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  • Masters of Sex: St. Louis Reality vs. TV Depiction

    Posted on February 16th, 2014 Toby Weiss 8 comments

    masters of sex book

    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.

    Masters of Sex depicts Maternity Hospital a sublime, stucco Art Deco.

    Masters of Sex depicts Maternity Hospital as a sublime, stucco Art Deco.

    Maternity Hospital, erect 1926, still stands in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex at Kingshighway and Interstate 64.

    Maternity Hospital, erected 1926, still stands in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex at Kingshighway and Interstate 64.

    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).

    smoking area maternity hospital st louis

    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?

    Masters of Sex exterior establishing shot of St. Louis brothel where Dr. Masters conducted research.

    Masters of Sex exterior establishing shot of St. Louis brothel where Dr. Masters conducted research.

    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.

    The mid-century modern ranch home of Dr. William & Libby Masters, as seen on TV.

    The mid-century modern ranch designed by architect “Eine,” home to the TV version of Dr. William & Libby Masters.

    The interior TV set of The Masters' home.

    The interior TV set of The Masters’ home.

    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 real life home of Dr. William & Libby Masters, in Ladue, MO.

    The real life home of Dr. William & Libby Masters, in Ladue, MO.

    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.

    The duplex Virginia Johnson lived in, as depicted on Showtime's Masters of Sex.

    The duplex Virginia Johnson lived in, as depicted on Showtime’s Masters of Sex.

    A real-life example of the home Virginia Johnson lived in after her 1956 divorce. Her actual home was in the spot of the modern condo shown to the left of this home.

    A real-life example of the home Virginia Johnson lived in after her 1956 divorce. Her actual home was in the spot of the modern condo shown to the left of this home.

     

    By the early 1960s, Virginia Johnson moved into this ranch home in Salem Estates in Ladue, MO, a "traditional subdivision" designed by St. Louis architect Ralph Fournier.

    By the early 1960s, Virginia Johnson moved into this ranch home in Salem Estates in Ladue, MO, a “traditional subdivision” designed by St. Louis architect Ralph Fournier.

    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:

    The mid-century modern ranch in Ladue, MO that Dr. William Masters & Virginia Johnson moved into after their 1971 marriage.

    The mid-century modern ranch in Ladue, MO that Dr. William Masters & Virginia Johnson moved into after their 1971 marriage.

    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.

    Apartment building at Maryland Avenue & North Taylor in St. Louis' Central West End, home of Dr. Masters' mother, Estabrook.

    Apartment building at Maryland Avenue & North Taylor in St. Louis’ Central West End, home of Dr. Masters’ mother, Estabrook.

    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:

    roland kulla 01

    “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.

    Roland Kulla and his friends in front of the fence that separated their back door from that of the brothel next door.

    Roland Kulla and his friends in front of the fence that separated their yard from that of the brothel next door.

    “(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.”

    3848 Olive was the site of a St. Louis brothel from 1947 - 1954.

    3848 Olive was the site of a St. Louis brothel from 1947 – 1954.

    The rear of the buildings (since demolished) on Olive. A wood fence separated 3850 from the brothel at 3848.

    The rear of the buildings (since demolished) on Olive. A wood fence separated 3850 from the brothel at 3848.

    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?

    The real life Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters.

    The real life Virginia Johnson and Dr. William Masters.

     

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  • The Saucer Earns a 2013 Preserve Missouri Award

    Posted on May 27th, 2013 Toby Weiss 3 comments

    1969 Saucer photo

    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.

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    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:

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    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.

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    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!

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    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.

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    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.

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  • Defining An Era: The City of St. Louis Mid-Century Modern Survey

    Posted on February 12th, 2013 Toby Weiss 1 comment

    On February 11, 2013, the Cultural Resources Office of St. Louis presented to the public the results of their survey of non-residential mid-century modern architecture in the City of St. Louis, MO. The details of their survey work during 2012 is documented here.

    Nearly 250 buildings made their list of architecturally worthy buildings. That list was narrowed down to 40, and everyone from both the Cultural Resources Office and  the Missouri State Historic Preservation
    Office at Monday’s meeting reiterated how genuinely difficult it was to come to that new number. They all fell in love with certain buildings, harbored their favorites.

    But because it’s a limited grant budget, and all this historical research takes time and money, the 40 buildings need to be narrowed down to 20-25 buildings that will make the final list. That’s why they are asking for St. Louisans to weigh in on which buildings we think should make the final cut.

    Here is the first part of the list of buildings.

    Here is the second part of the list of buildings.

    Those in attendance were given a sheet of 16 stars to place upon the buildings we liked most.

    Here’s Michael Allen bestowing one of his stars upon a building he wrote about. Turns out this South Grand vacant bank is already under threat of demolition for a new independent grocery store building on the lot. And this highlights why it’s important to have this list of our significant MCM architecture: if one of these buildings should come under fire, there will be documentation to prove why it matters.

    Among the final 40, it was thrilling to see buildings that I’ve covered previously in this blog. These include:

    Former Buder Branch St. Louis Public Library

    Oak Hill Chapel in Holly Hills

    The AAA Building, Optimist Building, Engineers Club and the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Chancery on Lindell Boulevard in Central West End. (They could save a little time and just declare Lindell Boulevard an Historic District, similar to what was done on Washington Avenue, downtown.)

    Pius Memorial Library, St. Louis University

    Carpenter’s Union Hall on Hampton Avenue

    David P. Wohl Community Center, whose architect of record, Richard Henmi, was on hand to place his star upon it, once again:

    Henmi, the architect of the Flying Saucer in Midtown, will also be in Jefferson City on February 27, 2013 as one of the people accepting a 2013 preservation award from Missouri Preservation. This is shaping up to be a special year for him, and all of us who love his work and those of his professional peers.

    What Happens Next
    They need your feedback by February 15, 2013 on which 20-25 buildings deserve further research to make the final list. Please review the 40 buildings. Download the comment sheet here, which also has information on where to send it.

    In Spring, they plan to announce the 20-25 finalists that will get the full treatment of further
    documentation and statements of significance that put them in historic context and serve as framework for the property owners and others to use for the architectural preservation and appreciation of these buildings.

    Stay atop any breaking news on The Finalists by following Chris Madrid French on Twitter and Missouri Preservation on Facebook. Or just check back with B.E.L.T., ‘cos you know how freaking excited I am about all this!

     

     

     

     

     

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  • 2012 Review of St. Louis Mid-Century Modern

    Posted on January 6th, 2013 Toby Weiss 1 comment

    It was the end of December 2012, and I was on the bitingly cold, snow-covered roof of the former State Bank of Wellston. We were there to explore the building in its final days, and discuss how they were going to salvage the neon tower to keep it safe for future use. It was sadness tinged with hope.

    Standing atop the building as my feet turned numb from the cold, I thought of the heartbreaking months ahead documenting the Wellston bank’s demolition. But then a thought slapped me upside the head:

    There were far more wins than losses when it came to mid-century modern architecture in St. Louis in 2012.

    I didn’t yet know it, but the day after Christmas the website Curbed figured it out, citing two major St. Louis MCM wins in their article, Mapping the Biggest Preservation Wins and Losses in 2012. We’re #8 and #9 on the list of winners. We’re used to being on lists of shame for destroying buildings of all eras, and here we are getting a pat on the back for two major victories. And they are both mid-century modern buildings!

    The Saucer, by architect Richard Henmi (shown above) is now bustling with caffeinated folks at Starbucks. The other side is still in renovation mode for a new tenant.  The Triple A building (below) by architect Wenceslao Sarmiento stood up to a tear-down threat by CVS.

    The efforts to save both of these buildings from extinction are beautifully detailed here, by our city’s own Michael Allen for Next City, another national organization keeping an eye on our preservation wins in 2012.

    The fight to Save Our Saucer was, technically, a 2011 campaign that came to a conclusion in 2012. For both of our round Mid Town MCM buildings the amazing fact is that City Hall – specifically, the mayor and certain aldermen – spoke out quickly and emphatically against demolition of either of these buildings. This was a huge policy change from years previous with City Fathers who really didn’t want to deal with saving buildings built after World War 2.

    What caused this miraculous and productive change of perspective? I consider the following a major turning point.

    It was February 14, 2009 when a large group of St. Louisans came together for a Love In to publicize the threat against the former Hotel Deville, which became a vacant apartment called San Luis. The St. Louis Archdiocese wanted to take it down to make a surface parking lot. After a disastrous Preservation Board review in June 2009, we turned it into a court battle.

    The building came down and we lost the court case. We staged multiple events to raise money for our lawyer fees, and it was heartwarming to see so many people support us in this failed battle. Personally, it also created some tense moments with my deeply Catholic family who only saw it as me being part of a group that was suing the Catholic Church. Yikes.

    The San Luis Did Not Die In Vain

    A battle lost in such a large and public way turned out to be the moment that was needed to make positive changes in the future of mid-century modern architecture preservation. The Save Our Saucer campaign was a successful refinement of the Friends of the San Luis campaign. And the inconsistencies in St. Louis City preservation law were addressed almost immediately after the San Luis came down. The first tangible change was creating the organization ModernSTL (several of the ModStL board members were there at the Valentine’s Day Love-In) so that we had a central location for the education, preservation and celebration of St. Louis modernism.

    AUGST 2012 The MCM preservation efforts of ModernSTL made the news several times in 2012, which is recapped here.

    DECEMBER 2012 The victory inspired by the demise of the San Luis is the new architecture standards in the Central West End (CWE) purposely put into place to include the protection of mid-century modern buildings. Again, let Michael Allen give you the important details of this new standard.

    That residents and alderpersons in these CWE wards realized that post-World War 2 buildings are just as much a part of the area’s history as the original buildings made my heart break with happiness. That they stuck with it to turn it into legal business that prevents senseless destruction like The San Luis in the future is a miracle. This is a major rethink of what constitutes an historic building. I love these folks! Thank you.

    March 2012 The City of St. Louis received a $24,600 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office to survey the City’s mid-century modern buildings.  Mayor Francis Slay writes of this award: “This specific research will identify important mid-century modern buildings and should lead toward protection from thoughtless demolition and possible resources for their improvement. Our City is rich in beautiful and significant architecture – and this study will help it remain that way.”

    Here’s more details about the survey. It is expected to be complete by the summer of 2013. I am deeply humbled (and a little teary eyed) to learn that many B.E.L.T. entries have been used as part of their research on the city’s MCM stock.  My wish for 2013 is that downtown Clayton, MO will consider doing something similar.

    SPRING 2012 Having an article published in Atomic Ranch magazine was a personal highlight. But even better was that it was about Ladue Estates, the first mid-century modern subdivision in Missouri to land on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents who made this MCM preservation milestone possible have become good friends of ModernSTL, and it was a pleasure to stage a second annual open house and tour of their neighborhood in May 2012.

    2012 MCM Mind Shift

    In general, I have felt, read and seen a huge shift in mid-century modernism appreciation. Both in the private and public realms, people of St. Louis just get it! They get that this era of architecture has significant meaning in our history, and that many of these buildings are flat out gorgeous and worthy of keeping in use.

    Two great examples of re-using rather than demolishing MCM in 2012 include:

    This Sunset Hills building started life as the Mark Twain Cinema in 1967, and then became the Two Hearts Banquet Center, which closed in 2012. A local labor union bought the building to turn into their new offices. And here’s the kicker – they love the building as is. The renovations they are making are only to make it usable for their needs, not to destroy its essence. Here’s more of the story.

    At Spring Avenue and Delor Street in Dutchtown, the Southtowne Village apartment complex, built in 1962, stood vacant and vandalized. When chainlink went up around the bombed out site, I assumed they were being demolished. It was a great to be completely, utterly wrong!

    Thank you to 25th Ward alderman Shane Cohn for filling me in. The Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance is redeveloping the site by modernizing most of the existing buildings, and supplementing them with some new buildings better sited in the spaces left after demolition of the back buildings. The aim is more curb appeal and more urban density.

    As we can see from the mid-construction photo above, they’re adding some 21st century architectural bling to appeal to new tenants. The mid-century character of the buildings will be buried. But the major point is that instead of automatically tearing down these buildings, they are re-using them! And why not?  We now live in a time of wasted resources and limited means – it makes perfect economic sense to save money and the environment by re-using as much as you can.  Construction-wise, a building from 1962 is just as good  as one from 1862 for renovation, and I applaud the RHCDA for this enlightened way of thinking.

    A Short Journey to StL MCM Preservation

    Urban Renewal of the 1960s is what created the preservation movement, as we know it today. It took well over 25 years to change the perspective of the public and developers so that they would think first of preserving a turn-of-the-20th-century building rather than demolishing it. St. Louis, specifically, has benefited greatly from Historic Tax Credits that put so many of our classic buildings in downtown St. Louis back into service.  All of this is possible because of pioneering preservation efforts.

    In May of 2005, I started B.E.L.T. primarily as an outlet for documenting and promoting St. Louis mid-century modern architecture. St. Louis was a major recipient of federal Urban Renewal subsidies, tearing down hundreds of acres of our history to create a better society. When they began systematically tearing down these replacement buildings in the early 2000s, I was grief-stricken.  I literally stood on the rubble of Northland Shopping Center and bawled like a baby.  Something had to be done to update the preservation mindset to include the buildings of the greatest period of modern American progress.

    With the help and camaraderie of hundreds of forward-thinking St. Louisans, we have changed the preservation mindset to include mid-century modernism. And whereas it took decades to automatically save post-Victorian buildings, we understand the importance of saving post-WW2 buildings in less than 10 years!

    2012 was the year that all of this new mindset became glaringly, lovingly apparent. It bears repeating: There have been more victories than losses.  I’m even optimistic about the plight of Lewis and Clark branch of the St. Louis Count Library. In less than a year, their board has already acknowledged its merit; the story continues into 2013.

    From St. Louis City Hall, to activists, to social networks, there are thousands of people who deserve a hearty round of applause for making all of this possible. It also needs to be noted how progressive St. Louis is when it comes to architectural preservation matters. No matter the year it was built, we now know our buildings matter because our history – past, present and future – matters.  It takes great strength and confidence to protect and nurture the things that are worthwhile.

    St. Louis, you kick ass!

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  • The Gateway Arch is Unimpressive

    Posted on September 9th, 2012 Toby Weiss 8 comments

    The October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair shares results that 46% of the 1,027 adults polled nationwide find The Gateway Arch the least impressive national landmark.

    What an odd question to ask people. But since they asked, Americans are good with natural occurrences like falls or canyons, they’re even good with carving presidents into the side of a mountain. But wholly man-made landmarks are ripe for a shrug.

    After an initial wave of irritation that anyone slam on our Arch, I remember that I used to take it for granted. It’s always been there, and once you go up inside of it and catch the view, what’s left?

    If I – as a proud St. Louisan – have treated it as the most boring ride at an amusement park, then the views of 1,027 people who may or may not have seen it in person are acceptable. I don’t see the point of The Alamo, because anything to do with war or battles bores and confuses me. But I’ve also never seen it, so it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.

    Beauty for Beauty’s Sake

    Americans tend to be practical people who want things to serve a purpose. Admirable form like the Chrysler Building also has a function as an office building, so it’s acceptable. Even the Seattle Space Needle (which is only a couple of years older than the Arch), goes a bit beyond being a symbol of its city with a restaurant at the top so it has some function beyond the views.

    But the Gateway Arch is basically a modern sculpture with an elevator. Take the elevator up to see views to the east and to the west in a narrow curved space that’s not conducive to hanging out. And back down you go.

    It’s truly a symbolic, minimalist art piece. An understanding of geometry, architecture and modern construction makes it impressive. But all those concepts may be too subtle for the room, naturally leading to the theoretical question, “What is the point?”

    What is the point of a flower? We understand its benefits for bees, butterflies and the environment, but they are not crucial to human existence. But their beauty and fragrance can move our souls, and many are willing to cultivate them for just that purpose – beauty for beauty’s sake. And that’s The Arch, as well.

    The Arch has other purposes beyond the beauty of its facade as the changing light and dark of day dances around it.

    It is the symbol of a time in America when power and progress could be poetic.
    It is a beacon that guides you without a compass, and takes you to the river.
    It is the impossible made real.
    It is the strength inherent in grace.
    It is eternally modern, but with the erosion of American dignity, it has become nostalgic.

    I didn’t realize all these things about The Arch until an early 21st century sunset ride as a passenger in car gave me the opportunity to simply gaze at it. And these realizations hit me fast and forcefully. Suddenly, I “got it.” And I was proud of our City for once having the towering vision to persevere for decades to build something that was only and simply beautiful and symbolic. It’s as simple as a flower, which is a complicated thing.

    Taking The Arch for granted is not just a Vanity Fair poll result. How many decades did it take for St. Louis to light it at night? And how many of you in St. Louis have never been near it, touched it, or been up inside of it? None of these things are crucial, but it does stir the soul, and you don’t know how powerful and empowering that can be until it overtakes you.

    My absolute favorite summary of the power of the Gateway Arch comes from Joe Thebeau, in the Finn’s Motel song “Eero Saarinen“:

    Eero, arching, westward over my city
    Stainless and brilliant
    Eero, arching, skyward into the universe
    Expanding, expansive possibility.

     

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  • Why Do Realtors List Mid-Century Modern Homes as Teardowns?

    Posted on September 3rd, 2012 Toby Weiss 6 comments

    4084 Meramec
    South St. Louis City

    This 1956 mid-century modern home plunked down in the middle of pre-WW2 homes in deep South St. Louis has been covered before. Scroll down half way at this link.

    It is now for sale. Here’s the info.

    The home is a $19,900 As Is foreclosure that needs a lot of work. Neglect has led to much water damage and remuddling. The extra photos that the realtor includes work hard to avoid revealing its raggedy shape, though the price is a dead giveaway. Here’s one photo that was not included:

    Sorry it’s such a crappy photo. It was taken through an encrusted window. But it does show that some of the original mid-century fabric remains. This is exactly the type of information that someone interested in rehabbing an MCM home would want to know: is there something there that’s worth my money and effort?

    One highly unusual (thus admirable) aspect of this listing is that the realtor does NOT ever use the phrase – or even imply – “tear down.” Homes of this vintage are regularly classified as tear downs, especially when they are in desirable zip codes on land that is, on paper, more valuable than the house.

    But if a home is in good condition, isn’t it a bit manipulative to call something a “tear down?” It’s a bit of judgement casting, an assumption that everyone who runs across the listing will think that a mid-century modern home is horrid.

    I completely understand the financially-motivated aspects of labeling a home a tear down. Everyone involved in the sale wants to get paid. But marketing has a very powerful influence everywhere, including real estate. How many under-performing stick-and-tissue new build homes in the deep exurbs have been purchased based on painting a pretty picture? And rechristening condos as villas has brought new life to a traditional form of high-density, low maintenance living. So words matter, and some aspects of pegging mid-century homes for demolition is absolutely suggestive selling.

    It is a fact that any home that you’re not the first owner of is going to need some remodeling. The cost of changes you intend to make are typically factored into what you’re willing to pay for a home. And there are millions of buyers who want to rehab a home, either to their liking or back to its historical authenticity. We all understand this as a selling feature for pre-WW2 homes. But in the world of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), they are quick to label homes from after WW2 to the 1970s as tear downs.

    Actually, the MLS has yet to upgrade their descriptions so a realtor can choose phrases like “mid-century modern” or “modern ranch” as a choice for the style of home. It is a fact that sympathetic realtors and MCM-motivated buyers have to comb through mountains of homes by age to zero in on what is wanted. Why is an easily-identifiable group of willing buyers left to work so hard to find their home? Is it that difficult to add some new style categories to the MLS?

    It always boils down to education. And in the case of real estate, realtors who can identify and serve this new subset of mid-century modern buyers will emerge financially victorious. Wouldn’t other realtors, logically, like to benefit from this as well? So that’s the argument for updating the MLS: do you wanna get paid? MCM lovers are willing to pay.

    MCM Realtors in St. Louis

    In St. Louis, we do have some enlightened realtors that know their MCM and the audience who wants to buy them.

    Shannon Howard highlights St. Louis Homes with Soul on her realtor website. She also gives in-depth heads-up on her NOCO site, like this amazing MCM in Ferguson.

    Ted Wight knows a good MCM home when he sees one, and shares sales info and amazing photos of such on his blog, St. Louis Style.  He also walks the talk, having just recently purchased a William Bernoudy home, making him a realtor who is also saving mid-century homes in desirable locations from being torn down.

    Ginger Fawcett knows a good MCM when she finds it. Here’s her LiveLocal. And her frustration at MLS listings making it difficult to ID mid-century homes motivated her  ModernSTL board membership. Ginger’s desire is to educate fellow realtors about the MCM market, which then advocates changes in how these homes are listed. Her educational activities include a Parade of Homes, where multiple realtors put their MCM homes on an open house tour so MCM buyers can see multiple, desirable  properties in one day.

    If you’re in the market for a Metro St. Louis mid-century modern home, these are the three realtors that I know who fully understand what you’re looking for, and can ease the burden of what is, typically, a time-consuming MLS search.

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  • Hey St. Louis, Buy Local – Brick By Brick

    Posted on November 24th, 2011 Toby Weiss 1 comment

    The only downside to Thanksgiving is it marks the end of reasonable shopping until December 25th. The mere thought of the huckster retail hell that begins with Black Friday causes me real anxiety. That they start Black Friday earlier every year has me contemplating therapy.

    If this rings true for you as well, the antidote is to shop local. Buying as much of your holiday bounty from independently owned St. Louis businesses supports your community, your neighborhood and the local folks who’ve stuck their neck out to go against the Big Box tide.

    A perfect way to celebrate this Black Friday is to StL two-bird-one-stone it on the local tip by heading to the St. Louis Curio Shoppe between 1 – 3 pm and buy a DVD copy of Bill Streeter’s film Brick By Chance and Fortune: A St. Louis Story.

    The Curio Shoppe specializes in selling only St. Louis-produced or St. Louis-centric items. Did you know we have a large group of local soap makers, who make soap so pure you could eat it (if you had to)? Go to there and see for yourself. And it makes all kinds of sense to meet Bill Streeter there and have him sign a copy of his movie; a movie that makes all kinds of sense as a gift for every St. Louisan.

    Here’s the Facebook invite for more details.

    If you can’t make it out for this event, you can order the film on-line. Here’s the PayPal link.

    A special thank you to Streeter for giving all of us who appear in the film free copies. You’ve already taken care of a sizable chunk of my Christmas shopping with this generous offering. And thank you for making all of us proud of our Brick City!

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  • Hampton Avenue Mid-Century Modern

    Posted on August 7th, 2011 Toby Weiss 11 comments

    One of the most interesting chapters of how St. Louis City developed can be read with a drive along the entire stretch of Hampton Avenue. Starting at Interstate 64/Hwy 40 and heading south 4 miles to just past Loughborough Avenue, you will find an even balance of original buildings from both before and after World War 2.

    The emphasis is on “original” because there was little need along Hampton to tear down old buildings to make room for bright, shiny New Frontier buildings because large chunks of Hampton remained vacant land awaiting development at the close of WWII.

    I did not know this until I began researching the origin of Hampton’s mid-century modern buildings, and was stunned to learn from the 1940 City Directory that there was NOTHING on Hampton between today’s Highway 44 and Arsenal. In 1940! Or that they didn’t have to knock down a single building to develop the intersection of Hampton and Eichelberger (home of the fabulous Buder Library building) because even as late as 1948 there was still no Directory listing for anything on that stretch of road.

    The St. Louis history of post-WW2 mid-century modern always focuses on the flight from City to County, or how old City buildings were demolished to make way for Urban Renewal. But along large swaths of Hampton Avenue, the mid-century modern buildings ARE the original buildings, and to think this happened within the City bounds at such a late date proves how the City of St. Louis is both so ancient and so young. This just adds to the schizophrenically endearing nature of our City, and highlights the importance of preserving and celebrating the historical and architectural uniqueness Hampton Mid-Century Modernism.

    Hampton Avenue is close to the western city limits, and to a growing City that took from 1850 to 1900 to seriously expand west from Grand Boulevard to Kingshighway, Hampton would have been considered “out in the boonies.” According to the St. Louis Street Index, the name Hampton didn’t appear on a map until 1913, and only earned its top northern section between Manchester and Oakland avenues in 1921.

    While there was continual residential development from the 1850s onward in the neighborhoods that surround Hampton Avenue (Oakland, Clifton, The Hill and Southwest neighborhoods), other than small pockets of commercial storefronts dating from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the bulk of Hampton Avenue appears to have been built up in earnest during and after World War 2. Meaning, once St. Louisans strengthened their commitment to the automobile, Hampton suddenly seemed much closer than before and worthy of commercial development.

    This would also mean that the density of MCM buildings on Hampton were designed and sited with the idea that people would reach them by foot, bus, streetcar and automobile. So this wasn’t a case of slotting new modern buildings into a pre-established urban grid (as was the case with Lindell Boulevard modern in-fill), but rather a blank canvas to paint with both the old and new colors available to planners, developers and architects in the mid-century.

    Since about 2002, I have been photographing the MCM on Hampton; some of the photos in this study are of a building in a younger or less-molested state. From the summers of 2010 to 2011, I purposely photographed 107 buildings, and spent way too much time pouring over physical City Directories at the St. Louis County Library headquarters, and on-line with Geo St. Louis. There are plenty of discrepancies between the two; I often had to rely on 1958 and 1971 aerial maps of Hampton to clear up confusion, or talking to an architect (Richard Hemi), a glazier (my father, Richard Weiss) who worked on a building in question, or asking older St. Louisans to dust off their memory caps and picture what used to be.  So, I know there will be plenty of inaccuracies of info that will be discovered, but now is the time for everyone to join in and share what they know.

    More on this building.

    For the sake of space, only 30 of 80 buildings could be included here.

    See all 80 Hampton MCM buildings and their history here.

    Of the 107 Hampton buildings that I photographed and researched, 46 were built between 1950 – 1959, and 29 were built from 1960 – 1969. Of the remaining 32 buildings, most were built between 1932 – 1949, with 5 of them going up between 1970 – 1976.  Some of the older buildings were given a modern facelift to keep up with the Joneses, and if there was a building in the path of what would become an interstate they were demolished. One example is:

    This grand palace at 2065 Hampton (at Wilson Avenue) opened in 1952 as Ollie Auto Top. Darren Snow found this photo as part of a display ad in the 1959 City Directory. The address was listed as vacant by 1969, and then Hwy 44 came through. A Steak ‘n Shake that sat at 2055 Hampton for about only 15 years also bit the 44 dust.

    My research turned up a steady and over-abundant stream of liquor stores and bars all along Hampton, especially along the stretch running through St. Louis Hills. For instance, 5918 Hampton is today Area IV, and that storefront is carrying on a long tradition of housing only taverns, which began in 1936 with Robert Werges’ joint. Sometimes a retail block would begin and end with a liquor store; so no one ever had to walk too far for a brew? As the elders have said, all the smoking and drinking in Mad Men is not an exaggeration, and Hampton Avenue from 1936 – 1970 was the living proof!

    More on this building here and here.

    After liquor, beauty and ice cream shops were the most popular along Hampton, followed closely by filling stations, which verifies how much more auto-centric Hampton was when compared to the other thoroughfares further east.

    More on this building here.

    There were businesses that moved just blocks away to get into newer buildings (like Charles of Yorkshire beauty shop or Gassen’s Rexall Drug Store), and lots of realty companies opened shop for a short time, reflecting how the neighborhoods around Hampton were still building up in the 1950s-60s. But there was always another business ready to move into a vacated storefront, and that still happens today. No stretch of Hampton has yet experienced the kind of rot that affects other parts of the city and their main thoroughfares.

    There are roughly 8 companies and institutions that still remain in the building first erected for them, including: Bayer’s Garden Shop whose building went up in 1948 as O.E. Bayer’s Garden, Furniture & Novelities; Porter Paints at 5400 Hampton, who set up shop in the new building in 1959; AB Dick Products still resides in their 1960 building at 2121 Hampton. Wise Speed Shop at 5819 Hampton moved into their new building in 1969, and only very recently did they close up shop and put the building up for sale.

    There have been some demolitions for something new like a highway (as mentioned above), or taking down a small house or filling station to accommodate a larger building. For instance, Stein Brothers Bowling was on the northwest corner of the Hampton/Chippewa intersection in 1965, but it was torn down to make way for what became Lindell Bank & Trust (which looks MCM but really isn’t). But in general, buildings get remodeled rather than demolished, and even when they are remuddled unrecognizable, it’s preferable to demolition.

    Two of the buildings in this survey are currently in the hot seat for demolition, which highlights why a study of the mid-century modern building stock on Hampton deserves a spotlight. This is a unique stretch of commerce in St. Louis City, an area that developed in tandem with St. Louis County, receiving the same kind of care and enthusiasm as shown to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson, Jennings, Affton or Lemay.

    I invite you to

    see a total of 80 Hampton MCM buildings at this link.

    And then travel this great street with new eyes – maybe even find some new ones that I overlooked due to being overwhelmed with the treasure chest that is Hampton Avenue!

    RELATED
    South Side Copies
    “Bldg To Be Razed” on Hampton

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  • Save Our Saucer Rally & a Talk with Its Architect

    Posted on July 5th, 2011 Toby Weiss 3 comments

    Want to show some love for The Saucer? Then show up Wednesday, July 6th at 6 PM at South Grand and Forest Park Parkway.

    Bring signs, posters and other items to show how much you love the Spaceship. Hear some knowledgeable folks share their love of the building and voice ideas for other uses for it.  There will even be limited edition Saucer T-shirts available!

    Let’s all come together to show the Board of Aldermen (who have their final vote on its fate Friday, July 8th) how beloved this building is and why it would be a tragedy to tear it down for unspecified plans.

    “There may be plenty of interest in reusing that awesome saucer if it is marketed properly! The building has the ability to be remodeled, adapted, or expanded to meet the needs of a new tenant or tenants,” says local architect Paul Hohmann. “We’ve been in touch with a number of local businesses, who may be interested in saving that iconic building, and we love it so much, we’re working with anyone interested to connect them with the opportunity to preserve it!”

    As it stands on public record, the developer sounds adamant that he only wants a new building in its place, and is stubbornly opposed to re-using, remodeling or adding on to the existing building. This seems like a narrowly-focused and short-sighted view point from a developer who has shown creative thinking on so many other St. Louis City projects.  Maybe if we all did the work of delivering a new tenant to him, he’d change his mind?

    I just got off the phone with recently retired architect Richard Henmi, who was the Associate and Chief Designer for Council Plaza – and the Saucer, specifically – while he was a member of the architectural firm Schwarz & Van Hoefen. He has been closely following all the media coverage about the Saucer (I met him when he commented on my previous post about The Saucer) , saying “I’ve never seen so much coverage for such a tiny building!”

    He drove by the building this past Sunday and said, “The 6-inch solid concrete roof has held up very well, though it should be checked thoroughly before doing any work on it.”

    What would Henmi like to seen done with the building he designed? He is aware that the developer would like more square footage for more paying tenants, and says that one could add onto the north and east sides of the building while maintaining the integrity of the roof. “It would need to be done carefully, but it could be done.” Henmi also envisions how the roof overhang would make for a pleasant outdoor dining patio, especially by adding low walls and landscaping around it.

    He has seen the proposed adaptation on the blog What Should Be,  and while he does not agree with the concept, he loves that people’s imaginations have been fired up about the building, and would love to see it become a “Wash U. sketch problem” for the next semester of architectural students at Washington University (where he graduated from in 1947).

    Henmi cannot make tomorrow night’s love-in because he is attending a family reunion in California, but once he returns, he said he will do all he can to save the building, as he’s already experienced the sadness of seeing 2 other of his buildings demolished in the past. And he will work with us to go through his drawings he donated to the Missouri Historical Society in 1989, so soon we should have copies of original drawings of The Saucer as designed for its original use as a Phillips 66 in 1967.

    See you tomorrow night at the rally to Save Our Saucer. Here’s the Facebook invite for more info. And please remember – this is a positive event about our love for this unique and endearing building, so let’s share only our love and ideas for its future.

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  • Saving the Del Taco Saucer from Politics As Usual

    Posted on June 26th, 2011 Toby Weiss 12 comments

    St. Louis is energized over the intent to demolish the flying saucer-shaped Del Taco at South Grand and Forest Park Parkway. Those who love the iconic and unique googie-style building are coupled with those who love the fast food franchise in separate campaigns to save the building and its contents. Those in St. Louis City government who love the developer are fast-tracking a new bill that allows him to demolish a building he originally planned to keep standing, and let him do so without having to follow the usual legal process .

    As a blogger concentrating on St. Louis mid-century modernism and an officer of the non-profit organization Modern STL, it’s obvious that I oppose the demolition of The Saucer. But for me, the real story is the troubling and flagrant display of personal politics overshadowing logical thought about the greater good and economic viability of Grand Center and MidTown (a.k.a. Politics As Usual in the City of St. Louis).

    Here’s the bullet points of the story:

    •In 2007, Developer Rick Yackey pays for a National Register application of all the buildings (including Del Taco) in the Council Plaza. Washington D.C. deems the entire Plaza historically significant and grants it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.  This National Register placement allows for the use of Historic Tax Credits to offset some Council Plaza redevelopment costs.

    • In 2008, the developer is also granted a 10-year tax abatement by the City as part of the 374 South Grand TIF Redevelopment Plan, thus offsetting even more costs.

    • In 2009, the corporation running Del Taco files for bankruptcy and allegedly stops paying rent to Council Plaza developers.

    • In 2011, the developer wants paying tenants on that property, so revises the Council Plaza plans to demolish The Saucer for construction of a new building rather than find a new tenant for his existing Historic National Register building.

    • On June 17, 2011, 19th Ward (where the Plaza resides) Alderwoman applies for an extension of the TIF set to expire at the end of 2011, with no mention of demolishing one of the contributing buildings.

    • On June 25th, 2011, without supposedly reviewing details of his plans for the new building or its tenants, the alderwoman introduces a new bill that cancels previous demolition safeguards on the TIF site, and re-blights something that was no longer blighted because TIF monies had improved the site. This will allow the Developer to demolish The Saucer free of legal due-process previously put in place for just such an occurrence.

    On the surface, this amounts to a major switcheroo, and begs the questions:
    • Who knew what when and how long did they withhold this information?
    • Is it OK for the City to condone a Developer playing all sides against each other to have their cake (i.e., historic tax credits and tax abatement) and eat it too?
    • Since the City is investing our loss of tax dollars on this project, shouldn’t they diligently research exactly what the new plan is and if it will be economically sound?

    The Developer Once Liked The Saucer
    It is a common occurrence for development plans to change as a project moves along. At the time Rick Yackey and Bill Bruce bought the 9-acre Council Plaza site, Del Taco was basically the only regularly money-making building left on the site, as the office building and the 2 residential towers were nearly empty. With Del Taco filing bankruptcy in late 2009, it is presumed that they have had problems paying rent on a timely basis and – of this writing – employee rumor has it this particular franchise is now closed, or will be closing shortly.

    So, the building that was essentially the only money-maker became a liability, and it’s logical that a development company paying for expensive construction would like some money coming in. As the landlords, they can now find new tenants. Since it’s a drive-thru, a Starbucks springs to mind as a good fit for the building and the area. Considering the building’s location and notoriety, finding a new tenant for one building may be easier than the expense of constructing a new building requiring multiple tenants.

    The unique flying saucer building was originally built in 1967 as a Phillips 66 gas station. It had a unique pedigree, as well. At the time, Phillips 66 was known for its bat-wing model, a nation-wide design that came down from their corporate office. But in this rare case, the same architects that designed the rest of Council Plaza also designed this special edition of Phillips 66.

    The Council Plaza architects were the firm of Schwartz & Van Hoeffen, who contributed many important buildings to the mid-century St. Louis landscape, including the Engineer’s Club (1959) and Optimists Club (1962) buildings on Lindell Boulevardin the Central West End, and the Mansion House Apartments (1967) in downtown St. Louis. Some of their buildings have already been demolished; these two men were part of the architectural team for the construction of the original Busch Stadium, and as principals in the firm Russell, Mullgardt, Schwartz & Van Hoeffen, they designed Northland Shopping Center, which opened in 1955 and was completely demolished by November 2005.

    Aside from it being a fun building that’s captured the hearts of St. Louisans for so many decades, Michael Allen points out in this piece that “Its tapered round form anchors the corner of the complex and offers a memorable counterpoint to the rest of the complex.” But all of these factors weren’t even mentioned in the National Register Application (read it here); it was simply and logically included as one of the reasons “The Council Plaza fully retains its integrity of Design through the retention of its original form, plan, spaces, structure and style… integrity of Workmanship… fully retains integrity of Feeling… retains its integrity of Association and continues to function as it did when constructed.”

    The Council Plaza Flats are now done, and there are some SLU students living there, but the retail aspect remains empty. Understandable, because these are tough economic times. If they are having a hard time finding paying tenants for the renovated building, what compels them to believe it will be viable to secure tenants for the proposed new-construction building? “Signed letters of intent from two national chain restaurants” is good, but check the definition of “intention” while looking at economic forecasts. By its nature, development is always a gamble, but this particular gamble feels foolish.

    Talk of creating a more pedestrian-friendly building is laughable. All of Council Plaza was originally designed with cars in mind. And even though plenty of people do walk to Del Taco, until they take care of the dangerous intersections around it (and the new bill claims all streets and entrances will remain as is), there will never be anything remotely pedestrian-friendly about this site.

    Black & white film photo I shot in 2001.

    The Alderwoman Professes to Know Nothing
    Council Plaza sits in the 19th Ward, which is governed by Ald. Marlene Davis. She smartly signed off on the original 2008 TIF plan, and when construction didn’t move along as quickly as planned (another common construction occurrence), she instituted a new plan on June 17th, 2011 that extends the TIF agreement that allows the developers until August 31, 2012 to finish the project.

    But when it comes to this new change of plans, a June 23, 2011 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the proposed demolition reports this (bold face is mine):

    Alderman Marlene Davis, whose ward includes the site, said she generally agreed with the plan, though she hadn’t been briefed on its specifics since a broader plan for neighboring Council Towers was approved in 2008. The area needs more shopping opportunities, she said, and, barring unusual circumstances, people have the right to tear down buildings that they own.

    “I support the development plan that (Yackey) showed me, which includes new retail,” she said. “I’m not part of the decision-making process of what you may keep or change.”

    If we take what she says at face value, it would mean that Ald. Davis has had no talks with the developers since 2008, until recently when she was given only the most minimal details about the proposed new building. But that was all she needed to hot-foot paperwork to introduce Board Bill 118, a proposed ordinance that includes a blight study of The Saucer (and – by association – claims that Council Plaza is still crime-ridden and unsafe; great way to attract tenants, yes?) and would abolish all the safeguards previously set in place to prevent easy demolition of any building in Council Plaza.  In addition, the TIF would pay for the demolition.  Read more about the bill and the blight study here.

    Typically, a request for demolition in a historic district would need to go before the city’s Cultural Resources Office for debate. But in this case, in a matter of 3 working days from the TIF extension, someone took this blight request directly to the St. Louis Redevelopment Corporation for quick approval and created Bill 118 that takes the matter directly to the Board of Alderman (BOA), thus bypassing any prolonged demolition applications and potentially messy debates about the building’s merit.

    Exactly who worked so quickly and diligently to pass through this change of plans? I wonder, because Davis implies she doesn’t really know any specifics about the new plans. So what would compel her to work so quickly for an undefined plan? Of course she supports changes that improve economic development in her ward, but in this case, what are these changes, exactly? If you’re going to bat for something, wouldn’t you want details? You surely wouldn’t go to all this effort merely on the word of a developer, would you?

    2006 photo by Jessica Borchardt of me taking more photos of The Saucer.

    The other troubling aspect of her public statement to the newspaper is: “I’m not part of the decision-making process of what you may keep or change.”

    Any business looking to renovate a building – with or without historic tax credits – in the City of St. Louis has to work with their ward’s alderman to assure an achievable goal.  Seeking their assistance is a normal part of the process. And monitoring the condition and viability of any income- or tax-producing building in their ward is most definitely part of their regular duties. It is safe to say that the majority of the successfully re-emerging business and residential districts in the City of St. Louis were made possible because of the decisions of an alderperson. Just as it is safe to say that most buildings that come down in St. Louis did so only after its alderperson weighed in on the matter.

    In the case of this change of plans at Council Plaza, it is artless and graceless for Ald. Davis to claim in the press that she has no part in the decision-making process. And it’s curious to assume that her peers on the BOA should automatically approve plans she claims to lack details on. Either she knows full well all the details (and since she’s endorsing it, should be proud of it), or she truly doesn’t know details and is simply counting on the “business as usual” tradition of Aldermanic Courtesy to take care of developers the City already holds in favor.

    Either way, it’s another discouraging example of why St. Louis continues to lack self-esteem in the realm of commandeering this City toward a strong economic viability that also bolsters civic pride (and undoubtedly, pride bolsters a city’s economy). What is the point of all the paperwork and expense of Historic Designations, TIF ordinances and due process if it will all be shunted aside by aldermanic loopholes – both legal and courteous?

    Also discouraging is the lack of Big Picture Thinking on the matter of The Saucer. Grand Center just launched their initiative to build a better “sense of community” with a “serious planning effort” for a common vision for the area. Anyone who’s ever come to Grand Center from Highway 40 knows they’ve arrived when they see The Saucer – it’s like the entry gate to our cultural district. If City Hall needs proof that this building matters to us, take a look at the numbers and the comments on the Facebook page that immediately sprung up to oppose its demolition.

    All this media attention would sure make it easier to find a new, paying tenant for the Spaceship historical landmark. And if the BOA were to take a break from Aldermanic Courtesy and deny demolition, all that joy and civic pride would come in handy during the next (odd-numbered ward) aldermanic elections.

    What You Can Do
    • This Wednesday, June 29, 2011 at 10a.m. in room 208 of City Hall is when the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee (HUDZ) invites the public to weigh in on this bill to allow for the demolition of The Saucer for a new building we yet know nothing about. Show up and share your thoughts.

    • You can also sign this petition, which is a joint effort by nextSTL and ModernSTL, and will presented to the BOA before a final vote is made on Bill 118.

    • You can contact Ald. Davis with your views. You can also contact any of the members of the HUDZ committee (find their contact info here), who are:
    Fred Wessels, Chair – 13th Ward
    Jennifer Florida – 15th Ward
    Terry Kennedy  - 18th Ward
    Charles Troupe – 1st Ward
    April Ford-Griffin – 5th Ward
    Phyllis Young – 7th Ward
    Stephen Conway – 8th Ward
    Kenneth Ortmann – 9th Ward
    Gregory Carter – 27th Ward
    Lyda Krewson – 28th Ward
    Marlene E Davis – bill sponsor
    Jeffrey L Boyd – 22nd Ward

    If you love the building, speak up. If you could care less about the building but dislike this type of St. Louis City politics, speak up. Suggesting solutions is always better than mere griping.

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