Downtown Midtown South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga

Random Notes

by Michael R. Allen

A few random notes:

  • Thomas Crone has found much of the material salvaged from St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church — in a new bar on Manchester Avenue fittingly called “The Church Key.” Read his review of that new establishment here.
  • Some readers may have noticed that the Syndicate Trust Building is undergoing both removal of its older coats of paint and repainting. Apparently, the cost of total restoration is prohibitive because the old paint damaged the original buff brick quite badly. The new paint is similar in color to the old paint, and returns the monochrome look to the building.
  • Long-needed rehabs of the Metropolitan and Woolworth’s buildings in Midtown are on hold. Meanwhile, with the completion of the new building on Live just west of the Continental Building’s parking garage at a similar height to that garage and the Scottish Rite garage across the street has an ill effect. While before vacant land took away from the visual quality of the block, now bland architecture and a lack of variety in form and height give the block the feel of a wind tunnel. The new building is a modest contemporary structure that is the least offender compared to the two dreadful parking garages, neither of which has any street-level retail. Add to the mix that the Continental Building’s storefront remains empty four years after the building re-opened — wasn’t that supposed to be space for an “upscale restaurant”? — and Olive Street just west of Grand is a very poor place to be a pedestrian these days. Once upon a time, this was the busiest intersection in the city and observers thought Midtown would be the “second downtown.”
  • Categories
    Churches Demolition South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga

    St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church Under Demolition

    Photograph taken on Tuesday, May 2.
    Housing South St. Louis Southwest Garden St. Aloysius Gonzaga

    Magnolia Square: The Triumph of Mediocrity

    by Michael R. Allen

    The website for “Magnolia Square,” the development set to replace St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, shows that the development has changed since it was proposed to the city’s Preservation Board in December. For one thing, DiMartino Homes (James Wohlert’s company) has joined with two other companies, Heyde Homes and Prather Homes, to develop the project. Perhaps this move addresses perceived shortcomings on DiMartino’s part.

    Most interesting is that, despite intense criticism of the site plan and a supposed effort by the Planning and Urban Design Agency to make it more site-appropriate, the site plan has not changed much. The four lots on January are still unusually large and suburban; the corner lots created have no alley access and all four place the primary elevation of the homes along the length rather than the width of each lot. This layout takes suburban principles and rather awkwardly places them in the city, where such lots are rare and mostly used for grand, large homes. Yet the developers no doubt know that large, wide homes fetch larger prices than city-style shotguns. I should note that the hipped-roof option for the “January Model” of home one can build on these lots looks a lot like the rectory of the church that will be demolished. What gross pastiche!

    Other models are called “Marie” and, most silly, “Royal Star.” The Royal Star is a masterpiece of deception, though, and critics should note its innovative form. The Royal Star manages to create a rambling mess of a automobile-centered dwelling featuring a connected three-car garage with — I’m not kidding — shotgun-style parking! This model is designed for a more traditionally-sized city lot, so it is very narrow and long. With the garage in back, it almost stretches from the front yard to the alley, killing that oh-so-sought-after yard space developers like DiMartino like to sell. I guess that’s a privilege of the buyers of the January model.

    The Royal Star also has its entrance off to one side of the porch, which is an architectural tendency that enforces the deceptive nature of the model. Not only is it a suburban home trying to disguise itself as a shotgun, but it won’t even make its front door obvious. A true expression of a an entrance is clear to indicate the function of the porch and doorway; this arrangement may assuage concerns for “security” but it robs the home of the beauty of clear functional expression.

    There is not much to say about the Marie Model, which is tolerably average. Overall, the design quality is lacking. The materials shown on the renderings are not encouraging. For instance, the graceless bulk of the Royal Star will be clothed in siding on three sides. The brick veneer may harmonize with the neighborhood but is not a very progressive choice of materials. If we have to tear down wonderful buildings to build anew, we should build something greater than what was there before. Here, we could have built modern housing that could showcase contemporary innovation in materials like concrete, stone, steel and other metals, actual brick masonry and glass. With the architectural context of the block very heterogeneous, experimentation would not have been visually inappropriate.

    I should also note that the developers are claiming that Magnolia Square is on The Hill, when in fact it is in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood. I suppose the target buyers are ignorant of proper city neighborhoods. I will admit that “Southwest Garden” is a contrived identity for this area, but it really is not part of the Hill proper.

    Overall, the development offers its only real advance for infill housing in the lot dimensions for the western part of the block. Otherwise, nearly every other aspect is a clumsy urban adaptation of suburban forms. The city should have worked with the Catholic church to issue a Request for Proposals for this block, and allowed for public input before proceeding with this mediocre development. This project is not worth loss of one of the most thoughtful church settings in the city.

    Historic Preservation Media Southwest Garden St. Aloysius Gonzaga

    National Trust Covers Plight of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church

    Houses Could Replace St. Louis Church – Megan Hogan (Preservation Online, February 1)

    The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s online magazine offers this coverage of the proposed demolition of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, featuring quotes from my report for Landmarks Association of St. Louis and from Steve Patterson. I’m glad that they actually care about this historic St. Louis building.

    Preservation Board South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga St. Louis Board of Aldermen The Hill

    St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church Loses Two Votes

    by Michael R. Allen

    Yesterday, the Land Clearance for Redevelopment authority approved the project known as “Magnolia Square,” that would demolish venerable St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church to build 36 new houses.

    Today, the aldermanic Housing, Urban Design and Zoning (HUDZ) Committee unanimously voted — without roll call — to send Board Bill #361 (sponsored by Alderman Joe Vollmer, An ordinance establishing a Planned Unit for City Block 4054.11 to be known as “Magnolia Square Subdivision”), to the full Board of Aldermen. Alderman Vollmer and developer James Wohlert presented their plans briefly. Wohlert told the committee that DiMartino Homes primarily buys vacant lots for new construction or old houses for demolition and new construction; he did not mention any experience in historic rehabilitation. The presenters barely acknowledged that the project failed to receive preliminary approval from the city’s Preservation Board.

    Historic Preservation South St. Louis Southwest Garden St. Aloysius Gonzaga The Hill

    Neighborhood Sentiment on St. Aloyisus Gonzaga Church

    by Michael R. Allen

    I attended Monday’s meeting of the Southwest Neighborhood Garden Association and listened to many residents speak about the “Magnolia Square” project that calls for demolishing the church. The section of the meeting devoted to the project was conducted as a sort of “town hall” with neighborhood association president Floyd Wright acting as moderator between residents and the assembled crew of developer James Wohlert, Alderman Joseph Vollmer (D-10th) and Father Vincent Bommarito of the neighboring St. Ambrose parish. Eleven speakers spoke against demolition of part or all of the existing church building, one spoke in favor of Magnolia Square and six people asked pointed questions of the developer. Although there was reference to supposed outside-the-‘hood opposition to demolition, it became clear on Monday that residents who are informed largely don’t support demolition. What they would support as reuse is a matter of debate, though. Steve Patterson spoke against demolition and presented an alternate plan that would place several condo units inside the church. Half of the people who opposed demolition reacted negatively to his idea.

    Yet condominium conversion is only one possible reuse for the church. While even more unconventional ideas, like office space for a small company or a restaurant, would certainly find no support from the neighborhood, other plans might. I think that neighbors of the church love its beautiful and serene site — and don’t want any use that would generate more vehicle traffic than the church did. Perhaps the church could become a community center or art gallery. I hope that neighbors who oppose demolition and condominiums can suggest a reuse that would be economically feasible.

    If the owner of the property had an open mind, such a brainstorming could produce a wonderful compromise that would preserve the church, convent and rectory — I’m not counting on the never-finished original church to be a popular rallying point — while allowing for new home construction on the rest of the site.

    However, it’s also clear that Wohlert has no intention of backing down with his plan. He is supported by Alderman Vollmer, who did most of the talking on Wohlert’s behalf on Monday. (Smart move, I suppose.) While the alderman was diplomatic, he also seemed to ignore resident commentary by repeatedly making statements suggesting that demolition was inevitable, even after it was clear that almost no one was buying them.

    Vollmer’s answer to the question of whether he would take Ward 10 out of preservation review if the Preservation Board would not reverse its preliminary denial of a demolition permit was only mildly encouraging. He said that he did not want to remove the ward from review, but removal existed as a “last resort.” He also stated later that there was almost no exceptional architecture in Southwest Garden — a neighborhood containing State Hospital, St. Aloysius Gonzaga and many interesting vernacular buildings — and that people moved there for the neighborhood, not for architecture. While I’m sure that his thoughts are more elaborate than they sounded, he came across as crudely disrespectful toward his own ward’s historic buildings.

    Wohlert came under fire even from people who don’t think preservation is realistic. Many people asked him about his hideous new house on January Avenue, which is on of the least urban buildings in the city. They wondered whether he could build good-looking buildings, and furthermore if he could sell them (his speculative house only now found a buyer after months on the market). He assured people that he is incorporating every one of the Cultural Resources Office’s recommendations for reworking his project, but did not convince many people of his ability to building thirty-six new homes in an urban context.

    The next step will be a meeting of the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee on Monday, January 16 at 10:00 a.m. in Room 208 of City Hall. The Committee will hear Vollmer’s bill that declares the St. Aloysius Gonzaga block “blighted.” It’s full steam ahead for the project’s backers, even if the residents of Southwest Garden have objections.

    Meanwhile, has lauched.

    Historic Preservation Preservation Board South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga

    Victory for St. Aloysius

    by Michael R. Allen

    Today, the Preservation Board not only voted against permitting the demolition of the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex but also voted separately to deny the permit outright. As someone who has followed the demolition saga since September and as someone who presented testimony today, I am greatly encouraged by today’s meeting. Activism works! All of the efforts that Steve Patterson has put into the issue this week raised awareness and led people to send letters and testify. This church that seemed obscure and doomed in the fall received enough appreciative attention to convenience the Preservation Board to preserve it.

    I note that no one from the neighborhood attended save demolition advocates Alderman Joe Vollmer (D-10th) and Father Vincent Bommarito of St. Ambrose Church. Did anyone there really know about this important decision?

    The votes were interesting. The vote on a motion by Commissioner Luis Porello (second by Mary Johnson) to grant the demolition permit went this way:

    Yea: Porello, Johnson
    Nay: John Burse, Melanie Fathman, Anthony Robinson, Richard Callow

    The vote on the motion to deny the permit, made by Richard Callow and seconded by John Burse went this way:

    Yea: Callow, Burse, Fathman, Robinson, Johnson
    Nay: Porello

    Citizens interested in urban design and historic preservation can make a difference when we work together to challenge the status quo. In this case, we turned the situation around and got the Preservation Board to flat-out deny demolition. Although this is a preliminary review, and the developer can return to the Board for approval again, the vote shows that they will have to redesign their plans to save at least the church to make it past the Board. It’s likely that the developer will keep trying to get the plan exactly as it is, though, so we’ll see how long this victory lasts.

    Historic Preservation South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga The Hill

    Preserving St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church

    by Michael R. Allen

    Expanded version of report written for Landmarks Association of St. Louis, September 2005.


    The St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish had its origin with an 1892 petition by Catholics in the newly-developing Fairmont district of St. Louis. These Catholics, almost exclusively of German origin, were among a wave of residents who moved into the area after the development of Scullin’s electric streetcar line. Their petition was successful, although the parish would not have a permanent church building for another 33 years. On March 9, 1892, Vicar General Henry Muehlsiepen came to the area to deliver a mass at a private residence, an act followed by his ordering a census of the area that showed 60 families ready to organize a new parish. Reverend F.G. Holweck, assistant pastor at St. Francis De Sales church, became the first pastor on May 27, 1892.

    Detail of entrance to church.

    For the parish, the Church purchased for $8,500.00 ten acres of land on Reber Place between Columbia and Reber avenues. This large amount of land was subdivided into three city blocks (CB #4054A, 4054B and 4054C) in an inviting arrangement, with the church buildings planned for the center block and new homes planned for the two flanking blocks. The arrangement of spaces showed some sense of visual drama, with Magnolia Avenue running up to the middle block, where the church would sit, and continuing around the church block with two home-lined streets. The site is probably one of the best examples of urban planning by a parish in the entire city.

    The parish undertook construction of a temporary frame church building, dedicated on October 16, 1892 in honor of St. Aloysius, and a school building. With Rev. Holweck acting as pastor and as real estate agent for the lots on the residential blocks, the parish grew fast and reported 130 families at some point in the mid-1890s. Masses were largely in German. The parish was strong enough for a permanent church, and the parish turned to the renowned St. Louis church architect Joseph Conradi for plans. Conradi designed an elaborate Gothic edifice that would have been marvelous — had it been completed. After laying the cornerstone on May 7, 1899 and building the basement, the parish quickly ran out of money for completing the structure. The parish roofed the basement and the incomplete building became the second home for St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish.

    Side view of church building.

    Around the turn of the century, numerous Italian immigrants arrived in the Fairmont district. Later to become the ethnic group most widely associated with the area, the Italians at the time were struggling to establish cultural institutions that honored their heritage. Italian Catholics in St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish were far from the city’s only two Italian-speaking parishes, and turned to their local parish for assistance. In 1903, Rev. Holweck invited Rev. Ceasar Spigardi of St. Charles Borromeo Church to organize a mission for Italians in the St. Aloysius building. This mission raised funds to organize the St. Ambrose parish, which was able to move into its own temporary building by year’s end.

    The Rectory.

    A new pastor, Rev. Francis G. Brand, arrived in 1903 and worked to pay off the church’s debts. He oversaw construction of the existing rectory (built in 1904 by plans from “Koester”) and convent (built in 1911 by plans from Joseph Stander and Sons). Building permits show that in 1914, the parish started building a new school building at the northeast corner of South Magnolia and January (since demolished). Most importantly, though, Brand led efforts to build yet another church building, designed by Ludwig and Dreisoerner (a firm on whom extensive information does not seem to be available) in the Romanesque style. As a late example of a St. Louis church in the Romanesque style, St. Aloysius Gonzaga displays the conservatism of archdiocesan architecture at the time. This building had its cornerstone laid on May 2, 1925, and was completed in April 1926. Construction cost $500,000. The old unfinished church building was remodeled for use as the parish bowling alley and gymnasium, a use it held until the parish closure in 2005.

    The parish went on to peak at 800 families in the 1950s. In 1962, the parish built a new school building. The original 1914 school building was wrecked at some point. The school closed in 2002 and the parish was closed in 2005 after dwindling to 315 families.

    Clay Mines Under Church

    Claims that old clay mines are undermining the main church building likely have some truth, although I have not located conclusive evidence. A June 10, 2005 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes damage to the building caused by settling, including a supposed split down the center of the building and rapid settling of part of the building around the bell tower. The article states that the parish tried to stabilize the building: “about 15 years ago workers put 63 pins in the foundation — nothing held.”

    The Convent.

    Inspection of plat maps and atlases has not confirmed that this location was the site of a clay mine. No Geological Survey of Missouri spends much time on clay mining, and only the 1890 edition contains county maps of clay mines. The Geological Survey of Missouri’s 1890 supplement The Clay, Stone, Lime and Sand Industries of St. Louis City and County shows that the site sat above clay deposits connected with the Cheltenham district, but locates the closest recently active mines or pit a half-mile to the north. Many brickworks mined the belt of clay that runs through this area. Evans and Howard as well as Laclede-Christy had nearby brick kilns and mine entrances. The site may have been host to an unmapped and short-lived pit; those were common in the Cheltenham district. Compton and Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis of 1875 does show a few small dome-like structures near this location which may be kilns. Yet little subdivision of the Fairmont district had taken place by 1875 and the structures may be haystacks.

    The mine tunnels supposedly under St. Aloysius Gonzaga may be extensions of the mine drawn on the map found in The Hill, which is located north of Columbia Avenue. Larry Giles, who has thoroughly researched the clay-mining operations in the Cheltenham district, speculated in an interview that there probably is a mine tunnel under St. Aloysius, because the tunnels were rarely mapped and never disclosed to the State Geological Survey. Without a map of that particular mine, Giles says, it would be impossible to make a definite identification of any tunnel under the church. He says that whatever tunnel exists under the church building would also extend through surrounding blocks, and any shrinkage thereof would be systematic. Filling the tunnel without substantial excavation would be impossible; new development on the site could be plagued by severe settling if it is occurring on the land.

    The original church building.

    A search on Pitzman’s 1878 real estate atlas offers no suggestive leads; the full site of the parish and its subdivision is shown as being owned by Union National Bank of St. Louis. On the Pitzman atlas, no parcels south of Columbia Avenue are owned by brick or ceramic companies, likely due to the establishment of subdivisions there. Without access to the interior of the church building, there is difficulty in making any determination of the physical condition of the 1926 building. From the exterior, it looks sound, and the Building Division has not condemned it. One imagines that a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the subsequent availability of historic tax credits could make renovation, even with structural problems, feasible.

    Inside of the sanctuary. Photograph by Mary Ann Owens.

    Preservation Board Considering Demolition

    Yet new development threatens to destroy the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish complex for a rather conventionally New Urban subdivision. The developer who purchased the parish buildings from the archdiocese this year, Wohlert Company LLC, has sacrificed the grace of the setting for uninspiring tract housing. Gone would be the stunning head-on view of the steeple from Magnolia Avenue and the old-growth trees. Consideration of preservation of at least the 1926 church seems obvious, but an even wiser plan would save the main church and the older buildings to retain one of the city’s most intimate church settings. Ample space for new housing would remain on the block.

    Entrance from vestibule into sanctuary.  Photograph by Mary Ann Owens.

    The staff of the city’s Cultural Resources Office has submitted the proposed demolition for review, stating that the buildings are of high merit and eligible for National Register listing. That opinion is correct, and is an accurate interpretation of the city’s Preservation Review Ordinance, which suggests that demolition of the complex for the subdivision is imprudent and possibly an abuse of the ordinance. Yet the Cultural Resources Office is bowing to the pressure to let the development proceed, and is recommending that demolition be allowed. The Preservation Board should go against this recommendation and instead instruct the developer to come up with an alternate plan that respects the Preservation Review Ordinance and gives The Hill area a dignified and historic urban setting, of which it has few remaining. The same developer recently built a home at January and South Magnolia that is totally disrespectful of context, with an attached garage and materials inappropriate for all but a flimsy shed. Within a two-block radius, numerous examples of bad infill housing abound — replete with vinyl siding and garage doors facing the street. The Hill area contains several large tract-house developments from the last 25 years, including the new Parc Ridge Estates development on the cleared site of the Truman Restorative Center.

    The context of The Hill (more accurately called the Fairmont District) has been severely diminished in the last 25 years. Demolition of St. Aloysius Gonzaga is a mistake and should be prevented. The mistakes of the past should only strengthen our resolve to make better choices for the future.


    City of St. Louis Building Permits.

    Survey of Historic Churches of St. Louis Collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

    Toft, Carolyn (ed.). The Hill: The Ethnic Heritage of an Urban Neighborhood. St. Louis, Mo.: Washington University School of Social Science, 1975.

    Wayman, Norbury. The Hill. St. Louis: Community Development Agency, 1976.

    SLPS South St. Louis St. Aloysius Gonzaga

    Nouveau Rousseau

    Southwest High School after mural cover-up, September 1, 2004. Photo by Michael R. Allen.

    by Susan Turk

    The businesslike efficiency, which now typifies the management of the Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), was demonstrated August 23 by the speedy obliteration of Nouveau Rousseau, a landmark mural which had graced the façade of Southwest High School at Arsenal and Kingshighway for the past 20 years. Painted by Southwest students, Nouveau Rousseau, transformed an otherwise unremarkable building into a tropical jungle, giving passing motorists, Metro riders and pedestrians a glimpse of paradise reminiscent of French painter Henri Rousseau’s landscapes. In its place we are left with newly painted plain brown brick walls which the administration considers to be a more appropriate representation of the future of a building soon to house Bunche International Studies Middle School and Central VPA HS.

    Photo by Frank Szofran.

    Much like that icon of American business, Henry Ford, who considered history to be “bunk”, SLPS COO Manny Silva explained in the Post-Dispatch that obliterating was important to symbolize that this was a new school. Since the mural symbolized the old, now defunct Southwest HS, it had to go. And so, a work of art that had become part of our cultural heritage had to be sacrificed.

    Nevermind that it was quite possibly illegal. Nevermind that federal law recognizes the moral right of artists to protect their work from alteration or destruction. Nevermind that federal copyright law requires that if the owner of a building wishes to destroy a work of art painted on it, he is obligated to either get written permission from the artist or artists who created it, or first give the artists the opportunity to try to remove and preserve it.

    So much for respect to the former students who created Nouveau Rousseau. So much for their legacy, a testament to the quality of fine arts education in the SLPS. All gone within a matter of hours.

    Photo by Frank Szofran.

    It is a sad commentary on the current outlook of the district’s administration that some small economy could not be found to preserve Nouveau Rousseau in some way. It could have been photographed and displayed elsewhere.

    From the destruction of historic buildings that housed public schools, to the scattering of the historical treasures that were housed in the districts archives, to the obliteration of the landmark Nouveau Roussea, one can only surmise that to the business men running St. Louis Public Schools, history IS bunk. But while there may not be much room for history and art in the rarified business climate that now governs the SLPS, history and art are important components of an educated mind.

    Somehow, the brave new evangelists who have brought the gospel of efficiency to the SLPS are going to have to reconcile academic and business cultures if they are going to be successful in improving the outcomes for our students. Hopefully, they will not often find it more efficient to destroy the proud products of our students’ labors in the process.

    From the August 30, 2004 issue of the electronic newsletter version of Saint Louis Schools Watch. To subscribe, email editor Peter Downs.