Monday, November 21, 2016

Undue Praise for Piecemeal "Preservation"

Esley Hamilton, who served as St. Louis County's Preservation Historian for 38 years, recently informed me that the November issue of St. Louis Magazine recognized Kristen Sorth, Director of St. Louis County Library in their annual "Power List" for overseeing the ongoing renovation and replacement of several aging branch libraries. I had skimmed the list but hadn't taken time to read the bios. Specifically STL Magazine praises Sorth for "saving the famed Emil Frei stained-glass windows and reinstalling them" in the new replacement for Frederick Dunn's Mid-Century Modern Lewis & Clark Branch Library.

If St. Louis County Library had reinstalled the entire Emil Frei composition, such praise might be deserving, but they didn't. Instead, as you can see above, the chose only the individual figures of Lewis, Clark and Sakajawea and installed them out of context in a plain storefront of clear glass panels. To top off this travesty, the figure panels were installed inside out and extra pieces of plain frosted glass were scabbed in at the top and bottom of each panel. I guess they didn't bother to measure first.
The original stained glass window composition was an integral part of the architecture of the now demolished library by architect Frederick Dunn. The windows gave the otherwise simple shed building its identity and served double duty as its signage.

Esley Hamilton nailed it in his brief letter to Jeannette Cooperman, editor of St. Louis Magazine, which unless I missed it, has not been published:

"If the curators at the St. Louis Art Museum took George Caleb Bingham’s painting “The Jolly Flatboatman,” cut out the central figure of the dancing man, reframed it as a separate painting, and consigned the rest of the picture to who knows where, would you praise the museum for saving the painting? I don’t think so. Yet you praise Kristen Sorth, director of the St. Louis County Library, in your November issue for doing exactly that to the Emil Frei windows at the Lewis and Clark Branch Library. 

I’m attaching and pasting in two pictures showing exactly what I’m talking about (2 images above).  The original figures of Lewis, Clark and Sakajawea were parts of a larger composition that included several other smaller images that evoked and symbolized their journey as well as anchoring them in the architectural structure of the building. Now the three images are floating in clear glass. Public libraries are supposed to be citadels of civilization, but our County Library not only destroyed the most significant work of architecture in their system but in the process trashed an irreplaceable work of art that they held in trust for the public. Whatever Ms. Sorth may achieve in the future, these acts will remain indelible blots on her record."

The window composition depicted some of the many sights seen by Lewis, Clark and Sakajawea including buffalo, fish, snakes and forests. The meandering red line likely symbolized their journey across the then uncharted Louisiana Purchase Territory.



Inside the now demolished building, the windows composition filled the space with a warm colorful glow, the effect of which is completely gone in the reinstallation of the singular figure panels.


Interior and exterior photos illustrating how the original composition wrapped the corner of the original building.

For the panels depicting fish and trees, Emil Frei emplyed a technique known as plating where different images were painted onto the interior and exterior faces of the glass. When the sun passes through the translucent panels the effect creates additional depth in the composition. This technique was widely used by Tiffany.

A night view shows the inverse of the interior daytime view. The glowing composition became a colorful beacon to all who passed by. A reporter covering the opening of the replacement building was apparently told that the remaining pieces of the original window composition are "in storage".

"Saving" is NOT the right term for what happened at the Lewis & Clark Branch Library. I would say local architect, MCM expert and blogger Andrew Raimist's description: "Cultural Vandalism" best sums it up.

Photos in this post are by John Guenther, Esley Hamilton & Andrew Raimist.  



Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Route 66 - Changing Courses & Landscapes Through St. Louis

Last week I was invited to an evening tour of the Missouri History Museum's recently opened Route 66 exhibit. One of the more interesting aspects of the show was seeing the evolution of Route 66 as it was designated to travel through various parts of St. Louis over its history. This was the time before interstate highways when Route 66 and all of its travelers went right through the heart of the City. For some, Route 66 is about nostalgia, but for those of us younger than the interstate system, Route 66 seems more like mythology of a bygone era. The History Museum exhibit brings aspects of this mythology to life.

The exhibit starts off with a great interactive map that allows you to trace the various paths that Route 66 took through St. Louis.

Beside the interactive map, there are several great vintage maps of Route 66 and the other major ways that people traveled through St. Louis before the interstates carved their wide paths of destruction through the City.

Since I did not get a chance to photograph the various routes on the interactive map, I found this one from route66stlouis.com by Norma Merit Bolin, who has authored two books about the Mother Road. 

Throughout the exhibit you can see the many changes in the urban landscape that have occurred along the Route 66 paths through St. Louis. since the building of the interstate highway system (and before). 

Originally built for the Columbia Club, this beautiful three story building on Lindell Boulevard was occupied by AAA of Missouri for many years before it was destroyed by fire in 1975. 

It was replaced by a modern elliptical shaped building by W.A. Sarmiento. that was threatened with demolition recently for a new CVS store. Fortunately, a compromise was reached and the CVS was built farther west of site, sparing the AAA building.

Further west on Lindell Boulevard, this amazing sign once graced the top of the Chase Hotel. It is hard to imagine today that there was a time when the future of the Chase was in doubt. After seven decades as one of St. Louis' grandest hotels, the Chase closed in 1989 after years of declining business and competition from newer hotels such as the Ritz Carleton in Clayton. The neon sign was taken down and ended up in the History Museum's collection where it sat for years until being restored for this show. Through the early 1990's there were fears that the Chase might be demolished as no plan was in sight. Fortunately with the enactment of the Missouri Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit in 1998, feasibility of a revival was possible and the Chase was one of the first large buildings to be saved by the program in combination with Federal Historic Tax Credits.

Large rooftops signs were once more commonplace around St. Louis. One of the more prominent locations was the Standard Red Crown sign at the intersection of Skinker Boulevard and Clayton Road. This sign composed of thousands of individual red and white light bulbs was eventually replaced with an internally lit plastic faced "Standard" sign, which was later changed to "Amoco". When BP bought out Amoco they apparently thought that they would not be able to switch the sign to their sun logo since rooftop signs are now technically prohibited, so the giant Amoco sign remains one of the few in active use.

The giant Amoco sign as it appears today

Further west on Clayton Road at Big Bend was the Parkmoor, which was the first restaurant in St. Louis to offer in-car service like you can get at Sonic drive-ins. The Parkmoor ended car service and built a new orange roofed restaurant in 1969. The restaurant closed in 1999 after being in business for over 70 years and was replaced by a Walgreens.

On Chippewa, which became part of the principal Route 66 after 1933, this iconic building at the northwest corner of the intersection with Kingshighway housed the Southtown Famous Barr department store from 1951 until its closure in 1992. The building was demolished in 1995 and after the surrounding community said no to the idea of a new K-mart store, the site sat vacant for several years. Eventually a shopping center containing a Petsmart, an office supply store, a Walgreens and several small retail stores was constructed on the site.

Further west on Chippewa at Hampton Village this colonial revival style grocery store sat in the middle of the parking lot about where the McDonalds is today. It was built as a Bettendorf's and later became a Schnucks. By 1991 it was demolished and replaced by a larger grocery store at the south end of the Village.

Also located at the same intersection was this early White Castle.

As you headed west on Route 66 through St. Louis County on Watson Road, there were several motels that popped up along Route 66. The most famous was the Coral Court, which featured streamline moderne style buildings, many of which featured individual garages. Although probably not the original purpose, these garages allowed patrons to come and go unseen, which gave the motel a reputation as a location for secret rendezvous.

Interior of one of the units shortly before demolition with its signature glass block visibly bowing outward.

The Coral Court Motel was closed in 1993 and razed two years later. The motel was actively on the market for nearly 3 years but no one was able to make the numbers work to preserve the existing buildings with an inflated $1.5 million pricetag plus an estimated $1 million for renovation. Had it remained standing another 3 year, Missouri's Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit program that came on line in 1998 could have made rehabilitation feasible. 

The exhibit features several pieces of memorabilia from the Coral Court including one of the lights that marked the entrance on Watson and some of the glazed blocks from which the buildings were constructed.

Further west this 1986 aerial view shows a recently expanded Crestwood Plaza across from the 66 Park-In Theater. The drive-in theater had parking for 800 cars. It was closed in 1993 and was demolished in 1994 for another shopping center, much of which now stands empty. As you are probably aware, Crestwood Plaza was finally demolished earlier this year to make way for a not-so-mixed-use redevelopment consisting of free-standing single use buildings in a sea of surface parking. Maybe I should withhold judgement until it is built, but the conceptual plans made public so far make the Streets of St. Charles look like great urban planning in comparison.

Part of the exhibit features a large mural depicting the 66 Park-In Theater with it's lot full of vintage cars that was painted by a Muny scenic artist. Ironically the mural was painted with a red sky, which was probably meant to be a beautiful sunset, but in my mind it looked like apocalyptic clouds foretelling the coming end for the theater.

The beginning of the end earlier this year for the former Stix Baer & Fuller/Dillards department store, which anchored the east end of Crestwood Plaza. 

A majority of the photos above are from the Missouri History Museum Route 66 exhibit. A few vintage photos and postcards are from Joe Sonderman's Online Route 66 Archive, which is a treasure trove of thousands of photos and postcards of just about everything you ever wanted to see along Route 66 from its start in Chicago to its end in Santa Monica, California. Photos of the Coral Court are some I shot shortly before it was demolished.

If you want to learn more about Route 66 as it traveled through the St. Louis area, go check out the History Museum's awesome exhibit that is currently open and runs through July 16, 2017. Despite some of my commentary above, the show is quite the opposite of depressing and is very informative. The exhibit also features a over a dozen fabulous neon signs that once graced Route 66 through our area, an Airstream trailer with fully vintage interior decor and a beautiful 1963 Corvette Stingray built right here in St. Louis!


EAT!

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Funding Initiative for Stabilizing Vacant LRA Buildings!

A coalition of neighborhood leaders across the City of St. Louis is proposing new funding to stabilize and secure vacant buildings owned by the City's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), making them ready for rehabilitation. Neighbors for a Stable St. Louis is currently gathering signatures for a bond issue that would go to St. Louis voters in 2017. If passed, up to 200 vacant buildings would be stabilized and secured each year with up to $30,000 each.

This would huge both in terms of preserving St. Louis' irreplaceable architecture and stabilizing neighborhoods. Currently we lose hundreds of vacant buildings every year because they have deteriorated beyond feasibility of rehabilitation. Each demolition costs the City an average of $12,000 for houses and more for larger buildings. 

This historic Italianate home on West Belle Place could have been stabilized when it was owned by LRA if the proposed stabilization funding had existed two years ago. Instead, LRA did nothing to his house prior to selling it to the current owner who had planned to rehab it. 

While having a National Register nomination prepared, so the rehab could qualify for Historic Tax Credits, the leaking roof collapsed and destroyed much of the homes interior. The home will soon be demolished. 

The proposed new funding would help bridge the gap between building condition and developers budgets, making it more financially feasible for them to rehabilitate more houses. As with the case above, currently if LRA gets a house and the roof is already leaking, the home simply continues to deteriorate. Every year this makes these house more difficult and expensive to rehabilitate to the point where it becomes financially infeasible to rehab or the building starts to collapse and become a public safety hazard. At this point, the City is forced to demolish the house and we end up with yet another vacant unproductive lot.


Many houses are unnecessarily demolished because they are not secured on a regular basis and are seen by some as a hazard. Often when people complain loud enough, the local alderman may be persuaded to put a building on the City's demolition list. LRA's method of securing buildings with plywood and screws (often only on the first floor) is largely ineffective. This house at 5709 Vernon in the West End neighborhood had an intact roof, but the upper windows were left wide open allowing rain to infiltrate on a regular basis.


Unsecured vacant houses often end up burned by arson fires or homeless people trying to keep warm or cook food. The rear of the home at 5709 Vernon was unsecured and in September 2011 it was gutted by fire leaving only the front and side walls standing.

The shell was demolished about a month later. (2 photos above from Geo St. Louis)


The home on the right was partially damaged by the neighboring fire. While damage did not appear significant, apparently it was enough that the owner demolished the house in 2012.

Many homes in the West End neighborhood have been rehabilitated in the last few years and if 5709 Vernon had been stabilized and secured, it likely would have joined the ongoing revival. Instead, we are left with two vacant lots today.

Neighbors for a Stable St. Louis needs additional volunteers to help gather the 11,000 signatures required to put this initiative to a public vote. If you would like to assist with this, please visit their website, where you can sign up to volunteer. One of the initiative organizers will arrange to get petition forms to you and will also arrange to collect completed forms. Signatures must be collected and turned in to the St. Louis Board of Elections by October 10th. All signatures must be City of St. Louis registered voters. Here is a list of talking points, frequently asked questions and basic petition rules to help with your signature gathering.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

4171 West Belle Place Is Too Important To Lose!


If your reaction was like mine the first time you saw 4171 West Belle Place, you stopped cold in the middle of the street, stared in awe and thought "How did this incredible house end up in the middle of this block?" The answer is quite simple: It was there before anything else was around. Hopkin's Atlas of St. Louis from 1883 shows the home (presumed to have been built in 1882) as the only building in the area, surrounded by open countryside. The area however would not remain country for very long.

The ornate high style Italianate home was built by Philip Green, who speculated with nearby real estate as development crept westward from Vandeventer Avenue, constructing 12 homes on West Belle Place by 1894. For whatever reason Green chose to build his home in a highly ornate manner compared to the homes he and others would build on the rest of West Belle Place. The National Register nomination for the home couldn't have stated better the caliber of this home:

The Philip and Louisa Green Home at 4171 West Belle Place is an exceptionally rare example of an Italianate country home in St. Louis.

When compared with other examples of Italianate buildings in St. Louis, the home is unique. It is far less formal than the designs executed for Henry Shaw or the Lemp Mansion, and much more elaborate than other rural examples like Einstmann House, or extant urban townhouses such as the William Cuthbert Jones House. The home’s elaborate cornice and use of heavy projecting hood molds and quoins, its multiple projecting octagonal bays and alternating use of both segmental and round arch window openings set the Philip and Louisa Green home apart as a high quality and unusual expression of the Italianate style in St. Louis.


134 years later, this highly ornate "exceptionally rare" and "unique" Italianate country home is threatened with demolition! After may years of abandonment under several owners, 4171 West Belle Place was in the hands of LRA. In 2014 what seemed like the homes savior purchased the home with intentions of rehabilitation. To assist with financing the rehabilitation, the new owner had the home listed on the National Register in order to qualify for Missouri Historic Tax Credits. While the nomination was being prepared, the roof collapsed and the home was condemned by City Building Division. 4171 West Belle Place was successfully listed on the National Register on November 2, 2015, yet the owner now claims the rehabilitation as planned is not feasible and applied for a demolition permit on July 18, 2016.

This Monday afternoon, at 4:00 the St. Louis Preservation Board will decide if the demolition should be allowed. Surprisingly, the Cultural Resources Office staff recommendation is to allow demolition due to the circumstances. This is exceptionally short sighted and I would argue that the demolition should not be allowed due to the importance of this historic home. As the National Register nomination states, this home is "exceptionally rare" and "unique", which are not terms used in most nominations. There simply is not another surviving comparably ornate Italianate home in the St. Louis region. 

While the owner of 4171 West Belle Place cannot be blamed for the current condition of the home, the argument that rehabilitation "feasibility" has drastically changed seems flawed. If the roof was to the point of collapse, it would very likely have needed to be completely rebuilt even if it had not collapsed. Roofs don't go from structurally sound to rotten to the point of collapse in one year.

The Preservation Board should deny this demolition and order the owner to use the estimated $5,000 cost for the demolition to construct a temporary roof over the home. If the cost of the rehabilitation minus the Missouri HTC is too much for the owner, they should consider rehabbing the home as a rental property for 5 years, which would allow the addition of the 20% Federal Historic Tax Credit. Otherwise, the LRA should take back the property and put out an RFP to find a new owner willing and able to rehabilitate the home.

The Cultural Resources Office describes 4171 West Belle Place as "High Merit", which it indeed is. The reality is, that 4171 West Belle Place is irreplaceable! 

If you agree that this exceptional home should NOT be demolished, please email Dan Krasnoff, Director of the Cultural Resources Office at: krasnoffd@stlouis-mo.gov and copy Adonna Buford at: buforda@stlouis-mo.gov or if you can, attend the meeting and tell the Preservation Board in person. The meeting location is 1520 Market Street, suite 2000.

Friday, July 22, 2016

STL & Preservation Board Should Demand Better @ SW Bank


Monday evening BMO Harris held an open house in the historic Southwest Bank Building to reveal details about the rumored redevelopment of the bank building that stretches from Southwest Avenue to Botanical through five connected structures built between 1905 and 1973. The site plan above has made two major positive change since it was first shown to neighborhood groups and preservationists in separate meetings in early June.

At that time, the plan showed preservation of the original building at the corner of Southwest and Kingshighway only. The Walgreens was about 20 feet south of what is shown above and the corner building at Botanical would be demolished. The plan has been changed so the corner building is preserved. Since the developer, Draper & Kramer of Chicago does not see any value in rehabilitating the building, they will be donating it to the Tower Grove Community Development Corporation. Also, the Walgreens had been shown with its ass end facing Kingshighway and the entrance facing what they called the "town center", a small area of pavers in the middle of the asphalt (don't get me stated on that one). This has now been reversed so Walgreens face Kingshighway.

The proposed plan still calls for demolition of two contributing buildings in the Reber Place National Register Historic District. The proposal will go before the Preservation Board next Monday afternoon at 4:00 pm in the 2nd floor hearing room at 1520 Market Street. The final agenda for the meeting was posted yesterday and as it should be, the Cultural Resources Office recommendation is "That the Preservation Board withholds approval of the demolition of the Merit Buildings unless it finds that the use of the structures proposed for demolition are not economically feasible and/or that approval of the proposed redevelopment will equal or exceed the contribution of the structures to be demolished". If you cannot attend the meeting in person, public testimony may be submitted by emailing Dan Krasnoff at krasnoffd@stlouis-mo.gov and Adona Buford at buforda@stlouis-mo.gov

The proposed design of the Walgreens was also revealed Monday, and there were rightly several comments of disapproval from members of the audience. I tweeted that I thought it loos like a suburban Schmucks.

The comments must were obviously taken to heart because the design shown in the Preservation Board Agenda is quite different. It went from boring & suburban looking to basically a bland box. Also, what appeared to be a dual entrance facing Kingshighway and the parking to the north is now shown just opening to the parking.


If the developer wants to go contemporary, maybe they could do something that has some style like this example the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago.

You may be thinking this looks too small for a Walgreens, and you would normally be correct. This store however has a mezzanine level inserted into the double-height interior volume. Photos from dna info Chicago.
In New Orleans, developer Stirling Properties took an old American Legion hall and retrofitted it for Walgreens. After many meetings with area residents and retailers, they transformed the front elevation on Magazine Street with a design that fits well with the historic character of the neighborhood. More info on this project here.
In many cities examples can be found where Walgreens has gone into an existing historic building. In Downtown Atlanta, Walgreens is re-using the former Woolworths space in the historic Olympia Building. The new signage even mimics the Art-Deco style of the original Woolworths, which required extensive restoration work. Rendering from Atlanta Tomorrow's News Today.

On State Street in Ann Arbor, Walgreens went into this historic building that was once a Kresge store.


Not surprisingly, just down the street is a CVS located in another historic building. Photos from The Ann Arbor News.

In Downtown Baltimore, Walgreens went into this colonial revival, which at least on the exterior seems less suitable than the former Woolworths or Kresge spaces. The did manage to block out the windows though. Photo from Colorodo Traveling Ducks.

In Oak Park, an inner ring suburb of Chicago, Walgreens preserved two street facades of a historic two-story corner building. The contemporary entrance, which also fronts on the street is set back several feet and uses a contrasting brick color to highlight the historic facade. This project was designed by the architectural firm of Camburas & Theodore, Ltd., who also restored a historic bank in the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood for a 30,000 square foot flagship Walgreens Store. 


An interior view of the Oak Park store, which features fresh fruit!

The Oak Park example of saving a historic facade could easily be done for the proposed new Walgreens fronting Kingshighway. The 2-story circa 1928 store building in the middle of the block aligns with the new Walgreens, and keeping this Mediterranean revival facade would go a long way toward preserving the integrity of this historic block. 

Between the two story 1928 building and the 1905 bank at the corner is this 1923 one story structure. While much simpler in design, keeping the facade of this building as well would further preserve the integrity of the block. This facade should be incorporated into the one-story addition planned for the bank and the remainder used to screen the parking between the bank and the Walgreens with landscaping behind the openings where storefront windows are removed. While avoiding a curb cut here would be preferable, using 2 of the storefront openings could allow the right-in, right-out configuration currently proposed.

Walgreens has shown its willingness to either go into existing buildings or at least preserve historic facades of buildings in other cities and we should demand no less for the proposed new store on Kingshighway.