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Commentary: Will SLU do the right thing with Pevely Dairy complex?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2011 - There might be someone in the city who does not know the Pevely Dairy plant, with its prominent corner building, name sign and smokestack, but that person probably hasn't been here very long.

The Pevely Dairy plant is that rare specimen of industrial architecture in the city that is a widely recognizable part of the city's extended skyline, alongside venerable mid-city landmarks like the Compton Hill Water Tower and the old Firmin Desloge (now Saint Louis University) Hospital and the new Edward Doisy Research Center. Pevely Dairy has been a major part of the cityscape since completion of its recognizable office building in 1915.

Now this landmark has come under threat of Saint Louis University's wrecking ball, just after the bizarre loss by fire of a twin ice cream plant building (built in 1943) in 2009 and the National Register of Historic Places designation of the remaining plant in 2010. That designation enables historic rehabilitation tax credits -- and was sought by a developer looking to use those to transform the plant into housing. Abruptly, that plan disappeared.

Saint Louis University closed on the Pevely Dairy plant in October, keeping quiet about its intentions until revealing a plan to demolish the plant for a new doctors' office building. Of course, the university revealed its plans after a newspaper story about its demolition permit ran and has not shown the public a single rendering of what is proposed. Assessing whether the plant is incompatible with a new building is impossible at the moment. However, the Pevely Dairy site has ample empty space after the loss of the ice cream plant. Demolition may be convenient, but not necessary.

What is certain is that the university won't be able to demolish the Pevely Dairy without facing an arduous preservation review process.

Tweet from last night:

MayorSlay.com (@MayorSlay)
11/15/11 7:11 PM
The city's Cultural Resources Office will not approve an application to demolition the Pevely complex. #fgs

The Cultural Resources Office has the power to deny the demolition permit or to make a recommendation to the city's mayorally appointed Preservation Board. The Cultural Resources Office is likely to take that route and present the request to the Preservation Board at its Nov. 28 meeting. The board will then get to deliberate and vote on the fate. With eight out of nine seats filled and decisions frequently made by 3-2 votes, armchair quarterbacking of the board is nearly impossible. The outcome will depend on which members attend and the content of the required public testimony.

Two recent demolitions of industrial buildings serve as backdrop. In the spring, CORTEX demolished the historic Welle-Boettler Bakery complex at the northwest corner of Forest Park and Vandeventer avenues (first built in 1897, designed by August Beinke). That complex was an anchor at a major intersection, and with strong architectural character and reuse potential. However, the CORTEX redevelopment ordinance passed in 2006 removed it from demolition review. So the city lost another graceful factory in the central corridor - something that is on the minds of many preservationists as they contemplate loss of the Pevely plant.

The other demolition happened at Procter & Gamble's plant on the north riverfront, which is highly visible from Interstate 70. Preservationists strongly fought demolition of a plant whose earliest parts dated to the 1870s. The Preservation Board recently approved demolition of most of Procter & Gamble's historic plant based on a recommendation from Cultural Resources Office Director Betsy Bradley. That recommendation entailed separating the buildings into different classes of architectural merit, which Bradley and her staff could do for Pevely as well.

Saint Louis University has already started the discussion of taking the demolition piece by piece, by issuing a statement last week that claims that the university will save the smokestack (added in 1943) and consider saving the "facades" of the main office and milk plant building at Grand and Chouteau.

Certainly, the other more functional sections would not be mourned by many. Yet the question of reuse arises -- should the Preservation Board block demolition, reuse would be most logically done using historic rehabilitation tax credits. Maintaining integrity of the complex as-is would maximize tax credit return and provide a developer with options for use of the space.

Again, the university's plans are not clear enough to know what makes sense. Facade surgery paid for by the university, however, seems a very expensive route when tax credits for reusing the entire corner building are available.

Visibility and reuse fantasies aside, the Pevely plant has more compelling attributes. The plant's robust corner building, with its raw grid of windows openly displaying its utility, has refinements unlike many of its industrial brethren. The verdigris and white terra cotta in the cornice, is one. The finely detailed entrance is another.

Not seen by many, the interior offers a dazzling run of walls clad in white brick, for sanitization, and a neat tiled soda fountain and retail space in the front (look in the windows some time!). This is no mere factory box, but a smartly drawn purpose-specified modern industrial facility designed by architect Leonhard Haeger. The building's reuse would tickle an architect's imagination.

The plant's origin came through the imagination of Pevely's founders, who were enjoying rapid success producing pasteurized milk. For 70 years, the plant was owned by the founding Kerckhoff family, who had started the company in little Pevely, Mo., back in 1887. This plant was the enduring achievement of a company whose product line would soon become a local household name for generations.

If that legacy were tied to a formless pile of jumbled buildings, few would care. Yet the Kerckhoffs built a handsome monument that is as much the city's as it ever was the company's. Saint Louis University has given us a similarly spirited work in Cannon Design's Doisy Research Center across the street. Side by side, these buildings make a more powerful, balanced statement about the endurance in St. Louis of industry and invention as well as good design.

Let the university's acknowledgement of that fact grow into a more thoughtful stewardship than a salvaged smokestack and a theoretical facadectomy provide.

Michael R. Allen is director of Preservation Research Office.