Central West End Historic Preservation Housing

Want a Robinson in Your Historic District?

by Michael R. Allen

Strong lines, pronounced modern styling, a narrow, low form and neutral coloring (save the orange section) draw one’s eyes to the house at 4237 McPherson Avenue in the Central West End. Inside, spaces flow into each other, and the compact front elevation dissolves into a voluminous open floor plan. This modern house, built last year, is like few other in the city.

While the modern design is worthy of our consideration alone, the siting opens all sorts of possibilities — and questions for residents of of historic districts. See, the house is not one of a row of new houses, like those found in the old Gaslight Square two blocks to the north. See, 4237 McPherson fits in between two historic revival-style homes. That siting is deliberate.

Anthony Robinson designed and developed this house, and is planning to build more on blocks in the eastern end of the Central West End. Nicknamed the “Robinson,” the architect’s contemporary town house primarily will fill gaps in parts of the Central West End that have seen substantial building loss. The “Robinson” offers a fresh way to introduce a new house into historic context.

Perhaps these houses aren’t totally fresh; modernists experimented with slipping streamlined designs into the city in the twentieth century. The commercial and apartment architecture of Lindell Boulevard between Grand and Kingshighway contains many examples of minimalist, geometric design smack-dab next to ornament-heavy mansions and apartment buildings. That mix works, but it’s not widespread in St. Louis. Anthony Robinson comes nearly fifty years later doing the same in the Central West End’s side streets. His designs are new, but there is a fine precedent for his work.

Robinson’s first realized modern home design is located across the street from the house at 4237 McPherson. Built a few years earlier, this home shares much in common with the house across the street. Still, there are key differences. There is a projecting vertical pier next to the entrance, that rises up through the roof line. The second floor porch is cantilevered, not built over the first floor.

Both houses finely balance the emphasis on height the narrow form brings with horizontal lines reminiscent of the Prairie School. However, these houses break from even the infill tradition on this block. The 4200 block of McPherson has seen a lot of loss and some rebuilding in the last 15 years. There are a number of Italianate-inspired townhouses on the block built by the Pyramid Companies in the 1990s. Just as Robinson’s distinctive design has a signature look, Pyramid’s townhouses are readily identifiable as that company’s work.

Many residents of historic districts across the city would probably rather see a Pyramid — or something similar — than a Robinson next door to their historic home. Most of our city’s local historic district ordinances mandate attempts at architectural imitation and curtail original design. A “model example” is required in many cases, although often designs proposed borrow freely across “model examples” for hybrid designs. The result of these ordinances has been some very strong replica houses and a whole lot of really weak ones. The Pyramid houses are fairly simple, but they don’t really resemble any houses built in St. Louis during the 19th and early 20th century.

The 4200 block of McPherson, however, is located in the Central West End local historic district. The Central West End historic district’s standards, which date to 1974 and were written by Donald Royse and Carolyn Hewes Toft, expressly encourage quality contemporary architecture while discouraging historically imitative design. As we can see, both types of design have been built under those standards.

Attempts at historicization of new housing often have a negative impact in a historic district, because the new houses offer mongrel specimens of historical styles found in the neighborhood. One of the biggest problems is the replication of historical elements using cheap modern materials and factory-ordered pieces. Improvisation was the lifeblood of builders in our past, and new “historic” homes don’t carry that tradition forward. Houses like the “Robinson” do.

Future local historic districts in the city have the chance to allow some design flexibility. In areas of St. Louis where there is a lot of vacant land, allowing truly original design in historic districts is logical. The truth about local historic districts under St. Louis preservation law is that citizens can adopt a wide range of design standards, from minimal to thorough. The aspirations of today’s architects and builders can even be accommodated.

Architecture Columbus Square Downtown Housing Mid-Century Modern

Cochran Gardens Replacement Complete

by Michael R. Allen

Looking northeast from the intersection of 9th and Carr streets, September 2009.

Sometimes, it seems like historic buildings have to be demolished wholesale before their replicas get praised. The site of the public housing project Cochran Gardens between 9th and 7th streets north of downtown illustrates the rise, fall and kinda-sorta-rise again of vernacular American architecture. The site’s mostly brick tenements were in a range of styles — Greek Revival, Italianate, Federal — typical of the 19th century. Some of these buildings were 100 years old when the site was cleared in 1950 and 1951.

The replacement was the unitary modern order of low-rise and mid-rise apartment housing. The crowded high-ceilinged large rooms were replaced by theoretically uncrowded low-ceilinged small rooms. People still lived in brick buildings. Rather than live within earshot of the community’s sidewalk life, many people lived far above. However, there was a lot more green space — something the tight-knit “slum” really didn’t have or need in such overabundance before — and the modern miracle of indoor plumbing.

Of course, the modernist vision for housing the poor fell apart, and all save one building at Cochran were wrecked two years ago under the federal HOPE VI program. What housing rises in the clearing? Well, that would be ersatz vernacular tenements! The two-story town-house style units now on the site return residents to the sidewalk realm, albeit in buildings that have shorter floor heights and thin platform-framed walls. Also, the residents are not living here on their own but through the determinations of federal housing subsidy — a major departure from the much-maligned “slums” of old St. Louis that were also places free from the ravages of government control.

Cochran Gardens after completion, 1952. From the collection of the St. Louis Housing Authority.

The details are suggestive of historic styles that were not really found in this part of the city in great abundance. There is an architectural ordering of the space through style that quintessentially does not differ from the modern order that George Hellmuth gave to Cochran Gardens.

Yet the new modern order embraces at least the symbolism of the neighborhood that the housing project replaced. Will this new neighborhood persist without another physical upheaval? Will these wood-wrought nostalgic houses withstand decay that the sturdy towers of Cochran could have fended off for another century? Time will tell, but I doubt that the buildings will last longer than 30 years. The residents will move on if they improve their lives. Most will move on regardless. (That’s not much different than how the neighborhood operated before, except that the choices were made as freely as possible without being tied to housing vouchers.) However, in the meantime the residents will have the semblance of urban life that Cochran Gardens obliterated. Hopefully that makes some difference in this world.

See also:

“Cochran Gardens Demolition Nearing Completion” (March 25, 2008)

“Historic Cochran Gardens” (August 8, 2007)

Housing JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Large Housing Development Underway in NorthSide Project Area

by Michael R. Allen

Thomas Avenue in the southeastern reaches of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood definitely is a construction zone. All day long, the street buzzes with the sound of large trucks, contractors speaking and power saws buzzing. The September deadline looms, and the developers are tough-minded about meeting that deadline. After all, these developers are known to be serious and uncompromising about their mission.

Has construction on the NorthSide project started in a big and visible way?

Not quite. The construction is part of a phased 90-house development, and sits fully engulfed by the boundaries of the NorthSide project. However, the developer is not McEagle Properties but the non-profit Habitat for Humanity. The project has not received tax increment financing, nor is is formally part of the larger and more visible development. The Habitat for Humanity project in JeffVanderLou is a modest, steady effort that will transform a few blocks and 90 families’ lives. If that is all that the project accomplishes — and I doubt that will be the end — it will have fulfilled a great need long before the larger project leads to even a shovel turn of earth.

Habitat for Humanity actually began this project in 2003, when it built 20 houses on Bacon, Garrison and St. Louis avenues in the northeast corner of the neighborhood. The St. Louis Equity Fund and the Jeff-Vander-Lou Initiative were development partners, and the Equity Fund remains involved in the subsequent phases. Neighborhood residents identified the need for this project as part of intensive community planning conducted as part of the Jeff-Vander-Lou Initiative process. This was development that came from the grassroots to serve the grassroots. These first homes largely consisted of two-story, flat-roofed townhouse-style buildings clad in brick and brick-like panels. Two of the double units on Bacon are shown here:

Architectural critics can pick at the details and materials, but I think that the houses demonstrate a creative use of a limited budget. The houses are compatible in form with their urban surroundings, and each one occupies a vacant lot. Construction ameliorated the effect of 20 vacant parcels in a pocket of the neighborhood. Readers who have lived in areas where there are 20 or more vacant parcels in a two-block area know exactly how transformative that can be.

Like McEagle, Habitat for Humanity thought about JeffVanderLou on a large scale. The organization identified the need for more construction in the southeast part of the neighborhood, around the intersection of Sheridan Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive north of the reclaimed Blumeyer housing project. In summer 2008, Habitat for Humanity built 27 houses on Sheridan Avenue that received the Platinum LEED certification. As the photograph above shows, Habitat built around existing occupied buildings (there was some demolition of vacant buildings) and introduced a different house model.

The predominate house model is now a front-gabled, one-story home with front porch. Habitat for Humanity’s architects developed two different models that alternate on longer expanses. There are differences in material colors, and homeowners have chosen some personal variations like substituting actual brick veneer for the concrete brick-like material more common to the development.

I think that the one-story model is charming, especially with the generous front porches. These houses embrace the life of the street, sending a strong message in a neighborhood that still has a lot of street crime. Eyes and ears on those porches will make a positive difference.

The houses now under construction on Thomas east of Elliott are 24 one-story, 1,184-square-foot houses that will sell for $77,000 each. These homes are of modest scale and materials, but there are unique things about them in addition to affordable price: these houses also meet Platinum LEED certification standards. Not only are these houses satisfying necessity in the social economy, they are doing the same in the ecological economy.

When this phase ends in September, a final phase that concludes in December will be underway. By New Year’s Eve, 90 for-sale houses will have been added to JeffVanderLou in six years. That’s an impressive feat for non-profit developers working on a community-driven process. Even more impressive will be the social impact of the houses.

As we contemplate the redevelopment ordinance that will initiate a much larger, private vision of development for this area, we should not forget that our best successes come from dreaming big but working small. Those who say that the scale of the solution must match the scale of the problem are right, but they are overlooking the scale of the community. As the Habitat for Humanity project shows, block by block makes a difference — and adds up to big results quicker than we think.

Some photographs of the Habitat for Humanity project are online here. Television station KETC’s Living St. Louis produced a segment on the project that appears online here.

College Hill Housing North St. Louis

Corner House at DeSoto and Emily Avenues, College Hill

by Michael R. Allen

I absolutely love this two-car garage that becomes part of the retaining wall! This garage is located behind the house at 2101 E. DeSoto Avenue, and faces out onto Emily Avenue. The roof of the garage is close enough to yard level that it could easily be used for a patio or garden space with necessary modification of the roof structure.

Unfortunately, the house — built in 1893 and missing many of its College Hill neighbors — has been vacant since 2007. The corner entrance through the retaining wall is another thoughtful feature. Under the layers of siding, there may be the home’s original wooden siding. The cornice is long gone. Still, rehabilitation would be easy, with the two-story frame house in great shape for a building of its age and construction method.

College Hill Fairground Housing North St. Louis

Architectural Creativity on Prairie Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

Two blocks of Prairie Avenue on each side of West Florissant Avenue are home to some of the most interesting small houses from St. Louis’ 19th century vernacular past. Above is the two-flat at 2111 East Prairie. This unique duplex dates to 1884 and is the lone survivor of a row of four. The trapezoidal entrance bay with its tall, narrow windows gives an otherwise conventional box a commanding street presence. The contrast between the masonry cornice work on this bay and the rest of the building reinforces the presence of the entrance. Now, this has been converted into a single-family home.

Across the street toward Florissant Avenue is the side-gabled house at 2144 East Prairie, built in 1885. Homes like this are common across St. Louis, but how many have Roman arches over all window and door openings — not just on the front, but on the sides as well?

While not eccentric like the others here, I had to mention the frame house at 2128 East Prairie, built in 1884. This side-entrance house is in fine shape, and worthy of preservation. Owned by the Land Reutilization Authority and located in the ailing College Hill neighborhood, there are already two strikes against the house.

One block west across Florissant stands one of the coolest shotgun houses ever built in our fair city. The house at 4316 Prairie (the bend in the street changes numbering from east-west to north-south) dates to 1896 and is fully within the fin de siecle eclectic vein of American architecture. The double pyramidal roof may be unique to a house of this size in St. Louis. Alas, this house is also a survivor of a row of four identical houses. The houses at 4312 and 4314 were LRA-owned and demolished in 2004, while the fourth house at 4310 was lost before 1980. In 2002, Landmarks Association of St. Louis prepared a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places of the three remaining house paid for by Community Development Block Grant funds, but for some reason the organization and Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd), who represents this area, never proceeded with submission of the nomination.

These two blocks of Prairie Avenue lie in different neighborhoods — east of West Florissant is College Hill, and west is Fairground. Both neighborhoods are within the city’s Third Ward. These blocks are each largely devoid of houses at all these days, with over 50% of the parcels on each street face vacant. Thus, the odd houses stand out more. However, I think their unique qualities must have seemed even stranger when contrasted with so many more conventional vernacular buildings around them. Context is always key.

Historic Preservation Housing Planning

Taxes and Urban Rot

by W. Philip Cotton, Jr.

The following essay by W. Philip Cotton, Jr. appeared in the volume “Laclede’s Landing” Area, published by Landmarks Association of St. Louis in 1968. When I first unexpectedly found this essay tucked in a booklet on Laclede’s Landing, I was impressed by Phil’s astute observations on taxation policy and its relationship to preservation of historic neighborhoods. In 1968, in the era of wide admiration of singular works of architecture, this line of preservationist thought was truly progressive. Phil’s words on the use of government incentives are prescient. Yesterday, at a memorial service, we celebrated Phil’s work and contributions. I wish to again state that his legacy is worth the consideration of today’s preservationists. — Michael R. Allen

Wrong methods of taxation are a fundamental cause of urban decay. One might ask what taxes have to do with landmarks? For landmarks thought of in the narrow sense of isolated buildings the question is not so significant, but for landmarks of the urban environment, districts and sections which are the essence of a great city, taxes are highly significant. It is necessary, at times, to go beyond the confines of a specific concern or interest to get at fundamental components or problems.

The first sentence above states that “wrong methods” of taxation are a root cause of decay and slums in cities. The principle word is “methods.” The amount of taxes is not necessarily the determining function, but, rather, the way they are raised profoundly affects the state of health of the city. The old tax on windows in England had an obvious effect on the number of windows in a building. It is easy to picture that this method of raising the necessary revenue had at some point a deleterious effect on public health, as many habitations would be without sufficient light and air.

Our present policies of taxing land and improvements (with the greater portion derived from improvements) have recognizable effects: slums are the most profitable housing investments, not because of any inherent attractiveness of slums but because of tax policies. For letting buildings decay one is rewarded with lower taxes; on the other hand, improvements are penalized with higher taxes. Decay spreads faster than we can treat its symptoms, which we usually do with one or more government programs. There is little chance of fundamental improvement or reform from within our government; it can come only from an aroused citizenry which is aware of the fundamentals of cause-and-effect economics as distinguished from social-reform economics.

Another great obstacle in the way of fundamental reform of taxation is the implicit belief in the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not rock the boat.” — even if by rocking, the boat be saved from sinking. For many this is a greater imperative than the other ten.

As long as slums provide a higher economic return on investment than well maintained housing, the various government appeasement offerings serve only to reward the slum owners and temporarily pacify slum inhabitants. “More than fifty years ago Lloyd George warned the British Parliament that ‘low rent public housing bills will never be effective until you tackle the taxation of land values.'”* In 1960 the Mayor’s Special Committee on Housing in New York City reported, “The seemingly unstoppable spread of slums has confronted the great cities of the nation with chronic financial crisis … The $2 billion public housing program has not made any appreciable dent in the number of slum dwellings … No amount of code enforcement … will be able to keep pace with slum formation until and unless the profit is taken out of slums by taxation.”*

The idea of taxing land values and not taxing improvements is neither new nor untested theory. Where it has been fairly tried it has produced effects which can readily be observed and evaluated. Brisbane, Australia has not had taxes on improvements since 1896; it taxes only the unimproved value of the land. Colin Clarke, economist at Oxford University, who lived in Australia for twenty years writes of Brisbane that it is “the only great city in the world without a slum.”*

The restraining effects of taxes on improvement in St. Louis are so great that to stimulate major new construction in the city it is necessary to use the Missouri Redevelopment Act making it possible to give a near exemption from property taxes for a decade or two. This subsidy at the expense of all other property owners (and taxpayers in general) is necessary to attract new investment in improvements. Why not give, in effect, a subsidy to all who improve and maintain their properties by untaxing improvements and taxing only the value of the site location which is created by public improvement and population rather than giving the subsidy to a few?
Private enterprise cannot solve the housing problem and other problems of the urban environment as long as the profit motive is harnessed backwards. Until there are financial incentives for improving and maintaining property and thus, in effect, penalties for decay and rot, there is no hope for substantial improvement.

The fundamental answer to the problem is not charity without tax reform. Winston Churchill writes, “…a friend of mine was telling me the other day that, in the parish of Southwark, about 350 pounds a year was given away in doles of bread by charitable people in connection with one of the churches. As a consequence of this charity, the competition for small houses and single-room tenements is so great that rents are considerably higher in the parish! All goes back to the land, and the land owner is enabled to absorb to himself a share of almost every public and private benefit, however pitiful those benefits might be.” So the rot was then and so it will remain until we stop subsidizing slums and penalizing well maintained property by out ill-conceived tax policies.”

* “Taxes and the Death of Cities” by Perry Prentice. Architectural Forum, November 1965.

Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Front-Addition Houses Part of the St. Louis Place Legacy

by Michael R. Allen

Planner Mark Johnson from Civitas has had a major hand in developing McEagle’s plan for north St. Louis and western downtown. On Monday night at Central Baptist Church, Johnson used the phrase “legacy properties” to describe the historic buildings that McEagle is contemplating including in the project. I have no idea what criteria Johnson or McEagle has use to define “legacy property,” but when I heard that phrase I started thinking about houses like the one showed above at right, located at 2552 North Market Street in St. Louis Place. (The house at left, at 2548 North Market, is quite a looker itself — check out that entrance arch!)

Readers might recall last week’s post “Brick Thieves Return to St. Louis Place” that showed how a house at 2543 Maiden Lane was damaged by criminals earlier this month. That house is just east and south of the ones shown above. All are highly visible from Jefferson Avenue.

Why do I think that the modest house at 2552 North Market is so interesting? Well, the house is one of a few remaining frame houses that have brick front additions. If that doesn’t make sense, take a look at the rear of the house.

The rear is a one-story gabled frame home, with one room in front and a small addition at the back. This house dates to the 19th century. The front brick section, with one room on each of two floors, dates to a building permit issued on May 22, 1915. The cost of the addition was $500 to owner William Duerdick and his builder J. Scaumel. The result of the addition was a handsome, two-story brick front to match those of neighboring houses.

As St. Louis Place developed into a high-density, middle-class enclave, many early frame houses were absorbed into the emerging urban (brick) fabric through front additions. Simple frame houses could be concealed behind fronts as refined as those of any neighbors’ houses. A new look and more space arrived, while the usable original house was retained instead of being wrecked. What great architectural economy for growing families on a budget!

The 1909 Sanborn fire insurance map shows the footprint of the little frame house before expansion. That house is numbered 1, while the brick two-story house at 2548 North Market is numbered 2 and the flounder house at 2543 Maiden Lane is numbered 3. Frame is colored yellow, and brick is pink.

One can see that this area was not typified by any one form of house or method of construction. There are even a few vacant lots. Architectural diversity like this as historically common as the more regular patterns found in other parts of the city.

Lest I throw out my appreciation without offering any idea for how a developer like McEagle could reuse a quirky “legacy property,” I have a great example from another block in St. Louis Place. Here is the house at 1871 Madison Avenue, built first in the mid-19th century and given the brick front treatment in 1890. The style is different, but the form is the same.

The owners purchased this house from the Land Reutilization Authority, spent their own time and money on rehabilitation and ended up with a cozy homestead. The frame addition was in shambles, so they rebuilt it and finished it in earthen stucco. The roof on the frame section is a long-lasting metal roof, while the windows and doors are mostly recycled elements purchased at the ReStore and other places. A solar collector is on top of the flat roof of the brick front. Inside, the house makes great use of its small size with an open layout and a sleeping loft. The house uses stove heat in the winter, made possible by the small size.

While not historically accurate, the rehab of the house on Madison is inventive and green. The front-addition form is versatile and adds small-house options to the neighborhood for those who want to own a house but keep costs and house size down. the home on North Market Street is ripe for rehabilitation. The mansions of St. Louis Avenue tell one part of the St. Louis Place story, but that story is incomplete without the other parts. We can’t preserve everything that is left, but we should ensure that we preserve an architectural cross-section of a living, economically diverse neighborhood — so that we encourage that diversity to be part of the future as well as the past.

Architecture Events Housing James Clemens House Missouri

Tonight: Lecture and Book Signing on the Houses of Missouri

This evening, learn about the houses of Missouri at one of Missouri’s most important historic homes:

Lecture and Book Signing: Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940
Monday, May 11, 2009
7:00-9:00 P.M.

Carol Grove and Cydney Millstein’s Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940 is the first comprehensive account of the development of residential architecture in the state. With nearly 300 archival photographs, drawings, and original floor plans, the book offers an intimate tour behind the facades of 45 purely American houses ranging from pastoral retreats to mid-century modern mansions. The authors will discuss the book project at the historic Chatillon-DeMenil House, with a reception and signing to follow. Copies of the book (retail price $65) will be on sale, but the reception is complimentary.

The Chatillon-Demenil House is located at 3352 DeMenil Place.

This event is part of Preservation Week, a whirlwind of exciting events offered by Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Come out this week to learn and celebrate our region’s great architecture!

Speaking of historic houses, my talk yesterday at Architecture St. Louis on the James Clemens, Jr. House drew a spirited crowd of people who learned about the history of the house, its namesake, and the current threat to the house and its attached buildings. This was a great kick-off to Preservation Week! Hopefully one year from now I can report back with good news about the Clemens House. Meantime, expect an update based on the talk here.

Housing Hyde Park North St. Louis Rehabbing

Shifting the Balance in Hyde Park

by Michael R. Allen

Blue Shutters Development has ambitious plans for the Hyde Park neighborhood. Eventually, the developers would like to rehabilitate dozens of historic buildings in the neighborhood, including the damaged Nord St. Louis Turnverein on Salisbury Avenue. So far, the firm’s efforts have been concentrated on the 2000 block of Mallinckrodt Street. Two homes, shown here, have been fully rehabilitated and offered for sale at market rate.

The house on the right is a great project because it’s the type of house many developers would write off — it’s frame, it’s small and it has a limited return on investment. Blue Shutters and its principal Peter George deserve credit for preserving it early on.

This work would be impossible without the state’s historic rehabilitation tax credit. Relatively small projects like these would have a tough time competing for credits if there was a blanket cap on the program.

Hyde Park often seems like a world of bad news, but a few projects lately have slowly shifted the balance. Let there be more.

Housing Hyde Park LRA North St. Louis

Lost Neighbor to House on Farrar

by Michael R. Allen

Following up on Monday’s post on the house at 2521 Farrar Street in Hyde Park, I combed my photographic archive. I found this photograph that I took on March 18, 2005 showing the house with its next door neighbor. That house would last another 18 months before the Land Reutilization Authority demolished it.