The U.S. Census & St. Louis’ Over 50 Housing Stock

American housing statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau are making the media rounds, and the media has already begun taking a negative slant. Take a look at the coverage by the city with the most housing stock over 50 years old, Buffalo, New York. They lead off by slamming New Orleans for the highest vacancy rate.

At least the St. Louis Business Journal’s headline about the statistics focuses on St. Louis. We have the 2nd highest vacancy rate. Here’s their article.  Here’s some St. Louis housing stock stats they break down for easier consumption:

  • Housing units 180,490
  • Occupied units 143,045
  • Seasonal units/units that are not occupied but have been sold or rented 2,514
  • Vacant units 34,931
  • Vacancy rate 19.35%
  • Units built since 2005 1,706
  • Share of units built in past five years 0.95%
  • Units built before 1960 145,264
  • Share of units built more than 50 years ago 80.48%
  • Median year of construction for existing units 1939
  • Median value of owner-occupied housing units $119,900
  • As I hunker down in my home built in the median year of 1939 (another useful stat), I’m afraid to read any other local media outlet’s take on this news, because it will surely be negative – that’s what the media (and reader comments) excels at.  Words have power, and going for the negative spin only holds a benefit for those hell bent on tearing down rather than building up. As these new stats make the media rounds over the next few days, I ask you to consider a positive take on every negative you hear.

    For examples of positive spin, let’s look at a stat like 80.48% of our homes are over 50 years old:
    • Ask most any carpenter or architect and they will tell you you’re better off in a home over 50 because they were built to last.
    • St. Louis is the 3rd most sustainable city in America because of its older housing stock.
    • People move to out city because of the deep and vast character of our original housing stock.
    • St. Louis is proud to have so much of its heritage to show off.

    You get the point.
    Perception becomes reality, the power of positive thinking is that it brings positive results.  Your response to the following declaration will reveal if you’re part of the problem or the solution:

    St. Louis is such an affordable, historic, well-built and handsome city that the vacancy rate is a temporary set back.

    Louis Sullivan’s Lions

    705 Olive Street
    Downtown St. Louis, MO

    St. Louis has an 1893 Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler building on the National Register, the Wainwright Building, which ranks as either the first or second (depending on whose counting) skyscraper built. Not as well known (even to my Architectural History & Theory teacher in college!) is that we have a second Sullivan & Adler building that survives to this day. On the northwest corner of 7th & Olive is the building which was designed as the Union Trust Building. Starting in 1902 it began a series of name changes: St. Louis Union Trust, Missouri Trust, Central National Bank, Lincoln Trust, and finally, to the name on its National Historic Landmark plaque, The 705 Building.

    It also went through some serious remodeling, including a 1905 addition by Eames & Young on the north end of the building. But the most heinous crime was a 1924 remuddle which scrapped off the exterior of the first two floors. Here’s what it looked like from 1893 to about 1923.

    Aside from the circular windows that still survive on the alley side of the building, the upper 13 stories have remained intact, including the lions shown above.

    Typically, I dislike parking garages. But when the roof of a parking garage puts me this close to my beloved lions, then I really dig this parking garage, and don’t mind having had to pay $5 to use it!

    To the right in the above photo is the Railway Exchange building, where I worked for Famous Barr advertising for 13.5 years. For half that time, we were on the 8th floor, and the Advertising President’s office looked down on these two lions. The the fool sat with his back to them!

    When he was out, I’d sneak into his office to gaze lovingly at them; they were both inspirational and a sedative for deadline stress. They also got me in trouble when I was caught hanging out the President’s window with a camera, trying to get a shot without a dirty window between me and the lions.

    And now 10 years later, a parking garage that I was forced to use on a Sunday afternoon has given me the closest, clearest access to all the lions. It was the best kind of September Sunday St. Louis Serendipity!

    South Side City Block For Sale

    Gravois Avenue & Meramec Street
    South St. Louis, MO

    This is a rather rundown intersection in the Bevo Mill neighborhood, but if you look through the grime, there’s some interesting visual history of when St. Louis (like other Rust Belt cities) actually produced goods, and those industries dictated the transportation, housing and society of the neighborhoods they resided in.

    While stuck at this stop light contemplating these fanciful thoughts, I noticed the two buildings above had Hiliker For Sale signs.  The building on the left is a 2-family flat from 1915, and next door is a 4-family from 1915.

    And the one-story industrial building next to it, from 1918, is also for sale by the same company.

    Even around the corner, on Meramec, the 4-family from 1915 is also for sale.

    Which means the entire block bound by pink in the above aerial map (courtesy of bing.com) is for sale by the same agent, though info about these buildings are not on the Hiliker site.   Included in this full city block is the jewel of the lot…

    …the 9-story-total factory from 1928 which was formerly the Graham Paper Company. It sits majestically at the top of the viaduct, and in the late 20th century it served as a storage warehouse.  I remember idle talk in the early 20s of it becoming loft apartments, but obviously that never happened.

    All of these properties currently for sale are listed in city records as being owned by 4230 Gravois LLC, c/o Imagine Schools, which begs the question: did this organization buy all these properties with the intent of creating a campus, then changed their mind?

    The Graham Paper Company building is a gorgeous example of dignified industry, which was par for the course for the 19th-into-20th century, and I admire how they tucked this large complex into a block already populated with multi-family housing.

    What will become of this block? Must the buildings be purchased as a whole, or will “the whole” turn off any but the deepest pockets? It’s easy (but not desirable) for potential developers to dismiss the residential and remuddled one-story warehouse as demolition fodder, but the Graham complex cannot be denied.  It’s a strange and intriguing plot of land, and the possibilities for a new use are plentiful…and worrisome.

    If anyone has information on what’s happening with this block (including – and most especially – history of Graham Paper Company), please do share.

    Today’s the Day we Save the San Luis

    todaywestop_color

    Today is when the Preservation Board reviews the proposal to demolish the San Luis.

    Today is the day you can show up to persuade the Board to deny this permit.

    It is especially important that we turn up in large numbers, because in some political corners they consider the permit a done deal.

    If you’re tired of Old Boys Network politics as usual, please come and support this effort.  The Board will make its decision ON this night, so if you want to immediately know the fate of the San Luis, come to:

    1015 Locust Street, Suite 1200
    Downtown St. Louis, 63101
    4 PM – ?

    For all the latest information, visit No Parking Lot On Lindell.

    Garavaglias’ of the South Side

    Intersection of Lafayette & Nebraska Avenues
    South St. Louis City, MO
    The building above, with its distinctive corner turret and vintage signage, is always a welcome sight. I mentally refer to it as the Garavaglia Quality Foods Building. Considering all the activity going on in the immediate area, maybe it’s just a matter of moments until this building comes back to life?

    Near the intersection of Loughborough Avenue & Morganford Road
    South St. Louis City, MO
    I pass this tavern on most every work day. It’s such an essential part of the fabric of this part of town that it’s easy to overlook it. And only a few weeks ago did I finally SEE its signage: Garavaglia’s Hill Top Inn. As in the same Garavaglia’s Quality Foods Market? That’s not a real common last name, and how did I overlook this possible connection for so long?

    The Quality Foods building was built in 1895. City directories list Pundt Brothers Grocery in the space from 1912 to 1946. From 1947 till the very early 1950s, it was the grocery store of Eugene Wessbecher. Around 1952, Charles J. Garavaglia came into the picture, with a name change to Quality Foods in 1963. Records show the corner market stayed in business until 1989, so is that when the building was shuttered?

    The building is still owned by Garavaglia Quality Foods, LLC, and oddest of all, they are listed in numerous on-line St. Louis catering lists. Meaning, some unknowing South Side bride will find this place listed as a viable provider of mostacholi, call the number and get the “no longer in service” message. How does a place that closed in 1989 still have such deep internet saturation?

    As for the Hill Top Inn, the building first appeared in 1924, and by 1933 it was billed as Gockel Groceries. The service station seen to the left in the above photo was also there, belonging to George Schwartz, who just so happened to live next door to Goeckel Grocery, at 6904 Morganford (it is now the vacant spot between the tavern and the other house seen in the 2nd photo, above).

    In 1942, Joseph J. Garavaglia owned the building, and turned it into a liquor store. In 1947, Julia Garavaglia took it over, and by 1968 she changed the name to what we still call it to this day. At this time she also moved into the now-absent house next door (presumably after Mr. Schwartz moved out, but ya never know).

    While doing all this research, I ran across a Garavaglia Market that operated in Dogtown from 1930 – 1950, but then realized that all of these joints never had any owner names in common. Wondering just how common a surname it is, the White Pages reveals a full half-column of Garavaglias, so it’s not a rare name, obviously. It’s merely that a heaping handful of people with this name have been/are connected with food and liquor concerns in South St. Louis, and they have given us some delightful signage and good times. I salute all the Garavaglias!

    Overland, MO Mid-Century Modern

    Lately, Overland is notorious as the township with the deluded, egoistic mayor who refuses to relinquish the burning castle. Aside from City Hall ineptitudes that have inspired so many of its citizens to blog, Overland is a nice town; completely suburban, yet old enough to have been formed to urban standards. There is a formal downtown nucleus that spreads out into little tract homes, and at Christmas the main drags are festooned with the exact same lighted decorations decade after decade. Overland retains so much of its original fabric that it often feels like touring a museum of post-World War 2 Baby Boom suburban expansion. Yet the place is alive, feisty and curious in a low-key manner, which keeps it off the hipsters and aggressive developers radars.

    These photos are a fair sampling of the commercial buildings along Lackland Road, right in the immediate vicinity of Skeeter’s Frozen Custard. Generally, they were all built between the end of World War 2 and 1955.

    This particular building has changed hands many times (it was an upholstery shop for the longest time), with each new owner never feeling the need to radically alter its appearance. And I’ve noticed that about this entire stretch of road: the commercial buildings don’t stay vacant for very long and they seldom get radically remodeled. Some may say that a lack of apparent progress is the sign of a stagnant city, but I see Overland’s constant, gentle ripples as a city finely balanced.

    One of my favorite examples of Overland being satisfied with its resources is the above service station. Walking onto the parking lot is like swooshing back in time, with that time being kept by the very same clock that’s graced the building since it went up in 1954.

    The only major change the decades have wrought is the removal of the gas pumps. Other than that, it’s business as usual, utterly neat and tidy and friendly.

    What year was this photo taken? The only thing that betrays 21st century is a package of blue M&Ms and Skittles in what is most likely the exact same vending machine the original owners plopped into that office 53 years ago.

    Heading east on Lackland and crossing over Woodson Road (the city’s main drag), one can see the most curious of buildings. Some portion of the Knights of Columbus Hall was built in 1930, and dusty new additions have been plopped into the mix over the decades. The place is now massive, and appears dead to the world, but its ramshackle appearance always stays exactly the same (indicating regular upkeep), and its website shows a full roster of activities.

    Just up the street, the YMCA sports the Deco Moderate look that was popular in new suburbs of the late 1940s. It gave new public buildings a sense of the modern urbanity but without all the drama. This style holds up well, as it never looks too dated (for those who require contemporary) or too radical (for those who like quaint). This YMCA building went up in 1948, is still in use, and still looks fabulous.

    At the intersection of Lackland & Brown Road is this simple and handsome building, built in 1945. The curving corner, a ribbon of tiny windows and the dark brick pinstripes of the second floor give it a bit of a Steamliner Deco feel. There is always another business ready to take over any vacancies in this building, and it’s been this way since I first “met” the building in 1984. This intersection has businesses on 3 sides, but it’s a bit disconnected from the main commercial drags by houses. Meaning, it would have been a natural for this building – this intersection – to decay from natural suburban aging. But it hasn’t. What does Overland have going on that similar towns don’t?

    Directly across the street is a building that always tickles me. I mentally refer to it as Googie Van Der Rohe because it looks like a Chicago Mies building accented with a Southern California roadside motel lobby. It was built in 1957 as a bank and remains so, and it looks like that!

    The SoCal Googie looby was, obviously, the main entrance, meant to be accessed by foot, bus or car from the intersection. But in 1967 they moved the entrance to the opposite end of the building when they expanded that parking lot. The “new” entrance still has that afterthought look, and feels cramped because of the makeshift drive-through lanes crowding its scene.

    I love that a bench was placed under the canopy, so that employees can lunch and smoke in Jetsons splendor, and that they have to walk quite a ways to get to it, as that door has a chain on it to make sure it stays shut.

    So, the entrance is now useless as such, yet they’ve left it completely intact, with the “crazy man, crazy” light fixture hanging like it’s suspended in prehistoric amber. It’s such a queer thing to have so many different banks move in and out of this building, reconfiguring its guts and alley as banking needs change, yet they leave the essential Mod-ness of it alone. Is it a case of “out of sight, out of mind?” Or that no one bank is ever inside long enough to invest in remodeling the non-essential parts? Or does it cast some sort of 77 Sunset Strip spell over all inhabitants, rendering those who would vinyl side incapable of doing so?

    By hanging a U-ey at Lackland & Brown, we drive back toward Woodson Road, hang a right and head straight into the thick of old fashioned Downtown Overland. And it really does seem to have gone out of its way to be old-fashioned from inception. County records show that most of this dense strip of buildings went up in the 10 years directly after WW2, so they built quickly during those last moments in time when pedestrian traffic still influenced how a commercial district was laid out.

    The downtown strip has a few stalwart businesses, remainders from the old days. But, again, each time a storefront becomes available, it gets filled much quicker than these types of commercial districts usually do. And by quicker than usual, I mean that we can cruise the central commercial strips of, say, Normandy or Baden or Glasgow Village and see a chain of vacant storefronts. But not in Overland.

    And they have never really had the room to renovate for expanded parking. Sure, they’ve taken down a building or 2 to squeeze in some blacktop spots, but overall, its street parking, and those spots are always filled and there’s always commerce taking place.

    One of the liveliest spots in downtown is the diner, above. By keeping it tiny (572 square feet being a good definition of such) they were able to push the building up against the sidewalk and use the leftover space for parking, which was quickly becoming a bigger concern when the place was built in 1957.

    Half of the building is decked out in Pseudo Deco, vaguely reminiscent of White Castles, while the other half is standard Corner Tavern Stone facade. That they were able to cram 2 distinct looks onto so little wall is most impressive.

    And the interior has barely changed in 50 years.
    What kills me is that one can easily walk from Paul Bros. service station (4th picture from the top of this entry) to this diner in about 10 minutes and somehow remain in a Leave It To Beaver world, untouched by the uglier aspects of modern time. And we’re not talking some retro homage; it’s the entire genuine article, unfussy and unconcerned that the diner reeks of decades worth of grease. It’s probably those ancient grease odors that makes the biscuits and gravey (spelled, my lord, with an “ey”) so damn great.

    The Hacienda Mexican restaurant has long been a popular staple in the downtown strip, but it hasn’t always been this pink. It used to have a more traditional Northwest County Adobe look. I feel they updated the color to Flamingo Pink to better coordinate with the establishment behind it…

    …which has spruced up its Lyndon B. Johnson congressional motel look with some hot sea foam green trim. Built in 1965, they were billed as “garden apartments,” for all doors faced into a central courtyard, much like in Southern California.

    Every good downtown needs a dollop of seediness, so this place has become rather transient, in the most romantic sense of the word. The set-up is actually quite nice, but I couldn’t get in any closer for better shots, as the working girls crossing the tiny parking lot were real uptight about someone taking pictures of their place so early on a Saturday morning. I respect free enterprise, so I respectfully moved on.

    Leaving downtown proper, we head back up Woodson Road, a couple of blocks south of Page Avenue, to one of my favorite buried MCM treasures. Overland is rather hilly, and note how this gem (above) plays with the topography by tapering a rectangle into the hillside. I love the feel of the windows melting into the ground, and the shades of blue springing out of green grass and blacktop.

    This place was built in 1958, and it’s a perfect model of that year’s modern aesthetic. Tiny tiles of aquatic blues, the concrete block sun screen that throws polka dots amid the shadows, simple planes low to the ground, cool geometry in service to manufacturing prowess. If this building could have been erected next to the Googie Van Der Rohe bank, the story of 1950s American Progress would have been perfectly told in microcosm.

    U.S Band & Orchestra Supplies now manufactures and wholesales instruments, and the building serves them well enough that they don’t think about it’s condition. This building needs some help. A good start would be to trim the hedges and kill the weeds, some waterproofing and paint on the faded surfaces.

    Each time I pass this faded beauty, I have to fight the overwhelming urge to have at the tile with a bucket of Spic & Span and a water hose. Just imagine how those tiles gleam when clean, how this building must have impressed when it first came to the neighborhood. And it could do that once again, but the immediate commercial strip in which this building sits is heading toward the kind of decay that invites future developers to go for Big Box infiltration. Should this ever be the case, the one building that just might save the above gem is…

    WOOFIE’S! Serving what has been called “the hot dog of the gods,” the building went up in 1955 and is only a dozen square feet bigger than the diner shown above. But this building was dedicated to the car from its inception, so the inside can now concentrate on being a tiny “shrine to the all-beef frankfurter.” It’s clean and bright, and on a brilliant sunny day, Woofie’s contrasted with my blue tile geo gem next door is a sight to break my heart. It speaks to me of all that’s good about America’s mid-century aspirations, and makes me proud that such a unique town like Overland is here for you and me.

    A Case Against Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect

    Few would dispute that Frank Lloyd Wright is a giant of architecture. We need not delve deeply into his life and career. Any decent bookstore features two shelves worth of books on the man, leading a casual browser in the Architecture section to believe that Wright is the only architect who matters. We all know as much about him as we want to, and even a disinterested person knows who he is and why he matters. So, I don’t have to do a Ken Burns on you; I only want to question Wright’s classification as a Great Architect.

    What prompts this questioning was an article from Preservation magazine called “Holding Up Fallingwater.” It illustrated the structural rehabbing of the terraces and framework of the iconic house that Wright designed in 1936. The lower concrete terrace sagged from level by as much as 7” (visible to the naked eye), and when warned by engineers in 1995 of “possible massive structural failure and collapse,” the conservators jacked up the building so it wouldn’t fall apart while they figured how to save the architectural milestone.

    They also dealt with water leaks in the roof seams, window seals and skylights. The continual water damage had wrought cracking walls, peeling paint, warping doors and rotting artworks. $11 million was needed to restore what was once the vacation home of a man who reportedly referred to the place as “Rising Mildew”, and has been open as a public museum since 1964.

    Floors were ripped out so concrete-anchoring blocks with steel cables could be inserted to keep the structure from sagging any further. The irony of this particular repair was surely not lost on any surviving engineers and contractors who ignited the wrath of Wright in 1936 when they questioned the lack of support rods in his structural specifications. To avoid further irritating the architect – who threatened to quit if they didn’t do it his way – the builders simply snuck in twice as many steel enforcing rods as called for when Wright had his back turned. It still wasn’t enough, apparently, but you could only cram in so many extra rods while Frank was out to lunch.

    Due to unorthodox construction and materials, most of Wright’s houses require constant maintenance against water damage. Movie producer Joel Silver lived in the Los Angeles Storer House, designed by Wright in 1924. He had to solve the problem of water leaking through his concrete walls. From an April 1998 Architectural Digest article on the house:
    “In fact, Wright’s tendency to sacrifice practical considerations to aesthetic ones led him to admit that the labor needed for his singular concrete-block system made it too expensive for affordable housing. In any event, ideas like ruling out sealers so that a rough finish for the textile blocks could be achieved were highly impractical; the walls leaked – as did the roof – because of equally eccentric flashing applications. These and other problems were eventually solved through a process of trial and error of which Silver says matter-of-factly, ‘Wright lives with me. If you fight him, you lose.’”

    From Architecture magazine, November 1989:
    “Leaks are a given in any Wright house. Indeed, the architect has been notorious not only for his leaks but his flippant dismissals of clients’ complaint. He reportedly asserted that, ‘If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough.’”

    When researching the engineering defects and customer complaints of Wright-designed residences, I can’t shake the stereotype of a pretentious and bratty artiste abusing the largess of monied patrons who are willing to tolerate such behavior in hopes that their social status will reflect the golden light of artistic genius. This is a commonly accepted personality trait of Great Artists.

    Architecture is most certainly an art, but one with inherent limitations because it concerns making structures that people use and depend on. The artistic aspirations of a building must successfully meld with the client’s intended function for it and the builders’ ability to construct it firmly and accurately (also known as the Vitruvian triad of beauty, commodity and firmness).

    Creating a building is much like shooting a film with the architect as director, the engineer as producer, the carpenters as the film crew and the client as the audience who will pay to view the finished product. This cooperative concept was accurately summed up by professor and inspiring analytical thinker Witold Rybczynski in his book Looking Around:
    “…a building exists not solely as a vehicle for the skills or expression of the architect but as an object with a function… This prevents the architect from developing what is usually the hallmark of an artist: a consistent personal style. Or, at least it should.”

    A large percentage of Wright’s visionary reputation centers on his complete control of every design detail. From roof to throw rug to how the furniture he designed should be placed in a room, no aspect of his houses could exist unless he said so. The concerns and needs of clients and builders were ignored and treated like the football a small boy threatens to take back if his playground pals won’t let him be full-time quarterback.

    His art was the most important concern and his contempt for the residents who would eventually live in the piece was palpable. If seen from the viewpoint of the sculptor dismayed by the pigeon poop and lounging people on his statue, you can empathize with the artist whose work is compromised. But if a patron then tried to live on this commissioned sculpture, we’d laugh at their lunacy and side with the artist who never intended the statue to be used in such a manner. This is how it is with Wright’s houses.

    The architectural community sides with the artistic brilliance of Wright, and his vision has forever altered the celebrity and prestige of the profession. The creative ideals and standards Wright perfected continue to be an inspirational starting-point for many modern architects. Wright claimed he was chiefly concerned with making houses that would encourage spiritual comfort for the families living within. There are enough documented complaints from bewildered owners to prove he failed at this lofty goal. Families have come to learn that it’s not just a bum house that requires constant maintenance, but rather the care and feeding of an important work of art.

    That people with plenty of money and patience could be taught to overlook practical failings for the sake of art was a monumental discovery. Wright achieved artistic perfection despite the pesky requirements of owners; he proved that architecture could exist as an uncompromised high art, divorced from the practicality that had previously accompanied it for centuries.

    To subsequent architects, his technical failings matter not when compared with his artistic brilliance. This may be why many practitioners seem perfectly happy to have demoted the physical sciences necessary for sound buildings in order to concentrate solely on design. Wright was Ground Zero of this concept.

    As a longtime fan of Wright, I too often find the intense visual pleasure of his work ruined by his crappy track record and his disregard of adhering to sound architectural principles. He was a lousy architect, but an outstanding and pioneering artist. I am tired of balancing incredulity and admiration, and I see only one solution.

    With all humility (i.e., I don’t have an architectural or art degree!), I’m requesting a reclassification of Frank Lloyd Wright from The Greatest Architect to The Greatest Artist of the 20th Century. My case is based on the following points:

    He forever changed the rules and boundaries of a classical art form. He didn’t let the limitations of the ancient craft of architecture reign in his creativity. Architecture was merely a springboard to hurl him over the boundaries and onto a new plain. If great art inspires others to explore further and forge new paths of expression, he qualifies just from the hordes of architects who have followed in his steps.

    He created revolutionary art with new materials. Rather than pencil, paint, stone or clay, he used real world, life-sized three-dimensional building materials. Paper or canvas was not the proper place for realizing his ideals; only mixed media could bring his vision to light. The frames for his work measure thousands of square feet mounted directly to the earth, and no one since has been able to use his medium with such assurance and adeptness.

    He designed and built his own art galleries. Not only did he get funding to create amazing pieces that were arranged in powerful installations, but he also designed the perfect buildings to show them in. Many patrons pushed the bounds of propriety by living in his galleries, but they often came to their senses before mussing the essence of his works.

    His galleries become museums. After removing their personal belongings, patrons donate these galleries to foundations who turn them into museums dedicated to preserving his art for the delight and education of present and future generations. That we are able to view his works in their entirety, and that they continue to profoundly move us, proves the museum designations a sound historical decision.

    The opportunity to own any of his works is increasingly rare and expensive. Wright was insistent that every piece of his work remained as it was designed and placed. To get rid of a table or a light fixture was akin to chopping a toe off Michelangelo’s David. Many have accepted this as a wise artistic decision and have left things intact. But when the foolish let go of individual pieces, they are snapped up by enlightened and wealthy people who covet them, as any truly great work of art should be. That the pieces retain their beauty and power when removed from the original context is testament to his clarity of vision and mastery of design. A person who owns a Wright piece then displays them as one would any important fine art object. Company would never be allowed to sit in one of his chairs or walk across one of his rugs. That would be as preposterous as using the Mona Lisa as a bulletin board.

    These are towering artistic achievements that make Andy Warhol’s pop culture statements look like birthday candles on a cupcake. Analyzing Frank Lloyd Wright from a fine art point of view places him firmly in the pantheon of the giants of art, and with no serious competition for title of The Greatest Artist of the 20th Century.

    When we insist upon defining and analyzing him as an architect, the emperor is seen standing naked inside a glass house. It is a disservice to his importance when someone like me can find reason to throw a stone. Having presented this case, I can now put down my slingshot and resume admiring Frank Lloyd Wright.

    Rossino’s Italian Restaurant

    rossino's italian restaurant st louis mo photo by toby weiss206 North Sarah Street, Central West End
    St. Louis, MO
    An underground Italian restaurant that was a loosely kept aboveground secret is closing at the end of April. In the middle of a mostly-residential block, in the basement of an apartment building, Rossino’s (under various names) has been in business since the mid-1940s. Originally known for their pizza, over time it became a place for city movers-and-shakers to lunch, lovers to hide away, hardcore regulars to roost and an exquisite jewel to discover.

    entrance to rossino's italian restaurant st louis mo photo by toby weissThe freshly painted, off-hand “shack” facade is already at odds with the dense urbanity of the neighborhood. Going down the stairs from street level (above) sets the stage for the time warp about to be entered.

    interior of rossino's, st louis mo photo by toby weissThe “lobby” (above) is crammed with antiques both retired and in-use. It’s also relatively well lit because of outside light seeping in. This is the last time you will see any form of blank space, or your feet.

    celebrity autographs inside rossino's, st louis mo, photo by toby weissAbruptly, the ceilings lower, as does anyone over 6 feet. You’re bombarded by stuff nailed, propped and stuffed onto every surface, and one has only taken 2 steps away from the lobby. Then, BOOM, you can literally crash into the bar (featuring a signed photo of Tom Cruise’s first wife Mimi Rogers, as well as a less-crazy Tom with Mama Rossino, above). Bumping and stumbling is de rigueur because there are hardly any light bulbs; candlelight is it. You know that moment when you come from bright outdoors into a darker room and your eyes need a few moments to adjust? Underground at Rossino’s, your eyes stay in that suspended moment of disorientation. The wait staff is well-practiced in playing seeing eye-dog, leading the blind through narrow alleys, and politely ignoring the clumsiness and exclamations of those dealing with Alice In Wonderland alternate reality.

    interior panorama of rossino's italian restaurant photos by toby weissThis was my maiden voyage to the institution that was retiring. I’d never known of the place, which is shocking considering all the Italian-descent, city-dwelling people in my life. What brought me here was my mother and my friend, Bob Dielman. Both of them are 70-years old, and Rossino’s was a regular hang out for them during the late 50s/early 60s. Back then, the main calling card was, yes, the pizza, but more importantly, they had a 3 o’clock liquor license. When the other places closed, Rossino’s was the place to go for more booze, or to sober up. When they heard of Rossino’s imminent retirement, they wanted to take one last nostalgic trip to relive fond memories and to say goodbye.

    Both of them recognized the bar and the main dining room (above). They peered into their past as the hostess walked us right past it, and Mom and Bob slightly freaked. As of the mid-1960s, that bar and dining area was the extent of Rossino’s. Somewhere in the following decades, a wall was knocked down and the restaurant oozed into the rest of the basement. As you proceed, the ceilings get lower, it gets even darker, and the bric-a-brac piles higher.

    atmosphere of rossino's italian restaurant april 2006 photo by toby weissAbove is a fair representation of the cozy, netherworld ambience, as interpreted by a non-flash digital camera pushed to maximum capabilities. It was an exercise for me to decipher the menu (which I folded up and stashed in my purse as a keepsake) by candlelight, and my eyes are pretty good. My 70-year old companions? They didn’t even bother reading it; they simply ordered from “ancient” memory: lasagna for Bob, spaghetti and meatballs for Mom.

    Both were thrilled that it was just as good as they remembered it. I had the carbonara, and it was truly amazing (both the cream sauce and the bacon perfectly prepared and balanced). Later, when I paid the bill, I was stunned at how cheap our meals and drinks were. It was as if having a 5-star Italian meal in 1962! That’s the moment my heart broke: I had just fallen in love with this glowing ember, an eccentric, sentimental oddball oasis inside a tear in the space/time continuum… and this love affair could only last for 2 weeks. This is how I genuinely felt after 1.5 hours. What about those who’ve felt this way for decades? One would buckle under the weight of their sadness.

    rossino's ladies room photo by toby weissSpeaking of buckles, what will become of the very old-school sanitary napkin dispenser (above) in the ladies room? What will become of 60-years worth of memorabilia, antiques and junk that hold up the concrete walls? If there was light, you could stare at just one corner and never see everything hiding there.

    interior of rossino's pizzeria, st louis mo, photo by toby weissNeeding to know what was being missed, I finally let the camera flash strobe blindly into the vast darkness, and only later was I able to see what we couldn’t see right in front of our faces. In the shot above, that’s only a 5-foot sqaure piece of Rossino’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. Multiply that by 10,000 other items that never see the light of day, soaked in warm memories and appetizing aromas… that it will all be dislodged and uprooted is just… heartbreaking, really.

    exterior of the late rossino's italian restaurant, central west end st louis, photo by toby weissSecond-generation owner/ manager Nancy Zimmerman has been at the restaurant since her early teens. She now wants to retire. It couldn’t have been an easy decision to make, for not only is her entire life in that basement, but also her family, past and present. The sadness of loyal patrons’ just adds to the hugeness of her decision, and the strength of conviction to do the proper thing. She’s given everyone fair warning and plenty of chances to say a fond farewell. She and her family have contributed something lovely and worthwhile to the history of St. Louis. Thank you.

    A Beautiful Home

    South Warson Road & Mayview Drive
    St. Louis County, MO
    Welcome to Mayview, in the Ladue area. We’re going to take a detailed tour of a house that was built in 1950 for Louis Zorensky and his wife Mary.

    At the south-facing front entry to the house, it rambles low-slung, like a cross between International Style and late-period Frank Lloyd Wright. The late Mr. Zorensky, along with his brother Milton, developed both Crestwood and Northwest Plaza shopping malls. A neighbor said a friend of St. Louis architect Harris Armstrong supposedly designed the 1.5 story house.

    The west end of the house carries on the International Prairie Style, and you get a hint of the hugeness of the gorgeous plot of land this 5, 866 square foot house sits on.

    Turn the corner to the north, and the house reveals 2 new surprising elements.

    Like the bow of a ship, a rounded window juts off the southwest corner of the house, as if steering a course towards Warson Road.

    Heading down the gently sloping hill of the vast backyard and looking up, the north side of the house is a long series of rectangles bisected by a minimalist rotunda!

    Rising up on slender white columns and hovering out of the main house like a flying saucer, the glass rotunda is simply breathtaking.

    Looking into the airy, light-drenched room, note the ribbon of transom windows at the ceiling line, and a sparse fireplace ringed in rust red marble. This view shows a bedroom entrance (above, right) the front entry and a peek into the living room proper (above, middle) and a door (above, left) that leads into a lounge.

    The outside curve of the rotunda provides a flowerbed, and functioning jalousie glass so breezes could waft in. The rotunda room is glorious, or as Claire Nowak-Boyd (who introduced me to the house) said, “I could live in (this) room for the rest of my life and be happy with just that.”

    Pulling away from the surprising miracle of the rotunda, the northeast corner of the house has a covered patio, which is the outside extension of the lounge.

    Two sides of the lounge are floor to ceiling glass. The wall shared with the rotunda room is flagstone punctuated by another fireplace. The fourth wall is a serious bar set up, which, of course, has a pass-thru window to the kitchen behind it. Seeing this room made me long for a dry double martini with two olives, and some bossa nova on the hi-fi. Past the extra-wide entrance is a better view of the living room. The lounge also has two sets of double doors, one leading to the afore-mentioned patio, and the other leading to the backyard.

    Standing on the patio, here’s a detail of the back door leading into a mud room, which leads into the kitchen with its generous bank of windows.

    Here’s the east-facing 3-car garage, and the upstairs bedroom story sits atop it. The house just keeps unfolding, adding new dimensions and textures yet never losing the thread. As I discovered and chronicled the house for the first time, I was nearly teary at how perfect it was, and my heart was breaking because of the reason I was here.

    This house was days away from being demolished.

    Typical story: a family wants a brand new McMansion Monster in an ultra-desirable neighborhood. They are willing to pay $1.5 million (according to St. Louis County records) for this house and grounds just to tear it down and build something brand new.

    Michael Allen & Claire were helping a friend who had been given permission by the new owners to salvage all the metal cabinets in the kitchen. The demolition clock was ticking, so they had to work fast, and once the sun set, had to work by flashlight, since the electricity was already disconnected. Michael & Claire let me know I needed to go out and see and document this beautiful place before it became demolition dust.

    Claire’s impassioned prose about the house they were salvaging in says it best:

    “The lines of the house just work so well with each other and with the landscape around the house. The longer we spent in the house yesterday, the more surprises I discovered–a strange doorknob here, an interesting grain to the wood there, a curve on the edge of the ceiling here, the way the light from the line of six almost-ceiling-height transoms along a hallway moves through that hallway as the sun moves across the sky. There are four bedrooms, quite a few bathrooms. Every bathroom has marble in it, as do a number of windowsills. These are rare kinds of marble, too, cut into precisely streamlined modern shapes. The house even has a mini pond, in the shape of 3/4 of a circle wrapped around the interior corner of the entryway.

    Almost everything in the house is big and custom. The steel cabinets we took out were so numerous that you could fill three normal kitchens and maybe have some left over. A former owner of the house was a cabinetmaker, so there are glorious wooden cabinets in many rooms.

    One of the saddest details is that someone has saved everything. In each bathroom, there is a sample of the tile for that room in the cabinet. Someone saved rolls of all the weird wallpaper. Keys for odd things (like electrical boxes) are taped to what they open, and meticulously labeled. I found preserved light bulbs for a lighted mirror. Someone was planning for this house to live a long, long time, and to be maintained in its present near-pristine state. Someone left these things when they moved out, assuming that the buyer was going to need them so that each accidentally broken tile could be replaced in the proper, perfectly matching color.

    The thing that blows my mind is that this house would not be mansion-ey enough to someone? It is GLORIOUS and I can’t imagine ever living in a place like that. And it’s not even old! It’s not out of style yet! Yes it’s very very 1950s, but the whole house just works so well that I don’t see how anyone could think its design looks old. The house has minor water problems, but I bet they could all be fixed under ten thousand dollars. I don’t know, I mean, I live in a 121 year old house and I really love it but it definitely has all kinds of frumpy “old house” problems–it’s leaky, bent out of shape, and all settled. This house just doesn’t have problems like that. It’s not old!”

    Here’s a shot of the house across the street, which is age and style appropriate to the one now gone. I show it because context is important, and because while taking these final pictures of the house, the contractor who is building the new house stopped by. So, I pumped him for some info.

    He said the plans for the replacement house are beautiful. It will be about as long as the current house, but will be deeper, taking up some more of the backyard space. When I asked if the new house would be taller, he said not really, just bigger in a more spread out way.

    The contractor had no reaction at all when I commented how gorgeous this house they were tearing down is, and he bowed out of our conversation by saying, “The new house will be a beautiful and impressive addition to this neighborhood.”
    Maybe, but will it be appropriate? Oh wait, “appropriate” is just so quaint… sorry.

    Peering through the front living room window, we see the little pond that Claire spoke of. The entrance to the lounge can be seen on the right, and a partial glimpse into the rotunda room is to the left.

    Since this house would be toast by the beginning of March, I tried my best to capture the million little details about this house. My one shot at photographic preservation took place as the sun was setting, which was dramatic, and then I lost the light. But it made me think about how this house changed shape and feel as the light changed throughout a day. Just to imagine the many moods of just the front entry (above) was overwhelming.

    After peering in that living room window, I approach the front entry from the south, through the jungle of mature vegetation that had been meticulously planned and attended to for decades. The corner window and expanse of plate glass seen in the middle of this photo was a bedroom.

    Here’s the front door. Note that everything is about letting in light, from the square cutouts in the porch roof, to the panes of glass next to the front door that let light into the entry vestibule, to the grid pattern of glass block in the brick wall. Note the 8 different textures in this one space, and what a pleasing whole they made, and this was just the front porch! This was the detailed program of the entire house, constantly unfolding like a rose.

    At the entrance of the porch, a look up shows the generous eaves of the second story, which was the bedroom level. Various shapes and sizes of windows punctuated even the stairwell for that level, because it was all about the light, the inside and outside melding.

    I was rapidly losing the light and the will to remain at the site because I had just fallen in love with a house that was doomed. I thought about the Zorensky’s and how much they obviously loved their house, imagining their life on these grounds. I was stunned that the new owners were immune to the thousand charms of this house. I was angry about what building would replace it, because no matter how “impressive” it promised to be, it would still pale in comparison. I was deeply sad that something so magnificent was rendered insignificant and was hours away from being dust. Nothing is permanent, and beauty always fades… or in this case, is destroyed.

    Noah’s Ark

    Former Noah’s Ark Restaurant
    Hwy 70 & Fifth St. Exit, St. Charles, MO
    Upon hearing the news that Noah’s Ark was going to be torn down to make room for an aquatic center , pictures of the remains were required.

    The place opened around 1966, and to grade-schoolers Noah’s Ark was Mecca. It had giant fiberglass animals, a killer kids menu, kiddy cocktails to match your folks drink for drink, and the waitresses passed out plenty of cheap plastic, animal-shaped doo-dads to keep the tots distracted until the macaroni and cheese arrived. I’m going on word of mouth about this because, sadly, I never went to Mecca when it was hopping (above, top). I was about the only kid I knew who was cruelly denied the thrill. I simply stared at it longingly from the car as we sped past it on the highway.
    Actually, the November 2005 visit (above, bottom) was my first visit. I’m a late bloomer…

    The restaurant has been closed since at least 1996, and the animals were herded away from the ark and scattered about the parking lot (above, bottom). While the place has occasionally been used as a Halloween haunted house (4th item down), it sat vacant for years. This is prime real estate, so that it remained untouched for so long is surprising. Maybe sentimentality played a part in it lingering in limbo for so long.

    Still hanging at the entrance are some framed photos of the place in its heyday. Sun-faded photos feature Milton Berle as a celebrity guest, parade floats in downtown St. Louis (above, top) and many shots of the cavernous dining room cram packed with diners.

    From the makeshift hanging scrapbook, glimpses of the interior show (above, top & bottom) that the leopard print chairs matched the waitresses mini-skirts, which is hubba hubba in a pre-Hooters way. Also note that they were made to wear safari pith helmets, which is way cool.

    From this angle, the fading remains of Noah’s Ark looks vaguely similar to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamps

    …but actually, a brick gas station pierces the hull like an iceberg (above). The Ark looks as if it crashed ashore to stock up on Twizzlers and Pepsi before the 40 days of rain really kicked in hard.

    Even as the gas station invaded, and a hotel ate up the parking lot, the powers that be let most of the Ark’s remains stand undisturbed, including the too-ugly-for-words lamp post (above). There’s a curious magic to the place, and maybe the new tenants could keep the animals; elephants fit in with the aquatic theme, and kids find giraffes therapeutic, right?