by Michael R. Allen
The Clemens House and chapel in 1908. Source: Archive of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
LOCATION: 1849 Cass Avenue; St. Louis Place; Saint Louis, Missouri
DATES OF CONSTRUCTION: 1858 (main house); 1888 (addition); 1896 (chapel)
ARCHITECTS: Patrick Walsh (main house); Aloysius Gillick (chapel)
DATE OF ABANDONMENT: 2000
Photograph from October 31, 2004 by Michael R. Allen.
What name does it take for a building to escape dereliction in Saint Louis? The historic home of James Clemens, Jr., an uncle of Samuel Clemens, sits vacant and decaying just northwest of downtown — with no future in sight. The lovely Italianate house is probably the only surviving house in Saint Louis with substantial cast iron ornament (all ornament is cast-iron on the original home), and certainly the last remianing house with a cast-iron front portico. Contrary to the opinion of naysayers who state that the home is worthless because Mark Twain likely never visited the house, the Clemens house is a valuable part of the city’s cultural heritage. After Clemens died, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet acquired the house and built substantial additions, including a graceful chapel. Their additions did not diminish the beauty of the large fenced lawn, a tranquil green space in what was once a highly dense neighborhood. They left the building in 1979, and a series of different social service groups occupied the building into the 1990’s. Maintenance fell off, leaving the interior in poor shape when the last tenant moved out.
Dormitory wing photograph from October 31, 2004 by Michael R. Allen.
The Berean Society used the original house as a homeless shelter through 2000, but did not perform needed renovation work. A Buddhist group bought the buildings in 2001 for use as a retreat center, but never raised sufficient funds for renovation. The buildings began showing spectacular signs of disrepair — the chapel roof and ceiling started collapsing, the porch on the mansion began separating from the house — until the city’s Building Division condemned the buildings. After a brief period of ownership by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority, World Trading, Inc. purchased the buildings. The company announced no plans for the property, and for a few weeks in fall 2004 the front fence entrance on Cass Avenue sported a for-sale sign with phone number. The property sold to a mysterious group of real estate speculators organized as Blairmont Associates LC. The Building Division has sued Blairmont for the condition of the house and their inability to perform basic maintenance; the case will be heard December 1, 2005.
Porch photograph from October 31, 2004 by Michael R. Allen.
Built St. Louis has a collection of exterior and interior photographs from 2003: James Clemens House