St. Mary’s Infirmary at 1528-36 Papin Street is once again for sale. The hospital complex is listed for $1,450,000.00. The buildings previously were under contract, and had sold to the current rehab-planning owners in 2003, but apparently no one can get anything started there.
by Michael R. Allen
Thomas Crone continues his intriguing Dead Theatres series with a photograph of the vacant Hyde Park Theatre that is apparently undergoing some tuckpointing work. According to Crone’s conversation with a passer-by, it seems the tuckpointing project is part of yet another hair-tearing scheme: the theater will be rehabbed while a lovely and much earlier building across the street will be torn down for a parking lot.
by Michael R. Allen
Today, the Preservation Board not only voted against permitting the demolition of the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex but also voted separately to deny the permit outright. As someone who has followed the demolition saga since September and as someone who presented testimony today, I am greatly encouraged by today’s meeting. Activism works! All of the efforts that Steve Patterson has put into the issue this week raised awareness and led people to send letters and testify. This church that seemed obscure and doomed in the fall received enough appreciative attention to convenience the Preservation Board to preserve it.
I note that no one from the neighborhood attended save demolition advocates Alderman Joe Vollmer (D-10th) and Father Vincent Bommarito of St. Ambrose Church. Did anyone there really know about this important decision?
The votes were interesting. The vote on a motion by Commissioner Luis Porello (second by Mary Johnson) to grant the demolition permit went this way:
Yea: Porello, Johnson
Nay: John Burse, Melanie Fathman, Anthony Robinson, Richard Callow
The vote on the motion to deny the permit, made by Richard Callow and seconded by John Burse went this way:
Yea: Callow, Burse, Fathman, Robinson, Johnson
Citizens interested in urban design and historic preservation can make a difference when we work together to challenge the status quo. In this case, we turned the situation around and got the Preservation Board to flat-out deny demolition. Although this is a preliminary review, and the developer can return to the Board for approval again, the vote shows that they will have to redesign their plans to save at least the church to make it past the Board. It’s likely that the developer will keep trying to get the plan exactly as it is, though, so we’ll see how long this victory lasts.
by Michael R. Allen
Expanded version of report written for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, September 2005.
The St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish had its origin with an 1892 petition by Catholics in the newly-developing Fairmont district of St. Louis. These Catholics, almost exclusively of German origin, were among a wave of residents who moved into the area after the development of Scullin’s electric streetcar line. Their petition was successful, although the parish would not have a permanent church building for another 33 years. On March 9, 1892, Vicar General Henry Muehlsiepen came to the area to deliver a mass at a private residence, an act followed by his ordering a census of the area that showed 60 families ready to organize a new parish. Reverend F.G. Holweck, assistant pastor at St. Francis De Sales church, became the first pastor on May 27, 1892.
Detail of entrance to church.
For the parish, the Church purchased for $8,500.00 ten acres of land on Reber Place between Columbia and Reber avenues. This large amount of land was subdivided into three city blocks (CB #4054A, 4054B and 4054C) in an inviting arrangement, with the church buildings planned for the center block and new homes planned for the two flanking blocks. The arrangement of spaces showed some sense of visual drama, with Magnolia Avenue running up to the middle block, where the church would sit, and continuing around the church block with two home-lined streets. The site is probably one of the best examples of urban planning by a parish in the entire city.
The parish undertook construction of a temporary frame church building, dedicated on October 16, 1892 in honor of St. Aloysius, and a school building. With Rev. Holweck acting as pastor and as real estate agent for the lots on the residential blocks, the parish grew fast and reported 130 families at some point in the mid-1890s. Masses were largely in German. The parish was strong enough for a permanent church, and the parish turned to the renowned St. Louis church architect Joseph Conradi for plans. Conradi designed an elaborate Gothic edifice that would have been marvelous — had it been completed. After laying the cornerstone on May 7, 1899 and building the basement, the parish quickly ran out of money for completing the structure. The parish roofed the basement and the incomplete building became the second home for St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish.
Side view of church building.
Around the turn of the century, numerous Italian immigrants arrived in the Fairmont district. Later to become the ethnic group most widely associated with the area, the Italians at the time were struggling to establish cultural institutions that honored their heritage. Italian Catholics in St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish were far from the city’s only two Italian-speaking parishes, and turned to their local parish for assistance. In 1903, Rev. Holweck invited Rev. Ceasar Spigardi of St. Charles Borromeo Church to organize a mission for Italians in the St. Aloysius building. This mission raised funds to organize the St. Ambrose parish, which was able to move into its own temporary building by year’s end.
A new pastor, Rev. Francis G. Brand, arrived in 1903 and worked to pay off the church’s debts. He oversaw construction of the existing rectory (built in 1904 by plans from “Koester”) and convent (built in 1911 by plans from Joseph Stander and Sons). Building permits show that in 1914, the parish started building a new school building at the northeast corner of South Magnolia and January (since demolished). Most importantly, though, Brand led efforts to build yet another church building, designed by Ludwig and Dreisoerner (a firm on whom extensive information does not seem to be available) in the Romanesque style. As a late example of a St. Louis church in the Romanesque style, St. Aloysius Gonzaga displays the conservatism of archdiocesan architecture at the time. This building had its cornerstone laid on May 2, 1925, and was completed in April 1926. Construction cost $500,000. The old unfinished church building was remodeled for use as the parish bowling alley and gymnasium, a use it held until the parish closure in 2005.
The parish went on to peak at 800 families in the 1950s. In 1962, the parish built a new school building. The original 1914 school building was wrecked at some point. The school closed in 2002 and the parish was closed in 2005 after dwindling to 315 families.
Clay Mines Under Church
Claims that old clay mines are undermining the main church building likely have some truth, although I have not located conclusive evidence. A June 10, 2005 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes damage to the building caused by settling, including a supposed split down the center of the building and rapid settling of part of the building around the bell tower. The article states that the parish tried to stabilize the building: “about 15 years ago workers put 63 pins in the foundation — nothing held.”
Inspection of plat maps and atlases has not confirmed that this location was the site of a clay mine. No Geological Survey of Missouri spends much time on clay mining, and only the 1890 edition contains county maps of clay mines. The Geological Survey of Missouri’s 1890 supplement The Clay, Stone, Lime and Sand Industries of St. Louis City and County shows that the site sat above clay deposits connected with the Cheltenham district, but locates the closest recently active mines or pit a half-mile to the north. Many brickworks mined the belt of clay that runs through this area. Evans and Howard as well as Laclede-Christy had nearby brick kilns and mine entrances. The site may have been host to an unmapped and short-lived pit; those were common in the Cheltenham district. Compton and Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis of 1875 does show a few small dome-like structures near this location which may be kilns. Yet little subdivision of the Fairmont district had taken place by 1875 and the structures may be haystacks.
The mine tunnels supposedly under St. Aloysius Gonzaga may be extensions of the mine drawn on the map found in The Hill, which is located north of Columbia Avenue. Larry Giles, who has thoroughly researched the clay-mining operations in the Cheltenham district, speculated in an interview that there probably is a mine tunnel under St. Aloysius, because the tunnels were rarely mapped and never disclosed to the State Geological Survey. Without a map of that particular mine, Giles says, it would be impossible to make a definite identification of any tunnel under the church. He says that whatever tunnel exists under the church building would also extend through surrounding blocks, and any shrinkage thereof would be systematic. Filling the tunnel without substantial excavation would be impossible; new development on the site could be plagued by severe settling if it is occurring on the land.
The original church building.
A search on Pitzman’s 1878 real estate atlas offers no suggestive leads; the full site of the parish and its subdivision is shown as being owned by Union National Bank of St. Louis. On the Pitzman atlas, no parcels south of Columbia Avenue are owned by brick or ceramic companies, likely due to the establishment of subdivisions there. Without access to the interior of the church building, there is difficulty in making any determination of the physical condition of the 1926 building. From the exterior, it looks sound, and the Building Division has not condemned it. One imagines that a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the subsequent availability of historic tax credits could make renovation, even with structural problems, feasible.
Inside of the sanctuary. Photograph by Mary Ann Owens.
Preservation Board Considering Demolition
Yet new development threatens to destroy the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex for a rather conventionally New Urban subdivision. The developer who purchased the parish buildings from the archdiocese this year, Wohlert Company LLC, has sacrificed the grace of the setting for uninspiring tract housing. Gone would be the stunning head-on view of the steeple from Magnolia Avenue and the old-growth trees. Consideration of preservation of at least the 1926 church seems obvious, but an even wiser plan would save the main church and the older buildings to retain one of the city’s most intimate church settings. Ample space for new housing would remain on the block.
Entrance from vestibule into sanctuary.Â Photograph by Mary Ann Owens.
The staff of the city’s Cultural Resources Office has submitted the proposed demolition for review, stating that the buildings are of high merit and eligible for National Register listing. That opinion is correct, and is an accurate interpretation of the city’s Preservation Review Ordinance, which suggests that demolition of the complex for the subdivision is imprudent and possibly an abuse of the ordinance. Yet the Cultural Resources Office is bowing to the pressure to let the development proceed, and is recommending that demolition be allowed. The Preservation Board should go against this recommendation and instead instruct the developer to come up with an alternate plan that respects the Preservation Review Ordinance and gives The Hill area a dignified and historic urban setting, of which it has few remaining. The same developer recently built a home at January and South Magnolia that is totally disrespectful of context, with an attached garage and materials inappropriate for all but a flimsy shed. Within a two-block radius, numerous examples of bad infill housing abound — replete with vinyl siding and garage doors facing the street. The Hill area contains several large tract-house developments from the last 25 years, including the new Parc Ridge Estates development on the cleared site of the Truman Restorative Center.
The context of The Hill (more accurately called the Fairmont District) has been severely diminished in the last 25 years. Demolition of St. Aloysius Gonzaga is a mistake and should be prevented. The mistakes of the past should only strengthen our resolve to make better choices for the future.
City of St. Louis Building Permits.
Survey of Historic Churches of St. Louis Collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.
Toft, Carolyn (ed.). The Hill: The Ethnic Heritage of an Urban Neighborhood. St. Louis, Mo.: Washington University School of Social Science, 1975.
Wayman, Norbury. The Hill. St. Louis: Community Development Agency, 1976.
by Michael R. Allen
Bricks continue to fall from the mural on the east side of one of the two towers at Council Plaza in Midtown. (See this December 7 report from TV station KSDK.) While it’s sad to see the mural deteriorate, good news came at the most recent meeting of the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation: approval of a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places for all of Council Plaza, which was developed starting in 1967 by local Teamsters as a “Model City” demonstration project.
For an odd reason, the St. Louis Preservation Board had recommended that the nomination be tabled until the mural could be repaired, even though the current ownership group stated that it needs tax credits to be able to restore the mural. Well, a motion to recommend approval of the nomination almost sailed through until member Richard Callow moved to table the nomination and reconsider it after the mural issues could be resolved. Never mind that the nomination of Council Plaza was only invoking “urban planning” and not “architecture” or “public art” as a criteria for significance. The Preservation Board unanimously voted for Callow’s motion.
Wisely, the state council went ahead with the listing so that the mural can be restored — provided that the owners intend to honor the promises they have made publicly at the Preservation Board and Missouri Advisory Council meetings. Even though the towers are rather clunky concrete boxes, the murals and brickwork on the windowless side elevations add depth and human scale that redeems the heavy-handed site plan.
by Michael R. Allen
Word on the snow-covered street is that Blairmont Associates LC was not pleased with the attention it received from a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article on its abusive ownership of the Clemens House and the resulting speculation on the identity of the deep pockets behind Blairmont. Sources say that Blairmont had no idea that the property at 1849 Clemens was a historic mansion; they were only interested in the large lot the home and chapel sit on. Thus, to avoid more publicity they will sell the house by January 6 (not sure why this date is being floated).
Of course, if they want to avoid attention they will need to do more than sell the Clemens House. We will continue to monitor their abuse of other historic buildings (such as the Brecht Butcher Supply Company buildings at 1201 Cass, if Blairmont is reading) and many northsiders are actively working to uncover the identity of Blairmont. People who are investing their time, labor and money in rehabbing homes on the near north side have a right to know who is behind Blairmont Associates LC and VHS Partners LLC. Some people think that they know, as the comments section on this blog shows.
For the record, we have no evidence that isn’t already public record. Our guess is as good as yours — probably worse, since we have neighbors who know a lot more than we do about them.
by Michael R. Allen
Our latest site update covers a recent theft of cast iron from the James Clemens, Jr. House (also known as the Clemens Mansion).
UPDATE: The hearing of the City of St. Louis vs. Blairmont Associates Limited Company will he heard tomorrow, Thursday December 1 at 1:30 p.m. in the City Circuit Court’s Division 5 in the Civil Courts Building at Tucker and Market. Judge David Dowd will preside. The case number is #054-2163 and the court phone number is 314-622-4342.
by Michael R. Allen
Demolition of the Century Building at the behest of a determined group of polical actors began one year ago today. At least, the ceremonial wrecking began. The developers of the Old Post Office project that claimed the Century ordered their wreckers to gouge out parts of the building’s corners the night prior to a hearing on a restraining order against a demolition.
I’m sure readers know the story, but the loss of the Century Building and the ongoing attack on civic participation, tacitly endorsed by the Slay administration, still hurts pretty badly. Although I have to say that many good people opposed to the demolition met each other and made lasting and creative relationships through it. The opposition has taken the death and made life from it, while the some players on the other side seems to be mired in the quicksand of destruction. We have celebrations and friendships, and they have that hideous sinking parking garage with the cheap, cheap stucco and granite cladding so offensively displayed at Ninth and Olive. To say that they “won” would be very difficult indeed.
I should also note that our blog is one year old this week, as more testament to the fact that very good things were emerging when demolition began.
by Michael R. Allen
Over at 914 Madison Street in the eastern reaches of Old North St. Louis (which the city officially considers the “North Riverfront” neighborhood), a crew of brick scavengers recently pulled down the exterior walls of the last remaining residence on the block, a building recent damaged by fire. The interior walls and floors are collapsing slowly, forming a shape reminiscent of a pine tree burdened by heavy snowfall. The building is owned by Carlos Johnson. Thankfully, I photographed the building over the summer.
by Michael R. Allen
The scars of historical neglect are visible on every corner of the north side, but few of them make one’s jaw drop faster than the crumbling red brick hulk running from the corner of Salisbury and 20th streets all the way south to the corner of Mallinckrodt and 20th. This is the Nord (or North) St. Louis Turnverein, and it may very well be one of those buildings that even its admirers never mention in the future tense. Its ownership has passed to a negligent owner and it has suffered major roof collapse since going vacant nearly one decade ago. Yet it remains a powerful symbol of the lost ethnic heritage of the Hyde Park neighborhood — which hopefully has a future despite its many setbacks.
Hyde Park began as the German-founded town of Bremen in 1844, and for the first 100 years of this area’s development, Germans were involved in every aspect of civic life here. Despite annexation by the city of St. Louis in 1855 and an influx of immigrants of other nationalities, Hyde Park retained a distinctly German character. The Germans created businesses, wholesale companies, factories and saloons, built great homes and introduced some institutions of a progressive bent, from kindergarten to the St. Louis Philosophical Society (a Hegelian group that published the Journal of Speculative Philosophy from the neighborhood). Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of German social ideals was the founding of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein in 1870. (“Turnverein” is German for gymnastic society.) The members, popularly called Turners, formed the association not only to promote physical health but to promote socializing and civic participation among the working and upper class Germans of Hyde Park.
In 1879, the Turnverein built its first building at 1926 Salisbury fronting Hyde Park itself. This two-story red brick building was built in an Italianate style with a half-mansard parapet wall on its symmetrical five-bay front elevation. Storefronts for rental income faced Salisbury in the two bays to the east and west of the center doorway. Behind the front elevation sat the large gymnasium with its arched roof. This stately building, designed by architect H.W. Kirchner, still stands and has suffered the most damage of the portions of the Turnverein complex.
The new building opened one year after the Turnerbund, the national coordinating organization for Turner societies, moved its office to the temporary Hyde Park home of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein. St. Louis Turners played an important role in the national organization, and were notably progressive in their outlook. They urged passage of successful resolutions calling for the direct election of United States senators (years before that actually occurred in 1913), child labor restrictions, workplace and health inspections and the right to recall and referendum. The Nord St. Louis Turners pushed for adoption of physical education in the St. Louis Public Schools, which was established in 1883. They also advocated installation of public playgrounds around the city.
The Nord St. Louis Turnverein served as a popular civic center for German Americans living on the north side. Widespread use necessitated additions to the first building. A three-story Romanesque Revival addition built in 1893 behind the first building included a bar, meeting rooms and lounges. The addition featured a center arch proclaiming the name of the Turnverein. An 1898 gymnasium addition in the same style facing Mallinckrodt Street, connected over the alleyway with a bridge, expanded the Turnverein building to a full block in length. Turner Oscar Raeder designed the additions while Turner A.H. Haessler served as contractor.
The Turnverein prospered for decades into the Twentieth Century as the acknowledged center of German social life in the neighborhood. The Mallinckrodt Chemical Company, owned by the German Mallinckrodt family, held its board meetings at the Turnverein into the 1980s despite the availability of fancier locations with air conditioning. However, German culture in the city declined following World War I, through political suppression as well as inevitable assimilation. German Americans also joined the flight to the suburbs after World War II. By the 1960s, the Turnverein was renting its space to other organizations, including Veterans clubs. Regulars held on, and the bar remained a good, safe place in the neighborhood for a drink. The bar had no tolerance for fighting, but would serve minors who were employed at the factories on the north riverfront. As former underage patron told us, the Turners figured that anyone “doing a man’s work could have a man’s drink.”
In the early 1980s, the Turnverein enjoyed some renown as a venue for punk rock shows that drew young people to Hyde Park, some for the first time. A nascent rehab effort in the neighborhood and the shows seemed to indicate a better future for the Turnverein, but neither lasted. In 2000, the Nord St. Louis Turnverein closed its doors for good. The buildings already had many problems from deferred maintenance, and quickly deteriorated. The Turners sold the buildings to a non-profit that wanted to revive the buildings for a cultural center, but that group dissolved and somehow DHP Investments LLC ended up with ownership. They have done nothing to repair the buildings; in fact, they allowed the roof on the first gymnasium to collapse and have left the doorways wide open. Inside, the wooden floors have buckled, joists sag and even exterior brick walls have spalled to the point of failure. The condition is so poor that rehabilitation will surely cost several million dollars. Still, much of the interior retains original features and could be made to be very attractive again.
Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr., whose ward includes the Turnverein, has expressed interest in using eminent domain to remove the buildings from the ownership of DHP. Bosley has no specific details on who would then own the buildings and how they would be restored, but he has told constituents that he would like to see a comedy club open in the Turnverein. Whatever happens needs to happen now. The Germans are not returning in large numbers to the now mostly African-American neighborhood, but their grand hall is part of our polyglot heritage that honors everyone through preservation.
Photographs from May 20, 2005 (Michael R. Allen)
Some Turnverein Documents