Last week, the Chicago Commission on Landmarks for the second time unanimously voted to rescind the landmark designation for Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (completed in 1975). The vote essentially dooms the innovative concrete-shell modernist hospital building to demolition whenever owner Northwestern University decided to tear it down. Additionally, the vote is an odd smack-down of preservationist pragmatism. Preservationists were not insensitive to the programmatic needs of Northwestern University, and did not hold fast to a you-can’t-touch-this absolutism, but instead started embracing the defiant modern design of our time. Alas, what might have been an outstanding moment for solving a tough preservation problem is now just fodder for preservation theory books. Chicago will not be building on precedents that include an unfairly understudied example from St. Louis, where the Washington University School of Medicine demonstrated how important architectural modernism could be preserved amid shifting programmatic needs.
In September and October 2007, the Land Reutilization Authority wrecked the three two-part commercial buildings at 4220, 4222 and 4224 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville. The demolitions hardly were startling. Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th), then in his first year of service, requested the demolition as part of his efforts to deal with abandoned properties. Then, the center building collapsed. The Preservation Board unanimously approved demolition at its September 2007 meeting, based on a report by then-Cultural Resources Office Director Kate Shea that recommended approval.
A distinctive building in the northern reaches of The Ville is no more. In late August, the city wrecked the two-story, mansard-atop-brick mass at 4159 Ashland Avenue. This strange specimen sat on the sidewalk line on a block where remaining buildings — fewer in number than ever — maintain a general setback of ten feet, and are residential. This building had traces of a storefront opening (see the painted, nearly-concealed I-beam above a new entrance at left) suggesting a commercial past.
Out of sight, out of mind? Not brick theft. Brick thieves continue to strike abandoned buildings in north city, although the territory of operation has shifted westward. Two years ago, brick theft was prevalent in JeffVanderLou and St. Louis Place. With many targets hit, and fewer vacant buildings left, those neighborhoods have seen a drop in activity. Today brick thieves are more likely to be working in The Ville, Greater Ville, Fountain Park, Fairgrounds and Lewis Place neighborhoods.
The thieves are even taking down buildings located on major thoroughfares in north St. Louis. Today I noticed two buildings damaged by obvious illegal demolition activity whose locations are very prominent. The first of these was at 4477 Page Boulevard, just east of Taylor Avenue in Lewis Place. This vacant building may have been marred by fake stone veneer and heavy paint, but its solid structure was intact until very recently. The house stands not far from the campus of Ranken Technical College, and on a block where most buildings are occupied.
On January 17, the National Park Service listed in the National Register of Historic Places three historic districts in and an amended and expanded historic context for The Ville neighborhood. Due to lack of contiguous historic fabric, The Ville is not eligible for listing as single historic district. All National Register listings are made using the requirements of Historic and Architectural Resources of the Ville Multiple Property Submission (MPS), first created in 1999.
Until last month, The Ville MPS lacked a section that would enable listing of groups of residential and commercial buildings associated with general trends of African-American settlement between 1910 and 1950. Buildings had to be associated with significant institutions or individuals. Most building stock in The Ville is the backdrop for significant twentieth century history — a context that preserves the character of an entire era of significant cultural activity. Listing intact groups of buildings helps preserve the sense of place enjoyed by Annie Malone, Herman Dreer, Charles Henry Turner, Julia Davis and other prominent African-Americans who either lived or worked in the neighborhood in its heyday.
The city’s Cultural Resources Office (CRO) staff rewrote the Historic and Architectural Resources of the Ville MPS document, adding a well-written and must-read section (“Context III: The Ville as the Product of Residential Segregation Policies, 1910-1950”) that documents the larger settlement history as well as “registration requirements” for the building stock long not covered by the document. The Preservation Research Office submitted the three small historic districts that are the first to be nominated under the new section.
The three districts are not the only small residential districts eligible in The Ville, but are the only ones identified as eligible in The Heart of the Ville architectural survey conducted in 2009 and 2010. Additional surveys should be funded to identify other potential districts in The Ville. Meantime, there now are 90 more buildings eligible for historic tax credits in The Ville!
Creating National Register of Historic Places historic district designations often is straightforward work — a consultant delineates the boundary of an eligible area dense with urban building stock. Then there are depleted neighborhoods in north St. Louis, where the levels of demolition make defensible boundaries more difficult. With extensive demolition marring its streetscapes, The Ville is no exception. Yet The Ville has a historic importance as the cultural center of African-American life in St. Louis rivaled only by the lost Mill Creek Valley.
Since 1987, The Ville has been a Local Historic District with restrictions on demolition, but until recently little of it had National Register of Historic Places status. Beyond the great cultural honor, that status makes available federal and state rehabilitation tax credits — the programs that revived Dick Gregory Place in the western end of the neighborhood. Since taking office in 2007, Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) has pushed to find solutions for historic preservation of The Ville’s buildings, many of which face the wrecking ball in the absence of incentives for their reuse. One of the city’s most important neighborhoods seemed to be disappearing over the last few decades, but finally there may be a change in direction.
Between August 2009 and August 2010, under contract to city government, the Preservation Research Office (PRO) completed the first intensive architectural survey of the heart of St. Louis’ fragile yet historically significant African-American neighborhood The Ville. The “Heart of the Ville” survey was the result of the successful St. Louis Cultural Resources Office (CRO) application for a Historic Preservation Grant to survey the Ville neighborhood, a local historic district with outstanding significance and uneven integrity. PRO evaluated 368 primary resources and 49 secondary resources, all buildings, to form the basis for historic district nominations. As of this writing, three small Ville historic districts are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places based on the survey results. (See subsequent post.)
The survey was designed as a cooperative effort between the City of St. Louis CRO and Lynn Josse and Michael Allen at PRO. In November, 2009, PRO signed a contract with the city to provide a reconnaissance survey of 300 properties within the boundaries of the Ville neighborhood. Because this number would include fewer than half of the potentially historic residential and commercial properties within the originally identified survey area, CRO and the contractors targeted a much smaller set of blocks within the Ville. The new boundaries were selected based on the level of threat to the targeted resources.
This survey differed from many others because the neighborhood has already been the subject of intensive study over three decades. In 1983-84, Landmarks Association of St. Louis conducted a reconnaissance survey of the Ville. In 1987, the City of St. Louis designated most of the Ville neighborhood as a local historic district. Two years later, the National Park Service (NPS) rejected certification of the Ville Local Historic District — a process that allowed other neighborhoods to have both local and national designation — due to extensive building loss in parts of the district. Consequently, the Historic and Architectural Resources of the Ville Multiple Property Submission was developed by Landmarks Association of St. Louis and approved by the National Park Service in 1999. The MPS offers three contexts under which individual buildings or groups could be listed in the National Register. The contexts are: “Black Settlement in the Ville, 1865-1910” and “The Ville as a Center for African-American Culture, 1910-1950”. The MPS establishes registration requirements for Institutional Buildings but no other types, stating that this is “the first phase of what is hoped to be a long-term project of evaluating and registering properties in the Ville.”
In the past few weeks, proponents of the possibly impending economic development deal crafted between leaders in the Missouri House and Senate have made excuses for proposed cuts to the historic rehabilitation tax credit: “it was going to be cut anyway.” This rationale has led many St. Louis political leaders, developers and even usually-opinionated bloggers to concede that the state’s proven revitalization tool will have to be lopped to make way for a brave new future of subsidies for new cargo warehouses.
We’ve heard that the “big buildings are done,” a statement that one could not safely make at the corner of 8th and Olive streets in downtown St. Louis, or in the railyard industrial areas of Kansas City. We have hard that it’s time for “new money” and new economics, a line that fails to mention that the cargo warehouse credits as written would only go to new construction, and that warehouses are not know for either welcoming pedestrian flanks or for innovative architecture. Worst, we have heard that a $10 million limit on historic tax credit awards of $275,000 or less is somehow protection of neighborhood microdevelopment.
To be sure, having some nod toward small projects is better than none, but what we have on the table is an annual $90 million issuance of historic tax credits in which small projects will only get $10 million – not a penny more. The $80 million majority of credits will go to the big projects – the ones that some proponents have claimed are “mostly done.” This skewed ratio prevents small developers and property owners from direct competition with large development operations, but it represents a move to cut small projects to over half of activity we saw in Fiscal Year 2011.
According to data from the Missouri department of Economic Development (DED), in Fiscal Year 2011, the state issued around $21.5 million in historic rehabilitation tax credits to projects that received $275,000 or less in tax credits. This activity represents 165 of the 385 projects to which DED issued historic tax credits. Of course, the total issuance was $116.2 million, so the small projects were far from the majority. Yet they account for around 43% of all projects that used the historic tax credit.
A formula based on caps of $10 million for small projects and $80 million for large projects will end up slowing the pace at which neighborhood revitalization can take place, in small towns and big cities. In St. Louis, the effects could be most harmful in distressed neighborhoods across north St. Louis where new historic districts are being created or have been created in St. Louis Place, the Ville, Penrose, O’Fallon and the Wellston Loop. Literally thousands of north St. Louis buildings will be eligible for the Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credit by the end of the next year, in addition to buildings in the rest of the city. Will these buildings have fair access to an incentive designed to bring them back to productive use?
The answer to that questions rests with the General Assembly, as well as to backers of the tax credits for the cargo warehouses. Those who advocate for neighborhood revitalization can fight for a mechanism that may bring us more jobs, which the region does need, but they should not let their guard down when it comes to the mechanism that often is what stands between a rehabilitated, human-scaled building and a vacant lot or gas station.
This is no either-or proposition – St. Louis will not be an attractive place for new investment if it neighborhoods aren’t improving. Missouri can’t give us unlimited money, but we can make sure that what we get doesn’t rob resources from neighborhoods that can’t afford lobbyists in the Capitol this week. A $10 million cap is too low. At least the cap should be based on last year’s activity of $21 million, so we don’t lose the momentum that is transforming tough blocks into great places to live.
On September 29, 1927, a massive tornado made its way across the city on a northeasterly track. The path of destruction widened in a part of north St. Louis stretching from Fountain Park to Hyde Park. The worst damage was just west of Grand Avenue between Delmar Boulevard and St. Louis Avenue, but every place in the path was wrecked badly. The Report on the St. Louis Tornado of September 27, 1927 by the Joint Committee of the Engineers’ Club and St. Louis Chapter, American Institute of Architects displayed the staggering destruction of the built environment, chronicled the human loss and called for upgrades in construction techniques. A subsequent major tornado in 1959 spared north St. Louis but left major damage in the Dogtown and Central West End neighborhoods.
Compared to the 1927 and 1959 tornadoes, as well as the famous 1896 “Cyclone,” the tornado that struck the city on December 31, 2010 was mercifully weak. Still, the track of the officially-declared EF1 tornado is longer than the damage suggests. The National Weather Service has published track maps of the recent St. Louis area tornadoes that shows the north St. Louis tornado to have left a 2.1-mile track starting around Lewis Place and moving northeast toward Fairground Park before lifting. The tornado touched down at 12:08 a.m. and lasted for three minutes.
The track of the 2010 tornado is notably similar to the 1927 track. Although the tracks and damage areas do not overlap, they follow a similar shape. The origin of the 2010 tornado is slightly west of the outer path of tornado damage in September 1927, although it is still farther from the actual tornado track. Another difference is that the 1927 tornado did not lift until it reached the river.
While the city was spared a major disaster on New Year’s, it endured a tornado that caused severe property damage and left at least a dozen households homeless. History shows worse could have happened, but also that north St. Louis has been hit by a tornado before. Disaster preparedness, urged in 1927 by leading engineers and architects, remains a crucial matter for the city.
Severe storms that hit the city on December 31st have left lasting destruction in parts of north St. Louis. In the Ville and Greater Ville area, winds of over 70 miles per hour struck after noon and left blocks of houses with damage ranging from missing fascia cladding to entire collapses. Nearly two weeks later, building owners struggle to get damage repaired amid snowfall, cold weather and — in a few tragic cases — lack of insurance. And some of the buildings hit hard are owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.
The storms on December 31 tracked just east of the path of the devastating tornado that hit St. Louis on September 29, 1927 — a disaster that struck coincidentally at 1:00 p.m. during the week. Over 75 people perished then. Luckily, no one died in the city on New Year’s Eve. However the face of neighborhoods may be changed socially and physically as families are forced to leave their homes and neighborhood landmarks are demolished.
In the last decade, Ville has been hard hit by waves of demolition, arson, brick theft and disinvestment. The storm’s path sadly cuts through the heart of a fragile neighborhood. Some solace can be taken in the fact that not only did the storm just barely avoid Dick Gregory Place — where a $9.5 million redevelopment is taking place — but also did not disrupt work. Workers worked through the storm inside of the 15 historic and two new buildings that comprise the project.
Here are some images of the damage that struck the Ville.
If photographs of its old neon sign measured anything, the “Sarah-Lou” building at the northeast corner of St. Louis and Sarah avenues in the Greater Ville is a winner. Although the building has been abandoned for years, its sign for the famous, shuttered Sarah-Lou Cafe attracts a great deal of attention. Alas, the attention the building needs to attract is that of an owner willing to rehabilitate the fine corner mixed-use building.
The building, which dates to 1906, was condemned for demolition in the year of its centennial. This year, the city erected a fence around the building to protect the sidewalks from falling clay tiles. The tiles’ fall was triggered by damage caused through theft of the metal guttering. Yet the privately-owned building is far from a wreck.
A look at the rear wall shows no structural problems with the masonry walls. Someone wisely demolished a sagging frame porch that had been enclosed and which provided access to the second floor. Beyond the holes in the roofs of the false gables, the roof seems sound. Hopefully someone will come along and rescue this building, which is one of four two-story corner mixed-use buildings at the intersection. This is the only one that is vacant, and it also happens to be the most architecturally stunning of the group.