Demolition Historic Preservation LCRA Riverfront

Casino Claims Historic North Riverfront Warehouses

by Michael R. Allen

Nestled between two prominent landmarks, the glitzy new Lumiere Place casino complex and the venerable Ashley Street Power House, stands a group of warehouse buildings. These aren’t the most iconic buildings — certainly not amid such strong competition. Still, the street wall presence of three buildings on Leonor K. Sullivan Drive between Carr and Biddle ties together disparate sections of riverfront fabric.

That presence is about to disappear. In May, the city’s Preservation Board voted 3 to 2, approving demolition of the buildings. While the applicant was the city government, Lumiere Place owner Pinnacle Casinos was a forceful advocate for razing the historic warehouses.

The warehouses in question comprise a wide four-story brick building built in 1881, a modern addition to the south from 1946 and a long one-story stone building to the north built in 1883. The grouping is a little peculiar, but there’s a reason for the strange appearance.

Thomas McPheeters was on his way to becoming one of the West’s biggest storage magnates when he built the four-story center building in 1881. That building was used for warehousing dry goods, and its looks are not out of the ordinary for industrial St. Louis. Yet its northern neighbor is an odd one-story stone-faced building built by McPheeters in 1883. Early fire insurance maps state that this building was lined with cast iron, suggesting that this was a primitive cold storage warehouse. McPheeters continued to develop cold storage facilities, and in 1900 and 1901 built much larger brick cold storage warehouses a few blocks north of his earlier building. Eventually McPheeters’ company sold the earlier buildings to the Thompson Chemical Company, which added the south building in 1946 and used the buildings for production.

Concerning the immediate surroundings, many remaining buildings were wrecked for Lumiere Place but an impressive pocket to the north contains large buildings, including the Ashley Street and Laclede power houses and McPheeters’ later buildings. These buildings comprise the North Riverfront Historic District National Register of Historic Places, listed in 2002 in response to renewed interest in developing the area.

Unfortunately, the old McPheeters buildings were not able to be included because a 2001 fire (and demolition) at the old Belcher Sugar Refinery left the old McPheeters buildings too far from the district to qualify. Yet the buildings could still be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making historic rehabilitation tax credits available.

Unfortunately, that prospect will not come. The city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) purchased the buildings in 2003. LCRA’s name says it all – the agency exists to clear land for new projects like Lumiere Place. However, the original Lumiere Place redevelopment plan didn’t include the fine old warehouses, leaving open the possibility of reuse.

All three buildings are sound, and the city’s Cultural Resources Office has advised that none have conditions of unsoundness established under the city’s preservation review ordinance. Still, there are challenges here — but none even as big as building a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art casino. The middle warehouse has lost a section of one wall, exposing part of the wooden post and beam structure. The roof is missing in places. These are the conditions one expects for vacant property of this age, and conditions that have become standard fare for St. Louis tax-credit-savvy developers.

Although I cannot profess much respect for the execution of the Lumiere Place architecture and site plan, I was hopeful that its presence would not be a huge intrusion into the historic fabric of our riverfront. While the casino is visually at odds with surrounding architecture, and its construction entailed demolition of historic fabric, its location is ideal for connecting Laclede’s Landing to the industrial buildings to the north. Pinnacle repeatedly discusses a second phase of Lumiere Place that will create much-needed housing on the riverfront.

Pinnacle could have made as bold of a move as it did with its new casino and included historic rehabilitation in its plans. Connecting the new development with the historic context would be cool and smart, demonstrating Pinnacle’s commitment to transcending the usual. Also, utilizing historic rehabilitation tax credit and unusual buildings would offer additional financing tools and create something more special than a new building. The bonus would be the impact of helping to draw development up into the North Riverfront Historic District.

Pinnacle and city development officials have touted Lumiere Place as a catalyst for spreading investment across the riverfront areas north of the Eads Bridge. The vision of a vibrant riverfront with residential space certainly is compelling. Then, at the Preservation Board we heard from St. Louis Development Corporation Deputy Director Otis Williams, who told us that Lumiere Place wanted the McPheeters warehouses torn down because their appearance was supposedly hurting casino revenue. There’s a mighty large gap between the promises of spreading investment and the self-contained concerns conveyed through Williams.

That’s a gap big enough to swallow three fine buildings, but hopefully not the larger vision of revitalizing this section of riverfront by sensitively connecting the fabric of Laclede’s Landing and the North Riverfront Historic District.

This article first appeared in the Vital Voice on June 13, 2008.

Architecture Downtown Riverfront

Lumiere Celebrates Memorial Day

by Michael R. Allen

Dressed up for Memorial Day and viewed through the infrastructure of an electrical transformer station, the hotel tower at Lumiere Place serves its purpose well: to draw as much attention toward itself as possible, away from everything else. Even that shiny arch thing just south. Can that arch do this? Can the American flag glow? Come, moths, and bake in ecstasy!

Downtown Laclede's Landing Riverfront

When Have You Been to Laclede’s Landing?

by Michael R. Allen

Walking to Laclede’s Landing today on business, I wondered when exactly was the last time that I was there to do anything other than photograph a building or lead a tour group. I was drawing a blank until I remembered an art opening there recently and shows at the shuttered Missisippi Nights, the one venue that seemed to bring any locals not looking for straight-ahead drinking to the Landing.

I’m sure that others have similar difficulty remembering when they have been to Laclede’s Landing. The disconnect between the charming, historic and architecturally splendid district and the rest of downtown is huge, and not simply physical. The longer that disconnect perpetuates, the more missed opportunities for the city to celebrate its waterfront heritage and the related great architecture.

In many cities, this would be a premiere residential district. The proximity to the river and the iconic Gateway Arch create commanding views that — unlike most here — include the Mississippi River. How much more unique character could one find here? Laclede’s Landing is a cultural asset whose fortunes seem lost — for now.

Abandonment Riverfront Urban Exploration

USS Inaugural Still Around

Remember the USS Inaugural that was moored on the St. Louis wharf to serve as a museum? During the 1993 flood, the former Navy minesweeper was swept away itself. However, it did not get very far. As “Memory_machine” tells us in his blog entry “Undergroundozarks goes to the Library / The Wreck of the Inaugural”, the wreck of the ship is just south of the MacArthur Bridge, and readily visible.

Lists Riverfront

St. Louis Fails to Make "Worst Waterfront Cities" List

by Michael R. Allen

The Project for Public Spaces has unveiled its “Worst Waterfront Cities.” New York, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Boston, Tokyo, Seattle and Paris are the finalists. One wonders why St. Louis, one of the world’s most famous river cities with one of the world’s least-accessible riverfronts, is not on the list. Perhaps St. Louis is not large enough to catch the attention of PPS, or perhaps our abundance of amazing riverfront industrial architecture partly redeems our failures of public space planning.

Of course, in the eyes of the local establishment, the great waterfront plan created by Diana Balmori and Associates is tantamount to actually improving the riverfront, despite the fact that its price tag renders it “dead in the water” (yeah, I know) and its scope is limited only to the downtown riverfront that already is cut off from where people actually live.

More thoughts on the matter are online in Rob Powers’ photo-essay “What’s Wrong With This Riverfront?” (about our downtown riverfront) and my own “How Do You Get to the River?” (about one of my favorite river access points, soon to be rendered inaccessible).

(Thanks to Alan Brunettin for pointing out the PPS list.)

Granite City, Illinois Metro East Riverfront

The Founding of Granite City: Industry and Aspiration

by Michael R. Allen

Based on notes for a bus tour that I gave during the 35th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial Archeology, June 2, 2006.

German immigrants Frederick G. and William F. Niedringhaus played a major role in St. Louis history by organizing the industrial city of Granite City, and a major role in American industry by pioneering the process of creating durable, affordable stamped and enamelled metal-ware. They came from Westphalia to St. Louis around 1858 after having trained under their father, a tinner and glazier. With $1,000 and three helpers, the brothers incorporated Niedringhaus & Brother in downtown St. Louis. Their first products were hand-made kitchen utensils, but early on they experimented with mechanized production. By 1862, the brothers began using machines to stamp utensils from single sheets of metal — a technique on which they would build their fortunes. By 1865, they were making deep-stamped wares and were likely one of only two such makers in the country. The brothers began working with sheet iron imported from Wales.

The Niedringhaus brothers founded the more focused St. Louis Stamping Company in 1866, and enjoyed immediate success. Their seamless stamped tinware met the public demand for durable, affordable kitchenware. The first year’s sales were $7,000 — an amount that they would increase one-hundred-fold within eleven years. Production increased to levels that led them to purchase land north of downtown near the Mississippi River in 1870. They built a four-story brick manufacturing, warehouse and office building between 1871 and 1873. This building, still extant, was likely designed by architect August Beinke and faced Collins Street between Cass Avenue to the south and Collins Street to the north. By 1876 adjacent to the first building, the brothers built seven additional smaller buildings including a blacksmith shop, annealing building, galvanizing shop and boilerhouse. (Part of one of these buildings remains.) North of this block, the Niedringhaus brothers constructed a rolling mill in the style of the English tin-plate mills of the era. This railroad- and river-served mill could produce twenty tons of sheet metal daily and employed about 700 workers.

Carondelet Green Space JNEM Mississippi River Riverfront

How Do You Get to the River?

by Michael R. Allen

It’s late in January and I find myself slipping on the ice. I am walking down a deserted city street that runs near an abandoned industrial complex. Few cars travel this street, but luckily one has driven here recently, or I wouldn’t have the fortune of walking in the tire tracks that save me from a fall. Still, I can’t avoid slipping every few minutes.

Why am I enduring this desolate and dangerous walk on one of the coldest winter days of this season? I am looking for access to the Mississippi River in the city of Saint Louis. Such a search requires patience even when one knows where to go, as I do. Beyond the public and dirty river access provided at the levee parking lot at the foot of the Arch grounds, all other access points require a little bit of walking.

There is an almost-inaccessible short promenade at the foot of Bellerive Park, but the last time that I tried to go there I found construction equipment in my way. Technically, that promenade is the only park in the city that offers access to Old Man River. It’s odd that the city doesn’t even post any signs in upper Bellerive Park pointing out how to get to the riverside.

Yet its even more odd that a city with a riverboat on its city seal, that was a pivotal seat in the river-based exploration of the Western United States and that was once a prosperous inland port does almost nothing to point out that the Mississippi River is more than just an iconic legend around here. Even Downtown Now’s new signs, which readily point out places where people can spend money, do not point out how to get to a place where one can sit by the peaceful flow of muddy water that was so important to the city’s founding and commercial development.

Signs really wouldn’t help much, though, because they could only point to access that doesn’t exist. Much of the riverfront in the city consists of concrete floor walls or industrial tracts such as my favorite river-watching spot. And the ostensibly grand civic riverfront of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has been host to burger barges and a shabby surface parking lot in the last twenty years. City planners have gradually cleared the riverfront of moored vessels, but they have never studies moving the parking lot.

South of the Arch grounds, one can walk though the usually-open gates on the flood wall and get to the river, but then the whole sense of the urban world disappears as one stands between a tall wall and a river. This is a bit more intimate spot than the access offered in front of the Arch grounds and Laclede’s Landing. There are no cars. But then again, there aren’t likely to be any people and hence the experience is rather cold. Engineering thwarts the potential for an urban river outlook.

Elsewhere in the city, people don’t have many choices. The north riverfront trail offers many good vantage points and in a few places provides points of access. These points, however, entail walking down banks and even trespassing. They aren’t fully public. Around the Chain of Rocks Bridge, once can get fairly close to the thicket of trees and foliage growing near the riverbank, but without a machete won’t get too far.

Then there is my favorite place, which I want to keep a secret. This place is not easy to get to, but it provides a clear vantage point far from automobiles and flood walls. I can see the city behind me and the river in front of me, and I can sit down and listen to the river. I don’t feel good about having to keep this place private, but it’s not my choice. Like 96% of the rest of the city’s riverfront, it is not a public space in the eyes of the law. Of course, all of the riverfront is natural public space. The Mississippi is the city’s greatest natural resource, despite its forces removal from the lives of Saint Louisans.

We have turned our backs on the Mississippi River because it no longer is the backbone of our commerce. Like the railroads, the river is a commercial casualty of the interstate highway. But that’s fine, because the river is a natural force that would much rather beckon weary city dwellers to its peaceful banks on a cold January day than be clogged with steamboats and barges. It’s time for us to cooperate.