To Dwell in Possibility

A tour of the city with the Landmarks Association's Carolyn Toft presents views of what is and what could be

Carolyn Toft hops in the truck and asks, "Where do you want to go?" Toft is dressed in a gold theme today: dull-gold slacks, a lighter-colored vest, a large amber bracelet. She exhibits bright style in contrast to a drab town.

Toft combines qualities of knowledge, insight and salty wit that make her the best of guides. Those qualities have come in handy for the quarter-century-plus she's been with the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Toft is also smart, visionary and pragmatic -- a neat package in one person. And she's persistent. For years she's worked to convince those less gifted that many of the structures they want to knock down could be considered assets rather than eyesores.

"What can we conserve here, and how can we get about doing the job?" Toft asks, cruising along Delmar Boulevard in view of some of the most promising and most discouraging landscapes the city has to offer. "Paying to demolish everything, leaving the rubble on the ground and hoping for some developer to come who may think he's got a virgin prairie -- this is probably not going to work."

St. Louis remains prone to the unworkable simply because it's doable. But Toft is one of those who dwells in possibility, to borrow Emily Dickinson's phrase, which brings up those what-ifs. All along the tour, plywood boards branded "LRA" are affixed to abandoned buildings. A city agency, the Land Reutilization Authority may own more property than any other entity in the state. "What if the city aggressively marketed the properties it owned based on a couple of criteria?" Toft asks. For instance, the buildings could be designated a historic district or shown to have the requisites for creating, or re-creating, an urban neighborhood. What if the city did that? Would that not help lure families into a city that continues to decline in population? Wouldn't it at least be worth a shot?

Or what if the Mississippi River -- which, by the way, flows right past our city -- were acknowledged as what most of Americans consider it: the defining river of the country, separating east and west, binding north and south; a river to view, sit by, contemplate, live near? What if the remarkable nineteenth-century structures Toft points out -- a former railway-transfer station, an old bathhouse that once supplied water to hotels for its medicinal qualities, former warehouses for the long-gone Belcher Sugar Refinery -- were proposed as nifty places to redevelop for urban housing and retail?

"Ol' Man River View" would make for a catchy classified ad.

For now, the former northern industrial district by the river mixes squalor, chickory growing as high as your head, a few surviving businesses and some hope. The "handsome brick and terra cotta Laclede Gas powerhouse" -- a trapezoidal structure described in Toft's St. Louis: Landmarks & Historic Districts, newly released and updated from a 1988 edition -- is to be redesigned by local architect Peter Tao to function as a trailhead facility for the Riverfront Trail.

Toft hops out of the air-conditioned vehicle and into 90-degree heat to show the mosaic being constructed along the floodwall. It's slim evidence of the possibilities, but such fissures in the city's stalwart dimwittedness have been enough to keep Toft going these many years. In her book, for example, she describes the shortsighted attempt at city revitalization just downriver as "the once-proud Admiral, now reduced to a grotesque gambling boat complete with land-based eyesores," then adds, "A bright future still seems possible."

Wiry, tough and as vital as that chickory growing along the river -- if not as tall -- Toft displays a bright-eyed gleam at both the triumphs and follies of urban redevelopment. At the intersection of Tucker and Olive boulevards, the former Post-Dispatch building is getting a long-overdue rehabbing. Toft comments on both what has been lost as well as what has been gained: "The photos in the book -- you just want to cry. Stupidity is not a product only of the last fifteen years. The idea that somebody at some point ripped out the interior ... it was palatial. This building is limestone. It had incredible details, most of which still exist on the exterior. It's going to be dynamite when they're finished with it. But the interior ...

"This is going to get an enhancement award, for sure."

Substantial loss, small gain: That's been the rhythm of the city Toft works in. She came in 1970 with her former husband and four children. Enrolled in a Ph.D. music program at Washington University, Toft came to ask herself, "after about a semester, 'What the hell am I doing?'

"My father was a geographer. I traveled a lot, lived in Germany twice; I've been in California, a bunch of places. But I really liked architecture, so I went back and took a lot of urban-history courses."

Her Ph.D. career and her marriage ended. Toft found herself working in City Hall for ten months in the mid-'70s. Then, she says, "I started a memo that turned into a six- or eight-pager, and then I realized it was two words: I quit. That was a long time ago."

If there's ever been a time conducive to historic preservation and restoration in St. Louis, the mid-'70s sure wasn't it. St. Louis was the poster child for urban renewal, the scars of which are evident today. But it was also a time when the failures of housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe and Darst-Webbe were inarguable. New approaches -- in which old neighborhoods could be restored and redeemed -- began to gain appeal.

"It was a friction point between a lot of money still coming in for urban renewal from HUD," Toft recalls, "and changes in other parts of the country. The place where that's demonstrated pretty sharply is in LaSalle Park. It was possible to convince Ralston-Purina and the old 7th Ward machine to try something else."

She recalls the former head of the LRCA (the name says it all: Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority), Charlie Farris -- a powerbroker who has been referred to as St. Louis' Robert Moses in some chronicles of city politics -- and laughs wryly: "It was amusing because Farris was still very much around, as were all his minions. [LaSalle Park] was referred to as the 'so-called preservation area' in their literature."

Of the 130 historic structures that have been preserved in LaSalle Park, nearly all are residential.

Toft bemoans the anti-urbanist fears that are as much a part of America as they are of St. Louis in particular. She notes how many state capitols were situated "out in the formless prairie," as if the rural naturally inspired insightful governance. She attributes St. Louis' woes to two words: "population loss." Toft bristles when she hears the sprawl in the surrounding counties described as growth:

"There's the excuse: 'It's growth.' No, it's not. It's like cut butter on a pancake. This region is not growing. This region is spreading, man. It is spreading -- and it is so wasteful."

After making several wrong turns down old city streets, Toft points out an early experiment in low-income housing, circa 1935: the Neighborhood Garden Apartments, not far from Laclede's Landing and the Jones Dome. In her book she writes, "All apartments featured entrances directly off stairs rather than corridors, 12-foot ceilings, cross ventilation and balconies.... Sixty percent of the site was devoted to open space; not space left over between boxcar buildings, but designed, landscaped, defensible space."

Today, although the Neighborhood Garden Apartments look the worse for disuse, Toft is heartened that at least one team is proposing it as part of a redevelopment package for the city. "The city owns it," she says, then offers one of the city foibles she appreciates -- anecdotes that maintain humor over disgust.

"There was a very embarrassing moment at the beginning of [former Mayor] Clarence Harmon's administration, when Clarence was going to announce this brand-new get-after-the-slumlords policy. He's out there with all the media, tacking up a 'We're going after your ass, slumlord' sign.

"Guess what? Guess who owns this? LRA."

She laughs and looks up the street, and there, like a beacon, is the joyful Vess bottle, 34 feet tall, erected sometime around 1950.

"There's the Vess bottle," she says, smiling. "What more do you want?"

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.