by Michael R. Allen
The Rehabbers Club presents:
Tour of St. Louis Building Arts Foundation Conservatory
Saturday August 23, 2008
Join us for a very special tour at the Conservatory of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation led by founder Larry Giles. The Foundation was created in 2002 to help realize Larry’s dream of opening a museum of architecture centered on his collection of nearly 300,000 architectural artifacts assembled during a 35-year career as an architectural salvage specialist.
In 2005, the Foundation purchased the former Sterling Steel Casting foundry in Sauget, Illinois. The site, called the Conservatory, will eventually serve as an off-site facility for the architectural museum. Till then it will serve as interim interpretive center and library.
The 15-acre site includes 13 historic foundry buildings built between 1923 and 1959 that the Foundation is rehabbing as the home for Larry’s collection, previously stored in four different locations. Larry has already completed an impressive amount of work at the complex and moved over half of the collection there.
Don’t miss this rare chance to come inside and see both a marvelous collection of architectural artifacts as well as a one-of-a-kind historic rehabilitation project!
Note: Due to ongoing work, public access is limited and there are no bathroom facilities.
If you’d like to carpool or caravan, meet at 1:30 in the Quiznos parking lot at 1535 South 7th Street in Soulard. Or you can meet us there promptly at 2:00 p.m.
DRIVING DIRECTIONS [for map graphic, approximate address, 2300 Falling Springs Road,
1. Take eastbound I-55/I-64 traveling across the Poplar Street Bridge
2. Exit onto southbound Illinois Route 3
3. LEFT turn at Monsanto Avenue
4. RIGHT turn onto Falling Springs Road
5. LEFT turn into parking area at St. Louis Steel Castings foundry
1. RIGHT turn onto Falling Springs Road from parking lot
2. LEFT turn onto Monsanto Avenue
3. Right turn onto Illinois Route 3
4. Look for westbound I-55/I-64 [left lane], enter ramp to Poplar Street Bridge
by Michael R. Allen
I spent twelve pivotal years of my childhood living in Monroe, County Illinois, just southeast of the city of St. Louis. There I spent time taking in the historic architecture. Due to a mix of circumstances ranging from Germanic thrift to rural poverty, much of the remaining historic stock of the county retains a high level of integrity. Wooden window sashes, doors and porches remain. Barns have original siding. Walkways are often paved in brick. The county seat, Waterloo, offers a spectacular array of well-preserved brick and frame vernacular buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of the most noticeable aspects of Waterloo’s architecture is that many of the gabled and hipped roofs retain historic standing-seam metal roofs, maintained with silver paint. Some people even opt for new metal roofing when they replace a roof. There is no reason these roofs can’t last forever as long as the diligent owners keep them maintained.
Here is a sampling of metal roofs, all from just one side of one street: the north street face of Mill Street.
by Michael R. Allen
En route to the Storefronts of America: The Mesker Story exhibit at the Evansville Museum in Indiana, I happened upon a fine example of a Mesker front in Crossville, Illinois. Actually, this was no real happenstance. I pretty much figure I’ll see at least one Mesker in any small town I encounter in southern or central Illinois.
Now famous due to the efforts of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Got Mesker? project, the Mesker storefronts are the work of two foundries within one family. George L. Mesker & Company operated in Evansville, Indiana while Mesker Brothers Iron Works operated in St. Louis. Both companies produced mass-manufactured iron building parts ranging from cast iron columns to sheet metal facades from the 1870s through the 1920s. Builders ordered parts or whole facades (easiest to identify) from catalogs to economically beautify commercial fronts in small towns and big cities alike.
This particular storefront is the work of George L. Mesker & Company. Acanthus-topped solid cast iron columns support a brick front wall hidden under sheet metal. The sheet metal is cored to resemble concrete blocks, and is adorned with continuous foliage-inspired elements at the window surrounds, above the storefront, above the second floor windows and at the cornice line.
Akin to the ornament of Louis Sullivan, the Mesker work references prairie nature. Classical details are minimal, while abstract and direct natural patterns dominate the composition. The belts of vines emphasize the horizontal nature of the wide front, echoing the rugged flat land of southeastern Illinois. Yet the metal front is obviously a modern thing — at least, it was distinctly modern for its time. The design draws together the eager commercial of spirit mass manufacturing (sheet metal ordered by mail, near-uniform concrete blocks) with romantic tinges of natural beauty (conjuring infinite variety and difference).
These fine lines remain a testament to the once-promising outlook of the small towns of the Midwest. The Mesker front in Crossville isn’t a Waiwright Building or a Rookery, but it somehow seems as much a true expression of time, place and modernity as those progressive urban buildings. The storefront building seemed vacant, and the sheet metal was peeling back on one end to reveal backing lath over the plain brick body of the building.
Yet the front is essentially good repair, retaining almost every original piece — the end columns on the storefront probably weren’t originally bare brick — and even its original window sash. There’s only a bit of rust. The building offers itself as a worthy part of the future of Crossville, whatever that may be.
by Michael R. Allen
Last month while I was visiting Chicago I stopped by the Pilgrim Baptist Church at Indiana Avenue and 33rd Street in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Built in 1891 as the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue, this Prairie School masterpiece was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. In January 2006, a devastating fire struck the building, leaving nothing intact save the limestone and brick walls. The photos below show steel bracing against the street-facing walls. The bracing was required by the Chicago city government to prevent collapse into the public right-of-way. Engineers have determined that collapse is unlikely since the walls remain sound.
Although the church has yet to be able to start reconstruction, they have made some progress with raising money and securing the structure. In 2006, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich pledged $1 million in state funds to the church school (since the state can’t directly fund the church) to rebuild. Earlier this month, after his administration gave the money to the wrong school, the governor pledged an additional $1 million on top of the previous pledge. Last year, Pilgrim Baptist chose architects Johnson & Lee of Chicago and Quinn Evans of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to design the reconstruction of the ornate Sullivan building. How much of the intricate interior gets rebuilt is undetermined, but the exterior should be brought back fully to original appearance.
by Michael R. Allen
The villages of Dozaville (once Goshen) and Kaskaskia, Illinois remain as vestiges of settlement on Kaskasia Island. Dozaville is a complete ghost town, at least officially — it has been legally dissolved for decades. Kaskaskia remains incorporated, although with less than a dozen residents in four households within its boundaries has no real need for civil government. Kaskaskia is one of those places that has achieved zero population growth according to the US Census — a bizarre stasis for a town once of great importance.
Although part of Randolph County in Illinois, the island is west of the Mississippi and accessible only via a bridge from St., Mary’s, Missouri. A shallow channel barely recognizable as a river separates St. Mary’s from the island, suggesting that the land nearly is part of Missouri. On maps, the land seems fully engulfed by Missouri. Most maps don’t even note the channel with water, but merely include a political boundary line. Kaskaskia seems an improbable location for Illinois’s first state capital. Now remote, plagued by low land that constantly floods, and insular, Kaskaskia was once a vital part of early French settlement of the Mississippi River valley. The island was once an attached Illinois peninsula.
In 1673, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette claimed the Mississippi River valley in this area. In 1675, Marquette visited the site of Kaskaskia and established the mission of the Immaculate Conception. The mission became a church, and the settlement around the mission grew into a village with fur trading and farming as prevalent economic activities. In 1703, Kaskaskia was founded as the second village of European settlers in Illinois. By 1752, the population stood at a relatively robust number of 671 residents.
At the advent of the French and Indian War in 1756, French townspeople built Fort Kaskaskia on a hill east of the town, now across the Mississippi River. Residents destroyed the fort to prevent it from falling into British control when the British won. Many residents fled to Ste. Genevieve after the war. Later, the British built Fort Gage in Kaskaskia but lost the fort to Revolutionary General George Rogers Clark in 1778.
Kaskaskia became Illinois territorial capital in 1804. In 1818, the newly-created State of Illinois chose to retain Kaskaskia for the first state capital, although for only two years. The Emigrant’s Guide of 1818 states that there were 150 houses standing in the village. Growth would not arrive, however, as the village quickly lost the capital to more centrally-located Vandalia. One notable event happened after the loss of the capital: the establishment of the convent and school for the female school Visitation Academy in 1833.
However, the biggest blows to the village’s fortune came with terrible floods in 1844 and 1881. Located at a narrow spot between the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers, the site was vulnerable to the Mississippi’s eastward shift. Eventually, that river pushed over the narrow neck of the peninsula to create the present island. The first flood caused great population loss, and the second flood created the river channel that made the land around Kaskaskia into an island. During the period between the floods, Visitation Academy relocated to the city of St. Louis in 1844. After an 1893 flood, the town relocated to its present location.
In 1993, flood waters again submerged the island and caused residents to flee. Nowadays, the population of Kaskaskia is about 9 and the population of the island is about 93 people. Kaskaskia still retains its street grid, which carves out blocks punctuated by the few remaining buildings.
One of those remaining buildings is the Church of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1882 and moved to its current site in 1894 after the devastating 1893 flood. A church founded by Marquette now meets only on Saturday afternoons — strangely diminished in human size but awesome in the length of its existence. The brick building has managed to survive several floods with its Gothic Revival architecture intact.
A long-time parishioner is profiled in the article found here.
A newer building is the home of the church’s historic bell, gifted by the King of France in 1741 and known as the “Liberty Bell of the West” since the townspeople rang it on July 4, 1778 to celebrate liberation from British rule.
The old school house is interesting, although badly damaged by flooding and alterations to its fenestration. Boarded up, the brick building is missing much of its interior structure although it has gained a new roof since the 1993 flood. Reuse seems unlikely, although someone is performing enough continued maintenance to ensure survival of the old building.
A few frame and brick homes comprise the rest of Kaskaskia. The wide sight lines of the island ensure views of the church spire and school house framed by expanses of fields. Settlement has come full circle for Kaskaskia, but somehow it endures.
by Michael R. Allen
When I went to Peoria over the weekend, this building was gone. (This photograph dates to June 2005.) The commercial building stood on Martin Luther King Boulevard just east of Western Avenue, on the south side of the street. Several characteristics were remarkable:
– The building was built entirely of concrete block made to look like rusticated limestone.
– The building formed a flatiron shape even though it did not sit on a flatiron lot. The shape was necessitated instead by topography. Behind the building, the land dropped off so severely that the flatiron was about all that could be built on this site. as the raised sidewalk suggests, things aren’t so great on the other side.
I liked this building because it defied the odds. This site is not “buildable” by contemporary standards; it may not have been even back in the early twentieth century when the building was built. Yet someone wanted to develop this lot, probably spurred on by Peoria’s density. When a city has a strong downtown, people build anywhere they can get in and around that downtown. Even odd lots get built out. Contrast that with today’s American urban environments, where many developers won’t even build on lots 25 feet wide by 120 feet deep. Once, land was scarce and building space abundant — now the formula is inverted. It seems that along with abdundant building space went abundant civic pride. People who don’t value land and make the most of its scarcity don’t build — or steward — great cities.
No doubt the little concrete flatiron fell prey to our perverse size mentality. People probably considered it too small for commercial use, and lacking the “yard” needed for residential. The building went empty and then it was demolished. I’ll bet that the lot remains vacant forever.
by Michael R. Allen
While driving on Ridge Avenue in Chicago over the weekend, I spotted this building. Look at it! We have a Spanish Revival gem hiding out under wooden siding and a coating of gray paint. I like how the owners painted the braided terra cotta finials white to make them stand out. Apparently, the building is in use by an automobile repair shop. Perhaps some day the owner will take off the siding and strip the paint to reveal the full glory of the building. For now, though, the building’s soul still manages to whisper through the layers.
by Michael R. Allen
On February 14, Illinois State Representative Jay C. Hoffman (D-112th), introduced a bill in the Illinois General Assembly to create a Distressed Area Land Assemblage Tax Credit for Illinois. The bill, HB 5153, takes verbatim the enacted text of the Missouri Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act.
Hoffman represents a district that includes the Metro East cities of Collinsville, Edwardsville, Maryville and Fairview Heights.
by Michael R. Allen
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Alderman Rich Walker of Edwardsville, Illinois, has launched both a campaign to restore The Wildey theater and a public history project on the theater. The City of Edwardsville purchased the theater in 1999 and plans to raise an estimated $3 million for restoration work. It’s admirable to see a city government willing to invest in its cultural resources.