A New Kind of Monument: The Clemens House Ruin

By on December 11, 2017

From NextSTL:  Over on Cass Avenue, the James Clemens, Jr. House and its attached wings still tell St. Louis about its material past. A fire in July removed most of the wood, and shook loose parts of the walls, but the red brick, cast iron and sandstone that remain in place are defiant. The ruination only amplifies the building’s documentation of antebellum ambition, natural advantage (the materials all are from within 100 miles) and implacable forces of urban decline. A building like this is as much biography as artifact.

Yet the Clemens House likely will meet demolition soon – with the headache ball at a headlong sprint. Instead of a ripe, rusted, charred but informative biography, full of a frank reminder of what has actually happened, the city will get the open blank book of a vacant lot. To some people that is a more hopeful sort of landscape, but the passage will be from one-of-a-kind to one-of-at-least-10,000.

Of course, the parcel created will belong to Paul J. McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration land speculation project, which has owned it under various entities since 2005. After pressure from the last mayoral administration to preserve the Clemens House, McKee and developer Robert Wood attempted to secure tax-exempt Missouri low income housing bonds for an adaptive reuse, but did not succeed. McKee’s company did some minor work to stabilize the building around that time. By the time that McKee entered the story, the cost of rehabilitation was already very high due to accumulated deterioration.

Thus, the impending loss is not a simple narrative of a developer who received public largesse marked for development, and has yet to develop much. That’s just the last chapter. The earlier chapters mark a degradation of a building whose increased recognition as a cultural heritage site only seemed to mirror its mounting fatality. The Clemens House thus joined only many other significant works of architecture trashed by a surprisingly – and selectively — unsentimental city.

But, enough lament. There’s no use crying over burned-out abandoned buildings in St. Louis. The tears would raise the river over the levees.

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