July 27, 2008

Thieves Steal St. Louis’ History, Brick By Brick

By Diane Toroian Keaggy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 27--St. Louis Alderman Sam Moore calls them dollhouses. Their brick walls appear sliced off, revealing interior stairwells, doorways and debris. That's all the thieves leave behind.

Brick thieves have decimated entire blocks of north St. Louis neighborhoods. They're ingenious, organized and very busy: Bricks these days go for 60 cents each, almost three times the going rate a few years ago.

"You can see right through those houses," said Moore, whose 4th Ward has been hit hard by the thefts. "An entire city is being stolen brick by brick."

Brick theft has emerged as the latest and perhaps greatest threat to historic preservation. For years, thieves have stolen architectural artifacts such as gargoyles and stained glass. Next, they moved on to metals such as copper plumbing and wire. The final blow is brick. A building, after all, can survive without crown molding but not without walls.

"They're fairly efficient in their work," said architect Paul Hohmann, who publishes the blog Vanishing STL (vanishingstl.blogspot.com). He noticed a surge in brick rustling or harvesting, as it is sometimes called, in the past two years.

"Basically, it's the erosion of our history in a totally uncontrolled way," he said.

The homes, often located in isolated areas, are an easy mark. Neighbors and police can't always tell the difference between a crime scene and a legitimate demolition site.

Thieves simply take a sledgehammer to a wall or ram it with a backhoe. Sometimes the mortar is so soft, the bricks break free with ease. Moore believes thieves set fire to buildings and wait for the St. Louis Fire Department to do the dirty work for them.

"The fire department comes and basically washes the brick," Moore said. "Now they have very clean brick they can take. Oh, they're very smart. And the city is left with the cost of an emergency demolition."

No one knows for sure, but city officials and preservationists believe that the brick ends up in southern communities such as New Orleans, which lost much of its housing stock to Hurricane Katrina.

Clay deposits here made deep red brick. Pittsburgh and Boston have brick like that; Chicago and Kansas City do not.

"As it ages, the brick has less of a polished, mechanical look. It develops character," said Rob Powers, an architect who publishes the website BuiltStlouis.net. "When I think of St. Louis, I don't think of the Arch. I think of rows and rows of these red brick houses. It was shocking to realize that these buildings weren't falling down but that they were being attacked."

The St. Louis Police Department recently assigned two undercover officers to tackle the issue of brick theft. Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay, said police have made 30 arrests since April. But the problem will persist, he said, until tougher laws are in place to punish illegal brick dealers. He favors a law that would require dealers to provide a drivers license and vehicle information when selling brick. Missouri legislators passed a similar measure this year to prevent copper and aluminum theft.

Rainford acknowledges that many vacant properties are headed for demolition regardless. Still, that decision belongs to property owners and the community, not criminals.

"They're certainly not reading Architectural Digest," Rainford said. "They don't care that some of these buildings are significant and should be saved."

So far, no one has suffered serious injuries at one of these homes, but clearly they pose a threat to residents, he said.

"It's the broken-window theory," Rainford said. "Those lesser crimes create a sense of lawlessness. We want people in the neighborhood to know someone is in charge and we're doing something about it."

Moore says he has noticed a decline in brick theft since police stepped up patrols. Still, he knows it will take a lot of money and a dramatic shift in the public's perception of north St. Louis to restore the remaining housing stock.

"We have a chance to save the balance of this city," Moore said. "A lot of history has been torn down. We need to protect the rest."

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