by Michael R. Allen
Architectural historians often stop their work when a building reaches its sure death. Without a chance at preservation, an already-decrepit building is just a historic shell. Articles written, consulting fees paid, photos taken — what is left to do? Plenty. As a building is lost through neglect and later demolition, its body is battered until a flood of historic memory is released. Perhaps a vacant building means even more to a community during its demolition. The cleared site serves as an empty signifier — signifying many things to many people. One of those things may actually get built.
So the Nord St. Louis Turnverein’s rapid demolition last week under the capable hands of Z & L Wrecking was an instructive moment in local architectural history. The rapidity of demolition, the cleaning of brick and the removal of all complete traces of building in one week is an accomplishment unmatched in execution and intensity by the work of any architect or builder.
In just one week, Z & L Wrecking removed a building that had occupied the site starting in 1870. The northern half of the site had not been unbuilt for 141 years. The southern half across the alley had been the site of a building for 113 years. The rapid liquidation of so much material and civic memory was a quiet symphony of demolition, or perhaps an unrecorded dirge.
Yet the story has not ended for the Nord St. Louis Turnverein. The architectural history of the building itself remains incomplete, and the site itself is not one of absence but strange and hopeful presence. For one thing, the site is now graded with dirt cleaner and purer than any on the site in over a century. Bits of building remain, but the soil cover with its rippled folds is like an ocean of potential.
As the starting event for this year’s Chautaqua Art Lab, yesterday evening RJ Koscielniak convened a one-hour memoriam event for the lost Turnverein. Yet rather than look backward to mourn a lost building, RJ decided to focus on yielding the site to community desires. He built a blackboard at the corner of 20th and Mallinckrodt streets, and provided chalk for Hyde Park residents and visitors to write down ideas answering the question of what the site should become. RJ and others planted flowers in a box on the site, and built a fire pit out of Turnverein bricks poking out of the edges of the dirt fill.
The chalk boards will be up for awhile, and people are invited to continue using them to express ideas for the site’s future. Whatever words are left there are interjections into the site’s architectural history. The Turnverein site remains a key location for Hyde Park’s civic life, and whatever its future, something will be built there. Or, rather, something will follow the chalk board, flowers and fire pit. Rebuilding is already underway.