Historic Preservation Urbanism

National Historic Preservation Month: Some Whys and Hows

by Michael R. Allen

May marks the start of National Historic Preservation Month. Perhaps this spring’s sky shifts from dinge of gray to cloud-studded blue find me more introspective about my practice as a historic preservationist, but I keep questioning the impact and methods. Here are links to two recent places where I offer thoughts about what is right and wrong with mainstream historic preservation practice right now. Overall, I am drawn to the vibrancy of communities of people, and am exploring how the stewardship of buildings can support that.

A popular cause: The “flying saucer” at Council Plaza shows the power of popular preservation efforts.

Critical examination of the relationship of my practice to social needs has afforded almost a re-dedication. While I am not sure I ever will be the same “preservationist” I was in the past, I see the relationships between people and my work so much more clearly that I also can see its utility in ways I never saw before. People need preservation, and preservation needs people. Historic preservation has always been a social practice, but its power to serve people can often seem diluted when the lenses of economic development and professional practice are overlaid. Writing by Dolores Hayden, Daniel Bluestone, Camilo Jose Vergara and others suggest that a popular historic preservation practice is not only possible but already exists under dozens of other names.

Preservation is a team effort. Lindsey Derrington, Jeff Vines, randy Vines, Richard Henmi and Toby Weiss hold the Preserve Missouri award foe the flying saucer.

This week, in the rotunda of our state capitol, Missouri preservation bestowed a Preserve Missouri Award upon the “flying saucer” at Council Plaza. Rather than grant that award to the developer or architect of the renovation, which is common in preservation accolade-giving, Missouri preservation presented the award to a list of people whose interrelated efforts gave rise to mass support for preservation. Jeff and Randy Vines, Toby Weiss, Richard Henmi (who designed the building, completed in 1967), Aldermen Shane Cohn and Scott Ogilvie, PRO’s Lindsey Derrington and others received a collective award for their mass action. That’s what the preservation movement needs to do more often: recognize that buildings are made and remade by the masses, with people’s different roles adding up to a building’s preservation. The flying saucer shows that buildings that mean something to people become the biggest successes. Preservationists need to consider how the forces of architectural meaning work, and how they can’t be faked.

Preservationists at rest. Volunteers and neighborhood residents in Penrose during the Rebuilding Together home repair blitz in summer 2010. Landmarks Association of St. Louis gave the project its first “Community Preservation” award.

This introduction leads to two works that reflect my current thinking:

1. A Room Without A View?

Minneapolis’ Works Progress visited St. Louis last week to complete a series of events called “Whole City” that examined the artistic and cultural practices that are shaping St. Louis right now. The series culminated with an exhibit at the Luminary Center for the Arts. Asked to contribute an essay to the publication released at the event, I pulled together thoughts on the interconnected dynamics in preservation, urbanism, community art and “creative placemaking.” This piece is an attempt, not an answer; I am reflecting on how these practices can matter more to the people of St. Louis. The excellent critical publication Temporary Art Review republished the piece yesterday.

2. Hold That Thought: Last House Standing

The College of Arts and Sciences at Washington University presents a wonderful podcast called Hold That Thought produced by Claire Navarro. Last month Claire interviewed me about the psychology of preserving buildings in depleted neighborhoods. The resulting podcast examines Old North St. Louis specifically, with emphasis on why people there are so fiercely protecting of buildings in an urban landscape that some may no longer consider urban in terms of built or population density.

Historic Preservation Month offers a time to celebrate the social good of preservation of historic places. For us practitioners, hopefully it also finds us sharpening our self-awareness so that we can be better aids to the people and the buildings we love. Preservation can be a popular value, and preservationists should do everything we can to make that so.

Events Urbanism

That "G" Word

by Michael R. Allen

This Thursday, I will moderate what should be a provocative City Affair panel discussion on the “g” word: gentrification. I volunteered to moderate because I lack a hard and fast definition of the word, and have been challenged and amazed at the wide range of connotations the word has attained. I’m eager to learn more about the cultural definition of the word, and look forward to the discussion.

Here’s the event description:

What is meant by gentrification and whether that word is a positive or negative can vary depending on who uses it. Panelists will talk about the dynamics that they perceive as contributing to gentrification: real estate purchasing, property improvement, demographic change, perception of inclusion and other forces of city life.

The panel consists of:
Steven Smith – Owner of the Royale and activist

Minerva Lopez – Past President of the Cherokee Station Business Association

Alex Ihnen – Regional Director of Development at Washington University, blogger at St. Louis Urban Workshop

Alycia Green – Advocate at The People’s Advocate St. Louis

Michael Allen will moderate the panel discussion.

Following forty five minutes of panel discussion we will open the floor to audience questions.


MARCH 4, 2010
7:30-9:00 PM
STYLEhouse (STL-Style)
3155 Cherokee Street
Saint Louis, Mo. 63118

Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern Midtown Urbanism

More "Urban" Is Not Always Better

by Michael R. Allen

The old Raiffie Vending Company building at 3663 Forest Park Avenue may not look like much, especially since its owner has let it sit without windows for the past three years. However, the two-story modern brick building has great qualities. Built in 1948, the building has a streamline modernist style that, while not greatly articulated here, is quietly attractive. Since the windows were part of the building design, the stylistic character was more clear before removal. Built of steel and brick masonry, the building is solid. This is the type of construction that is infinitely adaptable and practical for almost any use imaginable.

Of course, your mind might change when you see the new hotel that Sasak Corporation plans to build on the site of the modern warehouse. Five stories tall with wide street-level retail openings, this building adds more building density and urban connection to the site. Its masonry work is more interesting than that of the plain little box that now occupied the site, right? The hotel is a more urban building, you might think, and will add urban vitality to the site. Despite some flaws, like the 100-space garage in back being visible from the street through a pointless drive in front, this building makes the block more “urban” than the Raiffie building and thus constitutes an improvement.


Here is where the difference between rendering and reality comes into play. The developers are proposing to build this hotel at a cost of $90 per square foot, a price range below that of your average do-it-yourself Old North rehab. The masonry may look lovely in a tiny JPG, but it’s not going to be brick in real life. The hotel will be clad in precast panels, spaced by those oh-so-obvious black seams.

Is the shift to “more urban” worth it if it means throwing away better construction for a cheaply-built building that meets all of the rote urbanist qualities? I say no emphatically. We can’t keep throwing away buildings while we sit on an alarming amount of vacant land. There are many other sites in Midtown where a hotel could be built, and the old warehouse at 3663 Forest Park itself could be adapted if the developers wanted to try. But they’d have to spend more than $90 per square foot.

Demolition DeVille Motor Hotel land use Midtown Streets Urbanism

Dead Zone

by Michael R. Allen

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the site on Locust Street where the livery stable demolished by St. Louis University in 2007 once stood. The site would be located at the northwest corner of Locust and Josephine Baker Avenue, except that the university requested that Josephine Baker be removed.

The occasion was the filming of This Was the Future, a short documentary on the efforts to save the DeVille Motor Hotel (more on that film later). For the film, interview subjects were invited to select a site where a historic building once stood that is now an empty hole in a vibrant area. While it is hard to choose from some of the harsh empty lots we have in this city, I settled on what has to be one of the worst urban planning disasters in recent years.

The two-story livery stable building was a bridge between the emergent renewal in the Locust Street Business District and the more established revitalization of Grand Center. Grand Center’s motto is “the intersection of art and life,” an acknowledgment of the power of crossroads. Here stood a building that was a crossroads, and now we have an asphalt chasm, and not even a literal crossroads since one of the two streets here is now gone.

Even as a warehouse, the livery stable exuded more life than the parking lot on a busy night. On a Saturday afternoon, not a single car was parked on the lot, and few were parked at nearby meters. Clearly, the lot is there for special events. However, trading the potential of daily urban activity in a rehabilitated building for the occasional overuse of a parking lot makes no sense in a central city location. Not at all.

The side effect of the livery stable debacle is the spatial segregation (through building density) of Grand Center from the emergent area on Locust and of Renaissance Place (through removal of Josephine Baker) from St. Louis University and Locust Street. Human-scale urban renewal has finally come to Midtown on Locust Street and at Renaissance Place, and a potential connection between those successes is lost, and replaced with a land use that not only divides but is totally alien to the surrounding urban fabric. We could have done so much better.

Housing Hyde Park Infrastructure North St. Louis Urbanism

Cut Off From Hyde Park

by Michael R. Allen

Eleventh Street continues north of Branch Street for two blocks, abruptly dead-ending where it meets the embankment of I-70. I-70 hems in the street and the pocket of residential Hyde Park that remains severed from the neighborhood. The city furthered this severance by officially drawing the Hyde Park boundary at I-70, which is certainly a barrier but nothing that defines any boundary of a neighborhood that has always started at the Mississippi River.

I love these two houses on the west side of Eleventh Street north of Branch. There are many small shaped-parapet bungalows in Hyde Park, built of pressed brick with wooden front porches. Houses like these line Agnes and Destrehan streets back in official Hyde Park. These homes date to the 1920s, when they went up en masse on undeveloped sites in the south end of the neighborhood. Few of those houses enjoy as dramatic a setting as these two now do. The highway in the back yard, giant billboards on each side — the only comfort found in one of these houses is its well-kept neighbor. The brick sidewalk in front adds another reminder of the lost connection with the historic world of Hyde Park.

Clearance Events Historic Preservation McRee Town People South St. Louis Urbanism

Talking About McRee Town

by Michael R. Allen

Jackie Jones introduces her presentation.

Yesterday afternoon St. Louis University doctoral student Jackie Jones presented her dissertation thesis, “Picturing a Neighborhood: McRee Town in Saint Louis, Missouri,” to a crowd at the Royale, 3132 S. Kingshighway. The interesting venue for Jones’ presentation and resulting discussion offered a relaxed setting for what remains a controversial topic: the wholesale clearance of six blocks of an urban neighborhood by the Garden District Commision and resulting replacement by new housing. Jones disavowed any stance on the clearance, instead focusing on how images were used to justify the clearance in the press — and how other images contradict the story told by the Commission’s carefully-selected images.

Here’s Jones’ own description of her presentation:

In 2003, the Garden District Commission demolished more than two hundred buildings on the eastern half of the McRee Town neighborhood in Saint Louis. The Commission, a private coalition headed by officials from the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden, demolished six blocks of historic brick homes and apartment buildings that housed primarily low-income renters and homeowners, relocated hundreds of residents, erected twenty-five acres of market-rate, single-family, suburban-style housing on the cleared land, and ceremoniously renamed the area Botanical Heights. This presentation explores how visual representations of McRee Town between 1998-2003 helped legitimize this urban renewal project and the dislocations it caused in the lives of McRee Town residents. It engages viewers with the photographs of burned-out, boarded-up, weed-infested buildings that populated newspaper reports and public relations documents during these five years, and juxtaposes them with photographs taken by Genevelyn Peters, a McRee Town resident prior to the neighborhood’s destruction. These images – of family, homelife, play, and community – complicate and challenge the dominant understanding of this neighborhood and its residents as criminal and atomized by presenting images that depict a vibrant neighborhood community.

People listen to Jones’ making a point.

The people present included someone involved in the decision to clear the six blocks, residents of Botanical Heights (the new housing development), the area’s Neighborhood Stabilization Officer Luke Reven and others. While I had to leave before discussion was over, discussion touched on the damaging impact of I-44 construction in the early 1970s, the way in which similar images as those taken in McRee Town galvanized Lafayette Square and Soulard residents to pursue preservation instead of clearance, the deceptive nature of photographs and whether or not the term “suburban” applies to Botanical Heights.

Looking west down McRee Avenue from 39th Street.

On another note, if Royale proprietor Steven Fitzpatrick Smith is attempting to revive the tradition of the discussion salon, count me in!

Downtown Historic Preservation Planning Urbanism

A Different Washington Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

This photograph from the collection of Landmarks Association of St. Louis shows a section of Washington Avenue in 1978. Obviously, the photographer was intrigued by the Fire Department’s activity, but ended up documenting more than just a one-alarm call. This view shows the north side of Washington from the mid-point of the 700 block east through the 500 block.

From the left, one sees Loews Theatre still in business with its marquee advertising “Greased Lightning.” Then there is Unique Jeans ‘n Shirts, Stan and Julio’s Spaghetti House, H.R. Perlstein Furs, Amitin’s Books, the Big Men’s Shop and Lane Bryant. On the next block east is the Stix, Baer and Fuller Department Store, later Dillard’s, long before any skybridge marred its lovely commercial facade. Beyond the department store is the old May Company Building, now 555 Washington and then home of the Dollar Store.

This retail environment was dense with stores and small-scale buildings. The 700 block, with the exception of the theater, was occupied by narrow four-to-six-story buildings. These small buildings were the lifeblood of downtown retail in the 20th century, offering low rents and lower operating costs to owners. The buildings and the shops also imprinted streets like Washington, Locust, Olive and others with architectural variety and commercial abundance.

Alas, this photograph captures that downtown street life in end times. By the time this photograph was taken, city planners had decided to smother the retail environment here with the colossal failure that was St. Louis Centre. Opened in 1985, St. Louis Centre stands diagonally across from the Lane Bryant Store here. To build St. Louis Centre, two blocks of modestly-scaled historic downtown buildings — all with ground-floor retail — were leveled. St. Charles Street was closed. The two giant department stores, Stix and Famous-Barr, were joined to the mall rather than being separated by a diverse array of urban retail accessed on the sidewalks.

Retailers like Lane Bryant moved into St. Louis Centre and failed. Establishments like Stan and Julio’s lingered until city planners again decided to stamp unitary order onto functional, if messy, urban life. In 1989, the 700 block of Washington was seized for construction of an addition to the convention center. Some retailers, like Amitin’s, moved westward on Washington, but many closed their doors forever. The buildings fell. Today, the view captured in 1978 is depressing. Where delightful urban life thrived sits the giant convention center, with its sidewalks a pedestrian danger zone of taxi-dodging. The Stix building is empty, with a giant skybridge fused onto its facade that blocks sunlight and site lines.

Fortune may lead to rehabilitation of the Stix buidling, demolition of the skybridge and reconstruction of St. Louis Centre. However, the very urban architectural and commercial character of this stretch of Washington is lost.

Chicago Urbanism

Obama’s House

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Katherine Hodges.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama will soon be living in a famous historic home, and for that we are thankful, but his current residence is not unremarkable. Famously an owner of only one house, Obama resides in a spacious, historic home in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood. The hipped-roof Colonial Revival home and adjacent lot — regrettably made infamous during the campaign — are found on a block familiar to millions of urban Americans.

While we all don’t live in homes as large as Obama’s or in neighborhoods as tony as Obama’s pocket of Kenwood Kenwood, us city-dwellers can see ourselves in Obama more so than in any president in our lifetimes. Obama lives in a red brick house close to the sidewalk on a public street in a densely-populated neighborhood. Near the Obama family home is Washington Park, a magnificent but somewhat-untended city park. Washington Park mixes the aesthetics of Gilded Age aspiration with the contemporary reality of human life. Its paths are mostly full of people enjoying the beauty, but it has its share of vice and crime. West of the park is the CTA’s Green Line, an elevated train line that carries thousands of Chicagoans to work, school church and nightlife.

To the south, Hyde Park and the University of Chicago place academic refinement smack-dab against neighborhoods where poverty is a real problem. North of Kenwood are neighborhoods whose fortunes are equally mixed. Barack Obama bought a wonderful home for his family, surrounded by the urban reality of his city. Obama’s life is sheltered by necessity, but not by location. His home is in the middle of the diversity, wonder, agony and mystery of American urban life — “real America” to many Americans. At times, cities seem to be as real as it gets.

Many American presidents — including Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — have relocated to New York City at points in their career, but none in the last fifty years have come straight out of an urban neighborhood to the White House. These past fifty years have been terrible years for American cities. Seems like little coincidence that we have had presidents who come from that ether between the real life of the cities and the real life of the rural areas — one place widely defamed by national politicians, the other mythologized in speech and neglected by policy.

Barack Obama has walked streets like ours and lived in a red brick house in the city. He has called an urban neighborhood in south Chicago home. At last, America has an urban president. At times, Obama will displease urban Americans — after all, he is governing a nation with a suburban culture that is entrenched in national government. Yet Obama has actually lived urban America, and I can’t help but think that will make a crucial difference in transportation policy, housing allocation, block grant funding and other areas.

Of course, Obama holds only the pen that signs the laws. The laws originate with our representatives. We have an urban president, and to make the most of that, urban America needs to step up and make its voice heard. Change doesn’t end with Obama, it starts with us.

St. Louis County Urbanism

The Shady Oak Theater and the Big Box

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Lynn Josse.

Wreckers started taking down the shuttered one-screen Shady Oak Theater at 7630 Forsyth Boulevard. While not dazzling, the Colonial Revival building was a handsome building. Built in 1933 and designed by architects Frederick Dunn and Campbell Alden Scott, the theater was a reminder of the genteel character that Clayton once possessed. The theater’s small scale was once part and parcel of the residential suburb’s architectural character, but in the past twenty years was an antidote to the giantism and automobile storage worship that has befell Clayton.

On November 2, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story on the demolition that quoted Thomas Stern, president of Solon Gershman, the company that is wrecking the theater for surface parking. According to Stern, “[n]ow if you don’t have 16 screens it doesn’t make sense to run a movie theater. It has more value to us now for parking in the intermediate term.”

In light of current economic circumstances, Stern’s first statement is as baffling as it is illuminating. Even at the height of our recent credit glut, theater operators in the region’s urban core had backed away from the super-sized multi-plex in favor of theaters of six screens or less. A one-screen move house is perfect for an urban area like downtown Clayton, where a residential population lies within an easy walk and land for a larger theater would be difficult to assemble.

With credit slow, I doubt that even the most exurban reaches of the St. Louis area will see a new 16-screen theater in the next few years. However, smaller movie houses with less overhead and closer to dense populations (especially wealthy populations like in Clayton) should do well. Stern’s comment suggests an uncritical embrace of large scale development — the attitude that has eroded Clayton’s charm, killed off the Shady Oak and damaged our economy. While there are signs that attitude has lost much of its momentum, there is also the possibility that the economic crisis has only momentarily slowed down the pace of the big box culture. Let’s hope that the big box is headed for the destruction that it has wrought on urban areas.

Fire Fountain Park North St. Louis Urbanism

Fire in Fountain Park

by Michael R. Allen

A sweltering, humid afternoon yesterday broke what had been a string of some of the most pleasant St. Louis summer days in recent years. In the Fountain Park neighborhood, the dog day brought more than just unpleasant weather. At around 12:40 p.m., a fire broke out at the abandoned home at 1124 Bayard Avenue. The blaze roared through a modest two-story home that has experiences fire twice before, according to a neighbor.

Neighbors who had been hanging out indoors in search of air conditioning came outside to watch a mid-day spectacle that is unfortunately a common occurrence in much of north St. Louis. Firefighters were quick to respond, and had the fire under control quickly. The firefighters surely earned the respect of the assembled crowd on Labor Day afternoon.

The house was not one of the stunning homes that line Fountain park proper, nor was it the nearby “castle” building. (The sight of dark smoke coming from near that structure made me shiver.) The brick home has acquired permastone on the first floor and flimsy siding above. Still, it had been a solid residence until going vacant two years ago. Its altered facade still made up part of a street scape wall that joins others to form the architectural context of life in Fountain Park. The house had a supporting role to the fancier buildings, but its loss will make the drama a little less full.

The neighborhood atmosphere yesterday was a far cry of the vision of John Lay, the Virginia farmer who platted 158 acres of his land just west of the city limits in 1857. Dubbing the subdivision “Aubert Place,” Lay envisioned a fashionable middle-class enclave centered on an elegant park, like those he had seen in London. Early advertisements suggest that Aubert Place was a country retreat, and certainly the character of this area supported that assertion. Development was slow, even though half of the lots sold at auction in 1857. One reason for slow growth was the distance for public transit, which would not come for nearly another twenty years.

Most early homes here were frame, and only forty had been built by 1883. Still, annexation into the city in 1876 encouraged growth, as did the continued westward growth of the city. Streetcars came down Delmar to the south and Easton to the north, with a line also running straight down Euclid through the heart of the development. Development of the Central West End in the early 1890s coincided with the city’s investment in the park in 1889. The city took the undeveloped central feature of Aubert Place and built amenities, including the fountain that would lead to the gradual name change of the neighborhood. Lay’s charming suburb had been missing the elegance of a well-planned park. With lots reserved for single-family homes and a required twenty-foot set-back, Aubert Place was destined to be genteel. Building was rapid between 1892 and 1897, when two brothers named Davis built many homes. A second boom covers the years of 1903 through 1925, when unrestricted blocks around the original subdivision were developed with two-flats and other multi-family properties. Now known as Fountain Park, the neighborhood thrived with middle-class residents.

In the 1940s, Africa-Americans began piercing the housing restrictions in Fountain Park, at the time when many whites were leaving for more fashionable addresses west and north. A renewal took place, and the community remained strong for several decades until signs of decay crept in. To this day, there is amazing dichotomy in Fountain Park. Many blocks are very well-kept and retain their original beauty, while other blocks are marked by vacant lots, boarded buildings and vestiges of vice. Not surprising, the original Aubert Place is stronger than the outer tier of multi-family buildings. The posh Victorian middle-class suburb is now a problem-ridden 21st-century American urban neighborhood. That is to say, that for every day like yesterday, it has another good day. And for every beautiful home on Fountain, there’s a house like 1124 Bayard.

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