How Pruitt-Igoe Became a National Historic Landmark

By Special Contributor posted 11-30-2016 17:11


By Michael Allen

In preparation for the upcoming Forum Journal issue on the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, we are re-printing this piece by Michael Allen. It has been updated from it's original form.

In August 2016 the city of St. Louis sold the 33 acres that remain from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project site to a private developer, Northside Regeneration. Northside Regeneration plans a mixed-use commercial development on the site, which is adjacent to land where the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is building a 122-acre campus. Already, utility company Ameren has been bulldozing the Pruitt-Igoe site to remove underground electric lines. The site, forested and cleared of towers by 1977, remains a cultural landscape central to St. Louis’ history. Will any of it be preserved, and how? This essay offers a speculative alternate future.

In fall 2016 bulldozers began removing the forest at the Pruitt-Igoe housing project site to make way for private development. | Credit: Michael Allen

Fifty years from now Americans will turn to the official record of their cultural heritage and find designated as a National Historic Landmark (or at least National Register of Historic Places district) the site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri. Visitors who seek to learn on site will find a rich and rewarding environment illuminating some of the 20th century’s most problematic history as well as the 21st century’s most promising resolutions. On the ground also are some traces of the 19th-century urban development of what was one of the nation’s 10 largest cities and a long-term ecological heritage that is not easily reduced to a simple historic narrative. In short, the Pruitt-Igoe National Historic Landmark presents a robust, complex, and significant part of American urban history.

The designation of the Pruitt-Igoe National Historic Landmark site acknowledges the embedded multiple histories of the site, each of which honors a claim on the site’s heritage by a different constituency. The site’s longest duration was as unsettled terrain until around 1853. Then its longest epoch as settled space came in the near-century it was a diverse walking DeSoto-Carr neighborhood built out with vernacular architecture, of which two Roman Catholic churches and two dwellings remain. This neighborhood housed Irish, German, Polish, Greek, Macedonian, and Russian ethnic groups before transitioning to an African-American enclave during the Great Migration. After 1952 the 57-acre site was transformed by the 33 high-rise public housing towers of the Pruitt and Igoe housing projects, finally demolished in 1977. Since 1977 the site has been partially redeveloped as a public school complex, with the majority left fallow and wild. Soon, succession led to a spectacular urban forest whose longevity approaches the occupation of the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood.

This is an aerial view of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project site. Is it what a heritage site looks like in the 21st century? | Credit: Prepared by Mark Specht for Pruitt Igoe Now

The designation of Pruitt-Igoe includes the forest; the schools built in 1994; the 19th-century churches and houses; a modernist school built to serve the children of Pruitt-Igoe; a former health clinic built for the residents; and several buildings on the north side, including a church founded by a former resident. The landscape is architectural, cultural, and ecological, and the nomination form presents the simultaneous associations of these landscapes. The question of physical integrity is resolved by the nomination’s acknowledgment that there never was a pure, original form of the site and that its most famous historic episode was inexorably its briefest. The wilderness of the forest, in fact, may be its truest condition.

The towers no longer stand at Pruitt-Igoe, but other parts of the cultural landscape remain—including the park where these young men played baseball. | Credit:  State Historical Society of Missouri

Designation of Pruitt-Igoe addressed a late 20th–century malaise in American historic preservation. As the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act approached, preservation found itself in a potentially stultifying condition, pulled between the broad cultural and political diversity of likely constituencies and the regulatory-bound frameworks of the government agencies and nonprofits preservationists sought to create and sustain. The lack of congruence of the American practice with international consensus on cultural heritage, including the American refusal to sign the UNESCO charter on intangible heritage, nearly drove many historians, activists, building rehabbers, and planners to abandon the historic preservation movement altogether.

The completed landscape of Pruitt-Igoe replaced a 19th-century vernacular neighborhood with a modernist monoculture, yet the new project represented the city’s aspirations for reform and social justice when this image was captured in 1959. | Credit: Unites States Geological Survey

Simultaneously to the irresolute state of historic preservation in America came a moment of anxiety about the population declines in older American cities, called “legacy cities” by many. Since the end of World War II, older cities had been pulverizing historic fabric to attempt interventions designed ostensibly to reinvigorate economic growth, increase population, and eradicate substandard housing. In truth, much of this activity was governed by an ideology of spatial austerity that sought to conquer the disorder of the American urban condition, manifest in both building vacancy and in human poverty. The program of urban renewal had propelled dissidents to form the historic preservation movement in the first place. Yet the movement circled back to the intersection. In her 2014 Letters to the Mayor, architect Keller Easterling wrote that “the major building project for most mayors in the US is the removal of building.” This statement seemed less revelatory than a frank recollection of a half-century of clearance at varying tempos.

Aerial view of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in 1968. | Credit: United States Geological Survey

By 2016 the mode of official urban erasure slowed to a selective demolition practice called “right-sizing.” Preservationists accustomed to advocacy borne from fighting large-scale clearance found themselves stymied by “right-sizing.” To some, the selective removal continued the modernist program of removing cultural heritage in the name of order; to others, the discretion of right-sizing was in accord with a new way of looking beyond the significance of individual buildings at social, economic, and environmental factors. The right-sizing discussion opened up the inadequacy of the bureaucratic practice of preservation in addressing cultural heritage management and conservation. Reliance on standards that privileged architectural appearance and normative history placed the movement out on synch with urgent work happening in cities and rural areas to address vacancy, resource scarcity and public identification of local heritage.

Is Pruitt-Igoe's significance primarily architectural? If not, the absence of housing towers is not the end of the site's potential to teach. | Credit: Newspaper clipping from the St. Louis Public Library collection

Although the city of St. Louis sold the site to private development company Northside Regeneration LLC in August 2016, and the developer began selective removal of sections of the forest, the legibility of the site as cultural landscape did not diminish. In fact, the turning point in the site’s history—its third clearance in only 60 years—made its symbolic role in St. Louis history even more clear. In fact, the site gained recognition as a site whose public was in fact national. The moment arrived for the nation to officially claim the site as part of its heritage.

Today the Pruitt-Igoe site includes a city park, four public schools, one historic church, a former public library branch, and the big forest. | Credit: Michaela Burwell-Taylor

Thus it came to be that the unwieldy, unruly Pruitt-Igoe site became worthy of designation on the nation’s list of official historic sites. Preservationists came to see the reliance on “integrity” found in the National Register of Historic Places and local landmark codes to be arbitrary and exclusionary, as well as in conflict with general public recognition of history. Preservationists revised rules and practices to acknowledge the presence of multiple histories in individual sites and that the greatest authority in site knowledge was most local. Preservationists saw that a site like Pruitt-Igoe was not fragmentary, but rather polyphonic; not broken or degraded, but evolutionary and changing alongside its larger setting; not problematic, but intrinsically expressive of strands of urban, racial, and political history indelible to the identity of 21st century Americans.

Disturbance is as much a part of the site’s history as the meaning of architecture. This view shows demolition of the final towers in 1976, when they were only 21 years old. | Credit: State Historical Society of Missouri

Alongside Pruitt-Igoe’s designation came reappraisal of practical approaches to the management of other places, ranging from Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood, to the slipcover-clad commercial buildings on Main Streets across the nation and the vinyl-protected I-houses of the Midwest, to the postmodern office towers of the Chicago Loop and the crumbling ruins of the packing plants and steel mills around East St. Louis. Some would always see significance in the look of the place, while others would find it inside, in memories. All would consent to protecting the places that mattered to people, so that each could continue to find meaning in her own way. Evidence would consist of public identification of heritage, not physical forms corresponding to limited empirical frames. Thus ended an American exceptionalism to the practice of historic preservation—which incidentally came to be called many other things, among them “heritage conservation.”

Michael R. Allen is director of the Preservation Research Office and senior lecturer in Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. Allen also is an advisor to the National Trust.

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