Sometimes, preservation questions come in the most difficult form possible. While we are often faced with David-versus –Goliath struggles of both the hopeful and hopeless kind, less often we have thornier affairs by which we test our consistency. Such is the situation in Old North St. Louis, where the Haven of Grace is seeking to expand its facility by demolishing two vacant historic houses in the 2600 block of Hadley Street.
An affiliate of Grace Hill Settlement House, Haven of Grace does amazing work that many others won’t: the organization provides transitional housing for pregnant homeless women. Director Diane Berry has tremendous drive to raise community support for this important work, and has served as an important member of the Board of Directors of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. The dormitory building that the organization recently built on 13th Street between Warren and Montgomery is a good example of thoughtful infill construction, blending historic massing and forms with modern materials like contemporary brick, metal siding and metal roofing. Some will fault the building’s design for a prominent parking lot, but generally it harmonizes with its setting amid nineteenth century buildings.
In a neighborhood steeped in exquisite, subtle architecture and a high concentration of residents committed to social justice, Haven of Grace is a perfect institution. The match between it and the neighborhood could not be greater.
That is why the issue of the demolition of the houses on Hadley Street to the east of the existing buildings creates a strange conflict. Haven of Grace has been a successful organization in part because of its relationship with its neighborhood. However, that neighborhood’s identity and future hinge on its historic architecture. With over sixty percent of its architectural stock lost in the last twenty-five years, Old North St. Louis must seriously consider the impact of the loss of two houses.
Furthermore, the houses are contributing resources to the Murphy-Blair Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The listing has enabled the use of much-needed Missouri rehab tax credits in the neighborhood. Further damage to the historic integrity of the official historic district seems needless.
The two houses are rather modest and, despite years of vacancy, in fairly good condition for their ages (both probably date to c. 1870-1880). The narrow Greek Revival home at 2605 Hadley is adjacent to a newly-rehabbed building, and sports one of the brick dentillated cornices typical of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood. The wider Italianate-style building, at 2619-21 Hadley, is modest save its unusual wooden cornice, which has exaggerated rounded brackets that are unmatched in the neighborhood—and perhaps on the whole north side. This house sites near the corner and through its presence helps define the character of the intersection of Hadley and Montgomery. Both houses would make excellent historic rehabilitation projects, and the wider house may be suitable for use by Haven of Grace.
Ultimately, the best resolution seems to be deferring to a precautionary principle against demolition. Old North St. Louis needs both its architectural and social resources in balance, but the architectural balance is difficult to achieve given the intensive demolition that has struck the neighborhood. Even last year, three contributing buildings to the Murphy-Blair Historic District were wrecked (2025 Palm, 1306 Monroe and 1929 Hebert) Preservation of all remaining historic buildings in any condition close to saving seems the only route to truly keeping the growth of the neighborhood in balance with its past. Given community support, Haven of Grace will surely be able to create an alternate expansion plan. After all, there is plenty of available space here in Old North – and an indomitable community spirit that always finds creative solutions to thorny issues like this one.