Monday, December 24, 2007

A little good news for the holiday

Recently one of my readers commented about how negative most blog posts regarding the built environment are here in the Lou, and that sometimes its nice to see something positive. I have been told by more than one reader that Vanishing STL is the most depressing blog. I actually take that as a compliment, because seeing St. Louis' architectural heritage squandered and destroyed as often as it occurs around here angers me and sometimes depresses the hell out of me... so I make it a point to post about these acts of insanity to inform others of what is occurring, or as is the case with some posts, what occurred many years ago.

I agree though that sometimes its good to point out the positive things that are occurring in St. Louis even if they are small things, so I have decided that I will occasionally try to do so. So here goes...

This beautiful bridal dress shop opened just last week in the former Ludwig Aeolian Building at 1004 Olive. One of the buildings that been lingering for a while, the Ludwig Lofts has now almost been completed by LoftWorks. When I first entered the building about seven years ago, the roof was collapsing around one of the original skylights. To deal with the breach, the buildings former owner rigged up quite a contraption of a drainage system involving a blue tarp held up by some old desks and other odds and ends laying around and funneling into a piece of 4" PVC that was piped out a back window. This contraption actually did a pretty decent job of keeping the building dry.

This scene of several Christmas trees and lights in the windows of the Vangard Lofts caught my eye on the way back to the Globe Building garage a few days ago and made me think of how far we have come in the last several years. With that I leave you until next year... Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 21, 2007

This Month in Grand Center

Demolition of the Central Apartments at 3727 Olive began late November / early December. For the first (and last) time in several years, the storefronts at the first floor of the building were revealed from behind the plywood barricade that had been erected to block the sidewalk so that pedestrians don't get hit by falling brick. Apparently when the entire building comes crashing down on the sidewalk during demolition, no protection is needed.
The un-adorned entrance to the Central Apartments

By mid-December most of the front wing of the T-shaped building is gone except for building entrance and west storefront, and only the west half of the main portion of the building remains.
From this angle it is easy to see that the concrete frame, floors and roof slab of the building was in fine structural condition. Only the exterior brick skin of the building, which was peeling away in several places was in need of serious repair, meaning that the building as a whole was definitely rehab-able.
Demolition revealed that the upper floor contained a large attic space above the plaster ceiling that increased in height toward the front of the building due to the roof slope, which could have provided very loft like spaces for units on this floor.
Like most apartments built in the early 20th century, these included built-in cabinets that were still intact as the building came down.
On the east end of Grand Center, where SLU recently cleared several buildings including the Locust Livery Stable, the two new block-wide slabs of asphalt stretching from Locust north to Samuel Shepherd are now marked by large new lighted signs. They appear to be poorly designed knock offs of the attractive neon signs by Kiku Obata that have marked several surface parking lots in Grand Center for about a decade. The originals add a nice bit of kitsch to the still emerging arts district, but these additions by SLU are simply ugly.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Gaslight Square - Part Two

2001 was the beginning of the end for Gaslight Square when a three story building at 4312 Olive was demolished and replaced with a semi-suburban looking office building and fenced parking lot for the Daughters of Charity.

In 2003 Citirama at Gaslight Square was announced, which would bring nine homebuilders to build an entire block of showcase homes open for public tour based on the popular Homarama events that had been held in St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. The project brought the demise of the remaining Gaslight Square buildings which were concentrated mostly on the south side of Olive.

Gaslight winter 93-94 20.jpg

gaslit ruins11.JPG
Like the buildings demolished alomst a decade earlier across the street, most had been abandoned by the mid 1970's. Many were owned for some time by a subsidiary of McCormack Baron, whose successful Westminster Place development took form just one block south. By 2003 they were a textbook case of demolition by neglect with widespread collapse of roofs and floors.
gaslit ruins18.JPG
gaslit ruins30.JPG

For Citirama, these crumbling buildings would have go, and so would a few that were occupied and were in excellent structural condition. According to an interview with a vice president from the Home Builder's Association, "The concept won't allow for infill, so the site needed to provide the developers control from the ground up. It's a very expensive proposition. It cost one and half million dollars just to clear the area."

One of the occupied buildings that was needlessly taken and demolished

The one exception was the building that formerly housed Selkirk's on the southeast corner of Olive and Whittier. The building was renovated for use as a restaurant or retail with loft apartments on the second floor. Citirama was an extremely successful project, and I'm thrilled that several home builders new to the City were attracted to build. The density is also pretty decent, when compared to many other "new home" developments in the City, with over 50 units per block. I just wish that Citirama would have allowed for creative re-use of more of the remaining buildings.
The renovated Selkirk's building, re-branded as "Motorworks" by Saaman

So what could the old Gaslight Square have become? With the popularity today of the Loop and Soulard, the emergence of the Grove, a plethora of chain bar/restaurants soon to be built at Ballpark Village, and nearby Grand Center slowly trying to build a nucleus, would St. Louis need another night life district in the form of a revitalized Gaslight Square? Certainly not.

What then to do with the old buildings? What is shaping up to become a perfect example of the potential lost at with the demolition of the Gaslight Square is actually under construction, (ok, make that re-construction) right now, the re-generation of the old 14th Street Mall on Old North St. Louis into Crown Square. The new Crown Square will be a mix of commercial spaces with traditional and loft style apartments above as well as live-work units opening directly onto the street.
Rendering from Crown Square's website - or what Gaslight Square
could have looked like
(without the arch view)

Crown Square site plan - red is first floor commercial with residential
above (in multi-story buildings), blue is live-work or residential spaces

The buildings of Crown Square are similarly scaled and ironically have been abandoned for about the same period of time as those of Gaslight Square prior to its clearance. Many of the buildings are at the point where most developers would simply give up and start over. At Old North, though, the exact opposite is occurring. At Crown Square, there is no demolition occurring. Every existing building, even a little "fixer-upper" that is literally collapsing at both the front and back, is being rehabbed.
The "fixer-upper" - click here to see this building in 1875
as well as other photos of building in next photo & other amazing re-building efforts

All of this is being done not a block away from the million dollar mini-mansions of Fullerton's Westminster Place (where Gaslight Square was located) but in the middle of a neighborhood surrounded by almost complete devestaton in all directions. The new townhomes where Gaslight Square was located are regularly selling for $400,000 and up, so if the Old North Restoration Group can make the economics of preservation work, there is no question that the same could have been done at Gaslight Square.

Another 3 story building in Old North that was literally 4 walls and a roof

Back on Olive just west of the new Gaslight Square, completed just this year, is another example of what could have occured as part of the larger re-development. An empty two story storefront building at 4374-76 Olive has been converted into two 2,700 s.f. townhomes that are currently on the market by Prudential Real Estate for $354,900 each.

While it is clear that there was little hope of ever bringing nightlife back to the Square, preserving the buildings with a mix of commercial, residential, and live/work spaces would have at least offered the opportunity for some day-time life, as well as a glimpse of what had happened there in the past, but ultimatly, with the almost clean slate "urban renewal" style demolition that occured and the subsequent new construction, Gaslight Square is doomed to live its next several decades as nothing more than a sleepy row of town houses with little memory of its former life.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gaslight Square - Part One

The signs asking for volunteers & sponsors and the pleas for help spray painted on the board-ups could not save Gaslight Square from ultimate destruction. Even the fresh coat of paint applied to the buildings by Patrick Schneider of the Gaslight Square Preservation Society could not bring back the fabled block of Olive centering on Boyle Avenue.
The destruction of Gaslight Square can only be described as one of the greatest losses of St. Louis' cultural history and one of the biggest missed opportunities in the last few decades. I will not attempt to summarize the history of the Square here, as there would be too much to say. Instead, you can follow the links below or read Thomas Crone's: Gaslight Square an Oral History
I have divided this post into two parts to focus of the two major waves of demolition that occurred in recent memory. By 1993 when I took this set of photos of the remaining buildings of the north side of the street, many others in each direction had already disappeared over the years. This included the Musical Arts Building that burned in 1969 after surviving two tornados and another fire in 1962. In 1994 this entire row of buildings met their doom, leaving no trace of the former district on the north side of the street. The buildings on the sough side would last yet another decade (following post).
It seems that most of the buildings in Gaslight Square were simply abandoned after the restaurants and music spots shut their doors in the early 1970's (one lone survivor, the Prestige Lounge stayed open almost to 1990). This row of buildings was owned by the City's biggest slum lord and most notorious applicant of demolition permits, the LRA. As you can see from the photos, the exterior of these buildings appeared to be in good condition, although 20 years of abandonment had surely taken their toll on the roof and interiors. Still though, the buildings were not at all beyond saving for rehabilitation (I will focus more on that concept in the next post), but were demolished anyway.
One of the most photographed spots on the Square, the free-standing columns at the former Smokey Joe's Greecian Terrace in 1993, and 30 years earlier, in 1963 (photo from the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at UMSL). You can see the rest of my 1993 photos of Gaslight on Flickr.

For more information about Gaslight Square see: The Legend of Gaslight Square and two documentary previews on YouTube
To see over 50 photos of Gaslight Square in it's heyday, check out the Western Historical Manuscript Collection Photo Database and simply type: Gaslight Square.
Also, read a fascinating article from Time Magazine, Friday, May 18, 1962: No Squares on the Square and one from the RFT published exactly 37 years and one day later: Lights Out

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Syndicate-Century Three Years Later

The title of this post could have easily been "life and death on block 273". Like day and night, the contrast of the two halves of the black are stark. On the west half, the beautifully restored Syndicate Trust is closing in on completion. Apartments on the lower floors appear to be ready for occupancy. The building's exterior is freshly painted (the building had been painted long ago), windows are in, and new storefront is finished on Olive Street.

To the east stands the 9th Street Garage, completed earlier this year, where demolition of the Century Building began a little over three years ago. At night harsh bright light floods the empty sloped concrete floors and spills out onto Olive and Locust Streets through the unscreened openings. The ground floor is still dark and empty months after the space was ready for its supposed tenant Schnucks, who seems to be playing the "I'm afraid to commit game", leaving City Grocer's earlier announced expansion plans in limbo.

Across 9th street is stands the Old Post Office, which has turned out to be largely lifeless itself. While the Library and Pasta House bring are a pleasant additions along Locust, but instead of retail as was originally promised, the remainder of the ground floor was given over to office space, which does nothing to activate the streets around it. Even the lobby off Olive and the grand sky lit atrium space at the center are completely void of any furniture, sending the message that the State of Missouri does not want anyone spending any more time in the building than absolutely necessary.

So after more than three years since the pounding of the headache ball against grey Georgian marble began, we must ask ourselves: Is downtown really better now?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

3838-40 Olive

Back on Olive, just down the block from the soon to be gone Central Apartments stood this beautiful building. The building was one of most flamboyant left on the block in the mid 90's, but like most of Olive for several blocks in each direction it stood abandoned and boarded up. In the summer of 1996 the building had a fire that damaged the 2nd and 3rd floors. Despite the fact that the beautiful facade was still fully intact, the building was demolished a few months later.

Next door to the west, (partially visible in the photo above) is the former home of the Wolfner Memorial Library for the Blind, which now stands isolated near the western end of the block. A few years ago, the buildings on the two lots west, from the Wolfner to the corner, were demolished as well (unfortunately I didn't get any photos of these). The former library has also been abandoned for many years, but was listed on the National Register in June 2005. It acquired recently by Grand Center, Inc., and there is now a small sign on the front that reads "Wolfner Lofts", giving hope that it will not meet the same fate as its neighbors on each side. To see more photos of the former Wolfner building , including interior, see the recently revived pages of Sonic Atrophy The actual Wolfner Memorial Library is now located in Jefferson City, MO.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

2 of 3 Givens Row Townhomes being demolished - 2903 & 2905 Delmar

Update: Only one townhouse remains standing Givens Row. Photo 10-23-07.
At Delmar & T E Huntley two small rows of historic townhouses on the southeast & northeast corners stand in contrast to newer rental townhouses built in the early 1980's. All of the historic townhomes on the southeast corner were rehabbed and incorporated into the newer development, but unfortunately on the northwest corner, only one of three remaining townhomes was included. The three limestone faced townhomes are know as Givens Row, which was built in 1884 by Joseph Givens, who would later donate the funds to build Givens Hall at Washington University.
One hundred twenty two years later, in 2006 the townhome closest to the corner, which is owned by Noble Development (one of Paul McKee's slumlord shell companies) a fire occurred on November 30th, less than two months after the property changed hands. The fire was confined to the third floor of the townhouse, but also spread to the roof of the middle unit, which has been owned by LRA since 1996. The fire caused fairly minor damage, which could have easily been repaired/re-built. The two buildings are currently being demolished. Only the third unit at 2907 Delmar will remain. Givens Row was added to Landmarks Association's list of most endangered buildings not long after the fire. The November/December 2006 newsletter gives a more detailed history of the row.

Photos from the rear show little to no fire damage in other portions of the buildings being demolished.

Photo of the row after the fire

Close-up of the limestone detailing around the windows

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

3727 Olive - Grand Center to lose another building

Grand Center, an area that has over the years suffered a large percentage of demolition at the same time it has struggled to regenerate life in the district will soon lose another building. 3727 Olive, which lies outside the Midtown Historic District, is one of a handful of building left on this block of Olive between Spring. The building was built in 1916, and housed 30 small walk-up apartment units on floors 2-4 and 2 small retail storefronts flanking the entrance on the first floor (obscured by the plywood fence).
On September 13th, the City issued an emergency demolition order even though the building's condition has not changed much recently. The plywood fence went up a few years ago as the outer withe of masonry began to peel away from the building in a few locations.
The building is devoid of much of the ornamentation typical of apartment buildings from the time period, with its small cornice being the only exception. Instead, the building's simple but attractive symmetrical elevation achieves interest with brick detailing above the openings and below the cornice, and with the cantilevered balconies at each unit.
The economics of rehabilitating this building for apartments or condos would likely be difficult given that it is not in the historic district (making it ineligible for historic tax credits), and is likely not distinguished enough to merit an individual National Register nomination. Additionally, adjacent land would be needed for parking since the building occupies the majority of the lot and it's footprint is not conducive to indoor basement parking. This is unfortunate, since rehabilitation of the building could bring much needed additional residents to the area.

Update: After taking a look at ownership along this stretch of Olive, I noticed that Grand Center, Inc. owns properties to the west, but not right next to the building (which they recently acquired as well). If they were to acquire the property just west of the building from the mortgage company that now owns it, a developer could build a new project containing parking for both the new building and the old apartment building (in a garage at the rear of the property of course). Alternately, the rarely used AT&T lot to the east could be acquired and similarly developed. In the mean time, a little masonry work, and possibly a new roof would stabilize the building until the market for the type of development just described emerges.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Reprieve for Vandervoorts?

Now that Centene Corporation has announced that they will build their new 750,000 S.F. headquarters Downtown at Ballpark Village, what will become of Forsyth & Hanley? Opened on September 21st, 1951, The building known most recently as Library Limited (the bookstore I miss terribly) by Harris Armstrong was built as the first suburban branch of Scruggs Vandervoort Barney Department Store. Photo above from the Mercantile Library Collection.

"Since the automobile has become such a powerful source toward decentralization throughout the country, we feel that the beginning of Vandervoort's suburban store, as part of our modernization and expansion program, is a particularly appropriate feature of our centennial year, which begins a new century for us." These were the words of Frank M. Mayfield, president of Scruggs Vandervoort Barney, Inc. about their new store in Clayton.

Ironically sales at the Clayton branch were so strong that it sucked the life out of their Downtown store that was housed in the Century and Syndicate Trust Buildings. The resulting losses eventually led to the closure of both the Downtown and Clayton stores in 1967.
Before the announcement Sunday of Centene's move Downtown, this sign foretold the buildings doom. Just over 56 years from the day of its opening, the building that was built out of the idea of moving to the suburbs may have been saved (for the moment) by a reversal of the very trend from which it was built.
Reduced to "Bldg. B". The original canopy extending out to Forsyth was removed years ago by a former owner. Architecturally though, most of the building's features are intact, including the cantilevered sun screen below and the tightly strung awnings that stretch from the parking garage to the rear entrance doors.
The only problem is that Centene overpaid for the building to the tune of $12 million on the assumption that this cost would be absorbed into the total development cost of the site. Now either Centene has to take a loss on the building, or someone will pay that much for the site with the same thought that the cost will be justified by the redevelopment of the site. Time will tell if someone has the creativity to develop something on the parking garage portion of the site and preserve Harris Armstrong's Forsyth legacy. With Mehlman's proposed development just east, the building (and Forsyth in between) could be poised once again to become a great retail destination.