Posted on July 31st, 2016 No comments
Posted on February 7th, 2016 5 comments
700 Berkshire Blvd at Wood River Avenue
East Alton, IL
On February 4, 2016, word came from Alton Daily News that the former Citizens Savings & Loan was going down. Read the item.
This fanciful cylinder has long-delighted mid-century modern fans not simply because it’s a round building (and people love a round building, yes?) but that it also retains most of its swanky ornamentation and it has a “draw bridge.”
The Citizens Bank building, by architect Alvin K. Stolze, is a rare time capsule of 1964 that inspires retro lust and ideas of what it could be in the future. Learn more about the building here.
The only things missing from the current-day structure is the fountains under the suspension bridge and the yellow and red glass bricks (seen here in the original state) that gave the southern exposure a regimented Mondrian feel.
This detail shot shows the textured glass block and the vandal damage done to it over the years of vacancy. We can also see how the red and yellow blocks were spray painted over, giving the building a crossword puzzle update in the early 2000s. Remnants of yellow and red peek through the slivers when a projectile pierces the facade.
My father, Richard Weiss, installed the non-brick glass on this building (like the entrance shown below) in 1964 when he worked for Rainbow Glass. He explained that brick layers were responsible for the glass block curtain wall, and that, even then, his glazier brethren thought it a folly to use so much glass block for two reasons: there’s no insulation properties and glass block in reach of people will always be damaged, both unintentionally and intentionally.
After the “oh wow” of spotting this building as you drive by, the walk up the bridge to this entrance renders you speechless. This looks like a jet set bar with an under-the-sea theme!
How did the architect sell them on this idea? But bless their progressive hearts for going with it. And thank you to the decades of facilities managers who kept the dream alive.
This bank captured imaginations for over 50 years. Even while discussing why the building is coming down, East Alton mayor Joe Silkwood acknowledges how special it was in this brief podcast chat.
In the podcast, Silkwood says the building sat vacant for almost 7 years and that it became unusable for both market and structural reasons. What to do with a building like this in East Alton is a burden – there’s just no market for adaptive reuse of fanciful mid-century modern buildings. But the structural decay issues were preventable.
I say this because in November 2010 there were 3 of us who came across the building, and we were flipping out with wonder and glee. As we combed every inch of the exterior we found that a basement door was unlocked and slightly ajar, so of course we went inside. While in a state of MCM ecstasy, I found (but don’t remember) a moment of documentarian clarity and recorded this video of a journey through the 2nd floor:
In this video, you will hear the sound of a camera shutter going off. Sharks after chum are not as frenzied as we were in trying to capture as much evidence as possible.
Those are St. Charles metal cabinets, obviously original to the building, and following through on the yellow and red theme of the exterior.
I hope that during their request for demolition phase, East Alton city hall allows for those who know the value of what’s in the building to buy it and cart it off. These cabinets are just one of many treasures that deserve to be saved. A pre-demolition auction for the ornamentation and fixtures would be a sound funds generator while creating property marketing and general civic good will.
While on our adventure, we found a sign that read “Building Closed 1/25/10. Please call Todd Adamitis 618.xxx.xxxx.”
After we exited the building (empty-handed, it must be noted!), we worried about the havoc that could be reeked because of that unlocked door. So one of us made several calls to the phone number listed, letting him know about the situation and why it needed to be addressed. There was no response to those calls.
In November 2010, the building was in an understandably worn state, but completely salvageable. Even though it was unused and uncared for since at least January, there wasn’t even the mold and mildew smell so common in vacant buildings. Its relatively stable state is what fired our imaginations over what could be.
Six years of neglect can take any building past the point of ROI.
Mayor Silkwood mentions that attempts were made to find new owners for the building, but also says, “It wasn’t a practical or useful building.”
After listening to my father detail the problems with “that much glass block,” I agree with the practical part. Bringing it up to modern energy efficiency standards and replacing damaged glass bricks would be very pricey renovation budget item.
I disagree with the useful part. Several miles away, a 1960 MCM bank has been repurposed (stories here), so the local market can handle visionary developers with a love for the mid-century aesthetic. In the right hands, this building could easily live another useful life. It happens all the time.
But let’s look at context. While parts of next door Woodriver, IL are coming back to life, this particular part of town is not yet viable. And there is nothing nearby that would sustain such a bold and costly renovation. The aforementioned Alton Savings & Loan is in a higher density part of town that knows the value of historic renovation and financially benefits from such. But it would be a huge stretch to expect a developer to plunk down the benjamins on a risky round building in this locale. Timing and context make demolition a far sounder fiscal decision.
So now it’s just a matter of saying a proper goodbye to this unique and glamorous bank building. We have from now until late Spring 2016 to document and reminisce, and again, I hope the powers-that-be allow for parts of the structure to find new stewards. If that happens, please be sure to let me know.
Posted on May 30th, 2015 2 comments
May 30, 2005 was the very first B.E.L.T. entry. 10 years later, the title of the maiden post ironically sums up my current mindset about the state of my relationship with St. Louis:
As a person who trends to the positive because it has more power for meaningful change, I’m not comfortable with the cantankerous and curmudgeonly state of mind I’m currently in about my beloved hometown. Rather than prattle on in the negative, I prefer to say nothing at all. This is why new postings have been scarce throughout 2013 and most of 2014, and came to a complete halt after expressing my feelings about #Ferguson in September 2014.
But a 10-year anniversary of a blog is a special thing, especially in the ADD cyber world, so I want to acknowledge my relationships with this blog, this town and the people who have been a part of this journalistic journey. So to quote an overzealous 5th grade classmate who was picked to lead our physical education class for the day: “10 jumping jacks! Ready? BEGIN!”
An Outlet for an OCD Photo Habit
I wanted to be like Julius Shulman, and happily went down that path with several years of serious dark room lurking over black and white film of St. Louis architecture, grand and unassuming (like the example above, of the former Mark Twain Theater in Sunset Hills, MO). Then I got a digital camera. Film vs. digital is the equivalent of espresso vs. cocaine, and I went on an epic bender.
I believe there should be a purpose and/or outlet for creative expression, so felt a burning need to do something with this stockpile of images. This need coincided with blogging going mainstream. I started my first blog, M.E.L.T. in March 2005.
M.E.L.T. was the necessary blogging due diligence and learning curve to get to what really mattered – St. Louis buildings, grand and unassuming. I still clearly remember the joyous moments I discovered Ecology of Absence, Urban Review STL and Built St. Louis. These men and their output were inspiring, fascinating and entertaining. I felt I had something to offer about our town’s built environment that wasn’t covered by them, so it would not be a pale imitation of their work, nor step on their areas of expertise.
A Mid-Century Modern Cheerleader
The launch of B.E.L.T. created a place to share photos and stories of my travels around St. Louis, and beyond. It was also the opportunity to dig deep into the demise of Northland Shopping Center, in Jennings, MO, that had both deep personal meaning and important historical context about mid-century modern architecture coinciding with the development of St. Louis County.
While all eras of St. Louis architecture matter to me, it’s the architecture from roughly 1940 to 1970 that resonates strongest. Those are the photos and stories I shared the most, and the buildings I worried about the most. MCM architecture was too young to yet be properly appreciated by the preservationists and general public, while also being too old for developers and the general public to care about. In 2005, Northland Shopping Center and Busch Stadium were the biggest examples of MCM disregard leading to demolition.
I felt an urgent need on two fronts:
- To call attention to the last important era of American architecture, with the hopes that the preservation communities would catch on and get behind protecting the best examples.
- Photographically capture and share as many of our local examples as I could before they disappeared.
Much to my surprise and eternal gratitude, it wasn’t hard to sell. Turns out there were plenty of St. Louisans who understood and agreed with my agenda. They were generous with information – hipping me to things to check out, or filling in missing details – and enthusiasm.
B.E.L.T. sometimes helped to make it easier for us like-minded folk to protect or celebrate MCM architecture.
Protection-wise, a large group of us went up against an arm of the St. Louis Archdiocese to save the San Luis in 2009. We lost the fight (and the building), but learned valuable lessons about how to handle future threats.
In retrospect, it really didn’t take long for the City of St. Louis to get on board with saving worthy mid-century buildings. One great example: By Spring 2013, Missouri gave us an award in Jefferson City for helping to save the Grand Center Saucer (with the original architect, Richard Henmi, in tow!).
Celebration-wise, a Spring 2010 post about an Atomic Crash party in Indianapolis ended with a question about doing something similar here in St. Louis. The first 4 commenters on this post became founding board members of what became – and remains – Modern STL.
Because of B.E.L.T. I’ve been honored to be invited to take part in symposiums, seminars, lectures, exhibits and documentaries, tours and film screenings (hello Julius Shulman!). And most astoundingly of all, esteemed people who actually are architectural experts because they have the education, experience and encyclopedic minds have repeatedly referred me to as an “authority” on St. Louis mid-century modern architecture.
No disrespect to any of them when I say, “Man, you’re soooooo wrong!” I am not an authority, by any measure. I am only a storyteller who illustrates the tales with photos. I am only a cheerleader for an architectural style that needs proper respect. The beauty of the little big town of St. Louis (and the internet) is the ability to reach the key people who actually can, and do, make a positive difference. To quote Freddie Mercury, “I thank you all.”
But It’s Been No Bed of Roses
By 2013, there was many fine people, blogs and organizations covering St. Louis architecture – and MCM specifically – that my compulsion to cover it relaxed. My slacking blog entries wouldn’t cause any harm because others had the wheel. So I took the time to pursue another lifelong passion – music – and that is an ongoing staple of my free time (shameless plugs: The Remodels & The Jans Project).
Then there was August 9, 2014. On that Saturday, as Michael Brown was shot down in Ferguson, I was about 1.5 miles away in neighboring Jennings, showing someone a street where I once stayed. To an outsider, they were shocked at the state of decay and disrepair of the streets and homes. Seeing it through their eyes – rather than with my typical nostalgia and loyalty to North County – I was stunned and saddened. Later that night, I learned of what happened to Michael Brown, and I was heartbroken.
From that moment on, the events that transpired in Ferguson radically altered my perspective. What was the point of rallying to save a building (the Lewis & Clark Library in neighboring Moline Acres) when the people of North County were in turmoil? Many buildings in Ferguson and Dellwood were sacrificed to the anger. I was compelled to talk about in this post. But in the face of systemic injustice to some of our people, I lost the heart to talk about buildings.
Come November 24, 2014, with the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, I was sickened and in tears as Ferguson and Dellwood burned. It truly felt as if the Powers That Be were purposely letting it be destroyed to make a convoluted point.
Since then, 3 things are really pissing me off:
- Football Is More Important Than You: Governor Jay Nixon – who had to be dragged into inept action about Michael Brown’s death in North County – couldn’t move fast enough to potentially wipe out part of the North City riverfront to build a new football stadium. And telling us that we had no voting rights about partially funding a new stadium because we’re still paying for the current stadium. And this boondoggle trail is already muddied by crooked money. Why is it that every 20 years we have to pony up so a select group can make even more entertainment dollars?
- Special Rules for Millionaires: You are fine-tooth-combed for a car loan, but the City of St. Louis couldn’t be bothered to do a credit check on Paul McKee before giving him unprecedented land-massing allowances and tax breaks. McKee is defaulting on multi-million dollar loans on his North City properties. Ecology of Absence uncovered and reported the details of McKee’s disregard for North Side people and property several years before City Hall issued the free pass to supposedly redevelop it. Unfortunately, history and truth is never as important as continually forcing upon us underperforming Silver Bullet Solutions.
- Causing Destruction to Save You: The City of St. Louis is lobbying to demolish occupied North Side homes and businesses so the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency might remain in the city because, supposedly, the NGA’s tax money and employment is more important than that which is already there. Why not 2-bird-1-stone it and use the vacant Pruitt-Igoe site for this project? Or is that not owned by Paul McKee?
And Enough Already!
These are the St. Louis thoughts that lately occupy my mind. This is why it’s better I say nothing at all. Anger and criticism is easy to cave into, but it leaves me feeling inappropriate and rotting, a disillusioned Pollyanna.
There are St. Louis built environment happenings that are surprising and cool. For instance, the Northwest Plaza redevelopment is, so far, an interesting balance of original buildings with new construction and uses (above, under construction, April 2015). And all the modern in-fill housing and mixed-use buildings slated to go up around The Grove in South St. Louis is life affirming. Jennings called a quick halt to Family Dollar wanting to take down a Frederick Dunn church on West Florissant, and then found another tenant for the church.
But I can’t muster the energy to cover those things. I’m trying to muster up the courage to photographically cover the demolition of the Lewis & Clark Library (being dismantled, above, April 2015), and reeling from the irony of the failed effort winning an award. I don’t know if I have it in me to watch another beloved and worthy building go down needlessly, much less share the story with others. It’s probably best to just grieve in private, over this and all the other St. Louis people and places that trouble me. I count on this being a momentary phase, please.
Some Stats, Acknowledgements & Forecasting
In 10 year, there have been 437 B.E.L.T. entries (or 438, counting this one). Google Analytics reports these are the Top 10 most-read posts:
- A White Flight Tour Up West Florissant Ave. to #Ferguson and North St. Louis County
- Masters of Sex: St. Louis Reality vs. TV Depiction
- Urban vs. Rural
- Sneak Peek: Downtown St. Louis Sculpture Garden
- Top of the Towers
- Inside the Top of Tower Restaurant
- Mid-Century Modern For Sale in Old Town Florissant
- Overland, MO Mid-Century Modern
- Southern Funeral Home For Sale
- CWE Mid-Century Modern: Lindell Boulevard
Here are the Top 10 posts with the most comments from readers. Only 3 overlap with the most-read, so can we conclude these are of most interest to us locals? (Note: I disabled comments on the West Florissant White Flight post to avoid the hatred. People still found ways to get ‘em in, though.)
- Top of the Towers
- One More Walgreens Will Surely Complete Our City
- Overland, MO Mid-Century Modern
- Sunset Hills Teardown, Revised
- 2 More Gasometers Coming Down
- Northland Shopping Center Artifacts
- Tear Down Jamestown Mall
- Rossino’s Italian Restaurant
- Inside the Top of Tower Restaurant
- Barely There: St. Louis Hills Office Center Update
And this would be the only time I get to indulge as such, so off the top of my head – in no particular order – are 10 of my personal favorite posts:
1. Hampton Avenue Mid-Century Modern
2. North County MCM: Independent Congregational Church
3. Heavenly Mid-Century Modern: The Union Memorial United Methodist Church
4. Personal Architecture: Northland Day Nursery School
5. Shutters – Why?
6. The Doors of St. Louis Hills
7. Harris Armstrong, South Side
8. MILESTONE: Mid-Century Modern Subdivision on Missouri’s National Register of Historic Places
9. Unnerving Florissant Modern
10. The Dorsa, “The Ultimate in Mode Moderne”
St. Louisans are so heart-warmingly generous with information, and love to share their knowledge. Along with post comments, I have received so many wonderful emails from so many helpful people. To everyone who provided pieces of the puzzle, thank you a million times for caring and sharing.
B.E.L.T. also made it possible to meet so many amazing, enthusiastic people who care deeply about St. Louis, and I’m eternally grateful for those that became good friends and fellow adventurers. So many of these posts double as a personal scrapbook of good times I had with great people.
Thank you to any organization or publication that bestowed an award upon B.E.L.T. and/or its author. That’s way cool. And to all the journalists who asked for my thoughts or assistance, thanks for believing St. Louis buildings are newsworthy.
As for the future… I bet I post again. Like I said, I hope the “you kids get off my lawn!” phase is a temporary affliction. And I am exploring the world of podcasting. The St. Louis built environment would definitely be a reoccurring topic, providing a chance for you to hear from some of the St. Louisans who’ve enriched my blogging experiences.
And thank you for being a part of the past 10 years. It was pretty kick ass!
Posted on September 7th, 2014 4 comments
St. Louis is a racist town. Historically and culturally, it is a part of our heritage. Our built environment provides visual proof of this racism. The only thing surprising about the resentful segregation that has boiled over and blown up in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 is that it took this long to do so.
The Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown is inexcusable and heartbreaking. This piece is inspired by my sorrow over Michael Brown’s tragic fate, and the intense feelings conjured while watching the aftermath unfold on the familiar streets of what was once my home and to those it belongs to now.
Because it’s what I do, half this piece deals with the topic through photos of our buildings. This architecture tells the story of St. Louis’ northern expansion from urban to suburban, from white to black. It illustrates St. Louis’ White Flight as it traveled north up West Florissant from Highway 70 to New Halls Ferry, with a stop in Ferguson. Sharing our story through buildings is the best way I know how to process all the disturbing feelings I can’t shake in the wake of Michael Brown’s violent and unfair departure.
A WHITE LADY’S CREDENTIALS
I have spent a decade plus documenting the St. Louis built environment in photos and words through this blog. I am a North County (NoCo) native, born and raised in
Jennings – 14 Yr. Old Boy Murdered on Meadowlark
Ferguson – Personal Architecture: 509 Teston in Ferguson, MO
Black Jack – Tear Down Jamestown Mall
before landing in South St. Louis City in 1993.
Over half of my posts about NoCo brings up St. Louis’ history of White Flight, gently touching on our racism because it’s unavoidable. But it needs to stop being treated as a poorly hidden secret. I no longer wish to be politely genteel about how our racism is determined to destroy North St. Louis County the same way it did North St. Louis City.
My immediate and extended family is a classic example of North Siders following the trail up West Florissant to North County, and eventually leaving it completely when it got “too Black.” My family is just a few of the hundreds of thousands of other NoCo Whites who have done exactly the same. I’ve seen why and how it plays it out.
I love and explore all of St. Louis and spend a lot of time in North County, documenting its history as told through buildings and places. I manufacture any excuse to visit and hang out because I genuinely love North County more today than when I lived there. It feels good; it feels like home, because it is.
But where I differ from so many of my White brethren is that I do not resent the Black majority that are now the rightful citizens of NoCo. It is their home the same as it was once mine. They live, love and work there the same as we once did, but with one glaring exception: they have to deal with and work around the systemic and lingering resentment of Whites who willingly fled the area because of them. And that’s a White Problem the NoCo Blacks have had to deal with… until they just couldn’t anymore.
CREATING ST. LOUIS RACISM
St. Louis has always been a schizophrenic city. It’s the last of the old Eastern cities, and the Gateway to the younger West. That informs its Conservative vs. Progressive spirit. The Civil War Mason-Dixon Line ran right through it, and it’s been a struggle of North vs. South mentality ever since.
The national dominance that the City of St. Louis experienced from post-Civil War to post-Korean War was partially based on the population increase of Blacks from the South. And while it was, by constitutional law, safe for Blacks to come here, powerful White factions have always made sure the new arrivals were segregated into the City’s North Side.
While White St. Louis has enthusiastically embraced Black St. Louis culture – from music (milestone home of jazz, ragtime, blues and rock & roll) to food (BBQ and soul food are indigenous cuisine) – they made sure Blacks lived in a contained manner.
Before and after the Civil Rights movement, the real estate Red Lining of the 20th century (expertly detailed in the book Mapping Decline) remains a troubling problem barely disguised as predatory lending in the 21st century. While every race and income level has been injured by the housing bubble burst of 2008, in St. Louis the massive foreclosures are most dramatic in the predominantly Black towns of North St. Louis County. It’s Red Lining re-branded for the 21st century.
CREATING NORTH COUNTY
After World War 2, the Baby Boom created a need for more housing for everyone. With the help of President Eisenhower’s new highways and G.I. loans, people left St. Louis City in all directions for the largely rural County. To the North, West Florissant Avenue became a main corridor to fresh new homes and schools, so commerce built up along it to serve the fast influx of new residents.
St. Louis families of all races and income levels can trace their rising fortunes by how they leap frogged from one municipality to the next, ever-further away from the City lines. The huge exodus from the City over a 20 year span left the City to rot. This fact earned its own chapter in the 1999 book The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration 1966-1999 by Ray Suarez.
Because the City’s North Side had historically (and uneasily) accepted more Blacks, the migration to North County had more of a salt and pepper flavor than to the west or south. In private, North Side Whites acknowledged the additional motivation of leaving City blocks that got one more black family than they were comfortable living with. And that mentality remained as Whites and Blacks wrote the living history of North St. Louis County in the last half of the 20th century.
NOT LIKING WHAT WE SEE IN THE MIRROR
St. Louis County is a star pupil in the Suburbanization of Poverty. Here are some informative pieces with great historical reporting that detail how Ferguson got to this point:
St. Louis is an old industrial city that carried its archaic North vs. South mentality to the new suburbs, clinging to a stark segregation in North County. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, we are bickering amongst ourselves about how racist we are or aren’t while the global community has learned exactly how racist we are and shakes its head in disbelief.
National reporters puzzled over the statistics and anecdotes about how oblivious a large percentage of St. Louis Whites are about our race problems. Veteran reporter Charles Jaco got to the heart of it in two Twitter posts on August 18, 2014:
“Despite the global focus, most white people in St. Louis this is just Ferguson, willfully blind to race and class issues that cause seething anger. In 19 yrs, discovered white people in StL are kind, considerate and oblivious to racial issues. Like StL BBQ sauce, they’re sweet but thick.”
Because we have a history of racially insulating our neighborhoods, it’s very easy for White St. Louisans to be completely unaware that Different Rules Apply. Speaking only from my experiences, native White St. Louisans who are not instinctively racist tend to be those who have traveled and/or lived outside of the region and have experienced places where you can palpably feel the ABSENCE of racial tension. It’s always an eye opener. The lesson learned from it is that it’s easier to accept all people as they are rather than how you want them to be.
There’s one trait that most every visitor notices about St. Louis (aside from how clean we are!): we are extremely nice people. We are inherently nice to each other, face to face, no matter the color or culture. But how we develop our towns, evolve our governments and speak in private conveys that White St. Louis has a long-standing problem with Black St. Louis.
This behavior grows more absurd as the world becomes more global and integrated via the internet and social medias that easily recognizes oppressive behavior even when we can’t see it ourselves. People around the globe quickly understood the gravity of #Ferguson and the importance of people standing up against abusive authority. The inequity was easy to understand outside of a large chunk of White St. Louis.
RESENTMENT OF BLACK NORTH COUNTY
White Flight is well-documented American process, and a motivating factor in creating St. Louis County. For a lot of White St. Louis, it’s a part of the stories of why your family moved to such and such, and why we live where we do. We talk freely – or in code – about it amongst ourselves, and instinctively seem to know when to not talk about it. And that right there reveals that we do know better but can’t let go of deeply ingrained prejudice.s
Several generations of St. Louis Whites are vocally resentful of having to “give up” North St. Louis and North County to the Blacks. They reveal deep resentment with the language used to describe what has become of the places they left behind.
Part of the White resentment might be because NoCo is such an engaging area of Metro St. Louis. See the Cruizin’ North County books for reasons why it’s such a deeply loved place. Leaving behind something you love is always bittersweet. If that feeling is coupled with a fear-based decision to move away, it can create contempt for those who took your place.
Do the White ex-pats want it back? Is that why there’s so much White anger toward NoCo Blacks? Because if you want it back, that might make some sense out of the blatant contempt for those who live there now. It doesn’t excuse it; it only provides a psychological understanding of the negative behavior.
NoCo remains a lovely place. This is what I strive to show on B.E.L.T. over the years (do a fast scroll through this category).
I’ve had countless conversations with former NoCo Whites who swear it’s all gone downhill and just looks bad. Granted, NoCo is an aging area; after 50+ years, everything gets raggedy around the edges. One of the reasons people originally fled St. Louis City is because it was old and worn out, and Urban Renewal bulldozed huge chunks of what they deemed irretrievable eyesores. It took new generations to see the beauty under the grime and exchange demolition for restoration. This is a natural evolution of cities, and renewal will eventually have to come to our Inner Ring suburbs. Just give it time.
Even when I get ex-NoCo whites to begrudgingly admit that their old neighborhood or house still look pretty good, they genuinely believe the rest of it has gone to shit. I believe they’re looking at it through puce-colored glasses.
Even as I choose to see through rose-colored glasses, I’m not blind to how poverty has ravaged many North County municipalities. Look at the corpses of Kinloch or Wellston to see the ways racism works through legal and illegal channels to exact revenge on those it fears.
As I’ve spent 10+ years photographing my NoCo homeland, looking at it through the detached lenses of architecture, remodeling, planning and sustainability, I think it’s beautiful. I see past glory, present strengths and future possibility.
As I traipse around all of St. Louis with a camera, I’ve been told that police would be called if I didn’t leave, or stared at harshly through screen doors, or glared at with side eye. This is always – without exception – in White parts of town. They ask no questions, they show only anger and distrust toward a White stranger.
Contrast that with when I go North. Someone will always walk up and ask what I’m doing – as anyone should, really – and I explain. I have countless conversations with Black residents about what and why I do. They get the sentimental angle if it’s where I’m from, and they are usually intrigued by the architectural angle: “So you like this building? Why?”
Most any architecture geek longs for that question, and a chance to exchange information. All of us long to know the worth of where we came from and where we live now, and it feels good to know it matters. Each of us is concerned about our little piece of the world we live in, and want to be comfortable in it.
The stress of being constantly harassed in your world builds tension. Tension has to be released. NoCo is the logical combustion chamber, because it’s where the 21st century population vs. its government and law enforcement statistics reveal continual oppression by minority Whites over majority Blacks.
FERGUSON HAS THE STRENGTH TO CHANGE THE TIDE
When the police continually harass only certain residents who pay taxes, start businesses, spend money at those businesses and keep the town going, those people will eventually rebel. Anyone who’s picked on can only take it for so long.
The Civil War ended in 1865, but the war of White over Black never did. America repeatedly goes to the legal mat to try and resolve this conflict, but Whites find new loopholes to continue blocking Blacks, with ever diminishing benefits. It’s embarrassing for a modern, post-Civil War society to continue parroting an archaic cultural prejudice that existed before we had electricity in our homes. And it’s disgraceful to willfully set up your fellow man to fail, be it Wall Street sharks or racial profiling.
The August 2014 murder of Michael Brown a block east of West Florissant was, finally, the wrong place at the wrong time. The 2-block stretch of West Florissant that has become intimately familiar as the background of Hands Up Don’t Shoot remains as essential today as when it was developed in the late 1950s. The businesses have changed repeatedly over the decades, but its vitality is only slightly diminished.
This short stretch of West Florissant Avenue remains an important revenue generator in Ferguson economics. That the businesses physically devastated by the upheaval want to rebuild and remain is a testament to that. Money talks, of course, but so does their patrons immediately coming to help clean up after looting. That’s the kind of community you want your business in.
Ferguson has spent the last 10 years reimagining and rebuilding itself for the way we realistically live in the 21st century. This town has become strong enough to push back at decay that knocks at its boundary lines.
Because all around Ferguson, once-White towns have been left to rot. It’s a precisely repeating pattern from St. Louis City in the 1950s to this very day. You can see the physical downfall of dozens of towns as the race population switches from majority-White to majority-Black. The easy, drive-by response of White St. Louis is to say Blacks just don’t care of their homes, their communities. But you cannot realistically blame things like bad roadways and decomposing sewer lines on the skin color of the people who live there. These are infrastructure issues handled by the local governments that collect their tax dollars.
When, for example, the Jennings, MO street department simply stops repaving its residential streets, it’s clear that the money they’ve collected is not going toward maintaining the roads. Nor is that money going toward maintaining a police department (disbanded in 2011) or a fire department (dissolving January 2015) or bolstering its public school system. This a much bigger problem than which neighbor is not mowing their lawn or patching their roof – it’s about the town you live in falling apart around you.
The cause of this repeating pattern is touched on in, again, that book The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration 1966-1999 by Ray Suarez. Wherein St. Louis criminologist Rick Rosenfeld says:
“What I don’t like about mobility in the United States out of cities into suburbs, and now increasingly from inner suburbs into outer suburbs, is the throwaway attitude that goes along with it. That once you move from a community, the larger metropolitan area or the larger community has no responsibility or not much for what got left behind there. What they leave behind is much worse without them. The tragedy of mobility here is not that people leave the city of St. Louis: it’s that so few resources go into the communities left behind to make them attractive to the families that are one or two cars down the line, who themselves might want to move into that neighborhood. I don’t think mobility is the issue. It’s our unwillingness to do anything about the tragic conditions that occur once people leave.”
The curious part is that St. Louis City is in tangible turn-around from the urban decay. The City is becoming a more desirable place to live than its bordering North County townships, where the scorched earth policies are repeating despite decades of lessons on how not to do it. In a nutshell: Don’t let the Whites who abandoned it continue to control it, because history shows they will run it into the ground. Those who actually live there need to steer policy and set the new rules.
And here’s where Ferguson matters. It has made tangible progress in keeping North County scorched earth creeping crud at bay. The citizens of Ferguson get this, and are the ones investing in new growth. But 6 – 11 shots later, everyone learns that the Ferguson police and government appear to be focused only on the racial aspects of the city, putting their energies into an imbalance that ignores Missouri law and several Constitutional amendments. It’s a myopic view dangerously at odds with its residents, and has caused real harm.
America has a long history of not tolerating those that tread upon them, and as of August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri has upheld that tradition. Because this town has pushed back against the usual markers of built environment and economic decay, it also has the strength to push back against authority that seeks to undermine it.
Ferguson has become a line in the sand of not allowing the same old destructive policies to take their city down. It’s a decisive moment where the new majority can take control and protect what’s good about their town. The energy that refuses to let Michael Brown’s death become another statistic has already strengthened Ferguson. There’s also a sense that Ferguson can teach us to be a more civilized and powerful St. Louis – City AND County, together. It’s one of the reasons these signs are all over Metro St. Louis.
Posted on September 5th, 2014 No comments
Saturday, October 11, 2014 at 10am
Guided Walking Tour of Downtown Clayton Mid-Century Modern Buildings
with your hosts Toby Weiss & Darren Snow
Sponsored by DOCOMOMO Tour Day 2014 & ModernSTL
In 1968, Clayton commerce proudly featured the modernity of their “new executive city,” even defining “the Clayton Look” (above) in their brochure. 45+ years on, Clayton continuously seeks to – and does – demolish its mid-century modern heritage.
On Saturday, October 11, 2014 at 10am, join ModernSTL founding members Darren Snow and myself for a guided tour that is roughly 2 hours in length and less than a 3 mile walk. You will learn factual and interesting things about approximately 30 buildings much like the two shown above.
Downtown Clayton is an architecturally precise place, a city rapidly built after World War 2 to be thoroughly and proudly modern. But commerce and development cliches about “old buildings” constantly threaten to wipe out the core of what makes St. Louis’ second downtown business district so unique.
Read Making Money from Clayton’s Mid-Century Modern Buildings for the gist of our walking tour.
Darren and I can almost guarantee to deliver you a few chuckles and guffaws along with an informal education.
We meet at 10 am at the building above, the Clayton-Forsyth Building (learn more about it here) at 8230 Forsyth.
There is parking on-street in front of the building, as well as ample parking behind it. Enter parking through the driveways at either end of the building.
Posted on May 6th, 2014 No comments
May 10, 2014
Meet at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, Lindell entrance
$5 for non-members / Free for Modern STL members)
Michael Allen and I will once again trip the light fantastic of mid-century modern beauties on Lindell Boulevard, in the Central West End.
This Building Is Threatened
Since planning the tour, the Optimist International building (above) has become a hot item. Or, rather, the land it sits on has become more valuable than the building possibly is.
The Optimist is my personal favorite MCM on Lindell. I also understand and agree with the urban density rationale of the proposed development, as well as the irony of – in 1961 – tearing down a very urban property to put in this more suburban modern building. And now we’ve come full circle.
The fate of this building promises to be a very lively debate, that pits newly embraced forms of CWE historic preservation against a deeper understanding of what it means to be an urban city.
And this isn’t the only Lindell MCM currently on the tear-down radar – this building is also in the spotlight.
So we have a lot to discuss and debate, and the best way to do that is in person, as a curious, knowledge-seeking group, on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 10 a.m. We’ll learn, we’ll laugh, we’ll burn some calories. We look forward to seeing you there.
Posted on May 3rd, 2014 2 comments
The documentary about St. Louis architect Ralph Fournier is now available to the world, at large. For those who love his mid-century modern residential work, it will be a magnificent way to spend 17 minutes.
For the backstory on this documentary, read Celebrating St. Louis Architect Ralph Fournier.
Posted on February 16th, 2014 13 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 7 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.
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!