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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why Isn't the Hill in a Historic District?

I sent an email to Favazza's restaurant regarding their plans to demolish two structures on Southwest Avenue per the temporary Preservation Board agenda released earlier this month. I received the following response:

Thank you for your letter, the building at 5209 was struck by the tornado 2-3 years ago, it appears fine from the from but there is only half a roof, its full of mold, and is beyond repair (we had SPACE, a local architecture firm look at the building and they recommended tearing it down. We have decided to save the other building and have some plans in the works for it If you would like you can come by any time to see, view, talk or add input about the buildings thank you, Tony Favazza

According to this email, only 5209 Southwest (the white Romanesque structure closer to Favazza's actual restaurant) will see a demolition request now.

I then got to thinking: accepting that it's true that 5209 Southwest is beyond repair, why not save the facade and structurally sound exterior walls?

Then I remembered: there's not a single incentive or directive to do so. The Hill is not located in a historic district of any kind. In fact, almost none of Southwest City is. Yet the Hill seems like a no-brainer. Sure, some might argue that the Hill is full of tiny homes and shops that are technically no architectural wonders. You might also say that, even if they were at one time, so many of them have been badly altered over the years.

But the Hill is culturally significant as one of St. Louis's most preserved early immigrant neighborhoods. The Irish in the Kerry Patch north of downtown ultimately settled the Dogtown area, but even Dogtown fails to retain the level of "Irishness" that the Hill does for "Italian-ness". Soulard's early French Creoles were replaced mostly by Germans. Ditto for Carondelet, which gets little attention for either heritage.

The National Register of Historic Places has a set of criteria for listing, one of which is cultural significance. While I think the Hill could easily pass through on architectural significance alone, it would definitely get by on cultural significance. The Hill needs to be designated historic for several reasons. An obvious one would be to allow buildings such as 5209 Southwest to receive the state historic rehabilitation tax credit.

A local historic district--always more controversial than a federal listing due to more restrictions placed upon homeowners--may be necessary as well. A good economy brought the Hill more than a few "teardown" eyesores. The Hill's deep and narrow lots were subjected to completely out of scale new construction that call all the attention on these unassuming blocks to the new megastructure.

Google Streetview caught the construction of one such home on Daggett, just east of Macklind:

View Larger Map

The Hill is such a unique cultural treasure for St. Louis. Every time I visit, I feel as if I've stepped back into the 1940s, the decade from which some of the signage and just the general "happy small town" aura seem to derive from in my own mind. At the same time, it's quintessentially urban: highly walkable, mostly intact, visually interesting. It should remain that way. Hopefully, on Monday, the Preservation Board will recommend a creative solution to the structural problems of 5209 Southwest Avenue rather than outright demolition.

Again, if you'd like to voice your opinion on the matter, the Board meets Monday, November 23, 2009 at 4pm. The location is 1015 Locust, Suite 1200.


Rick Bonasch said...

Interesting question. For starters, it's possible no one has ever formally suggested listing the Hill. Since the neighborhood is doing well and gets lots of attention, maybe no one ever thought about. The area's historic whether or not it's on any historic registry.

As far as tear downs and rebuilds, while some might decry the "dogtownization" of the Hill (same issue, different neighborhood), others would say its a testament to the neighborhoods desirability. People want to live there and the old shotgun houses don't suit their modern living standards. One such mansion I believe was built by the owner's of Missouri Baking Company, a Hill and St. Louis institution.

However, I think it goes beyond that. As you say, lots of SW city neighborhoods are eligible for historic district status. The same could be said for much of St. Louis County. It's my belief that in many of these areas, SW City in particular, the residents would not want the designation.

You could tell them that national register listing doesn't force owners into any strict code compliance issues. You could tell them that it would qualify certain rehab for tax credits, depending on the project. Maybe then some might be interested.

You could point out areas where rental properties are in decline, and how national register status could help those owners (but also make rehabbing them much more complicated).

To make it happen, residents would need to push for it and someone needs to pay for the historic consulting. That's where the difference will be made.

Michael R. Allen said...

Rick makes good points. The bottom line is that interest in historic district must come from within a neighborhood. The costs usually require use of public funds to pay for listing and the districts hinge on majority consent of owners.

Southwest Garden is working toward a historic district, due to strong resident interest. I think that process has already attracted attention on the Hill. Hill residents will want such designation at some point, no doubt. A local historic district is another story -- that is something that requires intense community discussion and super-majority consent. It could happen, though, but it's not the only possible approach to the tear-down issue. Another approach would be a form-based zoning overlay that would only govern new construction so that existing homeowners would not feel threatened or over-regulated.

Matt M. said...

Yes, good points to the both of you. I guess I am just surprised that a neighborhood that has such a regional identity has no sort of official distinction of historic status. It's an excellent statement, Rick, to say that a neighborhood or building can be historic without "official" designation. Of course, right? I spoke to John Favazza originally, and he told me that he was surprised to see any excitement over these buildings because they weren't historic. He meant that no great history (that he or I knew of) occurred in the buildings and neither was designated a historic building by any authority.

I also spoke with Dana Gray of the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association the other night. She's a good friend of mine. I really think Southwest Garden could show that Southwest City should be on the map for its history and architectural quality. The area they're nominating is between Macklind and Hampton, farther west than I was expecting.

And to Michael, has the city ever done an overlay zone? These ideas sound great, but I never really see the city messing around with zoning. Do you have any examples of where else this has occurred in St. Louis?

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