Columbus Square Housing Mid-Century Modern

Neighborhood Gardens and the Perils of Modernism

by Michael R. Allen

Condition of the apartments on April 2, 2005. Photograph by Michael R. Allen.

The graceful modern buildings comprising Neighborhood Gardens Apartments take up a full city block just north of the Central Business District. Once praised as a revolution in low-income housing and a palliative to near north side overcrowding, they fell vacant around 1990 and stood empty for fifteen years, epitomizing a different sort of revolution on the near north side. The innovative buildings were perhaps too “modern” for the postmodern age, which once again finds substandard housing the touted norm for low income people. Architectural historians, including the stalwart preservationists involved with Landmarks Association, worked to save the buildings in their vacancy.

Eventually, a little-known north county developer acquired the buildings and began renovating them in 2005. While the renovation will obliterate the original floor plans and pave the integral interior courtyards for vehicular parking, the buildings will be restored. As many have noted, the paved areas can become green once again but the buildings could never be rebuilt in the current architectural economy.

The near north side Neighborhood Association, a social welfare organization headed by the progressive J.A. Wolf, conceived of Neighborhood Gardens in 1932. The plan was the city’s first experiment in mass worker housing, and came in the age before federal intervention in mass housing that mandated adherence to rigid standards and large scale. In this time, the Neighborhood Association was free to come up with a gracious and humane project that they felt would become a model for slum renewal in the city of St. Louis.

Wolf had traveled to Europe to study mass housing, then a new idea associated with the work of the Bauhaus under the direction of Walter Gropius. After his travels, Wolf urged the Association to undertake mass housing on the European model. To this end, they established a limited dividend investment company, Neighborhood Gardens, in October 1933. Funds came in through private investment as well as through a $500,000 loan from the federal Public Works Administration’s Federal Emergency Housing Corporation. The PWA increased the loan size to $640,000 in February 1934, allowing the Association to raise $742,000 by March 1934. They could afford to finance the project, and had secured a full city block.

Finding the right city block came through a fortuitous coincidence: city block 558, in the target area of the Association, was entirely owned by one owner, the Columbia Terminals Company. Furthermore, the block had been cleared in 1922 upon acquisition by the company and then rebuilt with large railroad equipment sheds and warehouses. These buildings were easy to demolish quickly. On May 28, 1934, the Columbia Terminals Company sold city block 558 to the Neighborhood Association for $87,524.

A more deliberate stroke of fortune came when Wolf selected the St. Louis architectural firm of Hoener, Baum and Froese to design Neighborhood Gardens Apartments. The firm had designed the stunning art deco Eden Publishing Company building at 18th and Chouteau and a few other notable buildings. The firm had practical experience designing institutional and industrial buildings in a modern style, and its principals — Ewald Froese, Albert Baum and John Hoener — had strong ties to Europe’s Modernist architects. Their design for Neighborhood Gardens Apartments demonstrated the firm’s ability to design something at once suitably functional and aesthetically modernist.

Neighborhood Gardens Apartments consisted of twelve buildings originally containing 252 apartments. Over sixty percent of the block was devoted to landscaped courtyards and lawns, placed in a way that still maintains a viable built density on the block. The resulting spaces are inviting and urbane, and must have seemed quite a fine remove from the Kerry Patch slum. The development included other enticing amenities: a community center, two club rooms, a library, a social hall and a large kitchen — all attractively nestled in one of the apartment buildings and located prominently at the corner of Eighth and Biddle.

The three-story buildings are given a streamlined look, with little exterior ornament but with dynamic geometry. The buildings, built by H.B. Deal Company (which later built the also-touted Ford Apartments at 1405 Pine Street), employ load-bearing cinder block walls, poured concrete slab floors and steel girder reinforcement. Original plans for gabled attics never came to fruition, and the resulting flat roofs reinforce the stark lines of the buildings. The exterior walls are covered in red double-sized bricks — commonly used on warehouse and manufacturing buildings — laid in a Flemish bond, creating an effect at once overtly functional and intricate. Courses of darker single-sized bricks punctuate the walls at every third course. The brickwork is further articulated through variations devised by the masons laying the bricks. There are bricks laid at tangential and perpendicular angles to the walls. Sadly, such affordable variation did not become part of the American public housing vernacular.

Working under the assumptions of the miasma theory of disease — that sickness is spread through dark, crowded spaces — the architects designed ample light through metal casement windows, cross-ventilating passageways and balconies double-loaded on protruding stairwell bays. The miasma theory gained credibility in the early twentieth century and already had been the basis for much hospital and school architecture. The basement stories were not crammed with apartments but instead contained storage and laundry facilities. Furthermore, apartments were accessed only off of the stairways, to encourage privacy and good morals. This domesticity was further imposed by the courtyards, containing a wading pool and other play areas to keep children from playing in the supposedly vice-filled and dangerous streets of the city.

The moralizing program advanced by the Neighborhood Association contained a major problem that has plagued mass housing in St. Louis ever since: Neighborhood Gardens was intentionally segregated by race. Despite observing the growing numbers of blacks moving to the near north side during the rapid in-migration between 1920 and 1930, Wolf and his board felt that their model housing should be limited to white families. He envisioned a future “similar project for Negroes,” which he never built. The need for housing for blacks in this area of the city was as great as it was for whites: the census tract that included Neighborhood Gardens showed in 1930 the population to be 44% black, 41% immigrant or first generation and 14% native-born white. Apparently, racial integration was one of the social ills Wolf and like-minded planners identified as endemic to overcrowded urban areas.

This aversion to the complexity of urban life shows the skepticism to traditional urbanism of progressive social activists and modernist architects in the 1930’s. Reacting against urban decline and disinvestment, they blamed many transitional social problems on the very form of the city grid itself. While the Neighborhood Association avoided demolition of large numbers of old buildings to build Neighborhood Gardens, much of that avoidance sprang from pragmatism; many members of the Association board thought that the apartments would become a model for eventual clearance of large parts of the near north side. These people viewed the unplanned and disorderly cityscape as conducive to poverty, vice and racial mixing, and sought to impose order through new housing. The Modernist aesthetic project aligned well with these aims, and Neighborhood Gardens is almost a perfect synthesis of the two ideals. Still, Neighborhood Gardens is rather sensitive to the street grid and relatively dense, and would have been a better model for slum clearance projects than later low-rise St. Louis projects like Carr Square Village and Clinton-Peabody Homes.

Neighborhood Gardens Apartments opened in May 1935 to much acclaim. However, growing federal intervention in mass housing ensured that neither another such experiment nor a replica would be built in St. Louis. City government went on to build all subsequent mass housing using federal funding, and the scale of projects grew. None respected the city grid like Neighborhood Gardens Apartments had; certainly none was confined to only one block. All would be racially segregated by law for many years until almost all of their population was African-American anyway. The projects grew to the almost absurd scale dramatically realized in the construction of the Pruitt and Igoe Homes in the late 1950’s. The modernist desire for organization and efficiency grew into a drive to rebuild the city completely, and mass housing was the proving ground for disastrous new ideas.

Federal housing planners have not again seriously looked into the benefits of small-scale mass housing like Neighborhood Gardens Apartments. Under federal planning, the nuance of the modernist aesthetic was subsumed by the underlying adoration of the uniformity and efficiency of mass production. Urban mass housing throughout the 1930s and 1940s retained a small scale, usually with buildings no taller than four stories, but the site plans were too large. Developments of several blocks became the norm, with street grid alterations or interruptions and separation of different uses. By the 1950’s, federally-sponsored mass housing resembled stark warehouses — an ironic twist on the modernist love for the efficiency of factories and industrial buildings. By this time, all buildings were massive towers set on empty lawns, creating a frightening landscape that became an icon of the ills of urban living. Le Corbusier’s modern house, the “machine for living,” as interpreted by US federal housing planners was an impressive and inhumane thing. Neighborhood Gardens Apartments had become a distant memory and eventually fell empty.

By the time Neighborhood Gardens Apartments fell empty in 1990, the modernist aesthetic was completely out of vogue with housing planners while the bastardized warehouse idea was alive and well. New mass housing emerging in the 1990s under the federal HOPE VI program replaced the housing towers with insular low-density developments made to mock local vernacular styles. Instead of many units off of dingy corridors, units became individual buildings within fenced compounds. Interest in reviving the local modernist prototype from the days of restrained and urbane implementation of 20th century mass housing ideals was low.

Even the ownership of Neighborhood Gardens Apartments, which had passed to the City of St. Louis, was forgotten. In 1997, Mayor Clarence Harmon announced a crackdown on absentee owners of vacant properties by publicly affixing an anti-absentee owner poster to one of the buildings. He did not know that the apartments were city-owned. In the years following this act, little happened at Neighborhood Gardens. In 2001, Spanish Lake Development Corporation of O’Fallon, Missouri, began seeking financing for renovation, finally starting work in 2005.

Neighborhood Gardens once again will provide housing to workers, but not as a shining prototype of modern mass housing. The street grid around the block has been altered for the Cochran Gardens, O’Fallon Place and Columbus Square developments, neither of which is aging half as well as the Neighborhood Gardens buildings have. Under the renovation plan, the courtyards will be paved, the apartments enlarged and the last vestiges of the old ideal will be repackaged as nostalgia. But the buildings of Neighborhood Gardens remain an antidote to inadequate housing, both before and after their time.