Abandonment East St. Louis, Illinois Uncategorized

Is the Spivey Building Threatened?

by Michael R. Allen

On Thursday, January 20, 2005, acting East Saint Louis City manager Alvin Parks ordered the demolition of the Spivey Building (designed by Albert B. Frankel, completed 1928). Prompting his decision was a recent incident in which around fifty bricks from the roofline fell onto the street below during a gust of wind. A similar incident in July 2004 led city officials to condemn the building and erect a fence around the sidewalk surrounding it.

Parks did not specify how the city government would pay for demolition.

Yet a February 16, 2005 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the building’s owner, Phillip H. Cohn, objected to the forced demolition and promised the city government that either he or a prospective buyer would make necessary repairs within the near future. Parks accepted this promise and is holding off on demolition — for now.

St. Louis developer Cohn had purchased the Spivey Building for $75,000 in 2001 and sucessfully sought its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Cohn started removing asbestos-laden insulation illegally, having workers throw unsealed debris from the building’s windows. Neighbors complained to the city government about their exposure to the hazardous debris. The federal government has charged him with several federal crimes, including violations of regulations on asbestos removal. Work on the Spivey stopped in 2002.

The last tenant, State Community College, left the Spivey nearly twenty years ago. However, the building once was a prominent address in downtown East St. Louis, home to the old Metro Journal newspaper founded by publisher Allen T. Spivey, who built the building. For years, it housed many doctors’ offices that brought much of the city’s population through its doors. Its Sullivanesque ornament and stature make it a striking regional landmark. As the tallest building in Illinois south of Springfield, its significance echoes beyond East Saint Louis.

Saving the building is a great challenge, but one that the Saint Louis region should accept. Losing the Spivey would rob East Saint Louis of the chance to rebuild its downtown as a complementary urban district near re-emerging downtown Saint Louis. Let’s hope that the Spivey Building soon reopens and stays open.

Chicago Hospitals Uncategorized

Cook County Hospital

by Michael R. Allen

Chicago’s venerable Cook County Hospital seems to have escaped the wrecking ball, but that doesn’t guarantee any particular future. The 1910’s-era Beaux-Arts-style landmark, designed by Paul Gerhardt and Richard Schmidt, stands empty and motionless on Harrison Street, slowly recovering from nearly 90 years of intense service but still seeming to call out for re-dedication to its original purpose. Replaced by a mediocre (now awful) new county hospital building in 2002, the old hospital visually embodies all of the characteristics of public architecture that are so refreshing to an age in which health care has drifted into commodity status and the design of public buildings crudely mirrors the already-crude design of private buildings.

Cook County Hospital is such a wonderful building that one has to wonder why Chicago planners have not made it a top priority to demolish it at all costs, so as to begin the process of erasing public history that is necessary to their plans to privatize every aspect of life in the Midwestern metropolis. Nay, one wonders why there has not been an intervention by the Bush administration to eradicate the hospital from its site.

The Cook County Hospital building is a glaring sign that the United States of America now neglects and actively opposes health care for all of its citizens, by sadly reminding those of us with enough education to know that health care almost became a right that the infrastructure of public health care still exists. All that has changed is the willingness of our government to provide health care; the buildings and people and needs remain.

I get a chill even writing these words because I fear that someone with the power to do something about the hospital may read them and begin to transmit the apparatuses of state power in the forms of wrecking balls and dynamite to the beautiful Chicago hospital. Yet I think that this reflection on Cook County Hospital can offer great hope to dissident students of architecture and public services, and provide a chance to appreciate a very real accomplishment of local government some years ago: the construction of a beautiful hospital that, albeit with many problems, provided a space in which any person could come and claim her right to be healed.

One hesitates to even attempt to describe the awesome eight-story front facade of the hospital. This hesitation comes from the intense visual imposition of the mass of the front elevation’s huge block of buff-gray brick and terra cotta, which defies any passer-by to even forget about it. The building forces one to enter into an immediate relationship with it; even an attempted glance will lead one to freeze for some amount of time longer than originally intended. Yet the immediate intensity of the mass of the front elevation is only the first part of the hesitation, as the mass gives way to a plethora of lovely details that at one compose and undermine the largeness of the hospital.

The details invite careful study, and one who has been struck with the building’s initial invitation to gaze will not be able to escape lingering looks at the hospital’s many anachronistic cartouches, decorated cornices, graceful Ionic columns, captivating faces and yellow terra cotta spandrels. The level of detail is staggering, especially when one considers the very basic function that the hospital was designed to serve. Today, such decoration is rare even on buildings designed to house art museums. In the lifetime of the Cook County Hospital, architectural detail has declined to the point where it is now rarely used even if elaborate private construction. Once, a hospital for poor people could look like Cook County Hospital. Now, a hospital for poor people, if built at all, looks like a cheap warehouse while a hospital for rich people looks like a cheap warehouse with air conditioning.

Looking at the hospital building, one begins to sadly mark the passing of time and values. Unfortunately, the value of ornamentation and careful design has passed from a goes-without-saying public demand to an ethic of a small group of possibly naive intellectuals, myself included. Yet the ornamentation is also hopeful, because it suggests that care is possible in the worst political circumstances. 1914 wasn’t exactly a great year for the average American: the Wilson administration was building up military intervention on behalf of Eastern financiers, civil rights for anyone except well-off white men barely existed at all, industrial employment was repressive but necessary, etc. One wonders how such an institution as Cook County hospital managed to get built at all.

The hospital demonstrates the genuine care that architect Gerhardt must have imparted to this hospital. No one could have designed this building without caring about the effect of aesthetic detail on the lives of ordinary citizens at the moment in which they seek medical care. One should try to make that statement about the new Cook County Hospital building without being embarrassed.


Ecology of Absence

by Michael R. Allen

And so if perforce we must study disease let us study it systematically. I cannot indicate to you the precise nature of that constitutional social disturbance of which our architecture is symptomatic; but little by little I will reveal to you the hidden causes and make clear and palpable to you the aspects and nature of the malady.
– Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats

There is so much empty land that in some places the city seems to have ceased to exist.
– Camilo Jose Vergara, The New American Ghetto

This project documents the disease of abandonment of the built environment and its treatment. We aim to reveal the odd interaction of social and ecological forces that lead people to build, abandon and reclaim buildings and structures. Thus, we draw upon the fields of history, urban archaeology, ecology, sociology and architecture to investigate the troubled urban areas of the Midwest.

Ecology of Absence originally was supposed to be a book about the social and ecological lives of abandoned places in the metropolitan area of Saint Louis, Missouri. The project quickly grew into the present website, which presents visual and textual information in an attempt to present abandonment as a systematic occurrence that is shaped by political decision-making, economic circumstances and natural forces. Ecology of Absence also documents the recovery and demolition of buildings, as well as other matters pertaining to architecture and development in and around St. Louis, East St. Louis and other cities that we will begin to cover in the future.

We are interested in developing a critique of the contemporary condition of American cities, and thus transcend each limit that we set. Setting out to photograph and write about interesting abandoned buildings, we realized that such documentation — like each building itself — lacked urgency without being set in its context. We did not want to capture only the beauty of decay, but provoke people into addressing the massive and unsustainable decay of a city like St. Louis.

Ecology of Absence aims to provide an information source for people who envision cities as sustainable places where people’s needs are met. Thus, the project promotes ecologically-sound building practices and the recovery of abandoned sites for public welfare while opposing gentrification, land-banking and the further destruction of inner cities. We document abandoned places to pinpoint that moment of disuse before which these places are transformed again through restoration or destruction. At this moment, buildings and structures are full of information (things left behind) and ripe for contemplation.

Yet the moment of disuse is also the moment at which these places can be reclaimed. The question of who gets to reclaim these places is a political one, and we do not shy away from investigating this question as part of our research of each site. All architecture is the containment of space and is fraught with political decisions from the start: Who contains the space? Which space gets contained? Who gets to inhabit the contained space? The current crisis in older American cities demands that any meaningful documentation invest itself in these political questions. Our documentation carries with it a bias in favor of the people who are being left behind by and forced out of the speculative reclamation of cities.

In the end, Ecology of Absence may become a comprehensive project on the abandonment and reclamation of certain Midwestern American cities. For now, it remains deeply engaged in the investigation of the particular places that we encounter in our daily lives.