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Push to save St. Louis’ Culver House unites developer and preservationists

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Chad Davis
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St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Preservation Board voted March 28 to grant preliminary approval to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s plans for a $100 million renovation and expansion of Powell Hall.

Last week, the fate of the 156-year-old Culver House became entangled with a $100 million project to renovate Powell Hall.

It was March 28, and St. Louis' Preservation Board was deliberating whether to give preliminary approval for an expansion project of Powell Hall, the historic home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. During the public comment section, 15 attendees objected to the proposed demolition of the symphony’s next-door neighbor in Grand Center, a distinctive Queen Anne-style home built in 1866 known as the Culver House.

By the end of the meeting, the Preservation Board members had approved the project, but the opposition had sparked an impromptu offer from developer Steve Smith, who was following the meeting over Zoom. When it was his turn to speak, Smith wound up making headlines of his own: He offered to donate land just a few blocks away as a new home for the historic house.

Steve Smith, CEO of the Lawrence Group architects and co-founder of the New + Found development firm.
Danny Wicentowski
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St. Louis Public Radio
Developer Steve Smith has a plan to relocate the Culver House if there's funding to move it.

“I'm sitting in this meeting, and I'm hearing both sides, and both sides have valid cases,” Smith recounted on St. Louis on the Air. “It just popped in my head: The symphony offered to give the building away in the hearing, and I thought, ‘Well, shoot, I have land.’”

Smith is a longtime force in St. Louis development and has worked to save and preserve multiple historic buildings. At the same time, he says he understands the criticism from preservationists like Andrew Weil, the executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, who has advocated for Culver House to be saved.

Like Smith, Weil was in attendance at the city’s March 28 meeting and spoke out against the proposed project and demolition of the Culver House. He told St. Louis on the Air that the Culver House is worth saving and restoring.

“It’s a very rare survival of a residential building in the Midtown area, an area that once had incredibly dense and beautiful residential neighborhoods,” Weil said. “This is not just a beautiful home, but potentially a useful home. I just think that it deserves at least a very hard look.”

Weil and Smith both say that discussions between the symphony and preservationists are ongoing over whether the Culver House can be saved. Relocating the entire structure is an option — in a recent example, the city spent around $500,000 to relocate a three-story brick home in 2017 — but whether the Culver House could physically survive the move is just one variable to consider.

Can St. Louis save the Culver House?

For one thing, Weil cautions that relocating the brick building would involve losing the Culver House’s “original sense of place.” He also notes that the move would likely make the Culver House ineligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“But,” Weil added, “I think that everybody would rather see the property moved and retained and reused and celebrated, than to see it crushed up and tossed in a landfill.”

There’s also the matter of cost. While Smith is offering to donate a lot, he said that preservationists will have to come up with the actual funds to pay for moving the Culver House.

Smith emphasized that he doesn’t see the controversy as a choice between expanding Powell Hall and saving Culver House.

“It's not really an either/or proposition here,” he said. “We're just looking to come up with a creative solution. It certainly can be moved.”

In a written statement, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard did not comment directly on Smith’s offer to provide land for a relocated Culver House. She called the March 28 board meeting “informative” and described receiving “great feedback from participants.”

Bernard’s statement continued, “Our team is engaging in conversations with historic preservation experts and continues to explore options regarding the vacant building located behind Powell Hall.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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