Pruitt-Igoe

“Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.”

Charles Jencks
The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism

In the wake of the demolition of the physical Pruitt-Igoe, theorists and critics began to build the mythic Pruitt-Igoe, summed up by Charles Jencks’ 1977 announcement of the destruction of the second tower as symbolic of Modern architecture’s death—a notion central, as Katherine Bristol has written, to the Pruitt-Igoe myth. Concurrent to the site’s international notoriety came a local anonymity as the site presented an unmarked hole in the city, unknown to many and uncomfortable to others. To residents of the near north side, the site was a scar acknowledging the worst effects of urban renewal and upheaval waged without their consent. To St Louis city government, Pruitt-Igoe became a problem without a clear solution, best left unmentioned.

Pruitt-Igoe in the city context. View looking east toward the Mississippi River.

After passage of the federal Housing Act of 1937, which created the first federal subsidies to local housing authorities for housing development, St. Louis planners had hoped to build several projects. One was the large public housing development that would become Pruitt-Igoe in place of the aging DeSoto-Carr neighborhood on the city’s near north side. However the St. Louis Housing Authority was not able to seriously consider a project of that scale until the subsequent federal Housing Act of 1949 made funding available to begin planning, land acquisition, clearance and construction. This act made funds available for urban redevelopment and public housing in cities (such as St. Louis) that were experiencing massive substandard housing conditions in older inner-city neighborhoods amid the start of out-migration to the suburbs. With these funds, St. Louis’ Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority would acquire and clear tracts of land within what were designated as urban slums, and then sell them at a low price to private developers. Federal and local officials hoped that redevelopment would spur middle-income housing and commercial development in the troubled city core. Simultaneously, the St. Louis Housing Authority would raze designated ‘slums’ in order to build public housing, providing large numbers of low-rent units to those displaced by redevelopment.

Capture from the article "Slum Surgery in St. Louis" that ran in the April 1951 issue of Architectural Forum.

In 1950, the federal Public Housing Authority provided a commitment for constructing 5,800 public housing units in St. Louis, 2,970 of which were allocated to the Captain Wendell O. Pruitt Homes and the William L. Igoe Apartments. Pruitt and Igoe eventually would house 15,000 tenants at densities higher than the original dwellings of the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood that the project replaced. The St. Louis Housing Authority commissioned Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber to design Pruitt-Igoe—within the constraints of size and location of the site, the number of units and project density, all of which had been predetermined by the St. Louis Housing Authority. In fact, it was the Public Housing Administration that insisted on a scheme using 33 modular eleven-story buildings, which was first published in 1951. From this moment on, myth and history run together. Many ill-fated details of the design were factors conceived of under intense pressure to economize construction: skip-stop elevators forced residents into stairwells, a frequent location of theft and violent crime, along with the galleries and elevators; hardware broke upon first use and was not replaced; play areas for children were assessed to be too expensive and never constructed.

Image of the Pruitt Homes under construction from the 1955 catalog of the Stephen Gorman Bricklaying Company, which was the masonry contractor for the project. Courtesy of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.

Public opening at Pruitt-Igoe, 1956. Photograph used in "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth."

Additionally, Pruitt and Igoe were racially segregated from the start: whites lived in the Igoe Apartments, named for a white Congressman, and African-Americans lived in the Pruitt Homes, named for a celebrated Tuskegee Airman from St. Louis. Yet in 1954, segregation in public accommodations ended with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. Residents were already living in segregation at the still-incomplete Pruitt and Igoe homes when the St. Louis Housing Authority lifted racial restrictions. Most whites moved out.

Aerial view of Pruitt-Igoe from the south. St. Bridget of Erin Church is at bottom center.

The Pruitt Homes were fully completed on September 1, 1955 and the Igoe Apartments were completed on February 26, 1956. The two projects were soon joined as “Pruitt-Igoe.” The occupancy rate peaked in 1957 at 91% and, for the remainder of its existence, that rate steadily declined. By 1958 many residents chose to live in inexpensive private dwellings, rather than in public housing. Vandalism, violence, and fiscal instability prompted efforts to save Pruitt-Igoe. Despite several federal grants, occupancy rates continued to decline, crime rates climbed, and the most basic building management and maintenance were neglected. The year 1969 marked a stand-off between the Housing Authority and Pruitt-Igoe tenants, who joined in a massive rent strike that lasted nine months, along with the residents of other St. Louis public housing projects; by now, the Housing Authority’s financial reserves were depleted, and there was rampant vacancy. On March 16, 1972, all remaining tenants were moved to 11 buildings, and a demolition experiment leveled one building in the center of the project. A second building was demolished on April 21, 1972, generating an iconic image of the implosion used by the national press. In 1973 H.U.D. decided to relocate all remaining tenants – about 800 out of the peak of 15,000 – and demolish the rest of the project with the headache ball. By the end of 1977, all of the buildings were gone save Pruitt School, which still operates as a school, and an electrical substation, which also still operates as such.

The moment that would produce a myth: Implosion of Building C-15 on April 21, 1972.

The site of building C-15 in 2010.

By then, the Pruitt Igoe myth was firmly in place. The myth situated all of the blame squarely on the architects, ignoring the economic and social problems that contributed to the project’s failure. The reduction of Pruitt-Igoe to a matter of architectural quality did not acknowledge the widespread social indifference to the poverty of inner city blacks and, further, the myth proffered Pruitt-Igoe a retroactive symbolic stature in modernism that it had never truly attained when built. Lacking historical context, ignoring racial discrimination and economic crisis, down-playing the roles of the local and federal housing agencies and inflating the architect’s role to that of social engineer, this myth effectively encapsulated the empty site, freezing it in time and making it unlikely that any architect would approach and resolve it. Missing in this narrative are the lives of the residents themselves, many of whom had never lived – and would never again live – in housing as decent as they did at Pruitt-Igoe. The truth is that Pruitt-Igoe is as beloved as it is hated among as many former residents.

A softball game at Pruitt-Igoe, date unknown. Photograph used in "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth."

In 1989, the St. Louis Public Schools elected to build the new Gateway schools complex on 20 acres of the Pruitt-Igoe site. The complex of three new schools was a hopeful repurposing of part of the site. Yet the work did not touch any of the rest of the site. The brand new schools were surrounded by a desert of debris and a thriving forest of urban trees. Eventually the city used the site for dumping fill from construction projects, treating it as the dump for more unsorted remains of the city’s past. Since then, the site has been left fallow, and the trees and native plants have grown lush despite soil laden with concrete, brick and contaminants. Pruitt-Igoe is now America’s most prominent accidental urban forest.

Walking across the cleared site north to Cass Avenue in the 1970s. Photograph from "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth".

While the site has been largely untouched, there have been a multitude of proposed plans for Pruitt-Igoe since before its demolition. Plans were first offered by the Pruitt Igoe Task Force in 1972. One unfortunate plan was conversion of some of the buildings into a state penitentiary. The site was a key part of St. Louis’ Model Cities zone from 1968 through 1974, and was identified for total reconstruction in a 1972 land use plan for that zone . In 1987, the City Plan Commission and Board of Aldermen adopted a plan for a Commerce Business Park that placed Pruitt-Igoe at the center of an industrial; and warehouse park. This plan was never realized, and was followed by the St. Louis Public School’s decision to purchase part of the site.

Site plan for the Gateway Village project. The Pruitt-Igoe site is in the lower left corner.

The next major plan for the site was inclusion in Mayor Freeman Bosely, Jr. and Waycor Development’s 1996 proposal for “Gateway Village”, a plan that envisioned the site and part of the St. Louis Place neighborhood becoming a 9 hole golf-course surrounded by 781 new homes arranged on a suburban layout. This plan died amid wide opposition. Soon afterward, the St. Louis Housing Authority issued a request for proposals for the site that resulted in McCormack Baron’s submission of a plan called Cityview, which included new urban housing and a retail strip center on the 33 vacant acres of the site. This plan also died. Most recently, the site is included in developer Paul J. McKee, Jr.’s nearly 1,500-acre mixed use development plan for the near north side named “Northside Regeneration.” Yet no development is imminent.

Demolition of the last tower at the George L. Vaughn Homes, 2006.

Meanwhile, the George L. Vaughn Homes to the east, sister project to Pruitt-Igoe, have been completely demolished and replaced using federal HOPE VI funding. The site is now home to a neighborhood of mostly two-story apartment buildings called Murphy Park. The last Vaughn high-rise fell in 2006, leaving St. Louis with only two remaining public housing towers: one each at the former Cochran Gardens (scheduled for demolition in 2011), now called Cambridge Heights, and at the former Blumeyer Homes, now called Renaissance Place.

People exploring the Pruitt-Igoe site, spring 2011.

Despite the relative tranquility of the remaining 33 acres of the Pruitt-Igoe site in their current state, there are a host of psychological forces haunting it. Some of these forces finally are being unleashed, explained and analyzed through documentary films, books and articles. Yet for the site itself – the physical body left behind – no design intervention has ever been staged that would reconcile the remains of Pruitt-Igoe with our contemporary consciousness. If the site registers, it registers as an emptiness whose meaning is ripe but unarticulated to those who live or pass near it. Shall the site ever be liberated? Or is its current condition already an important monument to the memory of the site?

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