by Michael R. Allen
Demolition is nearly complete on the Central Apartments at 3727 Olive Street in Midtown, and there is still no answer to the big question: What were they thinking?
The better question seems to be: Were they thinking?
The graceful apartment building is the latest victim of the indecision of Grand Center, Inc., the redevelopment corporation charged with revitalizing the midtown area. While the Central Apartments has been owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority since 2001, its fate has been under the control of Grand Center. Since the apartment building fell empty in 2001 — it was partly occupied with storefront tenants up to the time of closing — Grand Center has failed to articulate a vision for its reuse or demolition. After languishing for several years boarded and deteriorating, the building fell to wreckers in December apparently at Grand Center’s request.
The Building Division considered the demolition an emergency, and some reports of brick loss on the west wall circulated. However, the brick loss was spalling of face brick, and the concrete structure of the building was as solid before wrecking began as it was when people were living there just six years prior.
Alas, the potential for reuse in December 2007 was perhaps greater than ever. Thanks to the work of Restoration St. Louis, Steve Trampe and other developers, there finally is an apartment housing market in Midtown. These developers have seen the obvious need for off-campus housing for St. Louis University students and have rehabbed large historic buildings for housing. Two blocks from the Spring Avenue mall entrance to the SLU campus, the Central Apartments had an obvious market.
While the 3700-3800 block of Olive Street has long lost any semblance of cohesive historic character, and lies outside of the Midtown National Historic District, the block retains a few buildings and many lots the could be developed. The William Cuthbert Jones House and the former Lindell Exchange (later Wolfner memorial library) on the south side of the block were recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic rehabilitation and new construction could transform that block from its current dullness.
Built in 1916, the Central Apartments possessed an elegant front elevation adorned in the Renaissance Revival style. With a sound structure, mostly solid masonry and largely intact interiors — revealed when exterior walls were knocked off of the building — the building was in good shape. The building could have provided the high-density urban housing one would assume is needed to make a thriving arts and entertainment district function as a real neighborhood.
Why Grand Center did not make rehabilitation of the building a priority is a mystery. Too often, such a senseless demolition is the result of deliberate bad planning. Here, it seems the result of no planning and no deliberation whatsoever.