by Michael R. Allen
Returning from trips out of town, I found that St. Louis University’s medical school had finally started mothballing the old Pevely Dairy Building. One year ago I wrote that Pevely was still usable and that the university — a huge asset to the city, after all — could become the hero. Perhaps the university’s post-Rev. Lawrence Biondi era starts with redirecting the future of the landmark dairy building.
Two months ago, the university began tackling the derisive junk piles called “Mt. Biondi” by disgruntled medical students and sneering urbanistas. Today, the crunched concrete and steel are gone, along with their strangely alluring presence as rouge Goldsworthy-style urban sculptures. The city of St. Louis pressured the university to comply with basic laws on open storage of building rubble, after over one year of letting everything slide.
St. Louis University’s work for the Pevely Dairy is best described as “mothballing”: work to secure the building against rain and destructive elements. Plywood is covering the windows. Workers have neatly laid concrete block in place of missing or broken glass block on the ground floor. One is struck by the care of the work, which goes beyond means needed to secure a vacant building. That is why I call this work mothballing: it suggests that the university is preparing the building for reuse at a later time, when forces may align better.
The university’s ability to demolish the historic dairy building, designed by architect Leonhard Haeger and completed in 1917, is legally over. The Planning Commission granted the university the right to demolish the building only if it could secure a building permit by December 2012. For over one year, the brick sentinel at Grand and Chouteau has stood vindicated, at least as far as permission to kill it off is concerned.
To the south, the two-story Missouri Belting Company Building, designed by Otto Wilhelmi and completed in 1911, stands privately-owned. The pair of industrial buildings are secure and usable, with floor plates that are easily adaptable to a wide range of uses. At the sidewalk, at least on Grand, the buildings are humane and approachable. They are ready for renewal and changes that could make them even more connected to their context.
Perhaps loss of most of the Pevely complex opens a possibility unforeseen by preservationists and Biondi’s administration alike two years ago: the chance to use two buildings as cornerstones for an urban-scaled, mixed-use project. The proposed ambulatory care center must be built elsewhere, due to a variety of issues related to the site conditions. Thus there remains no reason to wreck the older buildings, or to hold them as precious artifacts. The time to carry them into the new century, in which the city is growing again, has arrived. May Biondi’s successor seize the chance to creatively engage remaining economic and cultural assets, while building a real neighborhood around the university’s growing medical school.