by Michael R. Allen
Meet the building at 2817 N. 14th Street. This is the sort of buildings that many preservationists would hem and haw about when asked if it would be expendable to redevelopment. This is the sort of building that many Old North St. Louis residents would defend to the moment before the bulldozer arrived.
This 1860s-era row house has some noticeable problems. It’s owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. The front wall is bulged outward, necessitating the bracing that was installed only recently. The roof is sagging inward. Bricks routinely fall from its parapets. The interior is barely recognizable as anything other than a tangle of water-damaged wood. The floors have collapsed, and the walls have descended.
Yet the building still shows its elegant Greek Revival brickwork. Simple segmental arches are repeated over the windows and doorway. A dentillated brick cornice creates a stately crown to the front elevation. The front-gabled roof draws the passer-by’s eye upwards to a small dormer. Long ago, chimneys would have provided more visual interest at the roof.
This building demonstrates the craftsmanship of vernacular architecture from an era with relatively little traces. How can Old North St. Louis tell its story to future generations without it? The neighborhood is unwilling to try.
This building joins over 25 other historic buildings to form the $32 million “Crown Square” project in Old North. This project is spearheaded by the Old North St. Louis Restoration group and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance — a neighborhood group and a not-for-profit. These are organizations whose missions allow them to take the risk to tell the neighborhood’s story. These are organizations acting long ahead of any moment at which a private developer would dare spend $32 million in Old North. If that day comes, the developer spending that money may own a building like this one. That developer may look for a precedent on how to handle the thorny question of what to do with a half-collapsed old brick tenement.
By then, projects like Crown Village and the investment of the community in its history will set a pretty strong precedent for doing the right thing. The right thing here is to safeguard the traces of a community’s heritage that will inform future generations who will live inside and alongside historic buildings in Old North.