Tomorrow the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee of the Board of Aldermen will consider Board Bills 199 and 200, which pertain to Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration project’s tax increment financing request. The committee meeting starts at 10:00 a.m. in Room 208 at City Hall.
One of the bills, Board Bill 199, contains an amendment to the original 2009 redevelopment plan for the project. The amendment contains the following revision to the original plan
The redevelopment agreement shall include: (a) a list identifying any buildings that Developer owns and which Developer proposes for demolition, and, if such demolition is approved by the City, Developer’s agreement to demolish such buildings no later than December 31, 2016; and (b) a list identifying any buildings that Developer owns and
which Developer proposes for rehabilitation, and Developer’s agreement to weather-secure such buildings to preserve them for future rehabilitation by Developer or others.
So: demolition has a target completion date, while stabilization of historic buildings identified for historic renovations does not. How can the city enforce the second provision of this agreement without a deadline?
In St. Louis, the city’s preservation ordinance creates review of demolition permits on architectural and historic merits only in designated districts. These districts are designated by aldermen and generally follow ward boundaries, although with redistricting and the coming ward reduction these boundaries increasingly make little sense. While the review system established by ordinance is professional, and professionals review the demolition permits, the creation of review boundaries has been political since the city revamped the preservation ordinance in 1999. The politics of review have actually led to increased coverage of demolition review, however, but some areas seem perpetually left out.
In one of the wards in which does not have review, the 19th Ward, stands the Charles H. Duncker Residence — at least for another few weeks before the stone castle falls forever into a grassy abyss. Alas, the stately former dwelling has neither a City Landmark nor a National Register of Historic Places listing, both of which would have placed its demolition under review. (Ever-vigilant Paul Hohmann already alerted us to the demolition in Vanishing STL; then he took excellent interior photographs.)
Located at 3636 Page Boulevard, the Duncker Residence has a storied life that draws heavy in arenas of our past that affect almost all of us. First, the house was built by a distinguished German-American capitalist, who elected to build a French Renaissance Revival design in league with City Hall and other landmarks. Then, upon the original owner’s departure to tranquil Clayton, the house had new life as the Jewish Community Center. Finally, as the Jewish community’s geographic center left, the house became a celebrated African-American retirement home. Today, much of the house is rubble.
The Charles H. Duncker Residence and the French Renaissance Revival Style in St. Louis
The Charles H. Duncker Residence and its carriage house was built at a time of stylistic transition in the high-style residential architecture of the city. The house’s stylistic traits would straddle somewhat the waning Romanesque Revival and short-lived French Renaissance Revival styles, showing the eclectic tendencies of 1890s St. Louis. The house was built toward the end of the 19th century’s last decades; the city issued a building permit to Charles H. Duncker on December 3, 1896. According to the permit, the construction cost was $15,000. The St. Louis Daily Record provides a scant clue as to the designer of the house: “contract to be sublet” is listed under “architect.”
The Duncker Residence was built as a two story house with attic story tucked under a high-pitched hipped roof. Rough-faced ashlar limestone cladding, a wrap-around porch with stone columns of the Ionic order, a short front and west side turreted bows with low dormer and a full-height three-story eastern turreted side bow were defining characteristics of the large dwelling. The preponderant orientation of the house is toward the French Renaissance Revival style, although the prominent turreted bows suggest Romanesque Revival influences and recall buildings like Link & Cameron’s Union Station (1894) or H.H. Richardson’s John Lionberger House (1888). Yet the square-headed windows, recessed entrance columns with Ionic capitals and high-pitched roof are all elements associated with the French Renaissance Revival.
The French Renaissance Revival style employed traits of the Romanesque Revival: tall roofs often with dormers, bows or turrets, large stone elements and picturesque massing. However, the French Renaissance Revival drew upon ornamental elements that were classically oriented, breaking from the austerity of H.H. Richardson’s forms. The French Renaissance Revival style popularized in St. Louis upon the winning submission in the City Hall design competition was Eckel & Mann’s plan, drawn by Harvey Ellis, based on the Hotel de Ville in Paris. St. Louis City Hall (1898) joined Barnett, Haynes & Barnett’s Visitation Academy (1892, demolished) and Ellis’ St. Vincent’s Sanitarium (1894) in Normandy as a prominent exemplar of the style.
By the late 1890s, St. Louis’ wealthy families were choosing a wide range of styles. The completion of the John L. Davis Residence on 1893 (Peabody, Stearns & Furber) brought the Italian Renaissance style into prominence, and broke a streak of Romanesque Revival popularity. The French Renaissance Revival allowed for a gentle transition between the heavier Roman forms and the more ornate appearances coming into vogue.
Around the Midtown and Vandeventer area are several works that compare to the Duncker Residence. The last building at Fout Place, located very close by at Cook and Whittier, dates to 1892 and offers a more pronounced Romanesque influence. However, the massing and main entrance are very similar. The Robert Henry Stockton House at 3508 Samuel Shepard Drive, designed in 1890 by Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, offers another Romanesque Revival dwelling that challenges the heaviness of the style through use of flat-faced ornamental elements and a compositional delicacy. The limestone classing and massing are in league with Duncker’s residence. Most closely related to the Duncker Residence may be Weber & Groves’ Frederick Newton Judson Residence on Washington Avenue (1892), a red brick and sandstone cousin with comparable execution of entrance, massing and roof form.
According to the 1906 edition of The Book of St. Louisans, Charles H. Duncker (1865-1952) was a carpet merchant who served as vice president of Trolicht, Duncker & Renard Carpet Company (then located at the southeast corner of 4th and Washington streets downtown). Duncker had wed Pauline Doerr and together they had two children. Duncker was a member of the Union and Missouri Athletic Clubs. By the 1912 edition of The Book of St. Louisans, Duncker’s firm had changed its name to Trolicht & Duncker in 1907, and Duncker was now company president. The Republican Duncker was a member of the progressive Civic League as well as the Academy of Science of St. Louis.
The Dunckers kept up with both architectural and geographic fashion, and departed Page Boulevard in 1916. The family built a new house at 15 Brentmoor Park in a picturesque garden subdivision designed by Henry Wright. The new Duncker mansion, which would later be published in Missouri’s Contribution to American Architecture, was a resplendent Jacobethan mass adorned with patterned matte brickwork, ornate vergeboards, applied timbering and tall chimneys. Cann & Corrubia designed the house, and landscape architect John Noyes designed the grounds.
Later, the Dunckers lost son Charles Jr. when he fell in combat in France in 1917. The family funded a memorial hall on Washington University’s campus, completed in 1923 as Charles H. Duncker Hall (or, Duncker Hall, where the English Department now can be found). Charles H. Duncker insisted that Cann & Corrubia design the hall, making it the only hall built in the historic hilltop main quadrangle not primarily designed by Cope & Stewardson or James P. Jamieson.
Reborn as the Jewish Community Center
In 1919, the United Hebrew Association acquired the Duncker Mansion, and converted it into the precursor of today’s Jewish Community Center. By this time, St. Louis’ Jewish population had largely relocated from inner city neighborhoods east of Grand Avenue. Concentrations of Jewish population found north of downtown, like Carr Square and around Biddle Street had shifted westward along street car lines into more suburban enclaves including Mt. Cabanne-Raymond Place and the area of Hamilton Heights south of Easton Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive). The Duncker residence was on the eastern end of Jewish world at the time, but its location along the Page Boulevard street car line made it convenient to much of the Jewish population in the city.
In Zion of the Valley, historian Walter Ehrlich writes that it was at the Duncker residence on April 4, 1921 that the Federation of Orthodox Jewish Charitable and Educational Institutions of St. Louis was born. Despite some dissent within the community, over 200 prominent Orthodox Jewish leaders met that day to unify Orthodox institutions through a new federation similar to one that the Reform community has just created. The federation’s first president was Hyman Cohen, who led a structure that included a board of directors and an impressive 60-person advisory board. The congregations Chesed Shel Emeth (located in a synagogue at Page and Euclid since 1919) and Shaare Zedek (located at Page and West End since 1914, in a building that is now Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church) were member organizations, alongside Orthdox Jewish Old Folks Home (located nearby on North Grand Avenue; still extant) and other institutions.
Some members of the Orthdox community felt that the formal separation of Orthodox institutions reinforced existing needless divides, and their views prevailed soon. In 1925, the Orthdox federation merged with the Federation of Jewish Charities of St. Louis. The unified organization to this day remains named the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Inside of the stone castle on Page, this organization and others were very prosperous in the 1920s and 1930s. The United Hebrew Association is responsible for the addition of a two-story brick addition at the rear of the building. The city issued a building permit for that addition on May 10, 1920; the construction cost was $19,500. The two-story flat-roofed brick addition houses class and meeting rooms.
As the Jewish population continued to move away from Grand Avenue during the Depression years, the location of the Jewish Community Center became an inconvenient anachronism, and the center moved in 1943. Eventually, the Jewish Community Center would built a new facility in Creve Couer called the I.E. Millston Campus, which opened in 1963. That center remains open today, disconnected in all but perhaps a fraction of regional memory from the turreted mansion on Page Boulevard.
From the Colored Old Folks’ Home to Page Manor
In 1943, the Colored Old Folks’ Home purchased the property. Founded in 1902 by the Woman’s Wednesday Sewing Club, whose members raised funds to create it, the Home later became the Ferrier-Harris Home. Rose Ferrier-Harris had been first president of the Sewing Club. For decades, this building was a landmark to the charitable efforts of African-American women, and the home merited listing in John A. Wright’s Discovering African-American St. Louis. Upon purchase, the Colored Old Folks’ Home spent a reported $3,000 to alter the building, according to a building permit issued on January 27, 1943. However, the character of the main section and rear carriage house were left intact.
Eventually the revered Ferrier-Harris Home became the Page Manor, which did not sustain the good quality and noble purpose of the prior operator. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services notified Page Manor’s owners of major violations starting in 2012, and earlier this year succeeded in revoking the license of the facility. Page Manor closed, and its owners decided to apply for a demolition permit for the complex.
Since the city’s preservation review system is based on political considerations, not professional standards, neither the architectural grandeur nor the varied history of the former Duncker residence slowed demolition. The city’s Cultural Resources Office never had any authority to review the demolition application, and there was no public meeting or call for public comments. Instead, the Building Commissioner issued a demolition permit with little public attention, and a very significant part of the city’s history began to be erased.
Lest one assume that this pocket of the 19th Ward is bereft of context, or that this author is guilty of inordinate adulation of old building fiber, consider the surrounding urban fabric in which the Duncker residence played a role. While across Page is the suburban expanse of a strip retail center, the block on which the house had stood includes several significant historic dwellings. Along Grand Boulevard around the corner are historic houses, including one designed by the quintessential local architectural firm of Barnett, Haynes & Barnett. All lack any demolition protection, since none are official City Landmarks and none is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Recently I read a newspaper article about a major urban development project that included these two sentences: “He received hundreds of millions of dollars in public cash and incentives. But after a long public review process, the developer was buffeted by a recession, community opposition and a weak market.”
Here “he” is Bruce Ratner, the project is that foam-finger to Brooklyn called Atlantic Yards, and the article appeared in the New York Times on August 21. St. Louis reporters got the chance this week to avoid plagiarizing that depiction, because it could have applied to coverage of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration project in wake of its hearing at the Tax Increment Financing Commission on August 28. (The Commission will vote on whether to recommend a $390 million TIF to the Board of Aldermen at a separate meeting on September 11.) The parallels are dramatically similar despite very different physical settings: these two projects took aim at vacant public land, were subsidized by state governments after local governments started scrutinizing them, have involved ridiculous amounts of campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats, have been pitched as solutions to urban unemployment and have withered in implementation as the economy has changed.
In New York, Ratner is selling as much as 80% of Atlantic Yards. That outcome should catch attention here, because those locals who think that Northside Regeneration will always have one face – one target for activist scorn – should be ready for the dozens of developers who will end up eventually working in the project area. While McKee’s name has a tarnish that brings scrutiny to every action of his company, the new names may not – and may have a lot more to do with actual decisions about condemnation of private property. Mayor Francis Slay, Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard and other cheerleaders for the project will not be around either, rendering their promises of the good life for north siders fairly innocuous at best, blind at worst.
As we deliberate on “activating” tax increment financing for Northside Regeneration, familiar repetitious cycles emerge. McKee on Wednesday presented a rather amorphous Powerpoint show whose oldest slides are now five years old, and reiterated even older claims about the jobs he could create and the $8 billion in “development” (unspecified as to specific activity) that the project would complete. The exact completion date has pushed forward, but the timeline and promises seem very much like those advanced in 2009.
The project itself remains very much the urban renewal behemoth McKee admits to hatching over a decade ago – when lending was liberal and palpable small-scale development on the near north side was less obvious to the untrained eye. McKee has been quick with excuses for his project’s lethargic pace. First there was the need for a state tax credit, then tax increment financing, then overcoming Judge Dierker’s ruling, then waiting for the pending Supreme Court decision, then extending the state tax credit (which did not happen), and now the need for a tax increment financing ordinance again. What shall be next?
As usual, McKee’s company posits Northside Regeneration as a social reform mission that will transform lives as much as land. McKee’s wife Midge McKee spoke on the Demetrious Johnson radio show recently about how she had a dream about the project, and how it would serve residents. Her dream was replete with churches, a sign that existing residents were staying and thriving.
That dream should not be dismissed, but it runs counter to the entire program of the development and its current operational practice. Clearly, for the last decade the McKees’ dream has cost the near north side hundreds of residents who have moved out of houses and apartments sold to their shell holding companies. Who knows how many people fled as they saw the Northside Regeneration properties torched, brick rustled and otherwise left to rot. Blockbusting need not be intentional, after all. Myself and others have counted how many irreplaceable architectural treasures have been lost to the scheme.
Still, the McKees espouse very sincere intentions about uplifting the north side. Unfortunately they have chosen to do so through real estate development, mass demolition and land assemblage. These tools have only been used to disintegrate the near north side, and not for one day have they ever created permanent jobs for poor African-Americans, or stabilized a community of humans, or benefited anyone except government agencies and politicians, real estate developers, construction companies and trade unions, and others who either realized profits or power from destroying historic neighborhoods. Today, the profits and power look anemic in comparison; Northside Regeneration’s first retail “deal” may be a Dollar General store. If the developers are reeling in such small fish to stay afloat, what will residents get to catch?
Little discussion of Northside Regeneration has examined the similarity of its program and boundary to the city’s north side Model Cities zone. Created by the Johnson administration, the federal Model Cities program provided funds for urban “reconstruction” of older neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. In St. Louis, the city’s Model Cities Agency designated a wide swath of the inner city for the program in 1966, and maintained activities there until the program’s dissolution after 1974. The north side area included Old North, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou – almost identically to McKee’s original footprint (Old North is largely carved out now).
Model Cities was supposed to regenerate the near north side. The program gave city officials funds for demolishing nearly 1,100 housing units in St. Louis Place, converting the 14th Street shopping district in Old North into a pedestrian mall, and building new housing. In the end, the “too big to fail” approach led to embarrassingly haphazard implementation of the city’s programmatic master plan.
Most of what Model Cities achieved was housing demolition, with funding for new construction delayed or non-existent. Clearance depleted vitality and disrupted social life, causing a downward spiral. When McKee shows slides of conditions in the area, he never mentions that the federally-funded version of his project helped create them — and that its aims were very similar.
Supporters of Northside Regeneration’s aims are fast to join in the chorus proclaiming “McKee did not create the blight he is trying to fix.” Despite some truth to the contrary with conditions of his company’s properties, that chorus sings a true tune. Yet the song bends the ear with the refrain “other large scale projects did this.” Model Cities followed the city’s implementation of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan, drafted under the direction of Harland Bartholomew. That plan infamously included a map with a black zone showing “obsolete” housing — the oldest neighborhoods, which were also the poorest.
Bartholomew’s concentric zone approach led to the city’s using the bulk of its federal funds from the 1949 Housing Act to demolish swaths of the near north and near south sides, while trying to take on more. Today’s urbanists are proud that they dwell in places like Old North and Lafayette Square, both inked black in the 1947 plan. Yet they might not see how the plan’s implementation is ongoing on the north side.
The near north’s most frightening large-scale redevelopment project was the combined Pruitt and Igoe housing projects, completed between 1954 and 1956. The Pruitt Igoe-Myth renewed a generation’s awareness of not only the projects’ histories but the social and political context in which it happened. That film makes painfully clear that architecture – essentially development of land – cannot solve social problems, no matter what its design intent, how high its construction cost, how great its architect or how blind its political supports are to what they are doing.
Pruitt-Igoe, unlike Northside Regeneration, was built by an accountable federal government and managed by an accountable local government. Pruitt-Igoe was built to house poor people — directly serving them. The project failed to do anything completely save clear 25 blocks of African-American residents and businesses, and scatter them across the region.
Today, Northside Regeneration is not dealing with the same density. There are no 25-block areas housing over ten thousand people within the project footprint. In fact, St. Louis Place has a mere 2,900 residents. Total. The dispersal of people reached its peak, and the population is very small. Yet the near north side is showing population growth for the first time in sixty years, according to the 2010 Census. Since Northside Regeneration has yet to develop any housing, we know it is not through that project but through other people’s hard work. Residents who remain are more likely to enjoy the area and hope for its growth than ever before. There is exactly the sort of community that Midge McKee sees, but it is more likely to be negatively altered by a giant project than not.
As the TIF Commission stares at the same giant project, unchanged, and as the Board of Aldermen looks at needed legislation this fall, perhaps some member of one of these bodies will examine Northside Regeneration against historic precedent, against its invented promises (jobs, $8 billion) and against the needs of the people who inhabit the soil the project aims to reorder. Any one of those factors renders the current project a cousin to the wrong way of thinking about community and redevelopment – ways rightfully slammed, in light of another local clearance project, by Tracy Campbell in his new book The Gateway Arch: A Biography. All of us should look instead at Northside Regeneration’s lease of vacant lots to neighborhood urban farmers — an unheralded good deed by the company — as the sort of synthesis of microdevelopment and existing community that actually could create wealth for people in the neighborhood.
St. Louis, like many peer cities, chose to assume the stance of Sisyphus to the stone of urban renewal. Once that stone was a near-match for the public good, and now it resembles private interest. Either way, tax funds pay for its construction – and it never rests where it is supposed to (rebuilt neighborhoods, job creation, increased tax revenues, poverty alleviation, sustainable new urbanism). Intentionally or not, Northside Regeneration has inured itself to forces that have perpetuated failed approaches to rebuilding the city.
Chasing large-scale projects has drained the city of over a half-million people, making the 2,900 people in St. Louis Place more consequential than ever. Dollar Generals hastily built to create development cash flow are not going to change the city’s fortunes, but will follow in the foot steps of redevelopment projects that already have drained the same area of the city of historic character, residents, jobs and wealth. McKee and city officials could work on “Plan B,” or they could perpetuate the heavily-subsidized forces of urban disruption.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling issued yesterday affirming the Northside Regeneration redevelopment ordinances means “we’re open for business,” in the words of company leader Paul J. McKee, Jr. Of course since Circuit Court Judge Robert Dieker, Jr.’s July 2010 ruling invalidated those ordinances, Northside Regeneration has not really been doing much different. The company acquired 162 city-owned parcels in St. Louis Place and a two-year option on the Pruitt-Igoe site last year, demolished some buildings, convinced the Board of Aldermen to add the ailing “Bottle District” site into the project boundary, hired 17 lobbyists to push for extension of the controversial Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit in the state house and continued to meet with politicians and editorial boards.
What the lack of a final legal ruling has meant is that both Northside Regeneration and the City of St. Louis have had a major excuse for not pursuing basic points engrained finely in the 2009 redevelopment agreement with the city. In terms of the built environment, McKee and officials in city government had repeatedly said that the pending Supreme Court ruling is the reason that dangerous half-demolished buildings cannot be removed, why historic buildings cannot be maintained, and why there can be no sale of Northside Regeneration’s curious supply of buildings in Old North outside of its boundaries.
Consequently, the people who should see the “need for development” most strongly are among those least impressed by Northside Regeneration’s much-touted “vision.” This is as much a failure of operations as it is in relationship-building. If Northside Regeneration truly is to be “open for business” it may consider that public relations are far more crucial to project longevity than the company’s penchant for making large campaign contributions. After all, city residents are going to be forfeiting sales tax revenues to the developer for years to come. The subsidy makes us investors — and investors need to see the balance sheet, right?
Then again, what some residents have begun to suspect is that Northside Regeneration is a land banking operation disguised as a development project. The proposed rewrite to the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act makes changes that extend remuneration for long-term ownership, change compensation for demolition for 50% to 100% of the costs and generally suggest that long-term holding is what is being incentivized, not large-scale urban redevelopment.
According to McKee and the Slay administration yesterday, those suspicions would be gravely mistaken. Development is coming soon. Then now is the time for answers to some of the questions that neighborhood preservationists have been asking for awhile. Before I present those questions, consider that they would be more potently – and transparently — answered in a public meeting. The last public meeting for Northside Regeneration was nearly four years ago. How about City Hall and Northside Regeneration booking the auditorium at Vashon High School — needs to be a public building, for obvious reasons — and holding a forum where residents can’t get some current answers?
Meantime, I will place a few questions related to my professional concerns (and these are as much directed at McKee as they are to City Hall which is supposed to be overseeing this project for us taxpayer-investors):
What is the time line for rehabilitation of the James Clemens House? The James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue (1860-1896) sits in shambles. The roof is deteriorating. The front door to the chapel has been wide open for months. The lawn is strewn with garbage and tree limbs. The front wall is collapsing. Northside Regeneration once promised to make preservation a priority, but its first plan fell apart. Will the complex be lost before the city takes action to renew the developer’s promise?
What was that about eminent domain again? There has been a lot of talk but people need something placed in writing clear as crystal. The redevelopment ordinances leave eminent domain an open option, but obliquely — they don’t expressly authorize it but they don’t suspend its use through existing means. Everyone knows that once an area is blighted private property rights are thrown out the window. Yet Mayor Francis Slay and Mckee have stated that owner-occupants are safe in the Northside Regeneration foot print. Let’s get that in writing. Oh, but: what about small businesses? Why aren’t they safe too? Small businesses represent a form of personal wealth, and we know that eminent domain has been used to disempower African-American and poor St. Louisans for decades. It could easily do so again.
Why won’t Northside Regeneration sell its parcels in Old North (including dozens of historic buildings)? Northside Regeneration owns an estimates 62 parcels in Old North outside of its project boundary. At least a dozen historic buildings, like those pictured above on the 1400 block of Hebert Street – Old North’s only block with no demolitions – are deteriorating under Northside Regeneration ownership. One recently burned to the ground, damaging adjacent occupied buildings. None of these properties are listed for sale or sport for-sale signs, and potential buyers have received conflicting answers about their availability. McKee told KMOX last month they are for sale. Are they?
Will Northside Regeneration create a list of properties to be rehabilitated as required by the redevelopment agreement? There are dozens of historic buildings owned by the company within historic districts , or in areas that are intact settings with occupied housing. The house shown here, at 2900 St. Louis Avenue, has no official historic status but sits in a very intact section of St. Louis Avenue facing the new Lindell Park Historic District. The redevelopment agreement requires a list of buildings to be rehabilitated with a timeline for taking steps toward rehabilitation. No one expects full rehabs right away, but selection and then intervention to stabilize and beautify these properties would be a sign of good faith. (This house ought to be one of the ones saved.)
Will we stop seeing half-demolished “doll houses” any time soon? Northisde Regeneration’s frequent statement that it can’t demolish houses severely damaged by brick thieves until the Supreme Court ruled made little sense. These are hazardous sites, with potential for injury and lead paint and asbestos airborne toxicity. Reusable building material gets lost, and legitimate demolition jobs are lost. These sites must be demolished immediately. Other buildings proposed for demolition should be demolished legally so that these horrendous and unsafe brick-rustled monstrosities stop plaguing people’s neighborhoods.
There are questions that I have been asking for years about Northside Regeneration. Hopefully these will be answered in short time. What are other questions, readers?
A quick pass down North 20th Street gives a glimpse of an unassuming brick school house, surrounded by a concrete lot and a chain-link fence. In front of the building is a small market and behind it is a residential street. Upon closer inspection, you begin to notice more. It is made of a deep red brick, thirteen bays wide, two stories tall, with a limestone clad foundation and a porch dressed in cast-iron.
Most recently used by the Youth and Family Center, but abandoned since 2009, the building has since not received much attention. This is obvious, as water damage has accumulated and now whole sections of walls are quickly crumbling. In a matter of weeks, the building’s stability drastically worsened and in late February the roof over the gymnasium collapsed, pulling down much of the second floor. As bad it the building looks, its history that would surprise most, with connections that reach farther than St. Louis. An inscription on a limestone block above the main entrance reads “Warheit Macht Frei: Schule aud Die Freien Congregation von Nord St. Louis” or “Truth Makes One Free: School of the Free Thinkers of North St. Louis.” The building, dating back to 1867 and expanded greatly in 1883, once housed the German-American group, Die Freie Gemeinde.
In 2011, Preservation Research Office completed the National Register of Historic Places listing for the St. Louis Place Historic District. Working under the direction of then-Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, we made special effort to extend the eastern boundary of the district to encompass this building. This effort allowed the building to be eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits, and everyone was hopeful that it would be a prime candidate for rehabilitation.
Beginning in 1848, German intellectuals began fleeing their country after a series of failed political and economic revolutions. The United States saw a sharp influx of immigration as a result, with a large German community settling in St. Louis. (Think Dutchtown, Hyde Park, Anheuser-Busch, etc.) The Midwest in particular became a home to the Freie Gemeinde, a school of German thought with foundations in the Catholic and Protestant churches, from which it ultimately separated. Their main purpose was “to unite the foes of clericalism, official dishonesty and hypocrisy, and to unite the friends of truth, uprightness, and honesty.” It was a philosophy that embraced the individual instead of institution.
The Freie Gemeinde, which translates to “the free congregation,” believed that man has the basic right of applying knowledge of history and science to religion, choosing which aspects of faith are reasonable and which should be disregarded. The church fought against this individualized idea of religion, instead defining faith as an acceptance of dogma without question. The Freie Gemeinde also applied individuality to religious institution. They removed the hierarchal structure of the church, allowing for each congregation of Free Thought to exist on its own without a superior body. Churches came to be referred to as halls and a pastor or priest became a “speaker.” In a Freie Gemeinde Hall, the congregation attended lectures on subjects ranging from science to philosophy instead of the traditional sermon, even encouraging discussion during lectures. The group was ahead of their time and influential as immigrants in the Midwest. Today, the last remaining Freie Gemeinde exists in Sauk City, Wisconsin.
The building at 2930 N. 21st Street was, at one time, referred to with a full German name – Freie Gemeinde von Nord St. Louis und Bremen. The first Freie Gemeinde group in the United States formed in St. Louis in 1850, a leading example to other congregations that sprang up across the country. This was the first community center in the neighborhood and boasted a library of over 3,000 books in German. It was a large meeting hall for discussions and education in philosophy, literature, science, and other topics.
Three men associated with the Freie Gemeinde von Nord St. Louis, Preetorious, Danzer, and Schurtz are famous for their association with local German newspapers. As editors of the Westliche Post and the Anzeiger des Westens, they openly criticized religious oppression and slavery. The Naked Truth Monument in Compton Reservoir Park is dedicated to these three free thinking Germans. The bronze woman symbolizes truth, holding torches of enlightenment for both Germany and America. The inscription, in both English and German, tells of the German-Americans dedication to their adopted country. Just north, nestled between a market and a row of houses, the building where these men and many other German-Americans met and formed a community is crumbling and slipping away from public memory. Little does St. Louis know, the real monument is falling.
Last month my friend Emily Hemeyer invited me to contribute to a sprawling, wood-made installation called the Migratory Hive Project. The Migratory Hive Project was exhibited outdoors in Columbia, Missouri during the annual True/False Film Festival, and hopefully can find life space in St. Louis soon.
Emily assigned me the task of constructing an installation that would fit inside of a wooden box (in fact, one that we had utilized for our collaborative St. Louis Mythtory Tour in 2011). After contemplating ideas ranging from packing the box densely with parts of a soon-to-be-demolished certain former funeral home to constructing a scale model of another house inside of the box, I decided instead to curate a bit of personal pschogeography.
In my latest St. Louis Public Radio commentary, “The Cost of Northside Regeneration”, I contrast the slow development of the St. Louis Place neighborhood after John O’Fallon and others filed the Union Addition plat in 1850 with the lumbering, subsidized Northside Regeneration project. Can government incentives substitute for developer risk and the micro-economics of neighborhoods? – Michael R. Allen
St. Louis architect Marcel Boulicault’s name probably is unfamiliar to you, but a few of his works will draw an “ah ha!” or two. Boulicault is a designer whose contributions to Modern architecture in St. Louis are largely unheralded, but that needs to change. Boulicault (1896 – 1961) is best known for an obtrusive and despised addition to the St. Louis State Hospital, the Louis H. Kohler Building, which stood directly in front of William Rumbold’s domed 1869 County Asylum building. Boulicault also designed the building that became St. Louis Fire Department Headquarters, a major state office building on Jefferson City and other prominent works. Then, there is his patented electric tooth brush — which we will discuss in a moment. Boulicault’s buildings were creative, colorful (and a bit jazzy) but also purposeful — the best mid-century combination.
Ever-alert explorer and geographer Paul Fehler, one of the extraordinary producers behind The Pruitt-Igoe Myth altered me to the fact that something is happening to make St. Louis a whole lot less weird: our last gasometer is being dismantled. The word “gasometer” is not the only weird thing here. The cylindrical steel structure that dominates Laclede Gas Pumping Station N at 3615 Chervolet Avenue near Goody Goody diner in north city is a quirky landmark, whose skeletal form evokes wonder from many.
Alas, not for much longer. Laclede Gas is pulling the gasometer down as fast as one can type “scrap metal prices are high” (the likely cause of this and the removal of the wrecked USS Inaugural on the south riverfront).
Our city’s enduring legacy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. consists of the renamed Veterans Memorial Bridge (built 1951, renamed 1968) and the several-miles of combined Franklin and Easton avenues (renamed in 1968). The bridge is ever-functional and well-maintained, but the street honoring America’s greatest twentieth century political leader generally is a poor testament to the man. No matter how many miles of fresh concrete sidewalks and pink granitoid old-fashioned street lights go up on Martin Luther King Drive, the street’s condition generally is depressing, and most of its miles lack even basic beautification measures like street trees. (Of course, that street named for the slave-owning founder Thomas Jefferson is not much better off in many stretches.)