Richard Baron on Missed Opportunities


The St. Louis Beacon recently published a conversation with developer Richard Baron, full of illuminating opinions and something I didn’t know previously: Lambert Airport could have been in Waterloo, Illinois.

I am elated he brought up and elaborated on one ultra important item: Metro Link Stations:

“There was the situation with Metro. When all of that started back in the ’80s there was no plan to take advantage of these transit stations — to build housing around them, retail around them. To use them as an economic driver, as was done in many other cities around the U.S. when light rail went in. Here was this enormous investment that was made, and look at the stations, and they’re bleak.

“You reach a point where you get terribly frustrated because the lack of leadership in this town is palpable — both on the public side and the private side. Go to Atlanta or Minneapolis, and the energy level and the effort on the part of the public-private side — partnerships, foundations — everybody is pulling together and have had a much better success than in St. Louis. We’ve had passive leadership, a watering down of the executives of corporations that have left. We have had executives who have no real identification with the city — who came in from out of town and live in the county and don’t relate to the city much. And it’s just a lot of little things that have exacerbated the problem.”

Read the rest of the article here.

And if you haven’t already, The Beacon is a must for followers of the STL built environment, along with Building Blocks at the Post-Dispatch.

Dork Art and the Board of Education Building

While digging in the basement for something that’s still missing, I found the artifact shown above. It is a detail of the former Board of Education Building in downtown St. Louis from a photo I took in the mid-1990s. It is rendered in acrylics on a sheet of linoleum 30″ x 22″. It was to be a floor mat for the kitchen.

Yes, a floor mat.
Yes, it’s OK to laugh.
I remember that it was because of everyone’s laughter that I abandoned the project in the first place. This is why it has remained hidden for well over 10 years. Enough time has passed that I now, too, find it hilariously dorky.

But I am not embarrassed at how inspiring this building has always been for me. The shapes, the colors and the textures of this 1893 building by architect Issac Taylor make my heart sing. Learn a little more about it here.

In the days when downtown St. Louis was on life support and my daily lunch walks felt like traipsing through a graveyard, this building always appeared optimistic, as if it knew better days were coming.

The elaborate art deco store front on the Locust Street side was always a special thrill, especially when the Board of Education was still actually in residence. As seen above, kids’ art work in the gracefully curved display windows was disgustingly charming, and just added to the impulse to paint a portrait of the building…. so I could walk on it?

In 2005, the Roberts Brothers erected a few signs promising a new life for the building, and my heart fluttered. But because it stood in the shadow of the scars of the Century Building (to the left in the photo above), cynicism and worry trampled on hope.

But all is now well. The building – now called Roberts Lofts on the Plaza – is fully rehabbed and renovated and nearly full. The art deco store front is even safe and sound. The Roberts Brothers are truly knights in shining armor for rescuing so many worthy buildings and creating new ones, and my heartfelt thanks goes out to them for keeping the Board of Education building forever fabulous.

I wonder if they’d be interested in a commemorative floor mat for the lobby…

Woolworths Becomes Big Brother

Intersection of North Grand and Olive
MidTown St. Louis, Missouri
There should have been a ticker tape parade when the Woolworths building came back to life. We spend so much time lamenting doomed buildings and remembering lost buildings, and not enough time applauding those that come back to life. But maybe it is better to just chance upon the scene above and rejoice to each other as we walk by. Or to have the St. Louis Business Journal run a two-page spread about it with gorgeous photos (print edition only).

The revival of this building is truly glorious. Every aspect of the rehab and renovation is top-notch because it respected the original building and all of its various mutations throughout the decades. They didn’t radically alter it, only made it better, and even left some remnants of its life as the flagship Woolworths dime store in St. Louis City.

It was a genuinely sad end of an era when the remaining Woolworths’ closed in 1993. The downtown store at 6th and Locust was where I did all of my gift shopping, and the restaurant within was a great place to do old school lunch. The day it closed felt like a funeral day.

The closing of the store at the most prominent mid-town was the final spiritual nail in the coffin of MidTown. Sure, the Fox Theater came back to life several years previously, but it’s hard to be the life of the party when there are no guests. And walking past the dark Continental and Woolworths building to get to the Fox was disheartening and creepy.

But in one glorious moment, the recent past was forgotten and joy returned to Mid-Town. Late summer we went to a concert at the Fox, and while parking the car, we realized that the Woolworth building was ablaze with light and life. We pressed faces against the glass, marveled at the sleek and modern new interiors and just reveled in the impossible actually happening.

I’ve been drawn back to this block several times since then, and my heart beats with joy to see all the people, be a part of the bustle, soak up the energy. It took Big Brothers & Big Sisters and Kranzberg Arts reviving this building to make me realize 3 important things:
MidTown is truly back
There are just enough great visionaries in this town to keep hope alive
I have yet another reason to be a proud of St. Louis.

The JC Penney Building and Aldermanic Ego

Martin Luther King Jr. Drive between Hamilton & Hodiamont
Wellston, MO
I have touched on this building inside a previous post. If you have ever run across it in your travels, bet it’s seared in your memory. It’s a singular building both in its neighborhood and in our city. Architects travel from out of town to see this Le Corbu-like gem. It’s unique and spacious with plenty of options for future use. That’s why the man who owns it bought it, and that’s why he’s been working to get it registered for both state and federal historic tax credits. The photos you see here are part of the series that I took for the owner’s applications. I did them for only the cost of the prints; wish I could have done it for free. Anything to help this building stand and thrive. And that is now becoming a problem.

The owner keeps me filled in on the struggle between him and his alderman. Let’s keep this story as tight as possible:

In 2006, Alderman Jeffrey Boyd fully supported the Landmarks Association writing the historic register nomination for this building. By winter 2007, it was ready to go before the Missouri Advisory Council, but Ald. Boyd had it pulled from the line-up. Why?

Ald. Boyd had a friend who wanted to buy the building and tear it down. The owner would not sell to someone who wants to tear it down when he’s working to bring it back to life. This pissed off Boyd, who then had it yanked from all board reviews and has since blocked any type of progress on the building. Despite the alderman’s anger, the owner began in earnest to get the building listed and eligible for tax credits to protect his investment.

Despite the feud, the owner has placed the building on the February 2008 agenda of the State Historic Preservation Office.

And Alderman Boyd is calling everyone he can to get this nomination yanked, once again. To his credit, he’s been very honest about why he wants it yanked: he wants it demolished.

Some of the local offices he has called flat out refused his request. But there’s a healthy list of local and state offices Boyd has contacted who have yet to weigh in.

They need to hear from people other than Boyd, and they need to understand the basic facts:
An alderman would rather demolish and leave another vacant lot in Wellston than let the building’s owner work to improve it.

Has Boyd explained the logic behind his plan?
Does he have a plan for something to go in its place?
Does he have any other valid reasons why he opposes this building and its owner?
Is this aboveboard business or is this a personal pissing match driven by ego and emotion?

This building’s nomination goes before the Preservation board today, January 28th. It goes before the Missouri Advisory board on February 9th.

Below are the people you can e-mail with your thoughts about the matter. If this situation bothers you, please speak up. Again, they need to understand more about this building beyond the Owner vs. Alderman struggle. At the very least, illogical injustice needs to be exposed.

Kathleen Shea, Director
Cultural Resources Office
1015 Locust Street #1200
St. Louis, MO 63101

Tiffany Patterson, National Register Coordinator
State Historic Preservation Office
P.O. Box 176
Jefferson City, MO 65102

Fountain Park Demolition?

Fountain Park Neighborhood
North St. Louis, MO
Some residential business brought me to this neighborhood for the first time, and I was enchanted. Even on a snowy, bitterly cold day I could imagine the beauty of the park during spring and summer, and the houses ringing it have a stately charm. Then I saw the building, above.

There’s an historic church from 1895 at the southwestern edge of the oval, the rest is single and multi-family residential, save for this mixed-use structure at the northeastern edge.

It was built in 1897, with store fronts at ground level and apartments above. The building curves to match the geometry of the neighborhood, and the cylindrical turrets are like lyrical bookends. I immediately imagined decades of people lounging in these spaces, gazing out over the park, and it felt magical.

The building is certainly not in the best shape. Scavengers have carted off most all the valuable pieces from ground level, and severe water damage is evident. But the building is far from down for the count, so I checked into its status.

City records show that it may have been vacant since 1989, and that the Citizen’s Service Bureau received 6 complaints on the building between June 2005 and November 2006, mostly about the vacant building being unsecured. The easy assumption is that the immediate neighbors keep an eye on it, and won’t tolerate any nonsense.

Exact sales information for the building is unavailable, but it is now owned by Titsworth Properties, LLC, out of downtown Clayton, and I get the impression from past permit applications that their ownership is fairly recent.

But the most curious part is that building was first condemned to be demolished in November 1996, and a new demo permit was issued in September of 2006. Which has me curious about:
Exactly how do demolition permits work?
Why did Titsworth buy a building that was to be demolished?
If it does finally go down, what will go in its place?

A 1979 survey tags the building as having “state significance,” and there’s no denying it’s an important – and gorgeous – part of the neighborhood. Whatever would replace it would surely be out of place with the rest of the area. Or even worse, it would just remain a blank hole in a neighborhood that has worked hard to retain most all of its original fabric.

I long to know about the history of this building and what’s planned for it in the present and future. If you have any of the information, please do share, and keep your fingers crossed that some kind of miracle keeps it standing with intent to thrive.