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The Slow Death of 1900 Montgomery Street

The Ravaging of St. Louis || The Potential of St. Louis || The Urban Environment || 1900 Montgomery: House by House || The Redesigned Site

I want to present the basics of my final design project not as a portfolio or a look-what-I-did boast, but as a visual aid to continue what I've been ranting about for the last few pages (and Godspeed if you've read it all.)

The Project's Goals
The project redevelops 1900 Montgomery without obliterating what remains there. Surviving houses on the site today sit in awkward isolation; the design treats them not as sacred objects to be revered, nor as obstacles to be demolished, but as elements of a larger context which has been stripped away and which must now be remade around them, and reconsidered in the process.


Before: Existing project site plan.

Design goals of the project include strong (but not monotonous) spatial definition of the street; close connection of homes to the ground and to the street; perceptual ownership and physical control of exterior spaces by the adjoining homes; and the contrast between serene interior block spaces and a more formal exterior block architecture that confronts the street and the city. The resultant new housing is rooted in the traditional forms of the city of St. Louis, responding to the physical qualities of the surviving houses on the block and of the city's vernacular as a whole. The ultimate goal is not to copy the city's historic housing stock (though there is also a time and place for that) -- but to learn from it.


After: Proposed project site plan. Click here for a color keyed version, only slightly more confusing.

The first objective was to re-establish the street as a space defined by the buildings. The most universally admired and loved urban streets follow this pattern; the buildings are walls, and they have rhythm and scale to them, whether it's created by gable fronts in Milwaukee, stoops like in Baltimore and Philadelphia, or articulation like in some of New York's brownstones.

The pattern in St. Louis is a simple one that turns up in many east coast cities, made of regular repeating windows set in flat walls, enlivened by stoops and the ubiquitous recessed entryways and mouseholes which are particular to St. Louis. It was a pattern created from the basic need for natural light and the limits of building technology of the time; builders dressed it up with nice but simple lintels and window heads, and topped it off with a decorative cornice in wood or, more often in St. Louis, of brick. It's a simple set of gestures, but it establishes the character of the neighborhood and much of the city. It still lends itself to easy and affordable construction today. And even in the shattered enviroment of 1900 Montgomery, its traces and remnants can still be found today.

The second objective was to provide direct access to each unit from the street, to provide a stronger connection to the street and the neighborhood. Modern fire codes make this more difficult, and resulted in pairs of units sharing a pair of staircases.

The third objective (less important to the urbanism of the project, and more about the definition of exterior space) was to enclose each block, preferably with a minimal use of fencing, to create a garden space which is semi-private, communally shared and communally controlled. Houses (and attached garages at the alley) wrapped most of the block. Additional houses sit in this controlled garden space and define areas within it. Gates and paths provide most entry points, but I also called for the ruins of 1906 Montgomery to be stabilized and rebuilt as another garden entryway -- preserving another portion of the block's history, the period of decline and ruin.

The Design -- One Option of Many
In grad school, you basically have three months to come up with a final project design. It sounds like a lot of time, but it isn't; a project of this scale could keep a design team occupied for many months. The finished product -- and I use the word "finished" in the loosest possible sense -- had countless things that didn't satisfy me, innumerable issues I hadn't had time to delve into, and a few basic premises which I feel were missteps. The first and biggest of these was setting much of the project above a couple of vast, irregular parking garages; I opted for it only in the face of rigid per-unit parking requirements and a strong desire not to chop up the sidewalk with multiple driveways (an unfortunate phenomena which can be seen with the new housing on St. Louis Place Park, at upper left.)


Some distant day: Isometric view of project, looking northeast -- a similar view to Compton & Dry.

Beyond the parking issue, my biggest regret was that I hardly spent any time at all designing the street facades of the buildings, particularly unfortunate considering they are the most visible aspect of the project, as well as its greatest aesthetic challenge. Historic duplication is easy enough in design, but calls for craft and skills that are awfully expensive now. More modern aproaches can easily fall flat. What I wound up with is servicable, but not terribly memorable -- though in a way, that was what I was after: something to replace the lost common fabric of the city.

Disclaimers aside, I'm pleased with the portion of the project that sits above ground. It's an enormous study in intimate exterior space, from the symetrical, formal entries into the court spaces, to the tiny back porches, gardens, and terraces that many of the homes feature (lest it seem an architectural fantasy, this sort of space still exists in private courts and backyards down in Soulard. And people travel from all over the world to New Orleans to visit neighborhoods full of such spaces.) The project also achieves several competing goals: a housing density of about 40 units per acre, no building over three stories high, no housing unit more than a flight of stairs away from the ground, every house with a definate front and back, recogition of the local vernacular, creation of a physically cohesive urban street... and no existing house demolished.

It is, of course, not the only solution. The interior of the block could have been given over to a parking court. The alley housing could have been simplified to a series of above-garage apartments, or omitted entirely. There are multiple ways to create an urban space; this is simply one option of many.

I wanted this project to show an alternative to the way new housing is being built in St. Louis -- a way that has something to do with to the history of the site and the city, a way that begins to make St. Louis dense enough to work as a real city again. This one project wouldn't solve any of the city's problems by itself. If it were built today, it would be an anomoly in North St. Louis. But I hope it shows a pattern, one possible path the city could eventually take. It's a the path that needs to be considered if St. Louis is ever really going to come back to life.

As a footnote, while I was finalizing the designs, I learned of the North Market Place project going up less than a mile from my site. A hundred fifty units, 41 million dollars of new construction, and funds for rehabilitation of older homes. The project is under construction as I write this in May of 2006. So.... it's all happening now. In ten years this neighborhood will be totally different, one way or another. Now is the time to choose a path: Will St. Louis be a city, or a nowhere?


A fast sketch of a small rear patio. I think I drew this at about 2am the morning of my presentation.

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