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The Winkelmann Mansion’s Demolition: A Symbol of What is Wrong With St. Louis Leadership

Update: The City of St. Louis cut ties with Paul McKee’s Northside in June of 2018. The lot is now for sale, as of the spring of 2019.

We all knew the end was coming soon; when the news reports of angry neighbors bemoaning the precarious condition of the Winkelmann Mansion in its seriously damaged state began circulating, I knew that one of my favorite structures in the entire city was on borrowed time.  Its demise came last week, but I still can’t believe it.

Old North and St. Louis Place 010

I’m sure the usual McKee apologists will come out of the woodwork in the coming weeks, defending the destruction of one of the oldest mansions in the city on the grounds that it “couldn’t be saved,” or “this is the price of the rebirth of North St. Louis.”

What rebirth?  Northside has been in the works for the last decade, and we have not seen any development, just destruction of houses that could have been the initial building blocks of the rebirth of the North Side in real, organic development.  I’m sure eventually some ignorant soul will ask the most insulting and galling question we’ve all heard a million times, “Well if it’s so important, why didn’t you buy it and fix it up?”

Well, I’m sure someone might have, but Mr. McKee has owned the property now for so many years and refused to sell it, making stupid promises about saving the house.  No one was ever given the opportunity to save the house because he wouldn’t allow it.  There, do you understand that?

Old North and St. Louis Place 007

I also appreciate how well the demolition crews secure the site from curious children.  Have they ever heard of the legal concept of an “attractive nuisance?” Nothing prevents a child from falling and being seriously hurt in the cellar of the house, which is completely exposed to the street.

But what really angers me about the whole Northside project is that our leaders have “drunk the Kool Aid” on this project, and seem impervious to criticism of their decision to consistently vote in favor on bills that support the project, even without any evidence that the plan will ever work.  It is also symptomatic of a deeper leadership problem in St. Louis: the belief over the last sixty years that there exists some sort of “silver bullet” development out there that will magically bring the City of St. Louis back to its former glory.  There has never, ever been any giant urban renewal project that has ever worked in St. Louis’s long history.  In reality, as Steve Patterson pointed out so adroitly a year ago, the beauty and vitality of St. Louis developed one building at a time, one street at a time, often times over the course of several decades.  All of St. Louis’s most beloved neighborhoods took decades or even a century to become what they are today.  Why is that so hard for our leaders to understand?

The rest of my photos show my sad exercise in trying to capture the beauty of the stonework and craftsmanship through the discarded and smashed stones lying about the lot and sidewalk.  For each stone, I tried to imagine where it once sat, proudly playing a role in the beauty of the Winkelmann house, the St. Louis Place neighborhood and the city at large.  This house will never exist again.

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Old North and St. Louis Place 005

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The final photo I took speaks for itself; someone visiting the ruins before me had arranged some of the bricks into a message, which you can see below:  Basically, if you’re a somewhat talented snake-oil salesman, you can get the leadership of St. Louis to buy anything, even the ridiculous, most absurd idea you can imagine.  The more unbelievable, the better.

Old North and St. Louis Place 009

I’ve asked this before, and I will again: Is that what you want your city to become?

7 Comments

  1. Are the blocks with the orange tags meant for some sort of recycling for architectural use?
    Since McKee has apparently used up all of his credits and is crying for more, my impression is that he will eventually get all/most of this property for free; am I right or wrong?
    Does he pay property taxes on these many lots, or ?
    I’d imagine he would make a pretty penny selling the land to Kroenke or ? to build a new stadium…

    • Part of the payment for the demo crews is the salvage brick and any other raw materials they can sell for scrap. It’s one reason that brick theft is such big problem. The ornamental block will most likely end up at a construction wholesaler where they’ll sell for a (relatively) pretty penny. They might end up on another building. But it’s just as likely that they will become someone’s garden ornament, table leg, fountain base, etc.

      As far as the land goes, any new stadium will be built out in the County now. McKee would have to deal with the CVC to sell the land for a stadium, and Kroenke won’t even speak to them anymore. The only thing keeping the Rams here is the fact that no one else wants them.

      Pretty sad all around.

  2. Oh that makes me so very sad. I photographed that place in 2011 and early 2013 – and actually learned more about it from this VERY site.

    So many of the eyesore/urban decay treasures are slipping away. 🙁

  3. Tom Maher, re: your first question. Most likely, yes.

    Mr. N, you raise an important question regarding leadership. Basically, is there any? No. We don’t have leadership, we have management. That’s one of the unfortunate consequences–in my opinion–of the reliance upon university training in our era. My view is that higher education has become a sort of vocational training school for the so-called professional class, especially in the broad field of business management. Judging from the numerous failures in leadership in this City, and across the country, for that matter, many decisions are based upon what others have done in the past. Unfortunately, ‘the past’ scarcely ever encompasses any period before WWII. Especially within cities. As you say, the mindset is such that a silver bullet is always anticipated, but never comes. The Big Project mentality has produced wholesale clearance of cities with little concrete results. Look at Kosciusko. It was once a residential area. Then it was cleared. Now it’s failing, and emptying out of the well-paying jobs for which it was cleared to build industrial facilities. Mill Creek was cleared, at the expense of thousands left essentially homeless, without formal arrangements for those pushed out for a highway, office blocks, and parking. Lots and lots of parking. This was particularly damaging, I would guess, as it involved the dispersal across the City, mostly North, of those thousands, leading to destabilization in the neighborhoods in which many of them eventually settled. (This is to suggest that the influx of masses of people, rather than the people themselves, lead to this destabilization; the racial demographics of the diaspora are secondary, at best) Settled being a relative term, of course. Lather, rinse, repeat. Soulard and Lafayette weren’t built–or re-built–in a day. It took time. One dollar houses sold by the hundreds, and slowly those nabes were rehabbed over the course of nearly four decades. But does that matter to the “Leadership” in this City? Does the solid evidence of their failures give them pause? Is there any change in course at City Hall, and in the “Leadership” of organizations which charge themselves with overseeing the revitalization of the City? I read something interesting online recently (here: http://americablog.com/2013/03/escalating-commitment-rationalizing-the-irrational.html), which gave a broad overview of one component in this lack of leadership, at least as it pertains to development policy in the City. Instead of stopping and reassessing the past, learning from mistakes, and taking a different course, management doubles down on the past fallacies, refusing to acknowledge shortcomings in not only themselves, but in the policies which they advocate. What compounds this mindset is the apparent lack of humility and self-awareness, and the over-abundance of hubris, ignorance (oftentimes willful, as in “la-la-la, can’t hear you”; childish, I know, but even adults exhibit the marks of an immature mind) and plain old-fashioned arrogance. This is especially apparent the further one goes up the chain of command. When all the feedback one hears is ‘yes’, or ‘what do those hippie preservationists know’, it’s not surprising when we see the results. Not to mention that pols and executives have notoriously inflated egos, subject to bruising, and constant stroking. Unfortunately, this feedback most often is an inaccurate depiction of events, conditions, and behaviors, leading to actions and policies which further exacerbate error-producing processes in an already deteriorated system. Positive feedback–information which suggests a more rational or sensible course, and which is a more accurate depiction of conditions, and infers that the previous course was faulty or erroneous–is ignored, which leads to the continuation of previous failures. In the face of all of this, is it any wonder that the policies of the past are maintained? I would guess that, at least as it regards the City, this misalignment of reality and status quo perception is compounded by the insularity of the dynastic political class present in the City. This not only includes actual familial connections, which are damaging enough, but the close associations pols have with one another, media, backers and the assorted hangers-on, courtiers, and supplicants, all of them circulating in the same pool. Anyone not part of this immediate ‘family’ is rebuffed, and what’s more, if anyone in the ‘family’ even so much as begrudgingly acknowledges previous policies may have lead to current conditions, they are often marginalized, or worse, ostracized. And so it goes. As for the average citizen, well, they can be counted upon to be suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, ideas with which they lack familiarity. A familiarity, I might add, which only comes with good and competent leadership. A true leader is also an educator, someone who is not afraid to illustrate not only the inaccuracies of a failed past, but is someone who is willing to patiently provide information upon which a new course of action is based. Sadly, the use of fear (of the unknown) is a powerful tool upon which upper management is all too reliant, which leads to the citizenry practically begging to be lied to…again.

    On a somewhat practical note, the Teach-ins of the fifties and sixties provided the information which eventually lead to the ending of the Vietnam conflict, environmental law, equal rights for both women and minorities, and more. It takes time to teach those who are unwilling, unable or in other ways presently incapable of questioning the faults of previous management. And in the City, it will take time to alter perception. Forget trying to educate those whose power is based on failure, misinformation, and fear. They are already passing into irrelevancy. Only through new minds, new thoughts, and new policies will our City be brought into the 21st century. Instant gratification–the need or desire to see immediate returns on investments–is an unknown quantity in this equation, however. It must be emphasized that an alteration of course cannot be achieved overnight, and in fact, may take a number of years to see results.

    (You may have noticed that I scrupulously avoided the use of the word ‘change’. As it is explicitly connected to a certain member of government management, I have taken pains to refrain from its use, as I perceive this person to be of a mendacious, craven, arrogant, and barbaric mindset unsuitable to the input necessary for good leadership.

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