Michael Allen, director of Preservation Research Office, has been working since January 2014 to get a group of buildings in downtown East St. Louis recognized as a national Historic District. He has marked them on an aerial photo with a thick red line, bordered by parking lots and blocks filled with barren grass. Due to National Register standards, Allen’s application designates the official “period of significance” as lasting from 1900 to 1960. East St. Louis’ population has declined by more than two-thirds since the 1950’s. “History doesn’t stop so neatly 50 years ago,” he says. “Our job is to reconcile the dreams and desires of people today with these historic buildings.” If Allen’s application is approved, East St. Louis can access government money to rehabilitate buildings within the district, weighing these costs against the costs of demolition.
Allen’s office is tucked away in the Nebula Coworking Space on Cherokee Street, marked only by a single business card stuck to the door with a blue thumbtack. Inside, the plaster and brick walls are lined with books, maps, and photographs of the city. Recently, Allen has also been surveying buildings in O’Fallon, a neighborhood in north St. Louis, attempting to get it listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In Missouri, only buildings listed on the National Register have access to crucial Historic Tax Credits that can subsidize a renovation. The application requires pictures of each house in the neighborhood, and Allen has been going from from door to door, taking photographs. Sometimes, when a building has been destroyed, he’ll find neighbors that can describe it in detail. “They were able to still conjure the look and feel of lost buildings,” he says.
Allen is facing pushback on O’Fallon’s National Register application from state officials, who have pointed out that similar buildings have already been listed this way in the city–why add more? “We’re losing a lot of the chance to revive that neighborhood while waiting for this document to go through. It’s just frustrating that the reviewers don’t get that,” he says. “Sometimes in distressed neighborhoods–especially, East St. Louis and North St. Louis–you wait, and the building’s not going to be there.” State officials have asked Allen to survey the neighborhood again, rephotographing each building in the 1,200-building district. Allen struggles to explain the state’s stringency to the residents of O’Fallon who invited him into their homes, eagerly pointing out unique details like the 1920’s built-in cabinets in their dining room. “When I was a young preservationist I thought the people who enforce these standards were heroes. Now, I’m not so sure. I think the problem really is the standards themselves,” Allen says. He focuses his gaze downward, fiddling with a grey pen that he sometimes drops with a clatter on his desk.
Allen grew up in rural southern Illinois, surrounded by farms and weathered houses, rows of tin roofs and scrubbed front steps. He still remembers the feel of the plaster walls and hardwood floors of the homes where he grew up. “I paid attention to these details,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the design and beauty of the building, but oftentimes it’s not–it’s something more personal.”
At age 11, while driving with his family on Highway 55, Allen remembers the first time he was awestruck by St. Louis’s architecture. As they took a swinging turn towards downtown, the abandoned remains of City Hospital loomed into view, perched at the exit. The hospital had been empty for six years at that point, and Allen remembers it with broken windows and surrounded by drifting trash. The grand cupolas had been stripped by copper thieves, and the front door was wide open. Allen remembers staring into the darkness beyond. “It was this terribly sublime feeling–it was both beautiful and horrifying at the same time. I was almost scared of City Hospital,” he says. A sense of abandonment and loss washed over him. Scanning the dark brick facade, he saw a plaque with the building’s name. “How in the world does a city build a hospital that beautiful, and then let it fall down?” he thought.
After exhausting his hometown library’s entire collection on St. Louis history, he discovered files in the St. Louis City library that detailed the financial trouble and population decline that led to City Hospital’s closing. Today, the building has been renovated into upscale condominiums, bordered by a Walgreens and a grocery store. “City Hospital was this artifact that told me so much about St. Louis, and that just made me curious about other buildings,” he says. After graduating from college with a degree in literature, Allen didn’t expect to preserve buildings for a living. He moved to Chicago and travelled to Thailand, entranced by the idiosyncrasies of architecture all over the world. He’d study buildings, analyzing them and asking for stories from locals. “That’s when I realized this wasn’t just some obsession or curiosity about St. Louis–this was actually the way my brain wanted to work.”
In 2005, he secured a job as a research associate at the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, a local architectural preservation nonprofit. “I thought, ‘Well, St. Louis is cheap, and I have a salary now from the Landmarks Association. I should probably be able to buy a house. Why not?’” he remembers. When he was 24, he bought a house in Old North St. Louis built in 1885 and on the verge of foreclosure, with a foot-sized gap in between the back wall and the floor. When a storm blew off the roof, he didn’t have enough money to repair it and lived underneath a tarp for a few months. Although the sale contract promised the house would be “broom-cleaned,” Allen walked in to find most of the previous owner’s possessions stacked against the walls–he could barely walk through some of the rooms. The carpets were filled with fleas, and he remembers cutting out thick strips with a utility knife on his hands and knees as they bit him. Part of the floor had been laid over gaping holes, and he soon discovered a cockroach infestation that he could only get rid of by banning all food from the house and stripping the kitchen down to the studs. His bow ties and button-down shirts became coated in dust and paint, until the renovation was finally complete. “I had no idea what I was really getting into,” he says. He worked on the repairs for five years.
Allen ended up selling the renovated house to raise the funds to found Preservation Research Office, which he leads today. After four years at the Landmarks Association, he wanted to be more than an advocate for preservation law–he also wanted to provide resources for developers and homeowners struggling with the way those laws applied to their own buildings. “I don’t want to be stuck in one gear of ‘Thou shalt not,’” he remembers thinking. “There’s a complexity here, and I want to learn more about it.”
Once, when Allen was giving a tour of the site of Pruitt-Igoe, a failed public housing complex from the 1950’s, two former residents joined him. They lived in Pruitt-Igoe at different times, met later in life, and eventually married. As Allen showed the group the school and 33-acre forest that now inhabit the site, the couple suppressed their laughter. “Why are you taking people to the woods?” they asked. “Well, this is where Pruitt-Igoe was,” Allen replied, bewildered. “Yeah, but it’s not where people live now,” the couple responded. “That really stuck with me,” Allen says. “Places might mean something to me based on my specialist background–my understanding is rooted in history. But most people’s understanding of the world they live in is rooted in their experience right now.”
Preservation Research Office has taken Allen on an unexpected journey: lecturing in front of college classes, cutting his hand stabilizing a broken window in Old North St. Louis, administering “last rites” to a historical district. Recently, he travelled to a town near the Mississippi River called Keithsburg–population 609–to recommend a flood-damaged building be taken off the National Register so it could be torn down. “I’ve learned a lot about materials–what can and can’t be done, how much things cost,” he says. “I am more and more interested in what people want to tell me, what people want to do with these buildings, and less inclined to tell people what they should want.” He helped a new college graduate apply for tax credits to renovate a house in Gravois Park–they first met when Allen was a guest speaker in his history class. “Our movement’s a lot darn bigger than we realize,” Allen says. “I’m sure I’ll still see some things lost that will just make me cry in anguish. But the more I practice, the more I see the context around those losses, and understand the incredible potential to prevent losses.”
For more information about Michael Allen or Preservation Research Office, visit here.