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New Book — ‘Oldest St. Louis’ by NiNi Harris

December 17, 2020 Books, Featured, History/Preservation Comments Off on New Book — ‘Oldest St. Louis’ by NiNi Harris

I’ve been fortunate enough to know local historian & author NiNi Harris for more than two decades. I posted about her books before, and another is now available.

From iconic buildings like the Old Cathedral to the Polish butcher shop in North City, Oldest St. Louis explores the history of St. Louis through the history of the city’s oldest institutions, streets, and businesses. From the oldest library book, to the oldest museum, Oldest St. Louis traces the history of the city’s rich cultural life. From the oldest Italian bar to the oldest bowling alley, the book recalls St. Louis’s ethnic traditions. In following the stories of the oldest businesses and institutions, the book becomes a sensory tour of St. Louis featuring the crunchy oatmeal cookies made in the Dutchtown neighborhood the same way for 82 years, the fragrance in the 138 year old Greenhouse in mid-winter and the beauty of St. Louis’s 184 year-old Lafayette Park. Oldest St. Louis is also a nostalgic look at recent history from the space-age design of South County Mall, to a cherry Coke made with a secret recipe since the Chuck-A-Burger drive-in restaurant opened in St. Ann in 1957. (Reedy Press)

The contents are long, all starting with “Oldest…” I knew some, but not all. I had to quickly turn page by page to see the oldest this and that. In my 30+ years in St. Louis I’ve been to many of them: oldest soda fountain, convent, soul food diner, etc.

Each Oldest subject is headed by the year. The oldest Oldest is a tie — from 1474! Most are 19th & 20th century. Harris talks about each Oldest.

If you’re a St. Louis fan then this book needs to be on your bookshelf.

— Steve Patterson

 

Longtime Election Board Building Was Previously Police Headquarters (1907-1929)

December 5, 2020 Featured, History/Preservation Comments Off on Longtime Election Board Building Was Previously Police Headquarters (1907-1929)

For most of the 16 years on this blog I’ve often used a vintage photo, below, when posting about local elections.

Vintage photo of the former offices of the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners. From my collection

Though I’d been using this photo I didn’t know anything about it. From the cars I knew not only was it from before I arrived in St. Louis (August 1990) but before I was born (February 1967). I also knew I’d never been to this building, the only location of the Board of Election Commissionrs I’d ever visited was the current, 300 North Tucker.

Another photo I use often for election-related posts:

The St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners is on the first floor at 300 N. Tucker (@ Olive)

Not sure where I registered to vote, but my first time going to the election board offices was in January 2005 when I filed to run for alderman — at 300 North Tucker.

Recently I was more and more curious about that vintage photo, so I contacted a lifetime resident who is a St. Louis political encyclopedia. He suggested I look in the book “We Elect! The Story of St. Louis Government and Politics”, published by the St. Louis Public Schools in 1967. I received a copy years ago as part of the Beckerle collection.

At the bottom of page 4 was the address — 208 South Twelfth Boulevard. In 1967 Twelfth hadn’t yet been renamed in honor of former mayor Raymond Tucker (12/4/1896-11/23/1970).
At the top of the next page is a photo of the building and the address again.

So now I know the address but that didn’t tell me when they moved out of the building and why. Was the building built for them or a previous occupant? I know the new city jail currently occupies that and additional land.

Let’s begin with the election board moving into the current location, 300 North Tucker. Thankfully St. Louis Library members can search Post-Dispatch archives online.

An August 1998 article (8/27/1998, p18) indicated the move from 208 South Tucker to 300 North Tucker will happen in December. A December 6, 1998 article indicated the move would happen on December 14, 1998. The earlier article mentions 208 South Tucker is 91 years old. Both articles indicate the election board moved in during the ‘late 1930s.” They got the decade right, the 1930s. But it wasn’t late in the decade — it opened on February 12, 1932 (P-D page 14 of 48).

The Post-Dispatch in 1998 said it was 91 years old, so built in 1907 — if they got that research right. That means the building was roughly a quarter century old. Who was the previous occupant?

The headline gave away the answer, the building was previously police headquarters. Growing city outgrew the police headquarters just a couple of decades after building it? Not exactly. As part of young Harland Bartholomew’s plan, the 12th right-of-way would be widened from 60 feet to a massive 150 feet, 40 feet would come from the east side of 12th. In 1919 a condemnation suit began to take the 40 feet from property owners.  Police would lose the front 40 feet of their headquarters, only 12 years old.

By March 18, 1926 a site for a new headquarters was secured on the southwest corner of 12th & Clark — consolidated from 18 owners.  That headquarters opened in late 1928 or early 1929.

The headquarters that became the board of elections was opened in August 1907, after a long delay. Three residences were bought and razed to construct the building.

Original plans called for the police department to occupy half the basement of the new city hall, but that was scrapped once the decision was made to make the basement ceilings only nine feet high.  Police would need to stay across the street at “four courts” building. Prior to Bartholomew’s arrival they already had plans to widen 12th, not sure how much. (P-D 4/24/1898, p9).

In July 2014 the St. Louis police headquarters moved again, this time to a renovated office building on Olive between 19th-20th.

— Steve Patterson

 

St. Louis Businesses Ordered To Shut Down — 102 Years Ago Today

October 7, 2020 Featured, History/Preservation, Politics/Policy Comments Off on St. Louis Businesses Ordered To Shut Down — 102 Years Ago Today
I bought this book at Washington University on June 6, 1991 for $7.95.

The city’s health commissioner has just ordered many businesses to close, effective tomorrow. That was the order on October 7, 1918.

City Health Commissioner Max B. Starkloff announced that public gathering places would be closed immediately to prevent the spread of influenza, which was just then becoming an epidemic in the city. Some 115 new cases had been counted that day in St. Louis, and at Jefferson Barracks the total number was 900.

Closed under the commissioner’s order were theaters, movie houses, open air meetings, dance halls, conventions, and public funerals. Church leaders agreed to go along with the ban on public gatherings, and Archbishop John J. Glennon suspended the obligation of Catholics to hear Mass each Sunday. Downtown stores were enjoyed to hold no sales or special attractions. Throughout the fall, the epidemic raged, with a final official death count of 2,063 deaths — the worst disaster of its kind in the city’s history. (From ‘St. Louis Day by Day’, by Frances Hurd Stadler, Pages 191-192)

The above simplifies the back and forth that happened through December. Restrictions were eased, the flu roared back, restrictions were tightened. But it worked.

Thanks to the quarantine, St. Louis’ death rate was lowest among the 10 biggest cities at the time. In Philadelphia, where bodies piled up on sidewalks when the morgues overflowed, the death rate was nearly twice as high. (Post-Dispatch)

After their influenza pandemic was over life resumed. Ours will too, but first we must all do what’s necessary to prevent it from spreading.

— Steve Patterson

 

Four St. Louis High-Rise Public Housing Projects Replaced With Low-Rise Developments

September 30, 2020 Featured, History/Preservation, Neighborhoods, Planning & Design Comments Off on Four St. Louis High-Rise Public Housing Projects Replaced With Low-Rise Developments

Today’s post is about HOPE VI projects. You may have heard that term before, but if you’re unfamiliar here’s an introduction:

HOPE VI is a program of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is intended to revitalize the worst public housing projects in the United States into mixed-income developments. Its philosophy is largely based on New Urbanism and the concept of defensible space.

The program began in 1992, with formal recognition by law in 1998. As of 2005, the program had distributed $5.8 billion through 446 federal block grants to cities for the developments, with the highest individual grant being $67.7 million, awarded to Arverne/Edgemere Houses in New York City.

HOPE VI has included a variety of grant programs including: Revitalization, Demolition, Main Street, and Planning grant programs. As of June 1, 2010 there have been 254 HOPE VI Revitalization grants awarded to 132 housing authorities since 1993 – totaling more than $6.1 billion. (Wikipedia)

The short answer is HOPE VI was the program used to raze & replace distressed high-rise public housing with low-rise mixed-income private housing. With the notable exception of Pruitt-Igoe, all of St. Louis’ high-rise public housing was replaced with low-rise housing — three using the HOPE VI program. Pruitt-Igoe was famously imploded two decades before the start of the HOPE VI program.

From a May 2004 research report after a decade of HOPE VI:

Launched in 1992, the $5 billion HOPE VI program represents a dramatic turnaround in public housing policy and one of the most ambitious urban redevelopment efforts in the nation’s history. It replaces severely distressed public housing projects, occupied exclusively by poor families, with redesigned mixed-income housing and provides housing vouchers to enable some of the original residents to rent apartments in the private market. And it has helped transform the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) approach to housing assistance for the poor. This report provides a comprehensive summary of existing research on the HOPE VI program. Its central purpose is to help inform the ongoing debate about the program’s achievements and impacts, and to highlight the lessons it offers for continuing reforms in public housing policy.

HOPE VI grew out of the work of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, which was established by Congress in 1989. Congress charged the Commission with identifying “severely distressed” public housing developments, assessing strategies to improve conditions at these developments, and preparing a national action plan for dealing with the problem. Based on its investigation, the Commission concluded that roughly 86,000 of the 1.3 million public housing units nationwide qualified as severely distressed and that a new and comprehensive approach would be required to address the range of problems existing at these developments.

In response to these findings, Congress enacted the HOPE VI program, which combined grants for physical revitalization with funding for management improvements and supportive services to promote resident self-sufficiency. Initially, housing authorities were allowed to propose plans covering up to 500 units with grant awards of up to $50 million. (Introduction to an Urban Institute report)

I should clarify the HOPE VI program isn’t limited to only remaking high-rise public housing, but that is the type of distressed public housing we had in St. Louis. Other cities, like Chicago, also used it to replace high-rise projects. Cabrini-Green, for example.

Let’s take a look at the four St. Louis high-rise public housing projects that were replaced with low-rise housing built on a more traditional street grid.

Darst-Webbe

The Darst-Webbe towers on the near south side circa 1990-91, razed

This was officially known as the J.M. Darst Apartments and the A.M. Webbe Apartments. The Darst apts., opened in October 1956, occupied 14.75 acres bounded by Lafayette, Hickory, Tucker (12th) & 14th.  The four 9-story buildings contained 645 units.  The Webbe apts. opened in May 1961 between the Darst apts. and Chouteau.  It had a mix of buildings on 12.27 acres: two 9-story, one 12-story, and one 8-story. These four buildings had 580 units.  The combined Darst-Webbe then had 1225 apartment units on 27.02 acres.

This was the first high-rise public housing project in St. Louis to be razed and rebuilt under the HOPE VI program. In its place is a mix of apartments and privately-owned single-family homes. On the south is King Louie Square apartments, with 152 1-4 bedroom units. In the middle of the redevelopment site is the single-family homes, called La Saison. Habitat for Humanity is building new homes here on the few vacant lots remaining. The north part of the original site contains more apartments, called Les Chateaux — with 40 1-2 bedroom units.

House at La Saison on Tucker near Park Ave, the north edge of King Louie Square can be seen on the left. Photo December 27, 2013.
Looking north on 14th street toward LaSalle. The buildings on the left are rental townhouses in the redevelopment area, just not sure if they have a name. Photo: November 7, 2018.

In 1995 HUD gave the St. Louis Housing Authority a grant of $46.7 million to redevelop Darst-Webbe. Defunct developer Pyramid Construction is responsible for the pretentious names.

Vaughn

This was two projects, both called G.L. Vaughn Apartments. The first, opened in June 1957, was bounded by Cass, O’Fallon, 18th, and 20th. It had four 9-story towers on 16.67 acres — with 647 units. The second opened at the NE corner of 20th & O’Fallon in September 1963. Basically this was just an expansion of the project that opened six years earlier, it had one 8-story building on 2.05 acres, 112 units.

The last Vaughn tower being razed in October 2006.
New housing, called Murphy Park, had already been built where the other four towers had been razed.
The Murphy Park senior building and management offices.
Looking south on Vinson Street from a new park on Biddle Street.

Vaughn was completed, to the best of my knowledge without the use of a HUD HOPE VI grant, but like others it got state low income tax credits.

 The partnership event highlighted Phase III of Murphy Park. Its 126 units will bring to 413 the total number of rental dwellings built in the neighborhood that once was the site of the notorious George L. Vaughn public housing high-rises. One third of the completed project will be market rate apartments, with the balance constructed as tax credit units – with just more than half available for public housing-eligible families as part of the replacement of the former public housing complex. Units range from two to six bedrooms and include disability-accessible garden apartments. Each apartment features full size appliances including washer and dryer, refrigerator, stove and dishwasher. McCormack Baron Management Services, the management agent, reports that Phases I and II (completed in 1997 and 2000) have high-90 percent occupancy. Phase III units will be available in March 2003. (HUD)

As the above indicates, this was a McCormack Baron development.

Blumeyer

This was officially the A.A. Blumeyer Apartments. It opened in October 1968, bounded by Compton, Delmar, Grand & Page. It had two 14-story buildings for “elderly”, three 15-story buildings, and forty-two 2-story buildings. There was a total of 1,152 units on 33.90 acres.

Low-rise & high-rise buildings at Blumeyer before being razed. Photo October 2006
Blumeyer Elderly Apartments on Page, January 2007

This was replaced by the Renaissance Place at Grand apartments and the offices of the St. Louis Housing Authority.  To the north, across Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd, Senior Living at Renaissance Place was built on land not part of Blumeyer.  Additionally, the North Sarah Apartments were built on…North Sarah… to provide additional units.

New apartment within a grid of new streets in February 2013, the last Blumeyer tower in the background — demolition on it began in the fall of 2014

The $35 million dollar HUD grant was issued in 2001. Like Vaughn, this was a McCormack Baron project.

Cochran

Officially the J.J. Cochran Garden Apartments.   Completed in April 1953, it was St. Louis’ first high-rise public housing project — more than two years before Pruitt Homes and three years before Igoe Apartments. The 18.03 acre site contained four 12-story, two 7-story, and six 6-story towers — containing 703 units. It was built to clear out old tenemts businesses on the north edge of the business district didn’t like. Then Cochran became a problem, but tenants pushed for the ability to self manage — and won!

Cochran Gardens was a public housing complex on the near north side of downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Construction was completed in 1953. The complex was occupied until 2006, it was famous for its residents’ innovative form of tenant-led management. In 1976, Cochran Gardens became one of the first U.S. housing projects to have tenant management. Built by the same firm, Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth, as the infamous Pruitt–Igoe complex, Cochran Gardens was more successful than its ill-fated sister project. In the mid 1970s, Bertha Gilkey and a group of friends successfully led a community driven rehabilitation effort; in 1976 she won a property management contract from the city. Independent management improved Cochran Gardens and created small business jobs in the neighborhood. President George H. W. Bush visited the site in 1991, commending tenant management and Bertha Gilkey. However, in 1998 city authorities took over Cochran Gardens, citing tax mismanagement by the tenant association. The buildings rapidly deteriorated, by 1999 vacancy rate increased from under 10% to one-third. (Wikipedia)

I photographed the area in May 2007 as towers still existed and as new construction was going up, streets going in.

The last high-rise tower from the Cochran Gardens project was razed in 2011. This is 9th & O’Fallon on May 29, 2007.
At 7th & O’Fallon you can just see the historic Neighborhood Gardens project on the left, new Cambridge Heights apartments on the right. In the background is an old Cochran tower about to be demolished. Note traffic signals were still in place along 7th street.
From 9th street we can see the other side of the Cochran tower before demolition, and new townhouses facing 8th street. The building on the horizon is on 7th, was part of McGuire Moving & Storage.
Project sign
Looking to the left we see more new townhouses between 8th & 9th
Looking south on 8th Street from Dickson Street. Dickson Street didn’t exist between 7th and 9th prior to Cochran, but the street name was used east of 7th. Eighth street was removed for Cochran, it was mostly rebuilt.

This project was completed by an LLC that includes architect Michael Kennedy of KAI (previously known as Kennedy Associates, Inc). McCormack Baron was management from the very beginning, until February of this year. In a future post I’ll go into more detail on Cochran Gardens & Cambridge Heights.

Summary

These four areas are all significantly better because of each redevelopment. The New Urbanist influence has been a key factor in their success. The buildings in all four orient toward the public street. HOPE VI projects have valid criticism, largely the reduction in the number of public housing units for the very low income. The other is the charge of gentrification, a valid claim in other cities but not in St. Louis. More on that in the future.

— Steve Patterson

 

A Look at 207 North Sixth Street, Charlie Gitto’s Pasta House Since 1978

July 15, 2020 Downtown, Featured, History/Preservation Comments Off on A Look at 207 North Sixth Street, Charlie Gitto’s Pasta House Since 1978

When I first saw Charlie Gitto’s restaurant at 207 North 6th Street many years ago I imagined a small business owner fighting Famous-Barr department store parent company, The May Department Stores Company, to keep its small downtown restaurant open.

Charlie Gitto’s Pasta House stands in contrast to the spiral parking garage exit ramp. At right, the massive Railway Exchange building that housed the May Company headquarters and their Famous-Barr department store, later a Macy’s.
This view shows the East side of the garage which faces both 7th & Olive streets. I adore the green glazed “bakery brick” on the facade.

Sounds good, right? But it was way off.

My first clue was from the recent announcement that Charlie Gitto had died.

Gitto and his wife, Annie, at one point operated as many as six restaurants in the area along with their children.
The couple opened the well-known Charlie Gitto’s Pasta House on Sixth Street downtown in 1978. Their children owned the other restaurants. (Post-Dispatch)

Wait, 1978? The surrounding parking garage was older than that. Though I’d only eaten there once, it looked like it had been there for generations, memorabilia covered the walls. 1978.

So what restaurant was there when the building survived most of the block being razed for Famous-Barr’s parking garage. Was there a fight to keep the small building at 207 N 6th from becoming rubble?

When I decided to seek answers to these questions I had no idea the huge wormhole I was going down. But that’s often the case, especially when searching Post-Dispatch archives.

Before delving into the archives I did a quick Google search. There I found a May 2013 article about how Macy’s planned to close the downtown location in August. It began with this about opening a parking garage:

In September 1922, Famous-Barr proudly opened a new two-story parking garage on Seventh Street, near its bustling department store. It cost $200,000 to build and could hold 400 machines, as cars were known then. (Post-Dispatch).

Wait, 1922? Two-stories?

The spiral exit ramp of the Famous-Barr parking garage is clear in the background as the Kiener parking garages are under construction. The spiral is at 6th & Pine, the Charlie Gitto’s Building is visible next to it. The rest of the block to Olive still exists.

Instead of quickly finding answers I was finding more questions. I ended up using newspaper archives through the library, historicaerials.com, and Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. City records online weren’t helpful because they didn’t list an age for 207 North 6th Street.

Let’s look at what I found in chronological order, starting in 1909.

In 1909 207 N. 6th Street was a restaurant. It had a first floor masonry wall to separate it from the lobby of the Mona Hotel to the North. The 2nd floor over the restaurant was likely part of the hotel since the masonry wall didn’t continue up. Sanborn Co. Fire Insurance Map

So this confirms the site has always been a restaurant, right? Wrong. It was in 1909 and since 1978 but that doesn’t explain which its block got razed.

On January 31, 1922 came the following was on page 3 of the Post-Dispatch:

The Famous & Barr store has purchased, subject to title, the east half of the block on Seventh, between Walnut and Elm Streets, as the site for a four-story or six-story free parking garage for its customers, to be operated on a plan similar to the four-story parking garage that is to be erected by the Scruggs-Vandervort-Barney Dry Goods Co. on the south side of St. Charles, between Eleventh and Twelfths streets.  

So in the 1920s both downtown department stores built parking garages blocks from their stores. The site of this first Famous-Barr garage later became part of the 1966 Busch Stadium and is now surface parking at Ballpark Village.

In the final edition of the Post-Dispatch on November 1, 1960 came front page announcement of a new garage, which continued on page 6.

Famous-Barr Co. will raze most of the buildings in the block across Olive Street from its downtown store and will construct a parking garage for 800 automobiles there, Stanley J. Goodman, general manager, announced today. 

The 10-level garage will occupy the western half of the block bounded by Sixth, Seventh, Olive and Pine streets. Express exit ramps paralleling Pine street will occupy some of the eastern portion of the block.  

The only present stores that will remain in the block are Boyd’s at 600 Olive, Jarman shoe store at 622 Olive and Neels Drug at 207 North Sixth. 

So no battle to save the 207 N 6th St building, also that hasn’t always been a restaurant.

On October 11, 1950 Neels Drugs was located at 521 Pine Street. By October 22, 1959 Needs Drugs, an independent Rexall druggist was located at 207 North 6th Street.

On November 27, 1974 Post-Dispatch restaurant writer Joe Pollack indicated, on page 86, that Rich & Charlie’s was going to open another pasta house…on 6th. The very next month there’s a classified ad run December 27-30 seeking dishwashers & porters — apply at Pasta House Co. 207 N. 6th.

Advertisements for Rich & Charlie’s and The Pasta House Company with identical specials appeared in the October 12, 1975 Post-Dispatch, page 117.

In October 1975 Pasta House Company has a location at Plaza Frontenac, but 6 months earlier Rich & Charlie’s was advertising for cooks, dishwashers, etc at Plaza Frontenac. Rich & Charlie’s began in 1967 at 8213 Delmar, a longtime Pasta House Company address.  Another article described The Pasta House Company as a “affiliate” of Rich & Charlie’s.  Even now I don’t fully understand how these businesses were connected, neither mentions the other on their current websites.

At approximately age 40-41 Charlie Gitto was the manager of the Pasta House Co. chain’s location at 207 N. 6th Street. In 1978 he went from manager to owner of this location, now called Charlie Gitto’s Pasta House. Another pasta house was nearby, Tony’s Pasta House.

— Steve Patterson

 

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