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Thursday, April 16, 2009

What We've Lost of Laclede's Landing.

What is technically St. Louis's oldest district is a fraction of its former self. The old Creole grid streets laid out in the 18th century survive today, but so much of Laclede's Landing has been lost that it is almost the caricature of a historic district. Compounding its piecemeal look is the new Lumiere Casino, which itself has bulldozed over a profoundly important St. Louis district and radically redefined its character.

Below is a view of Laclede's Landing in 1976, when Landmarks Association conducted an architectural survey for the nomination of Laclede's Landing to the National Register of Historic Places. At that time, plans were underway to transorm the sleepy manufacturing district that the wrecking ball forgot into a rowdy nightlife district.

I realize that the mentality that led to the clearance of the riverfront blocks for the Gateway Arch did not even include "preservation" in its consciousness. 1940 was simply too early; the nation had not yet begun its recognition of historic structures (except in Charleston and New Orleans, and a select few other places that got a head start). But when Eads Bridge intervened to save Laclede's Landing, and when plans in the 1970s called for redevelopment and not Urban Renewal, wouldn't you have assumed it would be forever "safe" as an intact district?

Think again:

From Laclede's Landing


All structures with red squares have been demolished/lost since 1976.

On the aerial photo, you may notice that, immediately south of the Martin Luther King Bridge, there is no parallel street that would be today's Laclede's Landing Boulevard. To ease traffic congestion, I suppose, someone thought it wise to exacerbate the bridge's ill effects on the area by creating another through-street and destroying several buildings in the process.



From Laclede's Landing

This is the 700 Block (east side) of North First in 1972. The buildings in the foreground are called the Brenco Corporation Buildings, while the slightly shorter Federal style structure was called the Missouri Box and Label Company.



Here is that site today:

From Laclede's Landing


Not even a parking lot. Surprising. What's that next door (just south)?



The sorely missed Switzer Building (1874), succumbed to a powerful storm in July of 2006 (as well as some good old-fashioned neglect). This Landmarks' 1972 vintage shot shows the building to be in decent condition.



From Laclede's Landing


Other felled buildings:

From Laclede's Landing

This is a 1971 view of Third and Lucas Streets. By the time of the 1976 survey, the smaller corner building had already been demolished. In 2009, none of these buildings remain. Saddest of all is the loss of the whimsical name "The Central Egg Company Building" (which belonged to the three-story structure in the foreground). The six-story building went by "Kroger". Tragically, a parking lot has been created in this spot today. To make matters worse, Lucas was closed off between Second and Third and is now a driveway for the parking lot. In other words, there is now a Parking Superblock that will likely remain for quite a while.



From Laclede's Landing

The Bronson Hide Company Building's death was covered by Vanishing STL, whom I thank for the above photograph. It once had a neighbor to its north that was demolished to make Laclede's Landing Blvd.



From Laclede's Landing


And these are just from Laclede's Landing proper. The city calls the area north of the MLK Bridge the Riverside North District in the St. Louis Downtown Development Action Plan (from the late 1990s?).



We have not yet discussed the Lumiere Place Casino demolitions in the so-called Riverside North District. Basically, Lumiere wiped out all of First Street north of the bridge for surface parking.



On Microsoft's Live Maps, some of the aerial photography appears to be from 2006, when Lumiere was under construction, while other angles have been since updated. Therefore, you can see an intact North First Street from one angle (looking south down N. First):



From Laclede's Landing


...then you can watch all of the buildings evaporate and magicly transform into a preened parking lot when you view it looking east toward the Mississippi River:



From Laclede's Landing


But many of these low-rise light manufacturing structures seemed insignificant, I guess, compared to the cast iron storefront warehouses that have been razed for the past couple decades (excepting, of course, the much-missed legendary live music venue, Mississippi Nights). Still, how do you explain the McPheeters Warehouses on L.K. Sullivan? Well, of course, Lumiere wanted the structures to come down, and so they did. There was no historic district; no forethought to the idea that the North Riverfront and the iconic Ashley Street Powerhouse might someday be the next rehabber hot spots. There was no discussion of the importance of reopening the riverfront to St. Louisans, no discussion on connecting the Central Business District to points north. There was certainly no public consultation of any kind. The buildings just came down, and with it them the chances that this "Riverside North District" would generate that interest level and maintain a physical connection to Laclede's Landing to the south.



From Laclede's Landing

Photo credit: Built St. Louis

The original plan to redevelop Laclede's Landing into a nightlife district should be commended for its attempt to put this neglected part of town back to use in such a way that might have preserved the structures within it. For a variety of reasons, Laclede's Landing seemed only to generate enough automobile traffic to create the parking pressure necessary, in city leaders' minds, to justify tearing down uber-historic buildings for surface parking lots. With Lumiere, it has only become worse. Not only have they increased parking pressure; they have increased parking supply. Vital historic districts do not contain vast tracts of surface parking.



It is more important than ever to consider emergency salvage of Laclede's Landing, which will continue to slip away if it is not able to redefine itself. The original problem was the isolation of the district. It has perhaps the hardest boundaries of any neighborhood I've ever seen: the Eads Bridge and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial parking garage to the south; the Mississippi River to the east; the elevated portion of I-70 to the west; and a semi-private street grid to the industrial north.



One of these things seems more corrigible than the others: Interstate 70. With the new Mississippi River Bridge being planned near Cass Avenue, I-70 will no longer begin north of I-55 in Missouri but will originate in Illinois and cross into Missouri from the new connection. It's been said that the remaining portion of the depressed section and the elevated section will be renamed I-44, which will be officially extended north until its meeting point with the new bridge. Echoing the Vanishing STL editorial on the same topic, the entire structure should be torn down instead, assisting the National Park Service in their attempts to connect the Arch Ground to downtown as well as serving the purpose of restitching Laclede's Landing back into the grid. This would allow better pedestrian connections and would diminish some of the parking pressures that have caused so much destruction in the entrapped district.

2 comments:

Brian said...

So depressing. That huge void on First Street (700 block) really needs to be filled, and the Lumiere demolitions are incredibly frustrating. The Landing could be a really amazing place had more buildings been saved and housing and other retail been part of the mix. The sad thing is that so many of the buildings that were lost were not particularly large and probably could have been easy rehabs - I'm thinking of the Bronson Hide Building in particular.

I wonder if some of the buildings could be rebuilt using the original cast iron and other architectural features which I'm guessing have been preserved somewhere (by Larry Giles?).

whenglasscracks said...

I wish Mississippi Nights was still around. My favorite music venue, it had the character the Pageant lacks.

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