Architect, Landscape Architect, Urban Designer, Land Use Planner, Environmental Observer

Monday, December 26, 2016

"Flounder" Houses of St. Louis, Missouri

Let’s first get something straight: the famous flounder house style in St. Louis did not originate out of an attempt to trick the tax man into thinking a house was incomplete, therefore lowering a homeowner’s bill. 

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But what the distinctive, fish-shaped housing style does represent is a unique moment in the 19th century in St. Louis when vernacular architecture thrived in the city.

Originating in the period during and in the decades after the Civil War, the flounder style house took its name from the profile of the building when observed from the street or alley. In some people’s eyes, the tall, right triangle roof line took on the shape of a flounder, a species of fish with a similar profile. In more technical terms, flounder houses possess shed roofs, in which a roof angles down from a taller exterior wall to a parallel, shorter wall. Unlike more complicated roof types, like a gabled or hipped roof, the shed roof common to a flounder simply required carpenters to lay roof rafters from one wall to the other, eliminating the need for a more complicated ridge or hip structure. Likewise, the shed roof allowed for a house to be built right on the property line without worrying about issues of drainage affecting a neighbor.

But of course in St. Louis architecture, nothing is ever that simple, and the flounder style of construction developed numerous, fascinating variants around the city. 

shed roof version with side upper balcony

shed roof version with attached wood addition

hipped roof version

hipped roof version with stone base

Consequently, the Cultural Resources Office, a department of the St. Louis Planning and Urban Development Agency, has begun the process of documenting all of the flounder houses in the city. Leading the effort is Jan Cameron, Preservation Administrator; so far she and her staff have identified at least 260 flounder houses and variants throughout the city. Logically, most are located within the heart of 19th-century St. Louis, east of Grand, but the style has also been found in what would have been the rural outskirts of the city back then.

Besides the traditional flounder house, Cultural Resources has identified variations on the original simple shed roof. Some flounders have a gabled roof, but then mysteriously, only one side of the gable is complete and the other side is only constructed half way to its logical completion. Originally, on many examples of this style, there was an open gallery (now filled in on many houses) that completed the gable roof. Likewise, and arguing against simplicity being the sole reason for flounders, some houses of this style have a gambrel or hipped roof.

Why does this matter? For a city such as St. Louis that constantly emphasizes its prosperity and influence during the 19th century, surprisingly little of the built environment from the 1800s as a percentage of the total building stock of the city survives. Swept away primarily by urban renewal or replacement by early Twentieth Century construction, the buildings remaining from the decades around the Civil War are treasured reminders of what St. Louis used to be.

Unfortunately, because of their age, abandoned flounders often suffer from severe neglect and deterioration, placing their fate in jeopardy. Just recently, a flounder in the Gravois Park neighborhood was lost due to its ostensibly advanced disrepair. Likewise, muddling with inappropriate siding, such as a well-preserved but abandoned flounder on Utah in the Benton Park West neighborhood, makes preservation more difficult. After all, who would want to save such an “ugly” building? But fire insurance maps reveal that under the white asphalt siding is a brick flounder, certainly worth saving.

Perhaps another motivation for saving these 19th-century houses (and this author has covered other endangered houses from the 1800s before) revolves around the relative simplicity of these houses. Not particularly large, and frequently placed right along the property line, the flounder opens up significant space for gardens and other outdoor activities on a relatively small city lot. Their small, efficient design, often with a party wall, should prove desirable to those looking to save money on utilities. Ultimately, Cameron and Cultural Resources hope to submit the flounder style to the National Register, opening up the possibility of tax credits for owners who renovate these distinctive houses. And more importantly, this unique and rare housing style will receive the respect it has long deserved.

Finding St. Louis' Famous Flounder Houses

by Chris Naffziger 
St. Louis Magazine
March 4, 2015

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