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Central High deterioration

I had not been by the old Central High School for a while, but after photographing the northwest corner of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood - home to several lovely blocks lined with dozens of Craftsman style homes - I paid a visit to the old school. Last time I was by, back around 2002, the school was in fine shape. So I was shocked to see the condition it's in today.



The copper domes have been stolen for scrap metal, and most of the windows are missing. Some of the windows might be tornado damage from January, but most of it has to be deliberate work of vandals or thieves - tornadoes don't selectively remove the frames on one floor and just the glass on another floor.

Vandals have also done a number on the beautiful formal approach to the school, smashing the balustrade railings and even the limestone globes.



The School Board of St. Louis still owns the abandoned building, and has failed to board it up properly. Boarding up is an imperative first step to secure the building and protect this significant city landmark.

More info and photos on the Yeatman / Central High School page.
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Still around

No, St. Louis, I haven't forgotten about you.

IMG_2187

I had a spectacular visit to the city over Thanksgiving weekend, my second trip into town this year. The sun shone for three solid, beautiful days, and I saw many spectacular sights, old and new.

IMG_1785

I'm currently working on some revisions and fixes to the site's existing pages, unifying the formatting, fixing broken code, and setting up a standardized navigation scheme. It's a big job and won't be finished any time soon, but stay tuned. In the meantime, here's a bunch of random photos from two weekends ago.

IMG_1221
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Syndicate Trust Building, visited and re-visited

I visited the model apartment at the Syndicate Trust recently. Like most of downtown's new lofts, it's a pretty slick, clean, modern space, well-lit and elegant.



It offers some pretty impressive views of downtown, too. Check out the views, the renovation, and a bevy of new and re-scanned photographs at Built St. Louis.

It's always interesting to rework a project page I haven't touched in a while. In this case, I'm reminded of how hopeless and frustrating the Syndicate's situation seemed in the late 1990s. The building repeatedly came within weeks of demolition, and while we lost the Century, the Syndicate survives. Today it's nearly everything that's right about downtown St. Louis - beautiful architecture, mixed use, a bright future.

They just need to fill up that ground-floor retail space, and we'll be all set.
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I can hear the wild wind blowin'

Myself and my two intrepid companions were inside the Calvary Cemetery mausoleum Saturday afternoon, when the eerie silence and occasional rumbles of thunder were broken by the creepy wail of the tornado sirens. The mausoleum was closing down for the day, so we had to leave. We got in the car, drove about 30 yards, and the heavens opened up. We stopped outside the cemetery gate and waited out one of the most intense storms I've ever seen.

4:40pm, W. Florissant Avenue

90 minutes later, we were in Old North, enjoying some beautiful sunshine.

6:10pm, Old North St. Louis

Both were startling contrasts with what was by and large a gray and dreary weekend.
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Arch Grounds - Too much wasted space

It's been a good long while since I got up on my soapbox, but talk about the Gateway Arch grounds always gets me good and riled up.

The Framing a Modern Masterpiece limited competition has selected 9 teams to redesign the surroundings of the Arch grounds and reconsider ways of "integrating open space into a city’s urban fabric".

Thing is, the problem is not just one of integration, but also of proportion. There's too much "open space" and not enough "urban fabric". This is the basic problem and if it is not directly and boldly addressed, nothing of substance will be accomplished.

Solving that problem requires doing something utterly blasphemous: getting rid of green space, and I mean lots of it. In the Arch's case, that means the gigantic swaths of unused land - including the reflecting ponds that sit to the north and south of the walkways approaching the Arch. These are utter dead zones - uncrossable, unused, unnoticed, and speaking for myself at least, unloved. They are photo opportunities, but not part of the city.

Aerial view of the Arch grounds

The reflecting pond shown here is ringed by distant walkways. I would be thrilled to see everything inside those walkways filled in, the street grid extended into them, and new buildings in the 2- to 6-story range constructed on them. A curving line of modern facades could front the walkways approaching the Arch, bringing the life of the city and the destination power of the Arch together, framing the Arch as part of the city rather than an abstract and distant sculpture. Hold the buildings back a few feet, enough to preserve the line of trees on the north and south walkways, include retail and restaurants and living space, and you've created a streetscape as lovely as any in the city, while answering the inevitable question of tourists walking out after visiting the top of the Arch: okay, what do we do now?

I would urge the competition teams not to get lost in grand visions of cutting-edge design philosophies, abstract notions, and isolated instances of avant guard design. St. Louis is a gridded 19th Century American city. This is a simple, basic concept that has worked for two hundred years, and it is what will work best here, too. The entire problem is that the grid was violated, desecrated, and ignored. This is not a new problem, requiring radical and untried visionary solutions; it has been confronted and solved many, many times in recent decades.

The mission is to bring the city and the Arch grounds together. This is not an abstract or philosophical mission. There is no reason not to be quite literal about it - in fact, anything else will result in failure. The Arch isn't going anywhere, so bring the city to the Arch.

The Arch grounds stole away forty square blocks of downtown St. Louis. It's time to give some of it back.
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A different face of North Broadway

Everyone knows the old tenement by I-70. Its wide facade, marked with fire escape balconies and a regular grid of windows, is one of the highway's most distinctive sights. Local graffiti artist Ed Boxx made it his canvas for a time. And every time I passed it, I thought to myself, I have got to photograph that place some time.


Image courtesy of Chris Naffziger

That thought eventually combined with an exploratory adventure in the summer of 2006, when I was first introduced to the idea that, among all the heavy and light industry east of the highway, there were actually houses. Whole or fragmentary neighborhoods once stood on this land. Michael Allen once observed that today's "Old North" neighborhood doesn't even include the original North St. Louis town boundaries to the east. Today, abandoned and recycled houses could be found left and right, in a long thin swath from Old North to Baden... but they were disappearing fast, like this batch from that 2006 trip.



This was a fascinating notion. Did people still live there? (Yes, but not many.) What kind of environment are they in? (Isolated.) What would happen to the surviving houses? (Abandonment, followed by demolition.) Here was a conundrum - not many people would be willing to move into such environments, totally surrounded by industrial uses, which means that as each current occupant gives up the ghost and moves on, the houses tend to fall into abandonment. And yet, people do still live in a few of these places. Others have been converted to businesses, or even assimilated by the industrial concerns that devoured their neighborhood.

I still have some areas left to document fully, but the Forgotten Houses of North Broadway shows the bulk of these isolated survivors, fragments of an earlier era for the St. Louis riverfront.
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Dissecting Soulard

Where ever I live, I pride myself on not being that guy who, when his friends come from out of town, is seeing the sights for the first time right along with them. Whatever the big attractions are, I become familiar with them in short order. By the time visitors arrive, I can tell them all about whatever they want to know.



Soulard is certainly one of St. Louis's top attractions, and my first photographs there are now over a decade old. I've visited it many times. So it was a surprise to find how little I've photographed there. However much you wander across a neighborhood, you don't find out what you have and haven't documented until you try to put it on a map.

On reflection, in my endless quest to find the city's more exotic, far flung, forgotten, neglected, and endangered corners, I have always regarded photo expeditions to Soulard as a guilty pleasure, an overdone cliche, something to be avoided in favor of seeking out places and buildings that might not be there tomorrow. In spite of its near-demise after World War II, Soulard today seems like a safe bet to stay put. So I've never put in the serious hours there needed to truly document it and capture its essence.



Nonetheless, I have gotten many of the highlights and landmarks, and present them on a humble tour of Soulard. This will be the first of many south St. Louis tours, and some day it will be more extensive. It doesn't fully capture the charm of this amazing neighborhood, but it's a start.
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This and that

Encountered this article while cleaning out email:

* "Saving a Sense of the City" - Michael Allen shows a sampling of endangered south side buildings

In other news, the San Luis is coming down. I was in town in July and wistfully snapped a few photos of it before the wreckers could get too far along.

Last days of the San Luis

The fight to assert preservationist rights in St. Louis, however, is still going on:
* "Why the Friends of the San Luis Continue"
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Death of a lens

My basic workhorse camera lens has reached the end of a long, painful death. It covered the medium-to-wide range (18-55mm), and it is damn difficult to photograph city buildings without it!

If anyone out there has a spare wide-angle lens for a Canon Digital Rebel they need to get rid of, or knows where I can pick up one on the cheap, drop me a line. This was the style of my old one, but anything that covers the 18mm zoom region would be swell.
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Of overwhelming scale

Michael Allen has posted photos of McEagle's May 21st presentation slides at Flickr. At last, the initial schemes are visible to the public.

In general, the slides are fairly unrevealing. Several show the near north side as it currently stands (minus the last year or so's worth of demolitions.) There are a few abstract diagrams showing things like the project area, proposed land uses and schematic building layouts.

Particularly frightening is an acquisitions map showing property that McKee has (or apparently thinks he can get via the city) in blue. It's an ocean of blue, dotted with some little white islands. What's it like to be living on one of those islands right now, watching the waters rise as they have for the last five years?

There's not a whole lot to react to in the plan; all that can be seen are vague generalities. There is one big question to be asked, though: Why does it need to be so big?

What about this plan requires such a vast acquisition? What kind of synergies are planned here that require this scale?

The question is very important, because this land is in the city - an urban environment with all the complexities that entails. Anybody who's studied their Jane Jacobs -- or taken a stroll down a functioning urban street like Delmar Avenue or Cherokee Street -- knows that the best city environments are highly complex and largely organic. They grow and thrive much like a living creature. Small cells appear -- businesses, houses, apartment buildings. They divide, they grow, they endure, and each adds its complexity to the whole, creating something greater than the mere sum of its parts. These small parts are crafted at the scale of human beings, and they create lovely, pleasant, desirable places to live. Just as a complex ecology resists being wiped out by a catastrophe, so too is a complex city resistant to the vagaries of economy, fashion, and time.

So why does this project need to be so huge? Why does it need to happen all at once? We need to ask such questions, because such a vast scale implies a monoculture, and it implies a broad brush, and it implies a non-human scale, and it implies sledgehammer solutions to problems that require a scalpel.

In fact, it sounds a lot like old-style mid-century urban renewal -- the kind that wiped out big swaths of Soulard, that nearly claimed Lafayette Square, that obliterated the Mill Creek Valley, that gave us phenomenal successes like Darst-Webbe and Pruitt-Igoe. The kind we're still cleaning up from over fifty years later.

To insist that redevelopment can only be done on a vast scale shows a profound lack of understanding of the nature of cities.

Here's my hypothetical suggestion instead: start with Old North St. Louis, a neighborhood that's long been pulling itself up by the bootstraps. Take the 30 or so Blairmont-owned buildings in the neighborhood, and rehab them all. Sell some, rent some, do a mix of market-rate and income-restricted, whatever -- just get them occupied and looking healthy again. Thirty properties, figure maybe $50,000 apiece on average to get them up to snuff -- $1.5 million in initial investment. If I'm way off on my estimate, maybe it's $3 million -- somewhere in that ballpark.

That's chump change to a fellow with McKee's pockets, but it would be a HUGE shot in the arm for a neighborhood the size of Old North. Thirty vacant properties, gone in a flash! If Paul McKee Jr. had done this three years ago, the locals would've carried him down the streets on their shoulders. And aside from the trust and good will that would've been built up, the neighborhood would be visibly stronger, that much more desirable, more attractive to other developers --

-- so much more, in fact, that you could then maybe start spreading the success across West Florissant, into St. Louis Place. Rehab another thirty houses between Florissant (a major barrier) and St. Louis Place Park (a desirable amenity lined with occupied houses). Suddenly eastern St. Louis Place is on its way to becoming as strongly entrenched as Old North.

Phase 3? Well, now that you've reinforced your assets, then you can start to think a little bigger. There's a lot of vacant land in Old North - how 'bout some infill? How 'bout pushing west of the park? A big project out on the 22nd Street prairie would get a lot of support by this point.

...and so on. If this type of plan had been started in 2003, we'd be through several grand ribbon cuttings by now.

This is how cities -- not suburbs, not strip malls, not shopping malls, not lifestyle centers, but cities -- have grown for hundreds of years, and it is a pattern and a truth that we ignore at our own peril. Attempts to inflict massive change inevitably result in massive trauma.

This doesn't take money ranging into the billions of dollars. This doesn't take five years of land acquisition. This doesn't take endlessly gargantuan juggling acts. This doesn't require monolithic land assets or totalitarian site control or eminent domain.

It does, however, require understanding that a true and proper city is vastly complex, finely grained and multifaceted. Furthermore, it takes patience and care. Paul McKee Jr. has demonstrated that he is endlessly patient. Whether he cares remains to be seen, but to date the track record does not look good.
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At last, the first inklings of a plan

At a community meeting this week, representatives of Paul McKee's McEagle development company met with residents of the north side neighborhoods targeted by Blairmont and its sister shell companies, and announced their grand vision for the area.

Because the meeting was targeted at local residents and not open to the press, full details are still forthcoming (specifically, at an upcoming May 21st meeting.) Attendees have reported a wide-ranging plan, encompassing "job centers", retail and residential. The details seem to be rather skimpy at this point, particularly in light of looming funding deadlines. Questions and comments from the area's residents are reported to have been fiery and uncompromising, befitting McEagle's years of abusive tactics in the neighborhood.

The Post-Dispatch recounts more of the details here and here.

I really haven't heard enough details to have a real reaction. There's been nothing to indicate if the plan involves clear-cutting existing houses, or if preservation will be a priority. Nothing about how urban or non-urban the new construction will be - will this be about rebuilding the city or reproducing the suburbs in its place? No visuals released to the public yet, and you can't really talk about buildings without visuals. I'm slightly heartened that McEagle is at last, finally, talking to residents, acknowledging a plan, getting information out there. But after all this time, it's only a minimal start.
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Love-in for the San Luis!



Tomorrow, on Valentine's Day, Saturday, February 15th at 12:00pm noon, urbanists, architecture buffs, and plain common-sense folks will come together at Lindell & Taylor to celebrate St. Louis's MidCentury heritage by showing the love for the former DeVille Motor Hotel.

The St. Louis archdiocese plans to demolish the building and replace it with a surface parking lot. The group hopes to promote a preservation and reuse plan, which could benefit both the church and the neighborhood.

Read more at www.NoParkingLotOnLindell.com.
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Washington Avenue revisited

It's been several months in the making: the Washington Avenue tour is now completely revitalized and up to date.

Washington Avenue ?

So much has happened on the Avenue, and my own standards for page and image format have risen so much, that a complete revamp was the only option. I've re-scanned all the old photographs, in many cases setting them alongside new ones taken on my most recent St. Louis trip or in the intervening years. Huge amounts of information about many of these buildings is now available online, and I've pulled some of that together as well. I even snuck in the Tudor Building, which featured on a very early version of Built St. Louis but had since fallen off the radar.

Washington Avenue

The transformations are amazing. Dingy, battered storefronts have been reworked all up and down the Avenue. Dirty facades have been cleaned and repaired. The 2004 streetscape improvements have transformed the area's vibe.

Levin's by night

The last fragments of the street's old life, its gritty urban and garment district days, are fading away. Of all the storefront operations visible from the street, only a handful predate the 1990s (Levin's, Levine Hat Company, Mankofsky Shoe Company, possibly the relocated Erlich's Cleaners). Most are less than five years old, and almost none of the businesses I photographed in 2001 remain today.

Washington Avenue neon

But the new generation of businesses has brought new life to the street, people and light, neon signs and sidewalk dining. Rising from its threadbare state of ten years ago, Washington Avenue has become the most urbane street in St. Louis.
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The mournful town of Cairo, Illinois

Nearly two hundred years ago, settlers began trying to construct a town where the mighty Ohio and Mississippi Rivers came together. Intimately tied to the water and the river trade, Cairo, IL rose to great fortunes in its heyday.

But the river trade changed, and the fortunes of economy passed Cairo by. Today the town is a sad shell of its former self, its glory long wilted.

Commercial Street

This is Commercial Street, the main shopping street of the town back in the day. I arrived about 4:30pm on January 2nd, a Friday. The street looked like this: empty. Deserted. Not a soul was to be seen. No cars. No lights. No people. Nothing.

Commercial Street

Three or four solid blocks of Victorian commercial buildings have been left to rot. Some are literally collapsing onto the sidewalk. Others are gutted, every piece of glass shattered.

Commercial Street collapse

Nearby Washington Avenue is doing better, and has most of the city's businesses. It is a more suburban-styled street, but has some architectural gems.

The town's struggles with racism are legendary. In the late 1960s, the city's black community organized a boycott against segregated white-owned businesses. The owners so adamantly refused to give in that one by one they simply went out of business, over the course of a few years.

Those days may be past, but the city's struggles continue. The town's fall probably has as much to do with the overall centralization of river traffic as any problems created by racism. Cairo isn't much of a port anymore. The Interstates have passed it by, and there isn't much room to grow. The Bunge Corporation maintains a soybean processing plant there, and railroads still loop around and through the town, so little Cairo isn't entirely off the economic map. But there is little else.

Bunge Corporation

Cairo's geography is unfathomable. Sited on a narrow wedge of land between the two rivers, it is perpetually in danger of being washed away by the whims of the mighty rivers. Thus a huge levee rings the entire town. To the south, one simply drives over it. But to the north, where land is lower, a gargantuan metal gate descends to close off a tunnel through the railroad embankment when flood waters rise.

Confluence

At Fort Defiance Park, one can literally stand at the confluence, the exact point where two thousand miles of river join together. The two channels unite to form a river nearly a mile in width. The view is awe-inspiring. The water was nearly level with the park land on the evening of my visit, an obvious warning of the rivers' power.

Two mighty bridges cross the rivers, connecting the city to Kentucky to the east, and Missouri to the west. They carry two-lane roads, long surpassed by I-57 to the west.

Ohio River Bridge

Mississippi River Bridge

Traces of Cairo's glory days remain. Scattered churches, mansions, and public buildings have been restored and maintained.

Cairo First Presbyterian Church

Cairo Custom House

Whopper of a house

But they sit in a landscape wrought with the physical signs of abandonment, of despair: empty lots, reclaimed by forest. Wrecked and ruined buildings. Streets leading nowhere.

Ruins

It's hard to imagine a bright future for long-suffering Cairo, but there remains a peculiar beauty to its ruins, amplified by its precarious place upon the fickle rivers.

Links:
* More photos
* Cairo, IL at Wikipedia
* Mississippi River web site page on Cairo.
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Daily Dose of Blairmont 204

  • 2322 Montgomery Avenue (Larmer LLC, March 2008, $55,000)

May 2008

It's a peculiar little HUD house, no longer resembling its mass-produced brethren. It wouldn't be the end of the world if Blairmont demolished it to clear the way for new blocks of urban development, but wouldn't it be charming and clever if they managed to build around it?

More on 2322 Montgomery at Ecology of Absence.


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Daily Dose of Blairmont 203

  • 2541 W. Sullivan (Union Martin LLC, May 2008, $66,500)

May 2008

It's obvious that Mr. McKee has not yet found time to visit this block in person. If he had, he'd surely be working to renovate its charming cottages and get them occupied again, assuring that no more of them would be lost to arson or brick theft. The magnetic pull of this block is irresistible, and any savvy developer would surely capitalize on that charm. Right??


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Daily Dose of Blairmont 202

  • 2532 W. Dodier Street (Union Martin LLC, September 2008, $85,000)

August 2003 - photograph by Kevin Kieffer

I'm sure Paul McKee Jr. wants to get this little frame house occupied again as soon as possible. After all, an arson spree devastated much of his property elsewhere on this block, and no upstanding developer or wise builder would want to see historic brick buildings lost to fire. That's throwing resources down the drain. You don't have to be a rich developer to see that, right?


March 2007


May 2008


"Thou shall not steal!! Exodus 20:10 In Jesus Name, You shall not Steal!!! Exodus 20:15 In Jesus Name! Jesus Loves You & Forgives You!!! Repent of your sins and die SAVED."


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And The Living Is Easy

Citygarden 2014-08-10 5

It's a long way from Citygarden to Catfish Row but everyone seemed relaxed and pleased at one of the fountains in Citygarden the other day. It's wonderful that they let children play in all of the garden's water features rather than shoo them away. In fact, I think this one is designed for kids.
                       

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Definitions / Dead Bookstore

Fine Arts

Do either of these first two signs have anything to do with the activities of this blog?

Downtown St. Louis is a blend of little victories and defeats. The city's finest independent bookseller, Left Bank Books, opened a branch there a little over five years ago. Ongoing conversion of commercial buildings into apartments and condos was bringing population. The store's rent was subsidized at first but that couldn't last forever. The lease was up this spring and sales didn't support the expenses. They even abandoned the shelving. Another empty storefront downtown.

Pop Culture

Dead Bookstore 1

Dead Bookstore 2

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The Way They Were

First Grade Picture

As I mentioned, the old school at Immanuel Lutheran Church, out amidst the cornfields, has become a museum. The Kruses, my wife's family, have long been prominent in the area. They are well-represented among the displays.

If I am not mistaken, the top picture contains Mrs. C's first grade photo (top row, second from left). 

The middle image is of Mel Kruse, my wife's youngest brother, his wife Pat (they run the old family farm) and their four children. My guess is that this is about 25 years ago. All of the kids now have children of their own.

The bottom picture has the family's military veterans, my late father-in-law, Wilmer, a dashing young intelligence officer during World War II, and brothers-in-law Ron and Jim, probably in the 70s. The label is incorrect. Ron, lower left, was stationed in Germany while Jim was in Vietnam.                                                    

Mel Pat and Kids

Family Veterans

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