Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Homes Under Construction In McKinley Heights And A Brief History of Charless School

This blog was updated on December 10th, 2016 with updated information on Charless School from St. Louis Public Library Reference Librarian Adele Heagney. I met Adele while blogging on the St. Louis library branches, and she is a tireless researcher of city records and invaluable reference materials. Updates in red font.

The McKinley Heights neighborhood is ripe for development and rehab. The location is nearly unmatched as you can get anywhere in the city in ~15 minutes.
Aesthetically speaking, McKinley Heights is a real unsung hero. It boasts some of the most varied architectural styles and details of any single neighborhood.

You might not pick up on that for a couple reasons. 

One, most people drive through the neighborhood as opposed to walking or cycling. And to appreciate it, you really have to slow down and train your eyes toward some of the intricate details on many of the homes and businesses on the side streets.

These interesting brick details might have something to do with renown architect William B. Ittner's family owning a brickyard near here in the 1850's in what is now Fox Park. Some of Ittner's earliest works are in this part of town. (source)

Secondly, driving through McKinley Heights usually takes you down Russell Boulevard as there are no other really convenient streets to get east/west and there is only one intra-neighborhood street (Mississippi Avenue) that crosses I-44. 

So it's understandable that Russell would be the average St. Louisan's sole exposure to McKinley Heights.

But, venturing down the side streets show that a lot is going on from a development standpoint; there always appears to be rehabbing going on with at least a couple dumpsters on display indicating substantial rehabs.
2300 block of Ann Avenue
And there's evidence of the much needed investment in maintenance and upkeep of the owner-occupied homes.
2200 block of Jules Avenue

A new construction project recently caught my eye on the 2200 block of Shenandoah near Jules Avenue. Just south of Shenandoah, there are several concrete foundations recently poured on what appeared to be an empty lot.

A sign on the construction site indicates it is called "Charless Village". Where'd that name come from? I'll explain in a minute.
A view of the property along Shenandoah indicates it was once a larger, single property as evidenced by the small stone wall that lines the property and a stairway allowing access from the street:


I was immediately thinking a school or other large building must have been there at one point. A quick look at the alley-side of the property showed another clue: remnants of the familiar iron fencing indicative of our historic public schools.
Turns out, this is the site of the once beautiful Charless School. Per the St. Louis City website:
The earliest public school built in the area was the Charless School which was erected in 1895 at 2226 Shenandoah Avenue after the design by A. H. Kirchner. (source)
sans bell/clock tower and dormer windows

The school was in use through the 1970's and maybe later. I'm trying to find out if any alumni can tell me when the school was closed via the alumni Facebook page. Per St. Louis Public School records, and thanks to the research of Adele Heagney, the school closed in 1981.

If anyone reading this can provide proof of how the clock/bell tower was lost as per the second photo above, let me know. I am thinking tornado/storm but have no proof.

One of the worst tornados in U.S. history occurred in May, 1896 that did a number on this part of town. Here's a photo of the damage just a few blocks north of Charless School at Jefferson and Allen Avenue:
The Charless School withstood some pretty big tests from Mother Nature, but it was not able to survive the St. Louis wrecking ball. Per city records, a demolition permit was issued for the property in 1993. (source)

Demolition of our historic schools was short-sighted and ignorant. As we know now, many of these schools are being rehabbed for modern residential.

So it goes.

Although no one will call this row of new homes "Charless Village" once they are constructed, it's at least a nod to the history of the school, likely named after Joseph Charless (who added the 2nd S to his last name to emphasize how it was pronounced in his birthplace, Ireland). Charless was famous for publishing the first newspaper west of the Mississippi, the Missouri Gazette in 1808. (source

Ms. Heagney was able to provide the evidence I needed that the school was indeed named in honor of Joseph Charless and was damaged by the tornado. From news clippings circa 1920 in the Central Library archive:

This school is located at 2226 Shenanadoah avenue, and was erected in the year 1895. Although erected over 25 years ago and conforming to the type of school architecture of its day, it is still an excellent school building with 13 splendid and modernly equipped class rooms. 
The building is erected upon a plot of ground donated by Mr. Joseph Charles to the City of St. Louis to be used as a school site.  He was born in 1804 and at first aided his father as printer on the Missouri Gazette. After completing his studies at the University, he took up the mercantile business, and in 1828 established a wholesale drug business. He haled many positions of trust, being Alderman, School Director, President of the State Bank and of the Mechanics Bank.  He was one of the founders of Washington University and of many charitable institutions of our city.

Furthermore, Ms. Heagney's research indicated that the school at 2226 Shenandoah is actually the second location of the Charless School. The first was at Shenandoah and Gravois from 1859-1895.
Original Charless School at Shenandoah and Gravois

The second Charless School closed in 1981 after an 86 year run. It sat vacant for ~7 years, until it was damaged by an arsonist in 1988. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on February 23, 1988 that the fire department put out a three-alarm fire that damaged the roof of the vacant school. A separate fire was extinguished in the building the following day. Deputy Fire Chief Bob Jones suspected arson since there was no electricity to the three-story building and the fire started in the attic.

Then, per printed records of the Board of Education from 1895/1896, Ms. Heagney was able to find determine that a "storm damage"  account set up by the SLPS for repairs to Charless totaling over $2000 for tornado damage...mystery solved.

Anyhow, once the school was razed in 1993, the property sat vacant until most recently when building permits were issued in 2016.

Per city records, the property changed hands in 2007 from the St. Louis Board of Education to suburban developer CF Vatterott (officially entered as "Affordable City Homes of St. Louis, Inc." in the city database). Vatterott owns quite a bit of property in this part of the city from the Gate District to Fox Park to McKinley Heights. 
In fact, Vatterott recently floated several highly-subsidized, low-income home construction projects in these parts and many of the neighbors were quite vocal against it, though not for the reasons one would expect (low income-NIMBY's, bad design, cheap materials, although those reasons were debated). The loudest dissent came from the dubious financial terms that by no means appeared to be in favor of a family on a fixed/low income. The financing plan made public by the developer appeared to be a bum "rent-to-own" deal for the tenant that no financial adviser would likely recommend to someone with as a sound long-term investment.

I'd like to see Vatterott return with a more equitable proposal that would mutually satisfy the developer, the existing neighbors and prospective buyers. It is high time to act as opposed to sitting on the many lots they've owned for many years. Or, just sell the property to someone that has the will to develop an even-handed urban plan that can gain support from the current residents/tax payers.

Anyhow, Vatterott is building five new homes on the former Charless School property...and I'm hopeful that this development will be a step in the right direction for the property and by extension, for the neighborhood.

Per the Vatterott website the ~1,568 square foot 3 bed/3 bath homes are being offered for ~$215,000.

From the Vatterott website:
Now taking reservations! Five historically-based Energy-Efficient new homes now underway on Shenandoah Avenue in historic McKinley Heights! Representing the first new construction homes offered in this area in decades - enjoy modern open floorplan layouts, full basements, two-car garages and high-efficient systems together with historic elevations with 9 ft first AND second floor ceiling heights. (source)
The thing that is unclear is if these are market rate, if there were tax abatements awarded and if the sides will be vinyl or brick. The overall ability of new faux-historic construction usually depends on the details and finishes. So far, it's too early to tell.

The good news is the placement of the homes blends in well with the existing homes on the block.  Judging by the foundations, the five homes are densely placed and they have a good relationship with the street. The massing and overall shape matches the adjacent homes and they will fill a much needed gap in the street wall along Shenandoah that's been there since the 1990s.

See for yourself how they will fit in:
The garages will utilize the alley:
And they kept the long stone wall and stairs:

We will have to see how the finished product turns out, but at a minimum it is good to know that more people will be moving to this important part of the city. Not everyone wants to maintain a 100+ year old home, and these will provide a lower-maintenance alternative.

We need more residents to make the city feel vibrant and keep wonderful local places like Kim Van, Milquetoast Bar and Fritanga open.

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