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Building St. Louis: Sam Fox School Professors Reflect on History of Local Residential Developments, Current Trends
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Building St. Louis: Sam Fox School Professors Reflect on History of Local Residential Developments, Current Trends

From colonial times to the present, the metro area has long laid claim to an extraordinarily rich architectural past – and rightly so. But what of its future?

To obtain in-depth, cutting-edge insights into that topic, one need only survey two distinguished faculty members of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis: Eric Mumford, Rebecca and John Voyles Professor of Architecture, and Patty Heyda, associate professor of urban design and architecture.

Heyda also co-wrote the 2016 text Rebuilding the American City, one chapter of which focuses on McRee Town, now known as Botanical Heights – a St. Louis neighborhood both she and Mumford repeatedly cite.

First, the two of them reflect on how architectural trends in the area have shifted during this millennium – including societal impacts of such shifts.

“Earlier debates about traditional versus modern design seem to have become less intense here,” Mumford says. “There’s also less controversy about the importance of trying to use design to positively effect social change …

“There’s also been a notable shift since the 1990s toward replacing existing housing with more expensive housing in the suburbs. This has often resulted in tearing down smaller, older homes and replacing them with larger ones. Occasionally, modern houses and their surrounding landscapes of real architectural value have been destroyed in this way. Concerns about this may be increasing.”

Heyda concurs with her colleague, expanding on his answers.

“The New York Times wrote about the emergence of new and renovated houses in older parts of cities – the ‘boxy modern’ and Craftsman-style homes are the trend, with bright green or coral doors,” she says. “While fun colors are popping back up in cities, many locals take that as a sign of gentrification …

“In general, St. Louis has some of the most beautiful and well-built stock of housing and buildings in the country. Unfortunately, even in this millennium, we still witness wholesale clearing of these historic blocks, with the resident displacements that go with it ...

“New homes across the metro area – consistent with the rest of the country – have lost important elements like the deep front porch that used to shield from summer sun but also that allowed semipublic interaction between neighbors with the public space of the street. Front porches have gone away in favor of service-oriented garages. The social space that porches provide has moved to the decks in the back – isolated to the private realm. This kills the important social role of streets – public space – in cities.

“But one general positive trend is the return of building for density, even in the suburbs, with multifamily housing and mixed-use buildings that allow retail on the ground level and apartments above.”

Next, the pair address architectural trends in other parts of the nation that seemingly have bypassed the area.

“In most American cities, the trend is that there’s not enough good-quality, truly affordable housing near transit and centers of work for low-income families, single moms, college grads, retirees,” Heyda says. “If St. Louis slightly lags behind the rest of the nation in pushing housing to the brink, then that’s a good thing. We’re one of the few U.S. metros where there’s still access to reasonable options for housing, something worth protecting.”

The Sam Fox School colleagues continue in a tandem progressive fashion regarding noteworthy potential architectural trends.

“Many architects have been concerned with various sustainable design strategies for several decades now,” Mumford says. “In this metro area, those have often been resisted.

“Since at least the 1920s, architects have often explored affordable housing strategies, ranging from designing very small units that nonetheless have access to sunlight and walkable amenities nearby, to various kinds of prefabrication. These directions remain controversial and are often forbidden by old zoning codes that require widely spaced single-family houses on each lot.”

For her part, Heyda broaches the topic of eco-friendliness.

“We need to see rapid building-industry and policy shifts that help all new buildings in the city and suburbs use renewable energy systems to the extent their exposure and site allow – such as solar panels, geothermal heat systems and supplemental graywater systems for lawns and toilets,” she says. “The technology is here, and other cities have proven it’s possible, even when that means overcoming the political resistance to such things.”

Finally, Mumford and Heyda laud various area loci as current hotbeds for architectural innovations – with the former specifically mentioning a location likely near and dear to both of their hearts.

“Weil Hall and the new East End of the Washington University campus are very successful in terms of design, public space and ecological landscape design,” Mumford says. “Citygarden [in downtown St. Louis] and the renovation of the Arch grounds are also very successful in design and public space terms, but efforts like these cannot address St. Louis’ obvious social deficiencies and racial divides in themselves. The current Brickline Greenway effort [the section of the Great Rivers Greenway stretching from Boyle Avenue to Sarah Avenue] could also have a major positive effect in design terms on the region.

“There’s also a lot of potential for more interesting architecture and public space design in the suburbs.”

Heyda, meanwhile, revisits an earlier subtopic from a different perspective.

“Botanical Heights … models trendy features,” she says. “The western blocks have infill developments that are boxy and contemporary, with bright green doors. They have renewable energy options. The houses are contextual in keeping within the lot lines of the neighborhood, and inside, the throughlines of doors and windows allow for ventilation. Even with new construction there, the overall tight density and grain of the historic neighborhood feel the same.

“It’s complicated, though, because these redevelopments were enabled by a massive clearing of residents, in the six blocks to the east. The much more suburban homes that were rebuilt on those eastern blocks do not model sustainable architecture. The residents who called the neighborhood home were almost all driven out or forced to leave.

“The area may be a ‘hotbed for innovations,’ but seen in the longer view, it’s a cautionary tale of displacement and destabilization, too, that I hope the city can continue to learn from.”

Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1213, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, 314-935-9300, samfoxschool.wustl.edu

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Bryan A. Hollerbach serves as LN's copy editor and one of its staff writers. He loves to read, write, impersonate an amateur artist and research all things bibulous.

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