Housing North St. Louis O'Fallon Rehabbing

Busy Saturday: Open Streets and the 21st Ward Home Repair Blitz

by Michael R. Allen

It’s an exciting busy day in the city, and an appropriate start to this year’s Historic Preservation Month. Open Streets has just wrapped up, and while giving a walking tour on Lindell with Toby Weiss I saw dozens of pedestrians and cyclists taking advantage of the street closure. Can’t wait for it to happen again!

Up in the 21st Ward, today is a big blitz of home repair by Rebuilding Together. Alderman Antonio French already has posted a video.

While big rehab projects garner most headlines, most homeowners in the city don’t need or can’t afford expensive projects. Neighborhood stabilization requires many showcase projects but many more efforts to retain existing residents. Kudos to the volunteers working today in the 21st ward!

Housing Metro East

Shiloh House With a Cool Brick Chimney

by Michael R. Allen

Suburban place-making can be difficult when builders rely on the build-by-the-material approach through which home designs are derived from dimensions of common materials. That’s why we see so many woefully under-fenestrated tract houses, with wide rear faces of tiny white vinyl windows amid siding that seem to defeat the point of suburban life. Why face the back of the house onto an expansive view and then put puny little windows on that side?

I digress. I was meandering from a job at Scott Air Force Base to lunch in Belleville when I spotted this new house — workers seemed to be applying finishing touches — on Indian Ridge right off of Main Street in Shiloh, Illinois. By and large the houses in Indian Ridge showed modest originality, especially in chimney design. For one thing, the chimneys here are all brick — not vinyl-covered boxes of questionable fireproofing or graceless exposed sheet metal stacks. No, here the chimneys are solid masonry, and one really makes the most of that fact.

Check it out — a turned chimney in buff brick, with a more traditional cousin behind. the cap is even brick around a genuine clay pot. Should it be said that the suburbs are architecturally lifeless, remove this little house in Shiloh from the observation.

Demolition Housing Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Olivette Tear-Down

by Michael R. Allen

Last week I spotted this tear-down on Dielman Road at Engel Lane just south of Olive Boulevard. Another fine postwar ranch house, built sturdy of brick and concrete, will meet its death. Oh, recession, you were supposed to bring calm to the troubled waters of suburban real estate!

Housing James Clemens House North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Clemens House Moves Closer to Rehabilitation

by Michael R. Allen

Rendering courtesy of Robert Wood Realty.

Developer Robert Wood’s $13 million plan to rehabilitate the long-beleaguered James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue, illustrated above, is moving closer to reality. In collaboration with owner McEagle Properties, Wood proposes creating senior apartments in the historic mansion and dormitory wing, and a museum in the chapel wing.

The staff of the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) has recommended that the Commission approve the project for a combination of a 4% low-income housing tax credit ($828,000), gap financing ($4.5 million) and tax-exempt bonds ($7 million). Wood had sought 9% credits. The MHDC will meet on February 19 to allocate credits. The City of St. Louis made the Clemens House project its #1 priority for the 9% credit.

Strange that the Clemens House, the building that first piqued preservationist outrage at McEagle’s land assemblage, may become the first completed project of the NorthSide project? No. As we have been saying all along, the strongest factor in the NorthSide project is the existing fabric of the near north side.

Flounder House Housing LRA North St. Louis Old North

Old North, Infill and Historic Reference

by Michael R. Allen

Image courtesy of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

Last week, residents of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood got a look at a preliminary site plan and renderings for 17 new homes to be built by Habitat for Humanity and five homes to be built by EcoUrban homes. As the plan above shows, these houses will be built on Dodier, Sullivan and Hebert streets between Blair and Florissant Avenue. All will take the place of vacant lots owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority in a part of Old North adjacent to the neighborhood’s most dense northern section.

Amid deep recession, this is great news. Old North will get its first-ever major wave of new construction not developed with the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group as a partner. This private market activity is essential for the neighborhood, and the timing is hopeful that even more development will arrive when the economy recovers. Most important, the new development expands homeownership without compromising the economic diversity of Old North.

Image courtesy of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

On top of the other positive aspects of the development, the design of the new Habitat homes is most certainly contemporary. (EcoUrban has yet to submit elevations.) The homes at left above are two-story, narrow, modified flounder houses. The others are basic modern flat-roofed, single-story homes. The houses share a design vocabulary, eschewing any historic reference or even material use. The lines are rectilinear and crisp. The cladding for all of the new houses will be concrete fiber board on the front sections in a jack-on-jack layout, with concrete weatherboard on the rear elevations. My one concern is that the deep recess of the entrances makes each home’s connection with the sidewalk needlessly remote.

There is nothing about the designs that make them inappropriate to Old North. In fact, their juxtaposition with existing historic brick buildings will make for a pleasant realization of the neighborhood’s aspirations of continued development. If Old North is to grow in the 21st century, it will grow with 21st century architecture. To date, save for the handful of Section 235 houses built there in the 1970s, neighborhood infill efforts there have relied on historical reference that has been pleasant if not progressive.

Historic reference is infill is not necessarily undesirable or inappropriate in Old North or other city neighborhoods. Perhaps the lack of solid materials and smart use of historic elements has soured referential infill to many critics and designers. There certainly are few examples of “faux” historic homes in the city worth their architectural salt. However, the anti-replica argument ignores the fact that the city’s prized 19th century styles, such as Italianate or Second Empire, were in their heyday referencing European styles. Early 20th century styles like Georgian Revival or William B. Ittner’s Jacobethan school style were attempts to renew and reinterpret older styles. Few today complain about the results.

Still, the Habitat and EcoUrban homes bring architectural sensibility that is of its own time. While many city neighborhoods have local historic district ordinances that forbid minimalist infill, Old North does not. The loss of historic fabric there makes any such design code unworkable. A neighborhood with more vacant lots than buildings cannot hold new construction to standards set by its buildings — they will some day be outnumbered by new. The new buildings might as well be good work from their time, as the proposed buildings are. The remote possibility that someone might intelligently revive a historic style found within Old North, however, should not be foreclosed by current fashion.

Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis Visitation Park

Winston Churchill Apartments

by Michael R. Allen

One of the best preservation stories to come out of north St. Louis this year was the rehabilitation of the Winston Churchill Apartments at 5435-75 Cabanne Avenue in Visitation Park. The apartment building had long been the scourge of a changing neighborhood — and not because it was a vacant eyesore. The Winston Churchill was fully occupied and generating as many as 300 calls to the police from neighbors before the apartments closed in 2005. In some cases, shutting down a nuisance property is only a trade between an occupied nuisance and a vacant one.

Because of the Friedman Group, Ltd. and Dublin Capital, the Winston Churchill instead was rejuvenated through a $12 million rehabilitation designed by Klitzing Welsh Architects and built out by E.M. Harris Construction Company. The building reopened with 101 affordable housing units. Many new houses have been built to the west of the Winston Churchill on Cabanne Avenue. Reopening the apartments ensures that the neighborhood offers housing to residents who are not in the market for owning a brand-new house or a large old home.

Built in 1927, the eight-story, concrete-framed Winston Churchill is an imposing, somewhat austere building. The brick architrave at the top is often mistaken for patchwork that replaced the original cornice, but the building never had any such cornice. The stark termination of the building is original (see two historic photographs here. The first two floors provide a softer neoclassical base clad in native Missouri limestone. The firm Avis, Hall and Proetz designed the apartment building, which is named for the once-renowned St. Louis novelist whose fame preceded that of the British statesman.

At the time of construction, the Winston Churchill stood in the shadow of a more imposing building, the Visitation Academy by Barnett, Haynes and Barnett (1891) across the street. The eclectic French Renaissance Revival academy was the second St. Louis home of the school and convent of the Sisters of the Visitation, who had migrated to the city in 1844 following a devastating flood that destroyed their building in Kaskaskia, Illinois. The Sisters’ tenure at Cabanne and Belt would last through 1962, when the order opened a new school and convent on Ballas Road in St. Louis County.

The building on Cabanne was demolished one year later, and the site donated to the City of St. Louis. The park is now known as Ivory Perry Park, well-known for its summer concert series. The Winston Churchill Apartments is now the architectural anchor of the corner of Cabanne and Belt avenues, providing necessary housing as well as visual interest.

Forest Park Southeast Housing Streets

Thoughts on the Proposed Adams Grove Infill Project

by Michael R. Allen

Alex Ihnen has reported the his St. Louis Urban Workshop blog that a substantial new scattered-site infill housing project is in the works for part of Forest Park Southeast. Specifically, the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance hopes to build 40 new houses on and around Norfolk and Vista avenues west of Newstead. These are some the neighborhood’s roughest blocks in its most neglected portion, the area south of Manchester Avenue known as Adams Grove. Adams Grove was platted in 1875 and is the oldest part of Forest Park Southeast, but long has lagged behind the northern section of the neighborhood in development efforts.

Readers may recall that in 2006, these blocks were targeted by the Forest Park Southeast Development Corporation during a wide round of demolition that took down over 30 buildings across the neighborhood. The Preservation Board approved demolition permits for one building on Norfolk and eight buildings on Vista.

One of the worst aspects of this round of demolition was the wholesale removal of vacant frame houses like the row shown here. These six houses stood from 4452-4462 Vista Avenue. Proponents of demolition argued that the houses were too small for people’s demands, and that wide clearance would allow for a large-scale new housing effort.

While the large-scale infill project is welcome fulfillment of the promises that the Development Corporation made in support of demolition, there remains some bittersweet irony that the houses now proposed for construction are small, one-story homes like those rejected as unfit for housing needs. Make no mistake, though — the size of the proposed infill is perfect for the area and the housing needs. That’s why some of us opposed demolishing the frame shotgun houses that also could have served those needs.

The wide demolition in 2006 could lead to two other losses, one of which is the prominent two-story brick corner building at Newstead and Vista that recent was being rehabilitated. Getting remaining buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places to attain historic rehab tax credits might be difficult, although certainly not impossible. The demolitions are tentative, though, and could be avoidable.

One problem for these specific block of Adams Grove are the cul-de-sac street closures on the western end. These closures are partly responsible for the decline of the building stock in this area. Placement of the closures at an unsightly and moribund stretch of Taylor Avenue has compounded the ill effects. The “dead ends” on Swan, Norfolk and Vista avenues attract enough criminal activity to deserve the term.

Here’s the closure on Norfolk:

And this is Vista:

The Vista closure even has large evergreen trees that close off the sight lines of the street. To make these blocks safe and desirable places to live, the closures must be removed and Taylor must be improved. I want very much for the infill project to succeed, because Adams Grove needs major development. That development must address the circulation problem to succeed.

Downtown Historic Preservation Housing

The Railton Residence Reopens

by Michael R. Allen

On November 12, Salvation Army officials cut the ribbon on the beautifully rehabilitated Railton Residence at 205 N. 18th Street downtown. The project cost $14 million and produces 102 workforce housing units in the heart of downtown. Major assistance came from the St. Louis Equity Fund, and the project would not have happened without the use of state historic rehabilitation tax credits and the state low income housing tax credit.

The Salvation Army has owned the Railton since 1939, when it acquired the former hotel for use as one of the Army’s Evangeline residences. Named for Evangeline Booth, first female “general” of the Salvation Army, the residences provided single-room-occupancy lodging for single women working jobs downtown. In 1974, the Salvation Army removed restrictions on male occupants and renamed the building the Railton Residence. In recent years, the Railton’s future has been important in a downtown housing market lacking adequate workforce housing. The Salvation Army is doing a good thing in keeping the Railton reserved for people priced out of most recent downtown development. We just need more units like these.

As the author of the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Railton, I could elaborate at length on the history of the building. Instead I’ll offer a nutshell and recommend reading Section 8 of the nomination. The 14-story Railton started as the Robert E. Lee Hotel, completed in 1928 and designed by Kansas City architect Alonzo H. Gentry. Originally, the Renaissance Revival hotel had 221 rooms. Nearby Union Station fueled a district of hotels along 18th Street — there were ten operating between Market and Washington in 1928 — of which the old Lee Hotel is the sole survivor. (The Marquette Hotel was the northern anchor, and fell in 1988).

The Lee was marketed to traveling businessmen who arrived by train and had business in the wholesale business. Unlike other more lavish or plain seedy lodgings, the Lee was envisioned by its developers as a moderately-priced, economical hotel — a precursor of the motel. In fact, the Lee was part of a chain that capitalized on the St. Louis-Texas trade route by operating hotels in St. Louis, Kansas City, Laredo and San Antonio. In 1935, the Lee became the Auditorium Hotel.

In 1958, the terra cotta belt course between the third and fourth floors was removed. The current rehabilitation could not cover the cost of replicating the lost cornice, but it did change out later aluminum windows for new ones that replicate the original two-over-two pattern. Overall, the Railton is a fairly austere building, but the next time you are nearby look up to the top — those round terra cotta medallions are lion’s heads!

The lobby of the Railton is not highly ornamented, but it has fine terrazzo floors, millwork and plaster moldings. Two years ago, a drop ceiling concealed the plasterwork and old carpets covered the terrazo. The lobby has been restored. Meeting rooms and a small gym are among the amenities offered.

The Salvation Army did decide to abandon the SRO model and expand the suites, so that 221 rooms became 102 apartments. This was a wise move because the original rooms were crowded with low-ceilings and no kitchens. The new rooms have kitchens and bathrooms as well as wonderful views of downtown.

Of course, the signature sign on the roof was retained. The sign structure was put up in the early 1930s and the sign itself in 1946.

The Salvation Army is discussing following up the Railton rehabilitation with a similar project at the Harbor Light in Midtown. Hopefully, that project gets underway in the near future. Affordable housing in the heart of the city needs to be retained and expanded. Historic buildings, especially those like the Railton that have not seen great deterioration, reduce construction costs and thus reduce the cost of housing units.

Housing Mid-Century Modern North County St. Louis County

Ranch House Renewal in Ferguson

by Michael R. Allen

Today’s St. Louis Beacon carries an article about the inner-ring St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson’s attempt to revitalize neighborhoods composed largely of small postwar ranch houses. Rosalind Williams, director of planning and development for the city, has plans to save some of these homes by expanding them. From the article by Mary Delach Leonard:

Williams says the plan is to buy the homes and then “right-size” them by adding a bedroom or bathroom to make them more attractive to home buyers. The long-term goal: neighborhood stabilization.

Ferguson has continued its efforts to identify potential historic districts, including neighborhoods of smaller mid-century homes. In today’s economy, those smaller houses might be looking as good as they did fifty years ago.

College Hill Housing JeffVanderLou North St. Louis

Bay Front Houses in North City

by Michael R. Allen

The single-family house at 2441 Laflin Street in JeffVanderLou (1893) bears a resemblance to a house that I wrote about recently (see “Architectural Creativity on Prairie Avenue”, August 18). That duplex at 2111 East Prairie Avenue in College Hill (1884) appears below.

Both have a projecting trapezoidal bay and a brick cornice as defining architectural features. However, the house on Laflin is a single house of only 660 square feet with the entrance to the left of the bay. There may be more houses like this across the city — post their addresses in the comments section.