Bringing Down the House

Neighbors want to buy and fix it. A building inspector recommends saving it. And yet the Housing Authority insists on tearing down 5950 Enright. The story of a house -- and a city's demolition craze.

Michael Lewis stares over at 5950 Enright Ave. and shakes his head ruefully. He's lived on Enright for 33 years, and most of the families he knows have been there at least 20. "That's the only Housing Authority house on this block," he says. "Wasn't a bad house -- they just put the wrong people in. The last ones, they were a wild tribe." His companions chuckle deeply. "At least 10 or 15 grown folk, and about 20 kids," Lewis elaborates. "They needed to leave. But when they left, the house just sat empty. Everybody on the block been inquiring to buy that house."

The real-estate ad would write itself: Six bedrooms, three stories, large fenced-in yard, bay window, gracious hardwood floors and oak trim, wide sturdy front and back porches, walls three bricks thick. Part of the historic neighborhood named for French settler Jean Pierre Cabanne, who traded furs as fast as they'd fly. Two minutes' walk to the MetroLink station, 10 to the University City Loop.

But then excited families would come and see the burned, water-damaged, long-abandoned structure, seaweedy string hanging down from the torn planks of the porch roof. They'd notice the graffiti (unreadable, ending in "dog") decorating the brick on the east side of the house. They'd see shards of old wine bottles sparkling in the basement stairwell.

The St. Louis Housing Authority let 5950 Enright Ave. sit unoccupied for nine years while vandals chipped away at anything removable (the back door, the porch light, the fence gate, the electric meter, the downspout) and set a fire just to please the devil. Now the agency's proclaiming the house an unsalvageable eyesore and allocating money to demolish it.

Told the standard answer -- that the structure's too damaged for the Housing Authority to sell responsibly -- former neighbor Charles "Chucky" Watson shakes his head. "We got some professional contractors over here that said different. My uncle's an architect; he said the foundation's good. The guy next door to us is also a contractor, he retired from Anheuser-Busch, and he wants to buy it. But every time we tried to call down to the Housing Authority, they gave us the runaround, wouldn't even tell us that they owned it. It was a big mystery till they put the sign up."

The sign -- official, brown, uncompromising -- reads, "St. Louis Housing Authority. Private Property. No Trespassing." Though it won't stop arsonists, thieves or vandals, the sign does help trace the responsibility for this charred, stripped, long-vacant edifice to a government agency that's charged with providing safe, affordable housing; an agency that's constantly urging tenants to care responsibly for their homes. And for the many large families in limbo, whose children are apportioned to relatives and friends while they wait for subsidized housing, the sign is a reminder that once upon a time, such places used to exist.

Ask the Housing Authority why 5950 Enright must be demolished and you'll hear it's inevitable: The house has fallen apart, it's cheaper and more practical now to tear down and rebuild.

Ask why the house was allowed to fall apart in the first place, and you'll get no good answer.

The story of 5950 Enright starts in May 1893, when Charles H. Gleason sold a 50-by-177-and-a-half-foot plot of butterfly-dotted meadowland -- land that was once part of a Spanish land grant -- to Abel J. Prosser, a dentist living at Westminster Place. Prosser and his wife, Ettie, paid what was then the sizable sum of $3,687.50 for the land and sat on it, figuratively speaking, until 1911, when they sold it to Henry W. Schmale, an ambitious bookkeeper who worked down on Chestnut Street.

Schmale took title on May 9 of that year, and on the very next day he applied for a building permit for a two-story, $10,000 brick residence. His ambitions grew, beanstalk-fashion, into a nine-room, three-story house with an oil burner and hot water, not to mention a tile floor and a refrigerator. The minute the last doorknob was screwed into place, he sold the edifice to a widow, Pauline J. O'Donnell.

The house must have brought O'Donnell luck: She promptly remarried, to J.E. Rutledge, president of Rutledge and Taylor Coal Co. He lived at 5950 with her for a while, but in 1914 they moved to Hillcrest. The house went to a stenographer spinster, Frances A. Cousins, and then to a manager, George W. Adams, who sold it in 1916 to Wildred R. Long.

Now, finally, the house would have abiding owners. The Longs -- first Wildred; then his widow, Mary; then their two sons, Wildred and Donald -- presided there for the next half-century. Originally the street was baptized VonVersen, in homage to the daughter of eccentric Irish philanthropist John Mullanphy. But the Longs saw it renamed, in a burst of patriotic homage, for the first St. Louis soldier to die in World War I: Thomas Enright.

It was Mary Long who, just four years before her death, fenced the deep backyard. (Later the city would widen the alley, eating the back of her $125 fence as well as the protruding garage.) The sons took turns living in their legacy. But when Wildred the elder died in 1966, Donald the younger sold the house to the city's Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority, which turned it over to the Housing Authority.

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