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Monday, May 10, 2010

A Survivor in St. Louis's "German Quarter" Hangs On

Even in a city with a lot of German heritage to speak of, St. Louis's Patch and Carondelet neighborhoods stand out. A separate city until annexation by St. Louis in 1870, the city of Carondelet indeed has its own storied past. It is so important to the city that absorbed it due to its unique architectural cache. The oldest parts of the Carondelet and Patch neighborhoods show contemporary St. Louis what its oldest neighborhoods once looked like prior to demolition in the post-war period. Small colonial homes by new German arrivals in 1840s Carondelet closely matched their French counterparts in portions of St. Louis closest to downtown. There is one major exception, though, which is the use of limestone as a building material. German Carondeletters preferred this striking material for their building facades:

This home, at Vulcan and East Marceau in the Patch, is known as the Schlichtig House, constructed in 1852. As you can see from this Google Streetview capture, its environs today are less than urban. This was not always so.

This 1945 capture shows the Schlichtig House at left with a fine row of neighbors, including another couple stone houses that may have been built by the Schlichtig family as well. (You may see more photographs of this area in the National Register of Historic Places "Carondelet - East of Broadway" Multiple Resource Area nomination).

Industrial expansion in this historic area of St. Louis (nee Carondelet) has claimed a lot of architectural lives. The Schlichtig House holds on, as do dozens of other homes dating to the same era in this battered part of the neighborhood. What can be done to preserve them?

The city of St. Louis asked this question twice, once in 1967 and again in 1973. The former was a St. Louis Riverfront Plan, while the latter was a St. Louis Development Program planning document. Both called for the majority of historic buildings to be moved to a protected site north of industrial territories. Their notion was to recreate the old village of Carondelet. While this might even today sound inauthentic and misguided--and certainly historic homes lose a part of their historic significance when removed from their context--I now wish it had happened then.

Far too many of these simple stone houses have been lost; few would be appreciated anyway without a self-consciously didactic arrangement of such homes as proposed in 1967 and 1973.

Now, with the nearby River City Casino complex up and running across the River des Peres in Lemay, Carondelet is seeing some development attention. Is now the time to buy up historic Carondelet stone homes and move them to safety in a series of protected blocks? History buffs will recall that Carondelet developed the nickname "Vide Poche", meaning empty pockets, due to its gambling houses that sent St. Louisans home empty-handed. Since River City has restored this historic function to the neighborhood by its very proximity, can we bring back Vide Poche as well? Is it time to dust off plans long ignored?

Why not, especially if such a plan would save this beauty in the 7700 block of Vulcan?

I wouldn't want to live in this splendid c. 1850s row house where it sits today. Were it moved, I'd love to snap it up. Moving historic buildings can be a touchy subject, but if our options are slow decay-in-place or success in mobility, I choose the latter.


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