Chicago Housing Mid-Century Modern

Preservation Chicago’s 2007 "Chicago 7" List

by Michael R. Allen

Preservation Chicago has released its annual “Chicago 7” list of endangered buildings. Far from a useless cry, the list has always been a measured and prescient examination of true threats to historic buildings of all ages and types. For Chicago urbanists, the list is a rallying cry. For those of us elsewhere, it’s the best reference for preservation issues in Chicago. (It’s also an inspiring model, much like Landmarks Association of St. Louis’ annual Eleven Most Endangered and Eleven Most Enhanced lists.)

One of the great things about the list is that its creators are flexible in what makes up a list item. Often, an item can be a district or neighborhood and this year has a few larger districts.

This year’s list features the following buildings:

  • Farwell Building
  • Rosenwald Apartments
  • Archer Avenue District
  • Wicker Park Commercial District
  • Julia C. Lathrop Homes
  • North Avenue Bridge
  • Pilgrim Baptist Church
  • I am delighted that Preservation Chicago is focusing attention on the Archer Avenue district amid Bridgeport’s gentrification boom, which may lead to massive demolition for admittedly urban new construction. And I’m doubly delighted to see anyone champion the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, an early low-rise federally-funded housing project that is a descendant of St. Louis’ Neighborhood Gardens Apartments. Chicago’s loss of the ABLA Homes went largely unmourned, although both the design and construction quality of mid-century low-rise housing projects make them great candidates for reuse.

    See the Chicago 7 list here.

    Columbus Square Housing Mid-Century Modern

    Open House at Neighborhood Gardens

    by Michael R. Allen

    On the weekend of October 21-22, 2006, Spanish Lake Development Company held an open house at Neighborhood Gardens to display the results of their two-year rehabilitation project. The event coincided with the annual Downtown Housing Tour. After a long period of rehab and an even longer period of decay, the buildings looked alive again!

    The renovated buildings look much as they did when they opened over seventy years ago. The vision of Spanish Lake Development principals Jim and Dan Dalton was to restore the buildings to their true architectural qualities. Thus, they restored or rebuilt almost all of the original steel sash windows with new double glazing, retained exposed block walls and concrete floors in the stairwells and put ceramic tile over the floors rather than carpeting. The only real change to the buildings were the creation of larger apartments through doubling of the small original units. Mostly, the Daltons have kept the timeless qualities of the buildings — qualities created by durable materials that allowed the buildings to survive dereliction without major damage.

    The project is nearing total completion, but some buildings are already ready for leasing. Unlike the proposed Bottle District across the street, the redevelopment of these buildings has happened on a short schedule, without the Mayor’s smiling support and without huge fanfare. The persistence of the Daltons has taught the city that even a troubled, iconic abandoned place is not too far gone if someone dares to bring it back to life. That someone need not be a famous developer, either — it can be two guys who care. May the “new” Neighborhood Gardens thrive.

    Adaptive Reuse Housing Schools South St. Louis Tower Grove East

    Grant School

    by Michael R. Allen

    LOCATION: 3009 Pennsylvania Avenue; Tower Grove East Neighborhood; Saint Louis, Missouri
    DATES OF CONSTRUCTION: 1893; 1902 (southern addition); 1965 (gymnasium)
    ARCHITECTS: August H. Kirchner (original building); William B. Ittner (1902 addition only)
    DATE OF ABANDONMENT: 1983 – 2005
    OWNER: Cohen-Esrey Development LLC

    A dramatic transformation took the abandoned Grant School, which the St. Louis Public Schools closed in 1983, from a state of decay to one of restoration. Cohen-Esrey Development purchased the school building in 2005 and completed a multi-million-dollar renovation using state historic rehab tax credits. The new use is a complete change from the original purpose: now Grant School houses apartments for senior citizens.

    This is a good turn in the life of the school, which was on the brink of terrible changes. Water coming in through the broken cupola had rotted a lot of the flooring and compromised structural timbers. The hipped-roof school building is one of the schools built while August Kirchner was chief architect for the Board of Education and was completed in 1893. Kirchner’s symmetrical Romanesque Revival design with prominent center gable is not as innovate as the later schools of architect William B. Ittner, but nonetheless is a significant expression of the local vernacular in native red brick and limestone. A later addition by Ittner is unobtrusive and adds a distinctive projecting bay that was hidden for many years behind a modern gymnasium addition that the developers demolished. The school building, named for Ulysses S. Grant, replaced the old Gravois School at Gravois Avenue and Wyoming Street that had opened in 1867 to serve the growing south side.

    Photographs from August 17, 2006 (Michael R. Allen)

    Photographs from November 2003 (Michael R. Allen)

    Housing North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

    Blairmont Money Goes to Hubbard, Nasheed and El-Amin

    by Michael R. Allen

    According to information in a post on Blog St. Louis (about other interesting matters), northside slumlords Blairmont Associates LC gave $500.00 to the 58th District Democratic Legislative District Committee. This money was combined with other donations and distributed to candidates Rodney Hubbard, seeking re-election to the 58th District State Representative seat; Jamilah Nasheed, seeking the 60th District seat; and Yaphett El-Amin, seeking the 4th District State Senate seat.

    If Blairmont is simply a speculative endeavor, and not a front for a planned development project, why would it be buying influence with candidates for the state legislature? If all it needed was to hold the Building and Forestry divisions at bay, its contributions to the 5th Ward Regular Democratic Organization would seem to be all that it could do in that regard.

    What could Blairmont need from the state government? Affordable housing tax credits?

    Housing Hyde Park North St. Louis Severe Weather

    3512 N. 19th Street, Blown Down

    by Michael R. Allen

    The alley house largely intact, November 19, 2005. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.

    The alley house after its wall collapse, April 8, 2006. Photograph by Claire Nowak-Boyd.

    The high winds of April brought a cruel fury to the near north side of St. Louis. Spectacular damage sustained on April 2 by the landmark Mullanphy Emigrant Home on 14th Street and the Nord St. Louis Turnverein on Salisbury Street was followed by the total destruction of a smaller building a few days later. Late on April 7, the alley house at 3512 N. 19th Street fell to the winds of the sort that must have inspired T.S. Eliot’s famed quote. The entire western wall, along 19th Street, collapsed and took down most of the roof and second floor, leaving only three walls to contain a pile of rubble that spilled out onto the street.

    View of eastern elevation. Photograph by Claire Nowak-Boyd.

    The plain two story flat-roofed house stood behind the house at 1530 Mallinckrodt Street, near the head of Garden Street. Construction of the house, which likely housed four households, likely dates to the early 1890s, but the house fell vacant nearly one hundred years later as became part of the city government’s inventory of vacant buildings in 1989. With little interest in Hyde Park in recent years, and even less interest in alley houses, the fine building was only waiting for its demise. No one could have guessed that it would come spectacularly around midnight, just moments before the editors of Ecology of Absence would come upon it while driving home.

    View southeast from the corner of 19th and Mallinckrodt streets. The vacant building to the left is privately owned. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.

    Sadly, this block has been suffering lately; in October, the Bernard Kettman House at 1522-24 Mallickrodt caught fire and now sits condemned and vacant. Other buildings on the 1500 block of Mallinckrodt are vacant or in disrepair.

    Housing South St. Louis Southwest Garden St. Aloysius Gonzaga

    Magnolia Square: The Triumph of Mediocrity

    by Michael R. Allen

    The website for “Magnolia Square,” the development set to replace St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, shows that the development has changed since it was proposed to the city’s Preservation Board in December. For one thing, DiMartino Homes (James Wohlert’s company) has joined with two other companies, Heyde Homes and Prather Homes, to develop the project. Perhaps this move addresses perceived shortcomings on DiMartino’s part.

    Most interesting is that, despite intense criticism of the site plan and a supposed effort by the Planning and Urban Design Agency to make it more site-appropriate, the site plan has not changed much. The four lots on January are still unusually large and suburban; the corner lots created have no alley access and all four place the primary elevation of the homes along the length rather than the width of each lot. This layout takes suburban principles and rather awkwardly places them in the city, where such lots are rare and mostly used for grand, large homes. Yet the developers no doubt know that large, wide homes fetch larger prices than city-style shotguns. I should note that the hipped-roof option for the “January Model” of home one can build on these lots looks a lot like the rectory of the church that will be demolished. What gross pastiche!

    Other models are called “Marie” and, most silly, “Royal Star.” The Royal Star is a masterpiece of deception, though, and critics should note its innovative form. The Royal Star manages to create a rambling mess of a automobile-centered dwelling featuring a connected three-car garage with — I’m not kidding — shotgun-style parking! This model is designed for a more traditionally-sized city lot, so it is very narrow and long. With the garage in back, it almost stretches from the front yard to the alley, killing that oh-so-sought-after yard space developers like DiMartino like to sell. I guess that’s a privilege of the buyers of the January model.

    The Royal Star also has its entrance off to one side of the porch, which is an architectural tendency that enforces the deceptive nature of the model. Not only is it a suburban home trying to disguise itself as a shotgun, but it won’t even make its front door obvious. A true expression of a an entrance is clear to indicate the function of the porch and doorway; this arrangement may assuage concerns for “security” but it robs the home of the beauty of clear functional expression.

    There is not much to say about the Marie Model, which is tolerably average. Overall, the design quality is lacking. The materials shown on the renderings are not encouraging. For instance, the graceless bulk of the Royal Star will be clothed in siding on three sides. The brick veneer may harmonize with the neighborhood but is not a very progressive choice of materials. If we have to tear down wonderful buildings to build anew, we should build something greater than what was there before. Here, we could have built modern housing that could showcase contemporary innovation in materials like concrete, stone, steel and other metals, actual brick masonry and glass. With the architectural context of the block very heterogeneous, experimentation would not have been visually inappropriate.

    I should also note that the developers are claiming that Magnolia Square is on The Hill, when in fact it is in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood. I suppose the target buyers are ignorant of proper city neighborhoods. I will admit that “Southwest Garden” is a contrived identity for this area, but it really is not part of the Hill proper.

    Overall, the development offers its only real advance for infill housing in the lot dimensions for the western part of the block. Otherwise, nearly every other aspect is a clumsy urban adaptation of suburban forms. The city should have worked with the Catholic church to issue a Request for Proposals for this block, and allowed for public input before proceeding with this mediocre development. This project is not worth loss of one of the most thoughtful church settings in the city.

    Abandonment Housing LRA North St. Louis Old North

    2917-23 N. 13th Street

    by Michael R. Allen

    Photograph by Michael R. Allen; December 21, 2005.

    A lovely row of late 19th-century houses at 2917-23 N. 13th Street creates a very urban setting in Old North. Too bad that the back walls have fallen off and the owner is the city government.  I wonder how much time this lovely group has left. There is nothing stopping anyone from coming in, removing damaged sections and rebuilding the row with modern materials. This could be the site for a demonstration of historic-modern stylistic blending, but fate likely is a strong counterweight to that dream.

    Once upon a time, people cared for this row. (Source: National Register of Historic Places Inventory Form: Murphy-Blair Historic District, Prepared by Landmarks Association of St. Louis, 1984.)

    Around back. Photograph by Michael R. Allen; December 21, 2005.

    Columbus Square Housing Mid-Century Modern

    Neighborhood Gardens and the Perils of Modernism

    by Michael R. Allen

    Condition of the apartments on April 2, 2005. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.

    The graceful modern buildings comprising Neighborhood Gardens Apartments take up a full city block just north of the Central Business District. Once praised as a revolution in low-income housing and a palliative to near north side overcrowding, they fell vacant around 1990 and stood empty for fifteen years, epitomizing a different sort of revolution on the near north side. The innovative buildings were perhaps too “modern” for the postmodern age, which once again finds substandard housing the touted norm for low income people. Architectural historians, including the stalwart preservationists involved with Landmarks Association, worked to save the buildings in their vacancy.

    Eventually, a little-known north county developer acquired the buildings and began renovating them in 2005. While the renovation will obliterate the original floor plans and pave the integral interior courtyards for vehicular parking, the buildings will be restored. As many have noted, the paved areas can become green once again but the buildings could never be rebuilt in the current architectural economy.

    The near north side Neighborhood Association, a social welfare organization headed by the progressive J.A. Wolf, conceived of Neighborhood Gardens in 1932. The plan was the city’s first experiment in mass worker housing, and came in the age before federal intervention in mass housing that mandated adherence to rigid standards and large scale. In this time, the Neighborhood Association was free to come up with a gracious and humane project that they felt would become a model for slum renewal in the city of St. Louis.

    Wolf had traveled to Europe to study mass housing, then a new idea associated with the work of the Bauhaus under the direction of Walter Gropius. After his travels, Wolf urged the Association to undertake mass housing on the European model. To this end, they established a limited dividend investment company, Neighborhood Gardens, in October 1933. Funds came in through private investment as well as through a $500,000 loan from the federal Public Works Administration’s Federal Emergency Housing Corporation. The PWA increased the loan size to $640,000 in February 1934, allowing the Association to raise $742,000 by March 1934. They could afford to finance the project, and had secured a full city block.

    Finding the right city block came through a fortuitous coincidence: city block 558, in the target area of the Association, was entirely owned by one owner, the Columbia Terminals Company. Furthermore, the block had been cleared in 1922 upon acquisition by the company and then rebuilt with large railroad equipment sheds and warehouses. These buildings were easy to demolish quickly. On May 28, 1934, the Columbia Terminals Company sold city block 558 to the Neighborhood Association for $87,524.

    A more deliberate stroke of fortune came when Wolf selected the St. Louis architectural firm of Hoener, Baum and Froese to design Neighborhood Gardens Apartments. The firm had designed the stunning art deco Eden Publishing Company building at 18th and Chouteau and a few other notable buildings. The firm had practical experience designing institutional and industrial buildings in a modern style, and its principals — Ewald Froese, Albert Baum and John Hoener — had strong ties to Europe’s Modernist architects. Their design for Neighborhood Gardens Apartments demonstrated the firm’s ability to design something at once suitably functional and aesthetically modernist.

    Neighborhood Gardens Apartments consisted of twelve buildings originally containing 252 apartments. Over sixty percent of the block was devoted to landscaped courtyards and lawns, placed in a way that still maintains a viable built density on the block. The resulting spaces are inviting and urbane, and must have seemed quite a fine remove from the Kerry Patch slum. The development included other enticing amenities: a community center, two club rooms, a library, a social hall and a large kitchen — all attractively nestled in one of the apartment buildings and located prominently at the corner of Eighth and Biddle.

    The three-story buildings are given a streamlined look, with little exterior ornament but with dynamic geometry. The buildings, built by H.B. Deal Company (which later built the also-touted Ford Apartments at 1405 Pine Street), employ load-bearing cinder block walls, poured concrete slab floors and steel girder reinforcement. Original plans for gabled attics never came to fruition, and the resulting flat roofs reinforce the stark lines of the buildings. The exterior walls are covered in red double-sized bricks — commonly used on warehouse and manufacturing buildings — laid in a Flemish bond, creating an effect at once overtly functional and intricate. Courses of darker single-sized bricks punctuate the walls at every third course. The brickwork is further articulated through variations devised by the masons laying the bricks. There are bricks laid at tangential and perpendicular angles to the walls. Sadly, such affordable variation did not become part of the American public housing vernacular.

    Working under the assumptions of the miasma theory of disease — that sickness is spread through dark, crowded spaces — the architects designed ample light through metal casement windows, cross-ventilating passageways and balconies double-loaded on protruding stairwell bays. The miasma theory gained credibility in the early twentieth century and already had been the basis for much hospital and school architecture. The basement stories were not crammed with apartments but instead contained storage and laundry facilities. Furthermore, apartments were accessed only off of the stairways, to encourage privacy and good morals. This domesticity was further imposed by the courtyards, containing a wading pool and other play areas to keep children from playing in the supposedly vice-filled and dangerous streets of the city.

    The moralizing program advanced by the Neighborhood Association contained a major problem that has plagued mass housing in St. Louis ever since: Neighborhood Gardens was intentionally segregated by race. Despite observing the growing numbers of blacks moving to the near north side during the rapid in-migration between 1920 and 1930, Wolf and his board felt that their model housing should be limited to white families. He envisioned a future “similar project for Negroes,” which he never built. The need for housing for blacks in this area of the city was as great as it was for whites: the census tract that included Neighborhood Gardens showed in 1930 the population to be 44% black, 41% immigrant or first generation and 14% native-born white. Apparently, racial integration was one of the social ills Wolf and like-minded planners identified as endemic to overcrowded urban areas.

    This aversion to the complexity of urban life shows the skepticism to traditional urbanism of progressive social activists and modernist architects in the 1930’s. Reacting against urban decline and disinvestment, they blamed many transitional social problems on the very form of the city grid itself. While the Neighborhood Association avoided demolition of large numbers of old buildings to build Neighborhood Gardens, much of that avoidance sprang from pragmatism; many members of the Association board thought that the apartments would become a model for eventual clearance of large parts of the near north side. These people viewed the unplanned and disorderly cityscape as conducive to poverty, vice and racial mixing, and sought to impose order through new housing. The Modernist aesthetic project aligned well with these aims, and Neighborhood Gardens is almost a perfect synthesis of the two ideals. Still, Neighborhood Gardens is rather sensitive to the street grid and relatively dense, and would have been a better model for slum clearance projects than later low-rise St. Louis projects like Carr Square Village and Clinton-Peabody Homes.

    Neighborhood Gardens Apartments opened in May 1935 to much acclaim. However, growing federal intervention in mass housing ensured that neither another such experiment nor a replica would be built in St. Louis. City government went on to build all subsequent mass housing using federal funding, and the scale of projects grew. None respected the city grid like Neighborhood Gardens Apartments had; certainly none was confined to only one block. All would be racially segregated by law for many years until almost all of their population was African-American anyway. The projects grew to the almost absurd scale dramatically realized in the construction of the Pruitt and Igoe Homes in the late 1950’s. The modernist desire for organization and efficiency grew into a drive to rebuild the city completely, and mass housing was the proving ground for disastrous new ideas.

    Federal housing planners have not again seriously looked into the benefits of small-scale mass housing like Neighborhood Gardens Apartments. Under federal planning, the nuance of the modernist aesthetic was subsumed by the underlying adoration of the uniformity and efficiency of mass production. Urban mass housing throughout the 1930s and 1940s retained a small scale, usually with buildings no taller than four stories, but the site plans were too large. Developments of several blocks became the norm, with street grid alterations or interruptions and separation of different uses. By the 1950’s, federally-sponsored mass housing resembled stark warehouses — an ironic twist on the modernist love for the efficiency of factories and industrial buildings. By this time, all buildings were massive towers set on empty lawns, creating a frightening landscape that became an icon of the ills of urban living. Le Corbusier’s modern house, the “machine for living,” as interpreted by US federal housing planners was an impressive and inhumane thing. Neighborhood Gardens Apartments had become a distant memory and eventually fell empty.

    By the time Neighborhood Gardens Apartments fell empty in 1990, the modernist aesthetic was completely out of vogue with housing planners while the bastardized warehouse idea was alive and well. New mass housing emerging in the 1990s under the federal HOPE VI program replaced the housing towers with insular low-density developments made to mock local vernacular styles. Instead of many units off of dingy corridors, units became individual buildings within fenced compounds. Interest in reviving the local modernist prototype from the days of restrained and urbane implementation of 20th century mass housing ideals was low.

    Even the ownership of Neighborhood Gardens Apartments, which had passed to the City of St. Louis, was forgotten. In 1997, Mayor Clarence Harmon announced a crackdown on absentee owners of vacant properties by publicly affixing an anti-absentee owner poster to one of the buildings. He did not know that the apartments were city-owned. In the years following this act, little happened at Neighborhood Gardens. In 2001, Spanish Lake Development Corporation of O’Fallon, Missouri, began seeking financing for renovation, finally starting work in 2005.

    Neighborhood Gardens once again will provide housing to workers, but not as a shining prototype of modern mass housing. The street grid around the block has been altered for the Cochran Gardens, O’Fallon Place and Columbus Square developments, neither of which is aging half as well as the Neighborhood Gardens buildings have. Under the renovation plan, the courtyards will be paved, the apartments enlarged and the last vestiges of the old ideal will be repackaged as nostalgia. But the buildings of Neighborhood Gardens remain an antidote to inadequate housing, both before and after their time.

    Columbus Square Housing Mid-Century Modern

    Neighborhood Gardens: Rules and Regulations

    Click on the following thumbnails to read the rules and regulations statement that a tenant had to sign in 1938 in order to secure a lease on an apartment at Neighborhood Gardens. This document comes courtesy of Dan Dalton of Spanish Lake Development Corporation, the developer behind the renovation of Neighborhood Gardens.

    Housing LRA Midtown

    Central Apartments

    by Michael R. Allen

    Yet another historic building sits in Midtown amid vacant lots where its neighbors have fallen steadily in the last fifty years — many of them falling only in the last twenty during the reign of Grand Center, Inc. This particular building is the elegant Central Apartments at 3727 Olive Street. The Central Apartments building is a simple T-shaped single-entrance apartment building built in 1916. One notable feature is that each apartment has its own balcony. Unlike other apartment buildings from this age, Central Apartments uses little catalog-order terra cotta and relies on fenestration and soldier courses of brick to articulate the facade. The only terra cotta here is a thin Greek key course in the cornice and a blank course running above the fourth floor windows. Still, the building is a worthy composition in the eclectic realm of Midtown architecture.

    Central Apartments on September 29, 2004.

    Somehow the Central Apartments fell empty in 2001 and the Land Reutilization took title, presumably holding the building for redevelopment under the Grand Center, Inc. master plan for Midtown. The future looks dim for this building given Grand Center’s penchant for demolition and for driving out any use not related to the large-scale projects it wants to populate Midtown. This block of Olive has lost at least 25 buildings in the last 30 years, and has become a wasteland of vacant lots and marginal uses. Small-scale developers simply aren’t welcome in Midtown these days. Neither are small buildings, it seems. Lack of imagination is a key feature of the “museum and arts” district.

    Looking northeast at the Central Apartments on September 29, 2004.