It all started with a little old lady's house and a few red signs.
In the suburban St. Louis town of Kirkwood, Mo., 80-year-old Helen Ballard's 1924 Tudor revival was being sold to a developer with plans to tear it down for a larger house.
It was the last straw for neighbors like Tad Skelton, who had watched eight houses fall for new ones in one of the town's two national historic districts. Skelton and others planted red plastic signs in their yards, protesting the teardown trend. Today 550 front yards in the town of 27,000 display the "Protect Historic Kirkwood" signs.
"They misled the woman. That's what really put people off," Skelton says. "Instead of one letter to the local newspaper, these signs were there day after day. You couldn't forget about it."
On Nov. 14, in response to the signs, the Kirkwood Landmarks Commission designated the Jefferson-Argonne historic district a local historic district, which protects its houses with a nine-month demolition delay. Now the city council is discussing a new ordinance that limits the size of houses in relation to their lots.
At least 10 of the 140 houses have been torn down or "seriously altered" in Skelton's neighborhood, which became a national historic district four years ago, according to Pat Jones, chair of the Kirkwood Landmarks Commission.
"Finally they tore one down that got the neighborhood concerned enough to ask [for] a local historic district," Jones says. "They took the bull by the horns and did it."
Five of 77 houses in the town's other national historic district have been lost or altered in the past four years, Jones says.
Established in 1853, Kirkwood has many walkable neighborhoods and "a strong sense of civic pride," says Esley Hamilton, preservation historian at the St. Louis County Parks Department. "They've always had a weak ordinance that didn't really keep buildings from being torn down. They've never been able to get the city council to pass a stronger ordinance, but this [protest] changes the entire political climate of the city. Now it's obvious that there's a large and vocal group that does want preservation protection."
Although Ballard's house was demolished in August and a 4,000-square-foot house is under construction in its place, the town has changed, Skelton says. "The most amazing thing is that this started with 10 signs."
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