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Messenger: Benton Park stone house slowly crumbles while city bureaucracy watches

Messenger: Benton Park stone house slowly crumbles while city bureaucracy watches

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If stones could talk, the ones lying in a pile of rubble near an alley north of Lynch Street would tell quite a tale.

The assorted pieces of gray limestone fell off the house at 2205 Lynch Street, a German-built structure in the historic Benton Park residential district that dates to sometime around the Civil War.

The house has been condemned — twice — but the city won’t let its owner, Peggy Ladd, tear it down.

“Just let me do something!” she says, in frustration.

Ladd has been battling with the city for five years over what to do with the property, but the tale really goes back a few years before that, to 2008, when she moved in next door.

After a divorce, Ladd sought to move from a loft downtown to a more historic neighborhood. She settled on Benton Park and found an empty building to rehab.

The two-story, red-brick building that used to house the Vogel-Buol Soda Water Company became her new home. The front of the building dates to 1898, the back of it was built in 1903, just before the World’s Fair. Such small, independent bottling companies used to be ubiquitous in the St. Louis region.

After she remodeled the old commercial building into a beautiful home with lofty, wide-open spaces and exposed brick walls, Ladd set her sights on the property next door. The owner had been occasionally renting out the 500-square-foot, 1½-story house.

“I wanted to rehab it,” Ladd says.

She bought it in 2012. Two years later, the outer west wall started to collapse. Ladd hired an architect and talked to stone masons to get estimates on what it would take to stabilize and rehab the building. She got bad news. A previous owner put stucco all along the exterior, weakening the mortar holding the historic limestone together.

“The stucco on top of stone was turning the building into sawdust,” she says.

To rehab the building, or even stabilize it, her architect told her, she’d have to collapse it entirely, and then rebuild stone by stone. The result would be a small house not worth what it would take to rebuild. Even if she had the money to rehab it — at the time the estimate was nearly $300,000 — she could never recoup her investment.

So, after the city’s building division condemned the house, she sought a demolition permit, first in 2014, and again in 2017 and 2018.

The Cultural Review Office said no. The Preservation Board said no. The Planning Commission said no. Rehab it, they said. Build a new structure in front of it to make the economics work, they suggested. Both Alderman Dan Guenther and the Benton Park Neighborhood Association refused to support a demolition. They said they’d help her find a buyer.

At a Preservation Board meeting, Guenther and Dan Krasnoff, the director of the city’s Cultural Resources Office, suggested that the house was only failing because of Ladd’s neglect. The city’s ordinance on demolitions says that a permit “shall be” issued if a structure is not sound. Krasnoff told the Preservation Board that the house was “sound” even though another city division had condemned it. Guenther, Ladd says, told her that he would “never” allow her to tear the house down. Guenther declined comment for this column.

Ladd says she’s tried and tried to find a buyer for the property, or some other solution, and she’s at her wits’ end. In February, her attorney, Alex Kuehling, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the city’s decision to prevent her from demolishing the house.

“I have yet to have a constructive conversation with anybody in the city about this property,” Kuehling says. “If the city wants to buy this house for a museum, they should do so. The rehab is simply not economically feasible.”

Ladd admits she bit off more than she could chew in buying the house.

Then again, she’s not sure it wouldn’t be in the same state or worse if she hadn’t bought it.

Such is the state of affairs in some parts of St. Louis, a city both blessed and cursed by its historic housing stock. Some old homes collapse because entire neighborhoods are neglected. Hers is not, it’s part of a south-side comeback story. But Ladd doesn’t think it makes sense for the city to block her efforts to tear down what she believes has become a safety hazard and potential blight on her neighborhood.

“It’s going to fall on somebody,” she says, “I’m very, very worried.”

The wall facing the alley appears ready to crumble. A back window juts out enough to put your head through. A couple of weeks ago, it was small enough for a fist, Ladd says.

But there the old stones at 2205 Lynch Street sit. They pile in the alley and overtop the retaining wall next to Ladd’s garage. They tell a story: of historic settlement and neglect; of neighborhood rebirth and bureaucracy; of slow-motion tragedy.

If only they could talk.

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