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Demolition National Historic Landmark St. Charles County

The Demolition of Prince Hall at Washington University

by Michael R. Allen

Built St. Louis has already published demolition photographs from Prince Hall, which is a long way gone.

That the demolition started so quickly raises many questions. How did preservationists fail in this case? There seemed to be considerable delay from the time people started talking about the proposed demolition to the time people acted. And the action came mostly in the form of letter-writing and a few newspaper article quotes. Admittedly, the preservation dynamo Esley Hamilton worked hard to preserve the building. The rest of us were there mostly in spirit and not enough in deed to make a difference.

The potential to have lobbied alumni and donors could have been utilized. Washington University may have changed its mind if its decision was costing money. With large universities, there seems to be no other way outside of legal restriction to keep historic campus buildings standing.

I also think that the building’s secluded location on a private campus located amid wealthy neighborhoods kept it from being a championed cause among the rank-and-file of urbanists and preservationists. Most of us, to be frank, didn’t go to Washington University and live far from the manicured lawns of Clayton. I have to admit that Prince Hall was low on my list given the urgency of the situation of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home and other north side buildings.

Still, the Washington University Tudor Gothic campus core — designed by Cope & Stewardson and built between 1901 and 1905 — is one of the most attractive collegiate groups in the country. The great significance of this group as architecture, that art so public that ownership legal barely restricts its appreciation, outweighs any reservations myself and others had. We should have tried much harder.

One final question the demolition raises is whether or not the Washington University campus district’s listing as a National Historic Landmark District should be de-certified. Is there sufficient context left for it to remain listed? What would de-certification mean for the other buildings? The National Historic Landmark listing again proves to give no special protection to an historic building, even if it gives special recognition. Preservation is the result of human action.

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