Creativity Within Constraints: How Building in an Historic District Need Not Be Predictably Mundane

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Killeen Studio Architects proposal for Benton Park - St. Louis, MO
{proposal for 2841-47 Indiana Avenue – map

A listing on the National Register of Historic Places or being located in a Local Historic District is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is access to historic tax credits, up to 45% of specific renovation costs after combining state and federal programs). The curse is the ream of regulations and design guidelines one must adhere to. At least that’s the good and bad for the individual either rehabbing an historic building, or building new in an historic district. LHDs and the National Register are incredible assets to the city, its neighborhoods, and residents. In St. Louis, the two designations cover roughly one-fourth of the city’s 111,000 structures.

Rather strict guidelines for building or renovating in these areas too often lead to boring template structures (even if some are of high quality) – the easiest way to gain approval for a project – or conflict in design where material choices and site plans stretch the interpretation of rules to the edge of credulity. But constraints can also force creativity. Leaving aside the bigger questions of the museum city and what to preserve, how, and why (for the record, we’ve been pushing the idea of a graduated historic district with varied guidelines similar in method to form-based code), constraints can lead to imaginative projects. Killeen Studio Architects is one local firm that may just help show how to escape the predictable historic infill while at the same time presenting very traditional forms.


{proposal for 2830-36 McNair Avenue – map}

From the St. Louis Neighborhood Development Blog:

Two new, unique homes have been proposed for construction in the Benton Park neighborhood. Both homes are to be discussed (and potentially given preliminary approval) at the City’s monthly Preservation Board meeting (Monday, October 28th, 2013 at 4pm). Both homes—single family buildings—have been designed by Killeen Studio Architects.
The Cultural Resources Office (CRO) agenda for the Preservation Board meeting, in which CRO preservation experts review proposals and make recommendations to the Preservation Board is below

The first proposed single family is located on two adjacent lots addressed as 2830-34 and 2836 McNair. Interestingly, the building has a decidedly industrial/institutional design even though it would sit mid-block. The two historic model examples (on which this proposal’s design was based) that were provided to Cultural Resources Staff are both warehouse buildings.

CRO Staff recommend preliminary approval of the design, subject to final review of design and materials. The second proposed single family in the neighborhood is located on four adjacent lots (2841 through 2847 Indiana)—just two blocks west of the McNair proposal. In this case, the applicants seek to build an ADA-compliant, fully accessible one-story home across several lots.

The central portion of the sprawling single-story building is recessed. Again, the building has a semi-industrial feel in the middle of an otherwise residential block (notably, though, this proposed construction backs up to a five story warehouse building on South Jefferson). Again, CRO recommends approval subject to staff review of final details and materials.
The Preservation Board meeting is on Monday, October 28, 2013, 4pm at 1520 Market, Suite 2000 in the large board room.

City of St. Louis Preservation Board Agenda – October 28, 2013 by nextSTL.com

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  • Local historic district guidelines aren’t handed down by preservationists. They are crafted in neighborhoods, and many of ours were drafted by citizen committees. Public review is a big part of the process, and standards become law through ordinance that goes through the Board of Aldermen. In our localized system of government, local historic districts are hyper-localized.

    Generally, they work well and all of them are governed by the city’s preservation ordinance that allows for variance to be granted by the Preservation Board. That means that people can build “anything they want” if they can convince the Preservation Board. I ascribe the relative conservatism of design in local historic districts more to design taste than the rules themselves. Look at what people build outside of local historic districts and see what infill looks like there — pretty conservative (both strains of blah, faux-historic and bland flat-roofed minimalist box).

  • Adam

    anyone notice that the south half of the 1-story is a garage? it’s hard to tell from the small diagram but it looks like the curb cut is in front, too. i have other complaints about he design (soooooooo much red) but this is not acceptable, especially considering that there’s an alley.

    • Alex Ihnen

      It’s an interesting issue here, as the review document states a curb cut isn’t compatible, but may be allowed here due to ADA concerns. I’m not sure I understand this, or how a driveway off the alley would be any less accessible since the garage doors will face the alley. Anyone understand this issue better?

      • Adam

        ah… I hadn’t noticed the ADA component. that explains the single-story design but still doesn’t necessitate a driveway in front. i think somebody’s just trying to milk the ADA thing to get what they want.

  • Paul Hohmann

    While the designs above are very nice examples of creative interpretation of guidelines, it’s unfortunate that many districts insist upon replication based on”model examples”. Some districts are not as stringent with this statement showing up in 4 local districts: “It is not the intention of these regulations to in any way discourage contemporary design which through careful attention to scale, materials, siting and landscaping is harmonious with the historic, existing structures” Even with this though, I have experienced mixed implementation in different districts based on neighborhood group preferences. Apparently many people like living in Disneyland.

    • JasonToon

      Yes, many people like living in buildings that reflect the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of human-scaled architecture, rather than the alienating “innovations” of starchitects or the brutal austerity of cheapo utilitarian flatboxes. I certainly trust “neighborhood group preferences” over the preferences of property developers to impose their own vision on a neighborhood – it’s certainly more democratic, wouldn’t you say?

      (I agree with you about these buildings, but I don’t like the scoffing at neighborhood preferences.)

  • Framer

    Love the two-story one; not so sure about the single story. It would be helpful to see some in-context renderings. I know I don’t like the idea of one house taking up four building sites in the City.