Wednesday, December 31, 2008

SLU Rings in the New Year with Destruction

Happy New Year from St. Louis University!!

4056 Washington Avenue survived 117 years as its surrounding neighborhood thrived, declined through the middle of the last century, began to revive on blocks to the west, south and north. The mansion received what seemed to be salvation as a former owner took it from the state of derelict rooming house with an almost complete renovation, but it would not survive even two months under ownership by SLU.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Ghost of Christmas Past: The Fall of the May Legacy in St. Louis

Lowering the Famous Barr sign from the top of the Railway Exchange
above the Downtown store. Photo by Lynn Josse

2005 was a year that must have left Morton D. May rolling in his grave. In February, the May Company's longtime arch rival Federated Department Stores announced that it would acquire May for $11 Billion. Several years of flagging sales due to the company's inability to adjust and adapt to the new realities of retailing in the new millennium left it vulnerable to takeover.

More than three years later, The 21 story Railway Exchange Building, May Company's former headquarters stands dark and empty above the seventh floor. Fortunately, the building is in no danger, and in fact was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year.

Just a few months after the downfall of Morton's namesake company came the destruction of his Ladue estate. Lost was undoubtedly one of the most significant examples of International Style architecture in St. Louis. Built in 1941, the home was designed by Samuel Marx, a successful Chicago architect and furniture designer who was May's uncle by marriage. Besides architecture and furniture, Marx was an avid art collector and influenced May in building his own collection.

A vintage photo of the north facade of the home from Modernism magazine

The home was demolished by Felix and Susan Williams, owners of The Screening Room in Frontenac so that they could build a new Super-size McMansion with a total living area of almost 19,000 square feet according to St. Louis County records proving that no matter how many truckloads of money you have, you cannot buy good taste. According to the Post-Dispatch, this atrocity was not the Williams first crime against modern architecture. In 1999, they bought and demolished a neighboring Harris Armstrong house and had it demolished simply so that their existing home would have a bigger yard. So next time you need to put a home theater in your basement, go to Hi-Fi Fo-Fum instead of the Screening Room.
Click here to see a vintage photo of the staircase

The living room had a large planter sunk into the terrazzo floor

The roof terrace off the master bedroom

The Williams are not the only ones to blame though. The 9 acre property had been marketed and was sold by real estate agent Anne Ryan as a teardown. Unfortunately there is a self-perpetuating fallacy amongst narrow minded real estate agents in the area that there is no market for modern homes in St. Louis. This small-minded thinking has led to the destruction of dozens of mid-century modern houses in the last decade.

When I heard that the homes days were numbered on a whim I grabbed the video camera in addition to my still camera. Below are two video segments documenting the estate. As you may gather from the video, I was almost as awe struck by the home's siting on its 9 acres of ground as I was with the home itself. To see more photos of the home, check out my set on Flickr.

When I returned a week later, this is all that was left

All is not lost though. Morton D. May left an extensive legacy with his art collections which he generously gifted to the St. Louis Art Museum, Washington University's Gallery of Art (now the Kemper Museum). Over the years, SLAM was the recipient of over three thousand works of art including the majority of its Pre-Colombian collection and its renowned collection of German Expressionists including Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and many others. May was also instrumental in the construction of the Gateway Arch president of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association.

While Famous Barr is history, Macy's is still open in the original store Downtown, and has so far remained committed to keeping its presence there. This year more than any, the Downtown store could use your patronage, so if you have an urge to hit the post holiday sales, skip the mall and head to 6th & Olive. If you are there around lunch time, Papa Fabar's is still serving on the 2nd floor, and while it may not be as polished as it once was, the St. Louis Room on 6 has a lunch buffet featuring a different menu daily. Thursday's fried chicken and Monday's meat loaf and bread pudding are quite tasty, and yes you can still order the Famous french onion soup in either restaurant. Merry Christmas & Happy Hanukkah.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

SLU Continues its Mission to Exterminate Midtown Mansions

As reported Friday by Eco-Absence, Saint Louis University purchased 4056 Washington Avenue in late October. The 5,832 square foot mansion was built in 1891, and is one of the last surviving homes on the block of Washington between Vandeventer and Sarah.

Upon seeing that SLU had acquired the property, the red flag went up in my head, remembering that after they purchased a convent down the street in 2000, they demolished 4040 Washington, a 2 story Italianate home that was vacant but structurally sound and in relatively decent condition. In its place they planted some grass and placed a large wood cross near their ubiquitous black fence. Early this year, in an act seemingly unrelated to anything, SLU demolished the Wagner house at 3438 Samuel Shepard. More recently, SLU demolished a large Italianate mansion on their campus to create a courtyard in front of their new law building.

I checked the City's online records first to see when the once dilapidated rooming house had undergone a mostly complete renovation several years ago. Record of that permit (if there was one) was missing. Instead, there is record of a demolition permit dated 12.04.08 that was obviously not carried out at that time. Electrical permits seem to indicate that the rehab took place in 2004.

I first noticed this massive home in the early 1990's as I was photographing 4060 and 4064 Washington, both of which were large vacant homes that burned and then were demolished. At the time, the mansion was a low rent rooming house in poor condition, and I recall fearing that it might end up in with the same fate as its neighbors to the west. Several years later however, I drove by and the mansion had received a complete makeover including new roof, windows, new paint job (it had been painted previously), I assumed a renovated interior and seemingly new owners that would take care of the building into the future.

4056 Washington prior to renovation - winter 1994-1995

Fast forward to this fall, and the property apparently went into foreclosure with SLU as the new owner. This is yet another case where there is no logical reason for demolition yet SLU 
steamrolls forward. Unless SLU is planning some large new building as part of their retreat complex, demolition is completely senseless.

The rehabbed first floor living room of the mansion
I did a Google search to see if I could find out anything more about the property. I happened to find two videos on Youtube showing the interior of the home. The videos and photos I took through the first floor windows confirm that the building was mostly rehabbed on the interior. While it is evident that some additional work would need to be done, it seemed to be about 75% done.

Video of the first floor interior.

Video of the second floor interior

Saturday, December 6, 2008

San Luis still in Limbo... but holds vast opportunity

Guests enjoy the sunken swimming pool at the St. Louis De Ville Motor Hotel
July 1963 - (photo from the UMSL Mercantile Library collection)

The West End Word reported recently that the any decision by the St. Louis Archdiocese about whether to demolish the San Luis Apartments (formerly the De Ville Motor Hotel) is on hold until a new archbishop is chosen. With income at the Archdiocese way down this year, it is possible a new archbishop would want to reconsider spending a large chunk of money to demolish the San Luis structure and build a large new parking lot that will not produce revenue. Would the Archdiocese consider selling to a developer? They could potentially stand to gain a windfall if they did. It was reported that the Roberts paid $100 per square foot of land for the formerly tired Days Inn property which they are renovating to open St. Louis' first Indigo Hotel.

Throughout the country there are dozens of examples of MCM hotel properties that have been either recently renovated or simply well maintained over the years (crazy concept isn't it!) including the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, the Horizon Hotel in Palm Springs, the Washington Plaza in D.C., and the Metropolitan in Midtown Manhattan (formerly the Summit). While the economy is down now, it will rebound at some point, and the Central West End will continue to be a very desirable place to stay in a hotel.

Alternately the Archdiocese could form a for profit entity to renovate the San Luis (with historic tax credits) for apartment housing. The location is prime for either market rate or low/moderate income elderly apartments, which was the building's most recent use.

To learn more about the San Luis, please visit this updated site established by fellow preservationists.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Tell Obama and Congress Your Transportation Wishes

Rendering of proposed N. Florissant MetroLink from the 5th Ward Plan

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is asking for comments (both written or video) about what should be priorities for transportation funding. Go to to submit your comments. AASHTO is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that represents state departments of transportation. They will be collecting comments through January and sharing them with Congress and the White House. According to Tony Dorsey, an AASHTO spokesman, they will "mine the information for patterns ... if we hear a lot of people talk about congestion (or say need for more transit), we'll tell Congress and the (Obama) administration that congestion was their top priority, and they want something done about it".

In the last few weeks, there has been much talk of an economic stimulus bill containing tens of billions of dollars for transportation projects. Obama and congress will also need to pass a new transportation bill before federally funded highway and transit programs expire in September 2009.

Why am I blogging about this? Because as most of you are probably well aware, transportation infrastructure planning and implementation has profound direct and indirect affects on the built environment. I will be commenting about the need for additional funding for MetroLink expansion and operation dollars as well as the need for the State of Missouri to start bucking up its fair share of the funding pie for transit. Please take a few moments and submit yours.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Book Depicts the Degradation of St. Louis' Built Environment

Photographer and writer Amy Fontinelle of Seeing St. Louis has published Disappearing St. Louis, a new book that portrays the extremely fragile condition of abandoned historic buildings in St. Louis neighborhoods including Old North St. Louis, Vandeventer, Fountain Park, Academy, JeffVanderLou, and Hyde Park. With a similar mindset of this site, Amy has produced the book to bring greater awareness to the plight of these irreplaceable architectural treasures and their surrounding neighborhoods. Amy is donating all profits from the sale of the book to the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, which in recent years along with dedicated residents has taken the leading role in re-building in re-building the tattered neighborhood.

The book is available here via Seeing St. Louis, and may also be purchased at the 5th annual Rock N Roll Craft Show which will take place Friday through Sunday this weekend at Third Degree Glass, just east of Union on Delmar... a perfect way to start your holiday shopping after recovering from turkey and pecan pie coma on Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wash U Pulls Proposal for Demolition on Skinker

At the last moment at this evenings Preservation Board meeting during the presentation of the proposal for the Corner Building at Delmar & Skinker, representatives of Washington University announced that the proposal to demolish the ones story retail building is on hold so that the University can explore other options. The renovation of the Corner Building will move forward, and approval was given for installation of wind turbines on the roof.

After the their agenda item was passed
Cheryl Adelstein, Director of Community Relations for the University came over to Michael Allen and myself and asked if demolition of the building would be acceptable if the University built a larger building on the site. The new building might contain parking underground or at the rear of the first floor dedicated for the apartments. Both of us agreed that this could potentially be more palatable. The existing building itself, while complimenting the building next door is not a highly significant piece of architecture, and a well designed new larger structure extending all the way to the Enright corner could improve the streetscape. This particular issue is more about preserving density and streetscape along Skinker and preventing the large parking area behind from becoming more visible. Keeping some retail use on the ground floor however would be preferable in a new building.

On other agenda items this evening, the board voted for preservation of 5115 Cates, and postponed hearing about 1826 Warren due to the absence of the applicant.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wash U Proposes Demolition of Retail Building on Skinker

Washington University is proposing demolition of this 1936 Art Deco retail building on Skinker The building does a great job of screening the giant sea of parking beyond from view on Skinker.

The building lies just north of another Art Deco building at the northeast corner of Delmar and Skinker that Wash U is proposing to renovate for student apartments above retail space. The proposal for both the renovation, which would include the addition of vertical wind turbines on the roof, and the demolition of the one story retail building is on the agenda for next Monday's Preservation Board meeting. Preservation board meetings are held on the 12th floor of the 1015 Locust Building and are open to the public. Attendees may address the Preservation Board to give their opinions about each proposal.

The Corner Building, as Wash U is going to name the project (I do not believe the building had a name previously) is just west of the Pin-up Bowl and Joe Edward's new Moonrise Hotel.
A rendering from Trivers shows the proposed wind turbines on the roof which would be visible on Delmar and would possibly be lit at night. No, they are not going to paint the middle of the building purple, instead the rendering depicts colored LED lights which would light a portion of the facade, adding some color to the building at night similar to the way the recently renovated Woolworth's building at Grand and Olive is lit.

Personally, I think both the wind turbines, which will generate a portion of the electricity for the building, and the LED lights proposed will both be interesting additions to the building, and go well with the eclectic mix of neon signs such as the one at the Pin-up, and at the Pageant.

Demolition of the building to the building to the north, however is completely unnecessary. The parking area north of the one story building would provide about 24 spaces, which for the 16 apartments proposed, would be more than adequate. 1.5 dedicated parking spaces per unit is higher than the zoning requirement, higher than most if not all existing Wash U apartments in the area, as well as private condo and apartment buildings. If a developer were building a new apartment building with 10 of 16 units being one bedroom, they would not provide anymore than 1.5 spaces per unit.

Art Deco detailing of the one story retail building complements that of the larger corner building.
Close-up of the terra cotta detailing
The sea of parking that serves the east end of the Loop
Plenty of parking exists north of the one story building to serve the apartments, and the larger parking area will serve the retail.
A candy store in the one story building that is being kicked out, and is moving to the county.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

LRA Rehab Opportunity in the West End

One very positive outcome of the October Preservation Board meeting (where the demo of 921 & 923 Locust were approved) was the Board's voting to deny a demolition permit to the LRA to destroy a home at 6044 Cates in the West End neighborhood. Acting on a request from 26th Ward Alderman Frank Williamson the LRA, who had recently acquired the home from an absentee owner, LRA immediately applied for a demolition permit without first attempting to market the property. The home is located in the Hamilton Place National Register historic district, so demolition would need approval from the Preservation Board (here is the agenda item from the meeting). Fortunately, the majority of board members agreed that the LRA should make an attempt at marketing the building for sale instead of simply demolishing it. This is the second time the board has voted to spare this home, as the previous owners had applied for demolition in 2007.
The porch with almost all historic detailing intact

The home sits near the end of a cul-de-saced block which is mostly intact and has seen many renovations and some new construction in the past several years. Understandably, many neighbors have been upset with the home's condition in recent years and asked the Williams to make it go away. The street's cul-de-sac is at Hodiamont Avenue, which places the home only 2 blocks north of the Delmar MetroLink station and only 3 blocks north of the Loop's east end making it a very convenient location to live.
Well maintained homes on the same block

While photographing the home, the neighbor to the west came out on the front porch. She first said she wished the home would get torn down, but after I said it had potential she admitted that she would much rather see the home rehabbed than have it torn down and have a vacant lot next door. She added that her home, which is beautifully maintained once looked like the vacant home, and that she had put a lot into restoring her home.
6044 Cates and the neighbor's restored home

The home is in generally sound structural condition, but needs some masonry work mostly on the rear and east side of the building. The masonry issues while in need of attention, are not as extensive as seen in many abandoned LRA properties and do not currently threaten the structural integrity of the home. It is apparent that someone started rehabbing the home in recent years, working inside installing framing to furr out the walls and installing windows, when they really should have tackled the masonry shell issues first.
Masonry work is needed mainly on the rear wall
The east wall also needs some masonry work

The home's location in a National Register district makes it eligible for Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits. For an owner-occupant buyer, 25% of rehab cost would be returned under the Missouri state tax credit and if a buyer wanted to rent out the home for a minimum of 5 years they would be eligible for an additional 20% tax credit under the Federal program.
The gutted but structurally intact interior of the home

Anyone interested in purchasing and rehabbing the home should take a look at the LRA's web pages that explain the process (LRA is part of the St. Louis Development Corporation, a City agency). According to the Standard Price List for vacant properties and land, the home would be available for $1,000.00. This reasonable price combined with the tax credit incentives make the property a real opportunity to have a nice home even in these tough economic times. For more photos of the home, see my Flickr set.

The West End neighborhood where the home is located has seen a huge turn around for the better in the last decade. The mostly intact blocks west of Hamilton which compose the historic district have seen dozens of renovations and infill on vacant lots. East of Hamilton, which had large tracts of vacant land where severely deteriorated apartment blocks were taken down has the construction of well over 100 new homes. These homes for the most part are not starter homes, and have been successfully marketed to attract upper middle class residents back to the neighborhood. These blocks while having several unfortunate demolitions, have also seen the renovation of many beautiful large homes. Many rehab opportunities also exist as well, although the blocks east of Hamilton are not covered by the historic district and therefore do not enjoy the tax credit incentives.
A recently renovated home on Clemens east of Hamilton
Newly constructed homes on the same block of Clemens
A rehab opportunity on Cates near Goodfellow
Another partially rehabbed opportunity just east of the one above

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sunset on Vandervoorts and the Shady Oak

Centene did not waste any time obliterating the former Library Ltd Building at Forsyth and Hanley. On October 17th, the Post reported barricades were going up around the Harris Armstrong landmark built as the first suburban branch of Scruggs Vandervoort Barney Department Store. By last Friday evening, the entire building was gone. Core 10 Architecture, whose office is directly across Hanley in another MCM building, captured the building's last stand in a video that is now on the front page of their site.

A few hundred feet east, demolition has begun on the Shady Oak, which is being demolished for a new parking lot for the building on the corner. According to Yesterday's Post the theater's distinctive blend of art deco and colonial revival was the work of architects Frederick Dunn and Campbell Alden Scott.

Fortunately, our ultimate destination in Clayton that evening The Fatted Calf, which opened in 1969, is still standing, and has thankfully not changed at all under new ownership. Soon the same will not be able to be said of the original Fatted Calf at 10th & Locust Downtown... see previous post.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Coming Soon: More Driveways for 10th Street or an active retail corner?

At Monday evenings Preservation Board meeting, the board approved the Robert's Brothers proposal to demolish buildings at 919 & 923 Locust, and proceed with their proposed redevelopment which will feature an Indigo Hotel. What remains to be seen though is what will be built on the site of the demolished buildings. Previously the Robert's Brothers had proposed leaving the corner of site at the intersection of 10th & Locust open for a new semi-circle driveway in front of the new lobby structure.

At Monday's meeting however, Virvus Jones of The Robert's Companies and Mike Killeen, the architect for the project presented a revised version of the proposal. The new version has the driveway covered by a roof and the facade of the new structure continuing to the corner of the intersection along Locust. There would be an opening in the facade from the Locust sidewalk to the covered driveway area, and along 10th street the structure would be completely open. While this is an improvement over the initial proposal, it still contains the unnecessary driveway, which leaves the entire 10th street side of the project dedicated to the automobile.

Directly north of the proposed hotel driveway entrance is an alley and the Renaissance Hotel parking garage, which has a large truck driveway leading to the underground loading dock and a pair of driveway entrances for the garage itself. This means if the hotel driveway entrance is built replacing the building at 923 Locust, there will be nothing but solid driveways (and the alley) along the east side of 10th Street from St. Charles Street south to Locust.
Driveways could stretch from St. Charles Street all the way to Locust

During Q & A after presenting to the board, Virvus Jones explained that parking for the hotel would be had at either the 9th Street garage or the Renaissance garage, but that they did not really expect many cars... so why build a driveway in front of the hotel entrance? Prior to voting, several board members expressed concern about the driveway (having seen photos I supplied of Indigo Hotels in other cities without driveways in front). Mary One Johnson however called the large covered driveway at the Renaissance "elegant"! While the Robert's Companies are not bound by law to return to the board with a final design, there seemed to be some indication that might do so voluntarily.
The "elegant" covered driveway at the Renaissance

After the meeting, Mr. Jones thanked me for my input, and agreed that more retail along 10th Street in place of the driveway would bring more revenue to the project. He indicated that he would talk to the Roberts about the possibility of not doing the driveway.

Street. There would be some additional storefront and demising walls needed, but the Driveways do not produce rent income. Also, since the commitment has already been made to roof over the entire site, there is not much added cost to change the driveway space to additional retail. It would simply be a matter of moving the curved glass wall out to 10thadditional retail revenue would outweigh this nominal cost. The Robert's have already included retail in their plan, and have the opportunity to build one of the more "urban friendly" Indigo Hotels in the country if they make the right decision and build more retail instead of an auto oriented entrance.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cutting Corners - Another Driveway Plaza for Downtown?

Just a few weeks after the announcement that yet another parking garage will be built Downtown on the site of the current US Bank plaza/driveway at 7th & Locust, The Roberts Brothers are proposing a similar but smaller driveway/plaza cutting away the corner of 10th & Locust just three blocks west.
US Bank Plaza at 7th & Locust

The proposal includes demolition of two buildings at the northeast corner of the intersection. 923 Locust at the corner has a false stucco and half timbered exterior that has been on the building for several decades, and 919 Locust, a four story structure with a buff brick facade which was built in 1916. City records list the corner building as being constructed in 1890. Several cast iron columns which appear to be original are visible at the ground floor.

An Indigo Hotel, which is the same flag that the Roberts are using to re-vamp the MCM Days Inn at Lindell & Euclid, would occupy the historic Scruggs Vandervoort Barney Annex at 917 Locust, the small Moderne faced building at 913 and a new two story structure containing lobby would be built occupying the 919 site. Most of the corner 923 site however would remain un-built and occupied by a circle drive off 10th Street.

My issue with this proposal is not preservation of the buildings, it is about urban design. Neither building is of spectacular merit, and while the building at 919 adjacent to what would be the hotel tower in the Scruggs Annex is an attractive building, it's floors are far out of alignment with the Annex, which would make it difficult to tie the buildings together. The issue though is about holding the corner of the intersection in a dense central business district environment. If the proposal called for a new structure built to the corner of the intersection, I would not have a problem with it.

The western half of the CBD of Downtown St. Louis has been so badly eroded by parking lots, plazas, driveways, and needless building setbacks (at&t buildings) that only one other intersection between 8th and Tucker besides 10th & Locust retains four buildings built up to the corner at the intersection. This occurs at 9th & Washington (The Old Post office was historically set back on all sides). This proposal would continue this erosion and set bad precedent for future developments.

The proposal is up for review by the City's Preservation Board at their monthly meeting next Monday, October 27th at 4:00pm. Preservation Board meetings are held at 1015 Locust (one block west of the proposal site), suite 1200. Meetings are open to the public and anyone can sign up to give testimony for or against any agenda item. I encourage anyone with an opinion about this to show up and speak.

The developer will likely claim that Indigo is requiring the driveway in front of the hotel. Like many similar hotels in it's class, Indigo's new-build prototype does have a driveway at the entrance, yet in several cities Indigo Hotel's have opened in existing structures, and in one case a new building, which are all built up to the property line without a driveway in front of the entrance. These include: Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Nashville; Rahway, New Jersey and Ottowa, Ontario.
Hotel Indigo - Nashville
Hotel Indigo - Dallas
Hotel Indigo - Chicago
Hotel Indigo - Atlanta
Hotel Indigo - Ottowa

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see Indigo go into this location, as it would bring desperately needed activity to Locust Street. I feel however that the hotel can be done, and in fact would be better without cutting out the corner of the block for a driveway.