Architecture Downtown Housing

Roberts Tower Rising Downtown

by Michael R. Allen

On one hand, we have what could be the start of a major economic recession. On the other hand, we have the first high-rise residential building in 40 years currently rising downtown. On one hand — there is no other hand! We are left with an encouraging contradiction: as the economic news consistently drags us down, the Roberts Tower rises up from the ground on Eighth Street, tempting us to likewise raise our hopes to the sky.

Many developers talked about building new downtown residential buildings. Famously, we had the SkyHouse project on Washington, Daniel Libeskind renderings of Bottle District condominium towers, homes overlooking the baseball game at Ballpark Village, Park Pacific and Port St. Louis. Not one of these projects is under construction. Some are gone forever, in ways that are depressing. For instance, Park Pacific’s undulating Tucker Boulevard face won’t get built, while a plain0jane parking garage will be.

Amid the general atmosphere of hype of the last five years, we’ve had out-of-towners (SkyHouse, Ballpark Village) tempt us with the siren call of tall residential buildings downtown. Whoever did not get a tingle of excitement when hearing about the sundry proposals has never entered Chicago, New York or any other high-rise metropolis and been swept away by the tempting poetry of a sense skyline. We all fell for the idea that St. Louis was soon poised to proclaim its renewal as a great place to live through a boom of skyline construction.

Again, such a thrilling vision is far from reality. However, two tall buildings are reality — the Four Seasons Hotel at Lumiere Place, completed, and the residential Roberts Tower, under construction. The Roberts Brothers took three years to break ground, and may very well have slid the way of the other also-rans, but they broke ground this year on a $70 million 25-story modern high-rise residential building.

The design is sleek, but not showy (at least, now that the giant letters spelling “ROBERTS” don’t appear in renderings). The steel building fits into a small spot between the Mayfair Hotel and the Old Post Office Plaza, creating a narrow body whose main articulation is a sweeping glass south wall. The other walls are to be cast concrete, and the ground floor will open onto the sidewalk and plaza with a restaurant space. The building is solidly in good taste, unlike the Four Seasons.

The Roberts Tower design is also smart. The developers are seeking Gold LEED certification, and plan on many green technologies. From the south wall’s ample glazing to recycled materials going into the walls, carpets and counters, the building is ecologically progressive. The technologies used have not been used on such a scale in the city before.

With 55 units on the fourth through 25th floors — the lower floors will be conference and fitness space shared with the Mayfair — the building won’t put a glut of new units on the market. I have no idea how sales are going for the units, or how closely the finished building will resemble the rendering prominently displayed on the site. I do know that the Roberts Tower is a great idea and its construction could not come at a better time.

Historic Preservation Housing Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Lemonade: A Remade Section 235 House

by Michael R. Allen

A row of Section 235 Houses on North Market Street west of 25th Street in St. Louis Place.

The 1968 federal Housing Act created the Section 235 Program administered by the new Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Section 235 Program enabled many Americans to become homeowners through its generous assistance: HUD made interest payments to lenders on behalf of homeowners in the program to effective reduce their monthly loan interest. The amount paid was based on the borrower’s income. In the 1970s, when interest rates were often above 10%, this program’s need was clear. The authors of Section 235 intended the program to move low-income residents as well as federal subsidy away from mass housing projects and into neighborhoods and suburbs. Of course, the lofty dreams trickled down into something less idealistic.

In reality, the program was a boon to lenders and builders but less freeing to participants. Section 235 mostly shuffled people around decaying neighborhoods, and its implementation was rarely coordinated with other programs to stabilize these places. In St. Louis, the use of the program was extensive in the 1970s and created several distinct forms spread across north St. Louis and parts of the near south side. One of these is the ubiquitous “Section 235 House,” a two-story platform-framed house with a low-pitched front gable and a second floor that overhangs the first.

There are variations on cladding, but the St. Louis Section 235 Houses mostly resemble each other. The St. Louis Section 235 House mostly interjected intself out of context, alongside historic homes that dwarfed and mocked the banal newcomers. What could have been very modern was often festooned with mock shutters, brick veneer on the first floor (improbably holding up an overhang) and other architectural absurdity. The homes set back too far from the street and from each other to mimic the truly urban forms of the St. Louis vernacular, and tended to stick out as proverbially sore thumbs.

The Section 235 House at 2322 Montgomery.

Meanwhile, other, better-off St. Louisans stayed in the city by moving into Modern Movement high-rise towers designed by “name” firms. Still, owners of the Sction 235 Houses often cast their own designs on the houses, leaving us with a legacy of rebellion against the planned form. One of the best examples stands at 2322 Montgomery Avenue in St. Louis Place. Built in 1971 and now vacant, the house barely registers as a Section 235 House. The overhangs were elminated, the gabled roof removed and rebuilt as an asymmetrical modern roof, and the front clad in a tasteful brick. Someone made this house his or her own, and the result is quite lovely. unfortunately the house, which city records show as owned by Larmer LC, stands vacant. While the house might be out of place in St. Louis Place, it sits on a block that has lost architectural consistency. Preservation seems wise and, to this writer, desirable.

Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis The Ville

Buildings on Dick Gregory Place, Martin Luther King Drive Slated for Rehabe

by Michael R. Allen reports good news from the Ville that has been rumored for awhile: rehabilitation of several buildings on Dick Gregory Place and Martin Luther King Drive by the Ville Neighborhood Housing Corporation, Northside Community Housing and the power-house Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance. The project will create 40 affordable rental residential units. Since Missouri Housing Development Commission application is pending, the good news won’t be great news for awhile. However, the prospect alone is welcome in the Ville, where preservation is a thorny question. Kudos to the parties named here and Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th), who had to suffer a You Paid For It slam for his willingness to help this project move forward.

Architecture Historic Preservation Housing South St. Louis

Lovely Row on Hickory Street

by Michael R. Allen

The so-called Gate District in south city is bounded roughly by I-44 on the south, Jefferson on the east, Compton on the west and Chouteau on the north. In that area, so much fabric was lost between 1970 and the present that whole blocks are devoid of a single historic building. For a number of years, the city planning agency was preoccupied by a concept called a “Town in Town” that consisted of wholesale clearance of town and construction of a new district with a lake, homes, warehouses and the like placed on new streets. This plan was way too unrealistic to come to fruition — didn’t anyone price the removal of every part of infrastructure in the area? — but it was distilled into the Gate District plan drafted by Duane-Plater Zyberk and implemented piecemeal since 1985.

The piecemeal implementation is the saving grace of the planning for this area. Written off as a wasteland by some urbanists, the Gate District actually retains some pockets of fabulous historic architecture. One of these is the north face of the 2800 block of Hickory Street, between California and Ewing. Although four of the eight houses remaining are vacant, and a ninth house was wrecked over the summer, the block face carries with it a distinct vernacular charm.

The inadvertent symmetry of the block is wonderful. The center group of five brick shaped-parapet shotgun houses is flanked on either side by two-story cousins. One other single-story house is located west of this group. The shotgun homes are a proud showcase of the variety of St. Louis masonry — each parapet has different treatment, and all variety comes through different installation of the same bricks. The homes also make use of the Roman arch, dating their construction to 1890 or later. The bookend two-story homes contrast with the others. Although larger, their masonry is more restrained, and they employ flat arches on their front elevations. Each has a front porch. These houses are probably at least a decade newer than their neighbors.

Altogether, the group is quite distinguished and worthy of preservation. To the east are sections of urban prairie that put St. Louis Place to shame, and to the north is the Chouteau industrial corridor that has been encroaching for over half of a century. Part of the Sixth Ward, this area lacks preservation review for demolition. The open land and shifting land use could portend the erasure of this group, or the creation of a new context that marries old and new architecture in urban harmony.

Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis Old North Rehabbing


by Michael R. Allen

Entitled “Changes,” my latest commentary for radio station KWMU aired this morning. The piece reflects on changes both physical and social taking place literally across the street from my house in Old North St. Louis. New residents have moved into the colorfully-painted buildings seen above, which were rehabbed as part of the ongoing Crown Square project transforming the center of the neighborhood. Read or listen to the commentary here.

Architecture Housing North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Quirky Gem on University Street

by Michael R. Allen

The house at 2314 University Street in St. Louis Place is one of the strangest 19th century houses on the near north side. Built in 1878, the house’s central feature is a wide round turret rising the full height from the foundation to the pointed round roof.

The builder could not be trifled with convention on any point of the design — form, style, floor plan and ornamental detail. I love how the windows on the turret are dwarfed by its sheer volume and their exaggerated wide lug-sills, emphasizing the castle-like quality of the turret. The stepped up brick cornice and projecting window surrounds give the building a heavy feeling. However, the heaviness is at odds with the delicate wooden parts — the little trapezoidal bay window over the front door and the ornate side porch.

The later flat-roofed rear addition adds another interesting element with its slate siding, including multi-color lozenge patterns on each side of the lone second story window. All in all, this quirky home is gorgeous and another unique part of the unique St. Louis Place built environment. It is occupied and owned by an individual, so hopefully its future is secure. The house is located on the same block where we just lost a home owned by a McKee-related holding company, and lacks any landmark designation or demolition review protection, so nothing can be certain.

Architecture Housing JeffVanderLou North St. Louis

Eclectic Italianate House in JeffVanderLou

by Michael R. Allen

Sometimes there is a house so exuberant and eccentric that even the most seasoned architectural historian can’t help but smile. This house at 3049 Sheridan Avenue in JeffVanderLou is one of those houses. The composition is strange in the best possible way. Here we could have a basic brick two-story Italianate town house with stone front. Yet we don’t have that, because the true mansard roof is somewhat low-pitched with a deep overhang. The trapezoidal front dormer with rounded roof belongs on another house. That dormer doesn’t quite match the dormers on the east side, which have roofs that mimic the roof form of the house itself.

The east side’s trapezoidal bow adds character, and the ornate wooden cornice is continuous on this side. On the west side, where the wall is blind, the wooden cornice makes a transition to some of the most unique brick corbels I’ve seen in St. Louis. This detail is remarkable considering that historically this side was obscured by another house and these details would scarcely have been seen.

The house is occupied and in fair condition. The bright blue paint of the front elevation seems appropriate to the eclectic Gilded Age style of the house. Make no mistake about it — architectural historians love to find such houses.

Abandonment Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North

Left Behind

by Michael R. Allen

Here we see part of the fallout of the current housing market collapse, and a sign that large-scale projects pose only one obvious type of threat to the historic architecture of north St. Louis. This is a tenement house at 1102-4 Montgomery Street in Old North St. Louis, and is best known for the gaping hole in the side wall and giant grafitti tag prominent on Interstate 70.

This poor building’s condition is the result of a rehabilitation scheme gone awry. In 2005, Impact Real Estate Investment purchased this building, a house across the street and a house at the northwest corner of St. Louis Avenue and Hadley streets — all in Old North. Impact also bought buildings in other neighborhoods. Led by Marteese Robinson, former Director of Professional Scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, the company had big plans.

In an article that appeared in the January 31, 2005 issue of the St. Louis Buisness Journal, Robinson’s redevelopment philosophy is reported:

When he buys a property, Robinson first replaces the roof and then guts the interior. When renovating the homes, he tries to maintain as many historic details as he can, recycling ornate woodwork and replacing worn-out hardware with modern replicas.

To appeal to today’s buyer, Robinson concentrates on making kitchens, bathrooms and closets larger than those found in the turn-of-the-century homes. He uses a mix of carpet, hardwood and tile on the floors. For some items, like 12-foot-high front doors that are hard to replace, Robinson has custom reproductions manufactured.

What’s not to like? Try the execution of the projects. Robinson’s crews did work best described as slap-dash on his Old North properties — and never even finished the ones on Montgomery. The house at Hadley and St. Louis was completed (all historic millwork was carted off in a dumpster) and supposedly sold for $225,000, but currently sits in foreclosure.

For 1102-4 Montgomery Street, Impact had a tall order. The rear section of the building needed masonry reconstruction of all three walls, while the front wall needed a corner relayed. Impact ignored the bid of a seasoned mason and hired the work to a crew so inexperienced with historic masonry, the work is agonizing to describe. The corner was relayed without boxes for either window, so the edges aren’t straight. Somehow the coursing didn’t work out, with bricks shaved under the window lintel on the first floor to compensate. The worst work was on the side where, after months in which Impact had demolished the entire wall and left the second floor joists sagging, a more experienced crew laid up a straight block wall to the second floor. Then an inexperienced crew laid brick over that, changing the sizes of window openings and making slopping connections to the existing wall.

Then, everything stopped abruptly in 2006. The wall stopped at the second floor, leaving the roof trusses unsupported. Part of the other side wall collapsed. The buidling was left completely unsecured. The pits dug on each side for foundation tuckpointing were never filled. The building was left structurally compromised and in violation of city codes.

Impact stopped paying taxes on the Montgomery buildings in 2006, too. The building across the street, at 1119 Montgomery, supposedly sold at a Sheriff’s tax auction in May to a Paul McKee holding company represented by Eagle Realty’s Harvey Noble.

The building at 1102-4 Montgomery awaits its tax sale next year. Marteese Robinson now works for the Washington Nationals. Residents of Old North have a nasty scar with an uncertain future. And the building manages to stay standing.

Architecture Historic Preservation Housing Old North

A Dying House on Clinton Street

The poor old house at 1219 Clinton Street in Old North St. Louis may be headed toward the end of a long death cycle. The beautiful side-gabled brick house is one of those Federal or Greek Revival-inspired row houses that lines streets in Old North in the middle 19th century. Prior to the popularity of the Italianate and Second Empire styles in the 1870s, and with materials like tin not widely available for ornamental cornices, builders tended toward a restrained, elegant form. These houses had segmental arches or flat (sometimes arched) stone lintels over doors and windows. They were two stories with an attic in the roof. Cornices were usually simple dentillated rows or wooden boards with beading or other patterns. Mostly tenements, these houses had gallery porches in back with staircases leading to second floor flats. Amid dense blocks, with buildings attached, mouse holes opening to gangways were necessary to allow for the passage of residents to and from the streets.

Later, as the Italianate style hit the neighborhood, some builders built transitional buildings like this one. Here we have the restraint of the mid-19th century with Italianate touches like the rusticated limestone foundation and the Roman arches over the mouse hole and front door entrances. This house may date to the late 1870s or early 1880s, but it shares tendencies with homes built in the 1850s and 1890s. Furtermore, Old North has few buildings with intact mouse holes; the number may be around ten. This orphaned house tells us a lot about the stylistic evolution of vernacular architecture in Old North. Yet as the last surviving house on its block, its existence has been precious in recent years.

Battered by a major freak storm in July 2006, the house nonetheless improbably survived the next two years without further loss of walls. Sure, the house roof structure was essentially unsupported, and shifting gradually every month, but there was enough building material left to envision rebuilding. Definitely became maybe this June, when two storms led to devastating wall collapses, including all of the remaining east wall. Settling is fairly advanced with as much rain weight as has passed through the neighborhood this year.

Yet this advancd state of decay is a long time coming. The city Building Division listed the house as “vacant” since 1991. Sheila Bass, currently listed as owner of a house in the Academy neighborhood, owned the house for years before defaulting on real estate taxes; in 2005, the Land Reutilization Authority took title after there were no bids at a sheriff’s sale. (Oddly, none of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s agents bid on the house.) At that point, much damage had already been done. For many years, the house was accessible through the first floor windows, left unboarded and without both sashes. A peek inside in 2004 revealed partial joist failure in the front parlor.

Many factors take a proud old house to death, but none are as powerful as water and negligence. Any one of these factors over a long enough period of time is a death sentence for an old building.

Architecture Housing North St. Louis Old North

Strange and Cool in Old North

by Michael R. Allen

One of the most unique buildings in Old North St. Louis is the house at the northeast corner of Florissant Avenue and Dodier Street (numbered 1917 Dodier). Florissant runs diagonally across Dodier, which conforms to the street grid laid out in the 1850 East Union Addition. Of course, the house shows us that Florissant is diagonal with its chamfered corner parallel to that street.

So many details make this house unlike any other. Obviously, the corner and its treatment — a stepped parapet against a side-gabled roof — is singular. There is the concealed side entrance. Then there is the pleasant fact that the dentillated cornice continues across the chamfered corner, a move that provides wide, commercial Florissant with the same decorum as quite, residential Dodier. The formal elevations of the house are faced with a firm pressed brick that was not available until the 1880s, but the windows are topped with flat limestone lintels in a much earlier fashion. This house is strange in the coolest way!