Tearing Down the House

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

And so the interest in saving money outweighed the interests of neighborhoods filled with residents relying only on grassroots activism. Why, in grassroots terms, these neighborhoods had everything, didn't they? The support of their alderman -- albeit an alderman who was admittedly hesitant to engage in tooth-and-nail combat with a charity he respected. An established trend toward single-family homes. An ongoing Landmarks Association of St. Louis evaluation for historic-district status. Untiring activists who had immediately sought the Cultural Resources Office's help in guiding them through the tedious process of protecting their history and gotten in touch with the Ronald McDonald House to convey their opposition to demolition even before the charity bought the property. Intelligent, well-articulated alternatives to demolition were offered, ranging from building on vacant lots and using existing apartments to a renovation-demolition combination that would save the Winkelmeyer house but knock down the architecturally insignificant structure sharing the property. The West Pine/Laclede Neighborhood Association voted 62-2 against demolition. Dan Harbaugh, director of Ronald McDonald House, doesn't trust the vote and believes the opposition is confined to a small, vocal minority of residents. The expansion is needed to cater to families of ill children, he adds.

In October, though, that expansion was denied when Cultural Resources Office director Kathleen Shea ruled against demolition. And in February, after a Ronald McDonald appeal spurred a city Preservation Board hearing, came an overwhelming 7-0 vote by the board, again against demolition. It seemed activism had won out.

But the neighborhood that had everything couldn't stop a second appeal by Ronald McDonald to the St. Louis Planning Commission, which on April 11 abruptly overturned the unanimous Preservation Board decision with its own 7-4 vote favoring demolition. The reversal stunned the preservationists.

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

"I had been in contact with Cultural Resources numerous times to say, 'OK, walk me through this,'" explains West Pine/Laclede Neighborhood Association secretary Sandy King. "'If you do vote to deny them a demolition permit, then what is the next step?' Up until a week before I heard about this Planning Commission, they were, like, 'Well, they'll have to go to circuit court.' And then we're blindsided, and all of a sudden there's this Planning Commission. And we're, like, 'What is this? Nobody told us this.'"

Ald. Fred Wessels (D-13th Ward) was part of the Planning Commission contingent that reversed the Preservation Board's decision in April. He says, "The Preservation Board blew it. I didn't think the building in question deserved to be preserved. No question in my mind. There were some neighborhood activists interested in keeping it. I think the Preservation Board listened to those activists and didn't listen to the facts of the case." Wessels disagrees with several of the Preservation Board's conclusions, including the assertion that demolition of the Winkelmeyer house would hurt a West Pine block face composed of well-maintained historic buildings. He says one brick building across the street had been painted and two others (the Independence Center, 4380 W. Pine) were "connected by a very ugly façade.

"So the two buildings directly across the street were in direct contradiction to the Preservation Board's conclusion that the block face was composed of well-maintained historic buildings," says Wessels. "You don't paint historic buildings gray." ("Now, Fred's a friend of mine and everything, but I'm going to disagree with him on that," the neighborhood's alderman, Joe Roddy [D-17th] says later.)

"If I had the right to talk [at the Planning Commission hearing], I would have said, 'Fred Wessels, who gives you the right to call our block ugly?'" Tanurchis retorts testily. "This is not about ugly. This is about saving a home that Ronald McDonald has right next to it. Let's don't worry about the building across the street. We're talking about this building. Don't worry about Independence Center and what kind of glass façade they got. We're not here for Independence Center. We're here for Ronald McDonald. You don't knock people's neighborhood. If I want to knock it, I live here -- let me knock it. But not some outsider who comes into our neighborhood and knocks our neighborhood."

But even Shea, who spoke against demolition before the Planning Commission, is loath to criticize the vote, as are most members of the Preservation Board itself. "I thought the process worked," Shea says. "I advocated for it to be saved on the record ... I mean, of course, we just set this up so there was a broader review of these activities, and decisions were made in the context of a bigger plan than just each individual issue being picked off randomly. So, in that sense, it was good to see the process work."

More than 18 months ago, a much-touted reorganization of the development arm of city government by then-Mayor Clarence Harmon produced, among other changes, the "process" that resulted in the Winkelmeyer house's destruction. Before reorganization, demolition requests were channeled to the Heritage and Urban Design Commission, appealed to the commission's board and, if denied again, appealed in Circuit Court. Reorganization replaced HUDC with the ostensibly more focused Cultural Resources Office and its appeals body, the Preservation Board. Inserting a second bureaucratic appeal into the demolitions process (to the Planning Commission) meant that the city's preservation authority was now on a leash. Now, the final say on CRO demolition requests rests with an agency whose sole purpose is not to preserve and protect the city's historic character but to see that all areas of the city adhere to long-term development plans. (Paul Beckerle, the former alderman who sponsored the reorganization ordinances, did not return repeated calls.)

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