by Michael R. Allen
Overnight on Friday, October 6, 2006, fire hit the magnificent Brecht Butcher Supply Company warehouses at the northeast corner of Cass and Florissant avenues. Fire ravaged the wood post-and-beam structure of the center building facing Cass Avenue, causing the roof and many floors to collapse into the building. The other two buildings sustained mostly superficial damage, due to clay tile and brick firewalls that stopped the spread of the intense heat.
The fire’s cause is officially unknown. However, observers of the buildings attest to the fact that since they warehouses fell completely vacant two years ago, a door on the east side of the building facing Hadley Street has repeatedly been opened by the squatters that called the warehouses home. (The warehouses are adjacent to the Sunshine Mission, a homeless shelter.) No matter how frequently the doors were closed, they would reopen. Residents of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood made repeated requests to the city’s Citizen’s Service Bureau and police seeking to have the doorway boarded up. These requests were met with inaction, by the city and by the warehouses’ negligent owners.
Entrance to center section before the fire.
Entrance to center section, after the fire.
The warehouses are among the many properties owned by the investment company named Blairmont Associates LC, a company enjoying fictitious legal registration but with a bad habit of sending political campaign contributions from a very well-known address. The sad fire illustrates the claim made by critics of Blairmont, including the authors of this website: their ownership endangers many historic buildings on the near northside that they own but will not sell to rehab-minded owners. Blairmont and affiliated companies now own over 300 parcels in the 5th and 19th wards on the city’s near northside.
In this free market society, the mere ownership of over 300 parcels of property is completely legal. Few would argue that Blairmont’s owners have no right to own land and speculate on its values. At issue are the dozens of historic houses, storefronts and other buildings that Blairmont and its affiliates own. These buildings are among the scarce remaining historic buildings that shape the physical context of the near northside. In an area as ravaged by building loss as this part of the city, residents are understandably upset that a large real estate company is holding hostage many buildings that could be restored to perpetuate urban character that is deeply endangered.
The Brecht Butcher Supply Company Warehouses are part of a very fragile group of buildings around the intersection of Cass and Florissant. Earlier this year, severe weather struck the Mullanphy Emigrant Home up the street, causing terrible damage. Last September, a huge fire destroyed the old St. Louis Bus Maintenance Center across Florissant from the Brecht buildings. Just a few weeks before that, the city demolished the Crunden Branch Library with little warning as a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the building was pending at the federal level. Across Cass from the warehouses is the old Cass Bank building, now used for the Greyhound Station. Greyhound plans to vacate the building within two years when it moves to a new station; the building is owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. South of there, the old neon Cass Bank sign is poised to disappear soon. Then there are the countless buildings lost before last year.
This area would have seen massive disruption under a plan to build a bridge over the Mississippi River that would have included huge ramps terminating at Cass Avenue just east of the warehouses. The first plan called for demolition of many buildings in the path of the ramps, including these warehouses. That plan was scrapped due to funding cuts. A later plan called for less demolition and fewer ramps, but still called for demolishing the Brecht buildings even though they were no longer in the path of any ramps. Blairmont certainly did not object to a planned state buyout of the property. The new plan looks unlikely as the State of Missouri is balking on providing major funding for the bridge project.
Of course, now it may not matter what bridge plan comes to fruition. The center section of warehouses will almost definitely be demolished soon, although its front elevation could be quickly stabilized and its rear sections (the building has a “U” shape) are stable. The other two sections of the group may fall, too, since there are little restrictions involved here. The warehouses are not part of any federal or local historic district, have no landmark status, are not in a preservation review area and have owners who probably want to sweep the matter away before meeting more scrutiny.
What a tragic ending here. These buildings are of the sort that developers hungrily convert to housing in downtown and south city, and there is little doubt that with the passage of another decade the Brecht warehouses would have been sought-after residential or office space. Imagine if the Schnucks site across the street was redeveloped, the Cass Bank building restored and new infill construction was built to the west and north of here. There is no reason why Cass Avenue could not have vitality, and there has never been any reason why the Brecht buildings could not have a forward-thinking owner. Of course, no building can last a decade of vandalism and squatters without sustaining damage, and a few fall down while waiting.
The Brecht Butcher Supply Company, founded by merchant and automobile pioneer Gus von Brecht, first built the four-story section of the buildings at the corner of Hadley and Cass in 1890. Here, the company had production facilities, warehouse space, offices and a showroom. The first section was designed in a practical commercial style hinting at the Romanesque Revival style, with a cast-iron storefront (look closely for the Star of David on each column) by Scherpe and Koken. The building was designed with load-bearing masonry walls and a mill method skeleton inside.
This building was expanded in 1897 with a large U-shaped addition designed by William E. Hess. Hess streamlined the style of the original building, and gave the windows full expression through large rectangular openings. Notably, he gave the addition a ruddy terra cotta cornice in the Classical Revival style, which was likely extended to the original building in place of its original cornice. The addition, which sustained fatal damage in the fire, also had wooden structural elements. His addition and a two-story, steel-and-concrete addition in 1900 designed by William Schaefer and built by August Winkel maintained the same exquisite cornice motif as the original building.
Brecht’s butcher supply business boomed around the turn of the century, and the company built a few other buildings on the block, including the garage now used by Ackerman Auto Repair. The north end of the block was occupied by a five-story factory of the Roberts, Johnson and Rand Shoe Company designed by Theodore Link (now demolished). The warehouses were eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.