Monday, August 14, 2017

Why We Shouldn't Give Up The Clemens House

In the weeks following the the Clemens House fire on the morning of July 12th, I saw many friends and fellow preservationists post RIPs and other comments essentially giving up the historic complex as being gone. While the fire was obviously a tragic event, it should not be concluded that the end is here for the Clemens House. Maybe its my experience with bringing back many buildings that were essentially shells, some seemingly on the brink of destruction, but I don't believe we should give up on the Clemens House. Here's why: 

A: Not much has really changed with much of the structure. 

Today the Clemens House complex stands as a shell, but I would argue that this is not much different than its condition before the fire. The complete lack of any care or maintenance had already reduced the Clemens House complex to a group of shells. Nine years ago, in May 2008, the main roof of the chapel building collapsed. Much of the east wall also collapsed, over half the roof was gone and the west wall was left buckled, but still standing. The front and rear walls of the chapel remained with about one bay of roof at each end. Over the past nine years the remaining portions of roof deteriorated severely with the front bay completely gone and the rear section down to sagging joists and rotted sheathing. Photo of the chapel above by Paul Sableman.

The roof and interior floor structure of the original mansion had not fared much better. Around the same time of the chapel collapse, portions of the parapet at the demising wall between the original house and dormitory addition fell onto the house roof creating holes in the northeast and northwest corners. With no repair done, these holes grew over the years with the interior floor structures below deteriorating and eventually most of the large rooms at the rear of the original house collapsed pancaking into the basement. The last time I was in the house several years ago, the floors of the front rooms were also deteriorating rapidly from openings in the valleys of the roof. By this year, these floors were to the point of requiring complete reconstruction.

While the four story addition to the house had fared slightly better overall, the roof by this year resembled a wavy piece of Swiss cheese giving no protection to the interior structure. An entire section of the west mansard fell off of the building a few years ago leaving a gaping hole. As of several years ago several floor areas were unsafe to walk so I can imagine that by this year the percentage of structure that was to the point of needing complete replacement had risen dramatically. The recent fire simply burned off what remained of the severely deteriorated wood floor and roof structures that by this year required almost complete replacement. Some more photos of collapses and what appears to be earlier fire damage in the mansion can be seen in this RFT article.

B. Significance of the Clemens House. 

The James Clemens house designed by Patrick Walsh in 1858 is one of St. Louis' very few remaining antebellum mansions; its Italian Renaissance Revival design is distinguished by an extensive use of cast iron for the portico, quoining and window enframements which is unique in the city's domestic architecture. 
It has been said it is the finest application of cast iron on a residential building outside of New York City. Cast iron was usually utilized on commercial structures, but the St. Louis Great Fire of 1849 apparently convinced Clemens that the exterior of the home needed to be fireproof, so the mansion was adorned with many cast iron features. 

In memory of James Clemens' wife. Walsh and Porter White, a plaster artist, were instructed by the grieving Mr. Clemens to reproduce Eliza's image in the ornamental plaster ceiling molding on the first floor, in a Carrara marble mantle in the parlor, and in other design elements. Eliza's death mask was also carefully re-created in cast iron and used in the exterior ornamentation over every window of the mansion. 

The 1896 chapel which adjoins the house, designed by architect Aloysius Gillick for the Sisters of St. Joseph, carefully follows the Italianate forms of the earlier building. The stone trimmed pedimented porch with paired Ionic columns and paired brick pilasters at the second story repeat motifs from the original mansion.

C. Paul McKee owes St. Louis! 

After spending years secretly acquiring thousands of buildings and vacant parcels through anonymous shell corporations Paul McKee publicly revealed his grand plan for Northside in May 2009. The plan he said would include 3 million square feet of office and retail space, 1 million square feet of light industrial space, hundreds of new apartments and single family homes, parks, street improvements and even its own trolly system. In October 2013 the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved $390 Million in TIF financing for McKee's Northside plan. Additionally, the State of Missouri gave McKee $43 Million in Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credits. The Land Assemblage Tax Credit was custom written by McKee's lawyers and due to the large quantity of land required to be purchased, he is to date the only recipient.

Since unveiling the grand plan for "Northside Regeneration" over eight years ago and with hundreds of properties now owned for over a decade, McKee’s track record as a property owner has been nothing short of abysmal. The reality has been an intentional Northside Disintegration. Buildings owned by Mckee, many of which were occupied and in decent condition, were immediately emptied and left unsecured. Doors and windows mysteriously disappeared hastening the cycle of intentional demolition by neglect. Many buildings succumbed demolition by brick theft, and many of these were were hastened by arson fires. 
See Built St. Louis' pages on Blairmont, one of several of Mckee's shell companies that purchased the properties. Note: Almost all the beautiful historic structures on the page linked above have since been demolished.

While there are certainly many other absentee landlords who abandoned their properties and let them rot and crumble (St. Louis Public Schools could be included on this list), the sheer quantity of historic buildings that have fallen in the last 10 years as a direct result of McKee's blatant and intentional neglect has probably not been seen since the days of urban renewal clearance in the 1960s. It only seems less dramatic because it has occurred over a decade. What has replaced all the buildings and neighborhoods that have been decimated by Paul McKee? Absolutely nothing! Yes the NGA is building its new campus at the corner of Jefferson and Cass, but this should not be considered a win as the result of McKee. Out of all that was to come from the grand plan, the only Northside project McKee has completed is a moderate rehab flip of an existing office warehouse building.

While most of McKee's grand plan for North St. Louis envisioned new construction, McKee also promised to preserve and rehabilitate about 60-80 houses and buildings he dubbed "legacy properties". Although he refused to ever release an actual list of these properties, he specified that the Clemens House would be rehabbed. McKee however provided no more protection for the legacy properties than any other buildings he owned that were left to rot. Another presumed legacy property was the Bernhardt Winkelmann home at 1930 St. Louis Avenue among what was referred to as "Millionaires Row" in the Clemens House-Columbia Brewery Historic District. This beautiful home was struck by brick thieves on multiple occasions with no response to clean-up, secure, or protect the remainder of the home in any way. Eventually the thieves removed literally the entire house leaving a pile of wood behind the stone facade, which was then unceremoniously demolished.

McKee claims to have spent a lot of money stabilizing the Clemens House. The reality is that the only work done was removal and storage of the 2-story porch and removal of portions of the chapel roof, supporting trusses and portions of the east wall of the chapel. The removals occurred because the porch and the rest of the chapel roof were on the verge of imminent collapse because they had not been properly protected from the elements. If McKee had truly stabilized the structure, the roof and floors of the mansion wouldn't have been collapsing into the fucking basement! 

After 10 years of broken promises, its time for McKee to make good on at least one: Stabilize and rehab Clemens!!

D. Precedent

Rebuilding and restoration of a building shell that remains after a fire or collapsed such as the Clemens House complex is more common than you might think. Here in St. Louis there are a few relatively recent examples.

In Lafayette Square, two buildings on Mississippi Avenue that were part of an International Shoe Company factory had sat abandoned for decades. The buildings deteriorated to the point where about 30% of the 5-story building had collapsed into the basement and the rest of the roof had mostly collapsed. The roof of the 1-story building was collapsing as well. This didn't keep Craig Heller from pursuing a rehab for lofts, commercial space, and a restaurant. He hired Pyramid to re-construct and stabilize the buildings and the development was later finished by Conrad Properties.

The finished exterior of the end of the M-Lofts building that was reconstructed.

The Lister Building at Taylor and Olive in the Central West End had similarly deteriorated to the point where the rotted floors and roof had to be completely removed and re-built. It was also rehabbed into loft apartments and ground floor commercial space.

From the exterior you can see upper floors being re-framed even as collapsed debris was still being pulled out from the first floor.
An interior view of the shell (photo from the now defunct original website).

Another local example is the reconstruction of several on Dick Gregory Place to create affordable apartments in the Ville neighborhood off Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. The interior floors, walls and roofs of several of the large but severely deteriorated large homes and portions of the mixed use buildings had to be completely re-built. Crown Square and the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, both in Old North St. Louis, are two additional projects that involved extensive re-building of collapsed portions of buildings.
An exterior wall of the mansion w/ iron window frame covering the outermost brick. 

Despite being gutted by fire, the walls of the Clemens House remain solid and stable. The exterior walls are four wythes (courses) thick, which is unusual for a residential structure. The exterior walls, including the tall front wall forming the outline of the pedimented portico (which was disassembled several years ago and is safely in storage), are braced by interior masonry walls that run north-south on both sides of the center hall and by intermediate east-west masonry walls that separated the large front and rear rooms of the mansion. All of these interior walls are three wythes thick.

 Portions of floors and woodwork survive in the west front rooms.

While a large percentage of the upper floor walls of the structure at the rear of the house collapsed during the fire, a substantial amount of the original 2-story walls of the original portion of the rear structure have survived largely intact. Like the main house, this portion of the structure also contains many interior masonry walls that are largely intact and stabilize the remaining portions of exterior walls. There are some portions of the east wall of the dormitory addition that are standing 3-stories tall un-braced. These should be stabilized in place and possibly have the upper portion removed. The condition of the chapel is largely the same as before the fire, with the front, rear, and west walls standing un-braced. These should be braced in place.

Now that McKee's negligence to keep the Clemens House secure has allowed an arsonist to torch the complex, its time for the City of St. Louis to hold McKee accountable and if necessary, force him to secure and stabilize the remains of the mansion, dormitory, and chapel in a manner that preserves it for rehabilitation or restoration. If McKee refuses, the City of St. Louis should either seize the property or force McKee to donate the Clemens complex to an organization that commits to stabilizing and facilitating eventual rehabilitation. Additionally, as the Post recently editorialized, the City should raise the amount fines for property owners that won't keep their buildings secure and allow them to deteriorate to stop the cycle of simply paying the fines as a cost of business.