by Michael R. Allen
In June 2006, the St. Louis Business Journal reported the news that Highland Homes had placed the two-story residential building at 4557 Laclede Avenue under contract. At the time, the late 19th century two-flat housed the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Highland Homes planned to demolish the building and construct a six-story, 32-unit condominium tower estimated to cost $10 million to build. Unit prices would have started at $200,000.
Highland Homes’ website made the extravagant claim that the new building would be the greenest building in town: “4557 Laclede building combines innovative design based on recycled and sustainable materials with high efficient systems. This environmentally friendly approach makes 4557 Laclede the first LEED™-certified building St Louis.”
Urbanists heralded the increase in population density in the Central West End that the building’s residential units would bring. Champions of urban design cringed at the clumsy design of the tower, and some preservationists even furtively examined moving the threatened building. In the end, however, bankers made the decisive move.
In April 2007, Highland Home announced that the deal had fallen through, and that they would not seek to demolish the building at 4557 Laclede Avenue. While there was talk of another developer looking to revive the interest in the site, ultimately the value of the old building was higher. Today, the building at 4557 Laclede sports a for-lease sign.
The advertisement is just one of the signs that recession makes likely — at least momentarily — the preservation of existing buildings. Highland Homes’ proposal for the site proved unrealistic for the city’s economic circumstances. Continued use of the building as office space, without major rehabilitation, alternately is viable at present. Preservationists won’t always enjoy this sort of fortune, so the challenge remains translating the inertia of economic forces into a broader cultural argument about cultural heritage.
Part of that cultural heritage consists of fine buildings like the house on Laclede Avenue, with its slate-clad turret and human-scaled buff face brick offering infinitely more delight and connection with tradition than the EIFS and concrete of the once-proposed replacement. Yet another part of that heritage is economic sense. St. Louis has never been a city of excess, and our built environment reflects that. Yet when we again aspire skyward in the Central West End, no doubt the question of preserving this little building on Laclede Avenue will again be asked.