Cities in Focus: St. Louis through Local Preservationist Jason Deem's Eyes
As part of the Cities in Focus Blog series, the Community Outreach team wanted to highlight a local leader -- someone who is in the city, living the preservation-minded, place-loving life. For our first city of St. Louis, we chose Jason Deem, the owner of South Side Spaces and Nebula Coworking, as well as president of the Cherokee Station Business Association. We hope you enjoy our chat with him!
For historic preservation/placemaking/urban planning fans, what are the must-see places in St. Louis for a first-time visitor?
St. Louis is rich in arts and culture. Some of the best examples of historic preservation are cultural institutions such as museums, theaters, and the magnificent Central Library that was recently renovated at a cost of $70 million. Powell Symphony Hall, the Fox Theater, Peabody Opera House, and the Sun Theater are all incredible functioning examples of meticulous preservation that are definitely worth checking out.
In terms of placemaking and urban planning, Cherokee Street is a must-see. Cherokee stands out among the many historic neighborhoods in St. Louis for a variety of reasons, including a high density of small independently owned businesses, many of which focus on craft products and services; rich culture particularly from the many Hispanic businesses; historical significance including the first Wehrenberg Movie Theater, The Historic Casa Loma Ballroom, and the Lemp Brewery; a thriving arts and music scene; and more recently the addition of bars and entertainment venues.
Cherokee is a unique study in urban planning in that residents and business owners are truly shaping the type of community they want to live, work and play in. The result is a dynamic and diverse commercial district with a strong sense of community, culture, and creativity.
Where is your favorite place in Saint Louis and why?
I’ve always liked the Gold Room at the now-vacant Jefferson Arms building. The 13-story building was built in 1904 as the Hotel Jefferson and featured a lavish ballroom capable of accommodating 1,200 people. In 1977 the hotel was converted to senior living apartments and was closed in 2007, but even during most of its time as a hotel and retirement home the Gold Room was locked up and inaccessible to the public.
My grandfather, who was always prepared with a flashlight and a flask, was a resident in the building in the 1980s and found a way into the ballroom from the mezzanine that allowed us free rein to explore. As a young kid this was probably my first experience seeing a dilapidated historic space and imagining what it once was and what it could eventually become. I’ve had a few opportunities to visit the space again in the past few years and it still looks exactly like it did almost 30 years ago. St. Louis is full of great buildings with rich history that are waiting to be restored.
We are big fans of Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoir Project. What are your six words about STL?
A big experiment in adaptive reuse.
One of South Side Spaces's upcoming projects will be the Kinloch Telephone Exchange Building, one of four switching stations in St. Louis at the turn of the century where operators would patch calls through. Once complete, the building will be repurposed as residential space with drive-in parking from the alley.
Your business, South Side Spaces, specializes in "historic renovations that preserve the original character of the building while providing the convenience of modern amenities." Why choose to focus on historic renovations?
I choose to work on historic renovations because they’re an important part of defining and preserving the identity of St. Louis. Without historic architecture the city would be just another collection of sub-divisions and strip malls.
On a personal level, I think they’re just more interesting than new construction. I enjoy the process involved in researching a building’s history, finding old photos, and measuring them with calipers to determine the original sizes of architectural elements so they can be recreated. It’s also exciting to work with old-world craftsmen who are experts in their trade and can custom-mill intricate wood trim designs, duplicate limestone ornamentation, and repair detailed masonry, terra cotta, and plaster work.
What has been the biggest challenge you have had when working with historic buildings?
Historic buildings are full of unknowns. Removing a 1970’s “modern” facade can reveal a perfectly preserved cast iron storefront or an ugly mess of structural problems. Situations like this are common and make it difficult to know exactly how much a project will cost or how long it will take. There’s a lot of unique problem-solving that happens on the fly to keep the project moving forward.
Another challenge is navigating the fine line between preservation and practicality. Getting everyone involved to agree where that line falls so that the end result meets the requirements for historic tax credits, local preservation review, current building codes, and the intended use of the structure. It’s not uncommon to have conflicting requirements that need to be worked out.
You are not a formally trained preservationist, but you are doing exceptional preservation work, and have been recognized by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis on their 11 Most Enhanced List and with an Honor Award from Missouri Preservation. What can preservation do to broaden its reach and attract more folks like you?
I think the most important thing the preservation community can do is remain open to innovative and unconventional ideas. It is necessary to have standards, but flexibility invites creativity and growth. An overly strict interpretation of preservation can sometimes make a project not worth doing.
Incentives such as federal and state historic tax credits have played a major role in many if not most of the preservation efforts in St. Louis. Working with lawmakers at all levels to make sure these incentives don’t get cut from government budgets, and increasing awareness of the programs and how they work are all great ways to attract new developers do historic preservation.