Tearing Down the House

The demolition of the Winkelmeyer house signals the city's new view of historic preservation

The door to the house at 4373 W. Pine Blvd. in the Central West End wasn't locked, and John Tanurchis thought to himself, well, why not slip inside? With demolition to make room for a multifamily building on the site already under way, this could be his only chance to take a final peek inside the home, acquired 13 months ago by Ronald McDonald House Charities for $372,500. Tanurchis doesn't carry the role of trespasser all that well -- his healthy shock of white hair and sensitive eyes make him out to be more the sweet-granddaddy-next-door type. And he is, usually. This is his neighborhood, his stretch of street, this 4300 block of West Pine, where the south side of the street is still anchored by a few of what marveling neighbors call grand old homes -- perhaps not as grand, in the big scheme of things, as the rehabilitated hulks planted so firmly along Waterman, along Pershing, along Lindell, but grand, nonetheless, in the eyes of this proud neighborhood, which yearns to one day be designated a historic district as well. And the grandest home of them all, a 111-year-old behemoth erected by the widow of an early St. Louis brewer named Julius Winkelmeyer, this home on West Pine's north side made, by its sheer scale alone, the other grand homes on this block look oh so Lilliputian.

But Gulliver is slain now, and the forlorn neighbors who were witness have just begun to make sense of it.

They're people like Nance and Skip Smith, like Sandy King, like Paris Bouchard, people who don't just sit and try to make sense of things, people who get up and fix things that don't make sense. They're people who, behind a cadre of active neighborhood associations, have visibly transformed their streets in the last four years: the dog park just off the cul-de-sac between Maryland and Boyle avenues to the rehabbed once-derelict buildings; the use of the city's nuisance ordinance to shut down a suspected drug house; the gardens, the red maples, the cobblestones, the litter-free sidewalks. It's no surprise that property values in the area surrounding 4373 W. Pine are upward bound -- existing homes have, in many cases, doubled in value in the last five years.

The Winkelmeyer house during demolition
Jennifer Silverberg
The Winkelmeyer house during demolition
The Winkelmeyer house during demolition
Jennifer Silverberg
The Winkelmeyer house during demolition

But in the end, these neighbors so concerned about results could do nothing about their Winkelmeyer house. "It was like our Alamo or whatever," sighs Nance Smith. "It was the last standing something to try to save, because now that side of the street might be totally knocked out."

And so, understand, when granddaddy-turned-trespasser Tanurchis stole inside the Winkelmeyer house earlier this month (he didn't advance more than a dozen feet past the door), he technically broke the law not so much as an act of protest as an attempt to pay respects to a piece of history that would soon be reduced to salvageable brick and unwanted rubble ... and wonder how, how does a community so inspired lose a battle so monumental on its own turf?

"It's just a shame," Tanurchis says, "that they did not try to work out a compromise with the neighborhood, that they don't care about the neighborhood. They aren't here day to day. If you don't have people like Nance and Skip and Sandy, walking and doing a lot of work in the neighborhood, what kind of neighborhood would it be? What kind of neighborhood would it be if you didn't have people like us that wanted to make it better and better and better? It's just a shame to see that piece of our history torn down."

Before Ronald McDonald House closed on the Winkelmeyer house on April 25 last year, the Romanesque revival building was a nursing home owned by Hendricks Consulting. Though the original roof and the third floor had been missing since the middle of the last century, the home, designed by Otto Wilhelmi (an architect of Compton Heights repute) did boast a 19th-century carriage house in the rear. The interior, according to the city's Cultural Resources Office, was remarkably intact, complete with a wooden beam staircase (painted over) and original windows. Ronald McDonald representatives, however, note that the poor condition of the building -- the lost third floor, the water-damaged walls, the cracked brick (much of the deterioration, say neighbors who toured the home before the Ronald McDonald purchase, occurred after the charity completed the sale) -- justified demolition.

The charity estimated that for $54,000 less than the cost of a complete rehab (the estimate was derived from their least-costly rehab scenario), the home could be demolished and a contemporary structure built, gaining in the process two additional units and five additional parking spaces, as well as optimum usage of square footage. Specifically, permission for demolition -- of the Winkelmeyer house, its carriage house and a 1960 one-story structure on the property -- permits the charity to move forward with a $1.6 million expansion. The expansion would provide contiguous eight-unit apartment-style dwellings and 23 new parking spaces for families of seriously ill children. The demolition would also leave space for a second phase of expansion, which would provide the charity with an additional eight units.

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