Monday, January 7, 2013 / 10:14 AM
Like anybody with a new camera, I started bugging folks in the spring of 2005, asking to take their picture. And the Dock Ellis Band fell for my wheedling, allowing me to take them to the vicinity in and around the Powell Square building on the southern end of Downtown St. Louis. It had the sort of a “urban grit” motif that photographers (new and old) can’t seem to ignore, even as the site made one of my subjects a wee bit uncomfortable. Overriding that worry, though, was the fact that Powell Square, during the later years, offering a bizarre amount of stunning angles and potential images.
The rooftop of the old bag factory allowed for multiple, stunning views of both downtown and the eastside riverfront. On the main stairwell, through broken windows, appeared silhouetted visions of the Arch. The lower floors offered views of passing trains and cars, which moved by just a few feet away. With water sitting on the floor, curious shapes and patterns would magically appear, thrown by the light pouring in from the windows that’d eventually be removed; when gone, the place had the feel of a building stripped to its very skeleton.
Over time, I probably bounced through the Powell a dozen, or more times, seldom (if ever) passing a No Trespassing sign or locked door. It was a 24/7, come-as-you-are photo studio and hang space. Sometimes, I wandered in with a camera and friends. Sometimes alone, just for a look around. On one Fourth of July, the architects working on plans for the building sent out word that people would be gathering on the roof; the view of fireworks from that vantage was top-notch, indeed.
As empty buildings go, the venue didn’t feel all that scary in the first place, but window removal during one phase of projected pre-development allowed you a chance to keep a better eye on your surroundings, not a bad thing. By the last visit, just last month, the space was home to between a half-dozen and a dozen homeless men, many of whom had set up large tarps as windbreaks; in one case, as we climbed from floor-to-floor, a fellow unzipped the side of his tent, popped out his head (unamused) and then unceremoniously emptied out the contents of his chamber pot. Not a quarter hour later, a group of 15 or 20 people rolled noisily through, young people brought to the building by their pastor, the kids wearing basketball uniforms and curious looks.
Over the past year, the homeless population of the area’s increased, perhaps in response of the demolition of the Dignity Harbor/Hopeville encampments of the north riverfront. Members of the Occupy St. Louis movement also took root in the area after the breakup of their Kiener Plaza residency, though their smaller, neighboring building of choice was demolished in mid-2012. These days, it doesn’t take a seasoned detective to spy small encampments throughout the streets surrounding the in-demolition Powell, as well as interesting, low-key commerce.
One of the defining elements of the space was the sheer amount of graffiti that appeared on the exterior of the building in the past couple years. A photo on Robert Powers’ Built St. Louis website shows the southward-facing wall with only a single dab of graf, amazingly sparse considering the work that got up in even the past few months.
The graffiti. That’s how many will remember the Powell Square.
Stencil artist Peat Wollaeger was one of the artists that attacked the rooftop over the years. He was active, amusingly enough, on the day that Google Images took photos of the location, capturing him in action as he painted an STL-positive message on one, especially-visible corner of that roof. He recalls working on a project in upstate New York in 2010, one that he (as “eye”) hoped to replicate at the Powell saying, “Eye’m really sad to see it go. Eye had plans on turning it into a large canvas and bringing artists from around the globe to paint large paintings to place in the windows, similar to the project eye did in New York.”
In January, the Wilt/Bloom Initiative was pitched to participants of the new Rally Saint Louis crowd-electing/funding site. The effort was described, then, as “a non-governmental organization which concerns itself with transforming vacant spaces into usable public spaces that serve the greater good. The projects under this title will mainly involve urban agriculture, vertical farming, and community gardening, but may also include hydroponic and aquaponic projects. We are interested, not only in informing the public about how to do these things, but with helping them hands on. At our first meeting we set our sights on the Powell Square building downtown. We’re hoping to start a rooftop/vertical garden there. If this idea takes off the way we’d like it too then it could turn into something pretty big... We're hoping to garden on the roof of the building as well as on the inside. The city has a new sustainability plan and is selling LRA-owned lots for $5 for 5 years, but one of the most sustainable things we can do is start farming upwards instead of outwards.”
An individual who’d been championing that idea, local sound engineer and urban activist Ryan Albritton, says that “I met with Vincent Stemmler, who proposed the ‘Wilt/Bloom Initiative’ on RallySTL. The proposal was for greening the building, via hanging gardens or vertical/rooftop farming. He had met with the owner of the building, Steve Murphy, who had given the project his blessing. He was willing to support any project (via free rent) that would provide a use for the building, as he didn't want to see it demolished and past development proposals had fallen through. He also mentioned that part of the reason his developments fell through was that historic tax credits are unavailable—the area is not in a historic district. (Also of note: the 7th Ward is not in Preservation Review, thanks to Alderwoman Phyllis Young, which could have prevented this demolition). The only thing we had to do was pay the city for an inspection to begin to move forward.”
Frequently, those who attempt to save buildings are criticized for being afflicted with a certain “pie-in-the-sky” quality. Albritton says that the effort had moved beyond the purely projected, or dreaming stage.
“After I learned of the demolition application,” he says. “I met with the owner, as well. I was willing to pay for the inspection and/or raise the necessary funds to do so, but not if there was a demolition application floating around. Steve insisted that he did not call for that, and had no desire to see the building leveled. He then reiterated his support for a project that could re-purpose the building in the meantime before a larger development could happen. The interesting detail about all of this was that the City doesn't just demo buildings without having an emergency permit attached to the demo application. In this case, there was no emergency permit. The really unfortunate bit about all of this was the lack of communication on the City's part. I can't comment too much about this, but Vincent was trying to find out more about getting the inspection and moving forward with this proposal, and couldn't get a return call.”
Whatever the exact dynamics of the civic mechanics that put demolition in motion, the demo activity was already profoundly changing the structure last week. A bulldozer clawed at the eastside of the building, floors cascading downward. A tunnel leading to the Powell had already been removed and a massive series of tarps hung on the western side, no doubt to keep dust from blowing onto the entry to the Poplar Street Bridge, as well as passing I-70.
Within another month, or two, a familiar chunk of the south Downtown landscape will be gone. And with it, a graf writer’s best canvas, plus the best, cheapest, photo studio you could ever hope to borrow.
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