Architecture Downtown Historic Preservation Housing

Building Recycling

by Michael R. Allen

My latest KWMU commentary celebrates the conversion of the former Days Inn at Tucker & Washington into the Washington Avenue Apartments. Transcript and audio is online here.

Demolition Flounder House Historic Preservation Housing Preservation Board South St. Louis Tower Grove East

Fate of Flounder House on Monday’s Preservation Board Agenda

by Michael R. Allen

On Monday, the Preservation Board will determine the fate of this old city-owned flounder house at 2915 Minnesota Avenue in Tower Grove East. The 710-square-foot home lies outside of the boundaries of the Tower Grove Heights Historic District, making it ineligible for rehab tax credits without landmark designation. Clearly, the building is eligible in its own right — there are fewer than 30 flounder houses left in the city, and the building type is indigenous. Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett (D-6th) is seeking demolition, while the Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association strongly opposes demolition. Triplett’s application was deferred by the Board two months ago to provide the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) time to develop a pro forma showing that rehabilitation is feasible.

Working with developer Will Libermann, who recently rehabbed a flounder house at 3330 Missouri Avenue in Benton Park, CRO has arrived at an impressively economical budget; see its report here. Liebermann’s plan would restore the derelict home to former beauty while creating badly-needed affordable fully-rehabbed, historically-sensitive housing. (His other flounder sold for $125,000.) With the neighborhood behind preservation, there should be a clear outcome but Triplett remains stridently in favor of demolition.

Should the Preservation Board approve demolition, there would be yet another decision creating a housing gap between upper-income residents who can afford fully-rehabbed historically-sensitive homes and lower-income residents who largely cannot. Here is the rare opportunity to cut against the gap. While the home is smaller than your average multi-family conversion, it is a great size for a single person or a childless couple.

The Preservation Board meets Monday, April 28 at 4:00 p.m. in the 12th floor conference room at 1015 Locust Street downtown. See the full agenda here.

Events Housing LRA

Big Big Tour In a Buyers’ Market, This Sunday

For real estate, we have a buyers’ market at the moment. Why not go shopping?

If you are looking for real estate to buy, rehab or just admire, the free annual city housing tour known as the Big Big Tour is back this Sunday, March 30. Founded by Marti Frumhoff, the tour is actually a coordinated open house day for properties available in the city of St. Louis. People start at Central Reform Congregation between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., where they get the map of open houses and peruse the Homebuyers’ Fair that includes booths and information from mortgage brokers, neighborhood organizations and real estate businesses. This year’s Homebuyer’s Fair will include a booth where Old North resident Barbara Manzara will have information on how to purchase real estate from the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. That alone is worth a visit — but so are the dozens of houses you can inspect and, yes, even buy on Sunday.

Architecture Columbus Square Demolition Housing Mid-Century Modern Pruitt Igoe

Cochran Gardens Demolition Nearing Completion

by Michael R. Allen

Demolition work at the Cochran Gardens housing complex north of downtown is nearing completion. After demolition of three low-rise buildings, wreckers are working to finish demolition of one of the two tall buildings at the former public housing complex.

Completed in 1953 and designed by architectural firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber, Cochran Gardens was the first project built by the St. Louis Housing Authority that made use of high-rise buildings. However, the complex balanced three tall buildings with low-rise buildings. Cochran included twelve buildings, and six were six stories each, two were seven stories, and four were twelve stories. Nevertheless, Cochran Gardens set the stage for the Pruitt, Igoe, Darst, Webbe, Vaughn and Blumeyer housing complexes that were composed exclusively of tall buildings. In time, all of these projects have been cleared and redeveloped, most using the federal HOPE VI program.

Cochran Gardens will retain its second tower, transformed in 1980 into elderly housing. That tower will remain as the first and last tall public housing building in St. Louis.

Downtown Housing Media

The Mark Twain Hotel Fills Important Niche Downtown

by Michael R. Allen

The Mark Twain Hotel at 9th and Pine streets downtown opened in 1907 as the Maryland Hotel. Albert B. Groves was the architect.

A recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch again raised complaints against downtown’s Mark Twain Hotel at the corner of Ninth and Pine streets. The article informed readers that the venerable residential hotel housed more registered sex offenders than any other downtown address. The old cries against the supposed degenerate effect of the Mark Twain emerged, despite the fact that the Post article itself quoted a downtown police officer who remarked on the lack of crime at the address.

The trouble with the rumors is there is almost nothing behind them. Downtown is not teeming with vice and crime, and neither is the Mark Twain. In fact, the most remarkable and least-mentioned aspect about the Mark Twain is it is the last single-room occupancy hotel east of Tucker Boulevard in the heart of downtown. That should trouble us.

The phrase “single room occupancy” (SRO) came into parlance in the 1930s in New York City. It describes a type of residential building, frequently a converted guest hotel, in which residents can rent single rooms on a weekly or monthly basis. These rooms may come with a private bath or small kitchen area, but most don’t. SROs became popular due to massive migration into cities. Workers new to a big city could procure lodging at an SRO while seeking employment or seizing a better opportunity elsewhere. Residents tended to be laborers at factories, railyards or docks. Many residents lived in an SRO for years or decades due to economic circumstance or because they enjoyed what the SRO offered: cheap living in the heart of downtown; with employment, entertainment and transportation literally outside of the front door.

The Mark Twain is located in the ornate former Maryland Hotel, built in 1907. The hotel became an SRO some time after World War II. As downtown areas in large American cities declined, SROs closed up. Urban renewal projects targeted legendary SRO districts in San Francisco and Chicago, while age of buildings, lack of employment and other factors spurred others to close. In downtown St. Louis, a few have held on into the modern era, but none as visible as the Mark Twain.

While the hotel deserved a sordid reputation by the 1980s, the Mark Twain was fully renovated by 1998. Amos Harris, a developer from New York City, bought the hotel in 1995 expressly to rehabilitate it for continued SRO use. Harris wisely reasoned that there was a need for such housing downtown, especially as economic prospects changed and downtown saw the creation of service jobs in hotels, restaurants and later casinos. Harris reformed the management, improved the rooms, cleaned the exterior and made the Mark Twain a decent, affordable place to live.

The hotel has since become a haven for people who would otherwise be left behind in downtown’s renaissance. Indeed, some of its residents have criminal records and can’t rent elsewhere. Others are disabled or elderly and need access to public transportation, social services and hospitals. Still others are just new to town. Some were recently homeless, and would be without the Mark Twain. One of the most important factors: Few residents own cars.

Negative publicity might blind us to the important role of the Mark Twain Hotel. Flexible in length of occupancy, affordable and small, SRO rooms are quintessentially urban. They offer a gateway into urban living outside of ownership and traditional renting. The Mark Twain is not incompatible with the expensive condominiums around it, but is a complement that ensures diversity in the downtown population and equal access to the amenities only downtown can provide. A downtown with too much of either type of housing would be segregated, monotonous and vulnerable to economic forces like the current recession.

We could probably use a few more SROs in St. Louis. In the meantime we are lucky to have the stable, affordable Mark Twain Hotel ensuring downtown can be a residential option for everyone

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2008 issue of the Vital Voice

Downtown Green Space Housing JNEM Mid-Century Modern Parking

Venturo Capitalism

by Michael R. Allen

Rumors are circulating that the Danforth Foundation has arrived at a surprising plan for the Arch grounds: resurrect the 1970s Venturo House by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen by placing a line of one hundred of the houses on the western perimeter of the grounds. Apparently, the Foundation’s planners realized that without strong connections to a residential population, any plan to develop the grounds would fail. The Venturo House has appeal due to the shared nationality and similar last name of Suuronen and Arch architect Eero Saarinen. (In this vein, the Foundation could ask band Rilo Kiley to perform on Dan Kiley’s historic modernist landscape.)

If successful, city leaders have discussed the potential for building steel frames with elevators on several blocks of the Gateway Mall. Venturo homes could be hooked up to utilities that would run to each level of these towers. When a resident moved, that person could take their home with them and make way for a new resident.

Accompanying zoning and code changes would allow downtown building owners to place Venturo homes or similar modular homes on roofs — or adjacent surface parking lots. The changes would allow parking garages to be preserved and their historic architectural features left intact should they fall vacant. Venturo homes — arranged on special steel shims to adjust for the typical garage floor slope — will allow preservation-minded garage owners to avoid demolition.

If true, exciting news!

Architecture Housing Midtown

Art House Could Help Grand Center Come to Life

by Michael R. Allen

Would you believe that there could be an attractive row of contemporary townhouses within a short walk of Grand Avenue in Midtown?

Behold the Art House, proposed for construction on Grandel just west of the perpetually-under-rehabilitation Merriwether House. Sage Homebuilders is the pioneering company daring to build actual housing in “Grand Center.” Forum Studio designed the townhouses.

So far, you can only see it in a Flash animation on your computer. Hopefully soon you will be able to walk through the completed buildings themselves and enjoy the smart views their generous windows will create.

Despite many visible failings in historic preservation and urban planning, somehow Midtown has attained two of the finest contemporary buildings in the city, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the Contemporary Art Museum buildings. Art House would add one more unique contemporary building to the confused Midtown landscape. Amid parking lots and surviving historic buildings, perhaps we will find a crop of thoughtful, elegant, humanely-scaled residential architecture. If Art House can prove its own success by selling quickly, Grand Center’s longtime refusal to seriously consider the need for residents might start to wither as other developers get in line.

As we have seen downtown, a healthy market cuts through bureaucracy pretty quickly — and solidly on the side of more people, more buildings and more life.

Architecture Gate District Housing South St. Louis

Vivienne on Lafayette Advances Infill Housing Design

by Michael R. Allen

The 2800 block of Lafayette Avenue, between California and Nebraska in the so-called Gate District, is a mixed bag of a street scape. Gone is the continuity of historic brick buildings. There are vacant buildings, heavily altered buildings (see last month’s post on 2831 Lafayette) and the graceful corner commercial building at the northeast corner of Nebraska and Lafayette that bears the colorful enamel sign board of the shuttered Garavaglia Market. Most notable, though, there are vacant lots.

This is the diminished state that has led developers to take other blocks in the Gate District and transform them into unrecognizable mixes of old buildings and large platform-framed homes that seem more appropriate to Wildwood than the near south side. Without any historic districts in the Gate District, there is neither incentive for historic rehabilitation work nor mandates for new construction. The area reflects its lack of any legal design framework. Fortunately, on the 2800 block of Lafayette, developer Cheryl Walker of Obasi Enterprises is taking vacant land and doing something that provides new market-rate homes while adding a new and compatible character to the neighborhood.

The project is called Vivienne on Lafayette, and it entails the construction of four adjacent homes. The two that are complete are show here. HKW Architects designed the homes; that firm has done extensive design work for Restoration St. Louis including the rehabilitation of the Moolah Theater building.

One is immediately struck by how different Vivienne is from its contemporaries. The houses actually look like original designs! There is absolutely no quotation of historic architectural styles here. Nor is there imitation of historic styles of cornices, brackets, balustrades, window sills or other building parts. The designers instead very earnestly engaged the project location and standard available materials to produce homes that are urban and attractive.

The front walls of these homes are brick, with some rowlock courses as sills and headers on each metal-framed window. The basements are high, which is one nod to historic tradition that make the homes taller than other new infill houses. The side walls are clad in stucco, indicative of the fact that these are not authentic masonry buildings. The builders could have used some sort of vinyl or board siding, but chose something more compatible with brick. The roofs are flat — something that minimizes the home volume and allows for potential greening.

The homes are not quite perfect in design; I think that a monotone brick color would have made each better, and that the stucco color is a bit bland. Some more play with masonry details could have added interest. The homes could be placed closer together. Still, such concerns are minor. The homes at Vivienne Place offer sorely-needed innovation in infill housing in St. Louis, where too often we have settled on worse than mediocre design that offers an unpleasant contrast with our excellent historic building stock.

In neighborhoods with challenging conditions, where historic fabric is spotty, homes like these make a lot of sense. They maintain the traditions of density and best use of widely available materials that typifies our neighborhoods without denying us the chance to leave our own mark in time.

Columbus Square Downtown Housing Mid-Century Modern Pruitt Igoe

"Historic" Cochran Gardens

by Michael R. Allen

One local television station’s report on today’s fire at one of the Cochran Gardens buildings on Seventh Street north of downtown called the building “historic.”

The use of that adjective was bittersweet. The six red brick apartment buildings — including two buildings reputed to be the first high-rise public housing buildings in the city — are a handsome example of relatively sensitive mid-century design. Designed by George Hellmuth and completed in 1953, Cochran Gardens was the city’s third federally-funded housing project built by the St. Louis Housing Authority. It also was the scene for one of the nation’s earliest and most successful tenant management programs. For better or for worse, Cochran Gardens survived its contemporaries, form Pruitt-Igoe to Darst-Webbe. Tenant management helped, as did a modern design much more humanely scaled than the successor projects with uniform heights and building types.

Demolition of Cochran Gardens is currently underway, with five of the six buildings slated for eventual demolition. One of the taller buildings will remain. The replacement HOPE VI project is under construction, and seems better-designed than many recent examples. One wonders what sort of viability the Cochran Gardens buildings could have had in today’s downtown housing market. Next door, the stunning rehabilitation of the Neighborhood Gardens Apartments demonstrates that much can be done to creatively transform mass housing, and that there is demand for the end products. Whereas the intended tenants of high-rise public housing may have desired housing more along the lines of what HOPE VI projects provide, some people do choose to live in basic, sturdy spaces off of the ground. After all, the transformation of the wholesale buildings of Washington Avenue into desired housing suggests that just about any kind of building can be someone’s house. Why not a building design for housing in the first place? No matter — we lost the chance with Cochran Gardens. Next time?

Clearance Housing North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Pruitt Igoe

Pruitt-Igoe Demolition as Seen in "Koyaanisqatsi"

Someone has posted a long segment from Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi that includes the famous aerial footage of the vacant housing project and the explosion-based demolition that took down the entire complex between 1972 and 1974.

The Pruitt-Igoe sequence begins at 2:49.

Thirty-three acres of the originally 57-acre Pruitt-Igoe site at the southeast corner of Cass and Jefferson avenues remain vacant to this day.