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Preserving Kirkwood's Character

Since 1988, 8 historic districts have been established in Kirkwood to retain the neighborhoods' distinctive styles & histories

Central Place Historic District, featuring homes from circa 1920s, was established in 1998. photo by Diana Linsley.

March 10, 2017
Rome and Constantinople were mighty cities in their time, but both were founded on just seven historical areas their famous hills. Kirkwood, on the other hand, has eight historic districts, some on hills, some not. So, on grounds of both number and diversity, it's advantage Kirkwood.

It was not an easy advantage to build, taking nearly 30 years from the establishment of the first district (Meramec Highlands in the Ponca Trails area on the city's western rim) in 1988, to the most recent designation (Barrett Brae, just north of the Meramec Highlands) in 2015.

When the concept first was broached to Kirkwood homeowners, it was met with considerable skepticism, recalled Rosalind Williams, Kirkwood's city planner from 1984 until 2005. "It was a struggle to do historic districts, because no one really understood them, or the benefits of them, including the city."

When the Kirkwood City Council, in the mid-1980s, gave the landmarks commission authority to set up historic districts, it conferred only advisory authority.

The Jefferson-Argonne Historic District has homes dating from circa 1805 through World War II. It was designated in 2007. photo by Diana Linsley

"We couldn't say 'no' to new development, which is what we wanted," Williams said.

But that might have been what Kirkwood citizens preferred. When introducing the idea of an historic district in the Ponca Trails neighborhood, "we ran into a buzz saw," Williams recalled. "There were people who were just against anything that was considered government telling people what to do with their properties.

"We went through various iterations," Williams said, before finding a set of guidelines residents would accept. After that, it remained slow going for the historic district concept, with only one new district (Central Place, just northwest of the downtown business district) established over the next 19 years. Central Place was designated in 1998.

But shortly after Williams left in 2005, the idea caught fire. Six more districts were established in eight years: Jefferson-Argonne in 2007; Savoy in 2008, Craig Woods and North Taylor in 2011; West Argonne in 2014 and Barrett Brae, on the city's western boundary.

Why? There apparently was a general awakening to connection between the quality of architecture in a neighborhood and the quality of life and the value of the homes within its boundaries.

The Meramec Highlands Historic District, with homes circa 1892, was the city of Kirkwood's first district. It was designated in 1988. photo by Diana Linsley.

This might have been more obvious in the newer districts, which generally have an identifiable sometimes very distinctive architectural style. Craig Woods, just west of Aberdeen Heights, is a salient example, said Bob Rubright, a Craig Woods resident and secretary of the landmarks commission (which oversees the establishment and operation of historic districts). The neighborhood consists of 49 homes built as a single development in the mid-1950s, all designed by St. Louis Architect Ralph Fournier,

The style is so distinctive as to be virtually unique in the city, and in the region, said Amy Lowry, assistant city planner and staff liaison to the landmarks commission.

"The thing about Craig Woods and Barrett Brae is that the houses were built with the landscape; they flow with the landscape," following principles made famous by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Lowry said. "People don't build houses like that anymore," and residents of these areas "don't want these Mid-Century houses to be replaced with today's (style of) homes.

"They're concerned about the pace of tear-downs and rebuilding in the city," she added. "The historic districts are one tool for them to manage some of that. It's a tool in the city to preserve the historic integrity of your neighborhood and hopefully to preserve your property values."

The surge in historic districts, therefore, "has been resident-driven," said Mayor Tim Griffin. "Neighbors have put petitions together; they have wanted to preserve as much as possible, the character of what's there.

Bob Rubright, secretary of the Kirkwood Landmarks Commission, lives in Craig Woods, which is comprised of homes from the mid-1950s. It was designated a historic district in 2011. photo by Diana Linsley.

"It gives the neighborhood a little bit of control over what happens, in terms of new construction and remodeling," he said. "The idea is for new things as much as possible to fit in with the character of that particular neighborhood."

Neighborhoods with at least 50 percent of the homes qualifying as "contributors" to the historical theme are eligible for consideration as a new district. If the landmarks commission approves a neighborhood for district status, it helps homeowners draft guidelines for new construction, which all new homes will be required to follow.

Established homeowners remain free to modify their homes generally as they please, though the landmarks commission offers voluntary reviews of construction plans.

Nevertheless, the power of the landmarks commission in overseeing historic districts has remained largely advisory, said Chairman Walter Smith.

The commission can delay demolition of a home inside an historic district for nine months but any structure can be razed if the owner waits-out the moratorium.

A prime example was the demolition of the W.F. Warner Home, an 1880s-vintage structure at 750 N. Taylor Ave., which was a designated Kirkwood landmark home.

"That was a big fight, but after nine months there was nothing the landmarks commission could do but let it come down," Lowry said.

The battle to save the home began in 2010 before the establishment of the North Taylor Historic District in 2011. This incident, however, energized organizers to get that district going, she explained.

"We just don't have a lot of teeth," said Smith. "We try to save properties as we can, and create historic districts where it makes it more difficult to just pop up a house that doesn't fit in the neighborhood.

"We're just trying to keep everything within a perspective, and preserving the historical flavor of Kirkwood," he added.

The net contribution is decidedly positive, commissioners and city officials agree.

"I think the (historic district) neighborhoods are important, because they preserve history for Kirkwood and it makes it harder for some developer to just come in and tear down an old house," said former mayor Art McDonnell.

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