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A time to celebrate preservation in the St. Louis area

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - Saturday kicks off Preservation Week in the St. Louis region and around the nation. The annual celebration of great architecture includes walking tours, house tours, lectures, exhibits and awards.

Here on May 13 on 13th Street, preservation leaders will toast and honor those who have carefully restored at-risk buildings, giving them a useful future and enhancing the St. Louis cityscape. Think of those "most enhanced" awards as preservation Oscars. The Landmarks Association will also honor Esley Hamilton, St. Louis County Parks historian, a Washington University instructor, author of scores of neighborhood histories and beloved walking tour guide who has saved or helped save hundreds of buildings across the region.

"It's important to encourage and honor those who have preserved our remarkable St. Louis architecture," said Jefferson G. Mansell, Landmarks Association of St. Louis executive director.

"We have so many visitors here who are so impressed with St. Louis architecture and our architecture continues to amaze me," said Mansell, a Mississippi native who moved here from New York three years ago. "Walking tours and house tours are a great way for St. Louisans to get to know their city better. We are always hopeful we can spur greater appreciation for architecture."

On the three walking tours and two house tours during Preservation Week, volunteer guides will explain architectural styles and easy-to-miss details. They also frequently share stories, often with humorous twists, of the builders and past owners.

Preservationists are the ultimate recyclers and fortunately that appeal transcends generations.

"Why wouldn't people be interested in preservation," said Mary Mitchell Bartley, author of "Lost St. Louis" about demolished St. Louis landmarks. She's been a scholarly preservation activist since the 1960s. She delights in taking visitors around town from Soulard and Old North St. Louis to her turf in the Central West End.

"Our built environment, our architecture, tells you a story that is fascinating.

"I feel very strongly that if you don't understand where the city has been, if you don't understand your forbearers, then, you can't understand what is going on now nor what the future will be."

Central West End

Working on many of the Central West End House tours over the years, Bartley has seen people's mouths drop at amazement at the grandeur of St. Louis mansions and gardens, not unlike children who see Powell Hall for the first time at a Kinder Konzert.

Being on house tour gives "you a deadline to get the furniture reupholstered, paint and do the garden," said Nikki Dwyer who has opened her house for the CWE house tour and chaired the tour other years. Her blog about her neighborhood is featured on the CWE website.

House tours attract people considering moving to the area as well as other preservationists, those who like antiques, those who are interested in getting decorating ideas, history lovers and "the curious," said Bartley.

The Central West End house tour features six houses along Lindell Boulevard, one of the best known of the CWE streets.

Among the many notables who have lived there are Robert Hannigan (Democratic National Committee chairman and Cardinals baseball co-owner, who suggested to Franklin D. Roosevelt that Harry S Truman be his running mate) and several generations of the Busch brewery family. After the deadly 1896 tornado struck much of Lafayette Square, the widowed daughter of James Buchanan Eads moved west to Lindell and built a house for herself and her sons.

All Lindell houses west of Union Boulevard were built after the 1904 World's Fair, most after World War I. That stretch of land was the fair's commercial amusement park called The Pike. Those houses have some of city's deepest and largest back yards. A few unoccupied Lindell plots still have fair rubble neatly hidden under grass.

Old North

House tours and neighborhood walks can get people who are fearful of the city out of their cars.

"At the Old North St. Louis house tour, they are often coming back for the first time in many years or maybe they've only come to visit Crown Candy before. But the house tour shows them that we have a real community that is warm and friendly," Sean Thomas, Old North St. Louis Restoration Group director, said.

One measure of the Old North St. Louis community spirit is that neighborhood volunteers over the past two decades transformed empty lots into nine community gardens. The produce from the North City Garden, a vegetable and fruit garden is sold at the new farmer's market on 14th street.

The townhouses in the area are often larger than they look, and their German-American builders had high standards for decorative brick details. On recent Saturdays, seasoned rehabbers from Old North have held "Rehabbers Academy" seminars to share highlights, challenges and warnings.

Old North's tour includes visits to 10 houses, a street festival, the neighborhood's regular seasonal Saturday morning Farmer's Market along the newly restored commercial district along 14th Street, just south of Crown Candy Kitchens. A shuttle will take those who prefer not to walk to open houses on the Old North tour.

Preservation Week is a great time for St. Louisans to learn more about their city and its history and its future. Cities like Atlanta and Denver showcase a few streets of residences or storefronts from the 1920s as treasured landmarks. That can stun St. Louisans who know tens of thousands of buildings like that here.

Once informed, residents can give their own out-of-town visitors a much better understanding of the region's great architecture. Recently Richard Guy Wilson, chairman of the architecture department at the University of Virginia (its core buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson), spoke at a Landmarks event. Wilson has earned wider recognition as narrator of A&E series "American Castles."

Even though he had been here before, Wilson said he still was excited and overwhelmed with what wonderful architecture St. Louis had.

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.