North St. Louis Old North Rehabbing

Spring Rehabbing in Old North

by Michael R. Allen

Take a walk, bike ride or drive through Old North St. Louis these days and you might be tempted to ask “what recession?” The hardy north side neighborhood continues to be a construction zone, with activity all over the neighborhood.

Obviously, the Crown Square project (known to most as the “14th Street Mall” project) is moving along swiftly, with most buildings either fully rehabbed or nearing completion. Here’s a look at some of the other activity around the neighborhood.

Up at 1517 Palm Street, a mansard roof long devoid of its original dormers is being restored by a new owner. This house was once owned by the Land Reutilization Authority.

Adjacent to this house is the “three walls” house documented thoroughly by its owners on this website.

On the south end of the neighborhood, Dan Schuler is overseeing rehab of a house on the 1400 block of Monroe Street that has seen a hard life. A lot of the work is happening inside of the house, but the emerging transformation is big.

The Gallery at 1318 Hebert, a unique project involving creative reuse and new construction, is approaching completion. Watch for a post on this project soon.

Across the street from the gallery, the former Ames Elementary School kindergarten building has received the attention of a couple who have spent the last few years doing major masonry work, cornice repair and interior rehabilitation.

See all of the progress for yourself: the Old North St. Louis House & Community Tour will take place on Saturday, May 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Advance tickets are $10 and can be picked up in person from the ONSLRG office (2800 N. 14th Street at St. Louis Avenue) or at Crown Candy Kitchen. On the day of the tour, tickets will be available at the registration area at $12 each. As a bonus, Crown Candy once again will offer free ice cream on the day of the tour to all ticket-holders.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis Old North Rehabbing

One Year in the Life of a House on North 14th Street

by Michael R. Allen

The house at 2817 N. 14th Street in October 2007.

The house at 2817 N. 14th Street in October 2008.

One year can make or break the life of a historic building. Fortunately, for the mid-19th century house at 2817 N. 14th Street in Old North St. Louis, the last year has made the house — or remade it, to be more exact. One year ago, the building was a mess — the roof structure was sinking, so much of the building had collapsed inside of itself that access was impossible and wooden bracing was erected against the front wall.

Today, the building has been rehabilitated as part of the Crown Square redevelopment project and is receiving finishing touches to prepare for its new residents. Of course, along the way there were the complications one would expect with such a decrepit building. During masonry repair, the house suffered a large collapse that caused many neighbors to worry if rehabilitation would continue. The collapse turned out to be all in a day’s work for general contractor E.M. Harris Construction Company and the development partnership of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance. The house was rebuilt to original exterior appearance, using all of the original brick that survived the collapse and years of decay. What was one of the worst-looking buildings on 14th Street is now one of the best!

Events Rehabbing

Rehabbers Club Classes Begin This Wednesday

ReVitalize St. Louis and the St. Louis Rehabbers Club are extremely excited to announce that the 2008 Fall Rehabbers Club Classes will be sponsored by St. Louis Chapter of AIA [American Institute of Architects] Bookstore. They are located at 911 Washington Avenue in the Lammert Building downtown. This location is centrally-located, close to MetroLink and MetroBus lines, on-street parking is plentiful and it is fully accessible.

Directions from your location are here.

Classes begin on Wednesday, October 1st at 7:00 p.m. and the semester will run for eight consecutive weeks. Sessions are two hours long and there is time set aside during each class for Q & A. Details and descriptions are provided on the website on
this page

Topics include:
— Buying A Foreclosure
— Pioneering Partnerships
— Funding Your Rehab
— Working With A Contractor
— Neighbors in Action
— Real Estate Law 101
— Green Rehabbing
— Smart Landlording

The fee for each class is $10 [$15 at the door] or you can purchase an eight-class package for $70. You may pay online using PayPal.

Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis Old North Rehabbing


by Michael R. Allen

Entitled “Changes,” my latest commentary for radio station KWMU aired this morning. The piece reflects on changes both physical and social taking place literally across the street from my house in Old North St. Louis. New residents have moved into the colorfully-painted buildings seen above, which were rehabbed as part of the ongoing Crown Square project transforming the center of the neighborhood. Read or listen to the commentary here.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis Old North Rehabbing

Every Day There’s More Progress on 14th Street

by Michael R. Allen

The Crown Square project (once known as the “14th Street Mall”) marches along in Old North St. Louis, and it’s hard to keep up with construction. These photographs are already a few days out of date, but worth sharing.

A view of the west side of 14th street, looking south.

A view of the northwest corner of Warren and 14th streets; the second building in from the corner was well-known in recent years because almost all of its front elevation lay on the sidewalk in front of it.

Here’s the storefront building at 2717 N. 14th Street.

Visitors to Crown Candy Kitchen once gazed upon fabulous urban ruin, and now look southeast across St. Louis Avenue and see glorious renewal.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis Old North Rehabbing

The Phoenix, 14th Street

One of the most important local preservation success stories ever is unfolding at the present moment: the rescue and rehabilitation of 26 historic buildings around the 14th Street commercial district in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. The $35 million project centers on two blocks of the commercial district closed to vehicular traffic in 1977 and redubbed the “14th Street Mall,” infamous as an urban ghost town after a majority of buildings fell vacant by the 1990s, with all but two vacant by 2005.

When I first started exploring the neighborhood, contemplating the purchase of a building, the 14th Street Mall was an eerie void in the heart of a rebounding neighborhood. Rehab activity was eroding the decayed quality of many blocks in the neighborhood, but not the two blocks closed to traffic. These blocks were the exception: blocks getting worse, losing vitality and sucking it away from surrounding blocks. No part of the neighborhood seemed to be as formidable a reminder of the neighborhood’s plight — or as valuable an asset.

For years, neighbors had been trying to revive the commercial district. Without the capacity to reopen the closed streets (14th and Montgomery) and tackle a large number of the buildings at once, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group had little success at attracting development. A bid by an Atlanta developer to acquire the entire four-block mall area spurred a capacity-building partnership between the Restoration Group and the Regional Housing Community Development Alliance. The impossible became the actual. Acquisition began in 2004, and intricately-arranged financing was ready in fall 2007.

After I moved into Old North in 2005, I always spoke of the 14th Street project in the future tense. Even last summer, as the reality of the project seemed imminent, I noticed a reluctance in the neighborhood to speak about the project in the present tense. As if naming the project were a curse that would doom the ghostly landscape’s chances at revival, people remained cautious. Who could blame people?

Then, all of a sudden, at the end of September 2007, an army of contractors descended. Dozens of buildings were gutted, walls were rebuilt, fences erected and roofs removed. The whole tone of Old North changed – the dead center, 14th Street, was now the hot bed of neighborhood action. Like a phoenix, the heart of Old North began to rise. By spring 2008, a handful of historic buildings on Warren and Montgomery streets had been fully rehabbed and leased to new residents.

By the spring, the streets should be reopened and the rehabbed buildings will house 78 housing units and 6,000 square feet of retail space. The life will continue to grow. For now, even incomplete, the difference is life-affirming for this old neighborhood.


Rehabbing: To Do or Not to Do It Yourself

by Michael R. Allen

One of the first rules of rehabbing is that everything takes twice as long and twice as much money as estimated – on a good day. That’s if the homeowner hires everything out. For the do-it-yourselfer, twice as long can easily become fives times as long. Yet just as eating outdoors in the springtime makes food taste better, doing it yourself can make the rehab so much more enjoyable.

Still, doing it yourself is no easy decision, and there’s no shame in deciding against it. I am a do-it-yourselfer who made the hard decision over two years ago. I chose to buy and rehab a three-story brick home in Old North St. Louis. The house was built in 1885 and retains much of its original woodwork, the original slate mansard roof and even some original windows. Better still, it was occupied when I bought it. The systems – plumbing and electrical – weren’t the ancient ones you read about but modern ones installed in the 1980s. Now I see the appearance as deceptively intact. The systems needed countless little repairs. A whole intact two-story historic wall was historically dangerous and needed to be demolished and rebuilt. And so forth.

Some days I think rehabbing the house is the best choice I’ve ever made, because I have learned a lot about my own abilities and have directly intervened to renew historic architecture. The direct connection between myself and historic preservation feels much better than attendance at public hearings and blog entries.

Other days, I count the missed parties, weeknights at the bar with friends, weekend afternoons at the park, weddings, parties, art openings and live music shows from the past two and half years. I think about lazy days I could have had, bike rides and reading. Then I look around the house and see the progress. Okay. It’s worth it. I’ve got one whole floor fully rehabbed, and the other two moving along. I have had parties at the house. I can walk barefoot in most parts!

Still, the path to this stage has been difficult and I urge potential rehabbers to think carefully. Here are some of the considerations that I pondered before choosing to rehab:

Children. First: I don’t have children. I can’t imagine trying to do what I did as a parent. (For one thing, I would never have lived in the lead-filled, messy house.)

Cost. One of the strongest motivating factors in choosing to do work myself was cost. I simply could not afford to hire out anything I could do for myself. Necessity became the mother of invention. Later, the demanding schedule of the rehab loan and several pay raises made it possible to hire work out. Now I can say that if someone is hesitating to pay someone to do work, err on the side of bringing in a professional. A dollar spent on labor is a dollar toward less stress and project management. For some projects, it would have been cheaper to do all the work myself but impossible to manage other projects I hired out. Management is key to good results.

Other Costs. Can you give up fun times for awhile? Can you lay that book aside and never get back to it? I struggled with giving up recreational pursuits, but decided ultimately that cost was worth getting work done. Then, after getting through major work, my pace shifted to a more leisurely one. Still, many people I know would go crazy living with so much responsibility. Coming home from work to work can be frustrating. If it would drive you nuts, don’t do it.

Time. Throughout my rehabbing, I have worked a 40-hour-a-week job. That means I have rehabbed on weekends, evenings and vacation days taken for rehabbing. This schedule has been brutal at times, but necessary. The schedule means having to constantly be energetic, and learning to pace oneself. Do-it-yourself and a full-time job are a rough match – workable, but not enjoyable.

Ability. I certainly had some rehabbing skills before I bought my house. I had done drywall, plaster, plumbing, carpentry and demolition work for friends and for a previous job. I would never have decided to rehab the house myself if I didn’t think I had already demonstrated some aptitude with at least one major area of home improvement. A more deciding factor, however, was assessing my ability to manage the project. Could I juggle rehab financing, my own work schedule, bidding, scheduling contractors, dealing with the Building Division and other matters without causing more trouble than I found at the house? I decided that I could, and time has proven me right – or close enough. Being handy helps, but being organized prevents problems.

Comfort. Since I could not afford off-site housing, and also wanted to avoid the possibility of robbery, I decided to live in the house during rehab work. Many people don’t do this, and still perform much of the rehab work themselves. That’s a good option, but not one within many people’s means. Choosing to live in the rehab project means choosing to live with constant dust, choosing to live in one room, choosing to live with constant problems, choosing to live with one’s shoes one except in bed, choosing to possibly live in winter with only plywood for a wall (as I had to do last year), and choosing to live in a manner you may not be used to. The fringe benefit is that any progress with the rehab will seem like a great leap forward.

This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of The Vital Voice.

Rehabbing St. Louis County

Kirkwood City Council Chamber Rehabbed in One Week

Toby Weiss, whose day job is marketing coordinator for Mosby Building Arts, points out that Mosby has complete a whirlwind rehabilitation of the Kirkwood City Council chambers, damaged in last week’s shooting. Follow along a in a day-by-day account of the project here.


Done Gutting for Now

On Saturday came the last anticipated removal of a plaster ceiling at our house. We have long decided not to extensively gut the house. For one thing, the plaster is remarkably intact and has escaped the major water infiltration that typically dooms it to to the wrecking bar. For another thing, the amount of waste created by gutting gives us pause. Without a clear need for gutting save perfection, the whole deal seems wasteful. Hence, we have only removed three historic plaster ceilings. Season rehabbers can probably guess where these three ceilings are located: under each staircase.

With staircases, gutting is necessity. The bowing of masonry walls leads to the movement of stair stringers tied into those walls. Inevitably, the shims keeping treads and risers tight in their pockets fall and the stairs begin to creak, moan and slip. The only option decades later is to remove the ceilings below and undertake extensive staircase repairs involving shimming the stringers to tighten up the pockets, and then fitting the treads and risers with new shims to keep them snug.

With the first staircase, we had to remove every tread and every riser to rebuild. With the other two, we anticipate easier jobs without as much work. Later, I will post details of the work. For now, rest assured that part of me is ecstatic to have done the final gutting of a plaster ceiling here. Gone are the inevitable scrapes of skin quickly filled with stinging lime; gone are the particles that get past even the best respirator. Gone too is the quick swig of beer to force dust into the digestive system and out of the respiratory.

At least, such moments are gone at this building. With every pry of a lath comes the maddening delusion that the work isn’t so bad and that one can do it again and agian until the whole city is rehabbed.

Old North Rehabbing

A Strange Marriage

by Michael R. Allen

I could be doing anything right now. I could be writing a book, watching a movie, talking to a friend, taking a walk or be traveling.

Instead, I am scrubbing up after hours of work around the house. I have not had a moment to myself in weeks, and may not get the chance for weeks more. However, I am watching a building reverse a 120-year span of decay under my own direction, largely alone although experienced craftspeople have aided with masonry, carpentry and roofing.

What we can take into our own hands is where we build the most change in the world. Obviously, few people choose to take much into their hands — and many of us end up with far too much in our hands. Yet hesitate to think of what would become of the world if I did not assume this momentary burden. I hope that others do the same, but I know that I can’t make them. Not everyone could take up the task of rehabbing a large building with no supervision and little assistance, even if he or she wanted to do so. I’m not sure if the cororllary is that those who can should do so, but I note that those who can most often must do so.

When my neck starts to ache beyond the limits of medicinal Schlafly, I try to think about how each gesture composes the larger plot of one house renwed and revitalized in a neighborhood that is renewing itself in a great city that is seeing a multitude of actions like my own add up to a resurgence of energy…

(Cynically, I could note that these hundreds of hours of labor are punishment for that one moment when I realized that I wanted to live in this house. To want something is always an arrogant proposition.)