Fire Alters Downtown Belleville Landscape

200 block of E. Main Street
Belleville, IL

Of the 3 buildings pictured above, the first two from the corner are now gone because of a major fire in the early morning hours of May 26,2010. Read the detailed story with photos from the Belleville News-Democrat.

The consistently excellent reporting by the BND revealed that what I always thought of as two distinct buildings is actually 3 buildings. And while it was obvious that the facade of the former Fellner’s department store was a very choice mid-century modern retrofit, I had no idea just how very, very old all 3 of these buildings are (and, sadly, were) – dating back to 1865!

By late Wednesday afternoon, the sad remains of the two buildings (partially depicted above) were demolished and being carted off.

This part of downtown Belleville constantly amazes me because so very much of its original density has been preserved simply because it’s still being used. And I’ve admired the Fellner storefront because it was so tastefully done, adding a thick chapter of jet set glamor to the Belleville business district story. Now there are two businesses down and a violent void.  But because it is such a visible and functional spot, neighbors are immediately thinking ahead. As quoted from the BND report:

“It’s a tragedy to lose a building built in 1865,” said Geri Boyer, a resident of the Writers’ Lofts across East Main Street from the fire. “But, because I’m involved in development, it does open up some development opportunities for the buildings that are left. It opens the door for some potential for that space: parking, green space, a courtyard. Maybe it becomes a restaurant with outdoor seating.”

Boyer is an engineer and owns the Kaskaskia Engineering Group in Belleville. One of the structural engineers employed by her firm inspected the burned buildings.

“She made the same assessment the fire chief had already made: It was really unstable and something needed to be done immediately,” Boyer said.

This portion of the former Fellner still remains, and was saved by the intact fire wall, as reported by BND:

A fire wall that divided the thrift store from the community center stopped the fire’s progress. That wall separated the women’s department of the old Fellner’s from the rest of the clothing store.

The fire wall extended from the basement to the roof and was one story higher than the building that was on fire, which helped firefighters, (Belleville Fire Chief Scott) Lanxon said.

“If there are no places to stop a fire like that, there’s a chance you could lose a whole city block,” Lanxon said. “That’s what they’re there for, to stop from losing a city block.”

Lanxon stressed the importance of keeping fire walls intact. “If a fire wall is intact, it does its job. If there are holes made in it for one reason or another, if people punch holes through them, the fire could spread,” he said.

A reader’s poll within this on-line news report shows that the overwhelming majority of participating readers want the city to “rebuild so new businesses can open there,” and I love that can-do spirit, and agree with them. But I do hope that this portion of the MCM retro-fit can be retained as a remnant of the story that was extinguished. Maybe it can even inform the look or style of the new structure that may rise from the ashes.

Why’d Ya Tear It Down?

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475 N. Lindbergh
Florissant MO

This building was always a bank, as long as I can remember from growing up in North St. Louis County.  In December of 2001 I snapped this quick picture as I waited in traffic, as a visual reminder to go back and photograph it properly at a later date.  I like round buildings, in general, and I liked how this one’s roundness was composed of blonde brick panels with long, skinny windows between.  It was a low-key but slightly whimsical building.

Since taking this photo, I’d passed the bank many times, but conditions were always wrong for photos.  One brilliant spring day in 2007, I was back in the area and thought, “This is the day to shoot the round bank building!” But no, it was gone.  All that remained was a busted up blacktop parking lot and a round hole where the building was.  This is the only photo I have, the only reminder.

Now here it is, almost 3 years later, and Desco still has a For Sale sign up on an ugly, busted up blacktop property, with a listing price of $1.7 million.

The building was torn down and the property put up for sale well before the real estate meltdown, so that excuse for its vacancy is only 18 months old, at best .  And I’m assuming Desco figured it would be easier to sell property in this dense retail corridor without the building on it.

It’s always been expensive to build new buildings, which is why – in the current financial climate – many companies are happy to convert existing retail/commercial buildings to their needs.  And it has always been expensive to demolish a building of this size, but in happier economic times, realtors could afford to gamble on a bigger gain by clearing a property.

But in this case, the gamble has yet to pay off, and I wonder if Desco had left that unique bank building in place if maybe someone in today’s climate would have been more willing to take it at a reduced price and remodel to suit?

Our recession is teaching everyone a lot about thrift, sustainability, resources and conservation.  It now seems shockingly wasteful to demolish a perfectly serviceable building in hopes of landing a buyer with really deep pockets for acquisition and construction.  Especially in the case of this property, which  – because it has neighbors on all sides – can only accommodate a small-to-medium sized building, much like the one that was once there.

I do miss the building, and do hope that Desco and their ilk contemplate the proverb: Waste Not, Want Not.

The Folly of a Tear Down

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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.

Here’s video and a slide show of the demolition in Bryn Mawr, PA.

And here’s Palm Beach news about the lengths everyone went to to avoid such a senseless demolition.

Entry hall of La Ronda

Entry hall of La Ronda

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.

2 More Gasometers Coming Down

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Interstate 44 near Shrewsbury Exit
St. Louis, MO

As reported by the Webster-Kirkwood Times, the two gasometers that mark the boundary between St. Louis City and County are currently being demolished.

The natural gas storage tanks owned by Laclede Gas were erected in 1925 and 1941, and have been inactive since 1995.  They sit on just under 6-acres of land, which was purchased by a development firm that plans to grade and seed the soon-to-be-vacant property so it looks “nice” while trying to attract a new owner to build on the site.

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I’d like to know if the property developers even considered selling the property as-is, just in case there’s an entity out there that would like to re-use these iconic and impressive structures for other purposes.   Considering the current commercial real estate market, they may be sitting on this property for a bit, so they have some time play with, and could possibly save themselves demolition fees if a buyer wanted the gasometers to remain.

Are there other uses for such unusual structures?  Vanishing STL covered the demolition of another gasometer in St. Louis City, and in another post about its history, he shares information about how Vienna, Austria re-purposed four of theirs.

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Granted, the highway has locked these gasometers into a remote location surrounded by industrial, so that could limit the scope of new use, but limitations are what inspire some of the most compelling ideas.   It’s depressing that, yet again, there is a willful lack of imagination and possibility about high-profile structures that are part of the Greater St. Louis history.  And there is one more opportunity to squander our last remaining gasometer near Goodfellow, in North St. Louis City.

I wanted to document how most of us experience these twin towers: sturdy yet delicate-looking guide posts along the highway that change size, color and texture with the distance, time of day or weather.  Their absence will matter, and they will be missed.

Come to the Anti-Wrecking Ball, August 27th

See photos of the event!

full flyer.aiThe San Luis is toast, but what about the next building?

Our quest to clarify St. Louis City preservation laws – and assure that those laws apply to everyone – continues.   As we move this legal argument to the Missouri Court of Appeals, our tenacious lawyers need to get paid.   So we’re putting on a show to raise money.

Why We Continue

And here are the wonderful folks joining us on this fundraising journey:

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Off Broadway (thanks to Kit Kellison for supporting the effort and donating the club for the night) opens its doors at 7:30, and it all begins at 8 PM with Elle Adorabelle and Greta Garter performing before and after each band set.

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Leadville kicks off the music, followed by The Red-Headed Strangers and Rough Shop.  While the stage is popping, enter a raffle to win from a fine selection of  StL – Style merchandise.

It’s $10 at the door, and every cent collected that night goes to the Friends of the San Luis, LLC legal fund.

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We would much rather you come and party in person, but if you can’t and still support the effort, we gratefully accept donations through Pay Pal.

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Childhood Memories of a Ladue MCM Teardown

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In Spring 2006, I documented the last days of a Ladue mid-century modern home that was tagged for teardown. It was built in 1950 for Louis and Mary Zorensky, and the undeniable beauty of this home, coupled with its sad fate, sparked a lot of posthumous anger and admiration.

See the departed Zorensky Residence here.

Learn more about what replaced it here (scroll down 30%).

A Google aerial shot of the Zorensky Residence.

A Google aerial shot of the Zorensky Residence.

Recently, one of the daughters of Louis Zorensky found the B.E.L.T. entry about her childhood home, wrote to say she was moved by the photos, and ask if it was possible to have copies of them.

I sent her a photo CD that included the published photos along with many unpublished extras. I consider it a duty to photographically preserve mid-century modern history, and an honor when some of those photos can preserve treasured family memories, as well.

The same space after the Zorensky Residence was torn down for redevelopment.

The same space after the Zorensky Residence was torn down for redevelopment.

Irene and her sister Doris were kind enough to share some of their memories of their life inside this dearly departed home, and I now share them with you. What touches me the most is that you can tear down a home, but love keeps it alive beyond the physical plain.

From Doris Zorensky Cheng

My brother, David, let me know about your website and its incredible pictures of our family home. When I pulled up the website, I was amazed at the photographs and how they captured the essence of its wonderful siting, daring 1950’s architecture, wall planes and roofing following the lay of the land and its modern detailing with lots of glass, overhangs and ins and outs.

Thank you so much for the wonderful comments on your website. My father would have hated to see the house demolished but he would have so appreciated those comments. He loved that house that he and Mom built and took such good care of. He also loved the old trees that had been part of a larger parcel of land that was an arboretum for a previous owner. He worked to preserve them. That some people so appreciated his house would have made him so happy.

I was 7 years old when we moved in. My schoolmates would tell me that they had seen our glass house on Warson Road and how different it was. One person actually told me that people living in glass houses should not throw stones.

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Another memory is of my brothers, sisters and me playing pretend in the tall pine tree grove at the front of our house. We also had fun rolling down the hill in the back, especially when there was snow. And then there was the fun modern furniture and the quirky details like the circular planter in the entry hall, the wood cabinet bar area and the radiant heated terrazzo floors that we sometimes sat on to get warm.

But as a child, I did not appreciate the house itself as I can now. Your wonderful photographs helped me see it with a fresh eye. I just wish another family that loved 50’s modern architecture could have bought and preserved it. I am grateful for having your pictures. Thank you so much.

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From Irene Zorensky Fowle

Growing up in the Mayview home was an interesting experience. My parents always had a great appreciation for modernism, which was reflected not only in their home but in a remarkable contemporary art collection which they were able to showcase in that home. The large walls and high ceilings, the lovely angles of natural light, the neutral colors, and the overall openness of the home allowed the art to breathe and help define the space; there were no ornate moldings and lots of color to detract from the art.

Obviously, the very open floor plan was quite distinctive. My parents gravitated towards very neutral colors and natural materials .They had unpainted cabinets, natural wood doors, cork floors in the back hallway, beautiful earth-colored terrazzo floors (with delicious radiant heat–especially a treat after playing in the snow)–all avant garde then.  They had architecturally simple but very high quality matte chrome and nickel hardware – all of this in a time and geographic locale where shiny brass doorknobs and colonial design prevailed (and still does!!).

It looks like the subsequent owners painted one of the living room walls bright red, and obviously they painted the exterior gray-green covering up the natural brick, redwood trim, and rough limestone that my parents worked so hard to preserve.

My parents had window coverings and curtains that were frequently left wide open to allow the vistas of the trees and landscape to add color and definition to the home. The large, expansive windows also contributed to this openness – my Dad loved the outdoors, both working in his yard and enjoying the views from the house. The land had been an arboretum when my Dad bought it, so most of the large, incredible trees (many of them removed, sadly, for the new house)  were there when he bought the land and throughout the 40-plus years my parents lived there . As one of five kids, the three acres were great growing up as we had lots of space to run and sled on the magnificent hill and have hideouts under the great trees.

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It was interesting growing up in that house. I always felt different from my friends with their traditional cozier homes, but there was also an inherent pride in that differentness. My mother kept the house spotless and in magnificent condition, and you captured in your blog the found items that revealed my Dad’s habit of never throwing anything away. He kept so many of the original materials from the construction of the house. The archaeological finds you detail – bits of wallpaper, hardware, keys – was so characteristic of my dad.  Also, he participated in the architectural design of the home; as a real estate developer, he was also a frustrated architect and a part-time artist. He had a real vision in a time when it was rare to approach home design with such inherent purity and a sense of symbiosis with the land. Your touching photos really capture this! It sounds like the original bathrooms and the kitchen with its meticulous metal cabinets were there to the end, even with the 50’s colors of ceramic tile, etc. in tact.

Also, very striking was the lovely proportion of the house, not only in scale with the lot and the sweep of the land, but also relative to the lovely house across from it–I hope that home does not have the same demise!

I am so grateful that you captured the house. I thought about going in before it was torn down, but I was worried about  what the subsequent owners might have done to change the house that was my home, and also, afraid of how painful it might be. Your photo dialogue has really been a great gift to me and my siblings. I wish my mother were well enough to share it with her – she would be very honored and touched. You have made my late dad proud!!!

My Favorite Walgreens

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My favorite Walgreens no longer exists, and this is a highly ironic story.

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In South St. Louis City, we’re used to them tearing down bowling alleys so they can build a Walgreens. But in this case, in 2003, they tore down a Walgreens to build another Walgreens! It’s all true.

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This mid-century fabulous Walgreens was on Watson, just a scootch east of the intersection of Rock Hill/Elm. This one stayed open while they built a brand new one right at the intersection proper. Once it opened, they tore this one down, and now a short strip mall with a Blockbuster Video stands in its place.

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To this day, I still see a phantom image of it as I pass by. It’s roof reminded me of the Flying Nun’s head gear as she was airborn.  And it’s still a weird feeling to miss a Walgreens… know what I mean?

Like a Phantom Limb: The Ambassador Theater

Inside the late Ambassador Theater
7th & Locust, Downtown St. Louis, MO
Upon learning the news of a plans for a parking garage to go up on the plaza that brought down a building, I’ve been reminiscing hard about the Ambassador.

The theater itself closed long before I could see shows that created life-long conversation about concerts within. To this day, I still hear folks older than me tell tales of shows they saw there, and those memories keep the building alive.

In the final days of the 17-story Ambassador building, there was only one business left inside. It was a scroungy, hole-in-wall Chinese restaurant that I ate at about once a week, because I worked at the Famous-Barr building nearby. Rather than the food court on the 4th floor of the leaky-roofed St. Louis Centre, I preferred eating there because it had weathered soul, and allowed me to “use” and be inside the Ambassador building. I clearly remember the day in summer of 1989 when the owners told me the restaurant would be shutting down; they’d been evicted because the building had been bought and was coming down. That shock was followed by a slow and painful lingering death over the next 7 years.

In the late spring of 1990, they opened up the ground floor of the building for a public auction of the theater’s contents. During the time one could tour what they might want to bid on, I spent lunch hours photographing as much of it as I could. The two black & white photos above are from one session, and click here to see the color shots I shared with Rob Powers.

Those hours spent inside the remains of the Ambassador still pop into my memory with alarming frequency. I remember the sights: as I photographed the ticket booth (above), a man asked, “Are you buying that?” I remember the smells: a stack of musty sheet music found backstage and the lingering scent of stale perfume in the ladies’ rest room. But it’s the overwhelming feeling of sadness that sticks the hardest. I still feel it every time I walk by that unused bank plaza.

That I’m not the only one who feels renewed outrage at the latest developments on that property highlights how important our landmark buildings are. They can tear down the building itself, but just can’t kill its meaning or the resonance of its demise. The Ambassador is downtown’s phantom limb.

(One of these lamps – above – wound up in the movie theater at the revamped Northwest Plaza.)

The Ambassador remains a cautionary tale about dunderheaded downtown planning politics, and how “they” haven’t learned anything in the 13+ years since its demise. For instance:

* If the building could have been mothballed for just a few more years, it would now be a precious gem in the crown of downtown’s rehab renaissance.

* Now, let’s put up a parking garage on the land, and revisit the bad juju of another parking garage just 2 blocks away from the burial grounds of the Century Building (another phantom limb).

It’s not just the misguided and clueless idea of another new parking garage surrounded by a minimum of 5 other parking garages within less than a 4-block radius that burns. It’s that we have City Fathers’ missing the importance of the tax dollar influx from our rehabbed historic forest for the precarious limbs of a banking tree. This corporation already once wasted an opportunity for the entire downtown region with a flimsy excuse, and are potentially being allowed to add insult to the lingering injury. That they are seriously discussing giving them $700K in tax incentives for this folly creates a chilly parallel to the $700 billion U.S. bailout of national banks being rescued for bad behavior.

I sincerely wish our city could learn from past mistakes and work toward elevating our resources and potential rather than financing another dog and pony show.

The River Roads Memorial Garden

river roads demolition

River Roads Mall, Jennings MO
River Roads is now, for all worthy detail, gone. A vertical ruin of what was the JC Penney building still stands, and the grocery store (which started life as a Krogers) is still open for business. Everything else is a mound of debris or a throbbing hole in the ground. This has been a leisurely demolition, lasting about 18 months with still more work ahead before any new construction can happen.

river roads architectural pieces

My anxiety over the River Road Ruins is officially over. The white, turquoise and aqua tiles littered all around and always just out of my reach (photo above) are now gone, there’s nothing left to save. So, that chapter of the River Roads story is done, but I’ve had a new chapter of the story writing itself in my backyard.

dillards architectural pieces

With several pieces of the former Stix, Baer & Fuller building piling up in my yard, the idea to use them as a garden border popped up. After cutting through backbreaking zoysia to create dirt beds, it was a strange thrill to layout the River Roads pieces into a whimsical, mid-century modern garden chain. By the middle of May, perennials and annuals had been planted, and it was just a matter of watching it grow.

river roads mall leftovers

river roads memorial garden pieces of dead mid-century malls in St. Louis County A sidebar to the River Roads Memorial Garden is shown above. The hexagon is part of the interlocking Stix wall that faced Jennings Station Road. To its left (in front of the hosta) is a piece of the original Cross Keys Shopping Center in Florissant MO  that was demolished in 2003. What looks like a “P” to the untrained eye is actually the mangled “R” rescued from the main Northland Shopping Center sign in 2006. There are also various other pieces of Northland in this tableau, which underscores why I had to do something vaguely useful with all these pieces junking up my backyard.

stix baer and fuller architectural tiles with zinnia

sunflowers

This has been my first true flower garden, so it’s been an education. One thing I’ve learned: sunflowers are scary beasts. They are too tall for comfort, and too heavy for their own stems to support them. Once the flowers finally arrive, they offer about 5 days of gorgeousness before morphing into bedraggled UFOs that become dangerous projectiles in summer thunderstorm winds. This is the debut and finale of sunflowers in my yard.

river roads memorial garden

A round of applause goes to Wendy Fischer for helping to dig the flower beds and providing much-needed enthusiasm to make this project happen, and to Cyndi Woollard for adding pieces of her world-class garden to my starter kit.

River Roads Bulletin

River Roads Shopping Center (remains)
Jennings, MO
If you’ve been patiently waiting for a chance to nab one of those aqua bow ties off the former Stix, Baer & Fuller store, better hurry.

It’s taken well over a year for them to get to it, but now less than a quarter of this section remains, and the bow ties, hexagons and triangles litter the pit of the demolition site.
Above is what I was able to take with me, and the gathering of just these 2 pieces was accompanied by a constant hissing of “shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!”
Why?

Because having come from a birthday dinner, I was in no way dressed for spelunking into a pit of construction debris. I had on the completely wrong shoes for climbing over fencing and hopping over large chunks of building guts. I was freaking out as I took photos and saw hundreds of pieces of that sophisticated, geometric marvel of wall scattered below. So the wrong shoes be damned, down I went.

One has to park rather far away from the demo site, and when carrying armfuls of heavy ceramic tile, the walk is noticeably long (especially in the middle of July, trust me). And there’s only me, and I’m hopelessly inappropriately dressed. So, I could only salvage the two pieces shown above.
But this is the kind of stuff I had to walk away from! Look, a section still intact enough to get the full picture of how they puzzle-pieced the facade together. It’s sublime! And take a look at that hexagon piece. Dozens of them are lying – intact – all over the ground, looking like MCM birdbaths. I was losing my mind at how much stuff survived the fall, and how little I could save. That piece shown above? Way too heavy for me to carry that far by myself in heels….shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!!!!

So, if you want some shopping souvenirs, please hurry, because as the demolition work week continues, more and more of it goes into a trash dumpster.