Why They Built the Pruitt-Igoe Project

Alexander von Hoffman
Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University.

St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project is arguably the most infamous public housing project ever built in the United States. A product of the postwar federal public-housing program, this mammoth high-rise development was completed in 1956.

Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project's recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings.

Pruitt-Igoe has lived on symbolically as an icon of failure. Liberals perceive it as exemplifying the government's appalling treatment of the poor. Architectural critics cite it as proof of the failure of high-rise public housing for families with children. One critic even asserted that its destruction signaled the end of the modern style of architecture.

Yet for all the criticisms, little is known about why Pruitt-Igoe was designed as a massive high-rise project in the first place. One popular theory blames the Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, and his influential conception of a modernist city of high rises. Another points to segregationist policies aimed at confining African-American residential areas to the inner city. Perhaps the most widely accepted theory holds that the federal Public Housing Administration's (PHA) restrictive cost guidelines for public-housing construction required the construction of a megalithic high-rise project.

An examination of what really happened in St. Louis, however, reveals that the essential concept of Pruitt-Igoe arose from the desperation of civic leaders to save their city by rebuilding it, a bricks-and-mortar type mayor who sang "I'll take Manhattan," and an ambitious young architect with no place to go but up.

As they surveyed their city at the end of World War II, St. Louis's business and political leaders had reason to be anxious. The city was one of only four in the United States to have lost population in the 1930s. In 1947 the City Plan Commission devised a comprehensive physical plan to bring people back to St. Louis. The plan designated the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood, the eventual site of Pruitt-Igoe, as "extremely obsolete" and provided detailed site plans for its reconstruction. The commission proposed clearing the area and constructing "two- or three-story row type apartment buildings" and a large public park.

The election of Joseph Darst as mayor transformed these plans. Elected in 1949, Darst typified the new breed of big-city mayors who came to power in the postwar period. These mayors distanced themselves from the old-style political bosses and looked for support from downtown business interests. They campaigned for the revival of their aging cities and promoted large-scale physical building programs that included highways, airports, and especially downtown and neighborhood redevelopment. Darst, in particular, considered the low-rise projects built by his predecessors to be ugly. Instead, he greatly admired the new high-rise public housing projects that New York mayor William O'Dwyer had shown him on a visit to that city.

Under pressure from Darst to move forward, in January 1950 the St. Louis Housing Authority revived the City Plan Commission's redevelopment scheme for the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood. Meanwhile architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki -- who had been hired at Darst's insistence -- persuaded the authority to adopt modernist-style high-rise designs for public housing. The first of these was Cochran Gardens, which later won architectural awards. This was followed by a much larger-scale plan for Pruitt-Igoe which, when completed, contained 2,870 dwelling units in 33 eleven-story buildings.

These structures were no anomaly. Instead, the Pruitt-Igoe project was the product of a larger vision of St. Louis government and business leaders who wanted to rebuild their city into a Manhattan on the Mississippi. Other redevelopment schemes of the time, for example, placed middle- and high-income residents in buildings that actually rivaled Pruitt-Igoe in height and scale.

There is, moreover, no evidence that redevelopment plans intended to make an all-black, all-poor enclave at DeSoto Carr, which had been a poor area housing both whites and blacks before it was razed. An early scheme would have produced a majority of middle-income black residents. The final plan designated the Igoe apartments for whites and the Pruitt apartments for blacks. Whites were unwilling to move in, however, so the entire Pruitt-Igoe project soon had only black residents.

Nor is there any truth in claims that PHA cost limits forced the authority to increase the project's scale. On the contrary, building contractors inflated their bids to the point that public-housing construction costs in St. Louis were 60 percent above the national average. When the PHA would not raise its unit cost ceilings to accommodate the contractor bids, the city responded by raising densities, reducing room sizes, and removing amenities.

Ultimately, the massive, destructive, and expensive effort at redevelopment that produced Pruitt- Igoe failed to stem or even noticeably slow the city's decline. From 1950 to 1970, the city's population fell by 234,000 people, and its share of the St. Louis metropolitan area's population plummeted from 51 percent to 26 percent. This sad fact adds what may be the largest failure to the formidable list of failures associated with Pruitt-Igoe: even if it had been built as proposed, Pruitt-Igoe, the child of a grandiose vision that failed, probably would have failed anyway.

Alexander von Hoffman is an urban historian. This piece is excerpted from his working paper, "Why They Built Pruitt-Igoe." For information on how to order the paper, visit the Taubman Center Publications Page.

Photographs of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project and its destruction in 1972.

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