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Army Corps' new levee proposal encourages 'Save Our Studio' supporters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2009 - Efforts to save a sculptor's studio in Chesterfield from a flood-protection project have yielded one new proposal, but fans of the studio are pushing for something better.

At an outdoor meeting and rally at Don Wiegand's studio Wednesday night, more than 100 people heard updates on the drive to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from razing the building where he works and lives, on the eastern edge of Chesterfield Valley.

The group began mobilizing last month after learning that plans to improve the levee and protect the valley from a 500-year flood could also lead to demolition of the structure, which was originally built as a slaughterhouse in 1926 and has been modified and expanded several times since.

Those changes have helped Wiegand survive and thrive through fire and high water, but they have harmed the chances for the building to win the historic designation that could save it, according to Mark Miles, director of the Missouri Historic Preservation Office.

No application to gain historic status for the building has been filed, Miles' office said, but he added that even if it were, he does not expect it would be approved, partly because of changes that have been made and partly because Wiegand is still actively working. He noted the obstacles that had to be overcome to win historic designation for the home in St. Louis where Chuck Berry lived when he wrote some of his most popular songs.

"Given the size and scale and extent of some of the alterations that were made," Miles said of the Wiegand studio, "it argues against it."

At Wednesday night's meeting, Nancy Carver, who has helped lead the effort to save the building, said that the latest plan from the Corps represents some progress, but while it would preserve the studio, it would hurt the site on which it sits.

David Human, attorney for the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee district, which working with the Corps on the flood-control project, said in an interview Thursday that the newest alternative would include a 200-foot-long floodwall behind the house, with a strengthened earthen levee on either side.

Human said those modifications would reduce the cost of the project, but the enhancements of the earthen levee would encroach 50 feet into the property, meaning that many trees would have to go.

"There would be a flood wall behind him, with a levee on either side," Human said. "Frankly, it's the only way to reduce the cost.

"There isn't an alternative that is not going to cost several millions dollars more and not have some impact on the house or the trees. Something is going to wind up one way or the other getting impacted unless someone is going to spend couple of million dollars more. At this point, there really isn't justification to be spending a couple of million dollars more."

Human said that if those who are trying to save the building could come up with the financial difference, about $2.5 million, the Corps could use it to build a flood wall behind the Wiegand studio, far enough away that neither the building nor the grounds would be affected.

"We have provided an alternative where the house wouldn't have to be moved and it would be protected," he said. "The only thing that hasn't changed is that we don't have an alternative where the trees stay where they are and the house stays where it is. I don't think there will be such an alternative."

Human said the Corps faces an Aug. 1 deadline to make a decision on how to proceed.

Carver said that the latest option advanced by the Corps would effectively leave the Wiegand studio sitting in a hole -- and she got a resounding "NO" from the crowd when she asked, "Would any of you want to be living in a hole?"

She feels that headway has been made in negotiations to save the house, and she urged backers of the effort to continue their letter-writing campaign to public officials that she says can help come up with a better alternative.

"We feel that we have bought some time and are making progress," Carver said, "because they are looking at more alternatives. When we first got into this, they were saying the building has to be condemned and that's it.

"I think they're starting to listen."

Some members of the audience Wednesday night wore Save Our Studio shirts; the same slogan has been adopted at a website dedicated to the cause.

Complete with a band that at times had to compete with a herd of squawking fowl on the property, the meeting at times had the feel of a political rally. Wiegand himself, who has said consistently that he appreciates what the Corps is trying to do, told his supporters once more that he is trying to save the property for the benefit of everyone, not just him.

"Our goal here is not to hurt anyone," he said. "We want to help everyone.

"This land is yours. I've designed it for all of you, and I mean it."

Carver urged the crowd to "keep up the pressure," saying that "there are some things that are priceless, and this is one of them."

"If you ruin the land," she added, "you ruin the studio. They're one.

"Let's make sure we ask the right questions and that we get good answers."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.