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!
Posted on July 31st, 2010 5 comments
St. Mark’s Church
4714 Clifton Avenue, St. Louis Hills, MO
On July 9, 2010, the St. Louis Beacon presented a tour of St. Mark’s Church which began with Eugene J. Mackey, III, FAIA sharing his thoughts on the 1939 church designed by Frederick Dunn and Charles Nagel, and ended with his presentation “St. Louis Modernism in the 1950s.”
Here is a good history of the church building, wherein they note it is one of the first “uncompromisingly modern churches built anywhere in the world before World War 2.” Another interesting point, for me, is that unlike most churches which are built on corner lots (especially in St. Louis Hills, known for its four corner churches surrounding Francis Park), St. Mark’s rests in the middle of a residential street. Eventually, the entire campus would encompass the northern half of the block, but the affect of a white brick tower rising up from a sea of brick bungalows never fails to surprise and delight.
Gene Mackey III, of Mackey Mitchell Architects, is the son of the Eugene Mackey, of Murphy & Mackey, who were among the royalty of St. Louis mid-century modern architecture, giving us The Climatron, the Washington University Olin Library and a host of exceptional modern churches, including Resurrection in South St. Louis. So, our current Mackey has modernism in his blood, and he grew up absorbing all the work, colleagues and friends of his father. Luckily, he has a great memory, an engaging way of imparting important historical information about our city’s modern architecture and the learned anecdotes to bring it all to life.
This is why I’ll let him talk about St. Mark’s, as recorded that night:
“(St. Mark’s co-architect) Frederick Dunn went to Yale, and was in school with Eero Saarinen. People don’t necessarily make that connection. Eero Saarinen was a powerhouse, even as a student, a very dynamic, powerful individual. Frederick Dunn was a counterpoint in school, more of a classicist in his approach to things. Also at the same time at Yale was (St. Mark’s co-architect) Charles Nagel, the man that – as an architect – became the director of the St. Louis Art Museum… and was also on the jury for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.”
“(Dunn) had an amazing whimsy. … Anyone who’s an architect certainly knows about St. Mark’s, which was done in the late 30s. And think about that – in the late 30s! When you walk around it, think of the elements, the details, the attention, the imagination that he’s bringing to every element.”
“Bill Bowersox is with us today. As we passed from the sacristy to the rear addition of the church, I think we were all struck by the respect and dignity and proportion of that addition (his firm designed). I think that Fred Dunn would be very pleased. I compliment you for that.”
“Looking at the way Dunn used masonry, I bet you – and I might be wrong – but I bet his original intention was to do this church in stone. Because you don’t see many buildings in white brick, and I don’ know if it can be documented, but it’s an interesting thought about the use of materials.”
Mackey’s presentation of Modernism in the 1950s was a series of photos of St. Louis structures to which he shared facts and observations. His introduction also summarized why these buildings still captivate:
“When you think about something being modern, it’s of the moment, it is what is contemporary. It has to do with looking forward and often tied in with technology. In this (1950s) era, to me in terms of design, its reflected in dynamic forms, a new way of thinking, not necessarily relying on tried and true, but exploring new things. Line – the power of line – the power of form, the dynamics of movement of the eye.”
A highlight reel of what he covered includes:
• A belief that the loss of Sportsman’s Park was one of the major contributors of the rapid decline of North St. Louis
• “The loss of the streetcar lines in the 60s also contributed to decline in the neighborhoods. Because of the streetcars, the small businessman on the corner could rely on a certain number of shoppers to get off the streetcar everyday to buy flowers or ice cream. There was a consistency there that was very critical. Of course, we had to get rid of them because they were in the way (of the cars).”
• Levittown: “What they bought here was being totally tied to your automobile. Remember that in St. Louis in the 1950s, you could walk out your door, and walk down the street, or get on a streetcar and get everything you needed. Maybe even walk to work. That was impossible in Levittown.”
• Harris Armstrong’s former Magic Chef building: “I consider that it’s in mothballs, and someday someone is going to buy this building and restore it to what it should be.”
• Revealed that there is a Paul Rudolph-designed home in Warson Woods!
After the slideshow, Mackey took some questions from the audience, and it was fascinating because it was chiefly a conversation among architect peers. Someone asked what the biggest losses have been, building-wise (his answer: losing the buildings around the Wainwright Building detracts from its greatness because it’s isolated), but generally, Mackey sees it differently than those of us lamenting the mid-century modern losses.
Indicating the presentation he said, “We’re looking back 60 years, and fortunately, so many of these buildings still exist, telling so many different stories, playing so much different kinds of music. If you think of architecture as frozen music, think about the different melodies that are played by the buildings you just saw. It’s fantastic. It was a great era.”
And it was true that 95% of the structures he had presented ARE still standing, which is amazing! And we need to find ways to insure that these historically and aesthetically important buildings remain standing.
The last bit before everyone broke for refreshments was the one that riveted me the most. Jamie Cannon asked for Mackey’s statement on new residential architecture, namely the bloated McMansions that spring up after tear downs. His thoughts should be a separate presentation all on its own:
“A certain amount of modesty is very appropriate. Look at this beautiful church; this is an iconic building, and it’s a modest building. It sits in a modest residential neighborhood. I think modesty is a good thing. Look at the Kraus house – it’s a modest house. Look at the Shank house – it’s a dynamic, powerful piece of sculpture on the side of the hill and that’s always going to be relevant.
“Every time somebody builds one of those monster houses, it has to do with people’s ambitions. People come into Ladue with (plans for) these monster houses, and we try to talk them out of it. And most of the people who build those monster houses don’t live in them for very long, for whatever reason. And then the community is stuck with them. They tore down Buster May’s house in Ladue and they’re building Versailles, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It wasn’t against the law.”
It’s hard and foolhardy to mess with personal property rights, which is why I think grassroots appreciation and education, combined with an appeal to trendy hearts (think Mad Men), is what will calm a good portion of the MCM tear down madness in Mid-County. Or with our Recession (also known as The Great American Reset), maybe shaming folks into “a certain amount of modesty” would be a path to follow?
Posted on February 14th, 2010 3 comments
Chippewa & Lindenwood Place
South St. Louis City, MO
I’m sending a Valentine to the Crystal Tower Apartments in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood because it deserves some lovin’. Though it never pops to mind when someone asks me about my favorite St. Louis City buildings, my heart beats a little faster each time I pass this art deco charmer. So on this day of cupids, chocolates and roses, I’m leaving a cyber Valentine in the Crystal Towers lobby ‘cos I’m sweet on it!
The apartment building went up in 1940, so its art deco flair is authentic. It has 12 one bedroom apartments, and 6 two bedroom units. So often with St. Louis City apartments of this vintage, the exterior is all handsome come on, while inside, the apartments are vanilla bland. But courtesy of Craigslist, turns out Crystal Towers apartments are plaster cove ceilings and arches and gleaming wood floors and trim. In short, it looks like it has been shown constant and loving care through all of its decades, which is a rare trait in apartments for rent.
While working on this Valentine, I found that my crush on Crystal Towers goes back as far as 2001, when I used its outdoor entry patio as an example of texture for a black & white photo class assignment.
Note that some 9 years later, the same concrete globe has been scrubbed of 2001 grunge, and someone keeps up on patching the cracks. The entry has the subdued drama of a Hollywood movie set; maybe an exterior for Nick and Nora Charles in one of the movies from The Thin Man series? The building is also slightly nautical, and even writes its name in cursive above the front door.
Shall we assume it took its fanciful name for this pillar of glass block? Which, if so, just adds to its harmless and charming allusion of swellegance. This is why I want it to Be My Valentine!
Posted on January 6th, 2010 14 comments
Natural Bridge Road
Bel Ridge, MO
Great name for a barber shop, isn’t it?
This tiny place, just east of the inner belt, fascinates me. Built in 1930, it’s only 252 square feet, and appears to have always been a barber shop.
Barber shops, in general, fascinate me because it’s a Guy Place. Ladies are no more welcome in them than guys are in beauty shops. Oh sure, anyone’s welcome through the door, but when the opposite sex “invades” one of these places, you can cut uncomfortable with a knife.
When the Clip Joint is open, there always seems to be at least two cars parked around it. Seems it would only take 3 people for the joint to feel crowded, but that’s probably part of the appeal of this joint.
Posted on November 21st, 2009 7 comments
I ran across this picture in a 1964 issue of LIFE magazine, and gasped with pleasure. Click to enlarge it and see Harris Armstrong, George Kassabaum and Hari Van Hoefen floating above downtown St. Louis. The swooning teenage-girl thrill I got from finding this photo reminded me of the first time I saw this:
Here’s David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in a moment overloaded with rock power. They have given the world some of its most awesome music.
The Rock Star Architects gave St. Louis some of its most awesome buildings.
A Hari Van Hoefen greatest hits package would include Northland Shopping Center. The George Kassabaum best of (on the HOK label) would include the Planetarium, and Harris Armstrong already has a box set highlighting his best known hits and B-side rarities.
The music of Bowie, Pop and Reed is treasured and re-mastered and re-released because it matters very much. I hope that soon – very soon – St. Louis will learn to do the same with the works of Armstrong, Kassabaum and Van Hoefen.
Posted on November 9th, 2009 2 comments
Rather than gush on about how much I truly loved the 4 models they graciously opened up for us to romp around in, I’ll share the video. This way, you can decide for yourself.
Because it was nighttime, I was not able to properly film the exterior aspects of Nine North. Some of the balcony configurations create sublime spaces that I’m longing to see at different times of day and seasons. And the way all of the condos face onto a swanky pool/hot tub outdoor courtyard is very Melrose Place, in the best possible way.
Posted on October 29th, 2009 2 comments
A 1929, 51-room mansion by architect Addison Mizner is now dust and memory. It is reported to be the last home designed by the man who is credited with shaping the lasting legacy of Palm Beach estate living, and it is definitely one of the few Mizner’s outside the state of Florida.
In the mid-1990s, I came to know about Addison Mizner from the book Kiss Hollywood Good-by, by Anita Loos. She had an unconsummated passion for Wilson Mizner, the ultimate raconteur rapscallion (my favorite quote from him: “All of us are born with traits like optimism, faith and loyalty. Just don’t deny them for the hollow pretense of being ‘smart.’ “), but her stories about brother Addison inspired me to research his work:
He made a fortune as an architect by providing the rich with fake Spanish haciendas. He erected the most elaborate palazzi without any schooling in architecture. On one job, Addison omitted a staircase and was forced to pretend it was intentional; a flight of steps running up the outside was more artistic. As a side line, Addison operated a factory in West Palm Beach where he manufactured “antiques.”
That led to the book Florida Architecture of Addison Mizner, a picture book that conclusively proves that one man’s fantasy is another man’s social prestige.
Mizner’s mansions were florid, overheated interpretations of Spanish villas, Hollywood drama tarted up as history for the newly rich who were craving instant heritage. Revivalism was a popular form of American residential architecture, and Addison just pumped up the kitsch, the square footage and the selling price. He was a self-taught architectural hustler who created a pretend Europe in Florida, something I love and admire. Luckily, the folks who still covet his homes in Florida feel the same way, so his legacy is secure.
I guess the colder climes of Pennsylvania robbed Joseph Kestenbaum of the whimsy a Mizner inspires, and he’s been such an ass during this saga that I can imagine a Scrooge-like visitation of 3 ghosts to his bedside… and Addison would be the Ghost of Villas Past, eyes twinkling with happy disbelief that his greenback PA folly of long-ago has inspired such deep emotions in this day and age.
Posted on September 4th, 2009 9 comments
South Big Bend & Dale Ave.
Richmond Heights, MO
As you tool past it, this building gives the best optical illusions.
In the small sliver of space it occupies, it is both translucent and opaque, reflective and absorptive, grounded yet floating. It has always struck me as passively menacing, which pretty much sums up how I feel about finance, so it’s appropriate architecture for a bank.
This building went up in 1978 for United Postal Savings, and remains a bank to this day. As you can see from this aerial view, the architect had to work with the odd angle of Dale Avenue and a small lot. The building itself is only 3,228 square feet, which is small for a modern commercial building. But it packs a lot of style and attitude into a tight spot.
The brown brick creating soft curves for the lobby entrance is the only relief from the severity of the right triangle, and it feels as if they had to design a less-threatening entrance just so people could work up the nerve to enter the building.
As with so many of the mirror-glass wall buildings of the post-modern architecture style, the inhabitants tend to feel uncomfortable with being exposed and ruin the aesthetic intent with yards of metal blinds. In this case, the vertical blinds add a consistent texture that slightly reduces the ominousness, but also hampers the effect of reflective transparency. Then again, people have to use buildings, so the function should be given as much weight as the visual impact.
But blinds cannot take away from the architectural editorial on the fine point of this building. Depending on the angle, it looks like a cut-throat straight razor or a plunging stiletto. No matter the era, finance cuts like a knife.
Posted on August 28th, 2009 3 comments
Painters going in for the second coat of a saturated, perriwinkle purple on a home beside the train tracks. Yeah, the roof needs some attention – structure- and shingle-wise – and replacement windows are overdue. But that type of maintenance costs.
Paint is the cheapest form of instant gratification, and in this case, mood enhancement. The owners are thinking “put on a happy face;” the neighbors may be thinking “send in the clowns.” I think there ought to be clowns.
One thing I love about New Orleans’ neighborhoods is their warm and abundant embrace of vibrant house colors. This purple addition to the yellow neighbor is a mini-recreation of that Big Easy feeling in the Webster Groves hills.
Thank you for doing this.
Posted on August 20th, 2009 9 comments
Joe Thebeau was responsible for one of the very best albums of 2006, Escape Velocity. It is an engrossing and far-reaching concept album about being a 40-year old family man and corporate drone who can’t escape the feeling that there’s something else waiting for him just beyond the horizon; how do you get to that place and what happens once you do?
Among the 17 songs that tell the tale is a piece that addresses the Gateway Arch as a metaphor for high and/or dashed expectations, “Eero Saarinen”:
Westward over my city
Stainless and brilliant
Skyward into the universe
The kind of vision I can look up to
Into a future we couldn’t hope to
Live up to
For the sake of full disclosure, Joe Thebeau asked me to sing with him on the song, but trust that it has nothing to do with why I love it. It’s definitely a case of him inviting me because I loved the simple and emotional geometry of his sentiment. It made me look at the Arch – something most of us in this city tend to take for granted – in a whole new and personal way, which was also reflected in the CD cover shot and other photos of the Arch he sent me out to capture.
Atop that, the song just frickin’ rocks! It’s 1:32 minutes of rapid heart beat and laser point precision. Architecture has been described as frozen music, and I’d always “heard” the Arch as a wistful symphonic piece. Thanks to Thebeau’s artistic vision, I will forever “hear” the Arch as the Red Bull energy required to be the eternal Gateway to the West.
Finn’s Motel is playing at Off Broadway on Saturday, August 22, 2009. Do go check them out, and ask them to play this song.
I have been listening to The Blind Eyes debut record for 7 days straight, and the brilliance of it multiplies with repetition. During the first couple of listens – wherein I don’t pay attetion to lyrics, just overall sonics – I assumed from the chorus of “Brasil, 1957” (“We could only make it on the plane, on a plane”) that the song was about The Mile High Club.
On the third listen I finally heard:
Moving westward up the river
Steel and concrete to deliver
Out of nothing springs a city
Monument to modernity
Holy crap, these guys are singing about the building of Brasilia, and by association, architect Oscar Niemeyer! And – duh! – the T-shirt design (above) featuring Niemeyer’s National Congress building has way more significance than using it simply because Niemeyer is the coolest (and oldest) living architect. Oh, and double duh, this also references/inspired the title of the record.
I’m not normally this slow on the uptake, and in defense it should be pointed out: how often do we hear a song that concisely and poetically sums up the construction of a mid-century modern capitol? Previous to this, never!
The chorus of this ingenious song now takes on an extra layer of clever: is it “plain” or “plane”? Because both of them work. The city of Brasilia was purposely built far inland on an empty plain. Aerial views confirm that the city was purposely laid out in the shape of a plane.
What inspired them to tackle this as a song topic? Is one of them a fellow architecture geek? Until answers appear, I’m just impressed and thankful that it – and the entire record – exists. And I’m so proud that two St. Louis bands decided that songs about architecture should rock mightily.
Aside from these two towering St. Louis musical achievements, what other rock or pop songs are specifically about an architect or a building? The only other song that comes to mind is “Alec Eiffel” by The Pixies.
If you think of others, do let me know, and if enough of them exist, it could turn into the rare case of a second B.E.L.T. entry about architecture rock.