Very few cities in the United States have as many brick buildings as St. Louis has. Brick was utilized not only in the city’s downtown office buildings and wealthy neighborhoods, but also throughout middle and working class communities. This gave St. Louis a unique architecture style which permeates throughout the city.
This wealth of brick is due to three converging factors: First, Eastern Missouri contains rich clay that provides abundant, high quality brick. Without transportation costs to drive up the price, it was an affordable construction option. Secondly, city leaders passed an ordinance that required new buildings to be made out of noncombustible material, such as brick, after a large fire destroyed much of St. Louis in 1849. Lastly, St. Louis’s economy thrived well into the early 20th century, resulting in many new buildings being constructed to meet the needs of the growing city. The area’s high quality brick was the natural choice.
Consequently, brick has left a wonderful legacy in St. Louis. The city is filled with gorgeous architecture, as brick layers experimented with different designs, colors, and types of brick. Equally as important in more recent decades, its durable nature has become a tool against the decay of abandoned structures.
Vacancy has become a serious issue in the city, as St. Louis has lost a greater percentage of its population than any other city in the country, even more than Detroit, Youngstown, and Cleveland. Census data shows that from 1950 to 2010, the city’s population declined almost 63% from around 857,000 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 538,000. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, there were 35,296 vacant housing units in St. Louis, 20% of total housing units in the city.
Brick buildings tend to hold up significantly better than wood frame housing – something that sets St. Louis’ housing stock apart from Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown. Whereas vacancy is a challenge in all of these cities, brick buildings left vacant for decades can often still be renovated, with an average lifespan of over 100 years. By comparison, the lifespan of a vacant wood frame home can often be less than five years.
A remarkable example of revitalizing long-vacant brick structures is the work of Old North Restoration Group. The Old North community is directly north of downtown and is part of the area of St. Louis hardest hit by abandonment. The Old North Restoration Group is a community development corporation established in 1981 to fight the decay of the neighborhood and revitalize it into a strong, healthy community.
Old North Restoration Group’s website has amazing pictures of many of their rehabs, including the $35 million renovation of Crown Square, the community’s business district. However, the pictures do not fully illustrate the disrepair many of the buildings were in prior to renovation. After decades of disinvestment, Old North Restoration Group has made significant progress restoring the neighborhood’s urban fabric, something that likely would have been impossible without the resilience of its building material. In recognition of its impact on the community, Old North Restoration Group won the 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement from the EPA.
However, the legacy of brick in St. Louis also has a dark side. Due to the high quality of the brick and the large scale abandonment seen in North St. Louis, brick theft has become a serious problem. St. Louis’ brick has become a popular commodity that is being used in new housing development in places like Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Arizona. Thieves are quite literally taking whole walls of exterior brick, causing the buildings to collapse.
According to Preservation Research Office, brick theft has been going on in St. Louis since the 1970s, but it escalated significantly during the 2000s. In 2003, a developer named Paul McKee, Jr. began purchasing hundreds of properties in North St. Louis as he prepared for large scale redevelopment plans in the area. While the intentions of the developer may have been good, this only increased the number of vacant buildings in the area, making it even easier to steal brick on neighborhood blocks with few residents to keep an eye on the area.
This video shows the lengths that thieves will go to for St. Louis bricks.
City Alderman Sam Moore, who has been fighting against brick theft for many years, describes how thieves would weave a wire in and out of windows, hook them to a truck, and pull a whole wall down. Moore then describes how the thievery has escalated to burning homes down. According to Moore, burning the homes down detaches the brick from the mortar and the Fire Department’s hoses clean the bricks, leaving a pile of bricks ready for easy sale.
A number of articles on brick theft discuss the desire of many, led by those such as Alderman Moore, to create harsher punishments for brick thieves in St. Louis. In 2011, the City cracked down on brickyards accepting bricks from suspect origins, but it is unclear whether or not the city has been able to consistently enforce tougher regulations. In the meantime, some parts of North St. Louis look almost war-torn. For some telling pictures of the state of many blocks, check out Built St. Louis’ blog.
The legacy of brick in St. Louis is a paradox. It is one of its biggest assets of the city but it also is posing a unique challenge, particularly in North St. Louis. Old North Restoration Group is making progress revitalizing the neighborhood and hopefully it will become a model for other areas in North St. Louis. Paul McKee Jr., the developer who acquired hundreds of North St. Louis properties, will play a large role in the future of North St. Louis as he moves forward with the Northside Regeneration development. It is unclear whether this impact will be positive or negative. However, the sheer scope of the project, seen in this map, makes it vitally important to the future of the community.
St. Louis’ brick legacy is alive and well in much of the city and will remain the definitive architecture of the city. Hopefully redevelopment efforts in North St. Louis will preserve this legacy in this part of the city as well.