Peggy Ladd told the city this was going to happen.
On the evening of Dec. 28, the back wall of the Civil War-era stone home she owns in Benton Park collapsed near her garage.
“We were lucky it fell in the alley,” Ladd says, “and that nobody was hurt.”
For five years now, ever since one wall of the building collapsed and the city condemned it, Ladd has been seeking permission to demolish it. She bought the home in 2012 — it is on the lot next to her own historic rehab in a 19th century soda factory — but soon she found that the cost of rehab was prohibitive.
The city’s Cultural Review Office, Preservation Board, and Planning Commission, as well as Alderman Dan Guenther, have blocked her efforts to tear down the stone structure, a mid-1800s example of a German peasant home. She says that even if she wanted to preserve it, engineers have told her they would have to take it down, because the previous owner put stucco on the outside stone work, damaging its structural integrity.
Some preservationists blame Ladd for not stabilizing the property when the first outside wall — the one closest to her home — collapsed in 2014.
The standoff has led to the result Ladd predicted.
One way or another, the building is coming down.
So now what?
That’s what Ladd asked the city’s building inspection office after they called.
Once the back wall collapsed, the city told Ladd and her attorney, Alex Kuehling, that it intended to issue an emergency condemnation order. That order, issued by building commissioner Frank Oswald, would supercede the city’s previous decisions by the Preservation Board. It would allow Ladd’s contractor to obtain a demolition permit with no delays.
But when Ladd called to get the emergency order that the building office told her would be forthcoming, the city’s bureaucracy kicked in.
No permit had been issued. Why?
According to Jacob Long, spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, Guenther asked Oswald not to issue the emergency order, so he could pursue saving the building.
“They’ve let it sit there for 11 days now and haven’t done anything,” Kuehling said when I talked to him on Thursday. That same day he asked a judge for help.
Kuehling filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, in effect asking the city to issue a permit to allow the building’s demolition, or, alternatively, “install or place scaffolding and other supportive instruments to the Collapsed Structure in a manner that is reasonably expected to prevent the Collapsed Structure from further falling and/or collapsing into adjacent buildings.”
That last sentence is likely to raise the ire of some of the preservationists in Benton Park.
Guenther says the city counselor’s office has advised him not to comment on the dispute with Ladd because of the pending litigation, but he said he’s staunchly opposed to what he calls “demolition by neglect,” where an owner who either can’t afford to rehab a potentially historic building, or otherwise refuses to, simply allows the building to eventually collapse.
“The Benton Park neighborhood has been rebuilt by people saving historic buildings,” Guenther says.
Ladd is one of those people.
She keeps a three-ring binder on the end table in her living room — with its soaring loft, wooden beams and red-brick walls from the original 1898 structure that housed the Vogel-Buol Soda Water Company — that tells the story of her meticulously rehabbed home.
Ladd doesn’t believe it makes financial sense to save the collapsing building next door, which she bought in 2012. Guenther, and the various boards in the city, want her to sell it.
To date, it has been a battle of wills between hard-line preservationists and a building owner exercising her property rights.
In the end, it’s the building that is losing.
The back wall of the oldest building in Benton Park is gone, its more-than-century-old stones strewn in the alley. The city says tear it down, then it doesn’t.
“If they want me to store the stones so somebody can rebuild it some day, somewhere, I’ll store the stones,” Ladd told me Thursday. “But common sense is not prevailing here. The politics are so strong in this city that sometimes the right thing can’t happen.”
By the end of the week, common sense won. Well, depending on your perspective. On Friday, Oswald issued the emergency condemnation order. Ladd’s contractor planned to apply for the demolition permit that same day.
The oldest building in Benton Park is coming down.
Is it the right thing? That civil war will continue.
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.