In her newly-posted TED talk, bespectacled and bubbly ambassador of “Buffalove” Bernice Radle talks about young energy in historic preservation. Watch the video above. The one point that stuck with me was Bernice’s discussion of the perception of historic preservationists as older folks at house museums. Certainly, that stereotype persists — but not without reason. While Bernice and her partner Jason Wilson (who works for Preservation Buffalo Niagara) are saving vacant Buffalo houses and attaining national press, the official core of the historic preservation movement looks about the same.
At the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference two weeks ago, the crowd showed age diversity mostly through the inclusion of students in historic preservation programs. I was the youngest person in many rooms, and at 32 I have more gray hair in my beard than there have been debates about whether Brutalist buildings are beautiful! Of course, the cost of conferences often keeps young professionals away. Yet if we gather to share skills and formulate an agenda for what should be a national cultural movement, we need the generation that will be around to carry out ideas long-term. (This is not to mention racial diversity, a separate but related issue in the movement.)
Yet one month before the National Trust conference, I found hope at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in Philadelphia, hosted by the Center for Community Progress. While the crowd of land-bankers, planners and scholars tilted older, there were lots of peers in lots of rooms. Now, the Reclaiming Vacant Properties crowd would not call itself a “historic preservation” movement — some might run toward the contrary. Yet the conference showed the wider constituency for tackling the problems of older cities is age and discipline diverse.
Back in St. Louis, some of my favorite preservationists don’t use the label or have any official affiliation. Like Bernice, they are just doing the thing. On Cherokee Street, microdeveloper Jason Deem‘s creative constellation of rehabilitated historic buildings is testament to a preservationist commitment. Deem even gave himself the job title of “The Preservationist” on Facebook. Up north, Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) made his first ordinance upon election in 2009 placing his ward under demolition review. Then he funded projects to list most of his ward in the National Register of Historic Places through district nominations. On the Preservation Board for a year, Antonio was the most reliably anti-demolition, pro-asset-conservation vote. Both Jason and Antonio are in their thirties. Neither is involved in the leadership of any local preservation groups.
At neighborhood association meetings, there seems growing young voices who value density, oppose demolition and sometimes seem to love red brick a little too much. I never see these faces at gatherings of local or statewide preservation organizations. This split goes back decades, according to long-time rehabbers. While preservation organizations had some representation from rehab hotspots like Old North and Lafayette Square, by and large the masses of people rescuing old buildings were not part of the leadership. The age gap has always been evident. Today, there seems to be an army of preservation doers — who mostly don’t join preservation organizations or even use the label.
The intersection of historic preservation and the “vacancy vortex” challenges the historic preservation movement to figure out its relevance. We drifted from a mass movement galvanized by the emotional power of the Penn Station demolition into a special interest group that can seem more interested in enforcing regulations than in embracing popular sentiment. When preservation organizations are aloof in battles in distressed neighborhoods, encourage people to seek National Register designation when building stabilization would be more useful and price their public programs beyond the reach of young rehabbers — well, preservation is going to stay old and disconnected. Meanwhile, the “rightsizing” movement may have more to offer people like Bernice: resources, solidarity with other disciplines and a sense of popular spirit lacking from historic preservation in many cities. The new Preservation Rightsizing Network‘s executive committee — of which I am a member — has age and disciplinary diversity not found on most preservation organization boards.
The challenge is whether historic preservation will embrace a succession that might end up challenging many of its habits (and even the National Register itself), and strengthen and renew existing organizations. Young people already are not joiners. They are more likely to put their money into projects, into Kickstarter campaigns, in a box at the door at a dance party that raises money to board up an abandoned row house. Preservation organizations aren’t going to pull in much support through traditional fundraising for overhead-heavy operations that don’t give back to neighborhoods.
If young people sound so strange in preservation, they shouldn’t. They remind me of the activists who brought the American historic preservation movement to life in the first place. A new era could bring historic preservation a legion of new supporters, or it could mean a successive movement that calls itself something else. Either way, what is happening is Buffalo is not going away.
Returning from trips out of town, I found that St. Louis University’s medical school had finally started mothballing the old Pevely Dairy Building. One year ago I wrote that Pevely was still usable and that the university — a huge asset to the city, after all — could become the hero. Perhaps the university’s post-Rev. Lawrence Biondi era starts with redirecting the future of the landmark dairy building.
Two months ago, the university began tackling the derisive junk piles called “Mt. Biondi” by disgruntled medical students and sneering urbanistas. Today, the crunched concrete and steel are gone, along with their strangely alluring presence as rouge Goldsworthy-style urban sculptures. The city of St. Louis pressured the university to comply with basic laws on open storage of building rubble, after over one year of letting everything slide.
St. Louis University’s work for the Pevely Dairy is best described as “mothballing”: work to secure the building against rain and destructive elements. Plywood is covering the windows. Workers have neatly laid concrete block in place of missing or broken glass block on the ground floor. One is struck by the care of the work, which goes beyond means needed to secure a vacant building. That is why I call this work mothballing: it suggests that the university is preparing the building for reuse at a later time, when forces may align better.
The university’s ability to demolish the historic dairy building, designed by architect Leonhard Haeger and completed in 1917, is legally over. The Planning Commission granted the university the right to demolish the building only if it could secure a building permit by December 2012. For over one year, the brick sentinel at Grand and Chouteau has stood vindicated, at least as far as permission to kill it off is concerned.
To the south, the two-story Missouri Belting Company Building, designed by Otto Wilhelmi and completed in 1911, stands privately-owned. The pair of industrial buildings are secure and usable, with floor plates that are easily adaptable to a wide range of uses. At the sidewalk, at least on Grand, the buildings are humane and approachable. They are ready for renewal and changes that could make them even more connected to their context.
Perhaps loss of most of the Pevely complex opens a possibility unforeseen by preservationists and Biondi’s administration alike two years ago: the chance to use two buildings as cornerstones for an urban-scaled, mixed-use project. The proposed ambulatory care center must be built elsewhere, due to a variety of issues related to the site conditions. Thus there remains no reason to wreck the older buildings, or to hold them as precious artifacts. The time to carry them into the new century, in which the city is growing again, has arrived. May Biondi’s successor seize the chance to creatively engage remaining economic and cultural assets, while building a real neighborhood around the university’s growing medical school.
Tomorrow the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee of the Board of Aldermen will consider Board Bills 199 and 200, which pertain to Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration project’s tax increment financing request. The committee meeting starts at 10:00 a.m. in Room 208 at City Hall.
One of the bills, Board Bill 199, contains an amendment to the original 2009 redevelopment plan for the project. The amendment contains the following revision to the original plan
The redevelopment agreement shall include: (a) a list identifying any buildings that Developer owns and which Developer proposes for demolition, and, if such demolition is approved by the City, Developer’s agreement to demolish such buildings no later than December 31, 2016; and (b) a list identifying any buildings that Developer owns and
which Developer proposes for rehabilitation, and Developer’s agreement to weather-secure such buildings to preserve them for future rehabilitation by Developer or others.
So: demolition has a target completion date, while stabilization of historic buildings identified for historic renovations does not. How can the city enforce the second provision of this agreement without a deadline?
In St. Louis, the city’s preservation ordinance creates review of demolition permits on architectural and historic merits only in designated districts. These districts are designated by aldermen and generally follow ward boundaries, although with redistricting and the coming ward reduction these boundaries increasingly make little sense. While the review system established by ordinance is professional, and professionals review the demolition permits, the creation of review boundaries has been political since the city revamped the preservation ordinance in 1999. The politics of review have actually led to increased coverage of demolition review, however, but some areas seem perpetually left out.
In one of the wards in which does not have review, the 19th Ward, stands the Charles H. Duncker Residence — at least for another few weeks before the stone castle falls forever into a grassy abyss. Alas, the stately former dwelling has neither a City Landmark nor a National Register of Historic Places listing, both of which would have placed its demolition under review. (Ever-vigilant Paul Hohmann already alerted us to the demolition in Vanishing STL; then he took excellent interior photographs.)
Located at 3636 Page Boulevard, the Duncker Residence has a storied life that draws heavy in arenas of our past that affect almost all of us. First, the house was built by a distinguished German-American capitalist, who elected to build a French Renaissance Revival design in league with City Hall and other landmarks. Then, upon the original owner’s departure to tranquil Clayton, the house had new life as the Jewish Community Center. Finally, as the Jewish community’s geographic center left, the house became a celebrated African-American retirement home. Today, much of the house is rubble.
The Charles H. Duncker Residence and the French Renaissance Revival Style in St. Louis
The Charles H. Duncker Residence and its carriage house was built at a time of stylistic transition in the high-style residential architecture of the city. The house’s stylistic traits would straddle somewhat the waning Romanesque Revival and short-lived French Renaissance Revival styles, showing the eclectic tendencies of 1890s St. Louis. The house was built toward the end of the 19th century’s last decades; the city issued a building permit to Charles H. Duncker on December 3, 1896. According to the permit, the construction cost was $15,000. The St. Louis Daily Record provides a scant clue as to the designer of the house: “contract to be sublet” is listed under “architect.”
The Duncker Residence was built as a two story house with attic story tucked under a high-pitched hipped roof. Rough-faced ashlar limestone cladding, a wrap-around porch with stone columns of the Ionic order, a short front and west side turreted bows with low dormer and a full-height three-story eastern turreted side bow were defining characteristics of the large dwelling. The preponderant orientation of the house is toward the French Renaissance Revival style, although the prominent turreted bows suggest Romanesque Revival influences and recall buildings like Link & Cameron’s Union Station (1894) or H.H. Richardson’s John Lionberger House (1888). Yet the square-headed windows, recessed entrance columns with Ionic capitals and high-pitched roof are all elements associated with the French Renaissance Revival.
The French Renaissance Revival style employed traits of the Romanesque Revival: tall roofs often with dormers, bows or turrets, large stone elements and picturesque massing. However, the French Renaissance Revival drew upon ornamental elements that were classically oriented, breaking from the austerity of H.H. Richardson’s forms. The French Renaissance Revival style popularized in St. Louis upon the winning submission in the City Hall design competition was Eckel & Mann’s plan, drawn by Harvey Ellis, based on the Hotel de Ville in Paris. St. Louis City Hall (1898) joined Barnett, Haynes & Barnett’s Visitation Academy (1892, demolished) and Ellis’ St. Vincent’s Sanitarium (1894) in Normandy as a prominent exemplar of the style.
By the late 1890s, St. Louis’ wealthy families were choosing a wide range of styles. The completion of the John L. Davis Residence on 1893 (Peabody, Stearns & Furber) brought the Italian Renaissance style into prominence, and broke a streak of Romanesque Revival popularity. The French Renaissance Revival allowed for a gentle transition between the heavier Roman forms and the more ornate appearances coming into vogue.
Around the Midtown and Vandeventer area are several works that compare to the Duncker Residence. The last building at Fout Place, located very close by at Cook and Whittier, dates to 1892 and offers a more pronounced Romanesque influence. However, the massing and main entrance are very similar. The Robert Henry Stockton House at 3508 Samuel Shepard Drive, designed in 1890 by Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, offers another Romanesque Revival dwelling that challenges the heaviness of the style through use of flat-faced ornamental elements and a compositional delicacy. The limestone classing and massing are in league with Duncker’s residence. Most closely related to the Duncker Residence may be Weber & Groves’ Frederick Newton Judson Residence on Washington Avenue (1892), a red brick and sandstone cousin with comparable execution of entrance, massing and roof form.
According to the 1906 edition of The Book of St. Louisans, Charles H. Duncker (1865-1952) was a carpet merchant who served as vice president of Trolicht, Duncker & Renard Carpet Company (then located at the southeast corner of 4th and Washington streets downtown). Duncker had wed Pauline Doerr and together they had two children. Duncker was a member of the Union and Missouri Athletic Clubs. By the 1912 edition of The Book of St. Louisans, Duncker’s firm had changed its name to Trolicht & Duncker in 1907, and Duncker was now company president. The Republican Duncker was a member of the progressive Civic League as well as the Academy of Science of St. Louis.
The Dunckers kept up with both architectural and geographic fashion, and departed Page Boulevard in 1916. The family built a new house at 15 Brentmoor Park in a picturesque garden subdivision designed by Henry Wright. The new Duncker mansion, which would later be published in Missouri’s Contribution to American Architecture, was a resplendent Jacobethan mass adorned with patterned matte brickwork, ornate vergeboards, applied timbering and tall chimneys. Cann & Corrubia designed the house, and landscape architect John Noyes designed the grounds.
Later, the Dunckers lost son Charles Jr. when he fell in combat in France in 1917. The family funded a memorial hall on Washington University’s campus, completed in 1923 as Charles H. Duncker Hall (or, Duncker Hall, where the English Department now can be found). Charles H. Duncker insisted that Cann & Corrubia design the hall, making it the only hall built in the historic hilltop main quadrangle not primarily designed by Cope & Stewardson or James P. Jamieson.
Reborn as the Jewish Community Center
In 1919, the United Hebrew Association acquired the Duncker Mansion, and converted it into the precursor of today’s Jewish Community Center. By this time, St. Louis’ Jewish population had largely relocated from inner city neighborhoods east of Grand Avenue. Concentrations of Jewish population found north of downtown, like Carr Square and around Biddle Street had shifted westward along street car lines into more suburban enclaves including Mt. Cabanne-Raymond Place and the area of Hamilton Heights south of Easton Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive). The Duncker residence was on the eastern end of Jewish world at the time, but its location along the Page Boulevard street car line made it convenient to much of the Jewish population in the city.
In Zion of the Valley, historian Walter Ehrlich writes that it was at the Duncker residence on April 4, 1921 that the Federation of Orthodox Jewish Charitable and Educational Institutions of St. Louis was born. Despite some dissent within the community, over 200 prominent Orthodox Jewish leaders met that day to unify Orthodox institutions through a new federation similar to one that the Reform community has just created. The federation’s first president was Hyman Cohen, who led a structure that included a board of directors and an impressive 60-person advisory board. The congregations Chesed Shel Emeth (located in a synagogue at Page and Euclid since 1919) and Shaare Zedek (located at Page and West End since 1914, in a building that is now Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church) were member organizations, alongside Orthdox Jewish Old Folks Home (located nearby on North Grand Avenue; still extant) and other institutions.
Some members of the Orthdox community felt that the formal separation of Orthodox institutions reinforced existing needless divides, and their views prevailed soon. In 1925, the Orthdox federation merged with the Federation of Jewish Charities of St. Louis. The unified organization to this day remains named the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Inside of the stone castle on Page, this organization and others were very prosperous in the 1920s and 1930s. The United Hebrew Association is responsible for the addition of a two-story brick addition at the rear of the building. The city issued a building permit for that addition on May 10, 1920; the construction cost was $19,500. The two-story flat-roofed brick addition houses class and meeting rooms.
As the Jewish population continued to move away from Grand Avenue during the Depression years, the location of the Jewish Community Center became an inconvenient anachronism, and the center moved in 1943. Eventually, the Jewish Community Center would built a new facility in Creve Couer called the I.E. Millston Campus, which opened in 1963. That center remains open today, disconnected in all but perhaps a fraction of regional memory from the turreted mansion on Page Boulevard.
From the Colored Old Folks’ Home to Page Manor
In 1943, the Colored Old Folks’ Home purchased the property. Founded in 1902 by the Woman’s Wednesday Sewing Club, whose members raised funds to create it, the Home later became the Ferrier-Harris Home. Rose Ferrier-Harris had been first president of the Sewing Club. For decades, this building was a landmark to the charitable efforts of African-American women, and the home merited listing in John A. Wright’s Discovering African-American St. Louis. Upon purchase, the Colored Old Folks’ Home spent a reported $3,000 to alter the building, according to a building permit issued on January 27, 1943. However, the character of the main section and rear carriage house were left intact.
Eventually the revered Ferrier-Harris Home became the Page Manor, which did not sustain the good quality and noble purpose of the prior operator. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services notified Page Manor’s owners of major violations starting in 2012, and earlier this year succeeded in revoking the license of the facility. Page Manor closed, and its owners decided to apply for a demolition permit for the complex.
Since the city’s preservation review system is based on political considerations, not professional standards, neither the architectural grandeur nor the varied history of the former Duncker residence slowed demolition. The city’s Cultural Resources Office never had any authority to review the demolition application, and there was no public meeting or call for public comments. Instead, the Building Commissioner issued a demolition permit with little public attention, and a very significant part of the city’s history began to be erased.
Lest one assume that this pocket of the 19th Ward is bereft of context, or that this author is guilty of inordinate adulation of old building fiber, consider the surrounding urban fabric in which the Duncker residence played a role. While across Page is the suburban expanse of a strip retail center, the block on which the house had stood includes several significant historic dwellings. Along Grand Boulevard around the corner are historic houses, including one designed by the quintessential local architectural firm of Barnett, Haynes & Barnett. All lack any demolition protection, since none are official City Landmarks and none is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The dean of New York history, Kenneth T. Jackson, recently published a salvo in the New York Times intended to advance the argument that New York’s neighborhood preservation movement was stifling the city’s chance to build new high rises. In his article “Gotham’s Towering Ambitions” Jackson argued that without new office buildings, New York could fall behind other global cities.
This week, Roberta Brandes Gratz published a very sensible, lyrical response to Jackson in The Huffington Post (“Urban Change to Believe In”. Gratz challenged Jackson’s view, arguing that New York has experienced a transformative change without giant new buildings –and that change is more impactful and long-lasting. In fact, Gratz argues that those voices Jackson called obstructionist actually are at the forefront of celebrating urban change.
“[I]t is time to celebrate the new kind of change that manages growth by balancing old and new and recognizes that the new derives its value from existing in the midst of the old,” writes Gratz, in an essay that captures what actually covers a larger context than just Manhattan. The larger context is the future of the American legacy city, and the past few decades of incremental urban change that has stabilized cities once in free fall.
While St. Louis is several shades removed from the cosmopolitan metropolis of New York, the lilt of development debate has a few parallels. While New York is a high-demand market, St. Louis city remains fairly low-demand. In fact, we may still be losing residents. Yet our mythology of growth keeps city officials chasing big projects – not skyscrapers, but strip malls, warehouses, entertainment “districts,” and occasionally sports facilities. None of these projects seems to be very good at embracing the existing city fabric, and we are often told than none can afford to be – X number of jobs is more important than anything else.
The rallying cry in St. Louis is not a Jacksonian ode to the skyscraper jungle we could become, but rather the hegemonic official searches for “jobs” and “retail.” As Jackson criticized preservationists, St. Louis developers and officials are prone to blame a similar crowd — preservationists, urban design activists, boulevardiers — for the supposed push-back on projects like Northside Regeneration and City+Arch+River. In both cities, the supposed rabble of agenda-pushing activists actually looks more like average citizens demanding accountability and protection of their neighborhood quality of life. At the recent TIF Commission hearing on Northside Regeneration, none of the speakers against the project — panned as “barking dogs” by the developer — was a preservation or urban design activist.
The powers that want-to-be succeeded in attaining green lights for Ballpark Village, Northside Regeneration and City+Arch+River. If anything, the rallying against elements of these projects ultimately had little impact. Certainly, critical voices have been accused of tampering with all three of these projects, yet in the end the slow pace is only the fault of the projects’ own designers — and the forces of the real estate market. Perhaps people just don’t want these projects in the same way they want rehabbed houses on tree-lined streets, or restaurants in imaginatively adapted spaces, or small-scale public spaces like Citygarden that are based on delightful experience. Why do officials keep chasing the urbanist magic bullets in the name of economic growth, when these projects aren’t truly growing the city?
Gratz points out that New York’s meteoric spreading gentrification, which transformed a late mid-century SoHo loft trickle into a multi-borough flood, balanced and slow development has made the city more liveable and the values of buildings higher. The same dynamic, ever-slower, operates in St. Louis. The city’s evident comeback has little relation to mega-projects. Neighborhood revitalization has had few subsidies and little in the way of political favors. That’s why it makes so much economic sense — it is demand-driven and has an output greater than its cost.
While city leaders decimated row houses in Mill Creek Valley for short-lived low-density urban “renewal” in the 1950s and 1960s, rehabbers set into motion long-term, sustainable reclamation of Soulard, Lafayette Square and the Central West End. Decades later, that momentum is evident in the spread of stabilized fabric, and in the amount of infill construction taking aim at the empty spaces in the early rehab neighborhoods. Earlier rehabber protections in the form of historic district ordinances are accommodating of change, too. I live in Shaw, where we have a local historic district with fairly strict standards. Two blocks away, in a few months some very different contemporary housing will rise as DeTonty Commons — and the Preservation Board approved the project after some careful review against our local historic district standards.
Today, from Cherokee Street to Old North to Fountain Park to Bevo, people are still doing the same thing: rehabbing houses, opening small businesses, and rebuilding the density of activity the neighborhoods’ architectural frameworks still can support. The litany of hot-shot big-ticket projects, from St. Louis Centre to Chouteau’s Lake, have either failed to survive despite high subsidy or have never materialized at all. The supposed game-changing projects of today languish, and force their success stories through mediocre over-priced “development” that likely removes more tax dollars than it ever returns.
The city’s only new high-rise built during the market boom, downtown’s Roberts Tower, was completed only to sit empty before going to foreclosure. Meanwhile, the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market grows and thrives amid the influx of families to the area around Tower Grove Park in south city. The McRee Town neighborhood, just twelve years ago considered one of the city’s most dangerous parts, now boasts a patisserie across the street from a wine bar in a converted gas station. Picnic tables and benches in O’Fallon Park are hard to come by following major park improvements in the last years, and that is not even when the annual summer concerts are going. All over the city, incremental change has built community, while high-cost development has either floundered or simply supported changes already underway.
Citizens who are skeptical of big fixes for their cities, in St. Louis or New York, aren’t naysayers. They are stewards of the gradual transformation of legacy cities that is ground-level, economic and communitarian. They embrace change. These are people who say yes to continuing to develop cities in ways that are responsive to their users, so that the profits of development are socially distributed rather than individually concentrated. Development is not inherently a threat to smart urban growth, but when it ignores actual economic demand and social needs, it can be everyone’s worst enemy.
New Yorkers may see tall towers as a threat. In St. Louis, the biggest threat to sustainable change is more likely embodied in the Ballpark Village parking lot. If the vernacular red brick building has become the symbol of what St. Louis adores, it’s not so much because of nostalgia or fanaticism — it’s because that building represents a bona fide economic and visual asset built at a human scale (not an ethereal promise based on a profit motive or an inflated sense of civic identity). The alternative often is too ugly to love. As Gratz writes, “Change worth celebrating values the distinguished and ever functional old and shuns the new for the sake of what’s new, too often banal and surely big.”
Architect and friend Ann Wimsatt often talks about the “four corners” urbanism that St. Louisans like, embodied best perhaps by the intersection of Euclid and Maryland avenues. There, the intersection is held by four historic buildings, none higher than four stories and three of which are brick. All have wide ground-level storefronts, which are full of activity into the night. Here, the buildings are supporting human activity — buying, selling, shopping, dining, conversing — in approachable forms. Anything new that could be as functional, attractive, storied and beloved as that intersection would be a hit in St. Louis. Perhaps city officials hear the voices at public meetings as growls, but I hear them as odes to the urbanism that works — and that we already have.
Last week I participated in two gatherings held consecutively in St. Louis’ kindred city, Philadelphia: the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, hosted by the Center for Community Progress, and the Right Size, Right Place Forum hosted by the emergent Preservation Rightsizing Network. While I was a session moderator and presenter, respectively, I would have attended each of these events regardless. The preservationist impulse of my younger career has hit head-on the realization that historic district creation, demolition protest and the fabled building “mothballing” are transitory tools at best — not options that resolve vacancy and threats, but stabs at creating possibilities. The hard work lies within those possibilities.
The first challenge remains framing the term “rightsizing.” Our panel took aim at the prevalent and oversimplified connotation that “rightsizing” means demolition of supposed liability properties. Perhaps we erred in our offensive, as we received very intelligent critique reminding the panel that “right size” need not be restricted to subtractive activities. Indeed, “right-sizing” can also refer to infill projects that add density to stable neighborhoods, renovation of historic buildings that add new residents or businesses, interim or permanent uses for vacant lots, and the creation of historic districts to guide policy-making. The “right size” of every American city is not necessarily smaller. However, much of the discussion on “rightsizing” (or “managed decline,” or “shrinking cities”) nearly obsesses over population loss and resource scarcity, without being more accurate about the complexity of planning in what are more accurately called changing rather than shrinking cities.
Thus, the realm of Reclaiming Vacant Properties might seem to be foreign soil for the preservationist, and there were but a handful of us practitioners amid the critical mass of landbank professionals, planners and community development folks. Yet the opening plenary showed a wider recognition that existing buildings are assets than some might expect. A panel of mayors from South Bend, Gary, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Allenton — company St. Louis should embrace, not shun — turned up some interesting comments by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. Mallory admitted that he personally joins a city staffer on drives to look at each building on the city’s demolition lists. The mayor then makes his recommendations for demolition to the city. Mallory explained that he doesn’t want demolition to create holes in viable blocks, lowering property values and removing potential city revenue and population.
Still, a questioner at the end of the plenary posed the oft-stated opinion that rehabilitation of historic buildings is usually more expensive than new construction, a false dichotomy. The dichotomy that is more likely in cities with significant vacancy is the gap between a renovated historic building and a long-term vacant lot. The question underscored that the language of historic preservation has yet to reach many people working in community development. Yet the panel that I moderated, “Building on Historic Assets,’ attracted over 60 people even put up against the Detroit Future City panel. There is an intersection of interest when preservation practitioners show up in unlikely places.
Our challenge in the right-sizing world is posing historic preservation as practice, specialized knowledge about place that is as essentially to good planning as the knowledge brought by tax foreclosure experts, architects and urban planners. Yet our key values should not be diluted in the process. As Advisory Council on Historic Preservation member Brad White stated on our panel at Reclaiming Vacant Cities, the message is not even that historic buildings have value, it’s that buildings have value. Period. Buildings have economic value, social value, artistic value and ecological value. All of these are traits that planners tout with new green space projects, affordable housing developments, downtown retail, and other endeavors based on new construction. How do we remind people that existing buildings offer every bit of the value of new buildings, with the added values of energy conserved by already being built, and material quality that this country will never see again?
Two preservation professionals who are working on strategies for asset-based “right size” planning are Donovan Rypkema and Cara Bertron at PlaceEconomics. The PlaceEconomics Rightsizing Cities Initiative promotes “planning decisions and regenerative opportunities that are deeply rooted in local landscapes and character.” So far, PlaceEconomics has worked on a pilot ReLocal program in Muncie, Indiana. Although the project delves into decisions about demolition, the goal is to get planning agencies to consider the economic benefits of preservation and the costs of demolition — to look beyond policies that encourage demolition as the only blight remedy. As Rypkema often says in his frequent lectures, demolishing a building removes one option for a property — and why would cities want to narrow their options?
Government officials are not our only needed allies — we must reach people who live in places whose revitalization we can foresee and assist. The people who live in neighborhoods affected by right-size initiatives, or just large housing or redevelopment projects, are predominantly poor and in many cases largely African-American. The historic preservation movement has never done well at reaching out to these groups, in some cases because we aren’t listening. I work with urban preservation groups in St. Louis and other cities, and none have more than a few African-Americans on their boards or staffs. Poor people aren’t represented at all. If we are going to help right-size cities, we have to realize that cities are collections of people before they are collections of buildings — and we are going to have to treat urban neighborhoods as something other than the frontiers we seek to intellectually colonize.
Building real alliances in distressed neighborhoods will entail listening, building more inclusive leadership structures on preservation campaigns and within preservation organizations. We need to shed some of our old skin. Many preservation battles don’t involve demolition — they involve keeping homeowners and renters in their homes, so buildings don’t go vacant. Foreclosure mediation, home repair, eminent domain resistance, mediation with code compliance are all aspects of preservation work that historic preservationists need to get better at. Communities typically welcome practitioners who offer resources for them. We have to develop capacity to provide those resources, and then remember that they are in service to the real ground-level leaders.
Preservation practitioners have the chance to help define “rightsizing,” and through that process redefine urban preservation so that it is more responsive to 21st century needs and possibilities. Historic preservationists should have been talking to urban planners and residents of poor neighborhoods more often for decades. What happened in Philadelphia is just part of a larger and long-term dialogue that will place historic preservation more centrally in urban development and right-sizing — alongside disciplines that are not questioned when they claim seats at the table. We should not be shy about taking a seat, but we should make sure we are ready to collaborate, listen, and develop new methods.
May marks the start of National Historic Preservation Month. Perhaps this spring’s sky shifts from dinge of gray to cloud-studded blue find me more introspective about my practice as a historic preservationist, but I keep questioning the impact and methods. Here are links to two recent places where I offer thoughts about what is right and wrong with mainstream historic preservation practice right now. Overall, I am drawn to the vibrancy of communities of people, and am exploring how the stewardship of buildings can support that.
Critical examination of the relationship of my practice to social needs has afforded almost a re-dedication. While I am not sure I ever will be the same “preservationist” I was in the past, I see the relationships between people and my work so much more clearly that I also can see its utility in ways I never saw before. People need preservation, and preservation needs people. Historic preservation has always been a social practice, but its power to serve people can often seem diluted when the lenses of economic development and professional practice are overlaid. Writing by Dolores Hayden, Daniel Bluestone, Camilo Jose Vergara and others suggest that a popular historic preservation practice is not only possible but already exists under dozens of other names.
This week, in the rotunda of our state capitol, Missouri preservation bestowed a Preserve Missouri Award upon the “flying saucer” at Council Plaza. Rather than grant that award to the developer or architect of the renovation, which is common in preservation accolade-giving, Missouri preservation presented the award to a list of people whose interrelated efforts gave rise to mass support for preservation. Jeff and Randy Vines, Toby Weiss, Richard Henmi (who designed the building, completed in 1967), Aldermen Shane Cohn and Scott Ogilvie, PRO’s Lindsey Derrington and others received a collective award for their mass action. That’s what the preservation movement needs to do more often: recognize that buildings are made and remade by the masses, with people’s different roles adding up to a building’s preservation. The flying saucer shows that buildings that mean something to people become the biggest successes. Preservationists need to consider how the forces of architectural meaning work, and how they can’t be faked.
This introduction leads to two works that reflect my current thinking:
Minneapolis’ Works Progress visited St. Louis last week to complete a series of events called “Whole City” that examined the artistic and cultural practices that are shaping St. Louis right now. The series culminated with an exhibit at the Luminary Center for the Arts. Asked to contribute an essay to the publication released at the event, I pulled together thoughts on the interconnected dynamics in preservation, urbanism, community art and “creative placemaking.” This piece is an attempt, not an answer; I am reflecting on how these practices can matter more to the people of St. Louis. The excellent critical publication Temporary Art Review republished the piece yesterday.
The College of Arts and Sciences at Washington University presents a wonderful podcast called Hold That Thought produced by Claire Navarro. Last month Claire interviewed me about the psychology of preserving buildings in depleted neighborhoods. The resulting podcast examines Old North St. Louis specifically, with emphasis on why people there are so fiercely protecting of buildings in an urban landscape that some may no longer consider urban in terms of built or population density.
Historic Preservation Month offers a time to celebrate the social good of preservation of historic places. For us practitioners, hopefully it also finds us sharpening our self-awareness so that we can be better aids to the people and the buildings we love. Preservation can be a popular value, and preservationists should do everything we can to make that so.
Media attention on the Powell Square demolition ought to point us toward a historic warehouse we can save: Cupples Station Building 7 or “Cupples 7” at 11th and Spruce Streets. Built in 1907 and designed by Eames & Young as part of an 18-building complex, the historic warehouse is the last of the surviving buildings to stand empty. The city of St. Louis now controls the building. We asked Andrew Weil, director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, about the status and the potential of a building whose architecture inspired the design of the current Busch Stadium.
Last week, the Chicago Commission on Landmarks for the second time unanimously voted to rescind the landmark designation for Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (completed in 1975). The vote essentially dooms the innovative concrete-shell modernist hospital building to demolition whenever owner Northwestern University decided to tear it down. Additionally, the vote is an odd smack-down of preservationist pragmatism. Preservationists were not insensitive to the programmatic needs of Northwestern University, and did not hold fast to a you-can’t-touch-this absolutism, but instead started embracing the defiant modern design of our time. Alas, what might have been an outstanding moment for solving a tough preservation problem is now just fodder for preservation theory books. Chicago will not be building on precedents that include an unfairly understudied example from St. Louis, where the Washington University School of Medicine demonstrated how important architectural modernism could be preserved amid shifting programmatic needs.
Here is a chance to actively participate in preserving a part of St. Louis. Old North Saint Louis
Restoration Group (ONSLRG) recently bought this three-story, brick structure at 1316 North Market from the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). In 2005 there were vacant lots on either side of the building. Today, there are newly built homes surrounding it. Preserving this building would retain the urban past of the block and maintain the positive momentum that the community has been building in the area.