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New Construction Should Have Urban Form, Not Have A Forced Historic Style

The issue of form & style is a hard one to address, but this is exactly where I think St. Louis has failed over the years. The form of buildings, how they relate to the street/sidewalk, has been totally ignored.

Here’s how it often plays out in St. Louis: One story building set back surrounded by parking on a block with 2-4 story buildings built up to the property line. No problem, just be sure to wrap it in red brick with some stone elements so it fits in. Frustrating!

The other view taken in some neighborhoods is the new infill building, in the above scenario, should be detailed from the period of the neighbors on either side so the untrained eye wouldn’t know it was built 100 years later.  Also frustrating, they wouldn’t have done this 75 years ago…or 64 years ago.

The former JC Penny store built in 1949 on MLK in the Wellston Loop in the modern style with an urban form, rather than style of its red brick neighbors that are 20-40 years older.
This former JC Penny store was built in 1949 on MLK in the Wellston Loop in the modern style with an urban form, rather than style of its red brick neighbors that are 20-40 years older.

If the Wellston Loop in 1949 had a design code based on the one used by many St. Louis neighborhoods this structure, which I love, wouldn’t have been permitted. That is the problem I have with how we tend to define “fits in.”  Granted, this would be shocking to see on Park Ave in the commercial area east of Lafayette Park. Was it shocking to Wellston Loop shoppers in 1949? Very likely, but freezing an area in whatever period can be the opposite — boring or even offensive.

This 2005 building at 1801 Park Ave has an urban form but a poorly executed attempt at blending in.
This 2005 building at 1801 Park Ave has an urban form but a poorly executed attempt at blending in.

I don’t have the answers, I just think we need to give more attention to form and less to particulars of style.

Here are the results from the poll last week:

Q: New construction should…

  1. …have an urban form in whatever style the owner desires 34 [41.98%]
  2. …replicate period of surrounding buildings in some historic districts 24 [29.63%]
  3. …look like older buildings, so a lay person might think it is an old building 7 [8.64%]
  4. …NOT be a replica of an older style 7 [8.64%]
  5. Other: 6 [7.41%]
  6. …have any form (urban/suburban) in any style the owner desires 3 [3.7%]
  7. Unsure/no opinion 0 [0%]

And the six “other” answers provided by readers:

  1. New construction should entice people/business to want to be in and/or around itAdd as a poll answer
  2. This guestion isnt a very good one for a poll steve-o
  3. Needs to be complementary to existing architecture.
  4. modern and fit/funtion well on its site
  5. The owner should decide what his new building will look like. MONEY TALKS!
  6. not as simple as the other choices – more dtls req’d


— Steve Patterson



Currently there are "24 comments" on this Article:

  1. Scott Jones says:

    I actually think that the 1801 Park Ave building looks rather nice. I think the JC Penny’s build–were it not now dilapidated–would look quite nice as well. In the end though, the most important thing to me is not the facade or the current occupants but 1) how well the building is constructed & 2) that it’s a good “urban” building–not set back in a parking lot, good interaction with the street, preferably multi-story.

    Facades can be changed and occupants come and go but buildings tend to stick around.

    • JZ71 says:

      Context is important, but one size does not fit all. Neighborhoods evolve. Take New Town St. Charles or the Boulevard across from the Galleria. They’re both “urban”, in a cartoonish way and don’t match what they replaced. Take the old Church’s Chicken at Skinker and Delmar or the 7-Eleven on Morganford across from Three Monkeys. They’re both “suburban”, in a cartoonish way, and also don’t match what they replaced. Many churches don’t match the adjacent commercial and residential architecture, yet they add texture to the urban fabric and are usually viewed as appropriate. It’s also easier to both define and maintain “context” when a neighborhood is stable. Once it starts to change, becoming either more or less dense, it becomes much, much harder to define one standard or ideal.

      The classic case is gentrification, where smaller, older, affordable homes are replaced with much larger, more expensive “McMansions”. Individually, they both create a cohesive context, mix the two, in random patterns, and the context becomes jarring. While we don’t have a lot of gentrification happening around here, we do have a lot of disinvestment. Do we try and maintain the existing density and building stock absent any viable uses? Do we board it up and hope for the best (and a brighter future)? Do we knock stuff down and create a new more-suburban, less-urban vocabulary, reinventing our built environment, to reflect the actual population and how they choose to live? Remember, many of our neighborhoods have been occupied for centuries, not just decades, and what we see today is not what was there 100 years ago. I’m no fan of the Shop and Save in downtown Maplewood, but none of us can say that the Maplewood of today would be better or worse if its downtown had stayed urban on both sides of Manchester – what’s there seems to be working better than many more “urban” areas and some “suburban” areas of the same vintage. Change is a given. Saying that one answer is the only answer is both arrogant and naive, context should be both a guide and the goal, and should remain fluid, not dogmatic or dictatorial.

      • Scott Jones says:

        “Context is important”–yes, the context I was talking about is the urban context. I understood this article to be about new infill construction in an urban context. The Shop-n-Save you mention in Maplewood is an example of a building that it out of context. Maplewood is a “suburb” yes, but that’s largely because St. Louis is an independent city and couldn’t expand any further. Maplewood is an urban place that would otherwise be an urban neighborhood of St. Louis (along with U City, Clayton, etc) were it not for that accident of history.

        I guess I’m just more of a social engineer and you’re more laissez-faire. That’s fine. I think that those with power, money, and influence should encourage more walking, more transit use, and less driving. This means that I value urban development over suburban style development–as dogmatic and dictatorial as that may be.

        On a side note: the Shop-n-Save in downtown Maplewood is an excellent opportunity for urban infill. The existing Maplewood Square shopping center could remain and (at least) two new mixed-use buildings built in the parking lot. One of those buildings could contain structured parking. Both could front Manchester with store fronts and have a mix of residential and offices. Think about the increase in tax revenue the city of Maplewood would receive for that otherwise under-performing slab of asphalt!

        • dempster holland says:

          do we just forget about all the people who use shop and save to buy their food. Remember
          that many women don’t like to park behind a store.

          • Scott Jones says:

            No one would have to park behind the building. There’d be new “streets” in what is now the parking lot between the new buildings with dozens of angled on-street parking parking spots. Also, like I said, you’d have a parking garage. It’s hard to describe so I made this quick sketch in MS Paint of what I’m talking about.

            The lime green blocks become new buildings, The dark green lines are the streets in the newly restored street grid. The yellow block is where a parking garage could go. Please note: this is purely a mental exercise.

          • moe says:

            Actually they could just build retail along Manchester and leave the Shop n Save alone.

          • Scott Jones says:

            Yes… that’s what I said.

          • JZ71 says:

            But, realistically, what has happened with the Home Depot on Kingshighway would be the more likely outcome – an older “urban” structure, a new, free-standing auto parts and a Sonic drive-in: http://goo.gl/maps/uC277 . . . One reason Maplewood “works” is that there IS convenient, free parking for the businesses in the older urban structures, both in the Shop and Save lot (which is apparently tolerated, and not enforced, by the center’s owner) and in city-owned lots behind the urban structures. Remember, just having “enough” parking isn’t enough for many customers, it needs to be perceived to be safe and convenient, as well, and many parking structures are perceived to be unsafe and/or inconvenient, rightly or wrongly.

  2. guest says:

    What this post fails to mention is the role of neighborhood leadership in community development. In the case of Lafayette Square, neighbors are possibly the most active in the city. They created their own neighborhood development plan and are working on it piece by piece. The building in the picture is consistent with the plan, as are other recent developments around the Fountain area in front of Sqwires Restaurant. You are criticizing results in one of our city’s most highly valued neighborhoods. Think of the broader picture, and the designs look very good as part of a diverse, vibrant, urban neighborhood. Here we see how leadership pays off in successful communities. Leadership that is community driven.

  3. mark says:

    This is a hard question to get a definitive answer to as far as what is right or wrong, but I would say that we need to proceed very carefully, least we ultimately lose what makes the city of St. Louis unique and special. Many of us have been in relatively soulless cities that have little or no historical past that are clearly missing some element of what it means to work and live in a city. I believe that cities evolve through history experiencing changes both
    natural and man made which ultimately give them a unique identity setting them
    apart from other cities of similar size and age. What would London, or Rome be
    if urban developers were allowed to tear down the old and replace it with the
    current trendy idea of what is functional and beautiful?

    Yet cities must continue to evolve so change can not be completelyforbidden. If we use the example of downtown St. Louis, the city has wisely chosen to preserve many of the great building on Washington Avenue, that would be almost prohibitively expensive to build today, so when driving down Washington Avenue a visitor to our city is presented with a grand view that is unmistakably St. Louis. Yet, we still allow the destruction of parts of the city such as Cupples 7 that once gone will never be replaced.

    It is important that the character of any particular part of the city be well understood (assuming that it has one) so that new additions become a part of what makes the city what it is rather than seeking to standout and be different. I believe that some of the strongest architectural building designs have incorporated elements of the building and space around them. When a building is built that does not reference the space around it, is ultimately is
    designed to become that square peg, standing out for all the wrong reasons.

    • JZ71 says:

      So where does the Pulitzer Museum fit into the context of Washington and Grand Center? It has urban massing yet is totally out of context with the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood. I like it, I think that it’s appropriate, even though it has not “incorporated elements of the building and space around them” and has “not reference[d] the space around it”. In no way is it a “square peg, standing out for all the wrong reasons”. Would have slavishly covering it in red brick made it a better neighbor or a better “fit”? I doubt it . . . .


      • dempster holland says:

        the pulitzer museum and its companion contemporary museum look like they
        belong in a north county warehouse district. Together with the abomination of the
        new east wing on the art museum, completly destroying its balence, these buildings
        all show a city that has completely defaulted on its public art buldings

        • Mike says:

          So would you have preferred an art museum addition that competes with the original structure? Or perhaps a seamless transition between the original vs the addition so that the original gets lost in the composite? To what lengths would you have gone to blend the new and the old? The Wainright building addition, downtown, is another example. Would you have preferred an addition that exactly mirrors the original? Or something more understated but complimentary so that the original building retains some of its earned character?

          Would it be fair to the original architect to build an addition that mirrors the original? I wonder. I like the addition to the museum…and I also like the Wainright addition. And I don’t know how I would have felt about a seamless addition, in either case, that didn’t respect the limits of the original buildings.

          While the addition to the museum is certainly more modern, by contrast, than in the case of the Wainright addition, I wonder if final product at the museum wouldn’t have cheapened the overall if a dramatic attempt to copy had been made. Would a “copy” represent an honest effort?

          • dempster holland says:

            I prefer the balenced form of the original building, which I beleive has the look of the
            classic building. Had I preferred, the original would had been built to the rear,or equally
            on both sides (as is the White House, for example). The view of the museum from the
            bottom of Art Hill was quite pleasing, a remnant of the city beautiful movement, and I be-
            leive that the modern, one-sided addition harms that view. As to the original asrchitect, if
            were him I would be appalled. I am no architect or artist, just a life-long St Louisan
            who hates to see regression in our city.

          • moe says:

            Same conundrum with the Art Museum’s new addition in forest park.

            But then again, isn’t the Greek Pantheon building next to St. Louis U’s art museum out of context also? And that was built, what, 100 years ago?

          • dempster holland says:

            Admittedly it is a matter of taste, but I still prefer the City Beautiful movement, which
            gave St Louis such classical buiuldings as the downtown public library and the
            art museum. And these were built at a time when those with money and power had
            taste, or at least had the sense to hire those who had taste. Also, there was a general
            consensus of what constituted good architecture. In recent decades, some in the artis-
            tic community, whether painting, literature, music or architecture, seem to beleive that
            success consists in being more original or outrageous than the next person . The downtown Serra “sculpture” is a prime example of an elite without good taste.

      • mark says:

        When I mentioned Washington Avenue I was referring to downtown and not Midtown whose character is completely different. Having said that, the Pulitzer is a blocky modern building that to me has no soul or warmth. Much of Midtown’s character has been badly damaged and its difficult to pick out one defining characteristic for the area. The Pulitzer is just another badly designed building adding to the mess. Now the addition to SLAM is not as flagrant an aesthetic violation as the Pulitzer building but I believe it fails in a number in a number of areas. In my opinion it is to bluntly modern keeping little of the character of the original building. I think that it should have been done maintaining the feel of the original stone while incorporating more dramatic lighting. A good example of this would be the renovation of the Central Library which was done by the same architect as the SLAM. I believe that the design is not terrible, just lazy and will never go down as being more than just serviceable.

        • JZ71 says:

          Which is the crux of the problem – personal preference and personal opinion. Is yours better than mine? Or is mine better than yours? Who gets to decide? How do we handle the inevitable “shades of grey”? Majority vote? Most money? “Expert” interpretation and intervention? Laissez faire? Mob rule? Mediation? Proximity? Crowd sourcing? HOA’s? Twitter? And how do we accommodate changing tastes and changing technology? As both individuals and as a society, we hold many opinions and rarely agree on the simplest of issues. Something as complex as combining aesthetics with property rights will NEVER see complete agreement. It makes for good discussion and great blog fodder, but expecting any sort of true resolution is naive . . . .

          • guest says:

            But community based plans guiding development policy is rational and works. It all gets back to leadership that is supported by the people. Leadership people, not vision, not historic preservation, not neighborhood revitalization. These things alone are incongruent notions. Driven by community based leadership and they hold together.

            Unfortunately, it seems most urbanists, bloggers, and many other “free thinkers” have a hard time getting behind a leadership/organization structure, and prefer to float their own ideas among a sea of varying viewpoints. Little gets done in that fashion, other than wordy debates.

          • Mark says:

            While most of us might have trouble describing what makes
            good architecture, I believe that it’s easy to recognize when you see it. I don’t believe that anyone would mistake either New Town in St. Charles, or the Boulevard development in Brentwood for anything other than what they are, faux structures masquerading as art. Who gets to decide? Well I would say that the surrounding community
            should have final say. After all, it is the members of the community who will suffer the inevitable consequences for a bad decision. Communities have zoning laws for this reason, to protect the overriding interests of the community at large, why not for art? Yes, we would run the risk of having some unique architectural design never leaving the drawing board, but I believe that people deserve more credit than sometimes they are given. For example, should you need a degree in science before being able to weigh in on the concept of global warming? After all is a non-scientists opinion valid if they do not have the necessary scientific background in order to understand the data? Or can most people, given the correct facts be guided to a good decision?

            Personally, I believe that the duty of Architects is to use their knowledge to help guide a community to making good decisions. I think that we can trust in the knowledge of the community as a whole as long as they are given the proper forum to voice that opinion.

          • moe says:

            Mark you raise some interesting points. I would agree that New Town and Boulevard hardly constitute good art. But there would be those that disagree and think it wonderful. Hence, what is art? Look at Fr. Biondi’s sculptures around his campus…..many like them, many hate them, and who should decide…who is that community? the students? the actual residents of the neighborhood? you and I ?…..as it is with his art, it is with designing a building. There are many hidden gems in our city built by individuals working with an architect to, shall we say, leave a mark on this city. Unfortunately, the art of making artful buildings is a lost art (bad pun). There are few “masters” left and today it’s just too $$$$$$. But I think a happy medium could be reached balancing art and $$$$. And I think that conversation needs to start with the architects. They have to be willing to pull the ideas of the developer out and help them model them into something ‘artful’….explaining why, say, decorative window casements are worth the extra $$$$ and not just meeting the codes.

            Then the issue is who decides….the community will say they are, the city admins will say they are, the developer will say they are, you and I may say we are….and the problem is too few care until it is too late. Look at the stink in Afton over a senior housing project. The plans put forth, approved etc, put before the board for a vote twice (I believe it is), and it was only after ground was broken that the neighbors in an uproar….and as I saw the news clips of the meetings, I seriously doubt many of those people were neighbors (i.e….would have been directly affected by the building). So who decides? And if you were a developer, would you consider building in Afton right now?

            As much as I would love to say the community, I can’t. Too many don’t care and wouldn’t know an artful building if it was standing right in front of them. So I don’t know, except that education and communication are a must.

          • JZ71 says:

            One, it’s in Oakville, not Affton. Two, the goal needs to be consensus, not complete agreement. The fast food place or the porn shop that’s truly in your back yard is not the same animal as an “affordable” senior housing facility a block or two away. And the trickiest part is figuring out how to keep “those people” out of your “perfect” world without violating their civil rights . . . .

          • moe says:

            Call it Shrewsbury if you like, you knew what I was referencing….not going to change the fact that the people, whether close by or down the street, failed to stay informed despite numerous notices and meetings. How do you get consensus when the majority of people don’t even care until after the fact? And then their bigotry steps in, well… And yeah, when the day care owner states that she doesn’t want some grandmother’s son looking down on the kids…..WTf???? Just because one is low income doesn’t mean they or their relatives do crimes. She needs to get some education on the subject.

            But that’s not what this is about, it’s about art, architects, an consensus….and without consensus either the players with the $$$ sneak in or the minority screamers get the attention. And then we all lose out.

  4. City Resident says:

    Every time I drive down US-40/I-64, I cringe at the suburban schlock that has been built at the “Aventura at Forest Park”. I agree that not all urban construction should look historic, but the city was out of its mind to allow such an eyesore in such a prominent location! It has no connection/context to its surroundings.



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