Anyone who has explored the neighborhoods of St. Louis knows that its urban fabric contains immense charm, largely due to a proliferation of high quality historic buildings and interspersed mid-century modern structures. These historic structures help present St. Louis as a world-class city, and are an undeniably vital part of the narrative of the city. This fragile and nearly irreplaceable historic fabric, with very few exceptions, should be preserved however possible.
In many of our historic neighborhoods, this preservation has been accomplished, in part, through historic district designations and their associated historic standards. While the standards have often been successful at restoring and preserving existing construction within neighborhoods, they have largely been unable to create worthy replacement of the lost portions of historic fabric. The fundamental flaw in the process is the requirement that new construction adheres to historic standards. While noble in intention, this practice often results in the proverbial mullet houses or snout houses, and usually bearing little historical accuracy. Creating replica versions of historic neighborhoods ultimately doesn’t honor them, but instead it detracts from them. Worse yet, it cheapens them. World-class historic buildings deserve adjacent infill that is respectful enough to be original.
Rather than try in vain to recreate the lost portions of historic fabric, a new layer should be added to the city’s built history- one that addresses the problems of the 21st century instead of replicating the forms of centuries past. The freedom to directly deal with evolving issues is ultimately a quality-of-life issue, but it’s also one of aesthetics. The resulting juxtaposition of the modern and historic is arguably the most material way for a rejuvenated urban core to exemplify positive change. There is a vibrant synergy that results when buildings of different eras share a street wall. They highlight each other’s unique qualities, and their history and stories play off of one another, both visually and rhythmically. This dynamic quality is usually desired in a city, yet is formally prohibited in many of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods because of the restrictions imposed by historic districts.
St. Louis has numerous historic districts accounting for large portions of its residential neighborhoods. Almost all of these districts prohibit, in some capacity, the possibility of creating the innovative architecture that commonly germinates in cities- including, historically, St. Louis. This present system of new construction standards should be scrutinized. Interestingly, only the first historic district standards adopted in St. Louis appear to demonstrate a clear understanding of the balance of values between old and new:
“It is not the intention of these regulations to in any way discourage contemporary design, which through careful attention to scale, materials, siting and landscaping is harmonious with the historic, existing structure. Distinctive older buildings are not enhanced when new construction, which resorts to ‘fakery and imitation’, is used to fill gaps in the streetscape.” – the Central West End neighborhood historic standards.
Historic neighborhoods are great places because the buildings are authentic and their character and details sprung organically from their own particular time and circumstance. These buildings are real and you know it when in their vicinity. They exude an authenticity that simply can’t be recreated through cheap imitation.
As St. Louis continues to struggle with population loss, its elected leaders search for solutions to various interrelated problems. St. Louis needs to look in the mirror and analyze the reflection of what it truly is: an evolving place that will never again be the intact, historic city that once housed 850,000 people. It’s tragic how much of the St. Louis urban core has been lost to both outward migration and senseless demolition, but the extinguished historic buildings are gone and can’t be authentically recreated.
With the number of vacant buildings in St. Louis, it is evident that there is not a colossal demand for historic properties- at least not enough to continuously foil the wrecking ball. It should then be obvious that to mandate building new ‘historic appearing’ homes, while real historic homes crumble only blocks away, is needlessly counterproductive.
With this realization, a review of the terms for new construction within the historic neighborhoods of St. Louis is warranted. Alternatives are needed. Modern infill should not only be allowed, but should be encouraged. The improvement to quality of life would be palpable.
Through juxtaposition, modern infill frames historicism- it proudly displays both our past and future as something equally special and deserving of respect. Well-designed modern infill that respects its historic context through massing, materials, and detailing can provide St. Louis with a jumpstart to a most diverse urban landscape.
The possibilities of modern design celebrate the present, and show that even with fewer inhabitants than in decades past, St. Louis can expect its best days ahead.
As a theoretical project, this modern flounder house has not been subjected to the critical review of the local Cultural Resources Office. Though the design cares to respect its context, it would certainly not be approvable by authorities having any jurisdiction over new proposals because it is not based on an appointed, model example. One must wonder if such a system of prescribed cultural conservatism is stultifying St. Louis neighborhoods.
New buildings can satisfy the criteria that respects historic context without trying, falsely, to appear historic. Model example or not, the Flounder House would satisfy most of the requirements of the Benton Park historic district standards for new construction. These matched standards include site alignment, setbacks from rights-of-way or property lines, massing, scale and proportion. The façade is composed of an approved material in brick, and has an appropriate mass-to-void apportionment.
As soon as one becomes divorced from the restrictions of model examples, countless possibilities open up for innovative solutions that can meet the needs of a 21st century society- functionally, socially and aesthetically- all while respecting their historic context. Most solutions won’t have an explicit historical reference, nor should they. Through the well-known concept of form-based zoning, proper massing, materials, sense of scale and quality of construction, we can readily assure compatibility with the historic architecture of St. Louis neighborhoods.
Buildings of different eras narrate the history of a city’s built environment. St. Louis has a rich and vast history that should be preserved and celebrated however possible. Yet ultimately, the story will stretch far beyond this rich history. St. Louis is awakening and jumping headfirst into the 21st century. The evolution of her built environment should celebrate this awakening.
An inclusive evolution won’t happen through demolition or replication, but instead through adaptive reuse, invention and thoughtful modern infill. Perceptions matter, and the way to shape them should be through the adjacency of well-designed contemporary buildings and revitalized historic buildings. While a dynamic eclecticism certainly won’t happen over night, it should be the clear, ultimate goal.
As a quality of life issue, the successful marriage of modern infill to rich history is obvious, but it also demonstrates a truth: St. Louis was once great, and still is.