by Michael R. Allen
Readers are always asking what is the status of the James Clemens, Jr. House complex, which includes the mansion designed by Patrick Walsh (1860), a dormitory addition (1887) and the chapel wing by Aloysius Gillick (1896). The complex has been owned by Northside Regeneration LLC or its predecessors since 2005, and two years ago was the site where Mayor Francis Slay signed into law the master redevelopment agreement for Northside Regeneration.
Northside Regeneration had partnered with experienced historic rehabilitation developer Robert Wood Realty to redevelop the Clemens House as senior citizen apartments with a small museum component. However, on January 1, the developers failed to make their deadline for selling tax-exempt low-income housing development bonds authorized by the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC). The developers told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that other options for the historic buildings would be explored as well as re-application to MHDC.
Despite the lost bond sale, Northsie Regeneration did perform some significant stabilization work over the winter. Since then, the developer has removed much of the woody overgrowth on the site. The front lawn now is fairly clean with low-cut grass and good visibility.
The brick wall along Cass Avenue, however, has continued to deteriorate and sports large holes and broken sections. This wall, built in 1887, is not an original feature and is shown removed in renderings published by Robert Wood Realty and Northside Regeneration.
The holes in the fence have made the Clemens House and its two-story cast iron portico more easily visible from the street — a welcome change. when the wall is fully down, the historic buildings will be on full display in their architectural glory. For now, passers-by have remarked to me that they had no idea what was behind that wall, and they like what they see.
What they see still lacks a certain future, despite developer commitment and stabilization work. Even with stacking of the 9% low-income housing tax credits and historic tax credits, and the use of tax-exempt bonds, the Clemens House was a tough sell on the market. Without stacking, it may not have a chance to be rehabilitated. That is not an excuse. If stacking is eliminated in part because of the Aerotropolis credits that Northside Regeneration principal Paul J. McKee, Jr. is pushing, the city should not forget that moment when McKee and Mayor Slay stood in front the Clemens House and promised all of us that it was a priority project. Other financing options must be explored then.
Meantime, the General Assembly should look at the Clemens House — a building whose inhabitant’s lineage touches native son Mark Twain — and see a part of our heritage that might be lost forever if legislators end the ability to couple historic and low income housing tax credits. Perhaps it is not clear to all our our state’s policymakers, but losing the James Clemens, Jr. House would be a blow to all Missourians.