Clemens House: Can Paul McKee Rehab Historic North Side Property? (PHOTOS)

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Clemens House. - COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN

Last month, the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation announced its annual list of the most endangered properties in the state, which included the James L. Clemens House in St. Louis -- a home constructed in 1860 that preservationists worry may not survive. Local activists have taken an increasing interest in the landmark in recent months, in part, because from the outside, it appears to be crumbling with no rehab plan in sight.

The fate of the Clemens House, built by Mark Twain's uncle, is now in the hands of developer Paul McKee, whose controversial, long-delayed NorthSide Regeneration project passed a significant hurdle in April with the Missouri Supreme Court ruling in his favor.

"We've invested a ton of money into stabilizing it, waiting for redevelopment," McKee tells Daily RFT. "That's a very, very important, strategic home and history on the north side here."

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Located at 1849 Cass Avenue on the north side, the Clemens House is known for its Palladian-style villa with cast-iron ornamentation. It's one of the most intact antebellum mansions in the metro area, though its condition today is pretty rough.

Clemens House. - COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN

It was designed by architect Patrick Walsh for James Clemens, a businessman and the uncle of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was also formally designated a city landmark in 1971.

Missouri Preservation, which designated it as an endangered property this year, says that it was sold to the Sisters of Carondelet in 1888, who then had a chapel addition constructed. It was later used by a number of Roman Catholic communities and charities, but its condition has deteriorated in recent decades.

McKee eventually took over and in 2009 promised a massive rehabilitation and redevelopment. But while stuck in a legal fight, little has been done to move any project at Clemens House forward. A roof on the nearby chapel has collapsed. A cast-iron façade has been removed.

Paul McKee. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG FOR RFT
  • Photo by Jennifer Silverberg for RFT
  • Paul McKee.

"It just breaks my heart," Bill Hannegan, a St. Louis activist who runs the blog Keep St. Louis Free, tells Daily RFT. "My first love in life is architecture.... If St. Louis loses its most beautiful buildings, it's lost everything."

Hannegan, who works as a painter and specializes in old buildings, has been closely monitoring the condition of Clemens and has collected photos on his blog, which he has shared with Daily RFT.

COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN

Hannegan says it seems unlikely the property and its historic value could be salvaged at this point.

"I just don't think anything can be done with it now," he says. "It's just too far gone."

Michael Allen of the St. Louis-based Preservation Research Office tells Daily RFT, "It's one of the most important parts of our heritage, and it's just sitting, hanging in the balance."

Allen says, "If Paul McKee isn't the person to rehab it, we need to find the person who is."

Continue for more on Clemens House from Paul McKee and for more photos.

The property, Allen says, has been declining for years and if McKee wants to save it, "he needs to get on it quick."

COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN

In our interview, McKee brushes aside concerns from preservationists, saying he has spent more than $1.5 million to stabilize it. "Could I spend more? Sure. But unless you're willing to give me more money to spend on it, it's stabilized now as best we can."

He adds, "It's important to us. We're doing everything we can."

McKee says that his original plan involved senior-housing apartments on the site and that he may continue on that path.

With the Missouri Supreme Court ruling in his favor -- allowing him to access financing that a lower court had ruled out -- McKee says he'll begin working to get the necessary approvals from the city once again. He laments that he faced a three-and-a-half-year delay due to the court battle, which he says had to be resolved before he could move forward.

"We're at square one again," he says, noting that he has to get his larger redevelopment plan reauthorized at city hall before he can break ground on projects within the NorthSide Regeneration effort (which covers about two square miles of the north side).

COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN

By late fall, he says, he hopes to finish getting city hall's authorization so he can begin work in winter and early spring.

There are dozens of historic properties he plans to rehab and restore, McKee adds. "It's not just Clemens."

Still, in response to concerns from preservationists, he says, "That's their focus. Preservation to us is just a piece of what we do. It's not the main course.... It's the integral of all of this stuff that's important...jobs, housing, historic preservation...new development."

McKee says, "It's got to be seen in the total environment of the whole north side."

Below are more photos of Clemens House, all courtesy of Hannegan.

COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN
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Continue for more photos of Clemens House.

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Continue for more photos of Clemens House.

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COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN
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Continue for more photos of Clemens House.

COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN
COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN
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COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN
COURTESY OF BILL HANNEGAN

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