The photo above is of 1926 Hickory Street in April, 1970. It’s a “before” example of the properties recognized for their potential and restored in Lafayette Square back in the brave days. This story is about that, and a cautionary tale about what we risk by trusting government to always work in the public interest.
In the mid-1960s, restoration interest in Lafayette Square was largely confined to the early adopters of Benton Place. Any value assigned to the remainder of the Square lay in speculation toward state buyouts for a proposed North-South connector, linking I-70 to Interstates 44 and 55. That, or milking the decrepit boarding houses for rents from poor residents, or selling bricks from the destruction of moldering mansions.
When a professional and artistic generation of buyers arrived, sensing diamonds in the dust, there were challenges everywhere. Parents wrung their hands in worry over their young adult children blowing the little they had on a financially and physically risky bet. The shells they bought without realtors, bank lenders, and insurance policies sometimes teetered on collapse around them. They worked their jobs in the daytime and their home dreams in the nighttime. They pitched in together to eat, to clear overgrown lots filled with junk, and to counter the forces able, and sometimes motivated to undermine them.
One of these forces was political. Ward politics offered long-time office holders certain non-obvious sources of income, and Lafayette Square newcomers needed to quickly come up to speed in a game only one side understood the rules of.
Kenneth O. Brown was 43 years old in 1968; a Washington University graduate who was appointed City Building Commissioner in 1961. His power grew in the least advantaged areas of the city. Homeowners too poor to qualify for private financing were forced to apply for city-approved loans. “Building inspectors constantly threatened evictions if repairs were not made.” The existence of many structures was at the mercy of their inspector. Brown grew into this kind of power over a 15 year tenure, and it inevitably corrupted him.
By March of 1968, Brown was beginning to come under scrutiny for interesting uses of his authority. He admitted to receiving thousands of dollars a year from outside fees. He claimed legality, if not legitimacy, by virtue of this work being done only outside the city. His chief client was Gulf Oil Company, which also had a presence in St. Louis City. Mayor Cervantes said the charge was up to Brown’s boss William Trantina to deal with. Trantina claimed to be unaware of the double dip, and not pleased by it. No particular action was taken.
In 1969, without the knowledge of either the City Board of Estimate and Apportion or Plan Commission, Brown approved construction of what became known as the “Berlin Wall,” a 935 foot long wall running up to 20 feet high, retaining the new Zayre Plaza at Gravois and Gustine Street. His son was employed by the engineering firm that designed the plaza. That firm was owned by James Becker, a close friend of Brown. The giant concrete zoning violation was built, saving the developer an estimated $1 million in regrading costs.
Angered by the bypass of their authority, both aldermanic zoning and planning committees demanded Brown’s ouster as inspector. It was ironic, as the headline of the adjacent front page column of the July 17,1970 Post-Dispatch declared, “City Panel Approves $635K For Razing.” Combined federal, local and Model Cities funding created a 3 year $2.25 million program to demolish 4,000 buildings, including the area bounded by Chouteau, Meramec, Grand Avenue and I-55. The South Side destruction business was about to boom.
In the summer of 1970, there were 2,000 vacant and vandalized buildings on a list at City Hall. Crime associated with those properties amplified a public clamor to destroy the inner city structures on the list. George McCue, influential architecture and arts editor for the Post-Dispatch pleaded that the city needed to be selective with the destruction Brown presided over. In June of 1970, McCue pointed out that Lafayette Square was in the active process of neighborhood renewal, and that Kenneth Brown was showing “particular zeal at hitting buildings in this area.” He called out Brown’s practice of charging the Lafayette Park Neighborhood Association $500 per house to “compensate demolition contractors for withdrawing from assigned projects.” The editor was appalled, and noted “family and neighborhood are the nucleus elements of a viable community. Neighborhood associations working on their own rehabilitation should be offered all the cooperation that a city can muster.” He then called out the “cheesebox dwellings that occupy the lots after demolition, offering a chilling foretaste of how tacky-tacky residential streets could become if the fine old parts of town are allowed to crumble.”
Not that Kenneth O.Brown was much swayed by architecture critics. More than one long time resident recalled the neighborhood attempting to barter; sacrificing a building in the area for the saving of others.
Following an investigation by the Post-Dispatch, on July 24 1970, William Trantina issued an order that all new city demolition contracts would have to be directly approved by him. There were concerns that as ⅔ of the funding issued from HUD, Brown was flirting with federal violations by subletting contracts, ignoring timetables and at least once awarding a contract without advertising for bids. Five days later, Mayor Cervantes, specifically citing the Berlin Wall, ordered an inquiry covering three years of allegations of malfeasance from the inspectors office.
Edward Thornton of the Post-Dispatch birddogged Brown for a number of years, duly reporting findings of the investigation through the paper. He noted that three wrecking contractors on Brown’s approved list had neither permanent employees nor equipment suitable for demolition. 14 contracts in a three month period during 1970 were awarded to two of these companies. Brown also used city employees for construction projects, like a new sunroom for his Compton Heights home. This convenient labor was rationalized by Brown into praise for men who would work for only sandwiches and beer.
Public dissatisfaction had the same effect on Ken Brown as newspaper critics, and he refused to resign. He scoffed, “Show me a man who doesn’t make a mistake. He belongs upstairs.” Mayor Cervantes stepped in, warning that Brown had exercised poor judgement in carrying out his duties. Neither he, nor Trantina took further action against Brown.
The Lafayette Square neighborhood remembered him as a man eager to get on with the business of knocking down buildings. In April of 1970, members of the community physically impeded a bulldozer preparing for demolition of 1926 Hickory Street. He did meet with neighborhood representatives and the impression from two I spoke with resulted in the same word: “arrogant.” Brown told Ruth Kamphoefner at one meeting, “If I want to, I can condemn and tear down any of your houses. All I need is the report of one defect – a broken window, perhaps.”
The used brick trade in St. Louis has been a lucrative one. A theory holds that this commerce was enabled and encouraged by the same forces that condemned and razed brick structures all over town, regardless of architectural merit or historical significance. It’s cold indeed to consider that the city’s architectural heritage was being plundered by something designated as a community improvement program. The 1968 city program called Operation NEAT was put into place aggressively, and led to condemnation of fences, garages, carriage houses and tool sheds in the Square. It hit Benton Place in particular. While the new owners worked on their houses, savable structures were torn down behind the houses, often without the owners approval, but at their expense. Brown, with a burr under his saddle about the rehabbing neighborhood, commented that when federal HUD money was available, a thorough survey of Lafayette Square would be conducted, and “condemnation of major structures will be likely.”
Brown himself described the economics of resale demolition brick. One four-family flat would yield 15,000 to 20,000 bricks at an average of $70 per thousand, and minimum of $675. It was a good side trade to manage.
The fledgling LSRC sidestepped Brown, approaching city planning director Norman Murdoch and demolition chief Mel Bottoms, even hosting a tea for the latter in 1972. Simultaneously, it cultivated a key politician who became a fan – Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes. By July of that year, the association had secured a city designation of historic district for the neighborhood. The effectiveness of a nice approach was summed up by Tom Grady, local resident and secretary of the city Landmarks Commission who remarked, “You just can’t fly off the handle with people who can make or break you.”
The bulldozers were firing up again in spring of 1973, and the Post-Dispatch reported that Kenneth Brown had his sights set on seven buildings in the Square formed by Park, Missouri, MacKay and Hickory. He approached the Landmarks Commission for approval and Mr. Grady and the Commission were able to influence the saving of almost all the structures. As the Post put it, “several commission members asked how Lafayette Square could be restored as a historic district if its pre-Civil War houses were demolished.”
In January of 1974, a grand jury was convened to investigate the St. Louis Building Commissioner. The Post-Dispatch, with Edward Thornton again in the lead, uncovered payoffs by contractors to employees in the inspector’s office. Evidence was discovered of a $9,000 payment from the consulting engineer at the Zayre Plaza Shopping Center. Ken Brown was found to be a party in M&R Contractors, awarded over $200,000 in city contracts for building repairs in the mid 1960s. Most of the awards lacked any competitive bid process. In 1973 alone, it was determined that Brown awarded $140,000 in city contracts to companies owned by his business partner, James Becker.
A steady drip of charges followed Brown now. On May 26,1974, the Post-Dispatch alleged that his building inspectors and field personnel were working no more than 35 hours a week. One admitted to always being done with work by noon. On the same day, the Building Division demolition photographer was fired when it was learned he held a second day job as a theater projectionist.
It must have been frustrating to see the accusations pile up, uncontested, against the building commissioner, without higher-ups taking effective action. It wasn’t until January 1975 that Brown accepted an unpaid one year leave of absence, following indictment by the circuit court on charges of perjury and conflict of interest. The charges were dropped after star witness James Becker cited the fifth amendment in refusing to answer 58 questions. Later, misdemeanor charges were dismissed after the state’s witnesses also refused to testify. A federal grand jury continued to investigate.
Ken Brown hung onto the ropes. He appealed to Mayor Poelker to cut his leave short after the local charges were dropped. Poelker refused. He did express his sympathy for Brown, acknowledging the hardship of being out of work with mounting legal bills. He conceded the difficulty Brown would have finding other employment in what was then a depressed construction industry.
Disgusted with the process, 40 neighborhood organizations demanded his dismissal. Finally, on March 19, 1975, Brown resigned, blaming “bureaucratic politics” for Poelker’s refusal to cut the leave of absence short.
On April 4, 1975, the grand jury issued a federal indictment against Kenneth O. Brown for mail fraud and extortion.
It came out during testimony that Brown used funds earmarked for administration to purchase office furniture and eight new city automobiles. Property rehabilitation money was found to have been paid almost entirely to a single contractor, who charged as much as $4,000 for $700 of work.
And then came August, with Edward Thornton still in hot pursuit of the full story. It seems there was a paramour, Alma Rednour, who accompanied Ken Brown on trips to Las Vegas, Miami, and to his Colorado condominium from 1966 through 1972. This was busy work, as Brown also was married with eight children. Alma lived rent-free in an apartment at the fashionable Mansion House downtown. This accommodation tested Brown’s ingenuity.
Brown approached a friend, the owner of Reliance Construction in 1967, suggesting that they get into the demolition business. He assured his friend Reliance wouldn’t have to do any actual demolition – that Richard Thomas would do it, and tell him what to bid and what to charge. Brown then suggested that Reliance pay Alma’s rent at Mansion House with earnings from those demolition contracts.
This constituted extortion, once Reliance sent checks to Mansion House, which it did monthly from 1967 through 1971. As $11,500 in checks were mailed, mail fraud resulted.
On August 30, 1975, Kenneth Brown was found guilty in district court on six counts of extortion and one of mail fraud. Upon the verdict, his wife burst into tears and sobbed inconsolably in the courtroom. Regardless, Brown was sentenced in September 1975 to 21 years in the penitentiary. He appealed, lost and was jailed in September 1976, becoming the first St. Louis City administrator imprisoned for a felony in 50 years.
It could be said that civil service protections make it tough to get a bad apple out, and small-time graft and the court system make it hard to bring a bad apple in, but one should never want to get sideways with the feds. Brown had overplayed his hand with HUD property rehabilitation money.
Federal offense or not, Senator Tip O’Neill’s expression, “All politics is local” seems the most appropriate epilogue to this. Even though federal parole commission guidelines called for a minimum 26 month term for an extortion conviction, Ken Brown was freed after 11 months of incarceration. It happened that former St. Louis politician Curtis Crawford became chairman of the National Parole Board in 1977, and recommended release. He cited the Privacy Act preventing him from disclosure of the reasons for such a premature parole.
Ken Brown faded into obscurity, and Lafayette Square dodged several more bullets on its way to the secure enclave of protected homes it is today. St. Louis has precious few pockets of preservation left – it’s good to know all our bricks didn’t end up in Texas.
Thanks to research sources including:
St Louis Post-Dispatch – Toni Flannery, April 17, 1969; Theodore Link, March 18, 1968; June 11, 1970; Edward Thornton, July 17, 1970; July 24, 1970; July 29, 1970; September 3, 1970; March 21, 1974; March 19, 1975; August 28, 1975; August 30, 1975; Louis Rose, May 26, 1974; January 22, 1975; April 4, 1975; William Freivogel, September 3, 1977. Historic District ceremony photo from July 1, 1972;
United States v Kenneth O Brown; US Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit; Filed August 20,1976; from https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/338466/united-states-v-kenneth-o-brown/