Coming Soon. So proclaims this small plastic sign, affixed by screws and washers to the front wall of a north St. Louis building. There’s a dumpster out back, so the sign definitely is telling it straight.
The building is a sturdy two-family with a lovely pressed-metal cornice. What makes the rehab so remarkable is the building’s location. This building stands at 2417 Cass Avenue, across the street from the untamed site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. There are only three buildings left on this block face, spaced out considerably. This block is one of ten that the city tried to clear completely in the late 1980s as part of the failed Commerce Business Park plan. Much of this pocket of St. Louis Place was removed, leaving just a handful of buildings and so much vacant land the area has been dubbed the “urban prairie.”
Amid these challenges, owner Grace Baptist Church, which occupies another building on the block face, is working to bring the building back to life. One of the incongruities of thinking about shrinking cities is the persistence of neighborhood economy and reuse demand in depleted neighborhoods. Where there’s a long-term store of value — a building — there may well be a will to make it into wealth. Basic market economics seem to be more enduring than cyclical urban planning interventions.
Working in conjunction with 5th Ward Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin and the non-profit group Community Renewal and Development, Inc, the Preservation Research Office submitted a National Register nomination for the St. Louis Place Historic District earlier this year. We are happy to report that the document was approved by the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation this past Friday, May 20th, paving the way for its review by the National Park Service and its ultimate listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
This process often involves streamlining nomination drafts in cooperation with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in order to more effectively illustrate a district’s significance. We originally argued that St. Louis Place was significant as an example of mid-19th century community planning and as a north-side hub of German and Irish immigrant cultures. However, SHPO staff found that evidence of the Irish presence in the neighborhood has been so drastically diminished that it should be cut from the nomination. In light of the tragic 1986 demolition of the Church of the Sacred Heart, the focal point of St. Louis Place’s Irish community, we have to agree. Yet many landmarks do remain, from the Sacred Heart School (now the Black World History Museum) to the grand mansions along St. Louis Avenue built by some of the city’s most prominent Irish citizens.
This Monday, the Chautauqua Art Lab started its second day with a Public Reclamation Picnic organized by Kara Clark Holland, who has a series of these events. The idea is simple and amazing: transforming an underutilized space into part of the public realm through joyful activity.
Monday’s location was the vacant lot at the northwest corner of North 14th Street and Cass Avenues in St. Louis Place. The parcel is owned by the Land Reutilization Authority and adjacent to a building owned by Northside Regeneration LLC.
Perhaps LRA should consider picnic fees as a revenue stream, as with its garden lease program. In some neighborhoods, vacant lots are closer than parks and offer large grassy areas for spreading out. With permanent uses likely years out, these lots can be utilized by the community today through picnics, gardening, sports and other short-term uses.
Strengthening the historic setting of the St. Louis Place neighborhood’s dense core, now nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district by the Preservation Research Office, are remaining parts of the built environment beyond buildings. There are several remaining brick alleys and historic granitoid sidewalks on and around St. Louis Avenue between 20th Street and Parnell Avenue.
If the word “granitoid” is not familiar, the appearance probably is. Granitoid sidewalks included crushed aggregate rock in the cement to create a speckled walk with the surface appearance similar to granite. Granitoid paving dates to the 1890s and was common through the early part of the 20th century. Contractors often left a metal plaque embedded in the pavement to identify their work. St. Louis Place is fortunate to not only have these plaques left, but to have hundreds of feet of historic sidewalk paving largely in good repair.
In July, the Preservation Research Office embarked upon an architectural survey of the St. Louis Place neighborhood funded by Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin and overseen by Community Renewal and Development, Inc. By October, we selected boundaries for a historic district and began drafting a National Register of Historic Places nomination for a core area of the neighborhood. That nomination will be submitted to the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office on Monday.
After submission, we will be sharing more of our research and findings here. For now, we are posting a handout we used at last night’s public meeting on the project. The document shows the boundaries and briefly explains the process and benefits of the historic district designation. That document is online here.
After the historic district nomination is completed, Preservation Research Office will be working with Alderwoman Ford-Griffin and Community Renewal and Development to develop a public history component to the project. We have learned a lot about the heritage of the neighborhood’s built and social environment that belongs to its people, and we will share what we know through publications, tours and events.
We Still Need Your Help
If you are a current or former resident or property owner in St. Louis Place, or just someone who has spent time there, you may have information that can aid us as we continue our work. Photographs, especially those taken before 2000, will help us. Your stories about your house, neighborhood businesses and churches and other aspects of St. Louis Place’s past are needed. If you want to share photographs or information with us, contact Michael Allen at email@example.com or 314-920-5680.
At long last, there has been some stabilization work underway the James Clemens, Jr. House. In the last two months, crews working for Northside Regeneration LLC have removed debris, removed all asbestos, lead and PCBs and undertaken some structural stabilization work. This project unfortunately timed with the year-end announcement that Northside Regeneration’s buyer could not close on purchasing the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC)-issued tax-exempt bonds for the Clemens House. Those bonds were available through stimulus funding and could not carry over to 2011.
The James Clemens, Jr. House could remain at square one — except that the work done now advances it beyond its starting point nearly six years ago when Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Blairmont Associates LLC purchased the historic building. Now, McKee and his partner Robert Wood have invested money into the property, and the condition has started to improve. What comes next is uncertain, but McKee and Wood vow to pursue financing in 2011. Unfortunately that will mean waiting until September to re-apply for MHDC financing.
The most stunning part of the work done to date is the removal of the roof on the wing of the chapel wing, which was built by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1896. Not only has most of the roof structure been removed, but also five bays of the wall itself above the first floor are now removed as well. Of course, since a collapse in May 2008, three bays had already collapsed.
The sight of the Clemens House lawn littered with parts of the massive trusses, laden with impressive historic hardware, sent this author looking for answers as to the methodology of the stabilization work. Lafser & Associates is the consulting firm working on historic preservation issues for Northside Regeneration. Fred Lafser, president of the company, described the work to this author recently.
“Large roof trusses, saturated with water and frozen, weighing 4 tons each, had fallen against the east wall, taking a portion of the roof and wall with them. In recent weeks, the pressure had caused a portion of the east wall on the second floor to separate 12 inches from the south (façade) wall,” said Lafser. “A number of other trusses were likely to fall in the next few weeks due to the expansion during the freezing and thawing cycles.”
According to Lafser, removal of the trusses safely was extremely difficult. The trusses has to be cut out from distances and staged slowly to prevent damage to the rest of the building. Unfortunately the removal of the trusses is the only planned work on the chapel until full financing is in place. The developers are committed to making emergency repairs, however.
Fred Lafser sent photographs that show the chapel work from the interior. The first photograph shows that the bowing of the western wall of the chapel is also advanced. Removal of the trusses will prevent sudden collapse. Still, part of the wall will have to be dismantled and rebuilt later.
Other work performed now included insertion of sistering structural members at weak columns and joists and complete board-up of openings. The photograph below shows that the rear (north) elevation of the chapel remains sound.
The eastern elevation of the dormitory wing has long had masonry issues. The dormitory wing itself is a hybrid building, with its original two-story western portion being the Clemens House’s servants wing. The top two floors and the eastern section were built as dormitory for the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1887, two years after they purchased the property for use as a convent. The dormitory originally had a two-story gallery porch on the east, set into the wall inside of massive segmental arched openings. These openings are now infilled with brick. The wall has some weak spots addressed by the stabilization work.
While the James Clemens, Jr. House is not fully stabilized after this recent work spree, it is definitely in a safer condition than it has been in over a decade. Northside Regeneration is now the first party to spend money on stabilizing the Clemens House since the Universal Vietnamese Buddhist Association abandoned their work in 2004 — a fact that few would have predicted back when talk of “Blairmont” first surfaced. Full rehabilitation also seemed a remote prospect then, but now it seems a logical next step.
On December 7th, a resident of the Old North neighborhood caught a man stealing bricks from a stack in front of her house. When she asked him to put them back, instead of complying he hurried into his maroon Jeep Cherokee and drove off.
Police did not have a hard time finding the thief. After the resident called in the crime, officers headed to Unlimited Bricks at 2600 University Avenue where, as if following the directions of a brick rustling script, the thief’s vehicle was parked. The man was selling bricks to the yard, owned by Charles Rosene. After the victim identified the man, he was arrested and taken into custody.
Readers may wonder how Unlimited Bricks was still in business after the Board of Adjustment revoked its occupancy permit on November 17. (A lot of the credit for this action goes to the tireless effort of Fifth Ward Neighborhood Stabilization Officer Kathryn Woodard, supported by Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin.) While the business had a legal time to appeal that ruling, it had to obey the revocation order pending appeal. Unlimited Bricks — a business that is not incorporated in this state — truly was an outlaw operation when it nearly fenced some stolen front yard bricks. No more.
Thanks to the Old North resident’s complaint, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police worked quickly to get the Building Division to condemn the property for occupancy on December 8. Rosene has had an active occupancy permit since July 1, 2005. Noncompliance with the revoked occupancy permit will land Rosene with fines of $500 per incident, so if you are in the area please check on 2600 University and see if the yard is running. If it is, call the police. They will know the operation all too well.
Those who are not familiar with the corner of University and North Jefferson, shown in the aerial photograph above, can be excused. The vicinity of the yard is a waste land of wrecker’s yards and unlicensed dumps. Looking at a summer-shot aerial photograph, one can see how accurate the term “brownfield” is in describing certain conditions of battered urban landscape. This is the vortex where near north bricks go for fencing out of the neighborhood. This area is very much like a black hole that consumes area building stock and churns out cash to a handful of harvesters, again and again until there is no more possible destruction.
To the south and southeast of the Rosene property are lots owned by the Hemphill wrecking family. Around those are still more half-used lots. Typically, these lots have tall chain link fencing — often missing in sections — and haphazard gravel paving. The lots have many scrub trees around the fence lines, so that in the summer they are almost forested. In the middle will be some wrecking equipment, salvaged materials or random items.
On the south side of St. Louis Avenue on the east side of Elliott Avenue is a grimly comic landscape of a tall slope of of dirt, dumped from wrecking jobs, on a lot so unkempt one wonders how it can possess any legal occupancy permit. Not all of the yards in the area are so unsightly, and wreckers who hold licenses do honest labor for money. Yet the conglomeration of messy yards around St. Louis Avenue and Jefferson, just northwest of the old Pruitt-Igoe site, are a black eye for the north side.
One is not surprised that the Northside Regeneration plan takes aim at this swath of blight. Yet the fact is that it does not take $8 billion plans to shut down illegal brick yards and clean up vacant lots. Citizen action, not the weight of promised redevelopment, has shut down Unlimited Bricks. What else can it do?
One of the few remaining buildings in the wrecking wasteland is the handsome 19th century commercial building at the northeast corner of St. Louis and Elliott Avenues, owned by Paul J. McKee Jr.’s companies for years now. Its strong form is a vigilant reminder that the dead center can also be a land of urban life, where bricks build community rather than petty fortunes.
Make no mistake about the fact that Northside Regeneration LLC continues to buy property. On October 27, the Recorder of Deeds recorded seven purchases by Northside Regeneration (and signed by Eagle Realty’s Harvey Noble) at a Sheriff’s land tax sale held on October 8. All of these properties are vacant lots.
The properties and sales prices are:
1822 N. 22nd Street ($707)
3510 N. Jefferson Avenue ($5,000)
2714 Madison Avenue ($1,456)
2331 Hebert Street ($783)
2323-25 Hebert Street ($717)
2301 Hebert Street ($688)
2329 Hebert Street ($717)
The amounts paid are whatever bid was needed to win the property. In most cases at the Sheriff’s sale, there is only one bid. In that case, the amount paid is the minimum price equal to the amount of unpaid land tax. Purchasing property at a Sheriff’s sale is much easier for a private citizen than going through the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). All a winning bidder needs to do to secure the property is to have cash on hand to pay on the same day. No aldermanic approval or redevelopment plans are needed.
The properties on Hebert were owned by the Pyramid Companies for their development of single-family homes east of Sullivan Place. Some of the houses were built. While other Pyramid properties passed to creditors or investors, these simply sat without their taxes paid for three consecutive years. Pyramid had partnered with McEagle Properties to develop housing at WingHaven in O’Fallon, Missouri before the two companies abruptly parted ways.
Brick thieves have attacked the house at 1925 St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis Place in recent weeks. Read more about this block here.
Yesterday the St. Louis Board of Adjustment revoked the occupancy permit for Unlimited Bricks, a brick yard located at 2600 University Avenue. Police had suspected that the yard has received stolen bricks taken from abandoned buildings in the area, which violates the city’s brick ordinance. Unlimited Bricks conducts business and storage outdoors in a chain-link fenced yard that neighborhood residents describe as unsightly.
The Secretary of State’s database lists no registered company or fictitious registration by the name of “Unlimited Bricks.” According to the Assessor, Charles Rosene owns the parcel at 2600 University Avenue as well as large fenced parcels to the north and south where there is open storage of demolition equipment and salvaged materials.