by Michael R. Allen
What a way to start a fire, what a way to break it in
Your kiss could have killed me, baby
If it were not for the rain
Scout Niblett ft. Bonnie Prince Billy, “Kiss” (This Fool Can Die Now, 2007)
Did a fire destroy the commercial building on South Kingshighway two doors north from the Royale, or did a fire bring into being the birth of a new building? Time will tell. Surely the ashen and roofless wreck, with side wall fallen to let the world gaze into a tangle of charred building fiber, evokes some bit of hopelessness. Without a roof, a building is still a building. Without four walls and horizontal structural members, a building becomes rubble.
Or does it? Looking out across the remnant body of what was a fine but not remarkable stock-from-the-catalog hydraulic press brick and terra cotta essay in the revival style, my eye cannot see total loss. I look at that front wall, that strong and still intact front wall, and I see the first wall of the next building. Now this building was not built through completed walls laid up in detail one by one, but through the slow and integrated rise of building material from beneath the soil up to the sky. The burned building’s front wall was never meant to stand isolated from the other brick walls that bound together in architectural union.
Yet there is a basic fact: that front wall is solid, attractive and integral to that street wall’s humane relationship with the sidewalk. While there is a car lot immediately to the north, and the neighboring Modern Kitchens and Baths has an inset parking lot unmitigated in its utility, this single building provides a humane and urban link between a corner tavern and Tower Grove Park. Although Kingshighway south of Arsenal street has a schizophrenic street wall, and offers few spots of continuous urban character to the pedestrian, this little place works. Here there is a place where a person can walk and feel that there is some vital link between this place and the living city around. Those places are sadly few and far between on St. Louis’ major commercial streets, and should be categorically protected and constantly expanded. The only reason we don’t have more places like this is our casual use of the wrecking ball, and our lack of zoning based on quality of life.
Should this city want to ensure our future is one in which the name “St. Louis” could pass through the lips of those people who value urban places teeming with the lifeblood of commerce and culture, we would never let a front wall be torn down after a fire unless it fell for a greater replacement. We should pass an ordinance preventing demolition of commercial buildings that hug the sidewalk with storefronts unless like replacement follows. Otherwise we will continue to be a city of great residential neighborhoods isolated through dismal expanses of arterial streets.
Should the building owner or the Building Commissioner protest that preserving this front wall on Kingshighway is an impossible feat, or a difficult one, their cries should be dismissed. This is a solid masonry wall, and its stabilization and integration into a new building is an easy task. At least, having seen such work as a matter of course in cities as diverse as Boston and Louisville, it seems like a city as great as ours can rise to a small job like this — a small job that serves the greater good of making a place where people enjoy walking, talking and conducting commerce.
Although our eyes’ gaze may be stubborn and myopic at times, we should look upon this front wall on Kingshighway not as a ruin but as something we can use. We should rejoice that the fire consumed not the most vital and urbane part of this building, and we should strive to build something that carries that vitality forward to the future. Sometimes it does seem that a kiss — the kiss of greatness — would kill this city, but deep down we know that the kiss could end generations of that far more fatal feeling of complacency. That damn front wall didn’t build itself.