Carla Alexander had high hopes for the historic building that once housed her grandmother’s grocery in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood.
The store was a hub for the community, and Alexander wanted to make it that way once again. She dreamed of bringing the vacant store back and also creating a learning center for teenagers and a home for senior citizens.
But around noon Thursday, while Alexander was composing letters to solicit donations, she heard a loud series of crashes and felt the building shake.
The store had collapsed in the day’s high winds.
“We just didn’t get enough money in time,” she said.
Alexander tried to get out through her back door, but a pile of bricks blocked her exit. Firefighters had to rescue her through a window. During the rescue, an exterior brick wall on that building crumpled.
“It’s a blessing she wasn’t harmed,” said Alexander’s husband, Miguel.
Acting St. Louis Battalion Chief James Morgan said the three buildings on what is known as Tillie’s Corner at Garrison and Sheridan avenues on the city’s north end have been condemned.
The Alexanders planned on staying with a neighbor for the night but weren’t sure what would become of the property.
“This is our passion,” Carla Alexander said.
An application to the National Register of Historic Places was pending in Washington, and Alexander expected to hear good news any day. That news, she hoped, would lay the groundwork for raising an estimated $750,000 to revitalize the store along with the building next to it, where the 51-year-old lived in an upstairs apartment with her husband.
Alexander’s grandmother Lillie Pearson bought the grocery business for $246 in 1948 and operated it for the next 40 years, also acquiring the two buildings on either side of the store during that time.
Pearson hired kids from the neighborhood, issued credit to residents and delivered food to home-bound seniors.
Pearson died in 2006. The three buildings had since fallen into disrepair. Alexander said it was her grandmother’s dying wish to revive them. So for the next several years, Alexander devoted herself to the project.
The property got the attention of state historical authorities, who said it was significant for Pearson’s pioneering status as a female business owner, the longevity of the business and the store’s representation of a small, black-owned neighborhood business.
Alexander’s efforts picked up steam in 2010 when Washington University students took on Tillie’s Corner as a research project. More than 20 students researched the property’s history, forming the basis for the application to the National Register. A listing on the National Register can help defray renovation costs through tax credits.
But the couple suffered a setback last summer when the southernmost of the three buildings collapsed.
Alexander thinks the drought, followed by heavy rain contributed to the damage. Structural engineers had told her the other buildings might not make it through the winter. She started to worry Wednesday night when the wind picked up.
“All night long, I was hoping and praying this wouldn’t happen,” she said.
Morgan, the battalion chief, said it appeared a wall on the previously collapsed building fell on the structure that used to be Pearson’s store.
Firefighters had closed down the street with police tape to keep people away from the structure — much of which was a pile of bricks, insulation, lumber and tar paper.
Alexander made it out of her home with only the clothes on her back. She said that firefighters told her not to go back inside. She feared most for what would become of all her grandmother’s artifacts, such as an old meat scale, bubble gum machine and photographs. There were also video and audio recordings of Pearson.
“It was history in one neighborhood,” she said.