Abandonment Collapse Gate District South St. Louis

Row House on Lafayette Avenue Slated for Demolition

by Michael R. Allen

Only one of these three row houses at the southwest corner of Lafayette and California avenues in the Gate District is occupied. The photograph makes that obvious.  Built circa 1883, the row is one of the remaining historic buildings that provides architectural character to Lafayette Avenue west of Jefferson — character that, although diminished through substantial demolition, connects this section of the south side street to its eastern and western parts.  Lafayette Avenue has its gaps, but never on its entire run through the city does it lack any part of our city’s built heritage.

Yet all is not well with this row.

Last month, during heavy rain, a large crack developed in the eastern wall of the row’s easternmost house. Then the back section of the wall collapsed, leaving a gaping hole and the house without needed structural support. The wooden joists in brick row houses almost always run perpendicular to the side walls, so damage to these walls can be fatal.

Located at 2804 Lafayette Avenue, city records show that the house is owned by Mark S. Phillips care of Edward Wandrick. The Building Division has listed the house as vacant since 1998, and its adjacent neighbor as vacant from 1989-1991 and again since 2007. Yet given the rough condition and length of abandonment, one would be excused for mistaking it for a Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) building.

On September 7, Building Commissioner Frank Oswald approved an emergency demolition for the damaged eastern house. Of course, the house could be salvaged even now. After all, the side wall is only half-gone — a condition that means, of course, that it is half intact. And the other walls of the house are sound. A problematic factor for demolition is the connected middle house. Not only do the buildings share a common party wall, but the front elevation of all three houses is laid continuously. There is no straight seam between the row. Removal of part of it could destabilize the rest without masonry repair, and emergency demolitions don’t have masonry repair budgets.

Of course, the fate of the building has been under the control of its owners, and they have let the building quietly ride its course. If the building were owned by the LRA, perhaps other options would exist right now should the Gate District neighbors and the area’s alderwoman, Kacie Starr Triplett (D-6th), wish to pursue them. Perhaps the building would be rehabilitated instead of facing its death knell, or perhaps it would have been wrecked years ago. The only certainty is that preservation of long-vacant city buildings is far from scientific. Fortune, in the forms of passionate buyers or harsh sudden winds, make or break St. Louis’ fragile buildings.

Although fortune has often cast a frown on the immediate area around the row on Lafayette, there is significant urban fabric remaining. Although the corner parcel next to 2804 Lafayette has long lost another dwelling and a corner store, across California to the east is a line of commercial buildings in good repair.  South on California are a few residential buildings and then Interstate 44.

Across the street from those buildings is the imposing red-brick, Romanesque Revival Hodgen School of 1884. Designed by Otto J. Wilhelmi, the school may very well have educated young people who were raised at 2804 Lafayette. The closed school building awaits reuse.  Hodgen’s large school yard was created by razing a line of commercial buildings, an action which created a gap in the Lafayette Avenue street line.  One more gap is on the way.

Architecture Gate District Housing South St. Louis

Vivienne on Lafayette Advances Infill Housing Design

by Michael R. Allen

The 2800 block of Lafayette Avenue, between California and Nebraska in the so-called Gate District, is a mixed bag of a street scape. Gone is the continuity of historic brick buildings. There are vacant buildings, heavily altered buildings (see last month’s post on 2831 Lafayette) and the graceful corner commercial building at the northeast corner of Nebraska and Lafayette that bears the colorful enamel sign board of the shuttered Garavaglia Market. Most notable, though, there are vacant lots.

This is the diminished state that has led developers to take other blocks in the Gate District and transform them into unrecognizable mixes of old buildings and large platform-framed homes that seem more appropriate to Wildwood than the near south side. Without any historic districts in the Gate District, there is neither incentive for historic rehabilitation work nor mandates for new construction. The area reflects its lack of any legal design framework. Fortunately, on the 2800 block of Lafayette, developer Cheryl Walker of Obasi Enterprises is taking vacant land and doing something that provides new market-rate homes while adding a new and compatible character to the neighborhood.

The project is called Vivienne on Lafayette, and it entails the construction of four adjacent homes. The two that are complete are show here. HKW Architects designed the homes; that firm has done extensive design work for Restoration St. Louis including the rehabilitation of the Moolah Theater building.

One is immediately struck by how different Vivienne is from its contemporaries. The houses actually look like original designs! There is absolutely no quotation of historic architectural styles here. Nor is there imitation of historic styles of cornices, brackets, balustrades, window sills or other building parts. The designers instead very earnestly engaged the project location and standard available materials to produce homes that are urban and attractive.

The front walls of these homes are brick, with some rowlock courses as sills and headers on each metal-framed window. The basements are high, which is one nod to historic tradition that make the homes taller than other new infill houses. The side walls are clad in stucco, indicative of the fact that these are not authentic masonry buildings. The builders could have used some sort of vinyl or board siding, but chose something more compatible with brick. The roofs are flat — something that minimizes the home volume and allows for potential greening.

The homes are not quite perfect in design; I think that a monotone brick color would have made each better, and that the stucco color is a bit bland. Some more play with masonry details could have added interest. The homes could be placed closer together. Still, such concerns are minor. The homes at Vivienne Place offer sorely-needed innovation in infill housing in St. Louis, where too often we have settled on worse than mediocre design that offers an unpleasant contrast with our excellent historic building stock.

In neighborhoods with challenging conditions, where historic fabric is spotty, homes like these make a lot of sense. They maintain the traditions of density and best use of widely available materials that typifies our neighborhoods without denying us the chance to leave our own mark in time.

Abandonment Architecture Gate District Historic Preservation South St. Louis Storefront Addition

Just Another Vacant Building?

by Michael R. Allen

I don’t think there is such a thing as an average run-of-the-mill vacant building in St. Louis. For instance, look at this building located at 2831 Lafayette Avenue:

On first glance, the yellow-toned plywood sheets and blue awning jump out from a nearly all-white building. Looking at the building longer, details emerge. Behind that projecting storefront is a different, older building. The building appears to be an old house. A close look brings out clues.

This two-story building has a pretty sandstone front; the large filled-in window openings must have been gorgeous when they were glazed. Underneath white paint and stucco repairs are fine carved details around the windows. The sunbursts centered over each window are impressive and typical of the finely detailed nineteenth century stone masonry we have in St. Louis. Right at the top are sill brackets, showing that the building once stood another story taller. The presence of such fine details, the use of sandstone and the style of the facade suggest a construction date in the 1880s. In fact, building permits show that this block face was built out with houses (mostly single-family and many with significant construction costs) between 1880 and 1895. There are three permits for three-story houses: in 1880, 1889 and 1894.

Owners added the storefront addition at 2831 Lafayette by the 1930s, although fire insurance maps show that the building retained its third story into the 1960s. The first floor of the building was in use a dry cleaners as soon as the storefront was finished. Apartments were above. Essentially, the building joined many others in the city located in well-to-do walking neighborhoods that changed dramatically in the early twentieth century as the upper and middle classes migrated west to quieter streets farther from downtown. The large houses of the migrating residents often were divided into rental housing or businesses; many were expanded, and altered and some were eventually demolished as new commercial uses moved into once-genteel neighborhoods. One under appreciated result of these changes was that population density increased. This building is a frank reminder of twentieth century changes in use and demographics on the near south side.

Deed research could clear up which one corresponds to this house. For now, I am glad to have given it a long look and learned that the old building tells an unexpected story. While the house has lost its third story and its original appearance, the remaining traces still provide beauty. There is no reason that future reuse of the building could not highlight the remaining traces and incorporate them into a new design. While the building is rendered ineligible for any landmark designation through loss of historic appearance, there are many futures for it beyond simply tearing it down.

All over our city are similar old houses — many with storefront additions, missing floors, mangled entrances and strange alterations. These are the buildings that cannot be considered contributing to historic districts but who still lend historic character to our streets. Historic rehabilitation tax credits will never be available for these buildings. Some would knock them over, because of the financial problems of rehabbing them without tax credits. Hopefully others will see that, however twisted or obscured, these buildings still have architectural potential — and still tell the stories of their construction and show the scars of changing use. This stretch of Lafayette Avenue gains far more character from 2831 Lafayette in its current state than from the new homes of the Gate District, or the Holiday Inn.

Gate District Historic Preservation Salvage South St. Louis Terra Cotta

City Hospital’s Missing Pieces

by Michael R. Allen

The City Hospital has reopened, but without two important elements: Its front steps, and its front gates. (Or its original cast-iron cupola framing, made locally by Banner Iron Works. But that’s another story.)

The gates are in the middle of one of the ugliest new developments in the city, The Gate District. The city removed the gates around 1994. They sit on Park Avenue west of Jefferson, framing an ugly and useless lawn that now sits sun-baked.

The gray Maine granite steps are in the City Museum, having been removed by Bob Cassilly in 1997 along with other items from the front entrance, including a terra cotta arch and a transom window bearing the hospital name. While the future of the hospital was bleak at this stage, demolition was not scheduled and salvage bids were not being taken.

Why anyone would rob an architectural landmark of defining features is beyond comprehension. Then again, in 1997 believers in the future of the City Hospital were in short supply. Alderwoman Phyllis Young was seeking demolition in coordination with the redevelopment of the Darst-Webbe housing project, and Mayor Freeman Bosley’s office concurred. While these instincts proved wrong, and some of the hospital buildings ended up being renovated, what sort of pessimism would lead the city government to allow the removal of the gates and steps?

The bigger question is why the city under different circumstances years later did not try to return the gates.

Demolition Eminent Domain Gate District

Peerless Restaurant Supply Building

by Michael R. Allen

In these days of biological terrorism and digital warfare, money is rapidly flowing from the United States government and private donors into all sorts of research into biological weaponry. St. Louis University is participating in this boom by constructing a new Level-4 biolab right at the bustling intersection of Grand Avenue and Choteau Avenue. Well, okay, not exactly right on Grand. The ten-story laboratory will sit behind a carefully-groomed sea of bollards and barriers, dubbed by the deceivers and the deceived as a “plaza.” The building’s relationship to its city environment will be as detached as that of the average American researcher from the human “collateral damage” of the latest “smart” war.

The central corridor in particular has been besieged by such buildings until there literally is no sense of place left on most street corners. Sadly, even major intersections — would-be locations for great visual interest — have been spoiled by the occupying forces of visual cleanliness. The demolition of nearly the entire central corridor, a plan began with the horrible Mill Creek Valley clearance of the 1950’s, continues despite the supposedly greater understanding of urban design on the part of our city planners. In place of a dense and connected series of commercial strips and flats has risen a disconnected and uninspired grouping of institutional and corporate mexa-complexes, cheaply-built suburban-style housing, fast-food outlets and surface parking.

One thing that is nearly extinct in much of the central city is the small business. The new vision for this area enforces a strict use segregation outside of the residential portions (Central West End, Downtown, Midtown). City planners don’t want to see an errant diner or locksmith alongside their gleaming hospital towers and biolabs.

The St. Louis University biolab will occupy ground that the University has already cleared over the years — except for that one remaining small business, Peerless Restaurant Supply at 1124 S. Grand Boulevard. Peerless has occupied its modest, two-story commercial building since 1974 and has brought in some foot traffic to the ailing neighborhood around Grand and Chouteau. Not anymore. After a protracted legal fight against SLU’s use of eminent domain, Peerless has reached a settlement with SLU and is vacating its fine building. The building will be gone by year’s end, and the neighborhood will lose one of its last remaining small businesses.

Peerless Restaurant Supply will be relocating to St. Louis County, which often is the beneficiary of relocation from the city’s central corridor.

At least the graceful Arts-and-Crafts style buildings of the Pevely Dairy complex still stand at Grand and Choteau, saved by their compatible single use. As things stand, their preservation is essential to providing any visual beauty to one of the city’s busiest intersection. The biolab’s tendencies will be a powerful sight requiring a mighty antidote like the Pevely complex.

Demolition Gate District South St. Louis

Row Houses on Chouteau Avenue

This short row of late 19th-century rowhouses stood — replete with “mousehole” entrance — just west of Compton Avenue on Chouteau Avenue until one day, inexplicably, wreckers began tearing them down.