St. Louis Sky House

Oh man, do I love this?
Oh, I certainly do.

For only the 3rd time in my cyber history was a website ad purposely clicked, which brought me to the Sky House website.
Know in advance the developer’s site is ultra sleek and sexy in the way East Coast marketing teams communicate urban chic to Midwesterners, and provides no details, which is the standard format for separating the hip from the hoi polloi. Since I need concrete details, we know which side I land on.

As explained earlier, I’m all for the final proof of the resurgence of downtown St. Louis: new construction. We need brand new buildings that look of their moment in order to bookmark that moment in time.

22-stories is a tad over-scale for the immediate area, but not for the overall St. Louis skyline. Our biggest concern/complaint – messing up views of the Arch – has been addressed with that groovy “frame” atop the west side of the building. It will be built to LEED standards, so it’s a big Earth Day birthday gift to the city.

The more I read about this project, the more I love it. The downtown party guest list needs variety to keep it desirable, and the doorman isn’t as imposing as he may seem.

St. Louis, Brick By Brick

Just south of the intersection at Morganford & Loughborough Avenues is this home, above, with a brand new 2nd-story addition. It’s a tall departure from the immediate neighbors, all living in identical homes just under 1,000 s.f., built between 1959 – 1960.

I’m assuming the owners’ did the work themselves, as it took awhile to complete the job, which then left plenty of time for me to fret about how horrid it could be. We’ve all seen way too many white vinyl additions plopped atop a simple brick home, and that sort of clueless contrast is always jarring.

Being the first person on your block to add a 2nd story is an adventure in neighbor relations, and the odds of a non-professional screwing it up are high. I’m happy to report that (other than 3 inappropriate porch columns) they did a great job. They respected the shape and massing of the house and roof, and used a subtle hand when adding new features absent from the surrounding homes. It’s obvious that they paid attention to their street and were careful to get what they wanted without being ostentatious in a low key neighborhood.

I deeply admire the homeowners’ decision to avoid vinyl siding, with the biggest round of applause for their biggest victory:
They used brick on all four sides!

5 blocks east of the victorious remodel is the new Boulevard Heights development, and we have substantial progress on the first house, above. As noted before, I appreciate the neighborhood-appropriate placement of the building, and they got the scale and the massing just right. It’s not greedy about square footage, and actually feels rather responsible.

Even though it’s unnerving, I am used to seeing the brick & vinyl combo on newly built homes, so having brick only on the front of the house isn’t so odd. But I am surprised that they put windows on the west side of this house (above left), as many home builders save costs by letting no windows puncture the purity of their vinyl sides.

So, the abundance of windows is pleasing, but the placement of them is really strange and unsettling. Note how the 2nd story windows are crammed right into the roof eaves!
And one half of the back facade has no windows at all! But the odd fenestration issues fall away upon seeing the east side of the house…

The brick returns as a lone half-wall accent, and for Morley McBride Jones sake, why?!?!?!

To keep from getting insanely irate about senseless brick & vinyl juxtapositions like this, I had a builder explain to me why new home developers make these odd decisions. His paraphrased explanation is:

Everything on a new home site is broken down into itemized costs. They don’t “see” houses; they see pieces of houses comprising a budget. Brick-face walls are expensive and there is a tight and finite budget, so the developer must figure out how to spread as few bricks as possible over the largest area. Money saved on 3 vinyl walls “buys” one brick wall for another structure, and as long as brick shows up on the front of the house, St. Louis buyers are pleased.

But this still doesn’t explain what in the holy lack of aesthetics these people have done to the house above! It would make historical sense if it was a brick half-wall on 3 sides, and as an architect friend pointed out, if they shortened that brick wall to a more appropriate height (using the ground story windows as a guide), they’d have enough brick to cover 3 sides without breaking the budget.

Instead, they throw the remainder of this structure’s brick budget onto the east wall, ending at this weird height that bisects the porch roof and makes the 2nd story windows appear even more awkwardly placed than they already are. This bizarre finishing choice clearly proves that certified architects were removed from the design phase right after they stamped the drawings for the floor plan.

Obviously, part of my rant is about aesthetics, but there is also an inherent, historical logic to home building that can be witnessed throughout the city on a daily basis. Builders & architects have always had to make considerations based on budget, and having to work within limitations is what created brilliant solutions.

There is also an inherent balance to the universe. For each build-by-numbers box from the professionals, there is a passionate amateur who contributes something worthy to their neighborhood. I am grateful this balance is being maintained in this neighborhood.

Mississippi River Bluff Sale

5024 South Broadway
South St. Louis, MO
A tiny sign on the lawn above caught my eye. I clamped down on the brakes and a hung a U-ie right there.

For Sale?!?!?!?!
Noooooooooooo. Oh, please, nooooooooooooo.

The story of what’s next door to this home is here. They tore down an original home to make way for condos.
Patterson’s report from 1 year later, and it’s still an empty lot.

Almost 4 months later, and as seen above, there’s not even an inkling of a neighbor for 5024 S. Broadway.

The natural fear is that a similar developer with similar plans will take this property, and plow down the house. Not much effort is being made to promote the sale of this house. Realtor Michael Stretch leaves no real cyber trail. The only on-line reference to it also shows a completely different realtor, and try following through on any of those links. All soft dead ends.

My feeling that the house was never really on the market rises from an oddity on the city property records website. Punching in 5024 gives only one page of information (that 1509 N. Broadway LLC owns it). All of the other pages are utterly blank. For some reason, all of its data is now unavailable. Just like the house, I’m sure.

I’d lay you odds the house is coming down, whether there’s a valid reason or not. It’s just coming down.

…oh, please, let me be wrong on this one.

Encouraging Development in St. Louis City

Haven Street & Idaho
South St. Louis, MO
Lately, it’s been real easy to court fatalistic pessimism about the misguided state of St. Louis City development. 2007 is still a fresh new year, yet it seems each week delivers another hit, another round of invested citizens’ incredulity over the City Money Fathers’ lack of vision and self-esteem. I worry that an approaching tipping point will drive away some of our strongest hopes for productive change. I fear the entrenched feeling of “Why should I care anymore if they don’t?”

Just as it seems a drowning is imminent, something catches the corner of my eye as I speed down Highway 55 South (picture above); the unmistakable sign of remodeling underway. But there?! It can’t be possible!

Even though it happened well before I was born, I’m still marveling over how the highway system chewed up St. Louis City. The series of chopped off streets lining Interstates 55, 44 & 70 within the city limits is both fascinating and painful. Haven Street (above) is just one of hundreds of examples of where the sidewalk ends, and how it creates these creepy black holes and uncomfortable terrains within a neighborhood.

I’ve pedaled through this particular area on a regular basis, and always chuckled nervously over this red asbestos shingled, 2-story vertical rectangle. Abandoned and decaying, it’s cut off from the rest of the neighborhood through no fault of its own. Its prominent, solitary placement on the peak of a hill makes it stick out like the last hair on a bald man’s head. The shadow it casts often hides the tiny satellite shack to its west.

It’s a curiosity that someone lives in the satellite shack, as it’s even more remote from the neighborhood, and the views are either of a rotting tower up on its tail or the highway. I’m not an advocate of tearing down, but in this case, getting rid of the red house seemed like a way to maybe breathe some light and air into this strange little corner.

Like wildflowers sprouting up through blacktop, hope grows in the unlikeliest places, and someone is investing money and time to bring this house back to life. Even with new windows, doors and a plywood addition on the back, I wouldn’t have believed it was a current undertaking if not for the multiple pickup trucks out front and the freshly issued building permits hanging proudly.

A scan through city records reveals that others shared my sentiments. This house, built in 1905, earned a demolition permit in January 2005. But that August, a man gave the city $5,000 and a set of construction plans. The city estimated it would cost $7,000 to tear it down. The new owner estimated $50,000 would make it a good investment property, and now he’s spending the money to prove it.

Oh, the next door neighbor was built in 1890, and at 779 s.f. it really does qualify as a shack, by today’s standards.

Starting with location, location, location, most everything about this investment renovation seems off kilter, yet it’s happening. While the City Money Fathers wrangle over Old Post Office Square, Ballpark Village and Blairmont – projects that invariably get tagged as crucial to the vitality of St. Louis City – we have private individuals improving one house at a time.

Private individuals undertake these projects for themselves, but it also revitalizes their block, and then, eventually, the neighborhood around them. One person venturing onto a seemingly dead block with a building permit usually creates a domino effect, and an area that was once iffy to drive through in broad daylight becomes a sweet spot to pedal through any time of day.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve watched this scenario play out with increasing regularity, and it’s done so without a lot of press hoopla, tax breaks or political maneuvering. It is grass roots progress despite City Hall, undertaken by people who usually have to endure a standard amount of bureaucratic mickey mouse to make it happen. Yet they go through it all because they believe it’s worth it.

You can’t change the world – or the City Hall – but you can change your own small piece of the city one plot of land at a time. The unlikely renewal at Haven & Idaho Streets just about breaks my heart with gratitude, and reminds me to stay focused on what’s good about our city: that you can still work under the radar to create a positive chain reaction that benefits the most progressive people in it – St. Louis City homeowners, and those aiming to be.

BJC Eats Forest Park East

So Barnes Hospital gets Forest Park East, and it’s an anti-climactic outcome. But there was some drama in the form of St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green and Board of Alderman president Jim Shrewsbury being dissenting voices about the deal. It doesn’t take much imagination or verification to figure out that they both got a stern talking to about kicking up a needless ruckus over this deal. So, if you have to cave in, you might as well get something useful out of the capitulation.

What truly bothers me, though, is that the extraction of a little lemonade from a sack of lemons (aka, politics as usual) is being spun as a racial issue, with Green cast as the Bad Girl Who Almost Ruined It For Everyone. It’s dirty and transparent politics. So, it was a pleasant surprise for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to print this reader’s letter on February 28th, 2007:

Darlene Green: profile in courage

Former President John F. Kennedy would be proud of Comptroller Darlene Green. As she navigates through the decision-making process concerning whether or not St. Louis will allow a powerful hospital to extend its lease of part of Forest Park, Ms. Green has displayed many of the characteristics Mr. Kennedy wrote about in “Profiles In Courage.”

Ms. Green has been able to stand up to society’s pressures while she tries to make life better for her constituents in North St. Louis. Ms. Green told a powerful institution no, she told powerful political players no and she told some of her allies no. Most importantly, and I think Mr. Kennedy would agree, Ms. Green is able to compromise to achieve the best possible outcome for all involved.

The people of St. Louis should thank Ms. Green for her courage and continue to vote for her and not be swayed by any retaliatory campaigns waged by her political adversaries.

Edward Beck | Ferguson

While his words are a tad overdramatic, I wholly agree with the point, and it reminded me of the last time she spoke out of turn.

When the City wanted to hand over millions of dollars to Pyramid, Green spoke up about that being a bad business deal. It’s one of her job duties to protect the city’s fiscal interests, but it was useless for her to apply fiscal logic because the deal was going through no matter what. Still, she recognized right and wrong and was brave enough to go on record as strongly disagreeing with the deal. This kind of ethical behavior may have her marked for a horse head in her bed, and I admire her resolve in trying to represent some form of honesty as she commits political suicide. Someone with that kind of integrity can serve better outside of politics.

So, onto the 9.4 acres itself.

I once spent a summer and fall on this property taking tennis lessons. The instructor was always late, so we’d hang out in the playground, or I’d take b&w photos of the sculpture garden shown in these 2 photos. The racquet ball courts were rather photogenic, too, and I was pleased to see a haunting night time photo of them by Eric Post about a year later.

On the first day of lessons, a fellow student said, “I never knew this place was here.” To which another student replied, “Yeah, it’s mainly for the Barnes people.”

While we played tennis, Barnes Hospital loomed over us to the north and the east while Barnes employees parked in the garage lurking under the ground we ran upon. It was obvious that Barnes employees were using the facilities while we were there.

When I went digging for the negatives of these photos, I chuckled upon seeing my handwriting on the negative sheet identifying it as “Barnes.”

Meaning, I always naturally assumed this land belonged to BJC, as there was nothing to indicate otherwise. To be honest, I was shocked to learn this land belonged to Forest Park when all this controversy began last year. But then it all made sense since I could never quite understand why the hospital was so nice about providing these wonderful park-like accommodations to their employees. Turns out it was Forest Park providing amenities that only Barnes employees knew about.

I understand and agree with the Forest Park Protectors side of the argument, but to have ever stepped foot on that property is to understand that the horse done fled the barn long ago. Trying to close the stall after the fact is a moot point. All this circumstantial evidence and political/financial power doesn’t make it right, but it was rendered inevitable decades ago.

It’s kind of sweet that City Hall and BJC even let any of us in on this at all, and that they were nice enough to throw some chump change at the city parks system. It’s kind of like getting a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni for having been a contestant on The Jokers Wild. Hey, worse things than this can happen, and they always do.

Updates: Boulevard Heights & South Warson

UPDATE: Boulevard Heights

Here’s where we were with this story shortly after Christmas.
And above is the next chapter. The first houses are going in on the west end of the property, and I was relieved with what I saw for a couple of reasons.

#1. The front of the house is facing out to the street, just like all the other houses in the area.
#2. The distance between the front of the house and the street is just about the same as all the other homes front yards. That does leave room for a sidewalk, so there’s no excuse not to have them.

There’s no way of yet knowing what these structures will be clad with. The website for Rowles still hasn’t updated even though they want us to keep checking back soon.

The website address given on the sign above is not yet ready for business, either, claiming to be under construction. It’s a tad suspicious when the contractor is actually building while the folks on the selling end are slumbering. Then again, this is a privately funded housing venture; Rowles is not getting, or asking for, any money from the city. Which makes them a very rare breed, indeed: a developer who feels the risk of building in the city is small enough to forego tax breaks, TIFs and special favors. They are willing to gamble at fair market rates. Because independent, self-sustained financing is such a ballsy move into today’s city development climate, I’m willing to suspend disbelief and cut them a lot of slack.

OK, I did get a little pissed when they pulled the scorched earth maneuver, and plowed over all the mature trees on the acreage. In hopes that understanding would calm the anger, I checked in with a construction estimator pal of mine on why 99.9% of housing developers shave the trees. His thoughts, paraphrased:

They need a clean slate for configuring the maximum number of units onto a plot of land, and trees just complicate the math. Plus, no one can accurately predict how far the roots of these trees have traveled. Unknowingly destroying a major root could cause a slow death resulting in the tree toppling over sometime in the future, or roots could eventually worm their way into brand new sewer and plumbing lines. Both of these root scenarios can translate into future lawsuits, and that costs the developer money. Yes, it’s always about the money, and it’s cheaper to just bulldoze the trees over and plant some grass than it is to rearrange an entire project for several trees.

So I don’t like the answer, but it is an answer. Having things explained is always better than the dead silence of “you’ll take what we give you.”

UPDATE: South Warson Road

Here is a photographically detailed story of the house shown above.

And here is what is being erected in its place. This thing is beyond massive! As many times as I drive by it, I still haven’t seen all of it, or even half begun to figure out what it’s all about, Alfie.

Let’s review the house across the street from Villa Supersize (above). It’s fairly representative of most of the houses in this immediate neighborhood, even of some of the remaining original homes in the general area: low slung and sprawling among the greenery.

ABOVE: Not only is the house gone, but so is that car!
Teardowns are a controversial and heated topic. Private property rights should prevail, so whatever someone chooses to do with property they’ve purchased is fair by law. Then again, muncipalities have created an awful lot of laws to govern the aspect of Fitting In With The Joneses.

I have a propensity for favoring mid-century modern architecture, so will always be broken hearted when someone demolishes a worthy example just to replace it with a Steroid Palace. But I also accept, and truly appreciate, that everyone has different tastes. There’s room enough on this planet for endless variety, and people wouldn’t spend that many millions on custom home building unless they really, truly loved the design.

Bearing all this in mind, what is the fundamental problem I have with the typical structure that replaces a teardown?

The typical teardown replacement structure flaunts an arrogant disregard of its surroundings. It’s a new homeowner willfully ignoring what’s around them in pursuit of what they want. Fundamentally, it’s the selfishness of intent that makes me boil.

When one buys into a neighborhood, that means there are other people living in other houses all around you. That’s what constitutes a neighborhood. Most neighborhoods – even brand new ones – are built with a similar look, a similar scale, a prevailing theme in mind. We usually choose where we want to live based on those physical factors (well, along with what we can afford), and those physical factors dictate the feel and distinction of each area.

When someone builds a new house totally out of scale to the rest of the neighborhood, it automatically sends the wrong signal to the neighbors: I could care less about what’s around me; it’s all about all the square footage I want. That kind of disregard is mighty un-neighborly, especially when some of these neighborhoods are desirable because of their friendliness and sense of community.

To plop down an inappropriately scaled house among appropriately scaled existing homes is truly the equivalent of blockbusting. Evidence of that is when the first McMansion goes up, others soon follow. And how are people able to buy up those adjacent properties? Because the original neighbors hightail it out…”there goes the neighborhood.”

Not so long ago, it used to be the first black family moving into a white block that caused neighbors to flee. Nowadays, it’s square footage. All that square footage is not a measure of success; it’s just wasted space with the potential to erode established communities. Big new homes may increase property tax dollars, but those dollars don’t watch your house while you’re on vacation or shovel half your sidewalk when it snows. A disdain of the human factor is what riles me up about teardown replacements.

Winter in Mascoutah, Illinois

I am a severe cold wimp, and knowing that I had to go out and photograph in 14 degree, snow-covered farm flatland filled me with inexpressible fear. Once at the Mascoutah, Illinois destination, I was overwhelmed with how peaceful and beautiful this plot of land was, even in the dead of winter. And there was a Quonset Hut!

This farm was typical in that there are many outbuildings, and I’m always fascinated by their kind of simple geometry springing out of stark, flat land. Add to that a white ground against a weak, wavering sky and it becomes photographic nirvana.

When I freeze-frame surroundings through a camera eye, the rest of the world drops away. It’s my purest form of being calmly and peacefully detached from my body, a state that sex, drugs and spirituality try to get us to with varying results. This is the poetic way of saying that I completely forgot how damn cold it was while obsessively snapping every square foot of the property.

Granted, most of these snowy shots have that classic Photography 101 look to them, but objects against snow tend to feel that way, in general. Obviously I feel no shame about that since I’m sharing them with you. Also, I wanted to give a shout out to Mascoutah, a town I look forward to getting more familiar with once spring has sprung.

South St. Louis Eclectic

Christy Avenue,
South St. Louis City, MO
On the stretch of Christy Avenue between Eichelberger and Gravois sits a rather large house that tends to blend into the background. It’s a most unusual and distinctive house, yet it’s “grayness” may be what causes it to meld into the background of a row of brick buildings.

I get the biggest kick out of it’s repetition of broken pediments, which was a popular trick of the American Greek Revival style of the early 1800s. I love how both pediments invade the space of the 2nd-story windows, as if someone really wanted that Greek look but didn’t want the expense of appropriately altering the windows.

The pediments needing elbow room float over the broad curved, Neocolonial porch opening of a house that looks like a pared down Eastlake Victorian style farm house that dots the Midwest rural landscape. All of this on one city house and it still tends to disappear into the background! For being a sedate smorgasbord of architectural ideas is why I love this house.

M.O.R.E. Armstrong For Sale

A good friend of mine just launched a blog. M.O.R.E., which stands for Modern Options in Real Estate. She is a buyer’s agent with her own firm, and a deep passion for modern design.

She’s found herself at a crossroads: the St. Louis real estate market considers most mid-century modern homes nothing more than teardowns, yet she hears from many out-of-state people relocating to the St. Louis area who are keenly interested in exactly the homes that listing agents consider trash.

In the course of researching appropriate homes for these out-of-towners, Marla found that the local R.E. market provides no standards for identifying MCM properties. She hopes to correct that oversight. The public’s lack of exposure to modern design and curbing senseless teardown practices are some other issues she wants to tackle. But all great plans must have a starting point, so we now have her blog.

She just found a Harris Armstrong-designed home that went up for sale earlier this week. And if you’re looking for a modern dwelling, she’s obviously the lady to talk to.

Eichler For Sale
Harris Armstrong, South Side
Harris Armstrong For Sale
Losing Harris Armstrong