the view from stockton house

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Feb 2003 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

Demolishing Only the Unsalvageable
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

Imagine that you awake tomorrow morning and the architectural heritage of the City of Saint Louis no longer exists. Thousands of brick homes that masons and other craftsmen toiled to infuse with artistic excellence have been replaced by vinyl-clad boxes, extending the jurisdiction of the banal, the ugly, and the meaningless east to the City from Saint Peters and O'Fallon. In this nowhere land of mirages and lollipop trees, the bells of St. Alphonsus Rock Church no longer chime, the stacks of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery no longer churn out the smell of boiled hops, and the rays of the sun no longer glint off the metallic skin of Saarinen's Arch. Union Station has vaporized. The Century Building never existed. Busch Stadium's home plate now marks in tar and white paint the parking stall of someone's Lincoln Navigator. The only brick that remains is found in foot-deep potholes beneath the multiple strata of asphalt.

Century Building Some may find this description extreme; however, steps are taken daily to insure that it becomes reality. Already, we have lost a high percentage of the built manifestations of our heritage and only photographs tell us of these losses: Mill Creek, the St. Nicholas Hotel, the Fagin Building, and Vandeventer Place. Not too long ago, the last remaining tower of St. Henry's Church on California Avenue was added to this list for the sake of building a couple more vinyl-clad boxes. Now that section of the Gate District claims no recognizable landmark. The list of treasures lost to the headache ball grows longer every year, and yet, the structures that sometimes replace these buildings — when the empty lots that remain do not find use as parking or as passive collectors of trash and broken glass — contribute little if anything at all to the greater evolutionary story of architecture and life in this city. Can we truly afford to lose the tiny remainder of our historic building stock? We the people who live in and own businesses in this city must insist on the preservation of our remaining historic buildings. We must insist on not moving further down this path to distopia: for the sake of the buildings themselves; for the sake of our history, our identity, and our progeny; and for the sake of our image as a city and as a people. However, not all buildings can be saved. Thus we must develop a strong sense of ethics to deal fairly with their abatement and the eventual construction on the land on which they once stood.

Our older buildings should be preserved for their own sake, as the quality of their design and construction has no parallel. Here in Saint Louis, much of our historical building stock features artistically composed brick walls with precise shadow lines, playful glazed or checkerboard relief patterns, deep arches and rhythmic soldier courses. Depending on the light dancing upon and coloring their surfaces, their sculptured nature changes, at times masculine and then feminine, yet always very much alive. The frames behind these earthen masks rival those of clipper ships, sometimes crafted to notch together without the use of nails. When we consider demolishing these structures, we must factor into the equation the priceless superiority of their craftsmanship, particularly in the case of structures built prior to the Great Depression, when economy of means ultimately reduced the handcrafted complexity and rich materiality of our buildings. Most contemporary buildings rarely equal this qualitative value and often look out of place alongside these proud older buildings. There are exceptions to this rule; however, some would say few architects and builders take the time to attend to the level of design, workmanship, and detail to make it work well. Should the cultural mindset of today be one of erasing the handcrafted context simply to justify the shoddiness of today's buildings? Should we continue to toss out the "outmoded" and "obsolete" in favor of the shiny newness featured in advertisements?

Mississippi Lofts If we save these buildings, we would in the long term also save capital for further investment in our communities. As a general rule of thumb, an existing shell decreases the cost per square foot of a typical project by approximately $30. This savings can translate into lower financing costs, and therefore more capital being funneled back into the general economy. Furthermore, the preservation of older structures can actually attract and stimulate the growth of capital. The preserved cores of cities such as Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans generate tourist-based tax revenues for the improvement of infrastructures and public amenities. Perhaps by preserving the aura of our older neighborhoods, we could find means other than, for example, gambling on flash-in-the-pan sports teams, to generate sorely needed revenues to fill our potholes, spur more preservation through supplementing block grants, and create jobs. To the south of Chouteau Avenue and the north of Lafayette Square, the Mississippi Lofts create a gentle terrace overlooking downtown. In the rising and setting of the sun, the building gleams in its new life, and at night, its own light sets aglow the southern wall of the Mill Creek Valley. Through its redevelopment, it has literally been brought out of the earth, or as Emerson wrote, "the mud and scum of things," and into the light. It graces the brow of the hill as a shining example of how beautiful an old building can be, and how in the process of making it beautiful, tradesmen and craftsmen of the local economy can do work on which they can pride themselves. There are opportunities throughout the City to teach our underemployed, our unemployed, and our unhappily employed residents the beauty of the art of the craft, and to use it in the remediation of the overwhelming number of abandoned structures that could serve as quality housing for the working poor and the homeless.

Consider also that we should preserve our older buildings for the sake of our city's history, and therefore our present and future identity. By doing so, we will directly benefit and enrich the lives of our progeny. Due to the fact that so much of our architectural heritage no longer exists, it becomes naturally difficult for us to remember our history, and therefore to understand what events had to transpire to make us who we are. We can go to the library or to our elders to connect with the past, yet no tactile evidence remains to make this history in any way real for us today. We are orphaned children who only hear of our parents' existence second hand. We may see pictures, or hear descriptions of their good deeds or infamous exploits, yet we will never know the sound of their voices, the sensation of their embraces, or the smell of their perfumes. Historic architecture allows us to reconnect with our ancestors, our cultural affinities, and our community, thus providing the crucial link to the world around us, and thereby giving form, purpose, and meaning to our lives. When a fine historic building is lost, much like an individual, it can never be recovered or truly replaced. A copy can be created, but just as a human body cannot be cloned, a building's unique character, personality, and life experiences cannot be replaced. There is, in any attempt to do so, no "soul" remaining from what came before.

Old Courthouse In the nearby suburb of Fairview Heights, Illinois, development over the past forty years has dramatically altered the once semi-rural character of the region, particularly through the destruction of unique forest habitats as well as the dozens of outstanding historic farmhouses, related structures, and elegant country homes interspersed around and within them. With rare exception, every one of these buildings was exquisite both in design and construction, and when they were leveled, all were said to have been in sound physical condition. Now they are erased from the collective human memory, and Fairview Heights has no true link to its 19th-century past. If we retain the record of our past, we retain the foundation for intensive self-examination, thereby allowing us to more intuitively know our strengths and weaknesses as a culture and as a civilization. As pointed out by the philosopher George Santayana, if we do not understand the lessons of the past, and therefore fail to incorporate these lessons into our present actions, we will truly be doomed to experience great suffering. In Downtown Saint Louis, our modern city planners centered the downtown mall on the axis of the Old Courthouse, a building infamously known as a location where many black men, women, and children were sold into slavery. Did we save the building simply because it easily fit into the geometry of an axial plan? No, we saved it because it was a part of who we are. It speaks of law and order in our city and state, and of the abuse of that law and order to the detriment of all people. It is through the retention of cultural heritage that we will always be reminded of the grievous errors of a society, and hopefully when we are again faced with decisions of ethical import, we will choose wisely in order to provide a bright future for many generations to come.

Finally, we must retain our older buildings for the sake of our collective image, for they are testament to an age of innovation, and they are here today, though reduced in ranks, to inspire us to creatively achieve beauty despite the complexity of the limitations we face. Their creators faced limitations as well; however, they did not back down from the challenge of solving their problems creatively. And so the question we must ask of ourselves and of our fellow Saint Louisans is: Do we the people of this great city collectively wish to be known as unintelligent problem avoiders, or as problem solvers and agents of action for a positive future? There are numerous situations we have encountered in which fine old buildings here in the Grand Center area of Saint Louis, and throughout the City in general, have been razed without any long-term thought as to the consequences of their loss, only for the powers that be to recognize several years later that had they opted to allow for the survival of these structures, they could have proved valuable in numerous redevelopment proposals. Look at the non-city-residents' image of Soulard. People pour into this neighborhood on a regular basis, not just at specific times of the year such as Mardi Gras, but year-round, to quench their thirst or have a good meal or buy groceries at the Soulard Market. And yet, thirty years ago, Soulard was a decaying slum. Underneath the dirt and grime something sang, and its song was heard by people who toiled endlessly, and often with much strife and heartache, to contribute to the collective image of how their urban neighborhood should look.

St. John's The demolition of older buildings should be forbidden unless they are wholly beyond salvage. Consider the case of a building that poses a threat to public safety due to the partial collapse of exterior bearing walls. Consider that this destabilized state has been compounded by water infiltration for several years. The amount of work required in returning the building to occupancy status through the stabilization of the deteriorated structure and the rebuilding of its bearing capacity often makes the preservation of a structure such as this nearly impossible. In contrast, consider a structure in which the roof has burned off, and in which the load bearing structure is still intact. The building can still be returned to use, albeit different than that for which it was originally intended, without re-roofing it. Here in Grand Center, the burned-out church at Grandel and Spring will soon, through the monies accumulated through the establishment of the new special taxing district, be stabilized as an urban ruin and the centerpiece of a public sculpture garden. This discrimination between "salvageable" and "unsalvageable" will always remain open to interpretation, as we all act upon differing perceptions. Certainly parts of a structure can be salvaged for use in other restoration projects. Since the majority of older buildings in the City are mostly constructed of similar materials, these often standardized and therefore interchangeable parts can find a new purpose as opposed to taking up space in a landfill.

However, outside of this potential, most people usually associate the phrase "beyond salvage" with the phrase "too costly." But before acquiescing in the face of extraordinary cost, we must look at the object of our speculation in the context of who we are and explore how, if it were retained, it could add meaning and qualitative value to our lives. If we were to approach development more cautiously, endeavoring to see an older building in the context of an environmental/cultural perspective, it might be possible to embrace the notion that the cost of a single preservation project is only one of many factors involved in the overall economic equation. This shift in perception could lead to evaluating the preservation and re-use of a building to suit the present-day context, for its potential impact in relation to its surroundings, and for the notion that this impact, when viewed holistically, could provide the preservation and re-use of a building with economic viability. Then follows the recognition that the process of demolition and replacement has little practical economic value, and can in fact be entirely detrimental to the overall stability of the delicate network that is the immediate local economy.

In conclusion, we must endeavor to develop within ourselves a cultural and civic mindset that allows us to look beneath the surface of our all-too-often one-dimensional judgments of value of our architectural heritage. We must look beyond short-term economics and endeavor to see the larger picture of our built and natural world. When we demolish our historic buildings, we create a gap in our collective image and culture; we exact a wound that will never truly heal, no matter how hard we try to force it to scab over. A new sense of ethics must involve the creative adaptive reuse of these structures, and when all else fails, of their ruins or of their parts. Without this sense of ethics, we will have no built heritage; we will have erased our past, negated our identity, and doomed our descendants. Beyond this, we will have given the international community more of a reason to laugh at us in our folly and our inability to tackle our problems head-on. With our image tarnished, we will have also forsaken our ability to create jobs and bolster the local economy of our city. Like the Third Reich policy of culturally crippling the people of Warsaw by erasing nearly all of their built culture, development policy in the City of Saint Louis has effectively stolen from us our memories, our fiscal stability, and our collective image. The people of Warsaw rebuilt their city as a near duplicate of the original in defiance of the Nazis. In defiance of the developers who wish to commit cultural genocide in our city, we must stand up and defend our culture, even as they say it is "too late," for the sake of our dreams.

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
Leon Strauss' Vision of Modern Urban Living

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

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