Boom Nation: Meet Me in St. Louis

Feb. 10, 2006 — -- Across the country, there's a fight for your mortgage dollar. In one corner, we have the suburban Goliaths. In the other, the smaller, older Davids of inner-city America.

Squaring off in this fight are my mother, Barbara Mabrey, and me. She likes the soaring newness of a "'McMansion." I like the "if walls could talk" history of a turn-of-the-century home.

To compare the value of old vs. new, my mother and I set out on a home tour in our hometown of St. Louis.

My mother lives in the suburbs, but I am a lover of the city.

I asked John Eilerman, CEO of Homebuilders McBride and Sons, to make his pitch at a model home we visited -- starting price $325,000 -- in a suburb north of the city.

"This is about 4,000 square feet," said Eilerman, as we walked around. "Isn't this spectacular?"

My mother loved it.

I asked Eilerman what people usually insisted on having in a new home.

"The two major rooms are the kitchen and the master bath," he said. "Those are the two rooms that you have to have all the newest and greatest features … new appliances, new cabinets in the kitchen. In the bathroom, it's the new master tubs and the spacious master bath."

He also agreed that people liked double-height entry halls.

Traditional master bedrooms have now transformed into ground-floor master suites. I asked Eilerman who needed such spacious bathrooms.

"This is what our customers want," he said.

I glanced at my mother, who was smiling. "I like it," she said.

The bathroom also boasted a fireplace, a separate shower, and a raised Jacuzzi with steps made of "cultured marble."

"What is 'cultured marble?'" I asked Eilerman.

"It is a man-made product," he explained, " that gives you a lot of flexibility in the colors. But it is a man-made product."

"Are these homes going to last?" I asked him. "I hear a lot of people telling me that new homes are not built to last. They have built-in obsolescence."

Eilerman said the homes would last. He mentioned that the siding was designed to last 40 years, and that the shingles had a 50-year guarantee.

"A lot of the materials are actually better today than they were before," he said. "The windows are a lot more efficient than they were before."

As Eilerman explained it, this was one of the benefits of buying a new home: You're not going to face all that maintenance for many, many years.

I wasn't convinced. St. Louis has some of the most amazing architecture of any U.S. city -- stately, solid, mostly brick homes -- and what's really heartening is how many of them are still standing. They're barely standing in some cases, but still there and ready to be rehabbed.

Susie Gudermuth, a staunch urban guerrilla who staked her claim in the city 25 years ago, has been buying and renovating houses throughout her neighborhood to keep it -- and them -- from deteriorating.

After years of practically having to give these houses away, she said their values were soaring. Gudermuth has one she renovated on the market for $525,000 -- less, she says, than what she paid to rehab it.

"We cannot compete with the 4,000-square-foot house for $300,000," she said.

My mother grew up in a place that was somewhat like Gudermuth's house. But later on, with three children and my father traveling a lot, we moved from the inner city to the suburbs. Partly it was concern about crime and schools, but also it was to satisfy a deep longing my mother had: "I had never lived in a new house," she explained. "I wanted to live in a house that no one else had ever lived in before me."

Sally Benson, the author of "Meet Me in St. Louis," based the story on her family and their 11-room home at 5135 Kensington Ave. Decades later, the house had fallen into such disrepair that in 1994 it had to be demolished. It's a vacant lot now; there are many boarded-up houses nearby.

But what was once a blight on the city is now its best hope.

"The construction in the city of St. Louis is awesome," said rehabber Claire Vogt of Millennium Restoration. "The walls are three bricks thick."

Vogt and her son, Tim, are giving new life to long-abandoned buildings. They took us on a tour of three buildings -- a house, a carriage house, and a small warehouse that had been used most recently as a dairy.

"This project was sitting abandoned for 20 years," Tim said. "We were the only ones crazy enough to take this on."

Now, for the first time in years, suburbanites and out-of-towners are giving the city a second look. "It is important to maintaining the fabric of the city," Tim said. "You are preserving the history of the city and the neighborhood."

Jeffrey Hall and his wife, Susannah Ryan, bought one of the Vogts' renovated houses when they moved to St. Louis from Washington, D.C., last year.

"We decided this is important to us," Hall said. "To be able to enjoy the night life, enjoy what the city has to offer." He added most suburbs were too "cookie cutter" for their tastes.

John Hoal, professor of architecture and urban design at Washington University, said we were seeing a remarkable trend in urban renewal.

"The growth continues on the edge, but there is revitalization in a series of focus areas in what used to be considered the dead doughnut shape," he said. "And slowly parts of those are coming together."

But he noted it was a very slow, 20-year process.

He also mentioned that the St. Louis area had one of the highest rates of sprawl in the country. Fifty years ago, the city had 850,000 residents. But with flight to the suburbs, that number is now fewer than 350,000.

"Over a 30-year period," explained Hoal, "we have taken a 7 percent growth of population and spread it over three times the amount of land that is needed."

So, with new subdivisions springing up farther and farther from the city center, and a dedicated core of renovators saving the old city homes, a new dead zone is being created in the middle.

"Some of the fastest-deteriorating areas are the inner-ring suburbs in a region," explained Hoal, "and so the value's not adding up there."

As a result, the suburbs that people moved to in the 1950s and 1960s are fading out.

Hoal made it clear that the problems and triumphs in St. Louis were also happening in other "mid-level, slow-growth Midwestern cities" -- Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Cincinnati; and Milwaukee, among others.

"Each city has to look at what its amenity is, and its economic base, and begin to build upon that," he said. "The core of the city, really the most incredible attribute, [are] the historic buildings, the historic neighborhoods, and those that can capitalize on them are coming back in ways completely unforeseen."

But are the houses in the suburbs built to last? Gudermuth doesn't think they'll outlast the mortgage.

"We see this in some of the far-flung suburbs every year," she said. "They are bringing out a new model, a new house. And the older models are like a used car. They do not bring top dollar, and the new model is what everyone wants. And I think there are going to be whole neighborhoods razed at some point, and new construction is going up again."

In the end, after a full day spent touring houses both old and new, my mother and I agreed to disagree. She admitted she was tempted by city living, and attracted by nostalgia and also by a lifestyle that would let her walk places instead drive. But she and my dad aren't ready to leave suburbia just yet.

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