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St. Louis to document city's plethora of 19th-century triangular 'flounder' houses

Paul Sableman | Flickr
This flounder house in St. Louis Place is an example of the style built off alleys to use space in dense neighborhoods.

A rare, mid-19th century, triangular type of house known as a "flounder" is the subject of a survey being conducted by the city of St. Louis.

The Cultural Resources Office, part of the city's planning and urban design agency, is photographing each of the city's flounder houses and documenting their conditions over the course of the coming months. The project was introduced to the public during the Office'spreservation board meeting Monday.

Preservation administrator Jan Cameron said St. Louis is one of very few cities with this special type of historic housing. 

"It is essentially a very small, single-family building, built probably in the mid-19th century, which will have one wall higher than the others, so it has a very distinctive triangular shape," she said.

According to the city's description of urban housing forms, flounder houses were "exclusively working class homes ... especially appropriate for dense neighborhoods, where space was at a premium. They were often constructed as alley buildings, sharing a lot with as many as two larger tenement buildings."

In St. Louis, Cameron said flounder houses mostly are found in the oldest parts of the city, such as the Soulard and Benton Park neighborhoods. But intriguingly, Cameron said flounders have been found as far west as McCausland Avenue.

This unlikely discovery of flounders on the western edge of the city is just one of their curiosities. Cameron said she hopes the survey will help answer other historical questions. For example, most of the other cities where flounder houses are found, including Alexandria and Philadelphia, are located on the East Coast — so how did the style come to St. Louis?

"We have what's turned out to be a plethora of these," Cameron said. "There are not that many in the Midwest. One of the things we'd like to discover in the survey is its connection with the East Coast and why it appears in St. Louis and nowhere else." 

This St. Louis flounder house sits in the 6800 block of Southwest Avenue.
Credit Michael Allen | Flickr
This St. Louis flounder house sits in the 6800 block of Southwest Avenue.

Moreover, St. Louis has a lot of flounders in a "wide variety" of forms, Cameron said. Initially, the city thought it had only about 100 such homes.

"We are not finished with most of the survey and we've identified 260," she said. "So there are a lot out there, a lot more than anyone was aware of. There's one story, two story, framed brick, all kinds. It's amazing."

That's part of why Cameron said the Cultural Resources Office wants to keep the public informed about the survey. Many flounder houses are occupied, some may already be part of historic districts, but others may require some preservation help. Cameron said one possibility is to get the city's flounder homes on the National Register of Historic Places as a "thematic nomination." 

"What we hope to do is bring a lot of publicity and attention to these resources ... and they really need some attention, particularly the ones that are not in an established district," she said. "But primarily what we hope to do is come up with viable reuse idea for them, and that would be a second phase that’s not within our current scope of work."

Right now, Cameron said the city is focusing on finishing the survey by the end of the summer, at which point it will issue a findings report.

The survey project is funded in part by a historic preservation grant through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the State Historic Preservation Office, which will ultimately house the survey data.