Flounder House JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Flounder House on Cass Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

Tucked alongside a commercial building, sometimes obscured by trees and with a partly collapsed roof, the one-story flounder house at 2704 Cass Avenue evades attention.  Yet the small house’s craftsmanship shows in details like the dentillated cornice on the side elevation.  There are signs that the front originally had a wooden or galvanized cornice, but the chance that anyone will ever know for certain is slim.  The chance that the house will survive the next decade may be slimmer still.

The house may date to 1885, but could be older.  It stands on City Block 1843, bounded by Cass, Elliott, Sheridan and Leffingwell avenues — a city block that has never had an alley.  This house and much of the rest of the block is owned by Northside Regeneration LLC.  Once part of dense urban fabric, the little house has become doubly noteworthy: it is one of only three buildings left on this block, and one of perhaps as few as 160 remaining flounder houses in St. Louis.

Fire JeffVanderLou Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis

3850 Martin Luther King, Destroyed by Fire Today

by Michael R. Allen

Here is a photograph from December 2009 showing the two-story commercial building at 3850 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive that was destroyed by fire this afternoon (at left here).  The building and its neighbors dated to the 19th century but were damaged in the tornado of 1927.  After the tornado, the owners rebuilt the front elevations in modern white bakery brick with green glazed brick accents.

Housing JeffVanderLou LRA North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

’27 Tornado Survivors on Montgomery Street

by Michael R. Allen

I have long admired the group of four narrow-faced, one-story houses on the 3000 block of Montgomery Street. Located on a little wedge between Garrison and Coleman streets, the four houses seem to comprise a coherent group of small shaped-parapet dwellings. The western two, 3005 and 3007 Montgomery (left), have front entrances. The other two, 3001 and 3003 Montgomery (right), have side entrances and paired windows on their faces. All are clad in machine-rolled, rough-faced brown brick with abundant white bakery brick patterns. Raised basements provide well-lit potential additional living space.

The setting is enhanced by the placement of the houses not parallel to Montgomery Street, but parallel to the side lines of the irregular lots on which they sit. Thus the houses roughly step out from east to west, creating visual interest from the side.

These houses have always been architecturally compatible, but there is a twist — or twister, if you will. These houses began their days as stone-faced homes built around the turn of the twentieth century. One block west stood the massive Mullanphy Hospital. In 1927, the great tornado ran northeast across the city and struck this block. Like most buildings that survived the disaster, the buildings were rebuilt using contemporary masonry rather than restored. While the repairs are within a common range, the grouping and the deliberate effort to match all four houses is unusual.

While not stone-clad, the three one-story, flat-roofed houses one block to the east on the south face of Montgomery Street give some indication of the form of the re-clad homes. The decorated wooden cornices were common on these small raised-basement houses built across north city roughly from 1880 through 1905. Often the high porches sheltered stairwells that led to basement apartments. The three houses pictured above are now so decimated by brick thieves that their demolition is inevitable.

Alas, the four houses to the west are also vacant — three owned by Northside Regeneration and one by the Land Reutilization Authority — and unprotected by landmarks status or demolition review. However, they are not sitting alone.

The four tornado survivor, marked by a yellow asterisk on the map above, are adjacent to blocks built up again by Habitat for Humanity. The four small historic houses could some day sit amid a rebuilt neighborhood, reminding people of a time when the city had the fortune and foresight to rebuild even small one-story houses. The brick-rustled neighbors here bear a strange resemblance to houses depicted in photographs of 1927 tornado damage. Houses that went through the tornado and back remind us that even the worst disaster is not the end of the world — not even necessarily the end of a building.

Abandonment JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Storefront Addition

Storefront/Commercial Addition: Ted Foster & Sons Funeral Home

by Michael R. Allen

People often ask me about the history of the old, boarded-up funeral home at 1221 N. Grand near Page. This is indeed a curious old building, and it wears clearly its layers of construction history. There is the old house, built in 1895 and tucked away behind the later kinda-sorta Colonial Revival front. The front itself shows its seams, so to speak: there is the 1930s-era first floor, with the scrolled broken pediment entrance and prominent keystones. Then there is the second floor, with slightly different tapestry brick and flat-arch window openings with unmistakable post-World War II metal windows. There is a boxy northern wing and the graceful gated archway on the south, from which a funeral procession would once begin. Tying the whole thing together is a projecting gabled portico, replete with columns topped by authentic Ionic capitals with genuine volutes. There are terra cotta urns on each side of the portico up top.

This is a pretty classy hybrid building, and its history is likewise dignified. This is the former home of Ted Foster and Sons Funeral Home, which had passed its 75th year of business here when it abruptly closed in 2008. When the African-American Foster family took over the old house around 1933, this neighborhood had changed a lot. Now known as JeffVanderLou, this was then called Yeatman or Grand Prairie and the residential population had shifted to being largely African-American. As African Americans migrated to the city, the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood was overwhelmed and African-Americans began moving farther north up toward Cass Avenue.

The Foster family were entrepreneurs and ran a strong business until foreclosure in 2008. the circumstances of the closure remain vague, and the building is now empty awaiting its next life. Perhaps renewed interest in developing this part of time will be a rising tide for this curious dry-docked vessel.

Fire JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

Fires Plague JeffVanderLou

by Michael R. Allen

Last week, on the way to a meeting in JeffVanderLou, I noticed a recently — judging by scent — fire-ravaged house on Bacon Street, shown here.

Then, early this week, I learned of a two-night wave of four fires. These fires hit vacant buildings in a small area. The buildings lost to the firebug share two characteristics: all were historic buildings in decent repair and all were vacant and unboarded. Since the location of all but one of these houses is within the footprint of McEagle’s NorthSide project, the press has been quick to report these fires, and the loose tongues of conspiracy have been wagging.

The sad fact is that arson claims vacant buildings across north St. Louis every month, and mostly the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its cloaked comments-section pundits take no notice. The culprits in many of these cases are never caught, let alone charged. Neighborhood residents, who know best, generally suspect brick thieves.

Arson on the near north side also is an old problem. In the 1960s, some white property owners fleeing the near north side torched their own homes to collect insurance money. As time moved on, and buildings went vacant, assorted firebugs, vandals, bored teenagers, firework-launching revelers and brick thieves have done more damage. In 1997, Old North St. Louis suffered a rash of arsons that included a massive fire at the five-story former Peters Shoe Company factory just south of Jackson Park (since demolished).

A building on the 1800 block of Bacon Street lost this week. I could not find a pre-fire photograph.

Then there are the fires that never happened. Neighborhood patrols, starting in the evening and sometimes going to the early morning, have kept many buildings standing. Rarely do neighborhoods get the assistance of owners of the vacant buildings, or the busy police department. Still, many people have taken action to prevent senseless destruction of their neighborhood fabric.

What gets lost through arson are indelible parts of city neighborhoods. The brick piles and half-collapsed buildings are easy picking for brick thieves, and not enticing enough to those who enjoy arson. Most targets are buildings in sound condition, that are stores of community wealth. Negligent ownership is definitely a root cause that must be addressed systematically, but the arsonists aren’t going to be affected by scorn heaped upon McEagle or the Land Reutilization Authority.

Robbing neighborhoods of community wealth is a base crime. The police and the circuit attorney need to step up efforts to send neighborhood arsonists away for as long as statues allow.

Two houses on the 1900 block of Bacon Street before last week.

Two houses on the 1900 block of Bacon Street this week.

The house at 1721 N. Grand Avenue last week.

The house at 1721 N. Grand Avenue this week.
Two row houses at 3508-10 Cozens Avenue in 2007. The configuration is unique — the two houses adjoin at the back with a center gangway leading to secondary entrances.

The two row houses this week. The house hit by fire is owned by McEagle.
JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Place

Near North Neighborhoods Standing Strong

by Michael R. Allen

My latest commentary for St. Louis Public Radio of the same title aired today; read and listen to it here.

Brick Theft JeffVanderLou LRA North St. Louis Northside Regeneration

NorthSide Depletion Continues

by Michael R. Allen

The corner commercial building at 2501 Glasgow Avenue in better days, 2007.

Call it collateral damage, block busting, destruction or just the cost of large-scale development — the term doesn’t matter. The reality is that within the boundaries of McEagle Properties’ NorthSide project, historic buildings continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Natural forces have claimed a few buildings, but brick thieves and scavengers are slaying the rest.

Let us look at the loss of buildings on a single city block in the last two months. Our city block is 2539 in JeffVanderLou, which is bounded by Montgomery, Slattery, Benton and Glasgow streets. Now, the condition two months ago was not great: in the sixty years preceding, some 75% of the historic building fabric on the block was lost. Yet what was left three years ago was nearly all occupied. McEagle’s purchases changed that.

Two months ago, enough of the block’s historic fabric remained for at least the possibility of inclusion in a historic district. Even if a district was impossible or undesired, the block’s remaining owners — including the St. Louis Equity Fund — are keeping their buildings in good shape. The Equity Fund is rehabbing its building on Glasgow Avenue. Building loss through neglect is an insult to the owners and residents keeping this block alive.

At the start of this essay is an image of the corner storefront building at 2501 Glasgow (at Benton) in 2007. Owned by a McEagle affiliate, this building suffered a partial collapse in storms in September. Brick thieves have started picking, and the photo above taken in early October looks idyllic compared to the current scene.

Up the block to the north stands an imperiled row of three historic houses owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). The front has been altered to shrink the size of window openings, but a magnificent wooden cornice remains. However, the back and sides of the row were part of this fall’s brick harvest at the hands of thieves.

Across the alley on Slattery Street, both the houses at 2616 (owned by Carmen McBride) and 2614 Slattery (McEagle) have been brazenly damaged by thieves. The front walls are being picked apart in plain view of the few remaining residents of the block. Conditions like these explain the continued fear and resentment expressed toward McEagle by north side residents. While there are many residents of the project area hoping for McEagle’s development to transform their blocks, there are many who look at scenes like this one and find little good faith effort on the developer’s part.

During the aldermanic committee hearing on the first bills relating to the NorthSide redevelopment agreement, Paul J. McKee, Jr. stated that his company could not deal with problems like the brick-rustled buildings until after he received the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits later this year. Of course, those credits reimburse 100% of demolition and maintenance costs, so both security of intact buildings and clearance of destroyed ones could happen now. Why didn’t McKee direct his companies to engage in clean-up before seeking the largest tax increment financing deal in city history?

McKee and his consultants talk a lot about preservation, urbanism and sustainability. In no way is willful neglect of once-occupied historic buildings compatible with any of those values. Depletion of historic housing stock destroys urban character, wastes precious and irreplaceable natural resources and robs neighborhoods of affordable housing and small business spaces. We are losing solidly built, easily rehabilitated buildings for the uncertainty of a multi-phased project that places areas of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou dead last in order of development attention.

Don’t get me wrong: Much progress has been made toward making the NorthSide project better for everyone. I am willing to applaud — and have applauded — real steps that safeguard north side neighborhoods. The redevelopment agreement binds McEagle to identify buildings for preservation and demolition by the end of 2010 — albeit without professional preservation planning. While the contracts and ordinances contain hopeful language, however, the reality is contradictory — and it’s a long way toward the end of 2010.

JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Public Policy

Vacant McEagle Houses Next to New Habitat for Humanity Homes

by Michael R. Allen

What’s wrong with this picture of Bacon Street in JeffVanderLou?

I think that the problem is obvious: There are brand-new houses next door to vacant buildings. However, in this strange case, the new houses were built before the houses next door went vacant.

There are three vacant houses at 2731, 2733 and 2735 Bacon Street adjacent to the three new houses built lovingly by Habitat for Humanity. Across the street are more new homes by Habitat. This block has turned around from a drug-infested, vacant-lot-strewn area into a stable place.

However, in the midst of this uplift came a company called Sheridan Place LC, controlled by McEagle Properties. In 2006 and 2007, Sheridan Place bought up dozens of houses like these, making sure the residents moved out before closing the sales. That’s right — all three of the houses on Bacon were occupied before being purchased by McEagle.

Why did McEagle need to buy these houses at all? By the time the purchases happened, the Habitat for Humanity development was completed, and new residents had moved in. The three well-kept homes next door were a sign of stability to newcomers on Bacon, but not for long.

On the other side of the new houses on this side of Bacon is another Sheridan Place special at 2745 Bacon Street, missing its windows and wearing the red boards put on it by the Building Division. The Habitat for Humanity homes are book-ended by vacant buildings that were purchased for a large-scale project that has little to do with this block. Because of Habitat’s fine work, which should be honored and not insulted by crass speculation, this block can’t be subsumed by development. But its vacant homes can be held hostage in a phased development where JeffVanderLou is the last phase scheduled to be completed. These houses still could be vacant in 2025 or later.

McEagle has no business owning these houses. The city should not follow good money with bad by letting the developer hoard houses around areas that have been successfully redeveloped. The city’s redevelopment agreement with McEagle should require the sale of houses like these on Bacon. If McEagle receives 50% of the purchase prices back in Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits, as is expected, then the developer should be able to quickly sell off houses like these at affordable prices. After all, the NorthSide project is supposed to fill in the gaps, not create more.

College Hill Housing JeffVanderLou North St. Louis

Bay Front Houses in North City

by Michael R. Allen

The single-family house at 2441 Laflin Street in JeffVanderLou (1893) bears a resemblance to a house that I wrote about recently (see “Architectural Creativity on Prairie Avenue”, August 18). That duplex at 2111 East Prairie Avenue in College Hill (1884) appears below.

Both have a projecting trapezoidal bay and a brick cornice as defining architectural features. However, the house on Laflin is a single house of only 660 square feet with the entrance to the left of the bay. There may be more houses like this across the city — post their addresses in the comments section.

JeffVanderLou North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Place

McEagle Picks Up Seventeen Parcels Including Six Historic Buildings

by Michael R. Allen

On September 25, the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds recorded the purchase of 17 parcels at Sheriff’s land tax auction by McEagle Properties shell holding company Union Martin LLC. McEagle’s companies had been dormant for several months.

Among the purchase are seven residential buildings, of which six are historic. Here they are, with purchase price in parentheses if reported:

2823 University Street, brick house at left

2625 Palm Street in St. Louis Place

2212 Howard Street in St. Louis Place ($1,103.00)

2718 Stoddard Avenue in JeffVanderLou ($1,666.00)
2834 Thomas Street in JeffVanderLou, shown at right
2571 Hebert Street ($1,561.00)

Why do I mention the purchase prices? I want to impress upon readers how easy it would be for other buyers to compete at the Sheriff’s auctions for these properties. Community development corporations, neighborhood associations and other that want to keep out large-scale acquisition would do well to get some money together and head to the Sheriff’s auction. Every month, dozens of north side parcels — and historic buildings — sell to speculators for low, low prices.

These acquisitions illustrate the thorniness of preservation planning in the NorthSide project. A week ago, preservationists thought they knew the pool from which the list of buildings to be rehabilitated would be drawn. In one day, that pool expanded. However, these buildings are in good shape and will be around for awhile. McEagle need not fear that preservationists have immediate demands beyond simply keeping these buildings from falling until there is a solid plan.

The remaining parcels recently purchased by Union Martin are located at 2516, 2518-20 and 2526 Slattery Avenue, 2930 James Cool Papa Bell (nee Dickson) Avenue, 2524 Coleman Street and 2832 Cass Avenue in JeffVanderLou; 3244 Knapp Street in Old North St. Louis; 2561 Hebert Street, 2231 and 2236 Benton Street and 1947-51 Wright Street in St. Louis Place.