

And the award for boarding up almost every window on a front elevation of an abandoned north St. Louis house surrounded by occupied houses goes to: Urban Assets LLC, for 1414 N. Euclid Avenue in Fountain Park!

Fire Fountain Park North St. Louis Urbanism

Fire in Fountain Park

by Michael R. Allen

A sweltering, humid afternoon yesterday broke what had been a string of some of the most pleasant St. Louis summer days in recent years. In the Fountain Park neighborhood, the dog day brought more than just unpleasant weather. At around 12:40 p.m., a fire broke out at the abandoned home at 1124 Bayard Avenue. The blaze roared through a modest two-story home that has experiences fire twice before, according to a neighbor.

Neighbors who had been hanging out indoors in search of air conditioning came outside to watch a mid-day spectacle that is unfortunately a common occurrence in much of north St. Louis. Firefighters were quick to respond, and had the fire under control quickly. The firefighters surely earned the respect of the assembled crowd on Labor Day afternoon.

The house was not one of the stunning homes that line Fountain park proper, nor was it the nearby “castle” building. (The sight of dark smoke coming from near that structure made me shiver.) The brick home has acquired permastone on the first floor and flimsy siding above. Still, it had been a solid residence until going vacant two years ago. Its altered facade still made up part of a street scape wall that joins others to form the architectural context of life in Fountain Park. The house had a supporting role to the fancier buildings, but its loss will make the drama a little less full.

The neighborhood atmosphere yesterday was a far cry of the vision of John Lay, the Virginia farmer who platted 158 acres of his land just west of the city limits in 1857. Dubbing the subdivision “Aubert Place,” Lay envisioned a fashionable middle-class enclave centered on an elegant park, like those he had seen in London. Early advertisements suggest that Aubert Place was a country retreat, and certainly the character of this area supported that assertion. Development was slow, even though half of the lots sold at auction in 1857. One reason for slow growth was the distance for public transit, which would not come for nearly another twenty years.

Most early homes here were frame, and only forty had been built by 1883. Still, annexation into the city in 1876 encouraged growth, as did the continued westward growth of the city. Streetcars came down Delmar to the south and Easton to the north, with a line also running straight down Euclid through the heart of the development. Development of the Central West End in the early 1890s coincided with the city’s investment in the park in 1889. The city took the undeveloped central feature of Aubert Place and built amenities, including the fountain that would lead to the gradual name change of the neighborhood. Lay’s charming suburb had been missing the elegance of a well-planned park. With lots reserved for single-family homes and a required twenty-foot set-back, Aubert Place was destined to be genteel. Building was rapid between 1892 and 1897, when two brothers named Davis built many homes. A second boom covers the years of 1903 through 1925, when unrestricted blocks around the original subdivision were developed with two-flats and other multi-family properties. Now known as Fountain Park, the neighborhood thrived with middle-class residents.

In the 1940s, Africa-Americans began piercing the housing restrictions in Fountain Park, at the time when many whites were leaving for more fashionable addresses west and north. A renewal took place, and the community remained strong for several decades until signs of decay crept in. To this day, there is amazing dichotomy in Fountain Park. Many blocks are very well-kept and retain their original beauty, while other blocks are marked by vacant lots, boarded buildings and vestiges of vice. Not surprising, the original Aubert Place is stronger than the outer tier of multi-family buildings. The posh Victorian middle-class suburb is now a problem-ridden 21st-century American urban neighborhood. That is to say, that for every day like yesterday, it has another good day. And for every beautiful home on Fountain, there’s a house like 1124 Bayard.

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    Demolition Fountain Park North St. Louis Public Policy St. Louis Building Division

    Emergency Demolition Orders Made to Suit?

    by Michael R. Allen

    Last week I noted the demolition of the three-story commercial building at Page and Kingshighway in Fountain Park (see “Demolition Comes Twofold to Page Boulevard”). A driver struck the corner column on the first floor of the building, leaving the corner unsupported. Owner Roberts Brothers Properties did nothing to stabilize the corner, and eventually the building started collapsing at the corner. On March 21, the city’s Building Division issued and emergency demolition permit for the building — and two other freestanding buildings on the same parcel!

    The emergency order includes two two-story commercial buildings that stand east of the condemned building. These buildings are vacant and also owned by Roberts Brothers Properties, but have no structural damage that would warrant emergency condemnation and demolition under the city’s building code.

    The inclusion of these buildings in the demolition order brings to mind last year’s demolition of the entire Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings, owned by Paul J. McKee, Jr., despite the fact that only one of the three buildings suffered enough fire damage to warrant emergency condemnation. In that case, the three buildings shared party walls, so the Building Division’s action made a little more sense even if it was premature.

    This time, the three buildings share no walls. There is absolutely no connection between the collapsing corner of the large building and the condition of the two neighboring buildings. Should we assume that the Building Division is willing to twist public safety laws to allow owners to clear sites for development? Or perhaps the Building Division has such prejudice for historic buildings that it cannot restrain itself faced with an opportunity to take down three buildings instead of one?

    No matter what the intention, the result is that one city agency assigned to uphold public safety is thwarting any attempt to implement real preservation planning. Really, all three of the buildings at Page and Kingshighway could have been preserved. Even after the corner collapsed, the corner building was stable enough to repair. The Building Division could have ordered emergency stabilization. Although the Division can only spend money on emergency demolition, and not stabilization, perhaps it’s time we changed that, A temporary corner support — which one can buy at Home Depot and many homeowners could have installed — would have cost much, much less than demolition and given the neighborhood more time to explore the future of the building.

    Our demolition process suffers from a lack of development vision. Without meaningful citywide preservation planning, each demolition decision is made without any legal guidance. The Building Division has discretionary power that prevents careful planning. Yet even if the Division wanted to step in and try to stabilize a building, it lacks enabling authority to do so. These issues need to be resolved. Currently, only an alderman can intervene in this process and force an outcome — and not always. We need to reform our demolition process through enactment of real comprehensive preservation planning legislation.

    Architecture Demolition Fountain Park Historic Preservation North St. Louis

    Demolition Imminent at Page and Kingshighway?

    by Michael R. Allen

    On January 10, the city’s Building Division issued emergency condemnation (for demolition) of the landmark building at the southeast corner of Page and Kingshighway boulevards. The Roberts Brothers Properties LLC owns the building and two adjacent two-story commercial buildings. A motorist struck and toppled the corner iron column on the building, which has been vacant for a year or two since Golden Furniture moved out. The Building Division has not yet followed up with any emergency demolition permit, although such action is almost certain. (Curious Feet St. Louis reported the news awhile ago.)

    The loss of the corner column has already led to significant shifting of the building’s weight downward at the corner. The brick wall shows how the bottom of the second floor is pulling downward. At the moment, this is a problem that can be corrected with a jack or another iron column. (What happened to the building’s original column? Why not just re-install it?)

    The situation has become one of those self-fulfilling prophecies that dampens one’s attempt to be hopeful for the commercial buildings of north St. Louis. Here we have beautiful commercial buildings that define a major intersection, and which were in use until recently. A big-time owner lets leases lapse, perhaps plotting demolition for replacement with some silly strip mall like the owner’s project across Page. Then, an accident happens. The Building Division steps in, goes through its procedures, while the owner does nothing. The owner does not jack up the corner with a support, which would avert further damage. The corner pulls down, triggering a major collapse. The Building Division rushes in to get demolition started. The owner sits back and lets events unfold, while hatching plans for new development. Preservation and minimal code enforcement never had chances.

    This is frustrating because the building is elegant and obviously in decent shape. The Roberts brothers could view ownership of these buildings as great fortune — they get to possess unique historic buildings at a major intersection. They get to take a step to ensure that north city retains the level of historic character that makes real estate in south city so valuable. They could renew a cultural resources and pave the way for long-term rising of real estate values in north city, instead of falling into the temptation to build a short-lived retail center with short-term pay-off.

    The Building Division is not a preservation agency. Yet the Building Division could step in and make the owners put a support at the corner. After all, that’s stipulated by the building code. The owners’ intentions should not influence the Building Division’s enforcement. Whether or not the owners want to tear down the buildings is a moot point until there is a demolition permit. Up to that point, the division should seek to force the owners to make repairs of structural necessity.

    Beyond code enforcement, preservation makes sense. Page Boulevard has many threats to corner commercial buildings at the moment, and has already lost several. Kingshighway north of Delmar is likewise losing its lines of commercial buildings. Presence of anchor landmarks sometimes makes the difference between people remembering having been to a neighborhood or not. These buildings are in Fountain Park, which possesses a memorable interior. Yet its perimeter would lose a little less character with the loss of these buildings. The oval park, the famous curved storefront, the historic homes, schools and churches present a distinct and impressive identity. A corner strip mall, festooned with a developer’s name, with litter blowing across black asphalt in front of squat little retail boxes demonstrates no distinct character and in fact could have a blighting effect on neighboring block that retain their character. Fountain Park is a little less remarkable with every lost landmark.

    These buildings are inherently remarkable, too. Built between 1904 and 1908 from designs by architect Otto J. Wilhelmi, the group shows a mix of modern sensibility and Victorian-era stylishness. The two-story buildings are rather plain expressions of the commercial storefront form while three three-story building is a blend of stark iron storefronts, paired Romanesque windows with pronounced archivolts on the second floor and windows with terra cotta keystones and voussoirs that suggest the Georgia Revival style. Then there is the white glazed terra cotta ornament of the parapet, which draws upon Classical Revival styles and features a projecting acanthus and the corner and near the south end. The building permit for the building mentions a galvanized cornice, long-gone. All three buildings are clad in buff speckled brick prevalent in north city commercial architecture of the period. In all, the buildings are unusually eclectic for this part of north city — and that statement means a lot. If only the owners recognized the treasures that they already have.