by Michael R. Allen
On November 9, Kevin McGowan applied for a demolition permit for Building 7 at Cupples Station (originally the Graham Paper Company Building). The city’s Cultural Resources Office denied the permit, and McGowan appealed the denial to the Preservation Board. The appeal will be considered at the Board’s meeting on November 28. Since it is an appeal, the matter requires a quorum of Preservation Board members to be present for any vote. (Currently eight of the nine spots are filled.)
On appeal, the threshold for approval of demolition is high. The Preservation Board will face arguments from McGowan that the building cannot be stabilized at a reasonable cost, including his recent assertion that demolition costs $2 million less than stabilization. Board members might hear that the building was far too gone to be saved when McGowan originally purchased it in 2004, despite the fact that his company purchased it for rehabilitation.
The burden of proof rests with the appellant, so Preservation Board members need to dig deep in learning the facts. What was the condition of the roof and collapsed structure when McGowan purchased it? What measures has his company taken to prevent the spread of damage? How many building code violations have been found, and when, and did McGowan’s company ever take steps to comply with the code? Have there been offers from other developers to purchase the building, and, if so, why has a sale not taken place? And, of course: How much money does stabilization really cost, and can it be phased?
Cupples Station is an architectural treasure that has faced countless threats over the years. In fact, over half of its original warehouses are gone, leaving just eight remaining. Yet the importance of the remaining buildings has been recognized by St. Louis mayors going back to Vincent Schoemehl, who rescued the complex from demolition to build a new hockey arena.
Preservation of the warehouses has been a goal of nearly every city administration since then, and now only two warehouses are vacant. One of these is slated for rehabilitation, and the other should be. Assembling a workable plan for Cupples Station Building 7 with an intractable owner will be difficult, and will take time. Preservation Board denial of the appeal is a first step in making sure that a plan emerges. Yet Mayor Francis Slay needs to go further and protect the building from an emergency demolition order from the Building Commissioner — a step that would thwart the Preservation Board’s authority.