That Interval of Neglect: Undwelling on St. Louis Avenue
Before Christmas, I boarded a train that carried me to verdant, Edenic New Orleans, where I soon found myself at the Antenna Gallery. Warm air currents and intermittent rainfall brought out the decadence of New Orleans architecture with careless splendor. The colors of clapboards were brighter, the grime on the sidewalk more fragrant, the plywood over empty window openings more tattered and insistent. Here was a city with its heart largely placed back in its chest, but still sporting the scars of its disaster.
The ripe and humid city was the perfect liminal transition between messy old St. Louis and the exhibition at Antenna Gallery I set out to see, Carlie Trosclair’s (un)dwelling. Housed in a space of domesticity – a former dwelling turned gallery with well-appointed residency bedroom in the back – Trosclair’s show contradicted its immediate surroundings while hunting past the gallery walls out to more kindred spaces.
No visitor could escape the demanding scale of (un)dwelling. Photographic prints and photo cut-outs hung dutifully on the wall, but served only as comforting transition to some powerfully arresting elements. In the back, straight ahead of the main entrance, wallpaper hung in amorphous descent entitled It Must Be the Humidity. The wry title hints at the piece’s determined veracity: this is what happens in buildings left to the elements.
On the other side of the wall, a long viewshed presented a mosaic of plaster fragments affixed to the wall, evoking city street grid as well as the fragile order of dying buildings; a folding screen of assembled window sash, whose panes may have been static save the applied cutouts that cast deep shadows; and, most blunt, a mattress cover bearing the prosaic rust stains of its former springs as well as moss growth. The mattress cover’s verisimilitude was so clear that it escaped comparison or metaphor in my mind. There was a Duchamp-like absurd realism here, which played off of the fabricated elements of the plaster fragments and window sash. The three elements in the space hinted at the unknowing as well as the fervent projected psychological order that accompanies urban decay.
I am not a casual observer of (un)dwelling, because I have been involved in some of the exploration that lead to works in the exhibition. Yet its assemblage startled me still, because it took me back to a very real place. Carlie Trosclair, friend, colleague and fellow explorer of the poetics of architectural decay, again brought me into new space. While her installation hung in New Orleans, however, a place we both cared about had died an unremarkable – and poignant – death in St. Louis.
To see a building is to look upon what came before it and to project its destruction. The imminence of architectural material conjures a presence that is so immediate, that a building almost displaces itself in time simply by being built. Our minds can foresee the loss of any great work of architecture, not simply because of the phenomena of its existence, but because we can play and reply images of actual destruction.
In the United States, our popular visual history of architecture is full of warnings that speak in a harsh whisper: you could lose everything that you love. St. Louis’ earliest buildings were washed away in a great fire in 1849, and what then became oldest again fell for the Gateway Arch grounds. The iconography of urban America repeats events where solid monuments fall to war, fire, terrorism or simple real estate capitalism. The recent past gets taught with images of the destruction of Beaux-Arts Penn Station in New York, the infant-aged tower at Pruitt-Igoe housing project felled by dynamite, airplanes smashing into the World Trade Center and the waters of Hurricane Katrina washing away vernacular houses older than many American states themselves.
Of course, American exceptionalism is nothing without its ability to destroy – and images of wanton destruction fulfill our myth better than the uncontained “energies of the outmoded,” to borrow from the writings of Camilo Jose Vergara. Nowadays urban planners serve as the avant garde for real estate’s destructive force, under the guise that public policy need to fold to “economic development.” Destruction of architecture has been the byproduct of urban “renewal” since about the time of the 1949 United States Housing Act. Uprooting beauty is now one of the chief functions of city government.
Against the backdrop of public policy and investment capitalism that both render much of our urban building stock ephemeral, there is a strange unwillingness to absorb ruins. St. Louis seems to tolerate wanton destruction of buildings, but not the slow unraveling of building lifespans. Under-maintained buildings vex building inspectors, and vacant buildings drive elected officials to grand stands. We demolish buildings at will, and we proclaim that our new buildings solve important problems eternally, but we shudder at anything between these two contrasting states of tamed architecture.
In The Necessity for Ruins, J.B. Jackson wrote that for buildings, “there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential.” Jackson was critiquing the social construct of the ruin rather than fully embracing it, but he offers a valuable theory: architectural decay produces its own cultural meaning that cannot otherwise be deduced. The ruin draws us to meaning and history by singling out what otherwise might be a recuperated part of the vernacular backdrop of daily life. As with a dystopian novel, a ruined building could well be a reflection on our own time better than an occupied one.
At the least, vacant buildings offer a third way for architecture to live, between sanctioned life and sanctioned death. In that life there dwells a wild architecture – an architecture that can kill itself off before human hands get to the task. Therein the ruined building confronts the myths of progress and frontier – it is a token in neither, but rather part of a counter-narrative that shows what spaces human settlement has not controlled.
The first day that I met Carlie Trosclair, we endeavored to explore abandoned buildings. I wanted to check up on some buildings whose preservation I sought, and attended to them to take detailed photographs and make notes of current conditions ahead of meetings and interviews. She was seeking something less prosaic, perhaps. Later I saw what Trosclair conjured from the expedition, but the look on her face at the time betrayed a plain and strong captivation.
After visiting an office building, I offered to show Trosclair a lone sandstone-faced house at the southwest corner of St. Louis and Glasgow avenues. She had commented on an earlier photo of its bizarrely appointed interior, and it fit her artistic investigation of deteriorating domestic spaces. Yet it unfolded into a larger puzzle: the house was a lopped-off remainder of a double house built in the late 1870s, and its flat roof concealed a staircase rising up to what must have been a third floor. The Italianate-style building looked like a townhouse, but actually was already a fragment.
St. Louis Avenue at Glasgow is not a forlorn setting, but a bridge between devastated blocks east and a very strong and dense cluster of buildings west to Grand. To the west, a mid-century church and the Columbia School face rows of intact single and multiple dwellings on the edge of the Lindell Park neighborhood. Here unfolds a complex north St. Louis. Here stands a vacant house owned now by Northside Regeneration LLC, the real estate juggernaut that has demolished or let fall dozens of historic houses. Perhaps the house was already dead when we arrived.
This house became the site for multiple visits. One day, when the sun was setting in a particularly golden way, I called Trosclair and told her that the light must be great in that house right now. We both converged there, and caught images of the place in new light. The forensics never ended: the house was chock full of the relics of its inhabitation over decades, as well as the story of its construction and alteration. Historical forces were knowable at this scale, and still intimidating.
Multiple visits provoked constant discussion of the righteousness of occupation (legality aside). With the rear entrance open and unmarked by warning, we knew that we could not be the only visitors. Yet the piles of burned couches and colorful clothing items never seemed to move. We dared not touch them. The wild heart of the house was not done beating, and reverence seemed key.
Any historian of architecture that begs permission to detect facts would be laid to rest having embodied that dismissive statement that architectural history exists to legitimize the profession of architecture. The historian of architecture does well to transgress all number of barriers between inquiry and the source of fact. The pursuit of facts about buildings entails investigation of their material reality – brick and mortar (buildings, fragments and such), blood and sweat (occupants and neighbors), paper and ink (design).
Perhaps the architectural ruin is not a frontier, it is an artifact. Its body inhabits the past tense, resisting succumbing to our drive for agency through the acts of redevelopment. If we admitted that some buildings were neither going to be rehabilitated nor replaced with any remarkable new building, we might grow to accept the liminal state of decay as something far better than the alternative of empty space. Yet somehow we are more reconciled to vacant land than vacant buildings. Land invites conquest, a simple myth, while buildings suggest repair, a complex and less identity-projecting endeavor.
Trespass is from the Old French trespas, meaning a passing across or transgression of the law. The use of trespass to denote unlawfully entering private property seems to have originated in the Acts of the Scottish Parliament c. 1455. The most famous usage may be in the Lord’s Prayer, appearing first when William Tynsdale used “trespass” in his 1525 translation of Matthew. “Debt” is an equally common substitution in the prayer, and modern theologians sometimes insert “sin.”
The word “sin” may be related to the Latin “sons,” which means “guilty.” While “trespass” in the Lord’s Prayer denotes a moral transgression, “trespass” in the legal sense denotes a specific physical transgression. Exploration of a vacant house, without owner consent – even in the absence of a legally-significant “no trespassing” sign – is transgression. The morality of poking around abandoned buildings, however, is not absolute. If it were, so would be the morality of owning the buildings and letting them stay vacant. Despite my convictions on the need to conserve these buildings, I don’t think that owning a vacant building is a sin.
Passive trespassing remains essential to understanding the full breadth of architectural life in a city. Trespassing is also a form of bearing witness to this fleeting wild life buildings flaunt before their ultimate disappearances. Perhaps Trosclair and I were as much keeping a vigil at the house on St. Louis Avenue as we were examining it for our own purposes. Yet our own purposes were complementary: Trosclair gave the house representation in a future, a precious gesture after demolition; my own evaluation showed that the house was sound and could be rehabilitated. Either act could have helped preserve the house – rescue it from both the death its owner inflicted and the “interval of neglect” that made it terrifying to neighbors. Instead both came far too late to extend the house’s mortality.
City officials estimate that there are over 6,000 vacant buildings in St. Louis. The city loses more buildings every year than it builds back, causing the city to vanish at its edges perpetually. Vacant buildings disappear when they are perfectly sound (as with the Powell Square warehouse south of the Arch last year) or when they are down to piles of timber atop open foundation (as in north city’s houses befallen by brick-theft).
City officials currently are considering funding the demolition of 2,000 vacant buildings at once, an operation that seems like willful amputation. The weight of public policy bears to erase houses like the house on St. Louis Avenue, in the name of progress. Progress that destroys architecture seems to soothe minds unhinged by the wilderness of ruins but perversely bolstered by the placeless ugliness of vacant urban lots.
Yet abandonment need not be a terror. Abandonment produces new architectural moments, as well as transition between uses. In the exhibition statement for (un)dwelling, Trosclair writes that: “In contrast to being classified as derelict, these works highlight each object and space as an ever-changing living organism as they unravel in liminal space, creating new systems and patterns of order and beauty.”
In our habitations of the house on St. Louis Avenue, we bore witness to peculiar patterns of order and beauty that manifest as the house sat vacant. The chaos of discarded clothing and furniture, the eerie movement of crinoline curtains in dying sunlight, the slow peel of the paint from the front elevation – all of these elements allowed the house to live again, and again.
In November last year, a wrecking crew arrived on the site. I checked the city records, and Northside Regeneration LLC had successfully obtained a demolition permit. In a matter of days, the strange little house – and its potential to be reclaimed, even through pure capitalism – disappeared. Without formal demolition review, what seemed like a living treasure to those of us who set foot inside became a statistic of conquest. Demolition obliterated a certain number of vacant buildings in the city last year, and one of them happened to be at 2900 St. Louis Avenue.
Today, straw-strewn mud marks the spot where the house once stood. The adjacent church and school are vibrant, making this vacant lot a rather weird development proposition. Perhaps someday a fibrous and flimsy facsimile will rise to take the place of the house. By then, no passer-by could tell of the days of the double house, or the days of the families that lived there, or still of the days that the house stood as a liminal vestige.
Yet this stone-fronted house, this casualty of a city’s changed composition and the myth of its rebirth, shall live through Trosclair’s work and other documents created by explorers and former residents. Architecture’s mortality shall be confirmed through image. The house was there, and we will know that forever.
All photographs courtesy of Carlie Trosclair and Michael Allen.