What Should Be: Adaptive Reuse of the St. Louis Shotgun Home

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Across St. Louis, four-family flats are becoming two-family townhomes. Two-family buildings are now single-family residences. The century old brick box is eminently reusable. Rip out a stairway, pull down a wall and move the kitchen…there are options. But one traditional building type would appear to present an unresolved challenge. The single-story, 800 square foot shotgun home may be the most commonly demolished of all building types in the city.

A typical developer response is that it’s too tough to squeeze out a profit. At a modest $80 per square foot, the $64,000 renovation cost has yet to find a market, even with inexpensive, or even free, building acquisition. This is a bit of a mystery to me as a $100,000 sales price and just 5% down would result in a monthly payment of $500. Why this isn’t more attractive than an apartment or a small condo, I don’t know.

fpse 036
{these homes still stand in Forest Park Southeast, but many are being demolished}

Anyway, it’s clear that alternatives to a straight rehab are needed. Philip Durham recognized this in 2003, developing a “para-building” design that would add 900 square feet to the standard bungalow. The modular building industry has developed rapidly in recent years and it’s easy to imagine that such a transformation could be accomplished in a short time and at a reduced cost. The building here is especially shallow and larger shotgun homes would allow a larger addition. It’s a design that might even meet approval in the many local historic districts (think Columbus, Ohio’s German Village).

The design is for 2214 Wyoming Avenue, across from Benton Park. It won a 2003 Honor Award for Excellence in Unbuilt Projects from the St. Louis Chapter of the AIA. At the time, the jury said, “The addition respects the historic rhythm this type of house creates on the street, an aspect of the design we found very compelling and signaled a unique sense of restraint in the architect’s approach to the project. The architect has demonstrated that, through a modest intervention, both the domestic and urban experience can be improved.”

There’s no easy answer regarding how we get from demolition to reuse, but the What Should Be series seeks to push site-specific solutions to design problems in the St. Louis region. By pushing ideas into the public conversation, good ideas can become better ideas critical review and contributions that further concepts, and those better ideas may even become more than theoretical proposals with steady promotion and official interest.

It’s easy to see an obvious problem and desire change, but it’s undoubtedly better to know what’s there, and to show what should be. With a small increase in demand, or continued shift to more sustainable development, one can imagine dozens of these spotting the city. If lots were more valuable, reuse would demand more creativity and an ever wider set of solutions might emerge. The future of the St. Louis brick bungalow depends on it.

Philip Durham’s description of the adaptive reuse of 2214 Wyoming Avenue:

Project Requirements & Solutions: The project was conceived as a way to demonstrate the possibilities for adaptive reuse of St. Louis’ stock of single story bungalow houses, and to interest young professionals in the area to explore other urban neighborhoods. The existing house is less than 800 square feet on one floor. The proposed addition would wrap the back, side and top of the building, letting each element express it’s own character. The addition contains the entrance and new staircases, and new support spaces on the lower level. On the upper level the addition floats over the existing building with a bedroom and deck with views facing out across Benton Park. Construction systems and details were kept as simple as possible to control project costs.

Type of Construction:
Existing building is a standard St. Louis wood framing and masonry bearing wall structure. New addition to bear on steel beams with independent foundations, wood framing and concrete board siding.

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  • Marshall Howell

    Many of these should just be removed and allow new construction to take their place. Many but not all, are not very appealing to look at.

    • Mike F

      Wrooooong! So, so, wrong! A neighbor builder of mine did just as this article suggests: He built a two story addition to the back of the shotgun he owned and lived in with his family (architect wife and teenage daughter). His work was not nearly as stylish as the example above, but it did the job. To suggest that a perfectly viable home, with no inherent or observable structural or functional defects otherwise, should be torn down simply because it is “functionally obsolete” (what the hell does that even mean, beyond some MarketingPRopaganda douchnozzle’s limited vocabulary and imagination?) is foolhardy and short-sighted. Does the phrase “embodied energy” mean anything to you? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodied_energy

      Oh, and unless you’re effing blind, many of these little gems are simply one-story versions of equally handsome and stylish examples of the St. Louis vernacular.

      BTW, it’s “eminently”, Mr. Ihnen. I’m apparently late to this party, but a much belated thanks for this post. The ignorance of St. Louisans as suggested by Mr. Howell’s comment needs a little enlightenment.

      • STLEnginerd

        Well I take a more nuanced view of this.

        When you gut rehab something you do retain some “embodied energy” the bricks, the foundation etc. But realistically the cost to rebuild that footprint to modern standards (basically basement, framing, roof, and cladding the exterior) is a small fraction of what a project of the scope shown above. Admittedly you could never reproduce the stone foundations, old world brick etc. But they also present challenges that come with cracking and shifting, water infiltration, old plumbing that will need dug out and replaced, uneven basement floors, low basement ceilings, etc etc.

        For each structure you really have to evaluate the negatives and determine whether the “embodied energy” is worth accepting some of the less desirable aspects of historic housing. For many of the shotguns the simple answer is no.

        That said I do not favor demo unless there is a clearly better, urban scale plan with secure financing to take its place. Additionally I think several of the best examples should be preserved and plans such as detailed above should be given favorable treatment relative to complete tear downs. Realistically though they have a very limited market and it is difficult to find a business case for their preservation as neighborhoods become more desirable.