The loss of the apartment building at 3949 Lindell Boulevard (rebuilt in 2009 after a 2007 fire) after a devastating fire on Monday has raised questions about lightweight construction’s fire resistance. Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson has questioned whether the city can stand the risk of allowing the construction of buildings like the lost apartment building, which had an open attic with only drywall partition fire stops. The roaring fire quickly ate these thin, flammable stops, and raced across the top of the building in a matter of minutes.
The fire chief’s concerns are appropriate. Although no lives were lost, the construction of 3949 Lindell Boulevard clearly was not adequate to resist what started as a small fire on the fourth floor. The wake of the fire might lead to revisions to the city’s building code reminiscent of past changes that have shifted away from requiring fireproof masonry construction. In 1961, the city created its first code that permitted exterior wall systems — “curtain walls” — to not include any masonry. Subsequent revisions have modified provisions in concert with both changes in building technology and the desires of developers who wish to lower constructions costs while shortening building times.
Monday’s fire brought to mind the impact of another disaster on Lindell Boulevard. On September 27, 1927, a major tornado raced northeasterly through the city. Damage on Lindell Boulevard stretched from Vandeventer Avenue west to Taylor avenue, and many buildings were destroyed completely while others were badly damaged.
On September 29, 1927, a massive tornado made its way across the city on a northeasterly track. The path of destruction widened in a part of north St. Louis stretching from Fountain Park to Hyde Park. The worst damage was just west of Grand Avenue between Delmar Boulevard and St. Louis Avenue, but every place in the path was wrecked badly. The Report on the St. Louis Tornado of September 27, 1927 by the Joint Committee of the Engineers’ Club and St. Louis Chapter, American Institute of Architects displayed the staggering destruction of the built environment, chronicled the human loss and called for upgrades in construction techniques. A subsequent major tornado in 1959 spared north St. Louis but left major damage in the Dogtown and Central West End neighborhoods.
Compared to the 1927 and 1959 tornadoes, as well as the famous 1896 “Cyclone,” the tornado that struck the city on December 31, 2010 was mercifully weak. Still, the track of the officially-declared EF1 tornado is longer than the damage suggests. The National Weather Service has published track maps of the recent St. Louis area tornadoes that shows the north St. Louis tornado to have left a 2.1-mile track starting around Lewis Place and moving northeast toward Fairground Park before lifting. The tornado touched down at 12:08 a.m. and lasted for three minutes.
The track of the 2010 tornado is notably similar to the 1927 track. Although the tracks and damage areas do not overlap, they follow a similar shape. The origin of the 2010 tornado is slightly west of the outer path of tornado damage in September 1927, although it is still farther from the actual tornado track. Another difference is that the 1927 tornado did not lift until it reached the river.
While the city was spared a major disaster on New Year’s, it endured a tornado that caused severe property damage and left at least a dozen households homeless. History shows worse could have happened, but also that north St. Louis has been hit by a tornado before. Disaster preparedness, urged in 1927 by leading engineers and architects, remains a crucial matter for the city.
Today we are two weeks away from the day when a severe squall line moved through St. Louis, but for some people that is not a lot of time. On the north side, several neighborhoods are still dealing with widespread property damage and the looming uncertainty of whether homes will remain homes. Some owners lack insurance, while others may have policies with deductibles above the costs of repairing damage. Those costs may still be prohibitive for elderly and poor residents.
Yesterday this blog showed scenes from the Ville (see “Ville Area Still Recovering from New Year’s Eve Storm”). Today let us turn our attention to the Lewis Place neighborhood to the southwest of the Ville, where damage to the historic buildings there is even more widespread. Lewis Place has made it through the ravages of demolition, abandonment and disinvestment and has been on the upswing in recent years. Disaster was the last thing Lewis Place needed.
On Sunday, Lewis Place Historical Preservation, Inc. President Pam Talley showed myself and Lynn Josse the damage that compels our assistance — and yours. What we saw demands St. Louis’ full attention.
Just one block south of the apartment building at Deer and Aldine avenues that suffered a collapse is an ornate two-story, terra-cotta clad building on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. The former dry cleaning plant, with its baroque facade, is little more than a front wall after New Year’s Eve. The one story rear wing collapsed completely and much of the two-story front section fell in on itself. Demolition of the privately-owned vacant building is next, no doubt, but the front elevation ought to be salvaged.
One block south, damage is intense in the 4500 and 4600 blocks of Evans Avenue. Few houses escaped broken windows, many lost or small large parts of their roof and some even lost their wooden or metal porches.
Lewis Place storm damage was not limited to historic buildings. New houses on Page Boulevard lost siding and shingles and suffered broken windows. However, like most neighborhoods in north city, Lewis Place’s housing stock is mostly composed of historic buildings. That means most damage affects older homes that are more difficult to insure adequately and that already have maintenance problems that often drive up repair costs.
We saw damage on streets throughout Lewis Place, including Vernon Avenue, Newberry Terrace, McMillan Avenue, Kensington Place and Enright Avenue. Pam reported that the city’s Forestry Division — usually not a timely factor in Lewis Place events — swept in quickly after the storm and worked throughout New Year’s weekend to clean up the large amount of tree debris generated by the storm. Still, such debris was piled everywhere. Most of all, at every turn we saw boarded windows, asphalt roofing material on the grounds, brick bats from chimneys and parapets, sagging porches, maimed fences and signs that something terrible had happened. Simply, we were tracking the path of a disaster.
When Pam took us to Lewis Place itself, our hearts sunk. The houses that were so essential to the civil rights struggle that made what we now call St. Louis possible stood with yellow caution tape in front. Some had collapsed front parapet walls. Others had boarded up windows, missing roofing and — in one particularly unnerving instance — a frozen waterfall under a window on a vacant house. Even #10 Lewis Place was ailing with its front porch collapsed. Dr. Robert and Fredda Witherspoon, who in the 1940s organized fair-skinned African-Americans to purchase homes on Lewis Place to break down restrictive covenants, called this house home for decades.
Pam told us that the Building Division rushed in after the storm, and had condemned houses the day of the storm. This is standard operating procedure following a disaster, because unsafe buildings must be vacated, but it still seemed insensitive to residents. Lewis Place Historical Preservation raised the money to hire a structural engineer for one resident who is being threatened with condemnation and eviction. Others face potential fines for code violations due to storm damage. This is a sad state for a street that has been a National Register of Historic Places historic district since 1980 and whose residents care deeply about both their neighborhood’s past and future.
While the Building and Forestry divisions of the city treated the storm in Lewis Place like a disaster, other entities have not been so swift. While state officials and mayoral chief of staff Jeff Rainford visited the day after the storm, government assistance has not arrived yet. Pam says that the Salvation Army took eight days to send volunteers. Still Pam has not let the lack of response down — she has secured tarps, blankets and other items for needy residents. By the snow fall on Monday, only three houses with roof damage lacked tarp protection. Pam and her neighbors are used to doing things for themselves, and really are quite good at it. Still, they can’t do it alone — nor should they.
What You Can Do
Lewis Place needs our help! This historic neighborhood is part of our collective heritage, and we need to shoulder it through this rough moment. Consider helping by making a donation.
Assistance for the residents — a high percentage of them senior citizens — is welcome. Items needed are:
• Food items, both perishable and non-perishable, water, juice
• Blankets, toiletries such as toothpaste, tissue, mouthwash and soap
• Clothing such as gloves, caps, scarves, socks and underwear
• Trash bags
Donations can be made at Centennial Christian Church, 4950 Fountain Avenue, St. Louis 63108 between 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. The contact at the church is Cheryl Poynter at 314.367.1818.
Financial donations are needed, too, to assist homeowners with repairs and rebuilding. Checks can be made out to Lewis Place Historical Preservation, 3920 Lindell Blvd., Suite 206, St. Louis, MO 63108, and Attention Pam Talley. For information about how you can help, contact Talley at 314.535.1354.
Severe storms that hit the city on December 31st have left lasting destruction in parts of north St. Louis. In the Ville and Greater Ville area, winds of over 70 miles per hour struck after noon and left blocks of houses with damage ranging from missing fascia cladding to entire collapses. Nearly two weeks later, building owners struggle to get damage repaired amid snowfall, cold weather and — in a few tragic cases — lack of insurance. And some of the buildings hit hard are owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.
The storms on December 31 tracked just east of the path of the devastating tornado that hit St. Louis on September 29, 1927 — a disaster that struck coincidentally at 1:00 p.m. during the week. Over 75 people perished then. Luckily, no one died in the city on New Year’s Eve. However the face of neighborhoods may be changed socially and physically as families are forced to leave their homes and neighborhood landmarks are demolished.
In the last decade, Ville has been hard hit by waves of demolition, arson, brick theft and disinvestment. The storm’s path sadly cuts through the heart of a fragile neighborhood. Some solace can be taken in the fact that not only did the storm just barely avoid Dick Gregory Place — where a $9.5 million redevelopment is taking place — but also did not disrupt work. Workers worked through the storm inside of the 15 historic and two new buildings that comprise the project.
Here are some images of the damage that struck the Ville.
The Mullanphy Emigrant Home in Old North St. Louis sustained more damage during today’s severe storm and accompanying gust. The biggest damage fell on the south section of the primary (east) elevation, adjacent to the south elevation that collapsed last year; that section collapsed from roof to foundation. (See photograph above.) The north elevation also partly collapsed. (See photograph below.)
The collapse of the east elevation is most damaging because the building’s joists run perpendicular and are tied into the wall. Without temporary bracing between floors recently, the joists would have had no support and would have failed completely.
While I am inclined to believe that recent weather in St. Louis is related to global warming, I also take small comfort in the fact that it is nothing new for St. Louis. In fact, things were a lot worse forty years ago during the heat wave of 1966. In July, a three-week heat wave started that claimed 69 lives and saw frequent power outages. On July 14, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that the day was the fifth consecutive day of over-100-degree temperatures, a state terrifying to a region where 200,000 had not had electricity in two days. On July 11, when air conditioners were tapping out available electricity in the area, Union Electric Company (now AmerenUE) started selectively choosing areas for two-hour black-outs to avert a general blackout. The next day, though, a general outage began that took several days to reverse and cost lives.
Thousands of people slept in the city’s parks for weeks on end, and many businesses were effectively shut down. Even then, the news reported that some families who sought air conditioning in their cars were thwarted because their cars were parked inside of garages that could only be opened with electric openers.
At an August meeting on the Missouri Public Service Commission that investigated the utility company’s performance during the heat wave, Union Electric President Charles Dougherty admitted that the power crisis was caused by the inability to complete the new Portage Des Sioux power plant before the summer. Dougherty blamed the contractors who were building the plant for the delay in completion.
We again have electricity, so I will share two images of storm damage in Old North St. Louis.
Here is the house at 1219 Clinton Street in the south end of the neighborhood. While it was already damaged and the roof had collapsed at the start of this year, its east wall was relatively intact until Wednesday.
Here is a close-up of the damage to the roof of the William H. Niedringhaus Home on Sullivan Avenue (our house).
There’s a photo of the damaged Someone Cares Mission building on Benton Street in the What’s New in Old North blog.
Wednesday night was rough on us. The front quarter of the flat roof membrane on the three-story section of our house blew off, pulling up the recovery layer and uncovering the decking. Water poured in, ruining drywall on the third floor and seeping down into the second floor. Meanwhile, my truck was hit by a street tree that fell and the windshield was damaged.
When I returned home, I was able to get a tarp from a neighbor and make a hasty covering although continued lightning cut short my efforts. Our power stayed on long after most neighbors lost theirs, but went out before midnight. It remains off, although just last night I saw lights back on inside of Crown Candy Kitchen, where perishables had been evacuated by distributors.
Yesterday, I stayed home and obtained more tarps from neighbors and set to making a sturdier repair. An ex-neighbor who has been helping friends rehab a building that he sold to them was around and helped me with the work. I used various scrap 2×4’s, 1×4’s and other pieces to nail down the tarps around the edges. I further anchored the tarps with bricks.
At the moment, severe weather has returned and I am at work hoping that my work holds up today. No matter what, we will return to sleep inside of our brick oven tonight to keep thieves away.
Downtown East St. Louis took an incredible hit, with several small historic commercial buildings in states of partial collapse or with severely compromised roofs. The Stockyards area was hard hit, with the old entrance sign bent and the Robertson’s feed store suffering a small collapse. Somehow, the Armour packing Plant and the Murphy Building escaped further damage.
A corner storefront building at Sidney and Lemp in south St. Louis has part of its eastern wall collapse.
Two houses in a lovely Greek Revival row on Howard Street between 13th and 14th streets lost parts of their second-story walls. A commercial building dating to te 1870s in the 1300 block of Benton Street — the old Someone Cares Mission — collapsed; it was already fire-damaged. The nearby Mullanphy Emigrant Home thankfully did not incur further damage.
While officials promised to help evacuate people, seniors down the street at the Jackson place senior center were still sitting around outside while the building lacked power. Ambulances came to the center all day long.
Once again, I was reminded that urban areas have grossly inadequate strategies for coping with summer heat. Winter weather can impair driving, so a lot of emergency planning covers winter storms. Summer heat waves always catch cities off guard, even though they are far deadlier than winter weather. I can’t believe that over 400,000 people in the region lack power during 100-degree heat.
The alley house largely intact, November 19, 2005. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.
The alley house after its wall collapse, April 8, 2006. Photograph by Claire Nowak-Boyd.
The high winds of April brought a cruel fury to the near north side of St. Louis. Spectacular damage sustained on April 2 by the landmark Mullanphy Emigrant Home on 14th Street and the Nord St. Louis Turnverein on Salisbury Street was followed by the total destruction of a smaller building a few days later. Late on April 7, the alley house at 3512 N. 19th Street fell to the winds of the sort that must have inspired T.S. Eliot’s famed quote. The entire western wall, along 19th Street, collapsed and took down most of the roof and second floor, leaving only three walls to contain a pile of rubble that spilled out onto the street.
View of eastern elevation. Photograph by Claire Nowak-Boyd.
The plain two story flat-roofed house stood behind the house at 1530 Mallinckrodt Street, near the head of Garden Street. Construction of the house, which likely housed four households, likely dates to the early 1890s, but the house fell vacant nearly one hundred years later as became part of the city government’s inventory of vacant buildings in 1989. With little interest in Hyde Park in recent years, and even less interest in alley houses, the fine building was only waiting for its demise. No one could have guessed that it would come spectacularly around midnight, just moments before the editors of Ecology of Absence would come upon it while driving home.
View southeast from the corner of 19th and Mallinckrodt streets. The vacant building to the left is privately owned. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.
Sadly, this block has been suffering lately; in October, the Bernard Kettman House at 1522-24 Mallickrodt caught fire and now sits condemned and vacant. Other buildings on the 1500 block of Mallinckrodt are vacant or in disrepair.