Demolition Grand Center Midtown Rightsizing

Buildings Are Assets, Even in Grand Center

by Michael R. Allen

On October 17, Grand Center, Inc. applied for a demolition permit for the curious hybrid building at 3808 Olive Street. Today, crews were “doing taps” — removing the connections between the building and the city’s water and gas lines. Soon, yet another small-scaled, perfectly usable building will disappear from the purported intersection of “art and life” — raising the question of what Grand Center has in store for other smaller buildings in the district.

Another one bites the dust in Grand Center. 3808 Olive Street.

On the face, perhaps the doomed building is a tricky concoction to admire. Yet the turret and stone-faced town house that rises above an appended, plain red brick storefront is every bit as beautiful today as it was when built in the 1880s. The storefront is an added bonus, that could be utilized or removed depending on future plans. In sound condition and potentially eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation (likely if the addition came off), the house with storefront addition should be marketed as a redevelopment opportunity.

The National Register of Historic Places-listed William Cuthbert Jones House (1886) at 3724 Olive Street, to the east of the doomed building.

Grand Center’s streets are notably absent of the small-scale, affordable buildings that incubate small businesses, artists’ studios and apartments. These are the building types whose graceful practicality define areas like Cherokee Street and the Central West End, whose street-level vitality outshines Grand Center’s cycles of big-show and dead-empty. While Grand Center has improved a lot lately, much of that change comes from smaller spaces on Locust Street and in retail storefronts that have generated commercial activities long absent from the mix.

Context: Grand Center’s sights are set on the south side of the 3700-3800 block of Olive Street. X= demolition. A = 3808 Olive Street. NR = National Register of Historic Places-listed building.

The 3700-3800 block of Olive Street is bereft of density, to be sure. From the Sim-City view, it may look like the sort of place to bulldoze and build again. Yet that approach would be utopian and short-sighted — although the view of cleared land from Spring to Vandeventer would be a very long, and anti-urban, view. Unfortunately, Grand Center has already started removing assets on this block, with nothing in their place to indicate demolition brings anything beneficial.

Could this building be threatened with demolition soon? 3826 Olive Street.

Rather than forecast utopian redevelopment, Grand Center might look at a building like 3808 Olive Street as an asset: a building with immediate economic utility, indelible architectural character and enduring contribution to a citywide sense of place. Neighbors of the building even include two buildings that are listed in the National register of Historic Places: the William Cuthbert Jones House (1886), designed by St. Louis architect Jerome B. Legg; and the former Lindell Telephone Exchange/Wolfner Memorial Library for the Blind (1899-1902), whose original Renaissance Revival front was designed by the not-so-insignificant firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge. Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge also designed the Art Institute of Chicago (1893) and many other architecturally-renowned works in the US and Canada – a plus for a district that touts its concentration of works by important architects across time like Tadao Ando and William B. Ittner.

Originally built as the Lindell Telephone Exchange, this building on the west end of the block traces its design to Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge.
A great urban building at 3821 Olive Street, across the street.

“Rightsizing” need not mean the casual removal of viable buildings on admittedly depleting blocks. Too often, however, that is how it is done. Effective rightsizing can be posing those remaining assets as catalysts for regeneration. In Grand Center, there is plenty of large-scale (ART), but not enough small-scale (LIFE) to make the district into anything approaching a real neighborhood. Retaining buildings like 3808 Olive Street and offering them for sale to small developers would be a step toward a compelling and complex urbanism.

Grand plans are invisible on vacant lots, and diminish feelings of safety as well as sense of place. Buildings are assets, even the small and weird ones. Buildings generate activities that tell people where they are –- and give them something to do. Grand Center needs these little buildings on Olive Street. The city can grow again, and we should not be throwing away any potential building block for our future.

Demolition Grand Center LRA Midtown

Grand Center and the Central Apartments

by Michael R. Allen

Demolition is nearly complete on the Central Apartments at 3727 Olive Street in Midtown, and there is still no answer to the big question: What were they thinking?

The better question seems to be: Were they thinking?

Central Apartments in 2005.

The graceful apartment building is the latest victim of the indecision of Grand Center, Inc., the redevelopment corporation charged with revitalizing the midtown area. While the Central Apartments has been owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority since 2001, its fate has been under the control of Grand Center. Since the apartment building fell empty in 2001 — it was partly occupied with storefront tenants up to the time of closing — Grand Center has failed to articulate a vision for its reuse or demolition. After languishing for several years boarded and deteriorating, the building fell to wreckers in December apparently at Grand Center’s request.

The Building Division considered the demolition an emergency, and some reports of brick loss on the west wall circulated. However, the brick loss was spalling of face brick, and the concrete structure of the building was as solid before wrecking began as it was when people were living there just six years prior.

Alas, the potential for reuse in December 2007 was perhaps greater than ever. Thanks to the work of Restoration St. Louis, Steve Trampe and other developers, there finally is an apartment housing market in Midtown. These developers have seen the obvious need for off-campus housing for St. Louis University students and have rehabbed large historic buildings for housing. Two blocks from the Spring Avenue mall entrance to the SLU campus, the Central Apartments had an obvious market.

While the 3700-3800 block of Olive Street has long lost any semblance of cohesive historic character, and lies outside of the Midtown National Historic District, the block retains a few buildings and many lots the could be developed. The William Cuthbert Jones House and the former Lindell Exchange (later Wolfner memorial library) on the south side of the block were recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic rehabilitation and new construction could transform that block from its current dullness.

Built in 1916, the Central Apartments possessed an elegant front elevation adorned in the Renaissance Revival style. With a sound structure, mostly solid masonry and largely intact interiors — revealed when exterior walls were knocked off of the building — the building was in good shape. The building could have provided the high-density urban housing one would assume is needed to make a thriving arts and entertainment district function as a real neighborhood.

Why Grand Center did not make rehabilitation of the building a priority is a mystery. Too often, such a senseless demolition is the result of deliberate bad planning. Here, it seems the result of no planning and no deliberation whatsoever.