Central West End Churches Metal Theft

Architectural Heritage Threatened By Metal Theft

by Michael R. Allen

This is St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church at the northwest corner of Pendelton and Olive streets in the Central West End, just west of the old Gaslight Square area. On Friday of last week, church members noticed that the original copper guttering was missing. Then, they noticed that the flashing and other copper pieces from the roof were gone, too.

With limited means and no insurance on the church, the congregation brought out the buckets to endure the weekend’s rain. Hopefully, a more permanent repair can be made with the help of generous St. Louisans and the Lutheran synod.

However, no building will be very safe as long as metal recyclers are allowed an exception under city law that requires dealers of reused items to keep on file a photo ID card of each person who redeems items for cash. With metal prices high recently, thieves have been actively stripping buildings both vacant and occupied, with no end in sight. The Board of Aldermen needs to pass a bill requiring each metal recycler to obtain a photo ID from each customer before paying for their load of metal. That would guarantee that police officers investigating thefts can actually have a basis other than hearsay for investigation, and prosecutors can file charges against metal thieves. Honest scrappers who glean alleys and do gut demolition work would be unaffected. Metal dealers might experience a loss in profits, but would be more protected against charges ever being filed against them for accepting stolen property.

Theft of architectural items is as big a threat to the historic fabric of St. Louis as bad urban planning. St. Stephen’s Church is seriously at risk of sustaining major damage until roof repairs can be made, and that may take awhile. Vacant buildings that have their guttering stolen don’t even have half of the chance of surviving that an occupied building does. We cannot afford to lose buildings so that thieves and metal dealers can make a few bucks; the consequences will live on long after they spend the money.

St. Stephen’s originally was St. George’s Episcopal Church, and was built in 1891 from plans by Kivas Tully. Tully, who also designed parts of Christ Church Cathedral downtown, had conceived of this building as a wing of a larger sanctuary, but that plan was never built. The church is a key part of a pending expansion of the national Central West End Historic District drafted by Landmarks Association. This expansion basically restores the proposed original boundaries of the district north to the alley south of Delmar (but including Delmar Baptist Church at Delmar and Pendelton) and east to Pendleton.