by Michael R. Allen
Did you ever see this lovely building at the southeast corner of 20th and Farragut streets? Too late now. While you soon can park on top of the site in a city-funded parking lot, you won’t be able to ever look at this corner store in Hyde Park again. Demolition of this building and two others on north 20th street between Penrose and Farragut — all contributing resources top the Hyde Park Historic District — started in February and wrapped up this week.
How did demolition pass by the Cultural Resources Office and the Preservation Board? As is often the case, the Building Division issued an emergency demolition order (on December 16, 2008) that trumped preservation review. Never mind that these buildings were sound under both the city’s preservation ordinance and public safety laws. The Building Division deemed that their sound condition somehow was an imminent danger to public safety. Or, perhaps, imminent danger to the neighboring occupant of the old Penrose Police Station at 1901 Penrose: the parking meter division of the City Treasurer’s Office.
The City Treasurer’s Office has owned the lots on which the buildings sat for years. While these buildings could have been sold to tax-paying developers, the Treasurer’s Office decided to instead wreck them, remove taxable improvements from the land and keep the land under city ownership. Perhaps there is an ultimate development plan (hopefully not a parking lot, which would be absurd). For now, though, there is just another vacant lot in an area where there seem to be more vacant lots than buildings.
The lost buildings formed a remarkable group worthy of protection, and I regret never photographing them until demolition had commenced. The corner storefront at 20th and Penrose dated to 1895 and, while not overly ornamented, had a handsome cast iron storefront and chamfered corner. I don’t recall much about the house across the alley to the north, but its history was interlocked with its lavish neighbor to the north, shown in the first photograph above. That house, located at 4220 N. 20th, was home of Charles A. Roettger, who developed the storefront at 4222-24 N. 20th in 1907. According to its permit, the new building cost $9,800 to build — no small sum then.
To design this building, Roettger employed a distinguished north St. Louis architect, Otto J. Boehmer. Boehmer designed the perpendicular Gothic sanctuary of Friedens United Church of Christ (1908) nearby at the southwest corner of 19th & Newhouse streets. Boehmer also resided at 3500 Palm Street in Lindell Park from 1914 through 1933 — the house now occupied by former mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr., son of the alderman who represents the site of the new parking lot. The contractor for the new building was also a north side of German ancestry: Leo Motzel of 2217 College Avenue.
The corner storefront was a masterpiece of vernacular use of the Tudor Revival style. The corner turret, tiled roof with its false dormers, half-timbering and copper cornices are all fine decorative elements that created one of Hyde Park’s most picturesque corner stores. The building housed Frank C. Roettger’s (Charles’ brother) meat shop at the corner for decades following its construction. Another early tenant was Flora Loewenthal’s cigar shop at 4222 N. 20th.
The city directory listings name tenant after tenant in these buildings. The names shift from German-American to African-American at some point, until the word “vacant” pops up. Reading the names in the city directory and thinking about the loss of the buildings, one tracks not simply a loss of architectural stock, but a loss of life — lost names, lost uses and lost activity.