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Mid-Century Modern vs. 21st Century Density

June 17, 2021 Central West End, Featured, History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Real Estate Comments Off on Mid-Century Modern vs. 21st Century Density

A developer has proposed a new apartment building that was require the demolition of a mid-century modern (MCM) building. I’ve been watching the debate of preservation of MCM verses increased density on Twitter & Facebook. I want to weight in, but first some background.

The non-profit service group Optimist International was founded elsewhere more than a century ago. In 1924 St. Louis was selected as the location for its worldwide headquarters. Decades later their 2-story building at 4494 Lindell (@ Taylor) was designed by local architects Schwartz & Van Hoefen.

Optimists International’s headquarters at 4494 Lindell was dedicated at 3pm on Sunday June 17, 1962 — 59 years ago today. Previously they were located in the Railway Exchange building, Image from May 2014

Schwartz & Van Hoefen is also known for:

  • Marchetti Towers I & II, SLU campus.
  • Mansion House, 4th Street downtown.
  • Council Plaza, which included a “flying saucer” gas station (later various places like Naugles & Del Taco, now a Starbucks & Chipotle)
  • Northland Cinema (demolished)
  • Busch Stadium II (local architect, demolished)
Optimist International has formally listed their property for sale a number of years ago, it includes the slightly taller building next door. Photo from May 2021.

There have been numerous proposals for the property, including one for renovated and updated office space. The most recent, announced last week, calls for demolition of the original 2-story building and late 70s 4-story addition. In their place a new 7-story apartment building.

This recent proposal is what got people fiercely debating, falling roughly into 3 camps: we need to preserve our few remaining mid-century modern buildings, more density is good, and preservation focus should be on saving 19th century buildings. This is a generalization of their points so let’s get into some specifics.

This view shows the Taylor side of the proposal.

Many see an artist’s rendering of a proposed project from a bird’s eye and get all excited. From this vantage point artists can make anything look good — they could make the workhouse look like a lush resort.  Humans, however, don’t experience the built environment from a bird’s viewpoint.

Those on the side of preservation of Optimist International are correct that increasingly we’re seeing MCM buildings being razed, especially in the Central West End. Last century these MCM buildings were seen as important symbols of reinvestment as the wealthy began to flee the city, as Gaslight Square began to fade.

One disputed point is “architectural merit”, I’m not qualified to argue for or against on this particular building. However, from the Mansion House nomination to the National Register of Historic Places I can learn about the firm responsible:

The firm of Schwarz & Van Hoefen was a midcentury incarnation of one of the longest-running continuously operating firms in St. Louis. It began in 1900 as Mauran, Russell & Garden when three architects broke away from the St. Louis office of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge (which was set up locally as Shepley, Rutan, Coolidge, and Mauran). John Lawrence Mauran brought along two younger colleagues, Ernest Russell and Edward Garden, and the firm almost immediately received several important commissions. Ned Garden left the firm in 1909, to be replaced by William Crowell in 1911. After Mauran’s death in 1933, Russell & Crowell added W.Oscar Mullgardt.

By the mid-20 century, more than half a century into its existence, the partnership remained one of the leading architectural firms in St. Louis. Esley Hamilton wrote that in the 1950s and 60s, the firm “was unusual in maintaining its design flare while working on large commercial projects. The firm completed many architecturally significant works during this period. In addition to the Mansion House, four of their other projects were recommended for National Register listing in the City of St. Louis’ Modern Movements survey of 2013.

This means that 1/5 of the 25 properties on the list were by the various iterations of this single partnership, more than any on other firm on the list.

The four other buildings on the list are as follows. The Wohl Recreation Center (1959) at 1515 N. Kingshighway Boulevard is a glass-skinned neighborhood recreation center commissioned by the City of St. Louis. The Engineers Club of St. Louis (1959) at 4359 Lindell Boulevard is a low-rise addition to the emerging Modernist corridor; its use of traditional masonry and playful forms is very striking. The original two-story section of the Optimist Building (1961, 4490-94 Lindell Boulevard), a block to the west of the Engineers Club, has an exposed concrete frame.[Emphasis added] Finally, the Steinberg Art Gallery Building at Washington University was a collaboration between the partnership and architect Fumihiko Maki, who is credited with the design (1960, 6201-53 Forsyth Blvd.)

In addition to the buildings recommended for listing in the City’s Modernism survey, the partnership of Schwarz & Van Hoefen designed many other important buildings in St. Louis. Among the most visible is Council Plaza, which consists of two towers and two smaller buildings located at 212 – 310 S. Grand Boulevard (NRHP 3/02/2007).

So the architectural firm is an important part of our history. The city’s modern architecture page includes the survey mentioned above, which lists the Optimist International property as significant and worthy of individual listing. The list only contains 25 properties. So one of the two buildings is architecturally significant. Saying otherwise ignores the established record.

I love density, but it’s also correct that the Central West End isn’t where we need to be building more density. That said, I do like that the proposed apartment building includes small studio apartments. If only new CWE residential projects included some affordable and low-income units — they are not the same thing. An alternative is paying into a fund the help building units elsewhere in the city. Elsewhere means cheaper, less desirable neighborhoods…like where I’ve lived for before and for the last 2+ years.

One pro-preservation argument I saw said the Optimist International building was urban, in line with adjacent properties. Well, yes and no. It’s not set back behind a surface parking lot and the entrance clearly fronts onto the primary street.   The Lindell facade respects the established building line, the Taylor side is a set further back than the slightly older Grant Medical Clinic at 114 N. Taylor, designed by Harris Armstrong. In addition to being set back further than other buildings a low stone wall & raised lawn separates the building from the Taylor facade.  As a result of the design, the Taylor side has zero activity/openings/entrances. This is not urban form.

Looking south you can see the substantial setback behind the raised lawn. The low wall is the established building line along Taylor.

The proposed 7-story apartment building would be built out to the building line, not set back. It would have have a few retail storefront spaces right off the Taylor sidewalk. Balconies would also face Taylor, the common pool area also faces Taylor. I believe Taylor Ave would be more active and interesting with the proposed building, compared with the existing.

I do think we need to save our architectural history from all centuries. Both 19th & 20th century buildings are threatened, often for different reasons. While I love clean 20th century modernism it often is a negative to the urban experience. Claiming MCM buildings are urban is just as disingenuous as those who say the Optimist International building has no architectural merit.

In the event the current proposal falls through, I could see a reuse project where the 1979 4-story addition is replaced by a taller tower with west-facing balconies. A few storefronts or entrances are carefully cut into the Taylor facade. with a section of lawn & wall removed to create an entrance to each. Cafe tables with umbrellas would look great. Maybe the main building has storefronts, residential lobby on the ground floor and structured parking on the upper floor? New residential units would all be in the new tower to the east. The roof of the old building could be a green roof with outdoor seating, activities.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

Few Exposed Brick Pavers Covered With Asphalt

June 10, 2021 Featured, North City, Transportation, Walkability Comments Off on Few Exposed Brick Pavers Covered With Asphalt

Most older streets in St. Louis were paved in cobblestones or paver bricks, few exist anymore.  Asphalt paving is significantly smoother, just far less attractive. In 1953 the Cochran Gardens high rise public housing complex opened, but construction closed off 8th Street between O’Fallon Street and the alley south of Cass Avenue. Eighth Street was reopened when the high rise towers were replaced with the mixed-income Cambridge Heights townhouses & apartments, except 8th wasn’t connected through to the little stub of a street to Cass.

This October 2, 2019 view is looking south on 8th from Cass. You can see the land just after the alley, Cambridge Heights, and the downtown skyline on the horizon. In the foreground you can see brick pavers. It looked like it had been paved over decades ago, but most was long gone so the old bricks were exposed.
On May 5th I returned home tfrom a press conference at the Chain of Rocks water treatment plant to see city crews paving over the small amount of bricks.
Closer view
A couple of days later I went back to see the finished results.The concrete in the foreground was part of the new river bridge project, when Cass was raised in height over the interstate.

This half block of 8th Street gets very little traffic, the uniformity of the asphalt paving does look better than it did with patches of old asphalt and broken bricks. This is better, but I still miss seeing the bricks.

— Steve Patterson

 

Eleven New Trees Replaced Along Broadway at Baer Plaza

June 7, 2021 Downtown, Environment, Featured, Walkability Comments Off on Eleven New Trees Replaced Along Broadway at Baer Plaza

Early last month I saw landscapers planting new trees along Broadway next to Baer Plaza, across from the dome.

On May 3. 2021 I saw workers busy planting new trees on the east side of Broadway.

I frequently take Broadway to/from the central business district. Living north of the convention center & dome, Broadway (5th)& 9th are the only options to get around the massive facility that closed 8th, 7th, and 6th streets. Sometimes to make things interesting I roll on the east side of Broadway, so I knew exactly where they were planting.

On October 1, 2020 I snapped a few pics of the empty spots where trees had once been:

Looking north you could see the numerous empty squares where the allee vanished.
Some were just bare dirt.
Others still had some liriope (aka monkey grass)

There were 11 trees missing, very obvious sign of neglect. Not sure why, but I didn’t post the pictures to social media. So last month I was very happy to see workers busy planting eleven new trees. I retuned on May 7th to get these pics.

The new trees are small compared to the more mature trees further north, but they’re quite big for new trees.
Another view.

I don’t know trees to tell you the variety or how fast they’ll grow. Hopefully within a few years they’ll fill out nicely.  I’m going to take the east side of Broadway more often, especially when going to Laclede’s Landing, Eads Bridge, Arch grounds, etc.

— Steve Patterson

 

The 9th/10th One-Way Couplet Needs To Return To Two-Way ASAP

May 25, 2021 Downtown, Featured, Planning & Design, Transportation Comments Off on The 9th/10th One-Way Couplet Needs To Return To Two-Way ASAP

More than six decades ago 9th & 10th streets were changed from two-way to one-way in the opposite directions — a one-way couplet. This still exists from Clark Ave on the south to Cass Ave on the north — a distance of 1.2 miles. The north end used to continue past Cass to connect to I-70, but it was shortened when construction on the newest bridge over the Mississippi River began approximately 15 years ago. The south end still connects to I-64 ramps.

The purpose of one-way streets decades ago was to quickly get cars into downtown in the morning, then back out after work. They did their job…a little too well. Downtown was so quick to empty out nobody stuck around for shopping, dinner, or a show. There many reasons why downtowns emptied out, but one-way streets were a major contributor. To make downtown St. Louis enjoyable as a place to live, work, and visit all the one-way streets need to return to two-way traffic eventually. When Locust Street west of 14th switched back to two-way a dozen years ago it made a huge difference.

For nearly 50 years  9th & 10th extended north of Cass Ave to connect to I-70, but that ended with the 2010 start of a new bridge over the Mississippi River, later named the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. But downtown 9th & 10th weren’t the original couplet of paired opposite direction one-way streets.

Let’s look at the original one-way couplets in the downtown central business district (Arch to 12th/Tucker):

  1. Northbound 4th & southbound Broadway (aka 5th)
  2. Southbound 6th & northbound 7th
  3. Southbound 8th & northbound 9th
  4. Southbound 10th & northbound 11th

The first still exists today, the rest have all been changed to the point they no longer function as original intended. Three streets lots blocks to the convention center & dome: 6th, 7th, 8th. Ninth will soon be added to that list.  Sixth street lost blocks to Kiener Plaza & the hotel south of Market. Both sixth & seventh streets lost blocks to the original downtown Busch Stadium (now Ballpark Village), and the current Busch Stadium. And finally northbound 9th Street is closed for one block between Market & Chestnut because the designers of Citygarden didn’t think about a pedestrian signal at 9th & Market. D’oh!

I’ve posted about changing these opposite one-way streets back to two-way traffic numerous times, but now it’s urgent. When the convention center expansion begins a couple of blocks of 9th will be closed, but that’s not the urgent reason for restoring two-way traffic. The vacant AT&T Tower downtown at 909 Chestnut (bordered by 9th, Chestnut, 10th, and Pine) is why these streets need to revert to two-way traffic. Why?

909 Chestnut was built at the headquarters for Southwestern Bell Telephone, later purchased by AT&T

The entrance and exit to the small underground garage was designed with the one-way streets in mind, the entrance was off northbound 9th and the exit was onto southbound 10th. The 44-story building has been vacant since 2017, but eventually someone will renovate it. When they do it would be easy to switch the entrance and exit. If the building is renovated while 9th & 10th are still one-way it’ll be impossible to make them two-way in the future.

The original entrance off nb 9th could be an exit after future renovations.
The original basement entrance could just as easily be the exit.
On the opposite side of the building we have the original exit onto sb 10th. Again, this could easily be the entrance if 10th was two-way.

Since built, exiting traffic has come out southbound just before Chestnut. Switching the exit from 10th to 9th wouldn’t change this potential conflict point.

The building has lost value and changed hands numerous times, eventually someone is going to renovate it. 

The 1.4 million-square-foot, 44-story office building on Chestnut Street is the largest office building by square-footage in the region, and the 1986 structure built for a single tenant has posed a vexing challenge amid a downtown market already struggling with the highest office vacancy rate in the metro area. 

AT&T vacated its lease in September 2017 and about 2,000 of the company’s employees relocated nearby in buildings at 801 Chestnut and 1010 Pine streets. (Post-Dispatch, May 2019)

For comparison here are some other large vacant buildings downtown

Since 909 Chestnut was built as a headquarters it was connected to buildings to the east & west. Another block west was a large company parking garage. The garage under 909 Chestnut is small, was built for service vehicles and company executives. A MetroLink light rail station is only a block away, but parking obsessed assumes everyone has a car.

The building footprint is too small to ramp up to use some upper floors for parking. A car elevator or automated system are the only options to get cars up higher, but they’re very costly.

Eventually someone will figure it out. When they do 9th & 10th should be two-way traffic.

— Steve Patterson

 

MLS Stadium: Before & During Photos From the St. Louis Wheel at Union Station

March 29, 2021 Downtown, Featured, MLS Stadium, Planning & Design Comments Off on MLS Stadium: Before & During Photos From the St. Louis Wheel at Union Station

In February 2016 the St. Louis region was still accepting the fact the Rams were returning to California, our proposal to clear the north riverfront for a new National Football League (NFL) stadium had been rejected — by Kroenke or voters…can’t remember.

Also in February 2016 Major League Soccer (MLS) expressed interest in St. Louis as an expansion city. I didn’t want the historic north riverfront to continued being targeted, so I proposed a different site. A site I’d wanted to see redeveloped for years. The short remnants of the never-built 22nd Street Parkway.

See 2015/01/20 A Great Site For A Major League Soccer (MLS) Stadium In Downtown St. Louis

This image is from that February 2016 post, taken from the adjacent hotel.

I haven’t been back to that hotel yet, but I have ridden the St. Louis Wheel at Union Station. Twice, in September 2019 and earlier this month.

Today’s post is a look at similar views from those two visits, nearly 18 months apart.

Before: looking northwest on September 24, 2019
During: a similar view as above on March 7, 2021. In time the Union Station surface parking lot in the foreground will get developed.

Now for a cropped view focusing on Market over the 22nd Parkway.

Before: the Market St bridge and the ramp up to it had been there for decades. I saw the big hole on the other side of Market as an architectural advantage.
During: the decaying Market Street bridge is gone! The new MLS stadium is set into the hole. A tunnel will provide service access to the stadium.

Now looking west:

Before: The 22nd Parkway cut a slice between 21st & 22nd streets. Prior NFL & MLS stadium proposals were here, wedged up against I-64.
During: for the first time in 6+ decades Clark Ave will be uninterrupted between 20th & Jefferson.

It’s even more exciting closer to street level.

Before: pretty much a dead zone in 2019.
During: you can see Clark Ave taking shape. Eventually the long vacant land in the foreground will be developed.

It is very exciting to see this area beginning to recover from the damaging 22nd Street Parkway project. It’ll take years to fill in, but it’s better to naturally fill in over time than to be an all at once infill project.

Will do this again in 12-18 months.

— Steve Patterson

 

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