by Michael R. Allen
The proposed SkyHouse project at the southwest corner of 14th and Washington raises interesting issues. On one hand, we have a 22-story condominium building with a thoroughly contemporary design. While the details of the design aren’t evident in published renderings, the overall streamlined appearance is attractive if not original. This is the sort of building that gets built several times a year in Chicago, and has not been built in St. Louis’ downtown in forty years.
On the other hand, the project would entail demolition of two historic but remuddled buildings: a two-story corner storefront known best as the home of Ehrlich’s Cleaners, and a one-story building to its west. Both buildings have had been clad in stucco, and historic appearance is weak. The corner building does still display the shape of its parapet and its beautiful cast-iron storefront. The buildings join other, more intact buildings around the intersection in proving traces of the sort of scale of commercial buildings that were mostly lost in the twentieth-century building and later parking lot booms. These building set a nice counterpoint to the six- or ten-story wholesale buildings in Washington Avenue and create openings within the street canyon for nice urban views.
The SkyHouse would dramatically alter the feeling of this site by introducing a very different size of scale to Washington. The tall modern mass would also create visual variety and perhaps serve as a more hopeful symbol of the street’s stability than two badly-altered smaller buildings. Certainly, preservation of the two historic buildings is unlikely.
However, whether or not SkyHouse gets built, the proposal should be the start of serious discussion about how we should make the kinds of choices downtown new construction will force. There are many smaller historic buildings, some lacking any official landmark status, whose demolition might create larger sites for bigger development. Yet their loss could also destroy the visual variety and differences in height and building size that make downtown an attractive place. One SkyHouse is great, but ten similar buildings grouped near each other seems a rather gloomy prospect.
Chicago has never really established a cultural preservation plan that leads to comprehensible choices. That city has let developers run cultural preservation policy by default, with mixed results and a rise in visual homogenization. Other cities, like Minneapolis and New York, have found better ways to retain the architectural qualities that define places as special. St. Louis is gifted with a great historic architectural stock, and decisions about its conservation need to be made carefully.
(As usual, there is lively discussion about this project on the Urban St. Louis form. Read it here.)