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.

Infrastructure South St. Louis Streets Tower Grove South

A “New” Brick Alley in Tower Grove South

by Michael R. Allen

On Friday I participated in a mobile workshop on the South Grand business district that was part of the annual conference American Planning Association Missouri Chapter. The workshop started with a driving tour from the Chase Park Plaza (conference venue) that included Kingshighway, Southwest Garden, Shaw and Tower Grove Park. After the tour, over lunch at Mojo, participants heard about area history from planner and historian Mark Abbott and the current streetscape project from Rachel Witt of the South Grand Community Improvement District and Mary Grace Lewandowski of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.

Then the group headed out for a tour of South Grand guided by Andrew, Rachel and myself. While many excellent buildings were included alongside the quickly-nearing-completion improvements to Grand’s sidewalks, the stand-out of the tour was an alley. That is right — the tour ended at the alley between Humphrey and Utah streets west of Grand.

View west from Grand Avenue of the alley south of Humphrey Street.

The reason for including the alley, as Andrew Murray eloquently stated, was that it demonstrated very basic principles of sustainability in the built environment. Alleys are instruments of vehicular utility, and their presence in St. Louis is taken for granted. However, many are in rough shape because their paving bricks have been layered with asphalt pavings. City alleys often settle with the bricks, and become uneven and difficult to maintain. Meanwhile, they deflect water onto parking pads, into garages and onto streets.

Andrew Murray discusses the brick alley project with tour participants.

This alley in Tower Grove South has been returned to sound condition in a way that is both historically and ecologically informed. Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15) and the Streets Department found funds to rebuild the alley by paving it with historic paving bricks, gloriously purple-red and gently chipped through decades of urban life, reclaimed from the alley itself. Set on a new substrate, the bricks are level but also are water permeable. The only deviation from historic conditions is that the design included a concrete perimeter to buffer the paving from existing outbuildings and curbs.

This alley not only is “green” but also reflects its historic character by bringing its original paving material back to the surface. The result is durable and attractive, and maintenance simple. Sustainability need not be a headlong rush into trendy new building technology, when time-proven materials and methods are at hand. Our tour ended by reminding participants that existing infrastructure already embodies today’s planning standards. Modular water-permeable paving? We already did that — one hundred years ago.

Fire South St. Louis Tower Grove South

If The Front Wall Remains…

by Michael R. Allen

View looking southeast toward the building.

What a way to start a fire, what a way to break it in
Your kiss could have killed me, baby
If it were not for the rain

Scout Niblett ft. Bonnie Prince Billy, “Kiss” (This Fool Can Die Now, 2007)

Did a fire destroy the commercial building on South Kingshighway two doors north from the Royale, or did a fire bring into being the birth of a new building? Time will tell. Surely the ashen and roofless wreck, with side wall fallen to let the world gaze into a tangle of charred building fiber, evokes some bit of hopelessness. Without a roof, a building is still a building. Without four walls and horizontal structural members, a building becomes rubble.

View looking southwest from the alley.

Or does it? Looking out across the remnant body of what was a fine but not remarkable stock-from-the-catalog hydraulic press brick and terra cotta essay in the revival style, my eye cannot see total loss. I look at that front wall, that strong and still intact front wall, and I see the first wall of the next building. Now this building was not built through completed walls laid up in detail one by one, but through the slow and integrated rise of building material from beneath the soil up to the sky. The burned building’s front wall was never meant to stand isolated from the other brick walls that bound together in architectural union.

Yet there is a basic fact: that front wall is solid, attractive and integral to that street wall’s humane relationship with the sidewalk. While there is a car lot immediately to the north, and the neighboring Modern Kitchens and Baths has an inset parking lot unmitigated in its utility, this single building provides a humane and urban link between a corner tavern and Tower Grove Park. Although Kingshighway south of Arsenal street has a schizophrenic street wall, and offers few spots of continuous urban character to the pedestrian, this little place works. Here there is a place where a person can walk and feel that there is some vital link between this place and the living city around. Those places are sadly few and far between on St. Louis’ major commercial streets, and should be categorically protected and constantly expanded. The only reason we don’t have more places like this is our casual use of the wrecking ball, and our lack of zoning based on quality of life.

Should this city want to ensure our future is one in which the name “St. Louis” could pass through the lips of those people who value urban places teeming with the lifeblood of commerce and culture, we would never let a front wall be torn down after a fire unless it fell for a greater replacement. We should pass an ordinance preventing demolition of commercial buildings that hug the sidewalk with storefronts unless like replacement follows. Otherwise we will continue to be a city of great residential neighborhoods isolated through dismal expanses of arterial streets.

Should the building owner or the Building Commissioner protest that preserving this front wall on Kingshighway is an impossible feat, or a difficult one, their cries should be dismissed. This is a solid masonry wall, and its stabilization and integration into a new building is an easy task. At least, having seen such work as a matter of course in cities as diverse as Boston and Louisville, it seems like a city as great as ours can rise to a small job like this — a small job that serves the greater good of making a place where people enjoy walking, talking and conducting commerce.

Although our eyes’ gaze may be stubborn and myopic at times, we should look upon this front wall on Kingshighway not as a ruin but as something we can use. We should rejoice that the fire consumed not the most vital and urbane part of this building, and we should strive to build something that carries that vitality forward to the future. Sometimes it does seem that a kiss — the kiss of greatness — would kill this city, but deep down we know that the kiss could end generations of that far more fatal feeling of complacency. That damn front wall didn’t build itself.

Schools SLPS The Ville Tower Grove South

Adams Recommends Closing Six School Buildings

by Michael R. Allen

At last night’s meeting of the Special Administrative Board of the St. Louis Public Schools, Superintendent Kelvin Adams recommended closing the following six school buildings:

Gallaudet School for the Hearing Impaired, 1616 S. Grand; built in 1925; Rockwell Milligan, architect.

Alternative South at Lyon School; 7417 Vermont; built in 1909; William B. Ittner, architect.

Ford Branch School; 1383 Clara Avenue; built around 1960.

Fresh Start at Turner Middle School; 2615 Billups Avenue; built in 1939; George Sanger, architect.

Bunche at Madison School, 1118 S. Seventh; built in 1910; William B. Ittner, architect.

Pruitt Middle School (Cleveland Junior Naval Academy), 1212 N. 22nd; built in 1954.

Lyon School And Turner Middle School (formerly Stowe Teachers College) are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Gallaudet, Madison and Pruitt are eligible for such designation. Ford Branch might contribute to a historic district listing.

Six schools that Adams once suggested closing, including Mann Elementary School at 4047 Juniata Avenue in Tower Grove South (built in 1901-16 and designed by William B. Ittner; listed in the National Register), will be placed on a new “turnaround model” with new principals and at least 50% new teaching staff.

Four schools are going to be placed on “restart” — closed as public schools and reopened as chartered schools. One of these is the venerable — but academically failing — Sumner High School at 4248 Cottage Avenue in the Ville (built in 1908-9 and designed by William B. Ittner; listed in the National Register).

Infrastructure Tower Grove South


by Michael R. Allen

From its founding in 1857 — just a few days ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott Case — through 1950, Laclede Gas Company was named Laclede Gas Light Company. A few sidewalk service entries, like this one in Tower Grove South, retain metal covers with the old company’s initials. Bill Beck’s volume Laclede Gas and St. Louis: 150 Years of Working Together, 1857-2007 (St. Louis: Laclede Gas Company, 2007) is an invaluable source of Laclede Gas’ corporate history.

Gravois Park Planning South St. Louis Tower Grove South

A Positive Outcome on South Grand

by Michael R. Allen

Both sides of South Grand Avenue between Winnebago and Chippewa Avenues are much improved due to the diligence of concerned citizens taking effective action. Above is a photograph of the Grand South Senior Apartments at the southeast corner of Grand and Winnebago in Gravois Park, completed last year. The building introduces contemporary architecture, adds density and created several storefronts on the site of a mid-century Sears store demolished in 1994. This sort of infill is desirable and practical, and the design is not breathtaking. Why does it warrant an entire essay?

Well, this outcome was far from certain back in 2005. At that time, the site was owned by the Pyramid Companies, which had purchased the Sears site and adjacent city-owned land as part of the Keystone Place project. Although the redevelopment and blighting ordinances for the Keystone Place project outlined mixed-use moderate-density infill on the Sears site and forbade any drive-through commercial, Pyramid suddenly announced a bizarre request for a zoning variance to allow the relocation of the McDonald’s franchise across the street. (The sordid details can be read at Urban Review.)

Pyramid proposed moving McDonald’s to a new drive-through restaurant on the Sears site and acquiring the McDonald’s site for construction of a Grand South Senior Apartments. Keystone Place residents had bought expensive new homes from Pyramid with the assurance of the redevelopment ordinance protected them from fast food across the alley. Gravois Park residents and Alderman Craig Schmid (D-20th) also were riled by the attempt to breach a redevelopment law sought by Pyramid itself just ten years prior.

What ensued was wonderful: neighborhood residents organized against the change to the existing ordinance, and were joined by supporters of sound urban planning from across the city, including young members of the Urban St. Louis Forum. Even though the boundary of his ward was the alley east of the Sears site, Alderman Schmid stood up for his constiuents’ quality of life by opposing the proposed variance. Schmid attended a zoning adjustment hearing and spoke against the changes, eloquently explaining why development just ten feet outside of his ward affected his constituents’ quality of life as much as anything ten feet inside. Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15th), whose ward included the Sears site, chastised Schmid, but his remarks provided cover for her ultimate decision to not support the variance sought by Pyramid.

The rest became history: the citizens of Gravois Park won. But so did Pyramid, and the residents of Tower Grove South to the west. Pyramid built Grand South Senior Apartments following its original redevelopment ordinance (although by the time the first resident moved in, Pyramid was bankrupt), and the pesky McDonald’s went out of business. At the end of 2009, the Mama Pho Vietnamese restauarant — which does not serve food by drive through ordering — opened in the old McDonald’s. This block of South Grand now has a new building and a re-purposed existing building, and no annoying drive-though on either side.

Historic Preservation Schools SLPS South St. Louis Tower Grove South

The Fate of Mann School

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph of Mann School in 1989 from Landmarks Association of St. Louis‘ survey of St. Louis Public Schools buidlings.

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams relieved many city residents with his closure recommendations, which number 17 as opposed to the 29 schools proposed by a team of consultants hired by the district in January. However, Adams raised the threat to Mann School at 4047 Juniata in Tower Grove South, which Admas is proposing not only for closure but also for possible demolition and replacement with a new building.

This recommendation is actually the one point where Adams is actually pushing a more severe threat to the district’s historic architecture than did the old-building-fearing consultants from MGT of America. MGT proposed closing Mann along with Shenandoah and Sherman schools, with all three south side elementaries combined at a new super-school in Tower Grove East. Adams wants Shenandoah to remain open, but is proposing a merger of Mann and Sherman in a new building he thinks could be built on the Mann site. A final decision would be made next year, but the crucial step is taken tonight when the facilities management plan is ratified.

The Mann site must be the most poorly-suited site in the district for construction of a new school building. When Mann was built in 1901 to designs by William Ittner, the ornate Jacobethen revival school was a compact two-story building on a compact site. Unlike those of other Ittner schools, the Mann site was not expansive and landscaped; it was small and paved, used for playground space. The school was in close proximity to buildings across the alley and across the street, in a siting beautifully urban. A 1916 addition that doubled Mann’s size maintained the relationship of the school to the neighborhood. (Paul Hohmann has great photographs in a recent blog post at Vanishing STL.)

Now, the school is landlocked in one of the city’s most stable and densely populated neighborhoods. Furthermore, the elementary school is doing well — enrollment is around 80%, the student base is 52% ESOL so south city’s immigrants are well-served, and 12 different organizations provide services at the school to students neighborhood children. This is a model neighborhood school. In fact, the state of Mann sounds a lot like the vision that members of the Special Administrative Board have for other elementary schools in the district.

Tonight (Thursday, March 12), the Special Administrative Board has a chance to save that model school. The Board will approve a facilities plan and closure list at its meeting, 6:00 p.m. at the Gateway Schools complex gymnasium, 1200 N. Jefferson. the public may address the Board at this meeting.

The largest step that the SAB could take would be removing Mann from the closure list altogether to safeguard its success and connection to the neighborhood. However, under any circumstances, demolition of Mann School should not be an option in the facilities plan. The SAB must amend Adams’ recommendations to prohibit demolition of Mann or any other historic school building — a condition now placed by the SAB in all sales contracts to private owners. Besides, rehabbing Mann or Sherman, or both, would be far more economical than building new.

This building, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 for architectural significance, is a unique gem in a strong urban setting. The site is too small for a new school. The school is doing well. Why force an awkward fit, lose a great building and tamper with a stable neighborhood?

Historic Preservation Schools SLPS South St. Louis Tower Grove East Tower Grove South

Shenandoah School May Be Spared

by Michael R. Allen

Shenandoah Elementary School at 3412 Shenandoah Avenue in Tower Grove East received a reprieve tonight when St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent recommended to the Special Administrative Board (SAB) that the school remain open in its current building. Although the final decision of Adams’ recommendation won’t be made by the SAB until March 12, the news is a relief to a neighborhood concerned that the future a community resource might become a huge question mark.

Under the proposal from consultants MGT of America unveiled in January, Shenandoah was set to be combined with Mann Elemantary School in Tower Grove Soth and Sherman Elementary School in Shaw in a new building to be build “near” Shenandoah. Neighborhood residents feared that “near” in a dense, landlocked neighborhood meant “on” and that an architectural gem would be lost. The MGT recommendations came only a year after the SLPS had proposed closing Shenandoah outright.

The school is a remarkable building, known widely for the braided limestone columns of its striking entrance (pictured above). Designed by Rockwell Milligan and built in 1925, Shenandoah School is an excellent example of the eclectic strain in 1920s American architecture. Combining Spanish Revival and Renaissance Revival elements on an imposing buff-brick body with a red tile roof, Shenandoah is an unique school buidling and a treasure to its neighbors.

Unfortunately, Adams’ recommendations still include the closure and merger of Mann and Sherman in a new school. This time, Mann is suggested for demolition.

Gravois Park Mayor Slay South St. Louis Tower Grove South

What Does the Mayor Think About McDonald’s?

by Michael R. Allen

At yesterday’s zoning appeal hearing for Pyramid’s McDonald’s relocation project (read more at Urban Review), items introduced into evidence was a purported letter from Mayor Francis Slay supporting the relocation.

One of the people who spoke in favor of an appeal was a woman living on Arkansas Avenue in one of the homes at Keystone Place. She stated that she would never have purchased her home had she known McDonald’s would be moving across the alley from her home. Furthermore, she stated, a couple on her block had placed their home for sale and moved to Richmond Heights in response to the announcement that McDonald’s was coming. (Not too drastic a move given the collusion of alderwoman, powerful developers and lucrative junk food that makes an announcement of a plan tantamount to its approval in the current alderman-driven development system.)

Are we to believe that Mayor Slay, an avowed urbanist and supporter of great density, supports the move of a nuisance business with low lot density to a location where it will lower home values and cause residents to leave new city homes?

Maybe, maybe not. Steve Patterson and others have pointed out that Mayor Slay (along with State Senator Maida Coleman and State Representative Mike Daus) sent his letter to support the construction of senior housing by Pyramid at Grand and Chippewa. That this construction would entail demolition and/or relocation of McDonald’s is obvious; however, the mayor did not expressly support spot zoning for the location at Grand and Winnebago as some people have claimed.

Perhaps the mayor could show leadership in this situation by supporting dense new construction at Grand and Winnebago as well as at Grand and Chippewa. This new construction could include McDonald’s, but a drive-through of any kind would be a detriment to a part of South Grand showing great signs of renewal.

Of course, no mayoral opinion in the world has as much force as the action of an alderman. Until we change the city charter to limit aldermanic control over development, consistent zoning is impossible. That does not excuse the actions of Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, but it does suggest that there is a much deeper problem that needs resolution as soon as possible. (Nay, this problem should have been resolved fifty years ago before our population sunk below 500,000 residents.)

I hope that committed citizens defeat the McDonald’s relocation. And I hope that they keep fighting until they abolish the aldermanic stranglehold on development and zoning that is preventing this city from developing an urban comprehensive zoning plan worthy of a great city.