When Bruton Stroube Studios sought a new location in the city, they turned to Grand Center Inc. Now the business is stuck with a building they can't afford to renovate but many of their neighbors don't want demolished.

Nov 10, 1999 at 4:00 am
A week ago, a little skirmish developed in the Grand Center district after a handful of residents there learned of plans to demolish a three-story house at 3716 Grandel Square, built in 1884 and once home to descendants of Meriwether Lewis. Interestingly, there were preservationists on both sides -- and a group that orchestrated the real-estate deal trying to avoid the flap.

On one side was Frederick Medler, a 21-year resident who is restoring the nearby Stockton House. He quickly mobilized his neighbors and conducted research on the mansion's past after a friend noticed a bulldozer in the building's yard and learned that the home -- with its 15-foot ceilings, massive 12-foot pocket doors, crown molding and plaster ceiling medallions -- was to be razed. "It's an architecturally exquisite building. It's our history," he says. "We've been wrecking this part of town for 75 years. We don't have hardly anything left. This building stands out like an oasis in the middle of the Sahara Desert."

On the other side was Bruton Stroube Studios, a commercial-photography business that found itself a rather unwitting player in this controversy because it, too, has a history of preservation. Its former offices were in a building, located on the St. Louis University campus and renovated by the company, that is now home to SLU's president, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi. Bruton Stroube's partners were intrigued with the century-old Meriwether mansion and explored the idea of renovating the building. When they learned that a rehab would add $300,000 to the cost of the company's new 14,000-square-foot headquarters, they sought a demolition permit.

In a last-minute effort to work out a solution, the company got a bid on the cost of moving the building elsewhere. That bid was for $365,000.

The company, which has agreed to sell its current offices at 38 N. Vandeventer Ave. to SLU and be out by the end of next year, wanted to stay in the city. It approached Grand Center Inc. about moving into the district and was steered away from another site and toward the Meriwether mansion, with the assurance that tearing down the old building wouldn't pose a problem. Working under that assumption and a verbal OK for a demolition permit from Kate Shea, the city's cultural-resources director, Bruton Stroube paid $125,000 for the house last month. That is more than the land would ordinarily be worth because it was functioning as the Grand Square Hotel, and signs of the building's former incarnation as a flophouse -- dirty sinks affixed to the walls, old mattresses, stacks of clothes and trash -- are still present.

Given the building's condition and not knowing the rich history of the mansion, Bruton Stroube president Tom Stringer figured he and his partners would be welcomed as "heroes" in the neighborhood. "We're basically craftsmen who work for art directors and designers. We're willing to step out and risk putting our business there, even though it's an unproven area there," Stringer says. Instead, "we're starting to feel like evil capitalists or something.

"I'm between a rock and a hard spot here," he adds. "All of the solutions require a lot of money. Nobody with any money has stepped up and said, "I love this house. I would like to save it.'"

A key player in the dealings that led to the controversy was Grand Center Inc., the nonprofit agency with special redevelopment powers in the 58-acre area and a mission to create a "vibrant urban neighborhood by facilitating the development of a regional district for arts, entertainment and education." Grand Center steered Bruton Stroube to the Grandel Square site because it controls several adjacent parcels, even though the photo studio initially wanted an empty lot on the north side of Washington Avenue, near the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Stringer says that site was "prettier, closer. It seemed to be in the middle of things and was across from the Pulitzer museum." Grand Center officials pointed them elsewhere. "They said the other one wasn't really available to us and this was," Stringer says.

The neighbors' objections caught Stringer by surprise.

He appeared last week before a meeting of the Grand Center Business and Growth Association, comprising neighborhood residents and businesses, to explain his position. Dr. John Anderson, pastor of the nearby Third Baptist Church, was particularly sympathetic to Bruton Stroube's plight. He told the group he was delighted that Bruton Stroube planned to move into the area, saying he's looked at the house as "a blighted piece of real estate" for years. He questioned why the issue of saving the building hadn't come up years earlier, "when prostitutes and drug addicts and women and children were freezing their butts off on the second floor of that building.... So we bite the bullet and cry when it comes down," he said, then "rejoice" when a new neighbor takes its place.

A couple of the other residents, however, lodged a formal objection to the demolition, triggering a hearing that was supposed to have been held Monday before the city's Preservation Board. Last Friday, Stringer withdrew the application for the demolition permit and avoided the hearing.

Now the whole matter is in limbo. And Bruton Stroube finds itself owning a building it doesn't know what to do with. "I just felt like we should slow down for a minute and think about everything," Stringer says. "We're considering our options. I really can't say much."

He says he doesn't blame Grand Center for the controversy. The same can't be said for Medler, who says Grand Center ought to find a new site for Bruton Stroube. He blames the agency for failing to learn more about the building's history. "We're not the bad guy," Medler says. "The bad guy is Grand Center. They didn't do their homework; they made no effort to find out anything about this house architecturally or historically. They screwed up real bad, and now they've got egg on their face and don't want to admit it.

"What really bothers me is that Grand Center has been there, in one incarnation or another, for 25 years," Medler says. "In all this time, they've accomplished so little. Of all the large staff they have and all the time they have, why have they never done an architectural survey and historical analysis of these properties? I think it's irresponsible."

In his research, Medler learned that the home was built by Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and her husband, Minor. He was an officer in the Confederate Army and an aide to Jefferson Davis, she a suffragist and friend to Susan B. Anthony. Their son, Lee, was a world traveler and author who knew Mark Twain.

Janese Henry, the house's closest neighbor on Grandel Square, believes Grand Center fell far short of one of its own goals, to show "sensitivity to the history of the neighborhood." Says Henry: "We think there is space available in the neighborhood if Grand Center is willing to be open-minded and look at the options."

Grand Center isn't looking at other options.

Nancy Cambria, a spokeswoman for Grand Center, says 3716 Grandel Square is zoned commercial and that the building is listed neither on the National Register of Historic Places nor as part of the designated historic area in the Grand Center district. She defends the Grandel Square site as appropriate for Bruton Stroube's planned headquarters and says it offered the most "successful piece of contiguous land" in the district. "We try to balance our decisions about preservation and development and look at the long-term picture," she says. Grand Center offered Bruton Stroube a different site across the street on Grandel Square, but the company wasn't interested, she says.

The site the company was interested in was not available, because it had been traded to Fox Associates by Grand Center in exchange for parking lots on Grand. "There is no other property available for them right now," Cambria says, especially given the company's 13-month timetable. "This is the deal we were able to put together for them.

"If that property is allowed to stand, there is nobody that is going to go into that house -- which is vacant. So understand, this house will continue to be an eyesore in the district. We're trying to sit here and make things happen in the district, to really get the daytime population up."

Even after Bruton Stroube withdrew their application for a demolition permit on Friday, Grand Center's position hadn't changed. Cambria issued a written statement, which read: "Grand Center supports whatever action the Bruton Stroube partners take on the building that enables them to create a facility on Grandel Square that accommodates their business."