by Michael R. Allen
The southern end of Old North St. Louis — which includes the National-Register-listed Mullanphy and Sts. Cyril and Methodius historic districts — has been recently cut off from the more vibrant part of the neighborhood by two unfortunate grid-busting, suburban-style housing projects and cut off from downtown by vacant lots, fast food restaurants and automobile and truck yards. Demolition has been rampant, and truck-related businesses own many buildings here. Speculators have seized some of the area, including an impressive half-block owned by Blairmont Associates LC. There is one city block — bounded by Tyler on the south, 13th on the west, Chambers on the north and Hadley on the east — where not a single building stands.
Yet the last few weeks have seen signs of life no one could have predicted: a side-gabled, two-and-a half-story house at 2111 N. 13th Street that is the last building on its block is undergoing renovation; someone purchased an LRA-owned building at 1723 N. 13th Street in March and has already made progress on rehab; the owner of a corner tavern at the southeast corner of Howard and 14th streets has taken down part of a brick wall for relaying. These rehabs are by no means historic, and in the case of 2111 N. 13th, maddening for a preservationist to observe. Yet given the economy of that end of Old North, even these projects are somehow comforting — rather than crumbling shells, we have two bad rehabs to critique. (We will need to go a long way before even contemplating local district standards on acceptable alterations.)
The strangest event lately had to be the revival that took place over the weekend on the south end of that totally-vacant city block. A church group threw up a tent, put out folding chairs and a port-a-potty, and brought in preachers and bands. The scene was almost surreal, especially amid the stormy weather of the last few days.
Hopefully, someone will make a more long-term investment in that block, which would make a great location for modern infill housing. In fact, I would love to see both the 1970s-era Murphy-Blair Apartments and the Bristol Place Townhouses developments fall to the wrecking ball for a large-scale infill project. With vacant land to the north of both projects along Monroe Street, a new project with restored street grid would meet the North Market Place redevelopment project. With rehab of the remaining historic buildings in this area, reclamation of the Blairmont land for responsible use, and the stabilization of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, this end of Old North would blossom.
It’s comforting that a few good things are happening despite the barriers of the two housing projects. Yet there’s no way much else will happen until the barriers are removed.