by Michael R. Allen
The Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings are three separate brick multi-story industrial buildings built between 1890 and 1900 at 1201-17 Cass Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. The center building suffered a fire on October 6, 2006 and was condemned through emergency order of the Building Division on October 10, 2006. Subsequently, on October 31, the Building Division issued a demolition permit for both the 1890 section at 1201 Cass and the adjacent 1897 addition to its west at 1209 Cass Avenue. However, according to Demolition Supervisor Sheila Livers of the Building Division, this demolition permit was based only on evident conditions from the exterior of the group of buildings and not on a structural inspection of the interior. Livers says that she will not send a city building inspector into the two earliest buildings, which she says were structurally destabilized by the fire.
However, an interior inspection of the buildings reveals not only that the original building at 1201 Cass Avenue survived the fire with only minor masonry damage caused by the pressure of fire hoses used to put out the fire but also that the fire-damaged center building’s remains are possibly stable enough to be conserved through temporary stabilization. A thorough evaluation by a structural engineer is warranted by the current conditions, which allow reasonably safe access to most of the complex. Demolition has not started, and the owners of the building have neither endorsed nor opposed the demolition.
See the accompanying photographic narrative of the current condition here.
The eastern section is a four-story mill-method, bearing-wall building rectangular in plan. Several later openings on the western wall connect it to the 1897 addition and a stairwell and freight elevator at the north end that may be original to this building or built later. All openings have sliding-track steel fire doors that were effective in preventing the spread of fire on October 6. The building shows few signs of fire damage on its exterior. Its prominent Cass Avenue elevation shows visible signs of minor masonry damage likely wrought by the pressure of water sprayed by fire hoses. Under some window sills and at the cornice level, masonry elements have been dislodged although the wall remains stable. Boards and other window cladding were removed by firefighters attempting to ventilate smoke. Inside, this building also shows few signs of fire. On the first floor, there are almost no signs at all. On the upper floors, where fire doors were not closed completely, some partitions and other non-structural wooden items show signs of charring. In one place on an upper floor, at the base of a wooden column, a small section of the floor is burned from what appears to be an unrelated debris fire. This fire damage is minor. Throughout this building, the wooden columns and beams are all as true as would be expected and show no signs of fire damage or undue movement. The roof is in relatively good condition, although the collapse of parts of the adjacent addition damaged the parapet wall on the western side. Below the parapet, however, the wall remains stable with no large areas of mortar deterioration. The Building Division is worried about the condition of that brick, but it is unlikely that exposure of a former exterior wall faced in face brick would cause major structural faults.
To the west of the original building is the four-story 1897 addition. This building is U-shaped, with its long side facing Cass Avenue maintaining the wall line established by the original building. The eastern wall of this building is reinforced with structural clay tile that provided additional fire protection. This addition is also of bearing-wall mill-method construction, except for a two-story addition that fills the opening created by the U shape. This addition suffered extensive structural collapse during and after the fire. Most of this damage is concentrated in the south end in the five westernmost bays, where all four floors’ worth of wooden structural members collapsed. The recessed north masonry wall of this section, between the two wings of the building, also collapsed down to the second floor level. The side and alley walls on the north side are totally intact, though. However, the three easternmost bays of the south section retain some stability and are providing an anchor for the south wall. The structural framework is intact to the full height in the first bay from south, with various missing elements in other bays back to the start of the wing. The easternmost of the two ends of the U was connected to the main section and suffered some structural collapse on the upper two floors, although it remains intact below. The westernmost wing, perhaps a later addition although no building permit record exists, is separated from the main section by a masonry wall that prevented the spread of fire. Notably, the south wall along Cass Avenue appears stable and suffered no loss of masonry elements during the fire except for some decorative parts of the cornice.
The two-story westernmost building, built in 1900, has a steel frame with masonry walls and concrete slab floors. This building suffered no fire damage and is not part of the condemnation order for the group.
The Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings were built for industrial uses at a time when fireproofing was an utmost concern for St. Louis manufacturers. The construction of the 1890 and 1897 buildings in this group demonstrate the successes and shortcomings of fireproofing technology used in their construction. Overall, the fireproofing performed remarkably well and saved the 1890 building from significant damage. The 1890 building clearly does not need to be demolished as a result of the fire. The 1897 building is obviously structurally unstable and meets the criteria for condemnation. However, the building retains sufficient structural integrity to be appropriate for stabilization. The south wall could be reinforced with steel supports pending reconstruction of the structure; with proper bracing it would be in no danger of collapse. Other local buildings that were in similar advanced states of structural collapse include the Lister Building in the Central West End and the Wire Works buildings and the so-called M Lofts in Lafayette Square. (Another excellent example of an extensive recovery from structural collapse is the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.) These buildings recovered through extensive reconstruction using Missouri’s state historic rehabilitation tax credit (see photographs). A developer is currently working to rebuild the Nord St. Louis Turnverein in Hyde Park, nearly destroyed by fire on July 4, 2006. Clearly, the Brecht buildings are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and such listing could make available funding mechanisms to ensure reconstruction.
The Brecht Butcher Supply Company buildings slated for demolition are not beyond repair. The original building actually is in sound condition, while the 1897 section could be stabilized and rebuilt with urgent work. A full report by a structural engineer could determine the best course for the 1897 addition, although demolition is certainly not the only option available. If the current owner would be interested in stabilization or selling to a developer who would stabilize the building, the prospect of rehabilitation is good. At the least, the Building Division should reverse the condemnation and demolition of the 1890 building, which is not structurally compromised by the fire.
Post-Fire Photographic Evidence: Photographs of existing conditions.
Examples of Buildings Stabilized After Collapse: Buildings with structural collapse that successfully have been rehabilitated.