American historic preservation is unique. We value an exacting maintenance of form and materials. It’s often an all or nothing. This isn’t without reason, but it leads to interesting challenges in a city like St. Louis, where sometimes perfection can be the enemy of good. Requiring exacting standards can sometimes prevent investment. Ultimately, historic preservation guidelines are a local issue as neighborhoods set standards. In St. Louis, the result is sharp edges between neighborhoods such as Lafayette Square and Peabody Darst Webbe and between Soulard and Kosckiusko. It would seem that a graduated preservation standard could go a long way toward creating a better city – though that’s a topic for another post.
Next week’s City of St. Louis Preservation Board agenda aptly highlights the various challenges of historic preservation in St. Louis: high-end yoga clothing retailer seeks to add flash to a Central West End storefront, vinyl windows installed without permit, proposed demolition and reconstruction of the Swedish Society Building and a covered patio structure in historic Soulard. There’s a little of everything this month.
The recent news that high-end yoga clothing retailer Lululeman would be opening a store in the CWE’s Maryland Plaza was seen as good news for the bustling Euclid corridor that continues to struggle to establish retail. Well, they like their building, but they’d love it if they could just add green, blue and purple glass tiles to extend the existing black wrapping of the retail windows. The only problem is that this alters an historic building and storefront. The city’s Cultural Resources Office says not so fast, and the Preservation Board is likely to agree.
In Soulard, an owner seeks to build a structure to cover a patio connected to an historic corner building. It looks like a well thought out, quality design. The problem? Soulard historic guidelines require that new structures be based on a model example of an historic appendage – that is, if you build new stuff, it must look like old stuff in materials and proportions. The roof structure in this case is much larger than any model example in the historic district. Cultural Resources doesn’t like it and neither will the Preservation Board.
A proposal for the Swedish National Society Building is something novel. The applicant wants to demolish the building…and then rebuild it. The former fast-food restaurant to the north would be gone as well. The new building will look very much like the existing Swedish building and would incorporate the terra-cotta elements of the original. The new building would be a approximately 40 feet further north, allowing for a driveway, drive-up window and parking to the building’s south. The included rendering shows a Subway restaurant occupying the storefront. The CRO favors the plan with the caveat that a building permit be issued first. This helps prevent the possibility of the building being demolished and not replaced.
The proposal is creative and could serve as a model for historic preservation along many of the city’s main thoroughfares. Building uses must adapt to present uses, yet there’s substantial value in retaining the massing and character of the built environment. The proposal demonstrates a big progressive leap in city development. The now vacant fast-food next door highlights the past development pattern too often sought. From Delmar to Natural Bridge and Gravois to Jefferson, similar proposals have the potential to welcome new development and preserve a walkable historic city.
Next up is a vinyl villain – non-compliant replacement windows in the Skinker-DeBaliviere Historic District. It’s a no-no and will be met with disapproval from the CRO and Preservation Board. Then there’s the unfortunate fire on Utah Avenue. The historic home will stand until it’s deemed a hazard to the public, or adjacent buildings. The CRO is asking the Preservation Board to deny demolition until the owner shows that repairs are not economically feasible. This application had been previously tabled and the owner asked to list the property for sale.
The last item highlights the challenge of desperately needed historic preservation and the rules that apply. 3324 Missouri was falling down. It was very nearly lost. On one hand, this issue is rather simple. The building’s owner hasn’t complied with the CRO approved plans from 2011. Yet, one has to wonder if our stringent historic preservation guidelines are best serving our city when an incredible rehabilitation such as this, in a still struggling neighborhood with an uncertain future, is held to such as exacting standard.
Is the perfect historic renovation the enemy of the good city?