Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Homes Under Construction In McKinley Heights And A Brief History of Charless School

This blog was updated on December 10th, 2016 with updated information on Charless School from St. Louis Public Library Reference Librarian Adele Heagney. I met Adele while blogging on the St. Louis library branches, and she is a tireless researcher of city records and invaluable reference materials. Updates in red font.

The McKinley Heights neighborhood is ripe for development and rehab. The location is nearly unmatched as you can get anywhere in the city in ~15 minutes.
Aesthetically speaking, McKinley Heights is a real unsung hero. It boasts some of the most varied architectural styles and details of any single neighborhood.

You might not pick up on that for a couple reasons. 

One, most people drive through the neighborhood as opposed to walking or cycling. And to appreciate it, you really have to slow down and train your eyes toward some of the intricate details on many of the homes and businesses on the side streets.

These interesting brick details might have something to do with renown architect William B. Ittner's family owning a brickyard near here in the 1850's in what is now Fox Park. Some of Ittner's earliest works are in this part of town. (source)

Secondly, driving through McKinley Heights usually takes you down Russell Boulevard as there are no other really convenient streets to get east/west and there is only one intra-neighborhood street (Mississippi Avenue) that crosses I-44. 

So it's understandable that Russell would be the average St. Louisan's sole exposure to McKinley Heights.

But, venturing down the side streets show that a lot is going on from a development standpoint; there always appears to be rehabbing going on with at least a couple dumpsters on display indicating substantial rehabs.
2300 block of Ann Avenue
And there's evidence of the much needed investment in maintenance and upkeep of the owner-occupied homes.
2200 block of Jules Avenue

A new construction project recently caught my eye on the 2200 block of Shenandoah near Jules Avenue. Just south of Shenandoah, there are several concrete foundations recently poured on what appeared to be an empty lot.

A sign on the construction site indicates it is called "Charless Village". Where'd that name come from? I'll explain in a minute.
A view of the property along Shenandoah indicates it was once a larger, single property as evidenced by the small stone wall that lines the property and a stairway allowing access from the street:

I was immediately thinking a school or other large building must have been there at one point. A quick look at the alley-side of the property showed another clue: remnants of the familiar iron fencing indicative of our historic public schools.
Turns out, this is the site of the once beautiful Charless School. Per the St. Louis City website:
The earliest public school built in the area was the Charless School which was erected in 1895 at 2226 Shenandoah Avenue after the design by A. H. Kirchner. (source)
sans bell/clock tower and dormer windows

The school was in use through the 1970's and maybe later. I'm trying to find out if any alumni can tell me when the school was closed via the alumni Facebook page. Per St. Louis Public School records, and thanks to the research of Adele Heagney, the school closed in 1981.

If anyone reading this can provide proof of how the clock/bell tower was lost as per the second photo above, let me know. I am thinking tornado/storm but have no proof.

One of the worst tornados in U.S. history occurred in May, 1896 that did a number on this part of town. Here's a photo of the damage just a few blocks north of Charless School at Jefferson and Allen Avenue:
The Charless School withstood some pretty big tests from Mother Nature, but it was not able to survive the St. Louis wrecking ball. Per city records, a demolition permit was issued for the property in 1993. (source)

Demolition of our historic schools was short-sighted and ignorant. As we know now, many of these schools are being rehabbed for modern residential.

So it goes.

Although no one will call this row of new homes "Charless Village" once they are constructed, it's at least a nod to the history of the school, likely named after Joseph Charless (who added the 2nd S to his last name to emphasize how it was pronounced in his birthplace, Ireland). Charless was famous for publishing the first newspaper west of the Mississippi, the Missouri Gazette in 1808. (source

Ms. Heagney was able to provide the evidence I needed that the school was indeed named in honor of Joseph Charless and was damaged by the tornado. From news clippings circa 1920 in the Central Library archive:

This school is located at 2226 Shenanadoah avenue, and was erected in the year 1895. Although erected over 25 years ago and conforming to the type of school architecture of its day, it is still an excellent school building with 13 splendid and modernly equipped class rooms. 
The building is erected upon a plot of ground donated by Mr. Joseph Charles to the City of St. Louis to be used as a school site.  He was born in 1804 and at first aided his father as printer on the Missouri Gazette. After completing his studies at the University, he took up the mercantile business, and in 1828 established a wholesale drug business. He haled many positions of trust, being Alderman, School Director, President of the State Bank and of the Mechanics Bank.  He was one of the founders of Washington University and of many charitable institutions of our city.

Furthermore, Ms. Heagney's research indicated that the school at 2226 Shenandoah is actually the second location of the Charless School. The first was at Shenandoah and Gravois from 1859-1895.
Original Charless School at Shenandoah and Gravois

The second Charless School closed in 1981 after an 86 year run. It sat vacant for ~7 years, until it was damaged by an arsonist in 1988. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on February 23, 1988 that the fire department put out a three-alarm fire that damaged the roof of the vacant school. A separate fire was extinguished in the building the following day. Deputy Fire Chief Bob Jones suspected arson since there was no electricity to the three-story building and the fire started in the attic.

Then, per printed records of the Board of Education from 1895/1896, Ms. Heagney was able to find determine that a "storm damage"  account set up by the SLPS for repairs to Charless totaling over $2000 for tornado damage...mystery solved.

Anyhow, once the school was razed in 1993, the property sat vacant until most recently when building permits were issued in 2016.

Per city records, the property changed hands in 2007 from the St. Louis Board of Education to suburban developer CF Vatterott (officially entered as "Affordable City Homes of St. Louis, Inc." in the city database). Vatterott owns quite a bit of property in this part of the city from the Gate District to Fox Park to McKinley Heights. 
In fact, Vatterott recently floated several highly-subsidized, low-income home construction projects in these parts and many of the neighbors were quite vocal against it, though not for the reasons one would expect (low income-NIMBY's, bad design, cheap materials, although those reasons were debated). The loudest dissent came from the dubious financial terms that by no means appeared to be in favor of a family on a fixed/low income. The financing plan made public by the developer appeared to be a bum "rent-to-own" deal for the tenant that no financial adviser would likely recommend to someone with as a sound long-term investment.

I'd like to see Vatterott return with a more equitable proposal that would mutually satisfy the developer, the existing neighbors and prospective buyers. It is high time to act as opposed to sitting on the many lots they've owned for many years. Or, just sell the property to someone that has the will to develop an even-handed urban plan that can gain support from the current residents/tax payers.

Anyhow, Vatterott is building five new homes on the former Charless School property...and I'm hopeful that this development will be a step in the right direction for the property and by extension, for the neighborhood.

Per the Vatterott website the ~1,568 square foot 3 bed/3 bath homes are being offered for ~$215,000.

From the Vatterott website:
Now taking reservations! Five historically-based Energy-Efficient new homes now underway on Shenandoah Avenue in historic McKinley Heights! Representing the first new construction homes offered in this area in decades - enjoy modern open floorplan layouts, full basements, two-car garages and high-efficient systems together with historic elevations with 9 ft first AND second floor ceiling heights. (source)
The thing that is unclear is if these are market rate, if there were tax abatements awarded and if the sides will be vinyl or brick. The overall ability of new faux-historic construction usually depends on the details and finishes. So far, it's too early to tell.

The good news is the placement of the homes blends in well with the existing homes on the block.  Judging by the foundations, the five homes are densely placed and they have a good relationship with the street. The massing and overall shape matches the adjacent homes and they will fill a much needed gap in the street wall along Shenandoah that's been there since the 1990s.

See for yourself how they will fit in:
The garages will utilize the alley:
And they kept the long stone wall and stairs:

We will have to see how the finished product turns out, but at a minimum it is good to know that more people will be moving to this important part of the city. Not everyone wants to maintain a 100+ year old home, and these will provide a lower-maintenance alternative.

We need more residents to make the city feel vibrant and keep wonderful local places like Kim Van, Milquetoast Bar and Fritanga open.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lafayette School Converted to Lafayette Lofts in Soulard

The Soulard Neighborhood recently had an exciting new residential development hit the market with the renovation of the former Lafayette Elementary School at 815 Ann Avenue. 
This beautiful school building was built in 1907 by renowned architect William B. Ittner. The school sits on a 1.59 acre lot and boasts nearly 62K square foot of space. Lafayette Elementary School was named for Marie Jean Paul Lafayette a French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War. It was active as an elementary school from 1908 to 2004 when it served ~200 PK-5th grade students.

Due to declines in the number of students due to massive population declines in St. Louis, the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) decided to sell several schools over several rounds of closings. While the school would have made a perfect charter or private school, the SLPS chose to prohibit use by such entities to avoid competition. There are currently 27 schools available for sale throughout St. Louis.

Lafayette was sold for ~$800,000 to Advantes Development, a real estate firm that has done several amazing projects in St. Louis including a conversion of the former Hope Lutheran School to 22 market-rate apartments at 5320 Brannon Avenue in the Southampton Neighborhood, branded as The Mack Lofts. 
photo credit: Advantes Development

Advantes corporate offices are located in the Hill Neighborhood of St. Louis, making them a true city company!

Advantes reportedly invested ~$3.5M to convert Lafayette School to 36 market-rate apartments (source). The conversion is quite impressive from the outside as all the architectural details remain intact, including the ornate brickwork and familiar lion fountains.
Since historic tax credits were leveraged in this renovation, several interior details were also restored with new uses. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The principal’s office at Lafayette is now the residents’ laundry but the school's marble and travertine entrance, broad staircases and maple-floored hallways are restored to meet historic tax credit requirements.
There is protected off-street parking including covered parking, a large landscape surrounding the building and all the other modern amenities one would expect. A two bedroom/one bath unit leases for ~$1275/month.
photo credit: Advantes Property Management

This location is great with easy access to Interstates, public transportation, Downtown and South City. Most of all, this is a very walkable location with the beautiful Pontiac Square Park just footsteps away and local markets and businesses aplenty.
It's great to see this historic building get an extended life and new use, bringing vibrancy, positivity and new residential options to a great St. Louis neighborhood. 

The next historic schools up for residential conversion include a ~$5.2M buildout of 38 residential units in the Sherman School at 3942 Flad Avenue in Shaw (built in 1895, designed by William B. Ittner). This project is also being done by Advantes who made the purchase at $700K. (source)

Sherman is tucked right in the interior of a dense, historic neighborhood.
Then, the Gratiot School at Hampton and Manchester in the Clayton/Tamm Neighborhood (built in 1873) is being converted by Garcia Properties (another city business, located on Kingshighway). The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports:
Joining the closed-school-to-apartment trend is Garcia Development Corp., which (on December 29, 2015) put Gratiot School, at 1615 Hampton Avenue, under contract for $414,000. Jenifer Garcia, a company owner, said the plan was to redo the school as 22 market-rate apartments.
Gratiot has 27,474-square-foot on 2.86 acres of land right at Manchester and Hampton perfectly located between I-44 and I-64. It served as the SLPS Archives for several years before they closed it in 2013.

Good to see these historic structures finding investment and new life. Let's hope there is a market for the many closed school in North City.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The St. Louis Shotgun

You've heard of the American foursquare and the flounder that are quite prevalent throughout St. Louis. But sometimes when I'm tooling around the city I'll run across a long, narrow rectangular home, some of which are colloquially referred to as "shotguns".

Here's a classic example from New Orleans, Louisiana:

Photo credit:, the Voice of the South

I like this term and wanted to share some thoughts on how it first came to me and what it means and how three particular songs creep into my head each time I come across a classic example of a shotgun house:

"I said shotgun, shoot 'em 'fore he run now..."
"Shotgun": Junior Walker

"And you may find yourself in a shotgun shack..."
"Once In A Lifetime": Talking Heads 

"Well you're crazy mama with your ball and chain and your sawn off shotgun blown out brains..."
"Crazy Mama": The Rolling Stones

These are the songs that flood my brain when I see the many shotgun homes in St. Louis. They are interspersed all over town, north to south from Walnut Park West to the Patch. Though you kind of have to train your eye toward them, as most of them are rather nondescript.

I first heard the term from my girlfriend (now wife) when she first moved to St. Louis from Fairview Heights, Illinois. She rented a "shotgun apartment" in South City. It was the first time I'd heard it, but I loved the way it sounded.  So American! A house like a gun! I thought she was so cool for renting "a shotgun apartment in South City". She was hipped to the term from the landlord that showed her the property.

It's just another small piece of the story on how we fell for St. Louis, a mystery around every corner.

A shotgun is defined as a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than ~12 feet wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house.
                        Photo credit:, the Voice of the South

The thing that was curious about her apartment building is that it was a four family with two units at ground level and two units above. Therefore it was really more of a side-by-side shotgun, a double-barreled shotgun!

Actually, some might call it a "camelback" shotgun which is defined as a shotgun floor plan that includes a second floor at the rear of the house or directly atop the ground level floor (source). Probably not, but there are variations on the classic shotgun shack.

Either way, it was a shotgun floor plan, and in my many years traversing around St. Louis, I've come to love these homes even though most of the local examples do not have the ornate Victorian embellishments on the front porches like the ones in the deep South.

A recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee sealed my fondness for the style when I found out Aretha Franklin (among other blues/soul greats) was born in a shotgun shack...cementing my fascination and curiosity with these homes...entangling the home style with some of the most influential American music ever created.
Aretha Franklin's Memphis home through age 2: photo credit: Memphis Flyer

So it seemed like a worthy use of my Thanksgiving morning before the turkey goes in the over and the house is full of family to investigate where this term came from and give it some St. Louis context.

The earliest known use of "shotgun house" as a name for these dwellings appeared in a classified ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on August 30, 1903. (source)

There are three main accounts on the story behind the term "shotgun":

The first is all about the floor plan where the rooms are all lined up in a row with no hallways, usually in the following order: living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It was an efficient use of space when cities were crowded and densely built and narrow and long lots were simply more affordable.

The second story is the most entertaining. It claims that if you opened the doors from front to back, you could shoot a shotgun clean through the house. This theory, likely more folklore than anything, was popularized by a prominent architect and preservationist in New Orleans, Louisiana named Samuel Wilson Jr.  He also suggested that shotgun-style houses originated in the Creole suburbs of New Orleans in the early 1800s.

Thirdly, it is a design element for hot weather environments, where if you open the front and back doors, a shotgun breeze will flow through all rooms of the house cooling it.

Most historians seem to agree with Samuel Wilson Jr. that the shotgun originated in the Southern U.S., mainly New Orleans with ties to West Africa and Haiti.

Shotgun architecture is now widely recognized as an African American contribution to American architectural styles.

Evidence suggests that this name is actually a corruption of the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God’s House.”

John Michael Vlach, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at The George Washington University in D.C. and director of the university's Folklife Program research backs up the origins of this architectural style came to New Orleans from West Africa via Haiti. 
In Haiti, enslaved Africans took the architectural form common to their homeland and using local materials built narrow buildings with gabled entrances, stucco walls, thatched roofs, and shuttered windows so they could enjoy the only privacy allowed to them. They also wrote African motifs into the exterior framing of their homes. 
When Africans in Haiti revolted in 1791, many European plantation owners fled to New Orleans, taking with them enslaved Africans still under their control. Many other free people of color migrated to New Orleans as well. This had a profound effect on the demographics of New Orleans. In 1810, the population of New Orleans was approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 enslaved Africans, and 1/3 free people of color, most of who had come from Haiti. 
In New Orleans, free people of color continued to build shotgun houses, replacing their African motifs with gingerbread trimmings. And the porch on the front of these houses was quite distinct from French homes whose outdoor areas were actually interior courtyards. The front porch on shotgun houses supported interconnectedness between people and gave neighbors a strong sense of community. 
John H. Lienhard, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston decided they must be a regional invention from the Louisiana bayou country. That's where the older ones seemed to be concentrated. He traces the shotgun house to the early 1800s. Then he finds older shotgun houses in the sugar-growing plantation islands -- in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Finally, he finds that same distinctive design in West Africa. (source)
The folklore of the shotgun being fired through the front door and exiting through the back has been somewhat debunked by at least one researcher. 
The explanation is a quaint one, and would likely have made sense for the Haitian homes upon which the American shotgun house design is based. Once the homes were erected in the U.S., however, doors were usually placed off center, so that a person conducting such an experiment would've probably taken a sizable chunk out of the rear wall of the front room. (Another etymological explanation is that the shotgun house takes its name from that aforementioned West African style of home. (source)
Another interesting note is that some historians claim the shotgun holds another American first:
The shotgun house brought a new home design concept to the United States: the porch. The overhanging roof along the front of the house created a stoop where a family could congregate on a hot evening. The front of a traditional shotgun house would usually encroach upon the sidewalk, and the house's porch gave rise to the longstanding New Orleans custom of visiting outside with neighbors in the evening (source).
As I was reading up this topic and Southern black culture, I couldn't help but think that our culture in St. Louis is exactly what is described in the South, or at least borrowed in some way. I currently live in a majority African American neighborhood and it became apparent pretty quickly that many black people in St. Louis are front porch sitters, this is where the visiting and socializing occurs. White people are more likely to take it to the back yard where fire pits, chairs, etc are set up. Many blacks that ended up in St. Louis came from the South looking for factory jobs, so maybe the many shotguns in the city and the front porch sits have New Orleans, or at least Southern roots. 

However, the shotgun is not exclusive to black families/culture, it eventually spread out of the South to all parts of the U.S.
The influence of the shotgun house would soon extend beyond the African-American community. By the beginning of the 20th century, shotgun house building kits were available on the market for $100. The structures soon began to appear in cities across the United States. Because of their simple design, shotgun houses could be erected quickly, which soon made them a common sight in the boom towns of the West.

But the very nature and design of these homes helped to strengthen the African-American community in the U.S. Because of their close proximity and porches, shotgun houses helped give rise to tight-knit neighborhoods. The shotgun house -- modest, constructed close to other homes, imported from the Caribbean and Africa -- has become somewhat emblematic of the African-American experience. Writes historian Denise Andrews: "The shotgun house represents the slaves' reaction to adversity, making sense of their new environment by modifying familiar living patterns. Cultural contact did not necessitate massive change in architecture; but rather an intelligent modification of culture" (source).
There are both wood-sided and brick shotguns all over St. Louis. I haven't found one with the ornate Victorian porch design, but I'm on the hunt.
Per the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office:
The shotgun house is often found in older St. Louis neighborhoods. Shotgun houses appear in frame with a front-facing gable, or in brick, with a hipped roof. Examples from this period can be found in Carondelet, Hyde Park and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods. 
The shotgun house at 8225 Vulcan, in Carondelet, is built of brick on a rubble stone foundation. Constructed about 1860, it is three rooms deep and has a low hipped roof, and simple corbelled cornice. From a low porch, the front door opens directly into the house's front room. The porch is a modern addition, but the remainder of the house is in close to original condition. (source)
But, shotguns are all over the city, not just the oldest parts. Look no further than Tower Grove South where my favorites are located right in a row on Morgan Ford Road just north of Stella Blues.
Here are some examples in the deep south of St. Louis near Carondelet and the Patch, including the one on Vulcan Street mentioned above on the city website.
 8225 Vulcan Street
But they are located all over, north to south. St. Louis has shotguns in spades. Enjoy them.