Posted on February 16th, 2014 3 comments
The editor of St. Louis At Home asked me to dig into the real life locations depicted on the Showtime series Masters of Sex. See the Masters of Sex St Louis At Home article. Also available on-line without the photos.
Here we recap the article’s content with room to spread out, and add more engrossing details uncovered during the research process.
The series opens in December 1956 with the newly-divorced Virginia Johnson interviewing for her eventual position as Dr. William Masters’ assistant. Master’s office is in Maternity Hospital, shown as a handsome Art Deco hospital of white stucco. That was the first instance of TV separation from St. Louis reality, for the 1926 Maternity Hospital still stands today inside the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex.
Dr. Master’s office and practice was on the 3rd floor of this building, and other than the exterior facade and some molding and terrazzo flooring touches at the entrances, everything has been remodeled countless times since the 1950s. Very little about Master’s and his ground-breaking work remains within the record books of the hospital or Washington University. Local theory is that ultra-conservative St. Louis academia still finds it offensive to acknowledge his pioneering sex studies. Though his last name does make the list of blocks inside the circular wall of this outdoor smoking lounge in front of the building (below).
Still with the first episode, we see Dr. William Masters and his wife Libby living in an exquisite mid-century modern ranch home, which for 1956 would have put them on the cutting edge of St. Louis modern design, something a successful doctor could afford to indulge in. Meanwhile single-mother-of-two Virginia Johnson is shown living in one side of a 2-story, stucco duplex. Other than some more stucco (St. Louis just doesn’t have the climate for it), this type of living arrangement for Virginia is logical. So are these homes based on their real life domiciles, and if so, where are they?
Episode 2 of Masters of Sex really lit a fire when they gave an establishing exterior shot of a local brothel (above). But it was a bit disconcerting that this was the 3rd or 4th time that wood clapboard homes were shown as the norm. Even to the distracted eye, St. Louis is a brick city – we don’t see wood siding as a constant until the post-WW2 suburbs. And it’s a cinch that a whorehouse would have to be inside St. Louis City boundaries, where a home of this type would be very rare.
I was distracted with these type of architecture geek thoughts when the thoroughly engaging prostitute character Betty DiMello revealed that the sex study had moved “to a cathouse on Third & Sutter.” I waited for the episode to end before digging into maps of both St. Louis and East St. Louis, where there is no such intersection. So exactly where was this whorehouse?
It was now time to dig into the source material for the TV show, the 2009 book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love by Thomas Maier. It’s a factually dense book that easily moves you forward with anticipation. And this book sent me into obsessive research mode, deciphering fact from TV fiction.
As the first season unfolded, it was addictive to figure out how the show’s creators and writers took the original and transformed it into an episodic drama. How a one-off sentence in the book becomes a story-arc, or how two different real life people are melded into one character with a completely fictitious yet fascinating backstory.
One of the most revelatory differences between fact and artistic license is the home of Dr. William and Libby Masters. The viewer gets a distinct Mad Men vibe from their clean-lined, suburban mid-century modern ranch home. Maier’s book describes their real-world house as a “brick two-story Colonial” in “Ladue, an affluent suburb of St. Louis.” And here is their former home, built in 1934:
The show’s producers made a conscious decision to place William & Libby in a new, atomic age home. They also added an infertility problem to their marriage, whereas in real life, they had two children by 1953. But one fact did remain intact: Libby & Bill did sleep in separate twin beds! (And here’s a gossipy fact: they installed an in-ground pool to this home in 1967, and the neighbors were scandalized to see Virginia Johnson lounging by it while Libby was out of town.)
Other deviations from fact to television fiction include:
• There’s no Provost Scully (as portrayed by Beau Bridges); he’s a combination of a few men at Washington University, including Chancellor Ethan Shepley.
• There’s no real-life prostitute Betty DiMello, which means it’s unlikely anyone ever called Dr. Masters the “alpha dog of coochie medicine.”
• Dr. Ethan Haas and Gene The Pretzel King are made up characters (so there is no Gus’ Pretzel connection to Masters & Johnson, sorry)
• St. Louis has yet to have a Rialto movie theater (so the entirely fictitious Dr. Austin Langham never banged the entirely fictitious Margaret Scully in a car parked in front of it)
• St. Louis never had a Gardell’s, described in the show as a “nightclub in Coontown” (though senior citizen St. Louisans can tell you the rough whereabouts of the part of town once referred to by that wince-inducing moniker).
• St. Louis never had a Commodore Hotel where gay male prostitutes set up shop. There were plenty of other gay haunts in the City during that time period (like the Grandel Square Hotel once at 3625 Grandel Square; the Golden Gate bar on Olive Street and Entres Nous on Pine Street), so the creators appear to have condensed that St. Louis scene into one convenient package.
According to Maier’s research, there was most definitely a cathouse where Dr. Masters conducted research. He writes about how St. Louis Chief of Police H. Sam Priest protected Masters (who delivered their second child) so he could conduct studies in local brothels. Chief Priest and his detectives found willing candidates among prostitutes and made sure they were not busted in the weeks before and after the testing.
Maier writes, “Between 1955 and late 1956, Masters expanded his study in such St. Louis neighborhoods as the Central West End to interviews with call girls in other American cities, such as Chicago, Minneapolis and New Orleans.”
Ah ha! We have a locale on the brothel!
But it’s not like old City Directories are going to list them as such, or old newspapers are going to report any fine details about raiding them. And since I had other questions needing clarification, I reached out to Thomas Maier, who was refreshingly friendly, helpful and prompt in his replies.
As learned from Maier, the Masters of Sex producers have yet to visit St. Louis, which explains the architectural discrepancies. While filming the pilot, the producers found a mid-century home in Huntington, NY that they liked, and later reproduced it on Sony’s Hollywood lot. An old wing of the Jamaica Hospital in Queens, NY stood in for Maternity Hospital. And even though the scenes set on the Washington University campus looked authentic, it’s actually the former Guggenheim estate in Long Island, NY.
He also only knows the general location of the whorehouse as Central West End. Dang it!
I am a life-long, ardent participant in the suspension of disbelief that is Hollywood. But the first season’s episodes aired while I was deeply consumed by Maier’s book and my research, and I found myself second-guessing and dismaying over the deviations from Masters & Johnson’s actual story. Which kinda killed my buzz – totally of my own doing. But it did not keep me from watching and thrilling to every episode, it only clarified that I need to apply more effort to maintain my Hollywood vs. Reality balance.
And the producers’ decision to put Dr. Masters in an MCM ranch did eventually pan out in real life:
Above is the home, built in 1951, that Bill & Gini (since we got this far, it’s OK to use their nicknames, right?) moved into after they were married in 1971. Oh please oh please let the series go on long enough to get to that soap opera plot twist!
Anyway, this home became a place for their more famous or notorious clients to stay for therapy, avoiding possible detection at the more public Reproductive Biology Research Foundation office at 4910 Forest Park Blvd. (long-since torn down). From the book:
The Ladue house on South Warson Road was more contemporary than most, sheltered by tasteful plantings that shielded activity from the street. Upon entering, guests walked into a vestibule and could follow one of two ramps – to a spacious dining room and kitchen on one side, and to several bedrooms on the other, including the master suite with two king-sized beds placed together. In the back of the house were a large terrace, a kidney-shaped inground pool, and a stable with enough surrounding acreage for Johnson’s daughter, Lisa, to ride her horse. When Cindy Todorovich later bought the South Warson house, she found a secret panel with a peephole. “I’m not saying there was anything kinky going on, but maybe it had something to do with their research,” she recalled.
The book also has some fun facts that seriously need to go into the series.
The apartment building shown above is where Dr. Masters’ mother, Estabrook, moved to after she was widowed. The child abuse and transformation of his mother’s personality as shown in the series is true. What also needs to be shared is that the staff of Masters & Johnson’s Repro Bio office often spent their lunch hours at Estabrook’s apartment on the 8th floor, because it was a nice walk to and from the office. And since she was now privy to the details of their work, she helped out by sewing silk masks for study volunteers to wear to protect their anonymity.
So Where’s the Brothel?
I made endless inquiries to pinpoint the locale of this place (or places). Librarian friends at both the St. Louis City and County libraries worked on it (along with providing assistance in digging up old phone book and directory information – thanks Adele!), and I followed all leads about anyone who knew a cop or a friend who had brothel info.
Elder St. Louisans mused that a brothel in St. Louis city couldn’t have existed for very long without being busted, and they certainly wouldn’t have been in such luxurious quarters as shown in the screen cap earlier in this post. And the 1952 book U.S.A. Confidential by Jack Lait & Lee Mortimer verified that there was an “overpopulated harlot population” in St. Louis, including “a lot of call-girls” moving “into the new Ford Apartments.”
It was the friend of a friend who verified that a city brothel just wouldn’t be all that glamorous. Roland Kulla is a St. Louis native now living in Chicago, and he shared the following memories and photos from when he lived in the eastern border of the Central West End:
“I lived at 3850 Olive St. near the Vandeventer Ave. intersection, from 1947-1954. The street was very busy then – lots of shops, and bars and a small department store across the street, the streetcar line ran down Olive. We lived in an apartment above my uncle’s bakery, Sausel’s (new-born Roland is shown with his family in front of that bakery, above) where my father worked. Stories about the brothel next door at 3848 came from my mother, as I was too young to know.
“The buildings on that corner formed a courtyard in the back. You came through a yard to get to the back door. Our back doors were right next to each other – although there was a wooden fence between them (photo below). Mom told the tale that sometimes the clients would knock on our door by mistake.
“(The brothel situation) had changed by 1954 when we moved, as there was a legit neighbor there that we were friendly with. The layout of the apartment, which would have been similar to the one next door, was a small bedroom in the front over the stairs. There was a double parlor – the front one with a fireplace – divided by sliding doors. We used both parlors as bedrooms, with the small one used the nursery since there was always a new baby. Beyond that was a hall bath, and then a big dining room that went the width of the building. And then a big kitchen in the rear with two walk-in pantries.”
Roland took the two photos above in the early 1990s. The buildings were completely demolished about 10 years ago, with only The Lighthouse of The Blind building (which formed the east flank of the rear courtyard) remaining on the block.
We are in no way implying or supposing this was the location of Dr. Masters’ laboratory, especially since it was cleaned up prior to beginning his local field studies in 1955-56. It does verify that such places existed, and for long stretches of time, and they were not opulent.
My hope is that I will eventually run across a retired St. Louis City cop who worked under Chief Priest, or had passed-down knowledge of assistance for Dr. Masters, and that so much time has passed they are willing to talk location details. If you’re as curious as I am about finding Bill’s cathouse, and know someone who knows these kinds of things, please let me know. The seedy underbelly of St. Louis was deep and vivid, and in this particular case, led to major scientific discoveries that permanently and positively altered the sexual landscape. If those brothel buildings still stand, they deserve an historic marker, don’t you think?city of st. louis, mid-century modern residential, set design, st. louis county, st. louis history dr. william masters, masters of sex, showtime, st. louis at home magazine, st. louis maternity hospital, st. louis sex research, st. louis whorehouse, thomas maier, virginia johnson, Washington University
Posted on February 9th, 2014 No comments
In a logical and inspiring attempt to help the St. Louis County Library Board of Trustees reconsider their plans for demolition, ModernSTL released this proposal.
It’s a compelling and workable starting point for understanding how the historic mid-century modern building by architect Frederick Dunn can be retained while also gaining the additional space required.
In the past, the Library Board has mentioned a very sound point: Why have we not heard complaint about our plan from the people who actually use this library?
It can be argued that the Board has been rather stingy with engaging the public on what they want or prefer for this (or any) branch. They have instead repeatedly cited voter mandate. But that tax issue was about the funding of the entire scope of the plan and the system’s needs. It’s doubtful that the majority of those voters gave their consent based specifically on “Yeah, tear down Lewis & Clark, will ya?”
At the event where ModernSTL shared the proposal for adding onto the library, residents who live next to and use the library decided to speak up against the Board’s plans, and ask for them to save it.
A letter writing campaign at the end of 2013 did result in the Board sending out a form letter in response to each postcard. They were very polite, but made it clear they are not budging from their original plan. So let’s try a new way to engage them to reconsider – please sign the petition if you agree they should at least reconsider saving their only significant building.
Keep track of all the love shown for the building and the fight to save it on the Save the Lewis & Clark Library Branch Facebook page.
Posted on January 21st, 2014 4 comments
January 16, 2014 – It was a glorious moment in time for St. Louis mid-century modern architecture, the opening reception for Suburban Modernism: The Architecture and Interior Design of Ralph & Mary Jane Fournier. The Morton J. May Foundation Gallery at Maryville University was so crowded that people were gently perspiring on a cold night. Retired architect/full-time painter Ralph Fournier (below) was bombarded with well-wishers, though he had a more personal and private viewing of his legacy with close friends and family earlier in the week.
We’ll talk details of the exhibit that you must see before it closes on February 22nd. But, first, I want to trace the outlines of the story that made this moment in time so overwhelmingly glorious.
The Origin Story
Two residents of Ridgewood – the subdivision that straddles the boundaries of Webster Groves and Crestwood, MO – were inspired to track down and talk with the architect of the homes they lived in from this November 2007 St. Louis magazine article about Ralph Fournier. Nathan Wilber and architect Neil Chace (both officers on the board of ModernSTL) met Fournier, and that is their story to tell. Then they began this blog about Ridgewood.
One of our early dreams at ModernSTL was to celebrate Fournier’s work with walking tours of the many mid-century modern subdivisions he helped design with builder Burton Duenke, and – here was the big, wild dream – make a documentary of his work and his life. We toyed with the loose tooth of the idea, and on July 3, 2011, Neil, Nathan and myself did this:
That’s Neil (left) and Nathan at Ralph’s home going over piles of his archived materials that he kindly pulled out of deep storage for us to pour over. See that look on Nathan’s face? That’s how we felt for the entire 2.5 hours that Ralph let us ask him endless questions while trying not to gush over a man we consider a rock star of the highest magnitude.
Along with Ralph’s candor, patience and excellent memory for detail, I was overcome by the walls of his home. Everywhere are his paintings and drawings, they’re even stacked up in piles on the floor. You can trace the continual evolution of his style that began when he retired in 1989 and made a full-time commitment to painting, with stops at portraiture, landscape, spiritual and travel scenes. The only thing absent in his gallery is architectural paintings, because he’d done that for over 40 years – there is so much more he needs to express.
We told him of our idea to make a documentary of his life and work, and not only did this unassuming man agree to take the journey, but – wait for this – he let us walk out of his house with those large piles of his architectural history!
After we left his company, we stood dazed with disbelief on the sidewalk in front of his house. He had graciously shared his work and personal life with us, which made us realize that his life story perfectly summarized America’s mid-20th century: A young man who worked in an east coast factory, went to college, got drafted into World War 2, came home to finish school on the G.I. bill and started working as an architect right when America desperately needed new homes to handle the Baby Boom ( he and his wife, Mary, included). His story needed to be told.
We divvied up the pile amongst us, and spent the next few weeks scanning everything so we could safely return them to Ralph. Making a documentary is a giant task rendered gargantuan when those inspired to do so have no experience or skills with producing one. So the idea had a long germination period as we explored resources for making it happen. And we felt an urgency to do this because Ralph was 91 years old at the time. He had to remind us of this because we didn’t believe or comprehend it!
Near the end of 2012 a fairy godmother appeared to magically make the documentary happen. Jessica Senne, AIA, NCIDQ, is a professor of Interior Design at Maryville University. She had the desire and resources to not only make the documentary, but it would be just one part of a larger exhibition she would stage of Fournier’s work. She shared her vision, and we loved it. We turned over the scanned files of Ralph’s work and set the wheels in motion for Jessica to meet Ralph and help cement her exhibit ideas.
Jessica and her team of student volunteers and college faculty worked diligently throughout 2013 to procure funding for the exhibit, and to program and build all the pieces of the exhibit and documentary by the January 13, 2014 deadline. The effort and labor of love that went into that is her story to tell. What she and her crew accomplished is magnificent!
The exhibit Suburban Modernism is masterfully laid out to convey the width and depth of Fournier’s architectural contributions to St. Louis. The story is told through Ralph’s own drawings and photographs, plus sales brochures and magazine articles as the subdivisions unfolded onto the St. Louis County landscape.
It’s a multi-media gallery, which enlivens the 3-dimensional resonance of residential architecture. Above are drawings made of existing Fournier homes lived in by 3 separate ModernSTL board members. Jessica’s students did a measure and photo of these homes to create the plans, and even built a life-size replica of the wall partition panels used to construct these modular homes, as well as a scale model (below) to show how Fournier’s designs feel.
Along with beautifully framed color renderings on trace paper by Ralph, and modern day color photos of some of his custom designs, they filled the back wall of the exhibit space with replicas and actual copies of Ralph’s art work (below)! You walk away with a clearer understanding of the man who helped make hundreds of affordable, modern homes for St. Louis families, homes that still stand and serve beautifully today.
What makes this installation so exceptional is that it celebrates a residential architect. Modern architectural careers and legacies are primarily based on public buildings, like office towers, museums and government commissions. Architects long ago abandoned the residential design aesthetic championed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles & Ray Eames or Pierre Koenig, to name a few.
Just when America needed a lot of homes real fast is when the majority of talented architects turned their attention to big, visible projects with large budgets. And those are the projects and names usually cited in text books and popular opinion, even in St. Louis.
It’s important to shine a light on a dedicated residential practitioner like Ralph Fournier, someone who genuinely cared about how to make daily life beautiful, pleasing and affordable to young families, and who had the genuine talent to make mass production feel like your personal work of art, even to this very day.
All of these details are expertly and engagingly covered in the video documentary narrated by Ralph Fournier himself. It is currently showing inside the exhibit, and will soon be available for larger consumption. When it’s ready, myself and many others will make sure you get a link to learn and see more about Fournier’s work, philosophies and life.
I walked away from Suburban Modernism with a booklet (available at the gallery), a T-shirt and a poster (available through ModernSTL). I haven’t had this much concentrated swag since mooning over David Cassidy! And I am profoundly grateful to everyone who stayed true to the vision of bringing this body of work to life, and paying respect to the man who generated it. And many a huge thank you to Jessica Senne for making this happen.
You have until February 22, 2014 to experience it firsthand. The Morton J. May Foundation gallery hours are generous, open until 11 pm Monday – Thursday, until 7pm on Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday from 11 am – 11 pm. It’s free, so there’s no excuse to miss it if you have even a passing curiosity about St. Louis’ mid-century modern residential history. If you read this blog, that’s you – so go!
Posted on November 13th, 2013 1 comment
We last checked in with the Strike ‘n Spare Lanes on North Lindbergh in December of 2011. Read about it here. And above is what the property looked like on October 16, 2013. But pull back the lens from this view and here’s the big picture:
I know Spirtas is trying to be clever, but their sense of humor is like a flat keg of beer. Why even bother – they got the job?
And here’s where they were on the first weekend of November 2013. As bad as their humor is, they are an efficient demolition company, so the job is probably clear by this time. But it was bittersweet to traipse around the last remnants, peering into the snack bar kitchen one last time…
There’s still a For Sale sign out front of the property, so are we assuming they’re making the land more desirable for a buyer? If anyone has any info about future plans for this site, please do share in the comments.
6149 Natural Bridge Road in Pine Lawn,MO
And this was the big surprise of fall – the building shown above is completely gone. Well, some remnants remain (below), and the bricks are being neatly palatalized, but essentially, it’s just gone. Here’s a rendering of it back in the day when it was Pine Lawn Bank.
Pine Lawn mayor Sylvester Caldwell put up a billboard at the end of this now-empty block. It reads:
“You Can See the Difference… You Can Tell the Difference. Mayor Sylvester Caldwell Presents… The Pine Lawn Board of Alderman Welcomes… New Retail Development. Coming to Pine Lawn FALL 2013.
JOBS… JOBS… JOBS… FOR THE PEOPLE OF PINE LAWN!!!”
Here’s what the block looked like lately. Seems the bank building, erected in 1920, went first. Here’s a more poetic look from Built St. Louis.
And here’s the latest at the intersection of Natural Bridge Road at Kienlen/Jennings Station Road. I wonder if the very corner building is also coming down. If it’s a clean sweep for new retail, it would make sense to remove it. But I cannot find any information about what the billboard promises, in the news media or on the Pine Lawn website. So some more history of the northern inner ring suburbs just disappears without a second thought. Here’s hoping it’s been demolished for something better.
Posted on October 20th, 2013 4 comments
The St. Louis County Public Library seems determined to demolish the Lewis & Clark branch for a new structure. We need them to reconsider this misguided goal. They can meet all their objectives without tearing down this building. We need to help them avoid making a huge mistake.
The importance of this building was recently covered on DOCOMOMO’s website, featuring killer historical photos of the branch. Next City placed it on the list of 10 endangered modern buildings. And I covered it here when the demolition idea was first touted. Modern-STL has been actively involved since that time in trying to engage the Library Board of Trustees about the importance of this building. Increasingly, it feels like talking to deaf ears.
Come to the Lewis & Clark branch on October 23rd to learn about this building, it’s architect and what we can do to make them reconsider tearing down this building. You can start with the Facebook page. And please join Modern-STL, Esley Hamilton and myself. Event details.
Since we can’t have a face-to-face with the Library Board of Trustees, I’m going public with what I would have shared with them privately - 6 Reasons to Save the Lewis & Clark Library:
1. Don’t Trash Your Legacy
The Lewis & Clark branch is the ONLY significant building left in the St. Louis County Public Libraries arsenal. Important public institutions deserve important buildings – and this is just such an animal. Needlessly trashing your only architectural asset sends the wrong message about learning from, and respecting, history – especially your own.
There will come a day when the County Library will want to celebrate its milestone anniversaries. Lewis & Clark is already a historical milestone at 50 years old. Then comes 75 and 100 years. Look to the St. Louis Public Library system for a template on how that kind of celebration benefits everyone. With this proposed demolition, The County would have no important buildings to celebrate their history because they trashed them.
2. Don’t Trash the History of North County
Lewis & Clark was the first branch built in North County. Great care was taken with making this 1963 building worthy of the burgeoning community it would serve. It was designed with a grace and beauty reflecting the power and aspirations of a new town in a far-flung locale. It was such a pioneering flag plant that the library didn’t erect another North County branch until 1975, letting Lewis & Clark service a rapidly growing community for 12 years.
It being the sole library in NoCo for so long is what makes it an emotional anchor for everyone who grew up there. This is why it’s the only library to make the pages of the popular nostalgia book Cruizin’ North County. New York master planners have no knowledge or interest in the history of St. Louis County (read the entire master plan). It is distressing that the St. Louis County library system also appears to be ignoring this history.
So many other touchstones of North County history have been unceremoniously trashed; the library is an institution that lends weight and importance to the history of the region. Let this one architecturally worthy building represent the history of community and education in North County. Come the 100th Anniversary, you’ll be glad you did.
3. Understand the Difference Between “Old” and Historical
The Library’s Facilities Master Plan document graphs the age of each of their buildings, and bases the needs for demolition for new buildings SOLELY on age (slide above from that Master Plan). They do acknowledge the level of maintenance on all their buildings has been good (and it is). The implication that a new building will solve their future maintenance issues is just absurd.
The Master Plan equates anything over 30 years old as bad. This is a 20th century, developer-driven, irresponsible line of thought that’s oblivious to the rapidly-growing importance of preserving mid-century modernism as the last great period of American architecture.
The Board of Trustees has been educated on the architectural pedigree of the Lewis & Clark building. The importance and benefits of preserving architectural history is a well-documented topic. To continue to willfully ignore that is to willingly court ignorance, which is the opposite goal of a library.
4. Acknowledge the Needs of a Modern Library
Libraries are research-driven environments, and the most shallow research into the needs of the modern library reveals articles in the New Republic and Wall Street Journal about what will keep libraries relevant in these technological times. It’s no longer about having more space to store physical books, but for the existing space to meet new needs. Libraries need to curate knowledge in an age of information overload, and to be a safe and welcoming place for the community to gather.
The Master Plan says Lewis & Clark needs 4,000 more square feet. If – in light of the modern needs of library science – this is still true, why not add it addition to the northeast side of the building? You have the space. An addition would be a way to have your legacy and thrive on it, too.
5. Erect Your New Building Elsewhere
We understand the politics of the voter-approved tax hike; when South County gets a brand new library building so must North County. Agreed. But why does it have to be the Lewis & Clark Branch?
The Flo Valley branch is only one year younger than Lewis & Clark. And more centrally located in NoCo. And is not architecturally significant. This would be a good candidate for an entirely new, state-of-the-art building. The Thornhill Branch (1975) has been pegged for demolition for a new building, as well.
There’s wiggle room in the master plan to meet all of library system’s needs without sacrificing your most prominent historical building.
6. Apply Emotional Intelligence to the Master Plan
The Master Plan that launched the system-wide need for renovations and demolitions repeatedly emphasize how important each library is to its community. But the Planners are from New York City so they fail to recognize the historic and sentimental touchstones of this building in this community. Clinging blindly to this document seems a stubborn stance for bolstering egos rather than community. A successful master plan considers the head and the heart, the numbers and the people who want to be more than statistics bolstering a bottom line.
The County library has only one building that perfectly represents its moment in history with a grace that still inspires the pursuit of knowledge and community. This building presents the County library with an opportunity to one day have their St. Louis City library headquarters moment: past, present and future knowledge all in one admirable package of civic architecture.
The County library has educated us for decades. The Lewis & Clark branch building is their chance for a poignant, teachable moment that inspires pride in the community it serves.
All they have to do is respect it by letting it stand.historic architecture, mid-century modern institutional, north st. louis county, special events, st. louis county demolishing lewis & clark, emil frye, esley hamilton, frederick dunn, lewis & clark branch, Modern StL, moline acres MO, north st. louis county, st. louis county libray, st. louis public library
Posted on August 8th, 2013 11 comments
Since February 1993, I have lived in South St. Louis. In May 1999, I bought a house between the Bevo and Holly Hills neighborhood, where I remain. It’s a Mayberry kind of neighborhood with many residents who’ve lived here more than 40 years; a short, out-of-the-way, one way street, so it’s rather quiet.
Until I switched to paying for lawn mowing, I was the moron on the block with embarrassingly tall grass. I balanced that by being the alley sheriff, picking up never-ending trash that eschewed dumpsters, calling the non-emergency number when things I couldn’t fix went awry. A salvaging neighbor has caused me 2 flat tires from the screws he leaves in the alley between our garages. But it was easy to shake off because the joy far outweighed the annoying.
In Spring 2011, our block experienced a series of home break-ins and a front porch mugging at gun point. I could move or fight back. I bought a home alarm system and joined the Bevo Neighborhood Stabilization team that sprung up in the wake of similar problems all around us. It worked impressively well for pushing back the crime in our immediate area.
But the last two summers have been wearisome. July 4th fireworks go from mid-June to the end of July. The morning of July 5th is war torn, with bomb shards smeared on the streets and smoke hanging in the air. The rest of the time, it’s gun shots in the distance, or sometimes so close you feel a slight vibration. A bullet hole in my roof caused a drastic water leak. Some of those bullets recently killed the clerk at the 7-11 right down the street.
My end of the alley has become a pain in the ass. There’s constant dumpster issues, and people forget to mow/whack the patch of grass between their back fence and the paved alley. It looks like the cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur. I’m tired of alley sheriff duties; if they don’t care, why the hell should I?
This year, some family moved to South St. Louis County, so I’ve been slowly exploring the nooks and closed crannies of the place where Catholic South Siders fled to in the 1950s and 60s. It’s an odd place – they keep quiet, they keep clean and they spend all their time indoors. You seldom see anyone out on their perfect lawns or walking their peaceful streets. It looks like a movie set before the morning crew arrives.
It was heaven to spend a good portion of this 4th of July holiday swimming in a backyard pool in SoCo. The lack of rat-a-tat-tat firecrackers was soothing, the lack of trash a treat. But even before this Zen sabbatical, I had been feeling the stirrings of packing up and moving out of the South Side. Even though it felt like a betrayal, I couldn’t stop feeling it. Why is all this wearing me down now? We had been through much worse in previous years, but now I want to retreat?
June 2013, The Blind Eyes released an EP, which instantly became my summer soundtrack. They are consistently tight, joyous and impressive to my ears. “Armour” is the lead-off track, and after having rocked with it for several spins, I finally listened to the words. And it made me cry. The Blind Eyes had precisely diagnosed my broken South Side spirit. They’d felt it, too.
Here’s the song “Armor” – give it a listen. And here are the transcribed lyrics, some of which I know are wrong, but it hopefully won’t diminish the gist:
Not a second thought when you hear the sound
Of shots ringing out when the sun goes down
Took a little while but we finally learned
A way to fiddle on while the city burned
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
Used to shake it up nearly every day
With those who’ve figured out how to keep the beasts away
Building up a wall but it tumbled down
Never telling when it’s gonna come around
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
It’s hard to let it go
But let it go
The song conjures images of the arson in Benton Park and dead bodies across the entire city. And I cried some more. The Blind Eyes’ music gives the song a bittersweet optimism. Previously, they celebrated my fellow City Dwellers with 2011’s “Hold Down the Fort,” which felt like a rallying cry as we battled demolitions and burglars.
But the personal reveal from “Armour” is that my armor is rusting thin. Instead of bolstering my spirits, this song is like a tearful hug to try and keep me from bolting.
And then on August 3, 2013, the King of South St. Louis – Bob Reuter – died. He literally dropped off the planet, leaving a huge hole in the soul of the South Side. Reuter was a photographic mentor, schooling me about black & white printing and his life during late hours in the Forest Park Community College darkroom. He captured South Side people, I captured its buildings, so there was a common ground, a common passion for a specific place.
I keep picturing his camera, inadvertently abandoned and still, and can’t bring myself to even look at my camera bag, much less go out and continue documenting why this place has such a strong hold on so many of us. Reuter never let anything keep him from his quest to tell stories, to live free. He had the armor to protect his creative spirit. His passing is still too raw to inspire me past this current weakness of spirit.
It’s not like I have the financial means to move, or even a solid plan. It’s just a restlessness and uncertainty, like a wife wondering if there’s a more meaningful life to be had away from her husband, and she’s two steps away from an emotional affair with a co-worker. In this case, my “emotional affair” would be South St. Louis County.
Having these thoughts constantly looping through my heads fills me with guilt and regret, because I can’t help loving the South Side even when it’s callous toward me and brutal to those in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So tonight, I will once again turn on the bedroom fan for white noise to drown out the yelling, the souped-up cars roaring down the street, and the gun shots…
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
Posted on June 27th, 2013 6 comments
Garavelli’s Cafeteria & Banquet Hall
6600 Chippewa, South St. Louis, MO
2013 has not been a good year for restaurant institutions in St. Louis. First Ponticello’s Pizza in Spanish Lake, then Duff’s in the Central West End, and now Garavelli’s.
Just short of 100 years in business, the current owners (of 23 years) have to close due to financial strain. Reportedly, their electric bill ran to $6,000 a month during the ultra hot summer of 2012. They simply can’t afford another summer like that. And their customer base is dwindling due to advanced age.
We’ll get back to the age factor in just a moment. Let’s look at the drive-thru menu (above) objectively. What other convenient drive-thru is going to offer you vegetables like that? Where else can you quickly grab a pork steak and two sides to go for under $10? As of June 28, 2013 the answer is “nowhere.”
Garavelli’s began in 1914, and eventually had multiple locations throughout St. Louis, including DeBalivere in the Central West End and Manchester Road in Rock Hill. This building in St. Louis Hills, on Route 66, went up in 1946, right before the dawn of mid-century modernism as personified by car culture. But in keeping with the rapid ascension of the Auto Age, they installed the drive-thru because they were in a prime motorcade location.
A dear friend (who is under the age of 60), who is beside himself for losing the best fast food ever, aptly describes the place as “very Mildred Pierce.” The 1945 Joan Crawford movie or the recent HBO remake? Take your pick – both apply. But a great description, especially for the pie!
Immediately after World War 2, the early-American, faux Colonial aesthetic still prevailed, and that Mildred Pierce-ness begins in the foyer of Garavelli’s.
There’s been much remodeling over the years, but its essence remains in tact. And whistle clean. The stairs (above) lead to the basement banquet hall. They added a stair lift to accommodate the disabled, along with an accessible ramp out front. It’s easy to make cracks about the age of their clientele – everyone does – but it also makes the place fully accessible to everyone.
And here’s the heart of the Garavelli’s experience – the food, the glorious food, served cafeteria-style!
OK, let’s talk about the aging issue.
Cafeteria-style dining has been fading from favor for the past 30 years, with Garavelli’s being one of the last hold outs. There are still a couple of Miss Sheri’s open, similarly located in parts of town with a large senior population. It’s a 20th century form of dining that has been usurped by car-centric fast food chains.
Modern Americans have overwhelmingly voted with their pocketbooks for fast, convenient cheap crap over sit-down, low-priced real food. The cafeteria is much like blacksmiths and phone booths – there’s just not a vast market for them anymore. And even as a child in the 1970s, my mother would make cracks about cafeterias (which we ate at frequently) being for the elderly because they served a wide variety of small portions. Which is another aspect that dooms cafeterias – we are now a Super Size Nation.
But Garavelli’s is known for their generous portions – almost too large – at ridiculously low prices. Younger folks who have done Garavelli’s tend to disparage the food; depends what you get. They are known for their fish, pork steaks and meatloaf. The sides are always delicious. With such an astoundingly large and ever-changing selection, you’re bound to have a wide scale of hit and miss.
But popular consensus is that they are consistently good. “Good” is an under appreciated quality in a Foodie world. And it’s real food- unfussy, untrendy. Which brings us to a major aspect of Garavelli’s downfall that could have been righted.
Restaurants are all about marketing – marketing your style, your vibe, your cuisine. How many times have we bought into crap because it was so expertly presented? But marketing can only take you so far, which is why the restaurant business is notoriously difficult to succeed in for the long haul. To last 99 years means you had to have the food part down pat.
But somewhere along the way, Garavelli’s lost the marketing instinct. I hear it’s because the current owners are just too darn busy churning out the meals to their loyal customers. The owner said he hasn’t had a vacation in 6 years – that’s exhausting. And facing financial difficulties with maintaining the expected standards, who has time – or money – to invest in marketing? All understandable.
The owner also said that it was impossible to make any changes to the menu, as even the slightest change created an uproar with the steady customers. But their fare is not what needed to change, it was simply a need for some marketing.
In today’s world, marketing can be next-to-free by investing some time in social media. Garavelli’s did start a Facebook page (it’s where they broke the sad news of their closing), but it was not utilized in a consistent or engaging manner, probably because of the age of their majority demographic. But social media is also an opportunity to create a new customer base.
With Garavelli’s heritage, history and reputation, they could have traded on the inherent sentimentality of St. Louis. Draw in those Baby Boomers! And with its authentic mid-century pedigree, draw in the young hipsters. Every demographic is into good food at a great price, especially when there’s a drive-thru in a convenient location. But you have to get the word out.
A good pal of mine (well under 60 years of age) who is a good arbitrator of great places to eat dines there on a regular basis. He is always the youngest man in the room. But he’s kept this culinary paradise a close secret because he didn’t want others catching on and crowding him out. He simply wanted a wide variety of consistently good food at a cheap price available to him without dealing with the PBR Crowd. I truly understand and respect that mindset, but it’s also part of the downfall of Garavelli’s. It needed younger blood to discover its many charms.
When the distress signal went up about Garavelli’s difficulties, ModernSTL was hoping to intervene by hosting events there. Let the large and adventurous St. Louis MCM audience be introduced to an authentic Route 66 experience, and they tell 2 friends, and so on and so on. A form of free marketing. But before the social wheels could be set in motion, the owners had to wave the white flag.
And within days of the news, American Eagle Credit Union bought the place. Reportedly, demolition of the building will happen fairly quick. So not only does St. Louis lose an historic restaurant, we also lose this view:
I’m going to miss this sight – a building that looked like a ship from some angles, a man wearing a fedora from other angles, a new vinyl sign each day tempting you with meals you’re too busy to make for yourself, and that wonderfully Googie sign.
The owners truly intend to carry the recipes to a new location. But let them have a well-deserved rest to recharge their batteries. Thank you for enthusiastically and loyally carrying on the Garavelli’s tradition. And a fond farewell to a St. Louis Hills landmark.
Posted on May 29th, 2013 2 comments
This building always reminded me of Matt Helm, the fictional government counter-agent, as portrayed by Dean Martin. Here’s a taste of The Silencers.
The first in a series of films released in 1966, it became a short-lived TV show in 1975, but the character debuted in book form in 1960. Come 1961, The Magnum Building was erected. Magnum, gun, Matt Helm, mid-century cool = conjuring Dean Martin. Often architecture makes you think random, fanciful thoughts.
The Magnum was surely once a sharp, sophisticated building. Underplayed so as not to call too much attention, but with details that warn of underestimating its lethalityl. By the time it was covered in this Hampton Avenue study, it had obviously seen better days.
Then it caught fire in the summer of 2012, with the kind of drama right out of the pages of a spy novel. It was condemned for occupancy by the fall.
It was sad and disrespectful to watch it deteriorate. Maybe in the last 20 years no one even noticed the building, gray and fading into the street traffic. Now it stuck out because of the bright board-up plywood, like a Sharpie-scrawled sticky paper name tag on a worn-out smoking jacket. It was doomed.
A demolition permit was granted in April 2013. I pass this way frequently and never saw signs of demolition, so it must have crumpled quickly, like Matt Helm retired with a bullet to the gut.
The end of May 2013, it’s a parking lot in the making. A parking lot for what, exactly? The sleek little MCM building to the right remains vacant; does the dry cleaners need more car space? Whatever, it’s weird to see open space in this section of Hampton, veering toward the curve. Farewell to The Magnum Building.
Posted on May 27th, 2013 3 comments
Here’s a good story to end May 2013 Preservation Month.
In 1967, architect Richard Henmi designed the striking building above. Over the decades, it went from a gas station to a pair of taco fast-food restaurants. Then the building went vacant while the Council Plaza it is part of was being revived with help, in part, from Missouri Historic Tax Credits.
Then in 2011 news leaked out that the developer of Council Plaza was seeking permission to tear down “the saucer.” Here was the reaction to the details of politics as usual.
And this is what hundreds of St. Louisans did to protest the intent of the developer and some pockets of the Board of Aldermen. Turns out it wasn’t just meddlesome preservationists who loved this building – most everyone was fond of it and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to demolish it.
Both on the streets and via social media, we made a ruckus and offered up solutions for ways to re-use an iconic piece of St. Louis architecture that already qualified for historic tax credits. Here’s one example of the things we did to Save The Saucer.
The Council Plaza developer changed his mind, refurbished and enlarged The Saucer and found two tenants for it. It’s a true pleasure to drive by and see it hovering over a steady stream of customers. The Saucer’s revival gained plenty of positive national recognition, and in 2013 it earned this high honor from Missouri Preservation:
The award ceremony at the state capitol in Jefferson City, MO was cancelled due to snow in February, and rescheduled for May 7, 2013. That was a happy accident because it felt better to have this celebration during National Preservation Month. A small group of us representing the dozens of people whose passion played a big role in changing the right minds drove down to be a part of the ceremony in the rotunda.
Here is the list of 2013 award winners we are so proud to be included among.
And here’s Randy Vines giving the acceptance speech:
All acceptance speeches that morning made note that Congress was, literally at that moment, voting on the fate of the Missouri Historic Tax Credits. One politician presented the award to his constituents and had to high-tail it off stage to go vote when the bell rang. The irony of it was not lost on anyone.
Everyone had to wait 10 more days to learn that the tax credit remains unchanged. As is the case every year, the battle will surely resume again. I wonder how each politician who on that day handed a preservation award to the building owners voted on the bill.
Here we are in the afterglow of this triumphant chapter of the tale of the saucer. From left to right: Lindsey Derrington, Jeff Vines, Randy Vines, architect Richard Henmi and me.
Here’s some interesting facts about our award:
• This marks the first mid-century modern building to earn this recognition. Along with Ladue Estates on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s with relief and gratitude that we now know Missouri recognizes and values MCM architecture.
• We were the only project that day to have the building’s original architect on hand to accept the award. It’s wonderful that our Modernist architects receive this kind of recognition while they are still here to know how important their contributions are.
• Ours was the only award that day that did not go to the owner of the building.
• Our St. Louis City group was the only one to not have a representing politician speak on our behalf and present the award.
Thank you to everyone at Missouri Preservation for making such a milestone bold choice, ushering in a whole new era of historic preservation. And then they even fed us!
The luncheon gave us the opportunity to explore the state capitol, which is truly magnificent on so many levels. Whenever you may feel overwhelmed by the rancor and confusion of state politics, walk through these halls to instantly feel better about the past, present and future of our state. It perfectly embodies what great architecture does for the soul – it inspires.
Our group wanted Richard Henmi to keep the preservation certificate, and he was respectfully insistent it remain among us all. To that end, the plaque now hangs permanently in the StL Style storefront on Cherokee so that everyone can always be reminded of what they accomplished by loving The Saucer enough to stick up for it. Thank you to Randy (above) and Jeff Vines for giving it the perfect, permanent home.
Posted on April 1st, 2013 8 comments
The Record Exchange at 5320 Hampton Avenue in South St. Louis has put their (nearly historic) building up for sale so they can move to a bigger place. Here’s the sales brochure:
Hilliker gives it only one page. Very dull way to sell an exciting building. I’ve covered this building a few times (including a b&w study from 2001 on this page). It has been covered on Built St. Louis. So the realtor could legitimately say it’s a “much-talked about, much-loved building.”
Another selling point: this building recently made it onto the Final 40 List of the City of St. Louis Mid-Century Modern Survey. The night we attended the public meeting, it got an awful lot of votes. It stands a very good chance of making it to the Top 20 that will receive full documentation of its worthiness.
The owner of the building and the record store, Jean Haffner, knows his 1961 building by architect Joseph H. Senne is pretty special. But he was pleasantly surprised it had made it onto an MCM survey.
It is true they need a bigger place, something “about the size of a grocery store” said Haffner. (Side Note: the FYE at Hampton & Chippewa was originally opened in 1958 as a National Food Store.) They now do the bulk of their business on-line (at this site) and need to be better able to access their inventory while adding to it. Thus, a bigger building.
Have there been any interested buyers?
Haffner says yes. Including a party that would like to turn it into an art gallery as inspired by the metal mobile in the lobby:
This piece is titled “Pomegranate” and was designed for the library by a nationally-recognized artist whose name I was told, but forget. The Record Exchange is an overly stimulating place, so it’s an accomplishment that I remember this much of our conversation.
UPDATE: Thank you to reader Hillary who leaves the name of the artist in the comment – Fred Dreher. And thanks to Sally for this article about Dreher.
According to Mr. Haffner, he made sure it stayed with the building when he bought it in 1999, and at this point, the mobile alone is worth more than the asking price of the building.
They do need to sell the Buder in order to buy a new place. Here’s hoping the perfect buyer who loves the building as is comes along so everyone wins.
P.S. Thank you to everyone who sent messages and photos about the For Sale sign in front of the Buder. It’s impressive to have all these eyes on the street who also have my back and share this kind of information. You’re awe-inspiring!