Tearing Down the House

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

Not everyone was happy with the reorganization. Preservation architect Jeff Brambila, after an 11-year tenure with HUDC, declined to serve on the new Preservation Board. Instead, he opted -- unsuccessfully -- to throw his hat into the ring for a spot on the Planning Commission. "I didn't feel like I wanted to step down, so to speak, to a lesser board," he says.

Under reorganization, the Preservation Board would consider changes in historic districts and other designated areas but, unlike its predecessor, would not rule on demolitions citywide. The board's tightened scope, according to Shea, who was also commissioner of HUDC, would make for a more focused and therefore more effective preservation body. "The Heritage Commission was never popular," Shea says. "No one understood what they did at the time ... because, I think, no one understood the context in which they made decisions."

Brambila, meanwhile, agrees only that HUDC was disliked. "Perhaps the underlying problem was that the Heritage Commission, for many, many years, was not very popular among quite a number of aldermen, simply because they were getting complaints from constituents when they weren't allowed to do things, and I felt, politically, it was not a favorite of a lot of people," he says. "I think an idea of reorganization was perhaps to diminish some of the commission's powers."

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

And so the demise of the Winkelmeyer house serves, perhaps, as the first real opportunity to measure the strength of the city's attitude toward preservation after the 1999 reorganization.

"It just seemed like all the people who were closest to the decision were kind of overruled and ignored in this, and that's contrary to how most of the city boards run," says Roddy. "As an alderman, I've always tried to empower those folks impacted by those types of decisions, and I was disappointed to see that in this case the city didn't support those groups."

But is the Planning Commission vote a reflection of a weak preservation authority, as preservationists contend, or merely a part of a process that works? "This is just tawdry," groans Lana Stein, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "This is just really tawdry. There is that reversal authority. When they changed from Heritage to this, I believe that their authority was lessened -- noticeably. Reorganization was to make development easier in the city. But you pay a price with that."

Wessels thinks otherwise. "It's called due process," he explains. "It's a free country, and there are appeals in any system, and after the city boards are finished ... then people are free to go to circuit court."

But it's a due process that has even a member of the Preservation Board feeling betrayed. "People figure, 'Am I wasting my time?'" confides the only member of the Cultural Resources appeals board who would consent to an interview. "It just seems to be one more level of bureaucracy that doesn't need to be there. 'What is this about?' you wonder."

"I mean, that's the real story -- the decision-making process," adds Landmarks Association board member Bill Seibert. "In terms of an abusive administrative power and authority, that was an unbelievable case, and that has to change. Preservationists are very worried. I do know that from what was proposed to what the Board of Aldermen finally spit out at the other end was complete sort of turning on its head what had been hoped for. And we had felt that there was really an effort to essentially emasculate the power of the Preservation Board."

As for those neighbors who desperately fought for any resolution that would not destroy the century-old Winkelmeyer house and its ancillary carriage house, the Planning Commission's reversal served only to smudge any perception of a responsive city government.

"When you do something like this, it strips the empowerment of the neighborhood," reflects Paris Bouchard of the abutting Maryland/Boyle neighborhood group. "If a group feels a certain decision is what's best for them, I think that should be held with a lot of respect. You always hear about government trying to empower the neighborhood, to develop plans, to develop this and that, but if they're not followed, well, what point is having those plans and what point is empowering those people if they're not going to be involved in the decision process?"

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