Design competition aims to revive Pruitt-Igoe site | St. Louis Public Radio

Design competition aims to revive Pruitt-Igoe site

Jul 11, 2011

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - Nearly 40 years ago, as viewers around the country watched the nightly news on their television screens, an 11-story tower framed by the Gateway Arch in St. Louis came tumbling down. It was the beginning of the end for Pruitt-Igoe, by then a crime-ridden, vandalized 33-building public housing complex that had been one of the largest of its kind ever built.

Razing the place was supposed to fix the Pruitt-Igoe problem. It did -- and it didn't.

By 1977, all the modern brick towers that had become icons for how not to build public housing were gone.

Today, most of what's been left behind is a grim neglected dead spot, a 33-acre rubble-strewn, overgrown enclave encircled by a chain link fence -- and surrounded by rejuvenation underway in Old North, Hyde Park, St. Louis Place and other northside neighborhoods.

Pruitt-Igoe in the 1960s
Credit U.S. Geological Survey

"When you have something like that, so vast and unresolved in the middle of your neighborhood, it is a detriment to progress," says Nora Wendl, an assistant professor of design in the Department of Architecture at Portland State University.

Wendl, who lived in Hyde Park and worked on neighborhood rebuilding near the site last summer, and Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis, have something in the works they think can help.

They've launched a competition for design ideas for the site, inspired in part by a successful design competition that generated attention and plans for rejuvenating the Gateway Arch grounds and its surroundings.

And they're moving forward despite requests for a delay from the city's top development official and developer Paul J. McKee Jr., whose massive $8 billion Northside redevelopment proposal includes the city-owned site. Both have concerns about site contamination they said need to be addressed. Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., also wants the competition to focus on creating jobs.

"We agree with the idea" of the competition," McKee said, "but not now. We think we need to understand (first) what you can do with it environmentally after it is cleaned up."

Allen says, in response, that "our design competition is to generate ideas," not construct anything. "We're ready to go and moving forward."

A Competition for ideas

To sponsor the competition and raise prize money, Allen and Wendl have formed Pruitt-Igoe Now, a non-profit organization with an eight-member advisory committee. Among the members: Karl Grice, president of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects; Paul Fehler, producer of the documentary "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth"; Alderman April Ford-Griffin, D-5th Ward, who represents the area; Eric Mumford, a professor at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University; and Beacon associate editor Robert Duffy.

The deadline for entries is March 16, 2012, the 40th anniversary of the start of demolition at Pruitt-Igoe. The first-place idea will be awarded $1,000.

On that date, 40 years ago, the St. Louis Housing Authority did the first test blast in one of the towers, Allen said, "followed with the very big imploding of the second tower that became the iconic image seen around the world on national television stations. It was quite a devastating image for St. Louis and for public housing."

The competition is open to virtually anyone, anywhere, with ideas for recycling the site, connecting it with what's around it and commemorating its history.

"Pruitt-Igoe Now seeks the ideas of the creative community worldwide," says its website.  "We invite individuals and teams of professional, academic and student architects, landscape architects, designers, writers and artists of every discipline" to participate.

The focus, Allen said, could be just the 33-acre site, or a much broader area extending into surrounding neighborhoods, downtown and even the Gateway Arch grounds roughly three miles to the south.

"We're looking for ideas for the site as well as ideas that will connect the site to the rest of the city," Allen said.

"We're seeking a plan or a way forward. It could be a land-use plan or a physical design, but we are not necessarily seeking to create a development plan. Rather, we want to find ways that site could be used to connect to the city, ways it could be a key to revitalization of a larger area of the city. It could be a physical plan, but it does not necessarily have to map out all the details of what gets built where."

Another goal is to get ideas or plans in place for the future for commemorating what had been a major piece of modern architecture and, in the beginning, a safe, clean and desirable place to live for thousands in need of a home.

"It is very likely that that site will be developed in the next 10 to 15 years, whether by McKee or someone else. As an architectural historian," Allen said, "I'd like to see in the middle of any development a pause and reflection on what happened at that site.

"At its peak (in 1957), 15,000 people called the place home. That is an experience that can easily be covered over by pavement and construction of a new retail center. Whether it is physical, virtual or some combination of that, I'd like to see the competition bring a chance to commemorate the people who lived there and the history of that site."

Wendl promotes, in her teaching, writing and work, the idea of artists incorporating architecture into their work, and architects incorporating cultural, social and historical connections in places where they work.

"There are a few artifacts left on the (Pruitt-Igoe) site," she said, "so I think there is a way, even though the physical buildings are not there, to connect to the history by using architecture or some other creative artistic approach.

"For us, this competition is really positive and optimistic," she said. "We want to raise awareness of the site and end that sort of hopelessness."

Looking Back at Pruitt-Igoe

Although Pruitt-Igoe went down in disgrace, that wasn't how it began.

Pruite-Igoe went up after the federal Housing Act of 1949 provided money for clearing urban slums around the country and replacing them with new public housing and other development.

According to a history put together by Allen and Wendl, the federal Public Housing Administration and the St. Louis Housing Authority dictated the design for what was to replace the old DeSoto-Carr neighborhood in St. Louis: 33 modular, 11-story buildings called the Captain Wendell O. Pruitt Homes and the William L. Igoe Apartments. The former Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber architectural firm, then based in Detroit with a St. Louis office, followed the design guidelines that caused some problems later -- elevators that skipped floors, for example, and low-cost hardware that didn't hold up. Playgrounds weren't built because of the expense.

Construction began in the early 1950s on buildings intended to be segregated: The Igoe Apartments, named for a member of Congress were for whites; the Pruitt Homes, named for a Tuskegee airman from St. Louis for blacks.

In 1954, some were already living in the complex when the Supreme Court ended segregation in public housing. By 1956, when the last tower was completed, many whites had already moved elsewhere.

As occupancy peaked at 15,000 in 1957, crime, vandalism and fear also were on the rise.

Some blamed the problems on the design or architecture of the place. But others call that a "myth," citing much broader reasons: white flight to the suburbs, social indifference to the poverty of inner-city blacks, lack of money at the housing authority to take proper care of things.

"Missing in this," Allen says, "are the lives of the residents themselves, many of whom never lived -- and would never live again -- in housing as decent as they did at Pruitt-Igoe."

After 1977, when the last Pruitt-Igoe tower was demolished, the housing authority sold 20 of the original 57 acres to the St. Louis Board of Education. Its Gateway Schools complex opened there in 1995.

Also left on the site, occupying about foour of the remaining 37 acres:

  • The old Pruitt School, a two-story brick and stone building with a one-story gymnasium, built in 1955. Today it houses Cleveland Jr. Naval Academy, a magnet high school.
  • A one-story stone-faced branch library building, built in 1959, now used as a church
  • An electric substation building.

Looking Ahead to the Future

Various redevelopment schemes have been proposed over the years, including a golf course with homes around it and a business park. But nothing got built. In 2001, the housing authority sold the site, one of the largest contiguous undeveloped sites left in the city, for $1 million to the city's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.

Stephen Acree is president of the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance working to help rebuild Old North.

"Just like everyone else, we're frustrated in terms of (the site) being there for so long and nothing is happening," Acree said. "I think it is good that they are trying to call attention to the site" with the competition. "Maybe that will generate interest in how to get development going there."

Crim and McKee are not opposed to the idea of a competition.

"The concept of an idea competition is fine," Crim said. "However, there are some missing components" in the one moving forward.

"There are a lot of environmental issues with this site," Crim said. "Buried with the foundations are lead, hydrocarbons and other issues that would limit what kind of development could be done on the site. We think those things need to be understood before soliciting ideas.

"And," he said, "we have to think about this site in terms of jobs, and that needs to be factored in before soliciting ideas.

"We suggested (to Allen) that he work with McKee and us and maybe some others, but I think he prefers to do it his way."

Allen said that one reason for moving forward now is to have the entry deadline coincide with the 40th anniversary of the demise of Pruitt-Igoe. "This is an opportunity we will not have again and a good time for reflection.

"Besides," he said, "we are just laying groundwork, getting ideas going, and starting a conversation" about the site.

"I think our biggest hope," Wendl said, "is that somebody (participating in the competition) will propose something great that a developer would get excited about and maybe partner with somebody to build."

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers development.