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Vacant downtown high-rise burns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2010 - About 20 St. Louis fire department crews responded to a call at the Alverne Building at the corner of 11th and Locust in Downtown St. Louis around 7 p.m. May 24. Firefighters found the basement and first floor of the vacant 15-story high-rise ablaze.

According to Fire Department Chief Dennis Jenkerson, the ground floor was boarded up and the first responders had to break their way in, eventually gaining access in an alley off 11th St. It took about 15 minutes before the crews felt they had the fire under control.

"You wouldn't want this fire to get too far ahead of you," Jenkerson said, praising the crews for their quick response. Firefighters also had to check the rest of the building to make sure the fire hadn't spread to the upper floors.

Jenkerson confirmed that there was no electric or gas service to the building, and that there was no active work going on that he was aware of.

An investigation is underway to determine the cause of the fire.

A Look Back

The building's beginnings were auspicious. Thomas P. Barnett designed the 15-story highrise for the prestigious City Club, of which Barnett was a member. Tom P. Barnett was one of St. Louis' greatest and most prolific architects. President Warren G. Harding lay the cornerstone in June 1923, and the building was officially dedicated the following May, according to architectural historian and public history consultant Lynn Josse, who provided much of the information for this report. 


Although there were social aspects to the club, its intentions were also to promote good government by providing a forum for discussion of political and civic issues. According to the nomination of the building for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (pdf), the City Club's roots were "in the municipal reform movement" and its intentions were set out in a club prospectus.

That document "describes the need for a meeting place for men with concern over the welfare of the city: It will become a clearing house for the most accurate information on municipal and public affairs and will assist materially in developing a strong public sentiment.

"This is a most important field of civic work; for it is coming to be well understood that the ignorance of the average well meaning citizen in regard to municipal affairs is a fundamental cause of much of our municipal mismanagement."

Despite its being highly regarded as both social club and civic progress institution, and attracting many of the region's most notable citizens, the club's fortunes began to turn relatively soon after its dedication in 1924, and the Depression sealed its doom. The club closed its doors in 1933, hoping to reopen them when the Depression was over.

The revival of the club never happened. The building subsequently served as a hotel (the DeSoto) and as a residence for elderly Roman Catholics, the Alvern.

For a few years, a chapel on the ground floor served a downtown population after all the residents had departed. The chapel closed in 1991. Alvern Associates LLC owns the building now.

Brent is the senior data visual specialist at St. Louis Public Radio.