Friday, March 1, 2024

Historic Housing Areas Around St. Louis

National Register Historic Districts are an honor. When a whole neighborhood, or even a portion of one, is awarded this designation, it should be a proud moment for the cultural and architectural history and heritage of St. Louis. Recent events have shown me that even though National Register status has been granted, it does not mean our work is finished. It does not protect individual buildings. Many historic buildings have been demolished in St. Louis during the last 40 years, even though they were nominated. Except for the court of public opinion, there is no protection. It can influence the decisions of government decision-makers.

That was something I thought about recently, as another historic structure was demolished in St. Louis Place on May 15. I have written extensively about in the past. The entire neighborhood is not a National Register Historic District. However, three districts in the area are that reflect the rich history of this area: Clemens House -Columbia Brewery and St. Liborius Parish. Louis Place, which runs along with blocks of St. Louis Avenue and the park.

St. Liborius

St. Louis Place was once the densest neighborhood in the city. Since the mid-19th-century, it has been home to several waves of immigrants. Many blocks of St. Louis Place today would not be eligible for inclusion in a National Register Historic District because of the loss of historical housing stock.

St. Liborius Parish was the first historic district. Its names suggest that a part of its history is in the past. The Roman Catholic parish still had 124 members when the nomination was made in 1979. There was hope that people would return to the area. They did, but not in enough time to save the parish which closed in 1992. People would not let the large church and its adjacent convent deteriorate. The old convent building houses a Catholic workers’ group, a community garden, and a skate park. St. Liborius’ buildings and churches are safe.

Clemens Mansion

The picture gets more complicated to the south of St. Liborius in the next historic district. The 1984 creation of the Clemens House/Columbia Brewery National Historic District demonstrates how adaptive reuse can save an old and outdated industrial complex. However, the destruction of a lovely country home to light in the middle of the evening is a sign of neglect. I have written previously about the Clemens House. It was built by Mark Twain’s relative and major landowner. It was a residence for Roman Catholic religious orders and served its purpose well until 20 years ago. After being stripped of all its ornaments and suffering major structural collapses, it did not need to be demolished.

Columbia Brewery

The Columbia Brewery, which is located just a few blocks away, has been transformed into affordable housing. It was abandoned by Falstaff Brewing Company after it was demolished. However, the old building was saved. It does not exist in isolation. There are many other historic homes around the brewery that have been renovated with it. This gives the feeling of being part of a larger community. Additional in-fill apartments of similar size have been added to the west side of the tall edifice, creating a neighborhood.

To the north, in St. Louis Place (the newest historic district), there have been tragic losses that demonstrate the importance of individuals and organizations stepping up to save buildings from being destroyed or neglected. Although the building is only 10 years old, many of its most important structures have already been demolished. There are also much smaller, but equally significant, houses that were included in the original nomination. Many houses just south of St. Louis Avenue were bought out and demolished by eminent domain for the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

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