by Michael R. Allen
One local television station’s report on today’s fire at one of the Cochran Gardens buildings on Seventh Street north of downtown called the building “historic.”
The use of that adjective was bittersweet. The six red brick apartment buildings — including two buildings reputed to be the first high-rise public housing buildings in the city — are a handsome example of relatively sensitive mid-century design. Designed by George Hellmuth and completed in 1953, Cochran Gardens was the city’s third federally-funded housing project built by the St. Louis Housing Authority. It also was the scene for one of the nation’s earliest and most successful tenant management programs. For better or for worse, Cochran Gardens survived its contemporaries, form Pruitt-Igoe to Darst-Webbe. Tenant management helped, as did a modern design much more humanely scaled than the successor projects with uniform heights and building types.
Demolition of Cochran Gardens is currently underway, with five of the six buildings slated for eventual demolition. One of the taller buildings will remain. The replacement HOPE VI project is under construction, and seems better-designed than many recent examples. One wonders what sort of viability the Cochran Gardens buildings could have had in today’s downtown housing market. Next door, the stunning rehabilitation of the Neighborhood Gardens Apartments demonstrates that much can be done to creatively transform mass housing, and that there is demand for the end products. Whereas the intended tenants of high-rise public housing may have desired housing more along the lines of what HOPE VI projects provide, some people do choose to live in basic, sturdy spaces off of the ground. After all, the transformation of the wholesale buildings of Washington Avenue into desired housing suggests that just about any kind of building can be someone’s house. Why not a building design for housing in the first place? No matter — we lost the chance with Cochran Gardens. Next time?