Buildings Are Assets, Even in Grand Center

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On October 17, Grand Center, Inc. applied for a demolition permit for the curious hybrid building at 3808 Olive Street. Today, crews were “doing taps” — removing the connections between the building and the city’s water and gas lines. Soon, yet another small-scaled, perfectly usable building will disappear from the purported intersection of “art and life” — raising the question of what Grand Center has in store for other smaller buildings in the district.

Grand Center demolition - fall 2013
{another one bites the dust in Grand Center – 3808 Olive Street}

On the face, perhaps the doomed building is a tricky concoction to admire. Yet the turret and stone-faced town house that rises above an appended, plain red brick storefront is every bit as beautiful today as it was when built in the 1880s. The storefront is an added bonus, that could be utilized or removed depending on future plans. In sound condition and potentially eligible for National Register of Historic Places designation (likely if the addition came off), the house with storefront addition should be marketed as a redevelopment opportunity.

Grand Center
{the National Register of Historic Places-listed William Cuthbert Jones House (1886) at 3724 Olive Street, to the east of the doomed building.}

Grand Center’s streets are notably absent of the small-scale, affordable buildings that incubate small businesses, artists’ studios and apartments. These are the building types whose graceful practicality define areas like Cherokee Street and the Central West End, whose street-level vitality outshines Grand Center’s cycles of big-show and dead-empty. While Grand Center has improved a lot lately, much of that change comes from smaller spaces on Locust Street and in retail storefronts that have generated commercial activities long absent from the mix.

{context: Grand Center’s sights are set on the south side of the 3700-3800 block of Olive Street. X= demolition. A = 3808 Olive Street. NR = National Register of Historic Places-listed building}

The 3700-3800 block of Olive Street is bereft of density, to be sure. From the Sim-City view, it may look like the sort of place to bulldoze and build again. Yet that approach would be utopian and short-sighted — although the view of cleared land from Spring to Vandeventer would be a very long, and anti-urban, view. Unfortunately, Grand Center has already started removing assets on this block, with nothing in their place to indicate demolition brings anything beneficial.

{could this building be threatened with demolition soon? 3826 Olive Street}

Rather than forecast utopian redevelopment, Grand Center might look at a building like 3808 Olive Street as an asset: a building with immediate economic utility, indelible architectural character and enduring contribution to a citywide sense of place. Neighbors of the building even include two buildings that are listed in the National register of Historic Places: the William Cuthbert Jones House (1886), designed by St. Louis architect Jerome B. Legg; and the former Lindell Telephone Exchange/Wolfner Memorial Library for the Blind (1899-1902), whose original Renaissance Revival front was designed by the not-so-insignificant firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge. Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge also designed the Art Institute of Chicago (1893) and many other architecturally-renowned works in the US and Canada – a plus for a district that touts its concentration of works by important architects across time like Tadao Ando and William B. Ittner.

{originally built as the Lindell Telephone Exchange, this building on the west end of the block traces its design to Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge}

{a great urban building at 3821 Olive Street, across the street}

“Rightsizing” need not mean the casual removal of viable buildings on admittedly depleting blocks. Too often, however, that is how it is done. Effective rightsizing can be posing those remaining assets as catalysts for regeneration. In Grand Center, there is plenty of large-scale (ART), but not enough small-scale (LIFE) to make the district into anything approaching a real neighborhood. Retaining buildings like 3808 Olive Street and offering them for sale to small developers would be a step toward a compelling and complex urbanism.

Grand plans are invisible on vacant lots, and diminish feelings of safety as well as sense of place. Buildings are assets, even the small and weird ones. Buildings generate activities that tell people where they are –- and give them something to do. Grand Center needs these little buildings on Olive Street. The city can grow again, and we should not be throwing away any potential building block for our future.

Grand Center demolition - fall 2013

{3808 Olive Street}

Grand Center demolition - fall 2013

{3808 Olive Street}

*this article was first published on Preservation Research Office's Ecology of Absence blog, additional images by Alex Ihnen

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  • Don

    Yesterday’s NYTimes had an article that might be of interests to this group.

    “Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding”

    Here’s a taste,

    The continuing struggles of former manufacturing centers have fundamentally altered urban planning, traditionally a discipline based on growth and expansion.

    Today, it is also about disinvestment patterns to help determine which depopulated neighborhoods are worth saving; what blocks should be torn down and rebuilt; and based on economic activity, transportation options, infrastructure and population density, where people might best be relocated. Some even focus on returning abandoned urban areas into forests and meadows.

    “It’s like a whole new field,” said Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, who helped plan for a land bank in Detroit to oversee that city’s vacant properties.

    • dempster holland

      This may seem loike a new idea to the NY times and to urban
      planning professors, but not to St Louisans. The city has long had
      a land bank and a policy of acknowledging the depopulation of
      older neiughborhoods in north st Louis which primarily had
      obsolete working class residences/ See the Rand Report and
      the Team four report. In the last fifteen years, many areas had
      reached the point of allowing some relatively large new develop=
      ments with minimal forced relocation. Eg. MCormack Baron.
      Now the McKee north side development is the next and perhaps
      final step in this transition

  • SLU Grad

    Some students from SLU (circa 2010) had the resources and wanted to buy this house and fix it up but they were blocked from buying it by Grand Center.

    • Alex Ihnen


    • STLEnginerd

      Blocked as in Grand Center Inc. offered more than they did? They tried to buy it from Grand Center Inc but they wouldn’t sell? Grand Center used political clout to block a sale out of LRA to some upstart SLU “kids”? Any details at all?
      I’d rather someone had taken a hack at making this property work though I don’t know what they would have done with it to make it viable but I think I need details before i can condemn Grand Center Inc. of something worse than lack of vision and casual disregard for the historic charachter of the neighborhood.
      Who runs Grand Center Inc. anyway. I read online it was a nonprofit which at least implies that it has a level of disclosure and transparency. I couldn’t find anything else on them though.

      • STLEnginerd

        Disregard Last question. I don’t know why I couldn’t find it before but its plain as day in a google search today. I suck at Google I guess.

      • SLU Grad

        From what I understand, Grand Center Inc. did not want to sell at the market price because in 2009-2010 the housing market was still down and they wanted to wait it out to sell it after the prices rose again.

  • Chippewa

    “Grand Center”.

    Yeah. That what they’d like us to call it.

    It’s Midtown. Always has been.

    • wump

      midtowne is a different place genius

  • James

    It’s sad to lose another historic building and I’m all for preservation, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Grand Center is mostly gone anyway. Once you turn off of Grand it’s overwhelmingly parking lots and vacant land. It’s a joke. The future of that neighborhood is infill.

    • Alex Ihnen

      As said in another comment here – infill almost always looks better juxtaposed against historic buildings. At least I’ve found this to be true in STL where infill is rarely high quality and interesting. There’s no shortage of land for infill in Grand Center. More demo isn’t needed. The premise that a neighborhood must be clear cut before investment can happen hasn’t worked well in STL or elsewhere.

      • Don

        you make an important point about the quality of infill. For years the city was happy with almost any infill without regard to quality. I think* that is changing (others here will know better than me), and it must.

        Preservation is only part of the puzzle. The reality is that the City needs housing that people in the 21st century want to live in and raise families in. Housing people feel comfortable buying. He needs to be of good quality and it needs to be near affordable, quality education.

    • wump

      try walking down locust…

  • Framer

    Well, Grand Center does have plans for this block; they have long hoped to attract residential infill. Perhaps this demo indicates that they are getting closer to an announcement?

    Also, I’ve heard rumors that renovation of the Wolfner Memorial isn’t too far off, perhaps as artist live/work units.

    • dempster holland

      Grand Center has always been an enigma. Its heyday was from the
      1920s to the 1950s, when streetcars and buses were a widespreqad
      means of travel and allowed many persons to get to grand center
      without the need for parking. After the 1950s, everything seemed
      to close at once. And when revivived, a prime necessity was for
      parking lots, and hence the urban building fabric began to fall apart,
      The hope that artists and other bohemian types would congregate
      in the Grand Center area has never been fulfiulled, partly becaue
      of the replacement of the old urban fabric and partly because, I
      would assume, there just are not that many artistic types to go around
      in St Louis and there are other competing areas such as Delmar
      Loop, Soulard, etc This argues for saving old buildings where possible, but there may not be that many left to make much difference.

      • imran

        While modern buildings can be impressive, they almost always look better when juxtaposed with historic architecture. Old buildings provide a pleasing contrast. No problem with modern infill…. just find a way to incorporate what remains of the old.

  • STLEnginerd

    Demoed for what…? Honestly always thought that was a cool unique building. Never seen anything quite like it. I liked the idea of some kind of elevated patio above the store front. Of course that doesn’t work unless someone invests in some serious infill.

  • samizdat

    “Grand Center” is truly one of the worst jokes ever played on the citizenry in the history of this esteemed City. Clueless, classless, tasteless bunch of rubens, a classic example of worthless pols and upper-crust reprobates engaging in a pointless circle-jerk.

    “Grand Center”, this is me laughing at you: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Seriously, though, rot in hell, you jerks.

  • Adam

    i had been holding onto hope for this place. should have known better. we’re quickly losing what little historic stone architecture we have. does Grand Center have any plans for this stretch, or are they just a bunch of old money doing what old money does in this city?

  • T-Leb

    I’ve never been to Grand Center for anything other than a show at The Fox or a concert at The Sheldon or Powell Hall. Or parked and walked over to Chaifetz. That probably should change and be a priority.
    Wait, I’ve been to the Moto Museum for a wedding reception.

    • wump

      sounds like you have been there alot…

      • T-Leb

        Can’t believe I forgot Jazz at the Bistro!
        Never been for lunch, ice cream, outdoor festivities, a friends place… pretty cold area when you don’t hold a ticket.

        • Wump

          try the fountain on locust, their whole biz model is ice cream and ladies who lunch

  • Marshall Howell

    I say that the store front should be demoed….just like one or two of the small boarded up store from on manchester in the grove. Pointless and ugly.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic. In FPSE, the largest add-on storefront is now a great coffee shop. A second now has a renovation permit and the third is a cool little space that could certainly be repurposed:

    • samizdatr


  • imran

    Will we ever have city wide preservation review. Mayor Slay……?