In August of 2011, I started a personal project of photographing Hyde Park. What I did not expect to get out of this project was a connection between place and one person in particular. The buildings were my initial start, but something was going on in Hyde Park at the time that excluded the buildings. I began to notice multiple demolition sites, piles of ruble and vacant lots. Sure, you see this all over the city — but who has to look out the window everyday at it is the real question.
On this particular day I had the 4×5 camera out. This camera is always a catalyst for conversation and it sparked one of the most touching stories I ever heard. While photographing this hay covered corner lot, I met this woman. She proceeded to tell me that she was the one who put out the hay.
The simple act of putting out hay on a vacant lot is no big deal, but she did not have to do this. This was not her job. However, she lived down the street from the vacant lot and wanted to see grass grow there. This was the start of a conversation in which I listened and she told. By the end of our conversation I found out that every day she saw another building being demolished. I could tell that part of her wanted to leave and part of her wanted to stay. All too often citizens on the north side have been given that choice. Keep the hope, or leave. Fight for you community, or move on. Not every citizen has a choice when it comes to what they see out of their window. Here are some of the buildings that she may have seen fall.
Michaela Burwell-Taylor served as a Preservation Research Office intern from January 2011 through May 2012.
Nearly every day I pass by this lonely two-story frame house at the northwest corner of North Florissant and Newhouse avenues in Hyde Park. While this stretch of North Florissant has its gaps, the east side is a nearly-continuous line of flats, houses and storefronts. Pietkutowski’s is not far. Yet this house stands alone at the intersection. Original weatherboard siding peaks out from failing rolled asphalt siding that mocks red brick (note the faux keystones on the front elevation!). Above, the slates on the mansard roof are in place, shedding water as they should. The side entrance is covered by a Craftsman-influenced open hood, a later addition marking stylistic changes since the nineteenth century when the house was built. Many frame houses in Hyde Park have been lost, and few have the solid and straight lines of this one. Yet I suspect one day my travels will take me past its grave-site, mud marked by bulldozer tracks.
Hopefully some readers are aware of the worthy efforts of the Rebuild Foundation to transform historic buildings in Hyde Park into creative spaces where art and community converge. So far, the Foundation has purchased three buildings around Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, and work is well underway on two of the buildings.
The Rebuild Foundation’s adaptive reuse philosophy is rooted in great respect for the historic materials and craftsmanship found in Hyde Park’s architecture. Yet the Foundation, under the direction of artist Theaster Gates and project manager Charlie Vinz, has embraced the potential to transform tradition. That is, their rehabilitation work in interpretive instead of restorative. Since they are working on damaged, vacant buildings, the approach seems correct. These are not buildings in pristine repair with all of their features intact.
Instead, these buildings offer a narrative of decline through their distressed conditions. Rebuild Foundation uses what is left of the original fabric to forge a new architectural story of rebirth — one told through leaving some things in place, reworking others and bringing new materials and designs into the mix. The buildings gain a temporal relationship to the larger arc of the neighborhood, and their details do not mask that.
Preservation Research Office has been a supporter of the Foundation’s work, and we have twice provided curated film screenings for Foundation staff and volunteers. Our most recent night took place at the end of a work day on Saturday. To tired and productive workers we offered a selection of 16mm educational films — including the dazzling Bakery Beat — once part of the St. Louis Public Schools’ library. This is the same collection once used for the cine16 series, but now it is under our stewardship.
We hope to expand programming from the collection in the future, but in the mean time we enjoy opportunities to connect it to new audiences. The cultural heritage of the city can create unexpected moments as it is redeployed and reinterpreted today. Old buildings, old films, old craftsmanship — all continuous threads that make our city a remarkable and living place.
In the past few weeks, proponents of the possibly impending economic development deal crafted between leaders in the Missouri House and Senate have made excuses for proposed cuts to the historic rehabilitation tax credit: “it was going to be cut anyway.” This rationale has led many St. Louis political leaders, developers and even usually-opinionated bloggers to concede that the state’s proven revitalization tool will have to be lopped to make way for a brave new future of subsidies for new cargo warehouses.
We’ve heard that the “big buildings are done,” a statement that one could not safely make at the corner of 8th and Olive streets in downtown St. Louis, or in the railyard industrial areas of Kansas City. We have hard that it’s time for “new money” and new economics, a line that fails to mention that the cargo warehouse credits as written would only go to new construction, and that warehouses are not know for either welcoming pedestrian flanks or for innovative architecture. Worst, we have heard that a $10 million limit on historic tax credit awards of $275,000 or less is somehow protection of neighborhood microdevelopment.
To be sure, having some nod toward small projects is better than none, but what we have on the table is an annual $90 million issuance of historic tax credits in which small projects will only get $10 million – not a penny more. The $80 million majority of credits will go to the big projects – the ones that some proponents have claimed are “mostly done.” This skewed ratio prevents small developers and property owners from direct competition with large development operations, but it represents a move to cut small projects to over half of activity we saw in Fiscal Year 2011.
According to data from the Missouri department of Economic Development (DED), in Fiscal Year 2011, the state issued around $21.5 million in historic rehabilitation tax credits to projects that received $275,000 or less in tax credits. This activity represents 165 of the 385 projects to which DED issued historic tax credits. Of course, the total issuance was $116.2 million, so the small projects were far from the majority. Yet they account for around 43% of all projects that used the historic tax credit.
A formula based on caps of $10 million for small projects and $80 million for large projects will end up slowing the pace at which neighborhood revitalization can take place, in small towns and big cities. In St. Louis, the effects could be most harmful in distressed neighborhoods across north St. Louis where new historic districts are being created or have been created in St. Louis Place, the Ville, Penrose, O’Fallon and the Wellston Loop. Literally thousands of north St. Louis buildings will be eligible for the Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credit by the end of the next year, in addition to buildings in the rest of the city. Will these buildings have fair access to an incentive designed to bring them back to productive use?
The answer to that questions rests with the General Assembly, as well as to backers of the tax credits for the cargo warehouses. Those who advocate for neighborhood revitalization can fight for a mechanism that may bring us more jobs, which the region does need, but they should not let their guard down when it comes to the mechanism that often is what stands between a rehabilitated, human-scaled building and a vacant lot or gas station.
This is no either-or proposition – St. Louis will not be an attractive place for new investment if it neighborhoods aren’t improving. Missouri can’t give us unlimited money, but we can make sure that what we get doesn’t rob resources from neighborhoods that can’t afford lobbyists in the Capitol this week. A $10 million cap is too low. At least the cap should be based on last year’s activity of $21 million, so we don’t lose the momentum that is transforming tough blocks into great places to live.
Our friend and collaborator Andrew Raimist is leading the effort to raise funds for a very worthy summer arts program taking place in the fragile but beautiful Hyde Park neighborhood. In (en)visioning Hyde Park, students in 5th through 8th grade will be working to improve their Hyde Park neighborhood and documenting the progress using photography. Students will learn the basics of digital photography from image capture through editing, printing and publishing.
This effort will be lead by teaching artist Raimist with the generous support of other photographers, artists and educators. ReBuild Foundation is the major sponsor of this workshop as part of their Urban Expressions outreach mission.
This program takes place in collaboration with artist Theaster Gates’ CityStudioSTL’s rehabilitation of a vacant Hyde Park home to create a community gathering place.
A full-color book of the students’ photographs, drawings and writings will be professionally published. Each student will get their own copy to have in hand when school begins in the fall. This experience will enhance their educational achievement and self-confidence.
Grassroots support for this program will provide immeasurable benefits to the students, their families and their neighborhood. Your backing demonstrates widespread commitment to the underserved children of North St. Louis.
Architectural historians often stop their work when a building reaches its sure death. Without a chance at preservation, an already-decrepit building is just a historic shell. Articles written, consulting fees paid, photos taken — what is left to do? Plenty. As a building is lost through neglect and later demolition, its body is battered until a flood of historic memory is released. Perhaps a vacant building means even more to a community during its demolition. The cleared site serves as an empty signifier — signifying many things to many people. One of those things may actually get built.
So the Nord St. Louis Turnverein’s rapid demolition last week under the capable hands of Z & L Wrecking was an instructive moment in local architectural history. The rapidity of demolition, the cleaning of brick and the removal of all complete traces of building in one week is an accomplishment unmatched in execution and intensity by the work of any architect or builder.
In just one week, Z & L Wrecking removed a building that had occupied the site starting in 1870. The northern half of the site had not been unbuilt for 141 years. The southern half across the alley had been the site of a building for 113 years. The rapid liquidation of so much material and civic memory was a quiet symphony of demolition, or perhaps an unrecorded dirge.
Here’s the view looking southwest from 20th and Salisbury today. The north and south gymnasiums of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein are down to the foundation walls, with only the center section that bridges the alley still standing tall.
After demolition of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein started this week, our intern Christian Frommelt was re-watching a clip of well-known Club Imperial dancer Teddy Cole and noticed that he gives a little advertisement for an event at the Turnverein (then called auf Englisch North St. Louis Turner Hall) with Ike and Tina Turner. He says it around 2:45.
Yesterday a crew from Z & L Wrecking started taking down the ruinous northern portion of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein. This was deja vu to those who recalled the day when Z & L arrived to take down the buildings after the devastating fire on July 6, 2006 that destroyed the northern section. This time, the failing structural state led to the Building Division’s issuance of an emergency demolition permit on March 29, 2011.
Developer Peter George stopped demolition and valiantly tried to find financing to rebuild the Hyde Park landmark. With the southern gymnasium addition of 1898 largely intact, rebuilding seemed like a reasonable path. Five years later, an imbalance of time and money has led to a more conservative approach. George came along late in the life of the building, purchasing it after the fire.
The fateful decisions came earlier when the remaining Turners rejected the membership applications of a contingent of new members (including many leaders of Metropolis) in 1999, and when the group sold the buildings to a future felon named Doug Hartmann in 2004. Even before the fire on July 5, 2006, heavy winds had destroyed the roof of the older north building on April 2, 2006. The loss of a building can take time, and the loss of a community anchor can tragically drag out for years.
On September 29, 1927, a massive tornado made its way across the city on a northeasterly track. The path of destruction widened in a part of north St. Louis stretching from Fountain Park to Hyde Park. The worst damage was just west of Grand Avenue between Delmar Boulevard and St. Louis Avenue, but every place in the path was wrecked badly. The Report on the St. Louis Tornado of September 27, 1927 by the Joint Committee of the Engineers’ Club and St. Louis Chapter, American Institute of Architects displayed the staggering destruction of the built environment, chronicled the human loss and called for upgrades in construction techniques. A subsequent major tornado in 1959 spared north St. Louis but left major damage in the Dogtown and Central West End neighborhoods.
Compared to the 1927 and 1959 tornadoes, as well as the famous 1896 “Cyclone,” the tornado that struck the city on December 31, 2010 was mercifully weak. Still, the track of the officially-declared EF1 tornado is longer than the damage suggests. The National Weather Service has published track maps of the recent St. Louis area tornadoes that shows the north St. Louis tornado to have left a 2.1-mile track starting around Lewis Place and moving northeast toward Fairground Park before lifting. The tornado touched down at 12:08 a.m. and lasted for three minutes.
The track of the 2010 tornado is notably similar to the 1927 track. Although the tracks and damage areas do not overlap, they follow a similar shape. The origin of the 2010 tornado is slightly west of the outer path of tornado damage in September 1927, although it is still farther from the actual tornado track. Another difference is that the 1927 tornado did not lift until it reached the river.
While the city was spared a major disaster on New Year’s, it endured a tornado that caused severe property damage and left at least a dozen households homeless. History shows worse could have happened, but also that north St. Louis has been hit by a tornado before. Disaster preparedness, urged in 1927 by leading engineers and architects, remains a crucial matter for the city.