Cherokee Street Gravois Park South St. Louis

Foreclosures and Demolition in Gravois Park

by Michael R. Allen

Vacant lots silently are starting to multiply on the city’s “state streets,” especially in parts of Gravois Park and Dutchtown between promising business districts on Cherokee Street and Meramec Avenue. Even worse are the innumerable signs of future trauma: bleached-red plywood, windows gasping through shards of broken glass, front doors hung ajar, downspouts and gutter pans already smelted in blast furnaces outside Beijing and weeds that cannot be cut enough to stay low. While much attention has been shed on vacancy’s impact on the north side, the south side is showing the signs of a future crisis.

Foreclosure has been a huge factor making neglect more difficult to sustain. As waves of investors abandoned underwater multi-family buildings, the vacancy rates soared in Benton Park West, Gravois Park, Dutchtown and other neighborhoods. In 2008, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city a $5.6 million grant to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed homes. Under the direction of then-Deputy Mayor for Development Barbara Geisman, the city’s Community Development Administration targeted those funds in Gravois Park, Benton Park West and Dutchtown. At the time, the city projected the purchase of 87 homes and an application to receive $10 million toward purchasing 231 more.

3006-8 Cherokee Street in 2003. Image from Geo St. Louis.
Bevo South St. Louis

The South (Country) Side

by Michael R. Allen

The Alligator Oil Clothing Company Building at 4171 Bingham Avenue.

I just submitted a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Alligator Oil Clothing Company Buildings, early reinforced concrete industrial buildings designed by Leonhard Haeger (architect of the possibly-lost Pevely Dairy Plant office building). Some readers may recognize the mighty factory building on the northern edge of the Bevo neighborhood, which stands on Bingham Avenue between Gravois and Morganford. Built in 1918 and 1919, the two contributing buildings use the Turner “mushroom cap” structural system, and the main building is a very unusual early example of a fully-exposed exterior concrete structure. More on the Alligator plant later — now I want to show a neat discovery.

Looking west down Meramec Avenue toward Gravois Road, 1918. Photograph from the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.

In researching the building, we needed photographs showing that the Alligator buildings retained what the National Register defines as “integrity” — essentially, whether the buildings still convey the attributes that they displayed in their historic period. Tracking down historic photographs was difficult, but we managed to fine one view showing the main Alligator building in 1918, thanks to the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation. The date is clear because the smaller eastern building completed in 1919 is not evident in the photograph.

The view looks west down Meramec Avenue. The diagonal road running across the photograph is Gravois. Chippewa Avenue is seen at right, running diagonally toward the top of the frame. An intersecting diagonal running toward the right top of the frame is the former St. Louis, Oak Hill and Carondelet Railroad line. The Alligator plant is marked with a dark circle. Contrasting with the one-story flat-roofed houses sprouting on subdivisions lots is the dominant feature of the images: the contours of row cropped farm fields. Less that 100 years ago, the area around Chippewa and Gravois was nearly rural.

Abandonment Benton Park West South St. Louis

Two Blocks of Utah Street

by Michael R. Allen

Now that I live south of Tower Grove Park and work at Cherokee and Jefferson, my daily path has taken me through Benton Park West’s grid of state streets. Some blocks and buildings are familiar from my previous years living in Tower Grove East, but others are new. The dense cavalcade of vernacular red-brick (and some frame) buildings seems unending, and any way to and from the office seems to be the perfect way.

Still, as an architectural historian who works in historic preservation, my eye tends to wander toward the broken, the changing and the potential-filled buildings. The streets around Cherokee Street are changing a lot, but not always in concert with the renewal that is changing Cherokee almost-universally for the better. As with the relationship between Manchester Avenue and the rest of Forest Park Southeast, the relationship between Cherokee Street and its surrounding neighborhoods evokes a sense of social and architectural division. Then, of course, within the streets around Cherokee blocks are different from each other in unforeseen ways.

View southeast toward the house of the 2700 block of Utah Street.

This week a journey down Utah Street brought me into contact with two blocks in the midst of changes wrought by abandonment. The first of these is the 2700 block, between Iowa and California. On the south side of this block is a row of six houses marred by a vacant lot. Flat-roofed, with overhanging hoods and other elements, the brick houses are typical early twentieth century dwellings for this part of the city. Some people know these houses due to an unfortunate abnormality: several of these are crooked, sinking lop-sided below their lawns. The vacant lot marks the site of the first demolition, necessitated by a severe structural failure caused by subsidence. This demolition very likely won’t be the last.

Demolition Gate District Schools South St. Louis

Hodgen School is Gone

by Michael R. Allen

View northeast across the Hodgen School site.

If the reader has had the sense that something is missing from St. Louis, that feeling has at least one concrete cause. The city stands bereft of one more monument to its former aspirations, the red brick Hodgen School that stood at California and Henrietta avenues until just two weeks ago. Yesterday, workers from Ahrens Contracting had already filled and graded the depression in which Hodgen’s foundation walls had begun rising in 1884. Now, a fragment of school yard fence, a tangled pile of pipes and wires and a stone retaining wall are the only traces on the site indicating that once something great stood here.

Fire Hospitals South St. Louis

St. Mary’s Infirmary

We were saddened to get the news this morning that the historic St. Mary’s Infirmary suffered a three-alarm fire last night. Perhaps the most significant association of the building is its connection to African-American history. The hospital entered an important new phase in 1933, when it became the city’s second African-American hospital with the city’s first-ever racially integrated medical staff. Later that year, the Sisters of St. Mary also opened a nursing school for African-American candidates, creating the city’s second school of nursing open to African-Americans and the nation’s first Catholic nursing school that admitted African-Americans.

Here we are posting the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the complex, written by Michael R. Allen.

Demolition North St. Louis Schools SLPS South St. Louis

Hodgen School Under Demolition

by Michael R. Allen

Historic View of Hodgen School. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1884.

The Hodgen School rose from the good soil of St. Louis in stages starting in 1884. Then, 128 years later, the St. Louis Public Schools destroyed it. The Hodgen School displayed no signs of stress, decay or lack of reuse potential. Its limestone foundation and brick walls were sturdy, and its ornamental details — carved limestone blocks, rounded bows, sheet metal cornices — all were proof of the prowess of St. Louis craftsmen during the Gilded Age.

Do the blows dealt by the demolition team’s sledge hammers match the precise gestures by stonemasons long ago? Of course not. Yet they exemplify the change in attitude from the era in which St. Louis’ aspirations were palpable in the designs of architects like Otto Wilhelmi, who designed Hodgen’s main section. Today, as Hodgen School falls to create playground space serving an underwhelming replacement building, we can see this city’s casual disregard for its own future. The St. Louis Public Schools’ choice to use funds raised by the sales tax for building renovations is a travesty.

The underutilized park wast of the new Hodgen could have accommodated a playground. The old Hodgen building was deemed eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office last year, based on an eligibility assessment prepared by Lindsey Derrington of Preservation Research Office. National Register listing would have allowed historic rehabilitation tax credits to be used for reuse. The building’s views of the Gateway Arch and near south side location made it a likely — if not immediate — candidate for reuse. Sustainability — embodied by reusing second-nature resources that include whole buildings — ought to be a value that the St. Louis Public Schools teaches its students.

The Special Administrative Board raised $150 million for building improvements through Proposition S in August 2010. Voters did not know that any of this money would be used to demolish a historic, National Register-eligible building — a use that does nothing to help education in a struggling school district. The district instead could have raised money by selling Hodgen School, which taxpayers had already renovated at a cost over a half million dollars around 1990. The Special Administrative Board not only wasted money today, they wasted money spent 22 years ago. Yet St. Louis is not alone, which is why statewide advocacy group Missouri Preservation categorically placed School Buildings of Missouri on this year’s statewide Most Endangered Places List. That listing and the Hodgen demolition should make St. Louisans mindful of what built record of our values we are giving to the next generations.

Schools SLPS South St. Louis Tower Grove South

Investing in Mann School

by Michael R. Allen

Throughout 2009, the preservation community was startled by the February announcement by St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams that 17 schools were closing. Among the superintendent’s recommendations was the consolidation of Mann School (located at 4047 Juniata Avenue) in Tower Grove South with Sherman School in Shaw at the site of Mann School, which would be demolished for a new building.

Thankfully, that plan did not come to pass. Mann School survived the 2010 round of closings and Adams never again mentioned demolition or closure of the building, built in 1901 and 1916 according to designs by nationally-renowned master architect William B. Ittner.

Although Mann survived closure, the future of the building was not certain. That has changed. In May, the Special Administrative Board of the St. Louis Public Schools allotted contracts for restroom renovations and tuckpointing at the building. The investment in the building is good news to Tower Grove South, where Mann School is an important neighborhood anchor.

One of the reasons for Adams’ 2009 recommendation was the performance of students at this elementary school. Concerned neighbors formed the Alliance to Preserve Mann School, and parents and teachers worked on school performance. The closure proposal was a sobering reminder that architectural pedigree alone does not keep schools open. Public buildings are expressions of public culture. Mann’s construction reflected the ideals of the early 20th century, and its maintenance today reflects continued neighborhood investment in the school’s future.

Local Historic District Preservation Board Soulard South St. Louis

Soulard Solar Collectors

by Michael R. Allen

Looking northeast on Russell Avenue from Menard Street. The Bastille building is at center.

On May 21, the Preservation Board denied an application for solar collector installation from Robert Hiscox, owner of the Bastille bar at 1027 Russell in Soulard. Hiscox proposed installing black collector panels on the south-facing rear sloped roof of his building, shown at the center of the photograph above. Soulard is a local historic district governed by design standards last updated by ordinance in 1991.

The Soulard local historic district standards are not explicit about solar panels, which means that their installation requires a variance. The standards mandate that the character of sloped roofs be maintained through adherence to one of several times of approved roofing (most of which were not in use before 1900, I might point out). In a few instances, the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) has recommended that the Preservation Board grant a variance, and the Board has done just that. This time, however, CRO recommended denial of a variance based on the public visibility of the Bastille’s street-facing rear roof.

In her report to the Preservation Board, CRO Director Betsy Bradley wrote that “Russell Avenue is one of the wider streets in the district and links the historic district with interstate highway access and neighborhoods to the west, and therefore a street important in the perception of the historic character of the Soulard district.” Certainly, the Bastille’s roof is very visible and panels would change the visual character of the block. The Preservation Board made the right decision based on the current standards, which need to be rewritten to provide clear rules about solar collectors.

In an article by David Hunn in last week’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there is discussion of the need to revise the Soulard standards and other local district standards to create definite guidelines for the use of energy efficient technologies like solar collectors. Should new standards permit solar collectors to be installed on street-facing roofs? Perhaps. Standing-seam galvanized roofing was once a roofing material widely used on gable roofs in Soulard. A manufacturers’ challenge is to make solar panels that could mimic such a material, which could then be incorporated in revised standards.

Yet another consideration came from my colleague Mike Jackson at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, who e-mailed me after the story came out. Mike made the point that solar panels’ efficiency are generally only 10%, making them far less “green” than they seem. Purchasing power from regional off-site sustainable sources like wind farms, while undertaking efficiency measures on building envelopes, actually is more efficient for historic building owners than a few solar panels. Solar panels will become more efficient, but they may not be the greenest way to enhance historic buildings. Thus we should be careful when revising local district standards based on current technology.

Parks South St. Louis Southwest Garden Streets

Kingshighway Needs a Crosswalk at Tower Grove Park

by Michael R. Allen

In 1902, St. Louis Mayor Rolla Wells appointed a commission to make recommendations for establishing a circumferential boulevard. The commission, led by landscape architect George Kessler, delivered a report calling for a wide and well-landscaped road connecting Carondelet, Tower Grove, Forest and O’Fallon parks, the major north side cemeteries and the north and south riverfront areas. Wells signed an ordinance in 1907 enacting the plan, but its realization was never full. Parts of the Kingshighway system exist, such as the southeast extension along Christy and Holly Hills boulevards as well as the northern memorial parkway from Martin Luther King Drive to Penrose Park.

Yet where Kingshighway was partially or never realized, the road is noisy, sometimes ugly and difficult to traverse on foot. Alas, that is the case at Tower Grove Park. There are traffic signals at Magnolia and Arsenal streets, but no intervening signal or stop sign for the rest of the western length of the park. Residents of Southwest Garden to the west have a tough time walking into Tower Grove Park.

National Register South St. Louis Southwest Garden

Introducing the Shaw’s Garden Historic District

South city’s newest National Register of Historic Places historic district is the Shaw’s Garden Historic District in Southwest Garden, listed by the National Park Service on April 16. The listing follows the listing of the adjacent Reber Place Historic District on the west side of Kingshighway, and makes a large part of Southwest Garden eligible for historic rehabilitation tax credits. even before listing was completed, developers already starting trying to purchase buildings in the districts for tax credit projects!

The Craftsman style is prevalent in the District, as evinced by these two-family buildings in the 4500 block of Shenandoah Avenue.

The Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association, with Community Development Block Grant funding allocated by Alderman Steve Conway (D-8th), hired Preservation Research Office to prepare both nominations. PRO Director Michael R. Allen and Architectural Historian Lynn Josse prepared the Shaw’s Garden Historic District nomination, which encompasses 18 city blocks and 403 contributing primary buildings.

View Shaw’s Garden Historic District in a larger map

The Shaw’s Garden Historic District represents the fulfillment of the desire of the Missouri Botanical Garden under Director George T. Moore to improve its surroundings through subdivision of property bequeathed to the Garden in the will of Henry Shaw, and the clear vision of suburban development advanced by the Garden’s long-time landscape architect John Noyes. The resulting landscape is a rare realization within the city limits of progressive suburban planning ideals implemented in contemporary landscapes in St. Louis County. An earlier subdivision, the Tower Grove Park Addition (1870), was largely undeveloped when the Garden platted the Shaw’s Vandeventer Avenue Addition north of Shaw Avenue in 1916.

The Tudor Revival-style house at 2605 Alfred Avenue, built in 1923 and designed by Sol Abrahms, faces the Missouri Botanical Garden.