Central West End Mid-Century Modern Midtown Pruitt Igoe Urban Renewal Era

Destroying Modern Architecture in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The twists and turns of mid-century modern preservation in the last three weeks have been heartening. Let’s recap: since the end of June we have witnessed St. Louis University chipping away at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum’s IBM Building (1959) at 3800 Lindell, developers trying to green-light demolition of the old Schwarz & Van Hoefen-designed Phillips 66 gas station at 212 S. Grand (1967) and CVS quickly and almost quietly testing the waters of demolishing the W.A. Sarmiento-designed AAA Building (1977) at 3925 Lindell. The last two have generated a lot of public protest as well as the open concern of Mayor Francis Slay.

Left to right: The old Phillips 66 station, IBM Building and AAA Building.

Many preservationists have expressed some version of “they can’t do this” or “how could they even think about it”. Fortunately mid-century modernism has reached a level of wide acceptability that, even if the three aforementioned buildings fall, will save dozens in the long term. Yet things have not always been this way for modern architecture here, and St. Louis retains the burden of having one of its most indelible recent-past architectural events being the destruction of innovative modern architecture.

The blast at Pruitt-Igoe Building C-15 on April 21, 1972.

Whoa — this writer just heard the mad dash of his readers! Of course, the phrase “Pruitt Igoe” is not one that enters into the mid-century modern dialogue alongside mentions of pleasant-named ranch house subdivisions and Jetson-modern round commercial buildings. Hyphenated public housing names are more likely to be denigrated in preservationists’ discussions of postwar urban renewal policy. The homes, offices, gas stations and diners of the middle and upper classes get the praise, the scholarship and the activist defense that modernist dwellings for the poor may never get.

North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Pruitt Igoe Now

Yesterday the St. Louis Beacon published a great article providing an overview of Pruitt Igoe Now, an ideas competition for the site of the city’s largest housing projects. Here is the official announcement.

Pruitt-Igoe as part of the heart of St. Louis.

Pruitt Igoe Now is an ideas competition launched by a non-profit organization of the same name, located in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. The subject is the 57-acre site of the long-mythologized Pruitt and Igoe housing projects — a site whose future is intertwined with emerging ideas about urban abandonment, the legacy of modernism, brownfield redevelopment and land use strategies for shrinking cities. This competition seeks the ideas of the creative community worldwide: we invite individuals and teams of professional, academic, and student architects, landscape architects, urban planners, designers, writers, historians, and artists of every discipline to re-imagine the site and the relationship between those acres to the rest of the city. The deadline for submissions in March 16, 2012. Submissions are accepted beginning now.

What now?

March 2012 will mark the 40th anniversary of the demolition of the first of the Pruitt-Igoe high-rises, designed by architects, Helmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber, who have long been blamed for the troubled legacy of these towers–problems that are now known to be the result of complex political and economic circumstances. Although later maligned by historians, the Pruitt and Igoe housing projects were the embodiment of modern architectural ideals for public housing, and as powerfully symbolic of St. Louis’ urban renewal as the Gateway Arch would become. For forty years, the site of this complex has been largely untouched, and today the site is an overgrown brownfield forest. As countless other social housing projects across the country are torn down, and rebuilt in the idiom of new urbanism, the site of Pruitt-Igoe remains untouched. What is Pruitt-Igoe now? Can this site be liberated from a turbulent and mythologized past through re-imagination?

The Pruitt and Igoe homes comprised a neighborhood.

This call seeks bold ideas that re-invigorate the abandoned site: ideas from sources as diverse in media and background as possible. This competition imagines the site of Pruitt-Igoe as a frontier: the threshold between North St. Louis, which is showing signs of stabilization after decades of decline, and the new design for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

Our jurors will select the first, second and third most inspiring proposals and award them $1,000, $750 and $500 respectively. A broad selection of entries will receive honorable mention and inclusion in an online gallery. In April 2012, a symposium on urban dwelling and creative intervention will be held at Portland State University; the advisory committee plans to curate all proposals, and exhibit these at the symposium. The advisory committee also plans to curate select competition submissions into a traveling exhibition that will tour beginning in Summer 2012, starting in St. Louis. The initial setting for display will be publicly accessible and either on or near the Pruitt-Igoe site itself.

The Pruitt-Igoe site is now a forested island surrounded by neighborhoods.

The competition was created by P.R.O. Director Michael Allen and Nora Wendl, Assistant Professor of Design in the Department of Architecture at Portland State University. Advisors include writer and former Pruitt-Igoe resident Sylvester Brown, Jr., artist Theaster Gates, architect Karl Grice, former St. Louis Housing Authority Chairman Sal Martinez, The Pruitt Igoe Myth producer Paul Fehler, Washington University professor Eric Mumford, Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin and St. Louis Beacon Associate Editor Robert W. Duffy.  Jurors will be announced August 1.

Throughout the process, community and stakeholder engagement is crucial.  Pruitt Igoe Now doesn’t have a budget for public relations consultants, but it doesn’t have a protected corner office either.  Please get in touch and make this a better experience for the city’s future. Leave comments here, email or call 314-920-5680.

North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe St. Louis Place

Coming Soon

by Michael R. Allen

Coming Soon.

Coming Soon. So proclaims this small plastic sign, affixed by screws and washers to the front wall of a north St. Louis building.  There’s a dumpster out back, so the sign definitely is telling it straight.

The house at 2417 Cass Avenue.

The building is a sturdy two-family with a lovely pressed-metal cornice. What makes the rehab so remarkable is the building’s location. This building stands at 2417 Cass Avenue, across the street from the untamed site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. There are only three buildings left on this block face, spaced out considerably. This block is one of ten that the city tried to clear completely in the late 1980s as part of the failed Commerce Business Park plan. Much of this pocket of St. Louis Place was removed, leaving just a handful of buildings and so much vacant land the area has been dubbed the “urban prairie.”

Amid these challenges, owner Grace Baptist Church, which occupies another building on the block face, is working to bring the building back to life. One of the incongruities of thinking about shrinking cities is the persistence of neighborhood economy and reuse demand in depleted neighborhoods. Where there’s a long-term store of value — a building — there may well be a will to make it into wealth. Basic market economics seem to be more enduring than cyclical urban planning interventions.

Housing North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

The Spectre of Pruitt-Igoe

by Michael R. Allen

In May 2010, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan visited the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Afterward, he shared his thoughts with St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer Eddie Roth. Roth produced a lovely short video combining many striking images from the Post archive with Donovan’s comments. Donovan’s statements about the Pruitt-Igoe legacy are smart and eloquent, although his insistence on the wisdom of demolishing all American high-rise public housing is questionable.

One thing that all interpreters seem to agree upon is the complexity of Pruitt-Igoe’s legacy. The differences lie in whether the design itself could have been salvaged and made to work. Rampant dismissal of the design has led to a strong and largely unquestioned narrative about the causal relationship between high-rise apartment buildings and the conditions of poverty. With almost all of the towers in this nation gone, we seem to be faced with a culture of poverty only stronger and wider than when Pruitt-Igoe’s last tower was opened in February 1956.

To learn more about the history of Pruitt-Igoe, attend one of the upcoming screenings of the wonderful documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Screenings are scheduled for Thursday, June 2nd at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, June 4th at 12:00 noon, both at the Tivoli Theatre.

Events North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

“The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” Screenings This Week

A still from "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth".

by Michael R. Allen

Make Pruitt-Igoe #1. The button’s message had an obvious irony by the time that a reporter held it to a camera in 1968. Yet as the new documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth makes clear, the fate of Pruitt-Igoe was intertwined with the fate of St. Louis. Few would have scorned a “Make St. Louis #1” button although its message in the 1960s would have been as naive as the wish for the 33 towers of Pruitt-Igoe.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth plots the rise and fall of Pruitt-Igoe against a larger context of change in St. Louis. The film is particularly poignant in making clear that for the entire life span of Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis was shrinking rapidly. Built at a higher population density than the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood they replaced, Pruitt-Igoe’s towers were built on the notion that the city would being growing, and that it would come to grips with the poverty of its residents.

Instead, St. Louis drained thousands of people and spent the 1950s and 1960s imposing a harsh and destructive spatial segregation on the region. If Pruitt-Igoe had a chance to be #1, it was a long shot.  Besides, St. Louis itself didn’t fare much better.

This week The Pruitt-Igoe Myth screens at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, May 11 and at noon on Saturday, May 14 at the Tivoli Theater.  Tickets are $10. The directors and former Pruitt-Igoe resident Sylvester Brown, Jr. will take questions after each screening.

Housing Mid-Century Modern North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Standing By Yamasaki

by Michael R. Allen

On April 24, after a tornado struck Lambert Airport, the New York Times published the article “Struggling St. Louis Airport Takes a Shot to the Chin, but Recovers.” While many St. Louisans quibbled over the symbolic image of the city encapsulated in the adjective “struggling” (applied to only the airport), I found a less immediate semiotic matter of interest. Namely, the article was accompanied by a striking color photograph of Lambert Airport’s iconic main terminal (1956) in the background behind architect Gyo Obata, who directed the project for the firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber. Obata is the last living link to the firm and its renowned principal Minoru Yamasaki, and his presence in the photograph of a boarded-up, weather-beaten terminal conveys strong pride in its design and concern for its future.

In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes about the punctum, that part of a photograph’s meaning “that pierces the viewer.” The punctum is subjective, and may diverge from any obvious or intended symbolism in an image. In that New York Times photograph, showing the architect’s watch over a damaged part of Yamasaki’s modernist legacy, I quickly noticed my punctum, a place not represented directly in the photograph but so immediately present in my mind: Pruitt-Igoe.

Image of the Pruitt Homes under construction from the 1955 catalog of the Stephen Gorman Bricklaying Company, which was the masonry contractor for the project. Courtesy of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.
Abandonment North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Pruitt Igoe Today

This afternoon I gave a tour of the Pruitt-Igoe site to a group of bicyclists en route to see The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Myth meets reality, big time, on the 33 wooded vacant acres of the site. Here are few scenes. – M.R.A.

Walking the former Dickson Street.
Many participants likened the site to familiar state parks around the area.
Benton Park Carondelet Cherokee Street Marine Villa North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe South St. Louis

St. Louis Mythory Tour

Emily Hemeyer helps two people assemble their zines at the Mythory Tour.

On Friday, as part of the epic Southern Graphics Council (SGC) Convention night on Cherokee Street, the St. Louis Mythory Tour made its debut. An expanded version will return soon, as will a new edition of the ‘zine guidebook, printed in a limited edition of 70 for Friday.

St Louis Mythory Tour
a collaborative tour and zine making workshop
by Emily Hemeyer & Michael R. Allen
May 12th, 2011. 6-9pm. Cherokee ReAL Garden. Cherokee Street. St Louis, MO

“[M]yth is speech stolen and restored.”
-Roland Barthes, Mythologies


The built environment of St. Louis reveals itself through our observations, often clouded by nostalgia, ideology and comparison. We look around us and see inscriptions of what we imagine St. Louis to be, be that a “red brick mama”, an emergent Rust Belt powerhouse, a faded imperial capital or simply our home. St. Louis offers back its own narrative mythologies, presented through chains of linked sites with collective meanings. We quickly find that the city’s own presentation of itself is as veiled as our own observation. There is no one St. Louis, but there is no one archetypal St. Louisan.

The Mythtory Tour imagines a landscape of accrued building that has been neglected, in physical form and human consciousness. This tour presents one possible mythology of place centered on traditions of construction converging across disparate neighborhoods and many generations in order to show us St. Louis. Whether you can find this city out there is irrelevant, because using this map you will find some city worth your love and respect.

View St. Louis Mythory Tour in a larger map


Sugarloaf Mound, 4420 Ohio Street

Stone House, 124 E. Steins Street

Lemp Brewery, southeast corner of Cherokee & Lemp streets

Pruitt-Igoe Site, Southeast Corner of Cass and Jefferson Avenues

Kingshighway Viaduct, Kingshighway Boulevard Between Vandeventer and Shaw

Cherokee Cave, Under Cherokee Street at DeMenil Place

U.S.S. Inaugural, Foot of Rutger Street

(Full descriptions and photographs of each location are available in the guidebook. Those interested in ordering a copy can contact Michael Allen at

North St. Louis Pruitt Igoe

Coming Soon: “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”

Trailer – The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History from the Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Vimeo.

The trailer for the excellent forthcoming documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth by Chad Friedrichs is now available. The premiere takes place during the Oxford (Mississippi) Film Festival February 11-13, 2011. A local premiere has not been scheduled but will take place sometime in the new year.

Detroit North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Planning Pruitt Igoe St. Louis Place

Looking Back at Gateway Village

by Michael R. Allen

To some people, the current discussion about McEagle’s “NorthSide” project has roots in a project proposed for the same area 13 years ago: Gateway Village. Like “NorthSide,” Gateway Village involved a close relationship between a mayor and a private developer from outside of the city, proposed massive demolition, proposed eminent domain and large public subsidy. Unlike “NorthSide,” however, Gateway Village never moved close enough to reality to disrupt the section of St. Louis Place it would have wiped out.

Aerial rendering of Gateway Village from Mayor Bosley's 1996 application to HUD.

In 1996, Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. unveiled his grand plan for revitalizing north St. Louis: a 180-acre golf course and subdivision called Gateway Village that would use the Pruitt-Igoe site as well as the western part of St. Louis Place. The boundaries were Martin Luther King Drive on the south, 20th Street on the east, St. Louis Avenue on the north and Jefferson Avenue on the west. The plan called for building 781 new homes (priced out of range of most St. Louis Place residents) and a 9-hole golf course (designed by renowned designers Don Childs Associates) platted for very low density at odds with surrounding historic city fabric. Going against neighborhood sentiment in an area where he had tremendous political support, Bosley supported the acquisition of 209 residences and six businesses to clear the project site.

The developer behind the project, whose identity was unveiled after the first announcement, was Waycor Corporation of Detroit. Waycor’s president was Don Barden, a wealthy Detroit businessman who has since gone on to become a major casino owner. At the time, Barden was the owner of television stations who had never developed a project on the scale of Gateway Village. Also in 1996, the Federal Election Commission determined that Barden has co-signed an illegal loan to a Detroit Congresswoman.

Whatever his inexperience and lack of ties to St. Louis, Barden gained the confidence of Bosley, Jr. and Maureen McAvey, the director of the St. Louis Development Corporation. Unlike today, where McEagle is unveiling its own plans, in 1996 Bosley and McAvoy did the public relations work for the developer. In August 1996, McAvoy released a study by Don Childs Associates that predicted that Gateway Village would be feasible and successful. The city paid the architects $38,000 for a study that championed a project in which they had a financial interest.

The study predicted that Gateway Village would precipitate “a return to living in major metropolitan cities” and that it would “act as a catalyst to revitalize the area.” The Greater Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Association, which is now defunct, rose up against the plan to safeguard the 209 homes sought for condemnation and demolition.

In October 1996, the city government requested a $8 million grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development toward the project. The total project budget was $127.5 million, an amount fairly low for such a large area. The low cost was indicative of low density construction and low construction standards. Of course, $8 million was not the only handout sought by Waycor. Waycor wanted an additional $35 million in public financing. Waycor would not commit any of its own capital unless it could secure public money first — also different than the current situation.

The feasibility study commissioned by the city outlined the path toward development, with step one being “complete agreement with Waycor.” That step was removed after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discovered that the city had commissioned a development feasibility study that not only recommended a certain developer but indicated that an agreement was already being created.

Site plan for Gateway Village from Mayor Bosley's 1996 application to HUD.

The Greater Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Association sent a letter to HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros asking that he deny the $8 million grant request. Shirley Booker was one of the authors of the letter and very active in organizing St. Louis Place residents. Vernon Betts was one of a few St. Louis Place residents who gave favorable comments about Gateway Village to the press, but the majority of residents were opposed.

Bosley’s response to the Greater Pruitt Igoe Neighborhood Association’s letter is classic and timely: “It’s unfortunate that a small group now want to try and thwart the one thing that can work.”  In development, there always seems to be “the one thing that can work” — what the person using that phrase wants to do.

An aldermanic election for the Fifth Ward, where the project was located, came in spring 1997. Veteran Alderwoman Mary Ross was retiring. In the race to succeed Ross, Democratic candidates April Ford-Griffin and Loretta Hall supported Gateway Village, and John Bratkowski was adamantly opposed. Ford-Griffin, whose support was for the project was not staunch, won the seat. At the mayoral level, Bosley lost the Democratic primary to Clarence Harmon.

Even before he took office, Harmon announced his plans to pull city government out of the Gateway Village project. On April 4, 1997, the Post-Dispatch published an article entitled “Harmon: ‘Dead Stop’ for Golf Course Plan,” that covered the mayor-elect’s opposition to a project that would lead to the dislocation of city residents. McAvey retorted that the project would bring the middle class back as well as retail for low-income residents.

Harmon’s move coincided with HUD’s denial of the city’s request for funding. Shirley Booker explained neighborhood opposition well. Residents wanted development, she said, “just not a golf course. We can’t keep existing with all this vacant land. The Lord didn’t mean for it to be like that. It’s a waste.”

McAvey clung to Gateway Village, though, telling the press that no one would be able to develop St. Louis Place without large public subsidy and amenities provided. Her tenure would end shortly thereafter. Ford-Griffin learned a few lessons from Gateway Village and spearheaded an often rocky but productive community-based planning process leading to the Fifth Ward Master Plan, published in 2000 although not fully adopted by the Board of Aldermen.

Harmon, of course, showed little leadership on development issues, but his decision to pull the plug on Gateway Village allowed for the kindling of small-scale development on the near north side. Many leaders, however, continued to bemoan the lack of a large scale plan for the area around Pruitt Igoe. Bosley, Jr. himself is now a backer of the McEagle project, seen occasionally accompanying Paul J. McKee, Jr. at meetings.

One of the problems with the Gateway Village debacle and the resulting Fifth Ward Master Plan is that there was no strong legislative result. The threat of a large-scale plan in the Fifth Ward remained because there were no basic protections against that mode of development. Zoning and land use recommendations were never implemented as law, historic districts and sites were not identified and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and redevelopment zones that would have broken the ward into smaller pieces were not created. The Fifth Ward’s biggest problem in recent years is the large amount of vacant city-owned land — quite a big prize to lure developers. Without safeguards against large scale projects, the ward has been left vulnerable to the supersized visions that Gateway Village illustrated.