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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Let's try this again: Bohemian Hill--A Victim of St. Louis Politics, Planning, and Parochialism

I posted the following on a previous blog that, for whatever reason, failed to stir any passion in my blood to the point that I would continue to update it. But I enjoyed doing research-lite for Bohemian Hill, a small, insular neighborhood now almost completely lost to a development of a new shopping center. Though written last year, this piece is still applicable, sadly. As we have witnessed the demolitions of Gaslight Square, McRee Town, the Century Building, and now the "Blairmont" neighborhoods (primarily St. Louis Place and Jeffvanderlou), all within the last decade, and some ongoing, the story of one of these places can perhaps illuminate the others.

If there is a major unifying element, it is that loss of the built environment tends to be incremental. Even McRee, which was mostly a wholesale demolition urban renewal-style redevelopment, saw phased demolition. In addition, the western portion of the neighborhood remains intact for now. The others gradually declined and became the sorts of neighborhoods where people questioned that very designation--this collection of rundown, old, dreary buildings is a neighborhood? Well, of course it is, and was. Even in their only partially intact states, they hearken to a past of sound and attractive design. They recall a city whose denizens lacked automobility; when the sidewalk was a place of interaction and when that popular venue, the sidewalk, boasted throngs of pedestrians in comparison to today. More importantly, we've seen that these structures offer a real, tangible benefit. Look no further than the rehabilitated neighborhoods of Soulard, Lafayette Square, Benton Park, and others. So why should we remove anything from the built enviroment that has been there for over a century, that has a demonstrable (if presently unrealized) commercial value, that is (or could be) an attractive contributor to a streetscape--if none of us expects the replacement to last in its soon-to-be iteration even half as long?

And yet, even some "hardline" preservationists let these cases slip by. "Well, Lafayette Square and Soulard residents do need a grocery store," we might remark, with little regard for how much vacant land there is elsewhere for such a store. Or, we might plead, "Well, they need that location right alongside the highways for visibility," which is simply the developer's way of justifying their best case scenario while offering the city its worst.

In this light, the potential loss of St. Louis Place--the continued and deliberate corrosion of its urban fabric by Blairmont--is truly par for the course in a city where old school politics, planning, and parochialism reign. And these sometimes slow, incremental losses to our cityscape reinforce in barely noticeable gradients that each successively destroyed house, or block, or neighborhood was an unnecessary relic of urbanity, rather than a success against all odds. Our urban context has been redefined by our own acquiescence to piecemeal replacement.

Even as a preservationist, I would argue that partial rebuilding of the physical environment happens and that sometimes historicity is sacrificed for the current culture's appeals to newness and contemporary design. And yet, in St. Louis, there are so few examples of successful infill, whether commercial or residential architecture, that even the most sympathetic and "realistic" preservationist cannot help but decry nearly any hit to our built environment.

Keep in mind, this post was written with the belief that the development would subsume the buildings that remain on Tucker and on 13th Street. While officially, this is not true (and apparently was not at the time--the city reneged on its eminent domain attempts for "Phase 2" of the "Georgian Square"), I still believe the remaining block of Bohemian Hill is on the built environment's "endangered species" list. But I will let you read below to determine for yourself.

On with the post: Part 1 of 2
October 4, 2007

In a recent visit to New Orleans, St. Louis Planning Director Rollin Stanley asserted that St. Louis has finally realized the benefit of historic preservation and its role in economic development.

So why can I present two wholly demolished neighborhoods of St. Louis to you in the esteemed Slay-Stanley administration? The story of McRee Town and its demise–a truly sad loss of dozens of venerable buildings and a neighborhood once integrally linked with the now more prosperous neighborhoods to the south–is better told by Ecology of Absence. But Bohemian Hill has stirred less blood, if even receiving as much attention as McRee. After all, circa 2007, the “neighborhood” is merely a partially vacant city block with ten or so structures.

Today, the remaining fabric of Bohemian Hill has been chopped up by the I-44/I-55 interchange; has been stigmatized and isolated due to its proximity to the notorious and now razed Darst-Webbe housing projects; and has been itself under attack by developer Gilded Age, who wishes to bring Walgreens, Starbucks, and a large grocer to the area. Over the past two years, several buildings in various stages of decline fell victim to the redevelopment plans. As a result, the entire western section of the remaining area was demolished.

At one time, Bohemian Hill was part of a larger network of neighborhoods collectively known as Frenchtown. Czech immigrants populated the area between 7th and 18th, Lafayette and Russell starting in 1848. Much of this former settlement is now known as Soulard, though in the nineteenth century, it was Bohemian Hill that claimed the iconic Bohemian church St. John Nepomuk and row upon row of imitable red brick St. Louis row houses and Second Empires. Bohemian Hill at one point stretched as far north as Park Avenue, where Darst-Webbe’s construction in the 1950s required partial demolition of the dense, old Czech neighborhood. Completing Frenchtown were Lafayette Square and LaSalle Park.

Viewed in light of its positioning within a greater neighborhood, and thus wider historical context, Bohemian Hill is not merely a city block. It is in fact the remnant of an architecturally profound district of St. Louis that has lost so much of its physical integrity to urban renewal and interstate building.

Surprisingly, despite the prosperity now enjoyed by Soulard, Lafayette Square, and LaSalle Park, all have sustained an astounding loss of their unique, French-influenced architecture. The 1947 Comprehensive Plan for the City of St. Louis calls for the outright demolition of the Soulard neighborhood to create a garden suburb characterized by an excess of greenery and a lack of a street grid. Below is the “new Soulard” - a response to what the city deemed the most obsolete neighborhood in the city (along with DeSoto-Carr, which ultimately was cleared for the defunct Pruitt-Igoe housing project, itself demolished in 1972.)

While the plan thankfully never came into fruition, Soulard did see the craze of circa 1950s planners–the urban expressway–realized in the form of I-55, whose paved width is probably wider than Bohemian Hill itself. The construction of the interstate, of course, claimed Soulardian homes and businesses and forever cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city.

According to the day’s wisdom, Lafayette Square, too, was outmoded:

The Lafayette Neighborhood is an obsolete area for the most part. There is an incongruous inter-mixture of all types of use. The reconstruction of this neighborhood is anticipated by the proposed zoning.

With the construction of I-44 in the 1970s, several homes on the southern end of the Square saw their demise.

Perhaps most devastating of all, the late 1960s saw a slum clearance project for the majority of LaSalle Park sponsored by corporate neighbor Purina. In March 1969, according to the neighborhood’s official website, 137 acres were reduced to rubble. In its place today are a series of parking lots to serve Purina, questionable infill, and gated public housing.

And so Bohemian Hill’s disappearance was largely the result of Frenchtown’s multilateral infiltration from encroaching “renewal”. In the center of Frenchtown, it was most affected by the construction of I-44 and I-55 and the Darst-Webbe projects. Even despite the fact that 75 percent of LaSalle Park was razed, its survivors quickly attracted the attention of rehabbers. Today, a popular Bed and Breakfast, Dwell 912, calls the neighborhood home, and the residents of the small ‘hood have embraced its insularity, calling it one of St. Louis’s best kept secrets. Bohemian Hill, however, has not been able to escape the stigma of its isolation. It is regularly regarded as “too far gone,” “not a neighborhood,” or simply too lucrative a site for retail development to continue to justify its meager existence.

The erosion of Bohemian Hill today represents another conscious effort to “renew” a Frenchtown neighborhood. And for what? While Gilded Age promises a mixed use development and special attention to design compatible with the surrounding historic neighborhoods, it does not disguise the fact that still more of Frenchtown’s history will be forever lost.

Ironically, the structures that remain are from the Gilded Age in American history–the late 1800’s. Structures that in other cities might be seen as veritable architectural monuments are, to St. Louisans who will gladly point to similar housing just down the street, decidedly dispensable in order that we might have a Walgreens close to downtown with excellent interstate access.

Tomorrow, I will go through the political process that allowed a turn-of-the-century neighborhood (or a fraction of one, if you will) to undergo systematic dismantling for retail that can never hope to last half that long in whatever form will rise on the vacant lots of today. I will also detail the redevelopment plan that was deemed award-worthy by the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation as recently as 2001.

In the meantime, reflect on Rob Powers’s (of Built St. Louis) visceral shot of the future victims that currently call South Tucker Boulevard home. No wintry, leafless snapshot can belie the beauty of these structures.

And here is a likely model of what will enter the site, from Des Peres, Missouri:

I leave you to see which future you would like for St. Louis.

‘Til tomorrow.

–Matthew Mourning


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