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St. Elizabeth Academy’s Historic Structures Should Be Preserved

Contributed by Christian Saller

St. Elizabeth Academy, (SEA) located at 3401 Arsenal Street in the Tower Grove East neighborhood since the late 19th century, seeks to demolish its most historic campus structures. This long-term goal is referenced in brochures produced to promote a “master plan” for the institution. These buildings are structurally sound and have been well maintained. The Tower Grove East Neighborhood Association, while expressing support for and interest in assisting SEA, voted unanimously to oppose this demolition. This action was subsequently communicated to the leadership of SEA and to 6th Ward Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, herself a graduate of the school.

St. Elizabeth Academy
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy's original structure from 1894. Photo by Steve Patterson

SEA contains historic structures that form the basis of a National Historic District established in the Tower Grove East neighborhood in 1983. The campus includes a 1914 gymnasium with the last known lamella roof in St. Louis. The original school building, facing west on Crittenden Street, was constructed in 1894, with adjacent wings dating from 1914 and 1922. The current plan to consolidate SEA in the 1957-vintage structure on Arsenal Street while abandoning and destroying the original historic structures will exert a negative impact on the established Historic District, the larger neighborhood of Tower Grove East, and the City of St. Louis.

The historic SEA campus fostered development of a distinctive two-block cul de sac, Crittenden Street, which runs from the west side of SEA to a gate at S. Grand Blvd. across from Tower Grove Park. The relationship of SEA to these residential structures is a key aspect of the historic district itself. The buildings on these two residential blocks are of unusually high-quality construction with a cohesiveness of scale, set-back, materials, and architectural detail. It is clear to even casual observers that builders and architects of Crittenden Street saw an opportunity to develop a charming residential district for residents of varying means, with picturesque structures that complement one another while varying in size and occupancy. The presence of SEA made this distinctive street possible, terminating as it does at S. Grand Blvd. near a main pedestrian entrance to Tower Grove Park. The significant relationship between the historic institution and the dwellings to its west was formally articulated in the National Register nomination for the district nearly 30 years ago. The character and atmosphere resulting from this architectural juxtaposition are perhaps unique in the City of St. Louis. From its inception, the Crittenden Historic District accommodated a variety of incomes, institutional, and residential uses that do not merely co-exist but complement one another in an intimate and gracious extended community. At the same time the district includes characteristics commonly seen in more exclusive private streets.

ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy gym, photo by Rene Saller
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy 1914 gymnasium, photo by Rene Saller

Loss of the historic core of SEA would be a detriment far beyond the loss of the structures themselves. The carefully conceived character of the entire Historic District would be permanently undermined and diminished. In the varying fortunes of the Tower Grove East neighborhood over the years, Crittenden Street was relatively stable and intact, due in part to its unique configuration and the ambiance afforded by the presence of historic SEA. Today, Crittenden Street is a highly desirable place to live and its stability has contributed to the revitalization of adjacent blocks, including Pestalozzi and Arsenal Streets, which border it on the south and north, respectively. Destruction of the core buildings in this district will alter the aesthetic character that makes it historic in the first place and will erode the value of its related structures. Their original, historical reference and context will be gone.

Understandably, institutions such as SEA face challenges in maintaining and utilizing historic structures, as do homeowners with houses of similar age. As part of an established Historic District, the SEA campus is eligible for historic tax credits that could provide 20% to 25% of total project renovation costs. The 1957-vintage structure where the school seeks to consolidate is itself also now potentially eligible for historic tax credits, which was not the case when the district was established. The executive director of Landmarks Association, Jefferson Mansell, has offered pro bono services of his organization to write a historic register nomination for the 1957 building, making it formally part of the historic district and eligible for these credits. If the historic campus behind the 1957 building is destroyed, this structure would not be eligible for credits without the original institutional fabric.

ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy's 1957 structure
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy's 1957 structure

The leaders of SEA should reconsider their stated course of action and recognize the importance of retaining these historic buildings. Practical alternatives to demolition exist and should be exhaustively explored. The costs of demolishing these buildings, preparing the site, and perhaps eventually constructing a new building are likely greater than those of renovating and improving the existing structures to more aptly suit the school’s contemporary requirements. I hope for SEA to prosper and thrive at its current location for generations of students yet to come, ideally in the handsome historic structures that give the school its distinctive atmosphere and identity. The most prudent stewardship of the millions of dollars in donations currently sought by SEA’s capital campaign would be to fund renovation and reuse of the historic buildings.

ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy original entry, photo by Rene Saller
ABOVE: St. Elizabeth Academy original entry, photo by Rene Saller

If historic buildings of this caliber are not a priority for protection by the city’s Preservation Board and our elected officials, it is hard to imagine what historic structures should be saved anywhere in the City of St. Louis. These architecturally significant buildings are located in a neighborhood that has stabilized and substantially improved in value over recent decades, in no small measure because of investment in and renovation of historic buildings throughout the district. The structures in question are among the most historic and architecturally significant in the entire neighborhood. Needlessly demolishing them in the name of “progress” would be an antiquated and counterproductive approach to addressing the challenges posed by older buildings. The leadership of SEA wishes to strengthen its student enrollment and position in the St. Louis region and says that it is committed to the city and to the Tower Grove East neighborhood. I hope that it gives action to this commendable sentiment by embracing the valuable resource of its historic campus and the surrounding urban community of which it is an inextricable part.

- Christian Saller

Prior Post: St. Elizabeth Academy Raising Funds To Raze Historic Structures by Steve Patterson, October 2010

Chriustian & Rene Saller live on Crittenden


Why Great Streets?

August 7, 2010 Guest 1 Comment

The life of any great city occurs on the street. Streets are the most public of domains, where we engage in an assortment of activities. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, said, Cities need “a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other mutual support, both economically and socially.” On great commercial and mixed-use blocks, this happens. These streets, when woven through neighborhoods and districts, provide an armature for social interaction and economic growth. They also represent the character, history and culture of the community, making them, quite possibly, iconic.

Great streets are the bonds of great communities. They house civic institutions where we meet to discuss current affairs and make plans for our future and the future of our children. Great streets contain businesses where we obtain goods and services we need and want. Often these are the businesses of our friends and neighbors. Broadly speaking, the stores, shops and offices here are the base of the local economy or, in some instances, were until big-box stores killed their existence. Despite trying times, great streets always seem to rebound.

For those not fortunate enough to live on or near these streets, we still tend to like visiting them. Whether to rehash memories of “the old neighborhood” or to help imagine what our lives had been with a great main street in walking distance from our homes, they have great appeal. We also have an affinity for these places, because they are where we have by-chance interaction with friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and future friends or spouses. Regardless, it seems there is something remarkable about great streets and that is why the City of St. Louis is making efforts to strengthen them and make them more prevalent.

In order to study and develop great streets in St. Louis, we have to learn from already existing great streets. The best way to determine where they are and why they are great is to hear from those who use and visit them. For this reason Great Streets of STL asks you to come voice your thoughts at: GreatStreetsofSTL.com.

– Bryan Zundel


Transportation and the Urban Form

The host of this site, Steve Patterson, and I are both passionate about urban design issues. One area where we differ is how the interaction between transportation options and the urban form plays out in the real world. Steve, and others, believe that requiring “better”, more appropriate and/or more restrictive design standards, through efforts like moving to form-based zoning and reducing available parking, will somehow convince the uninformed public to become more enlightened and to change their ways.  I have a different perspective, that available transportation options inform the urban form, including our land use regulations and their application on a daily basis.

I’m not going to go back to the discovery of the wheel, but I am going to go back 150 years.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution / the American Civil War, transportation options were limited to human, animal, water or wind power – you could walk or row, ride a horse or a mule, use a sailboat or “go with the flow”.  The result was a world made up of farms, relatively small settlements, seaports, river ports and a few larger centers of banking, trade and government.  There was no zoning, as we know it, but we did have our westward expansion, with land being given away for free to anyone willing to “tame the wilderness”, through farming, ranching or mining.

Cities were just starting to build rudimentary water supply and sewer systems, and elevators and air conditioning were non-existent.  You got an urban environment marked by row houses, small, local retail establishments and tiny signs.  You didn’t have drive-throughs or dry cleaners, computers or gas stations; you did have hitching posts and coal for heat, telegraph and manure in the streets, Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim.  You can find many preserved examples up and down the east coast, including Colonial Williamsburg.  And St. Louis started to grow as the Gateway to the West, primarily as a trading center and a transportation hub.  Examples around here include Soulard, Carondelet and Baden

The ability to capture the power of steam, through the boiler and the steam engine gave us railroads, cable cars and steam heat.  It also gave us the ability to run machinery with something other than water power, greatly expanding where factories could be located and how much they could produce.  More importantly, electricity was staring to be harnessed, with major improvements in generation, lighting and motors.  From the 1850’s through the 1890’s, city life changed rapidly.  Factories, along with their need for lots of workers, worked better in urban settings than in rural ones.  Cities like St. Louis became industrial centers as well as trading centers.

Quoting from a story in the 12/13/09 edition of the Daytona Beach News-Journal;

According to the Web site trolleystop.com, the first successful trolley system in the United States began operation in Richmond, Va. in 1887.  After the initial success in Richmond, almost all of the horse car lines in North America were converted to electric power.  The electric trolleys became so popular that the street railway industry experienced explosive growth almost overnight.  As the popularity of automobiles and buses boomed in the 1920s, however, most trolley companies began converting their lines to bus service.

That was certainly the case here.  We had multiple streetcar companies competing for riders and we saw explosive growth of streetcar suburbs, both inside and outside the city limits.

Streetcars and buses allowed workers to live further away from work.  You still needed to walk to the transit line, but it meant living within walking distance of your job was no longer an essential requirement.  People had more options, and many of those, that could afford to, moved out of the older, denser parts of town, leaving them to new waves of immigrants or to see them torn down and replaced by factories.  Retailers were still expected to offer home delivery, so stay-at-home moms (yes it’s a stereotype, but it was the reality) shopped for fresh food pretty much every day and kids walked or biked to neighborhood schools.  This was also the time when the first attempts at zoning started to occur, primarily to separate industrial uses from residential ones.

The next big “step forward” was Henry Ford’s efforts to produce an affordable automobile.  His success, in the 1920’s, was the next big step in the suburbanization of America and St. Louis.  Throughout south city one can find garages that are too small for many contemporary vehicles – they were built to shelter the vehicle that expanded Dad’s transportation options, Ford’s Model T.  The residential neighborhoods of that time were still walkable (with sidewalks) and they still had corner groceries, but they were growing less dense.

The next big impact on the urban environment was World War II, both directly and indirectly.  Factories moved from multi-story to single-story, sprawling structures.  The internal combustion engine became more reliable and synthetic rubber made tires much less of a pain in the a**.  Women entered the work force in large numbers and pent-up demand for consumer products continued to build.

Once the war ended, we experienced several decades of unprecedented prosperity, from the mid ’40’s through the ’70’s.  We built the interstate highway system and moms learned to drive.  FHA and VA loans favored single-family homes, primarily new, suburban ones, over denser, multi-family options.  We went from single-car families to 2-car families.  We embraced the suburban shopping center and the enclosed mall.

Just because it was a whole lot easier, people chose driving themselves over taking public transit.  They chose living in the new suburbs over living in established urban areas, especially those that had experienced decades of deferred maintenance (the Great Depression followed by wartime rationing).  Employers, schools and retailers all responded by offering more and more “free” parking, either by planning for it from the start, in new suburban developments, or by buying up and tearing down existing buildings in more-established urban areas.  This mobility also resulted in the Euclidean zoning that many of us are questioning today – it codified a preference for convenient parking over both density and walkability.

The end result is the world we live in today.  It reflects the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Americans, as reflected by the actions of our elected officials.  We trade sprawl and congested highways for the “freedom” to live where we want, work where we can find jobs and to shop at generic chains who have mastered the worldwide logistics supply chain.  We have seen St. Louis lose both population and jobs.  And we have two choices – we can continue to become more suburban, building more shopping centers, single-family homes and “free” parking.  Or we can redirect our efforts, differentiate ourselves from our suburban neighbors, encourage density and create viable transportation alternatives.

To attract people out of their cars and trucks won’t be easy.  There’s a real attraction to privacy, control and convenience.  But, as a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, I find it interesting that more members of the Generation Y are willing to embrace mass transit.  It turns out that people who text, tweet and surf the mobile net would actually rather let someone else do the driving, IF they can figure out how to make it work.  Whether that involves reinventing Metro’s system and creating a market for higher densities or developing a taxi infrastructure that mimics that in New York, it appears that we may be on the cusp of a another significant change in how people want to live, work and commute.  Combine that with the growing success of, and the reliance many people have on, online shopping, and in many ways we’re returning to the “home delivery” model of yore.

Steve’s belief in the need for form-based zoning could very well be reflected in actual change, just not one driven by direct logic and/or nostalgia.  I doubt that we’ll see the imminent demise of the suburban shopping center or the type of store Schnuck’s or Direbergs typically builds.  But I can see a future where Transit Oriented Development will gain traction on both the residential side and on the employment/educational side – it’s actually slowly playing out here locally at the Barnes campus on Kingshighway.  The single-occupant vehicle could very well become an anachronism for the daily commute, saved only for shopping, recreation and regional out-of-town trips.  Whether it ends up being garaged for days at a time or rented only when needed will be a personal decision.  But these decisions will inform what “sells”, and in turn, what gets built, and ultimately, what our legislators will see a need to codify.

– Jim Zavist


Successful Northside Job Growth

The first phase of the Northside redevelopment project as proposed by Paul McKee is to focus on the “job centers” and mixed use areas. Numbers are being thrown around as to imply thousands of jobs will be created by this project. I wonder what measure will be used to declare the project a success with respect to jobs by those proposing the plan.

The project will require a lot of construction jobs, which is a fact. These are people that would not have been needed otherwise. The time frame of twenty years implies the jobs will be needed for an extended duration compared to most construction projects. Despite that scope and time frame, do construction jobs truly help grow the area? Even with such a long time frame the jobs are only temporary. It is unreasonable to assume that someone could graduate, make a career of the project, and retire when it is done. Based on retirement accounts requirements they would still have another twenty years of work.  Shouldn’t the expectation for jobs created be that the jobs are permanent? Yes,t his economy has shown that no job is truly permanent, But no matter the time frame  construction jobs are by nature temporary. The 40/64 concrete river project demonstrates that. When 40 is complete construction will continue in the region, but will all those workers stay in St Louis? I doubt it. Some of them will return when the new Mississippi bridge starts up in full. There will probably be projects after that, but I don’t want the fate of the region’s job growth to depend on never ending highway work.  Local restaurants can’t move around the region at will to follow the construction.  They need permanent customers to keep open.

Looking at the McKee track record for development makes me wary, too. He touts his Winghaven and NorthPark projects as examples of what he and his associates can accomplish. The two projects boast two of the regions larger employers in Express Scripts and MasterCard. Unfortunately both these employers were already in the region before they moved into their new offices.  More specifically, they were in the same city. Sorry, Maryland Heights, I hope you didn’t need those taxes. True, Express Scripts was threatening to leave the area and NorthPark help keep them here, along with some tax incentives. Also, MasterCard had outgrown its offices in Maryland Heights and needed new digs. But in the end, McKee merely helped keep jobs from leaving. Preventing negative growth is not the same thing as creating new growth. Who does McKee plan on luring into the north city for this new project? I doubt Edward Jones is going to give up all their brand new buildings along 270.  Do you think InBev is tired of the historic brewery yet?

Additionally, there is the dilemma of existing projects already in work to compete with. Winghaven still has space available for development. NorthPark is basically a field with nice streets. Express Scripts isn’t even in the development, instead choosing to be south of I-70 next to UMSL. The old Ford Plant has been wiped out of existence and Hazelwood is dieing to get some tax base back on that land. The current economy has opened up business space in areas like Earth City and Westport. The occupancy rate downtown offices are not that great. And these are just some examples of places in the region vying for new jobs. What if the Northside development center gets all the new jobs in the coming years and every where else in the metro area remains stagnant?

Finally, the current economic conditions do not bode well for new jobs. Every region of the country is going to fight to keep what they have. Other cities are constantly offering huge incentives to attract growth. Just look at what it took to keep Express Scripts. What exactly does Paul McKee have to offer to convince a company to move to St Louis when it is hard to keep the ones already here? St Louis will be wrangling with every other city in the country for each new job. Not to imply it is a contest St Louis cannot win, but it won’t be as easy as some people are implying. The Lou is not the only place that will be offering new buildings and tax incentives in the coming years. That still leaves the possibility of start-ups as the source of new jobs. Might the next Google or Facebook start up in north St Louis? A future global company setting up roots in the new development could be the pinnacle of the project. Unfortunately, as many failed businessmen will tell you, there are more failures than success with new companies.

How will you measure the success of the project with respect to jobs:

  • For just having jobs associated with it?
  • Having low end retail jobs new to the city?
  • Pulling jobs into the city from around the metro area?
  • Preventing jobs from leaving the metro area?
  • Getting new jobs at the cost of other developments in the metro area?
  • Being the founding location of a future Fortune 500 company?

Permanent new to the region jobs, while not sucking up all growth in the metro area, will be my measure of success.

– Kevin McGuire


Chicken or the Egg? Business or the home?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  People with too much time on their hands have laid out a detailed argument here. For this post I am more interested in a question similar in nature.  Which came first, the home or the business?

The reason I pose the query is because a recent news story on my favorite radio station once again mentioned “job centers” with regards to the NorthSide development.  From what I have heard and read, McKee and associates plan on concentrating on job centers to begin the massive project and work on residential in the future.   I do not understand why.  If their goal is truly to redevelop north city, I do not believe job centers are where to begin.  Residential is where they should start, because to answer my own question, I believe the home came first.

I base my view on what I have observed spending a lifetime in suburbia.  A look back at the history of the region sees that the homes almost always come before businesses.  North county grew in the post war years due to massive amounts of housing developments.  The businesses moved in after.  Just compare north Lindbergh between now and twenty years ago. The migration of the suburbanites to St Charles county preceded the explosion in retail.  To understand what I am talking about, try driving down Highway K, which was a two lane road fifteen years ago.  West County filled in with soccer moms and SUVs before Target and Best Buy decided they needed stores in a flood plain.

There is easy explanation for why businesses will always follow homes.  In the words of Mr. Gekko, “Greed is good.”  Businesses are for all intent and purposes greedy entities.  They are only open of the pursuit of money.  Otherwise they are called non-profits.  Stores want to be where the people are located so they can make as much money as possible.  Which is they Home Depot has a store on Highway K and not Cass ave.  Businesses do not need tax incentives to open in locations where there is significant money to be taken from consumers.  Entrepreneurs know that if they don’t open a store in prime locations, their competitors will.

A perfect example of my theory in work in an urban environment is downtown.  Union Station and St Louis Center are illustrations of business development of the past that failed to revitalize the area.  They lead to no growth in the city.  On the other hand, the Washington Loft district exemplifies how businesses move in once there is a critical residential mass.  Downtown even has a grocery store for the first time in decades.  (author’s note:  I know of the now defunct City Grocers.  Just rubbing some loft residents.)

This view of the world leads me to conclude that the starting point for the NorthSide needs to be massive residential development.  I am well aware that homes currently exist in the area.  Obviously these are not homes a majority of people want to live in.  If they were, they would have premium pricing, not rock bottom.  However, an immense fill-in of new family housing would be impossible for greedy businessmen to ignore.  Job/retail centers would be easy to develop without much government assistance when Trader Joe’s wants a store in the area.   Set those areas aside for future development when it is needed.

I assume that the residential development would be an urban style and walkable, but those details are moot.  What is important is the size.  Repeat the example set forth by the suburban subdivisions and build hundreds of homes at once in an urban setting.  View it as a giant planned community.  Few people want to be the first on the street staring at overgrown lots with a promise of more to come.  Seeing homes being built all around would ease some of those fears.  This would only help the existing residents as they see their home values rise.  (In my world it is done the right way, without taking peoples homes, but rather building around them.)  An example of this done on a small scale with success can be seen in the West End just north of Delmar on Enright and accompanying streets.  Now I don’t agree with some of the design choices that were made, but a group of new homes were built and sold for a premium price.  This demonstrates that there is some demand for new housing in the city.

I am aware that the planned job centers are intended to have mixed residential sprinkled in the plans.  However, from everything I have heard and read I get the feeling that the mixed use areas are not Paul’s prime concern at the outset.  Lets just ignore that city schools are currently a hindrance to any residential growth and concentrate on whether McKee should spend time building job centers or homes.

– Kevin McGuire