Local Historic District Preservation Board Public Policy

New Solar Panel Standards Proposed for City Historic Districts and Sites

by Michael R. Allen

This afternoon Cultural Resources Office Director Betsy Bradley will recommend that the Preservation Board adopt new standards governing solar collectors installed on City Landmarks and Sites and on buildings within Local Historic Districts. The board’s approval will allow the office to put forth new standards for public comment and then adopt a final version as official city policy. Today’s action could put St. Louis ahead of many other cities with historic districts. Nationwide, the preservation community is debating how to fix local ordinances written before solar panels were widely being installed. Although historic preservation and environmental laws are often compatible — and while historic preservation laws are environmental laws — recently there have been conflicts between new energy policies and practices and old approaches within historic preservation.

Solar panels installed on a historic house in Madison, Wisconsin. Photograph from Flickr by Emily Mills.

Locally, there has been at least one recent case in which the owner of a building within a local historic district initially faced denial by CRO of a permit to install street-facing solar panels, but won a new hearing and later approval from the Preservation Board.

Forest Park Southeast Local Historic District National Register Soulard

Forest Park Southeast and the Human Scale

by Michael R. Allen

In the last few months, two project proposals — one for an apartment complex at Taylor and Chouteau and another for a vague commercial development along Kingshighway — in Forest Park Southeast have emerged which are both grossly out of scale and character with the historic architectural character of the neighborhood. These projects exhibit deficiencies in consideration of scale, ratio of surface parking to building footprints, form and materiality. Together, these projects would overwhelm the accumulated urbanity of Forest Park Southeast with the fly-by-night aesthetics of American suburbia. After all, good urbanism needs more than development and density to thrive — it requires beauty and the human scale.

Not right for a dense historic neighborhood. Tate Homes' Hanley Station.
Local Historic District Preservation Board Soulard South St. Louis

Soulard Solar Collectors

by Michael R. Allen

Looking northeast on Russell Avenue from Menard Street. The Bastille building is at center.

On May 21, the Preservation Board denied an application for solar collector installation from Robert Hiscox, owner of the Bastille bar at 1027 Russell in Soulard. Hiscox proposed installing black collector panels on the south-facing rear sloped roof of his building, shown at the center of the photograph above. Soulard is a local historic district governed by design standards last updated by ordinance in 1991.

The Soulard local historic district standards are not explicit about solar panels, which means that their installation requires a variance. The standards mandate that the character of sloped roofs be maintained through adherence to one of several times of approved roofing (most of which were not in use before 1900, I might point out). In a few instances, the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) has recommended that the Preservation Board grant a variance, and the Board has done just that. This time, however, CRO recommended denial of a variance based on the public visibility of the Bastille’s street-facing rear roof.

In her report to the Preservation Board, CRO Director Betsy Bradley wrote that “Russell Avenue is one of the wider streets in the district and links the historic district with interstate highway access and neighborhoods to the west, and therefore a street important in the perception of the historic character of the Soulard district.” Certainly, the Bastille’s roof is very visible and panels would change the visual character of the block. The Preservation Board made the right decision based on the current standards, which need to be rewritten to provide clear rules about solar collectors.

In an article by David Hunn in last week’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there is discussion of the need to revise the Soulard standards and other local district standards to create definite guidelines for the use of energy efficient technologies like solar collectors. Should new standards permit solar collectors to be installed on street-facing roofs? Perhaps. Standing-seam galvanized roofing was once a roofing material widely used on gable roofs in Soulard. A manufacturers’ challenge is to make solar panels that could mimic such a material, which could then be incorporated in revised standards.

Yet another consideration came from my colleague Mike Jackson at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, who e-mailed me after the story came out. Mike made the point that solar panels’ efficiency are generally only 10%, making them far less “green” than they seem. Purchasing power from regional off-site sustainable sources like wind farms, while undertaking efficiency measures on building envelopes, actually is more efficient for historic building owners than a few solar panels. Solar panels will become more efficient, but they may not be the greenest way to enhance historic buildings. Thus we should be careful when revising local district standards based on current technology.

Fox Park Local Historic District South St. Louis

Final Approval of Fox Park Local Historic District Expansion Near

by Michael R. Allen

Yesterday the Board of Alderman approved on second reading the ordinance that expands the boundaries of the Fox Park Local Historic District to include eighteen blocks at the southern end of the neighborhood. Included in the expansion, shown on the map here, is St. Francis DeSales Roman Catholic Church.

The Board will take votes on both the third and final readings, but the most important hurdles have been cleared and the ordinance should be law soon.

I interviewed Fox Park Neighborhood Association President Ian Simmons about the expansion in May. Read that interview here: “Interview: Why Residents Want the Fox Park Local Historic District Expanded”.

Here are a few images of buildings that now will be protected by the design code of the local district.

On 2800 block of Magnolia Avenue, near California Avenue.
2711-13 Gravois Boulevard, owned by the Archdiocese.
2620 Ohio Avenue.
The flounder house at 2628 Ohio Avenue.
The north face of the 2800 block of Victor Avenue.
Fox Park Local Historic District South St. Louis

Interview: Why Residents Want the Fox Park Local Historic District Expanded

by Michael R. Allen

On Monday the Preservation Board granted preliminary approval to a proposed expansion of the Fox Park Local Historic District (local historic districts explained here) in south city. The proposal was strongly supported by the Fox Park Neighborhood Association. The Preservation Board considers local historic district petitions twice on an advisory basis before they are introduced in ordinance form at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, where the Housing Urban Development and Zoning Committee again holds a public hearing.

After preliminary approval this week, I interviewed Fox Park Neighborhood Association President Ian Simmons about the ins and outs of the proposal.

The proposed boundaries of the expanded Fox Park Local Historic District. Courtesy of the Fox Park Neighborhood Association.

Why do people in Fox Park want to expand the local historic district?

Ian Simmons: We want a cohesive neighborhood. All of the homes in our neighborhood are basically of the same stock and are all equally part of Fox Park, so there is no good reason why they should not be part of the district. Neighbors, who have lived in Fox Park for longer than I, have seen tremendous growth and prosperity enrich the neighborhood, but at a far greater pace and scale in the northern half that is within the historic district. We believe that distinction is related to the presence of historic standards guiding rehabilitation and restoration, as well as, of course, the availability of historic tax credits. While the expansion of the local historic district will not directly make those tax credits available (that will take a National Historic Register nomination), there is a danger that, in the absence of historic standards in the proposed expansion area, we may lose our historic structures, features, and value.

This landmark corner commercial building at the northwest corner of Magnolia and California is inside of the district expansion.

What outreach has the Fox Park Neighborhood Association done to build support for the expansion?

Simmons: During the early stages of this process, I reached out to just about every neighbor I knew or ran into that lived in the proposed expansion area and asked them if they would support the initiative; everyone was positive and enthusiastic about the idea. Once our Board formed an ad hoc committee to handle the exploration and initial steps, we added some of those supporters to our committee, and also reached out to and obtained the support of the DeSales Housing Corporation (which owns and/or manages over ten percent of the homes in the expansion area). Then we reached out to our elected officials about writing the petition. At the request and direction of Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, we held three informal community meetings to reach and inform the neighbors that we had not run into, who are not members of the Association, and/or who do not attend Association meetings.

These meetings were prior to the drafting of any petition, and were held on different days and different times, so as to allow neighbors who wanted to attend the opportunity. We mailed postcard notices to all the recorded owners of the properties in the proposed expansion area. I also wrote about the meetings and the proposed expansion in our spring newsletter, a copy of which was posted on the doorstep of every home in our neighborhood weeks before the first meeting. The meetings gave the neighbors a chance to have their questions answered about how the expansion would affect them, and to express any opposition. Besides at the one which was held during our March Association Meeting, attendance at the community meeting was lighter than expected, but supportive — there was no showing of opposition.

This lovely residential row is on the north side of Russell Boulevard just east of California Avenue within the existing local historic district.

Can you talk a little bit about the boundaries and why the current boundaries are proposed?

Simmons: The route we are taking expands the boundaries of an existing district. This approach was chosen instead of creating a new district next to the existing one. For the same rationale as described above, we felt it would be better to have the same historic standards apply throughout the whole neighborhood. Also, this way, if we want to change our standards, we only have to change one ordinance. So, the boundaries of the expanded district will be Highway 44 (to the North), Nebraska Avenue (to the West), Jefferson Avenue (to the East), and Gravois Ave. (to the South). Those boundaries are proposed because they are also the boundaries of the Fox Park neighborhood. The expanded district basically moves the existing Southern boundary from the alley South of Shenandoah Avenue and Victor Street, to Gravois.

What, if anything, are you changing in the existing standards? Have you found that some of those standards are now out-dated?

Simmons: At this time, no changes are proposed to the existing standards; if signed into law, they would apply as they stand now to the proposed extension area. The only instance of “out-dated” standards, which was identified by one of our Board members, is that the existing standards do not allow the use of “green” roofing materials. It is possible that changes to the standards may be made at a later date, once the district is extended; of course, any changes would come at the request of neighbors, and only after much discussion and input from them.

If you could advise another neighborhood looking to enact a local historic district ordinance, what would you say?

Simmons: Don’t be discouraged and don’t give up! If the membership is supportive, the neighborhood association has a few people who are willing to step up, do a little footwork, and be patient, and the alderperson(s) in the proposed district are hard-working and in favor, it can be done! Even if rejected the first time, or the steps along the way take what seems like forever, at least the conversation has been started and you have moved this important process forward.

Architecture Central West End Historic Preservation Local Historic District Mid-Century Modern

Next Step: Parking Lot?

by Michael R. Allen

I vowed to not describe the building replacing the Doctors Building at Euclid and West Pine, but here I go. Given the impending possibility that the San Luis Apartments building will be demolished, the demise of the Doctors Building is telling. The mid-century modern design of the Doctors Building was poorly appreciated, and news of its replacement through construction of two 30-story towers was welcome news to many people.

Yet the towers will never be built. The Mills Group couldn’t make the financing work for its grand plan. Demolition proceeded, and the substitute plan emerged. What we have here is a building completely out of its league. Unable to compete with the fine architecture of the Central West End, this building’s design resigns itself to mediocrity. Rather than try to be fresh, the architects employed the same design tricks keeping the St. Charles County metroplex building on up. There’s the base of stone veneer (that is stone, right?), the dark brick above, the mangled quotations from other styles.

There are pointless differentiations of the wall plane through setback, despite the fact that both Euclid and West Pine are fairly straight at this intersection and both have decent pedestrian traffic. In fact, the rendering suggests that the building’s west wall actually steps away from the street. While dramatic in the exaggerated corner perspective drawing, such a move is hardly appropriate to the street wall of Euclid.

At the top, the building’s wall goes white in some attempt to imitate stone. Oddly, there is no cornice. Rather, the walls recess to create private balconies. The pedestrian’s eye, however, may be diverted to the prominent corner clock tower, rising a full story above the roof. Instead of selecting an elegant human-scaled clock integrated with the building, the architects have stuck this over sized timepiece on top. Perhaps the goal is to smother the building’s flaws in the manner restaurants heap grated cheese atop bowls of wilted iceberg lettuce. Trouble is, people will be looking at this building from the ground level — not from a spot inside of an invisible Forest Park Hotel. People will spend more time looking at whatever stone will clad the base than at the clock.

I know that I should count my blessings — the Doctors Building’s obscene parking lot will be subsumed by an actual building and there won’t be a giant vacant lot for years. I suppose that under some circumstances I could lull myself into thinking these blessings outweigh all other concerns. After all, that line of acceptance is doing well for St. Charles County.

Yet I can’t fool myself. The building replacing the Doctors Building is downright inappropriate for any historic neighborhood in the city. This building is an affront to the dignified architecture of the Central West End, and its construction shows a carelessness that could erode decades of hard-achieved acceptance of high standards there. Such a climate benefits the Archdiocese’s short-term plan to level the San Luis without any planned construction. Do we want to find out what the step is from bad building at Euclid and West Pine to a new parking lot on Lindell?

The worst step following this blunder would be loss of another large building for an even lower use — a parking lot. The Central West End never attracted a lot of mid-century architecture, but what it got fits into the context with grace — unlike some of our contemporary structures. What happened at the Doctors Building should not be the start of backtracking on design standards in the Central West End, but a rallying point for their assertion.

Academy Neighborhood Central West End Demolition Historic Preservation Hyde Park Local Historic District North St. Louis Preservation Board South St. Louis West End

Preview of Monday’s Preservation Board Agenda

by Michael R. Allen

The St. Louis Preservation Board meets Monday at 4:00 p.m. at the offices of the Planning and Urban Design Agency on the twelfth floor of 1015 Locust Street. Meetings typically last three hours.

Here are some highlights from the agenda:

Preliminary Reviews

5594 Bartmer Avenue: The proposed demolition of a beautiful and rare Shingle Style house appeared on the Preservation Board agenda two months ago and was deferred pending study of the reuse potential by the staff of the Cultural Resources Office. Staff has written an excellent report on the building condition and reuse feasibility based on a thorough site visit; read that here. Staff recommends denial of the permit and exploration of a National Historic District for Bartmer Avenue. This house and its neighbors fall outside of any historic districts that would enable the use of historic rehabilitation tax credits.

2300 Newhouse Avenue: The proposed new construction of six frame homes with attached garages in the western edge of Hyde Park manages to add yet another absurd faux historic design to the architecturally mongrelized neighborhood. Here we have brick fronts with shaped parapets imitating 20th century buildings that can be found in Hyde Park, but there is a twist: the parapets are actually gable ends on a front-gabled building! The sides and rear show the pitched roof and reveal the illusion the front barely conceals. Furthermore, the developer includes attached garages and has not submitted a site plan showing setbacks. Staff recommends denial as proposed.

Appeals of Staff Denials

5286 Page Avenue: The appeal of staff denial of a demolition permit for the two-story commercial building at the southeast corner of Page and Union has been on the agenda for months, always being continued at the request of the owners. Another continuance is possible. The building is a contributing resource to the Mount Cabanne/Raymond Place National Historic District and the last remaining commercial building at a prominent intersection degraded by a Walgreens across the street. Staff urges upholding their denial.

4218 Maryland: The unlawful alterations made to this house transformed it in disturbing ways: rebuilt bizarre porch, new cheap door and sidelights that don’t even fit the opening, alteration of brick pattern and color on front elevation and removal of two front bay windows and replacement with flat openings. Yikes! Staff recommends upholding their denial.

Appeal of Preservation Board Denial

2013-15 Park Avenue: The builder of infill housing in Lafayette Square wants to amend earlier plans to face the side elevations with brick and instead face them with vinyl siding. Staff recommends upholding their denial of this request, and wisely so. Here we have strong neighborhood support for a strict local historic district ordinance that expressly prohibits sided primary and secondary elevations. One expects Lafayette Square to be the last local district where vinyl siding should be approved; the neighborhood is both bellwether and inspiration for the power of local district ordinances to shape attractive neighborhoods. (The Lafayette Square standards can also be an example of the the blind spots of such ordinances, but not regarding the use of vinyl siding.)

Local Historic District National Register South St. Louis

What Landed on the Hardt Building?

by Michael R. Allen

Blame it on a bad mood at the moment, but seeing last night the Hardt Building at the northwest corner of Chippewa and Brannon bearing a huge wooden growth was quite a shock. The “growth” appears to be a one-story frame penthouse addition; a search of Geo St. Louis shows no corresponding building permits.

Here we have one of the finest examples of art deco architecture on the south side, standing in the dense and intact historic “Northampton” or Kingshighway Hills neighborhood. The Hardt Building’s stark, streamlined look is reinforced by the later, neon-robbed curved Keller Apothecary sign at the corner. Its visible addition of a third floor and its kissing cousin on Hampton (discussed by Toby Weiss here) add some intrigue; the obvious bow of the Chippewa elevation wall adds drama.

What does the addition add, besides more office space? It adds architecture at odds with the dramatic lines and parapets of the building below. It adds a visual focal point that overpowers the building below, capturing the eye and pulling it away from the bliss of jazzy polychrome masonry.

To get a better view of the addition, I headed west in the alley north of Chippewa. While the streets of this area are obviously packed with lovely brick buildings from the early-to-middle twentieth century, the alleys retain an amazing abundance of historic garages. Here we have an area west of Kingshighway and south of Arsenal more ripe for historic district status than many areas that are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places or City Landmark rosters. While a local district status is unfathomable for this area at present time, a national district would bring the tax incentives to discourage inappropriate alterations like the one rising on top of the Hardt Building.

Central West End Local Historic District North St. Louis Preservation Board South St. Louis

Chairman Callow, Boring Buildings and a Denied Demolition Permit

by Michael R. Allen

At its Monday meeting, the Preservation Board elected a new chairperson: Richard Callow, the public relations consultant who edits Mayor Slay’s campaign website. New board member David Richardson nominated Callow after Melanie Fathman nominated architect Anthony Robinson, a reasonable voice who would have done well in the position. Callow received the votes of Richardson, Luis Porello, Mary “One” Johnson (who presided over the vote rather clumsily), John Burse and new member Michael Killeen. Robinson received Fathman’s vote, and the nominated parties abstained. Mary Johnson was the only nominee for vice chairperson, although she so quickly called the vote after her own nomination was seconded that observers at the crowded meeting wondered if there was a chance for another nomination.

Callow demonstrated the tenor of his chairmanship by conducting the meeting much more efficiently than usual, although hopefully his motivation is to respect people’s time and not to glide over potential controversy. His customary pointed questions certainly enhance his chairmanship and give good direction to debate often marred by divergence and anecdote.

Is Callow’s election a political move or a pragmatic one? While the Preservation Board’s decisions can be overturned by less democratic bodies like the Planning Commission, the decisions often hold sway public perception of urban design and preservation issues. The approval of a plan or demolition permit by the Preservation Board can give proponents great backup for painting opponents as unreasonable. Time will tell what game, if any, is being played here.

One wonders if Mayor Slay will again write about the Preservation Board in his blog, given the new circumstances.

The Board unanimously granted preliminary approval to a bad new development project that would demolish the South Grand YMCA for a stale, wide block of Chicago-style tedium. Claire Nowak-Boyd registered an objection.

Another unanimous vote included final approval of the condominium building at Euclid and Lindell proposed by Opus Development, which although improved in design has a few problems with the scale of its base along Euclid and with the unmitigated expanse of its shaft. Alderwoman Lyda Krewson and politico Lou Hamilton were in attendance, presumably to monitor this vote.

The Preservation Board denied the Department of Public Safety’s request to demolish the house at 5309 Cabanne. The denial seems superfluous given the approval of demolition of the YMCA Building, which seems better posed to find reuse in the near future than the house. Also, of course, denial of the permit will not stop water, wind and fire from taking their toll. However, I am glad that the Board and Cultural Resources Office staff still regard the integrity of Visitation Park as an important thing to preserve. That neighborhood stands to benefit from the creep of the Delmar Loop’s success.

Historic Preservation Local Historic District Preservation Board

Local Historic Ordinances Require Education

by Michael R. Allen

One issue that constantly comes before the city’s Preservation Board is that of the contractor ignorant of the city’s local historic district ordinances. Time and time again, residents are caught by neighbors or building inspectors having just installed vinyl or glass block windows, clad cornices in aluminum, reconfigured double entrances with one doorway or some other violation of the ordinances (and often of good taste) and without a permit.

When brought to the Cultural Resources Office for adjudication, the homeowners usually appeal their cases to the Preservation Board. The most common defense used by these building owners is that their contractors assured them that the work was legal. (For now, I’ll leave aside the aesthetic issues involved in dreadful remodeling projects.) Contractors routinely flaunt historic district ordinances out of ignorance. Building owners are equally ignorant, and don’t think to question the words of trusted professionals.

While the volume of these cases is moderate, perhaps some education is in order to prevent this routine occurrence as much as that is possible. It’s clear that contractors are not required to know about local historic district ordinances in order to get licensed in Missouri. That could change by requiring knowledge of the ordinances by contractors who want to work in the city.

Building owner education is also in order. Many people are not aware of the restrictions of the ordinances, nor of the benefits of local and national historic district status that allows them to use state historic tax credits for rehab work. Perhaps the city government would be interested in creating an educational program for this purpose under the Cultural Resources Office. While property owners often have only themselves to blame, the number of historic district ordinances is growing, and the ordinances themselves aren’t always clear to people who lack familiarity with building materials and architectural jargon. It’s easy for people observing a Preservation Board hearing to sympathize with property owners who wrongly removed wooden windows to install vinyl ones with aluminum wrapping on the brick-mold. The enforcement of the ordinances seems punitive rather than supportive, and education could be key to changing public perception.

Of course, even better would be a basic citizen’s course in property ownership covering historical designations, basic architectural information, building and zoning codes, home repair and financial planning. That’s a big and expensive program, so for now I’d be content to see the city try to provide better education about historic district ordinances.