Here is the Loop Trolley Company’s report on the final route. Since the proposed line could be a stimulus to investment in the buildings and parcels facing the route, our readers might be interested. Will the trolley be a catalyst for rehabilitation of remaining vacant buildings like Wabash Station, or (in wilder dreams) restoration of Isadore Shank’s DeBalievere Building (1926)? Will it spur dense infill on vacant lots (an outcome that owners of sites of demolished barbeque restaurants might wish)? Time will tell. For now, we know that there are changes in the trolley route and its terminals.
by Michael R. Allen
On Friday I participated in a mobile workshop on the South Grand business district that was part of the annual conference American Planning Association Missouri Chapter. The workshop started with a driving tour from the Chase Park Plaza (conference venue) that included Kingshighway, Southwest Garden, Shaw and Tower Grove Park. After the tour, over lunch at Mojo, participants heard about area history from planner and historian Mark Abbott and the current streetscape project from Rachel Witt of the South Grand Community Improvement District and Mary Grace Lewandowski of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
Then the group headed out for a tour of South Grand guided by Andrew, Rachel and myself. While many excellent buildings were included alongside the quickly-nearing-completion improvements to Grand’s sidewalks, the stand-out of the tour was an alley. That is right — the tour ended at the alley between Humphrey and Utah streets west of Grand.
The reason for including the alley, as Andrew Murray eloquently stated, was that it demonstrated very basic principles of sustainability in the built environment. Alleys are instruments of vehicular utility, and their presence in St. Louis is taken for granted. However, many are in rough shape because their paving bricks have been layered with asphalt pavings. City alleys often settle with the bricks, and become uneven and difficult to maintain. Meanwhile, they deflect water onto parking pads, into garages and onto streets.
This alley in Tower Grove South has been returned to sound condition in a way that is both historically and ecologically informed. Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15) and the Streets Department found funds to rebuild the alley by paving it with historic paving bricks, gloriously purple-red and gently chipped through decades of urban life, reclaimed from the alley itself. Set on a new substrate, the bricks are level but also are water permeable. The only deviation from historic conditions is that the design included a concrete perimeter to buffer the paving from existing outbuildings and curbs.
This alley not only is “green” but also reflects its historic character by bringing its original paving material back to the surface. The result is durable and attractive, and maintenance simple. Sustainability need not be a headlong rush into trendy new building technology, when time-proven materials and methods are at hand. Our tour ended by reminding participants that existing infrastructure already embodies today’s planning standards. Modular water-permeable paving? We already did that — one hundred years ago.
by Christina Carlson
I recently had the opportunity to digitize several photographs for the Preservation Research Office spanning from the 1930s to the 1980s. The photos consisted primarily of pictures of historic buildings and other structures in St. Louis, but also included were snapshots of parades, fairs and local people. Although many of the photos were of great interest– revealing buildings, people and spaces now forgotten — a few in particular caught my attention.
At first glance this snapshot appeared to me as nothing out of the ordinary, simply another picture of the substantial efforts at demolition which took place in mid-century St. Louis. However, on a second look I recognized the iconic nature of this photo. The church in the center of frame is The Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, which sits adjacent to the Gateway Arch ground. I realized that this image captures the moment of destruction for a large swath of the riverfront area which began in 1939 and ended by 1961. Despite the conjecture of many who saw the riverfront area as a vital, ethnically and cultural diverse area, demolition of some of the oldest buildings in St. Louis was approved in 1939. In a twist of irony, much of the Eastern portion of the city was destructed to make way for a memorial to Westward expansion.
Another photo I noted was one on the opposite end of the spectrum, as it portrayed the construction of the lanes of Interstate 44 where it merges into Interstate 55 south of downtown St. Louis. This image evokes a different moment in the city’s history, one in which it suddenly became much easier for those in the rapidly expanding suburbs to reach downtown, and to leave it. Although the history of suburban development in the post-war years is well known, the story in St. Louis was particularly evident. As the population shifted outward, many buildings within the city were demolished, leaving in their wake parking spaces and empty lots.
Side by side, these two images powerfully convey prominent themes in the history of St. Louis: the destruction of older, more diverse districts and the construction of vast networks of suburbs, supported by the presence of major freeways bypassing downtown. Although there are a variety of themes present in the photographs I digitized – family ties, segregation, religion, wealth, poverty – none were so prevalent as the drastic restructuring of the face of the urban landscape in St. Louis in the middle of the twentieth century.
by Michael R. Allen
The new Grand Avenue viaduct over the Mill Creek Valley will be a decent and well-built piece of infrastructure. Replacing a streamlined structure from 1959, the new viaduct skips over its mid-century predecessor to appropriate elements of the original Grand Avenue viaduct. Or does it?
As the Preservation Research Office team conducts its architectural survey of the O’Fallon neighborhood of north St. Louis, it has noted the presence of several intact historic brick alleys. Paved with “paver” bricks made by local manufacturers in the last 19th and early 20th centuries before the rise of concrete street paving, brick alleys are part of the built landscape of the neighborhood — and the city. Unfortunately brick alleys have disappeared along with brick streets. O’Fallon is fortunate to have some remaining in good repair. Those shown here can be found in the H-shaped alley network between Fair, Green Lea, Clay and Penrose streets.
by Michael R. Allen
Recently I wrote about two lovely intact brick alleys in the St. Louis Place neighborhood on the north side (see “St. Louis Place: Sidewalk Plaques and Brick Alleys”, February 11). After publishing that post, I learned that there is a pilot program underway to restore 17 brick alleys in two of the city’s south side historic districts, the Gravois-Jefferson Historic Streetcar Suburb District and the Benton Park Historic District. Some work began in December in Gravois Park, and more will start when weather is consistently dry. Work will be completed by August 10, 2011.
When alderpeople put in requests for allocation of the city’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, Alderman Craig Schmid (D-20th) successfully applied for $975,000 to restore and retain historic brick alleys in the historic districts of his ward. The city’s Department of Streets stopped repairing brick alleys in 1978. Subsequently, many miles of brick alleys — which are durable, made from long-lasting brick, easy to repair and moderately water-permeable — have been paved over with asphalt that comes from a nonrenewable source, is not water permeable and is expensive and difficult to repair. Paved brick alleys typically have problems with settling that new paving only compounds. The city fills depressions in brick alleys that eventually sink again, and finds itself having to pave and repave alleys that could have simply been restored. Asphalt paving destroys the integrity of paver bricks, so that even when asphalt surface material is removed the alleys cannot be restored. The practice is unsustainable and expensive.
Meanwhile, the city no longer repairs existing brick alleys. If residents don’t want asphalt, they won’t get any repairs. Also some aldermen use allocations of paving to pave brick alleys with no problems in order to avoid having to return allocations. Schmid has wanted to retain brick alleys for awhile, but could not use existing money to do so. The Department of Streets needs to change its brick alley policy. Meanwhile, the 20th Ward is the first to experiment with restoring brick alleys using a one-time grant of federal stimulus money.
The good news is that federal stimulus money is funding a small but significant project that implements a sustainable approach to retaining brick alley paving. The project fits the goals of the Obama administration in encouraging green practices through federal spending, but it still leaves permanent policy changes up to the city of St. Louis.
by Michael R. Allen
Strengthening the historic setting of the St. Louis Place neighborhood’s dense core, now nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district by the Preservation Research Office, are remaining parts of the built environment beyond buildings. There are several remaining brick alleys and historic granitoid sidewalks on and around St. Louis Avenue between 20th Street and Parnell Avenue.
If the word “granitoid” is not familiar, the appearance probably is. Granitoid sidewalks included crushed aggregate rock in the cement to create a speckled walk with the surface appearance similar to granite. Granitoid paving dates to the 1890s and was common through the early part of the 20th century. Contractors often left a metal plaque embedded in the pavement to identify their work. St. Louis Place is fortunate to not only have these plaques left, but to have hundreds of feet of historic sidewalk paving largely in good repair.
by Michael R. Allen
Versions of this article were published in Common Ground, Spring 2003 and the already-missed Creative St. Louis, March 2010.
Along the southwest edge of the city of St. Louis, Missouri runs a six-mile curve of what appears to be a river with paved banks. This river is usually dry and rarely filled to even half its capacity. Covered in rip-rap and white stones along this six miles, the banks form a visual boundary of the city limits — although the actual city line is several hundred yards west. Still, the moat-like river creates an effective border between the middle-class parts of the county and city that occupy either side of it. Yet this river actually unites them, because it carries away all of their wasted water and, deep below its channel, their sewage. The river is the River Des Peres, a harnessed channel that was transformed from a natural waterway into a massive civil engineering project in the early twentieth century.
Of course, the River Des Peres is not simply a deep gorge that carries away waste water from the city and its inner suburbs. In fact, it now lies almost completely underground and is not visible at all. In a 1988 booklet published by the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), the quasi-governmental agency that has controlled the river since 1956, an anonymous author writes that “the rocky banks of the River Des Peres form a landmark which nearly every St. Louisan recognizes, but few understand.” Few Saint Louisans realize that its 18 miles extend along over half of the city’s western edge, covering a drainage area of 115 square miles and serving a population of over 535,000 people. It enters the city at Skinker Boulevard and Vernon Avenue at the University City limits and then winds its way through Forest Park and into the familiar open section that drains into the Mississippi River. Along the way, it carries both storm water and sewage in separate pipes with connections to most major city and inner-suburban trunk sewers. It is the backbone of the St. Louis sewer system.
Very few residents recognize that the River Des Peres became the backbone of the St. Louis sewer system by having its natural state completely rebuilt so that none of its original features remain. No living person likely remembers the days when all of it was an open and wild, albeit polluted, waterway that St. Louisans happened to dump sewage into. And few accounts describe its earlier incarnation as a pure waterway far from the French settlements on the Mississippi River. In those days, the idea of the River Des Peres becoming one of the largest regional civil engineering projects in the Midwest would have seemed strange. Yet St. Louisans slowly converted the small river into their largest sewer over the course of more than a hundred years, so most of the changes were hardly noticed until the river was already irreversibly controlled by engineers looking to drain unwanted materials from the young city of St. Louis.
by Michael R. Allen
From its founding in 1857 — just a few days ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott Case — through 1950, Laclede Gas Company was named Laclede Gas Light Company. A few sidewalk service entries, like this one in Tower Grove South, retain metal covers with the old company’s initials. Bill Beck’s volume Laclede Gas and St. Louis: 150 Years of Working Together, 1857-2007 (St. Louis: Laclede Gas Company, 2007) is an invaluable source of Laclede Gas’ corporate history.
by Michael R. Allen
This week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried a commentary by NiNi Harris entitled “County residents should vote own interests”. Harris makes the case for St. Louis County voters’ approving the sales tax measure for Metro that will appear on the April 6 ballot.
Instead of the usual — and correct — arguments in favor of mass transit as something the region needs to have to be competitive and maintain an urban quality of life, Harris demonstrates that the sales tax measure will help St. Louis County maintain its quality of life. The services that county voters take for granted are dependent on workers’ being able to easily get to jobs in the county. For many workers, that means catching the bus.
Voters might not consider the fact that even health care costs are associated with the availability of public transportation:
The quality of hospital care is not only determined by the physicians and registered nurses, but also by the LPNs, the people who do the laundry and cleaning and food service staffs. The quality of overall care can be maintained without mass transit only by increasing wages or providing other transportation.
After all, according to Harris:
It’s not just a few workers about whom we are talking. Last year, Metro buses, MetroLink and the Metro service for the disabled provided rides for almost 53 million boarders.
Can the county maintain its quality of life with diminished Metro service? Absolutely not.