Academy Neighborhood James Clemens House North St. Louis St. Louis Place

MHDC Approves Two Major North St. Louis Projects

by Michael R. Allen

Last Friday, the Missouri Housing Development Commission met and approved financing for two projects involving large historic buildings in north St. Louis.

The former Blind Girls Home at 5235 Page (1908; J. Hal. Lynch, architect) will receive 4% low-income housing tax credits for Places for Page. Places for People states that the residents of the building will be “individuals living with severe mental illness who can and want to live independently, but who may need the attention and support provided by on-site staff.” Places for Page is a project that would not happen without these credits, and not devised by a developer because of the incentive program (some applications seem to be, but usually aren’t approved).

The second major north side project involving a large historic landmark approved last week was the James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue (1860-1896; Patrick Walsh and Aloysius Gillick, architects). McEagle Properties and Robert Wood Realty requested and received approval for MHDC to issue tax-exempt bonds for the rehabilitation of the buildings into senior apartments as well as museum space. The Clemens House, at long last, will be rehabilitated!

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Another Summer for Brick Thieves

by Michael R. Allen

This summer is no different than others in the past few years for brick thieves. On the 2500 block of West Sullivan in St. Louis Place, the south side of the street has been badly ravaged in the last few weeks.  The north face has already been hit hard.  Of course, there are still occupied houses amid this wanton destruction.

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Why Save This Building?

by Michael R. Allen

This two-story reinforced concrete industrial building stands on N. 25th Street just north of Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis Place. It is owned by Northside Regeneration LLC. Beyond some concrete block infill of first floor window openings and a painted southern elevation, the building does not look much different than it did when built some 90 years ago. In the parlance of the National Register for Historic Places, the building substantially retains its integrity.

Of course, the building is more isolated than ever, and across 25th Street is the hulking Sullivan Place building with its gated grounds. No one could claim that the building is essential to preserving a historic built landscape. So why would anyone preserve it?

The first reason would be moral imperative. One version of that is tracing the building’s use to a significant company or product. That is unlikely. Another moral imperative, which all good people now claim to endorse, is the mantra of “sustainability”: demolition is like driving an Escalade to work every day. Right? A tangential moral imperative is that with each demolition, we lose more of St. Louis itself, thus diminishing the physical city itself. Readers know that I meditate on this idea frequently, and sometimes inconclusively.

The other reason that this building would be saved is economic. Someone may find a new purpose, or resurrect an old purpose, for the building. Reuse of this building might reduce capital needs of start-up. That’s the kind of reuse that I would love to see envisioned for a relic like this. More likely, though, redevelopment here will be incentive-driven. In fact, it already is.

The irony is that not long ago this building was still in continuous use, despite loss of context, age and general neighborhood decline. It was just an industrial building in a neighborhood. Now, due to conjoined acts of government and capital, its existence is in question. Many prettier buildings are in the same situation, but advocacy is far easier for them. Who sees the potential here? Well, the potential was already realized. Don’t forget that. Jobs were located here. Taxes generated. Not much is required to return the building to taxable production. Perhaps in our political economy those facts justify preservation better than any other.

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Have You Seen These Interior Pediments?

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Landmarks Association of St. Louis, 1982.

Have you seen this lovely dentillated pediment? It once was the crown of a door casing inside of the first floor hall of the James Clemens, Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis.

The four pediments from the center hall door openings are now missing, as these photographs show.

However, the pediments were in place in the following photographs taken by this author on May 13, 2007.

If you have any information about these stolen pediments, please drop a line. Architects at Klitzing Welsch (314-772-8073) are looking for them. It’s urgent, too — they are preparing plans for rehabilitation and need them back! Even one would be very helpful.

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A (Legitimate) Look Inside of the Clemens House

by Michael R. Allen

On Sunday, Landmarks Association of St. Louis wrapped up its annual Preservation Week with a tour of the James Clemens, Jr. House at 1849 Cass Avenue in St. Louis Place. That’s right — Landmarks offered a tour of a vacant building! While there have been many “before” tours of historic St. Louis buildings, none has offered a look at such an early phase of a rehabilitation project.

Landmarks Association Executive Director Jeff Mansell welcomes the crowd along with Dan Holak of Robert Wood Realty and David Lorentz of Klitzing Welsh.

Developers Robert Wood Realty and McEagle along with architects Klitzing Welsh Associates bravely threw open the door (okay, unscrewed the plywood) to the James Clemens House to the public for Landmarks. There was a small charge, a limited number of tour spots and a mandatory liability waiver, but all of those were necessary to make the tour work. Hopefully it can be offered again!

The developers started the tour by explaining the redevelopment plan, which calls for senior apartments in the mansion, dormitory and first floor of the chapel with an educational use in the chapel space. Nothing has been firmed up about the chapel use yet, but the original volume of the space will be restored for the first time in generations. The use of the chapel will allow for public access to the grounds, which will be opened up by removing the brick wall (built in 1887 and somewhat removed now) and building an iron fence similar to the original long lost fence on Cass Avenue. The Clemens House complex will again be easy to locate, and will open up a relationship with its neighborhood once more.

The apartment use precludes public access to the mansion and its lavish interior, and will entail some tricky accommodations like kitchenettes and bathrooms in the first floor parlors. (The dormitory is a perfect fit.) However, the project will follow the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic rehabilitation, and all original fabric will be retained. The extensive cast iron work will be refurbished and missing parts replicated (albeit probably in a fiberglass-based casts). I have yet to thoroughly study the details of the rehabilitation, and will continue to observe.

The tour offered a very limited view inside. Visitors entered at the rear of the dormitory and proceeded about fifteen feet from the front door. Structural problems in the partly-collapsed chapel and the house itself precluded further adventure. Still, what was open was lit up brightly than ever. This photographer was able to re-do some old clandestine photography!

Paul J. McKee, Jr. was prominent in the group, and was freely talking with guests. There is a long road ahead for the developer’s Northside Regeneration project, and many unanswered questions. (This post is not about them.) Yet the one certain fact is that McKee is starting the project with rescuing the James Clemens House, and that has become the early symbol of the project. It’s easy to point out how much this move benefits McKee — but easy to guess that it’s not necessarily the first move he wanted to make.

The truth is that those who benefit the most from the rehabilitation of the Clemens House, however, are residents of surrounding St. Louis Place who have long suffered from the abandonment in the heart of a largely stable area. Oh — and everyone who wants St. Louis to have an indelible, storied historic character benefits from saving this city’s most architecturally significant pre-Civil War mansion. There are eternal essences that make this city what it is, and their defense should be more fiercely and continually waged than momentary battles. After all, brick walls last longer than fleeting political maneuvers.

As an aside, Landmarks Association of St. Louis is at its best when it offers the community the chance to directly interact with historic architecture in unexpected ways. While its board has spent considerable time, effort and money on the Architecture St. Louis space downtown, the organization’s most unique strength remains the ability to forge connections out in the places where we live. Kudos to current Executive Director Jeff Mansell for doing just that with this tour!

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Operation Brightside Blitz Days

by Michael R. Allen

Juniata Street looking east toward Roosevelt High School in Tower Grove East.


Dodier Street west of Leffingwell Avenue in St. Louis Place.

The two blocks pictured here both were part of today’s Operation Brightside Blitz Day. My neighbors and I were out working on our block this morning. Since there is no such thing as a self-cleaning city, citizen cleaning is essential to keeping blocks looking lovely. Government provides the basic services, but citizens create quality of life. We have to be active stewards of our houses and our blocks. No one is going to clean our alleys and sidewalks for us, even in the most ideal world. There are Blitz days coming up in other areas of the city and you should do your part. There’s nothing more rewarding than working with neighbors to make St. Louis look beautiful!

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Clemens House Moves Closer to Rehabilitation

by Michael R. Allen

Rendering courtesy of Robert Wood Realty.

Developer Robert Wood’s $13 million plan to rehabilitate the long-beleaguered James Clemens House at 1849 Cass Avenue, illustrated above, is moving closer to reality. In collaboration with owner McEagle Properties, Wood proposes creating senior apartments in the historic mansion and dormitory wing, and a museum in the chapel wing.

The staff of the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) has recommended that the Commission approve the project for a combination of a 4% low-income housing tax credit ($828,000), gap financing ($4.5 million) and tax-exempt bonds ($7 million). Wood had sought 9% credits. The MHDC will meet on February 19 to allocate credits. The City of St. Louis made the Clemens House project its #1 priority for the 9% credit.

Strange that the Clemens House, the building that first piqued preservationist outrage at McEagle’s land assemblage, may become the first completed project of the NorthSide project? No. As we have been saying all along, the strongest factor in the NorthSide project is the existing fabric of the near north side.

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Accomplishments and Opportunities in St. Louis Place

by Michael R. Allen

People walk past a house on St. Louis Avenue and 22nd Street during the September 2009 Rehabbers Club tour.

The year 2010 could bring better fortunes to the St. Louis Place neighborhood on the near north side, but that fortune may be wayward and abstract. What the new year ought to bring is strength to the community and its historic fabric. Beset by decades of neglect and targeted land banking, the neighborhood deserves a strong future. St. Louis Place ought to get more attention for what it already has: beautiful historic buildings, an elegant Victorian Park and wonderful proximity to downtown.

In September, the monthly Rehabbers Club tour visited the neighborhood. While the tour included a realistic discussion of problems and a trip to the James Clemens House, the tour started with tours of amazing historic buildings — one being restored and one ready for restoration.

The historic house at 3001 Rauschenbach Avenue dates to the 1890s and fronts St. Louis Place Park (laid out in 1850 and lanscaped in the early 1870s). The rambling mansion was once transformed into a retirement home but the current owner has been restoring the house. She has made great progress.

Inside, historic millwork, tall pocket doors, glowing wooden floors and other historic features dazzled those on the tour.

The second stop on the tour was a stone-faced mansion at 2223 St. Louis Avenue built in 1879 but later converted to the Henry Leidner Funeral Home. The connected white glazed terra cotta-faced chapel in the Gothic Revival style dates to 1921. In recent years, the former funeral home has housed the Greater Bible Way Community Church. The church recently moved across the street into a Gothic Revival church at 2246 St. Louis Avenue, and has placed this building for sale. Pastor Tommie Harsley kindly led people through the giant mansion and chapel.

The old Leidner funeral home needs a great deal of work that was beyond the church’s needs. The chapel roof suffered a bad leak, and the house needs new systems and a lot of plaster work upstairs. However, little of the historic fabric has ever been altered. Much of the millwork is unpainted. The funeral home installed the strange, awesome ceiling fan fixtures shown below.

The building at 2223 St. Louis Avenue has the raw historic character sought by rehabbers across the city. No wonder the Rehabbers Club wanted to visit!

The only problem with the Rehabbers Club tour is that its participants included few neighborhood residents and that it only happened once in 2009. St. Louis Place could use regular tours of the wonderful accomplishments and opportunities there. Leaders who support large redevelopment like the Northside Regeneration project ought to invest in educational efforts suited to current and potential neighborhood residents and property owners. Face it: large-scale redevelopment is an unproven strategy. It’s wiser to invest in the proven work of the people already making St. Louis Place tick.

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Depletion, West Sullivan Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

The north face of the 2500 block of West Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis Place, May 2008.

The same view, October 2009.

Out of this row of eleven small shaped-parapet brick houses, six have been destroyed by brick thieves in the last two years. Seven are owned by McEagle affiliates. These houses are within the footprint of one of the “employment centers” in the NorthSide project. The row would have been eligible for listing as a small historic district. Perhaps the ultimate fate under the redevelopment plan would have been demolition, but the availaibility of histoic tax credits here might have spared the row and its remaining residents’ quality of life.

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Video Tour of the James Clemens, Jr. House

by Michael R. Allen

In September, as part of a tour of St. Louis Place and Old North, I guided the Rehabbers Club around the grounds of the James Clemens, Jr. House. Jeff Seelig captured the end of the tour on video. Better days could be ahead.