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St. Louis survey finds dozens of historic, triangular 'flounder' houses are endangered

A flounder house on Ohio Aveue in St. Louis
via Flckr | Michael Allen
A flounder house on Ohio Avenue in St. Louis

Updated as of July 28, 7 p.m.

Most of St. Louis' 277 historic triangular-shaped houses known as "flounders" are in good shape, but dozens are considered endangered, according to a months-long survey performed by the city's Cultural Resources Office.

Flounder houses are a mainly 19th-century building style featuring a prominent asymmetrical roof that were built throughout St. Louis' older neighborhoods. Many of these historic structures still stand, but until the survey, the city didn't know just how still existed.

The total revealed in the survey backs up St. Louis' claim of having the most so-called flounder houses of any city in the country. According to Cultural Resources Office director Betsy Bradley, while they all boast the unique triangular shape, they came in a variety of styles.

"There is no quintessential or classic flounder," she said. "The shape was adaptable to the adding of a gallery [a porch] or dormer windows. It could be placed at the front of the lot or the back of the lot. It could be a one-story or two-stories in height."

Dozens of these flounders are considered endangered, some needing extensive repairs or are vacant.

"Twelve are vacant and boarded and another nine were just abandoned," she said. "We found 30 that need maintenance, and seven that suffered some structural collapse, so we do have a fair number of flounders to keep our eye on." 

Bradley said her office is working on a plan to promote ways to repurpose these structures, such as renting them out as apartments or using them as businesses. She said she hopes this convinces people to buy them from the city's land bank or private owners in order to save them. 

While the report has offered a lot of information, Bradley says one mystery remains: why so many of these oddly shaped houses were built at all.

Our original story:

Several architecturally significant proposals are up for discussion Monday in St. Louis at the city’s preservation board meeting.

A review of four nominations for national register listings, a proposal to build a seven-story apartment building in the Central West End, and the results of a survey of the city’s “flounder” houses are all on the agenda.  

Flounder houses were built in the mid-19th-century with one wall higher than the other, giving the building a distinctive triangular shape.

“We are at 275 buildings and counting. They seem to pop up even as we try to wrap up our work,” said Betsy Bradley, director of the city’s cultural resource office.

Her office received a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the State Historic Preservation Office to conduct the survey.

Flounder houses have been found in a few Eastern cities, but nowhere further west than St. Louis. And the architecture is more common here than any other location known to Bradley.

“We have by far the largest collection. We can’t claim uniqueness but, boy, have we got the ultimate collection. I think if another city had nearly as many we’d know about it. But that’s a bit of a speculation,” Bradley said.

The survey was conducted in part to see if the Flounder houses needed to be protected through a national register nomination, but Bradley said that her office found that the majority of St. Louis’ flounders were already in local or nationally-registered districts, with most lying east of Grand Ave.

“Many of them are already eligible for those (historic tax) credits; that’s why we thought maybe more of them could be. But if they’re not in a district they’re likely not going to be in a district,” Bradley said. “And surprisingly a lot of them are in use and seem to be well loved, with care and outdoor living spaces (that) just sort of model how you can enjoy a small house in the city.”

The study was also conducted in part to discover the origins of the architectural style, but Bradley said that remains a mystery.

“No one can find any support for the idea that they were taxed less because they had no windows on one side or they had a smaller roof area,” Bradley said. “There are no building code requirements that we can find to suggest why they were built that way. … I think they were small, relatively quickly and cheaply built buildings that everybody thought looked just fine.”

The final step of the survey will be to put a list of the city’s flounder houses on the Cultural Resources Office website, along with suggestions for how to remodel a flounder.

These bungalows in the Grand Dover Park district still have their original tile roofs. They also have the full-width front porches often found on Craftsman style homes.
Credit courtesy Lynn Josse
These bungalows in the Grand Dover Park district still have their original tile roofs. They also have the full-width front porches often found on Craftsman style homes.

Historic nominations

Four nominations for the National Register of historic places are also up for review during Monday’s preservation board meeting, including a firehouse built in 1892, a country estate built in 1882 and a home for the elderly built in 1853.

Rachel Nugent of Rosen Preservation prepared the nomination for the Home for the Friendless. Better known as the Charless Home, the large South Broadway Avenue property started out as a home for elderly widows before government safety nets existed.

“This is what they had before Social Security,” Nugent said. “Once you were retired unless you were very wealthy your options were limited, so these homes were for people to go and live, and they were taken care of and provided for. And this is definitely one of the largest in the St. Louis area. And one of the oldest.” 

The Charless Home operated as a nursing home as recently as 2012.

Architectural historian Lynn Josse helped prepare the nomination for the Grand Dover Park District in the Holly Hills neighborhood of south St. Louis. She said the neighborhood was built between 1923 and 1929 and has a consistent style.

“The neighborhood is full of bungalows. So these beautiful side-gabled buildings. A lot of them still have tiled roofs. A lot of them still have distinctive craftsman style front doors. A lot of woodwork, natural materials,” Josse said.

Owning a home in a national historic district gives you access to tax credits for repairs. But if landowners want to tear a historic building down, they have to get approval from the city’s preservation board.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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