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  • Sign the Petition to Save Lewis & Clark Library

    Posted on February 9th, 2014 Toby Weiss No comments

    lewis and clark library proposal

    In a logical and inspiring attempt to help the St. Louis County Library Board of Trustees reconsider their plans for demolition, ModernSTL released this proposal.

    It’s a compelling and workable starting point for understanding how the historic mid-century modern building by architect Frederick Dunn can be retained while also gaining the additional space required.

    In the past, the Library Board has mentioned a very sound point: Why have we not heard complaint about our plan from the people who actually use this library?

    It can be argued that the Board has been rather stingy with engaging the public on what they want or prefer for this (or any) branch. They have instead repeatedly cited voter mandate. But that tax issue was about the funding of the entire scope of the plan and the system’s needs. It’s doubtful that the majority of those voters gave their consent based specifically on “Yeah, tear down Lewis & Clark, will ya?”

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    At the event where ModernSTL shared the proposal for adding onto the library, residents who live next to and use the library decided to speak up against the Board’s plans, and ask for them to save it.

    Here is the on-line petition via MoveOn.org.

    A letter writing campaign at the end of 2013 did result in the Board sending out a form letter in response to each postcard. They were very polite, but made it clear they are not budging from their original plan.  So let’s try a new way to engage them to reconsider – please sign the petition if you agree they should at least reconsider saving their only significant building.

    Keep track of all the love shown for the building and the fight to save it on the Save the Lewis & Clark Library Branch Facebook page.

    And the graphic shown above is available as a T-shirt.

     

  • 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.

  • 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!

     

     

     

     

     

  • 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!

  • Making Money from Clayton’s Mid-Century Modern Buildings

    Posted on July 1st, 2012 Toby Weiss 3 comments

    We covered the Clayton-Forsyth building in November of 2009. Here is the story and photos. That post was inspired by the old news that the owner of the building wanted it to come down to build a mixed-use development. But The Great Recession quieted that thought.

    The June 29, 2012 issue of The St. Louis Business Journal brings the thought back as a cover article (above). Turns out the building’s owner – Tony Novelly – has been banking buildings along this stretch of Forsyth, including the Clayton-Forsyth building, which is also known as The Lawyer’s Title building.

    With next door neighbor Tip Top Cleaners set to close, their building goes on the market for $1.7 million. Novelly had reportedly tried to buy them out before. The Business Journal has no hard facts about Novelly’s intentions, just strong implications. Even his son, Jared Novelly, says for the article that they have no immediate plans to redevelop all their properties on this block. “We’re always open to redevelopment, but it depends on what the market does. Nothing is going on right now.”

    It’s starting to feel like the era of mothballed buildings is in the starting stages of ending. If the real estate market is truly starting to come back to life, the mid-century modern buildings in Clayton’s Central Business District (CBD) are easy targets. Maybe not so much the building above, by architect Harris Armstrong, as it sits on the outskirts of the CBD.

    And maybe not this other Harris Armstrong building. It’s even on the National Register of Historic Places. Then again, Clayton has already torn down a much larger Armstrong building, shown here on the website of the Clayton History Society. National Register is not a guarantee of safety, just a distinctive title.

    And the Pierre Laclede Center is pretty safe, as they’ve recently spent millions to refurbish both buildings while respecting its mid-century modernism.

    After that, just about every other mid-century building in downtown Clayton, MO is ripe for teardown. Many have already been torn down to build new skyscrapers and/or parking. This is a business district, and there is supposedly more money to be made from skyscrapers, which give you density of inhabitants making money.

    Novelly already owns two corporate skyscrapers right next to and across from the buildings cited on the front cover of The BJ. So he does have a history of investing in the teardown of old buildings for behemoth new business centers. And it is being implied that he might soon have all the old buildings on this block. And past news articles have stated that he intended to tear down the Clayton-Forsyth building for a much larger mixed-use building, so it’s easy to assume his development history on that block will repeat.

    But let’s drop the supposedly inevitable for a moment, and put on our thinking caps. You know what would be brilliant? Embracing the unique mid-century modern heritage of the Clayton Business District, and making money off that.

    The prosperity and might of the Clayton CBD happened immediately after the end of World War 2. The majority of its buildings went up between 1945 to 1972, making it a quintessential mid-century modern city. It’s a text book example of the power and optimism our country had after the war, and the architecture they used to reflect that.

    To be a part of the New Frontier and The Great Society, elderly and established downtowns had to utilize federal Urban Renewal funds to demolish and make way for new, modern buildings. In the mid-1950s to late 1960s, the City of St. Louis went on a demolition spree, ridding itself of “ugly,” “unhealthy” and “dangerous” old buildings.

    As Downtown St. Louis crushed buildings into dust on the government’s dime, downtown Clayton was a blank canvas of relatively open land with prosperous business-owner residents who had moved there before The Great Depression. Or as the City of Clayton website tells it:

    By the late 1940s, Clayton was in the midst of a building and business boom that eventually changed the City from a quaint suburb to the hub of the St. Louis metropolitan area. In 1952, the City re-zoned the area that became the Central Business District, allowing larger commercial and retail businesses to expand.

    (In 1957), the City abolished the height requirement on new buildings, and plans for Clayton’s first high rises were soon in the works. However, City planners established strict requirements to ensure Clayton streets would not become tunnels amidst corridors of skyscrapers.

    So a boomtown had the foresight to require variety in its buildings. Low-rise and high-rise would co-mingle to create – literally overnight – a new and powerful metropolis that would soon overtake Downtown St. Louis as the business center of Metropolitan St. Louis. That’s the beauty of working with a blank canvas – you can build a city from the ground up in record time and have it architecturally reflect the powerful and expansive mindset of a forward-moving society.

    And here’s the kind of buildings they willingly chose to reflect their power.

    All of the buildings shown in this post are part of the mid-century modern quilt they weaved within 30 years. The largest percentage of them went up in a less-than 20 year period. This is why downtown Clayton has a certain aura about it. Because many of these original mid-century buildings are still in existence, sometimes tucked into the shadow of newer post-modern skyscrapers.  And it’s the melange of tall and small, street-level and sky-level that give downtown Clayton it’s powerful charm.

    America is still scrambling to understand how to live and prosper in this new Post 911 cyber world with a global economy. All of the old rules are crumbling around us, and that includes the rules of land development. The days of automatically clearing an old building for a new one are looking rather barbaric in hindsight. We simply can no longer afford to be a disposable society anymore.

    But luckily, holding onto your existing building stock can be just as profitable as the old crush-and-build model was for awhile.  Off the top of your head, how many historic sites can you think of across America that bring in busloads of tourists? Large chunks of New England figured out decades ago that there is money to be made in old buildings and towns, and that local, state and federal governments will even help you turn it into a profit-making destination.  I think any developer of an “ancient” building in modern-day Downtown St. Louis knows what I’m talking about, here.

    When it comes to the newer realm of mid-century modern architecture and towns, we can look to Palm Springs, California as a great example of preserving residential and commercial buildings. It is easily the hippest destination in the nation, a desert town drowning in tourists disposable income.  And let’s also consider all the building-buff travelers to downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has lovingly kept all of its art deco institutions in tact.

    Mid-century modernism is the last great American architectural style. People have been quicker to pick up on the benefits of preserving and using these buildings than past generations were to saving turn-of-the-20th century buildings. Both the building-huggers and developers are realizing that post-war Baby Boomer buildings and towns have several layers of worth and are worthy of keeping.

    And you know what? The downtown Clayton Business District is an original, authentic mid-century modern city! It even has a very healthy percentage of its original buildings that prove this. If the money-makers in Clayton were to play their cards right, the CDB could become the Palm Springs of the Mid West.

    Making money from existing historical building stock is a very real and attainable prospect. It is a compelling thought for Tony Novello while considering what to do with his Lawyer’s Title building. It’s a beloved building that has been allowed to go vacant, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Development is as much about marketing as it is capital expenditures and improvements. Maybe fly a mid-century modern flag up the pole and see who salutes the Mid West Palm Springs idea?

  • 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.

  • MCM Library: The Lewis & Clark Branch

    Posted on October 10th, 2010 Toby Weiss 4 comments

    9909 Lewis-Clark Blvd (aka Hwy 367)
    Moline Acres, MO

    Having recently visited 2 different libraries within 30 minutes in South St. Louis City, I got to reminiscing about the importance of libraries to our communities and to my personal history.  Which reminded me that the St. Louis County Public Library system has a written plan to eventually demolish the Lewis & Clark Branch in North County.  NOCO did a brilliant job of reporting this last year.

    I am all for modernizing libraries to serve a new century; in St. Louis City, they have spent (and continue to spend) millions refurbishing existing libraries, and have done a brilliant job helping historic buildings remain vital and indispensable. St. Louis County is now in the middle of appraising their stock, and it’s troubling that their first thoughts are to demolish rather than refurbish.

    Especially when they have a branch like Lewis & Clark, designed by renowned architect Frederick Dunn.  His works are so important that Esley Hamilton will be speaking about it on October 17, 2010 as part of the Landmarks lecture series. And his groundbreaking church in St. Louis Hills was covered here this past summer. So, from the perspective of historic preservation, the Lewis & Clark Branch is clearly a contender on the name of Dunn, alone. Enlarge the aperture to include the context of its place in a developing North County of the 1950s-60s, this library gains even more reasons to be celebrated and elevated with a sympathetic update and remodel.

    After WW2, North St. Louisans drove out Broadway to the Halls Ferry Circle into North County, which found Hwy 367 building up rapidly with businesses and homes.  In the tiny inner-ring suburb of Moline Acres, they built this library in 1963, and right next door in 1964 they built Top of the Towers, which became the hub of everything that was cool, sophisticated and modern. Read more about Top of the Towers here.

    This nucleus of activity allowed ranch home subdivisions and churches to spring up around them, and an exploding population contributed to the spread and dominance of far North St. Louis County. These are important chapters in the evolution of Metro St. Louis, especially because high design and skilled craftsmanship were still a standard part of our progress.

    On a personal level, this building means a lot to me. By the mid-1970s, my divorced mother and I were living in nearby Black Jack, and money was tight, leaving no babysitter budget. My mother came up with the brilliant idea of using this library as a free babysitter for her grade school child. At least once a week, she dropped me off at the front door and let me know “you have only one hour to pick out books for the week.”  This turned out to be an hour of productive freedom for both of us.

    An hour never seemed like enough time, so I had to stay focused on researching and procuring before time was up, constantly looking over my shoulder at the clocks on the wall to make sure I got to the check-out counter before my mom arrived. This kept me well-behaved and quiet while stockpiling books and records that fueled curiosity and expanded knowledge. It also bolstered my sense of responsibility, independence and love for a building that felt like my personal playground.

    The historical importance of a building comes from its design and its contributions to the community it served. All of the National Register buildings in Metro St. Louis made it onto the list because of these factors, and all of them required additional updates and remodeling to keep them viable for the present and the future. The Lewis & Clark Library falls into this category, and as we wade into the historical importance of mid-century architecture, it deserves much deeper thought than the wasteful decision to demolish.

  • MILESTONE: Mid-Century Modern Subdivision on Missouri’s National Register of Historic Places

    Posted on October 5th, 2010 Toby Weiss 9 comments

    Ladue Estates Subdivision
    Creve Coeur, MO

    For St. Louis fans, connoisseurs and scholars of mid-century modern architecture, know that a milestone moment has happened: Missouri has its very first post-war subdivision on the National Register of Historic Places.

    St. Louis County is worrisome for Atomic Ranch lovers because it feels as if they’re being demolished the very moment after they are appreciated for their historical grace. The original post-World War 2 owners who embraced this architectural style and made these neighborhoods possible are leaving behind significant homes that become vulnerable to the tear down developers.  Here’s the tragic tale of an exceptional Ladue home that was demolished for a McMansion.

    But in the face of fears that a lack of architectural appreciation and zoning laws will tear down important chapters of St. Louis history comes the first ray of hope: Ladue Estates was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May of 2010. And on October 1, 2010, St. Louis preservation luminaries such as Esley Hamilton and MiMi Stiritz were at the intersection of Ladue Road & West Ladue Estates Drive for the dedication ceremony.

    But what makes this particular moment particularly sweet is that it was NOT brought about by architectural scholars, well-meaning activists or public servants. Ladue Estates was granted ground-breaking historic status because its RESIDENTS recognized its beauty and significance, and worked to make it official. And talk with any resident to learn that the hero of this triumphant tale is Lee Ann Baker (above left), while Lee Ann is quick to point out all the help she received over the 3 years it took to complete the National Registration form.

    Take a moment to look through the fascinating history of Ladue Estates in this pdf of the winning application.  Note that it is 76 pages long because it extensively covers all 80 homes in the post-war subdivision, as well as the original builder and architect, and the Jewish heritage of 3/4 of the original owners. Then note that there are architectural historian professionals who are paid good money to research and fill out National Register applications for projects  a quarter of this size. Which is what makes Lee Ann’s accomplishment all the more amazing; it was truly a 3-year labor of love for a neighborhood they adore and want to see protected in perpetuity.

    For the dedication ceremony, MiMi Stiritz read aloud this letter from the Missouri office of Historic Preservation:

    …(Ladue Estates) represents a collection of high-style ranch houses that are nearly pristine in their historic appearance and setting. As one of the first luxury subdivisions in the area, it additionally reflects St. Louis County’s westward growth into what was primarily rural land. Its wide lots, expansive lawns, attached garages and sprawling floor plans epitomized the suburban dream of the post-war years.  In fact, Ladue Estates is such a good illustration of the suburban boom, it has been used as an example by staff of the National Parks Services National Register of Historic Places program in training classes.

    The significance of Ladue Estates for its architecture and role in the development of Creve Coeur is easily apparent. What is not as obvious is its significance for cultural heritage. Over ¾ of the original owners were Jewish. At the time of Ladue Estate’s construction, there were still prejudices that resulted in restrictions as to where members of the Jewish community could re-locate. Built by Ben Goldberg, the Jewish owner of Goldberg & Co., Ladue Estates proved to be a welcome location for Jewish families who wanted a piece of the suburban life.

    Shortly after the Ladue Estates development, the surrounding area became the home of several Jewish establishments including synagogues, educational facilities, and social and community services. While it would have been easy to nominate Ladue Estates for architecture and community planning alone, the citizens of Ladue Estates went the extra mile to bring this valuable information to life.

    Finally, the state historic preservation office applauds the efforts of the citizens of Ladue Estates. They nominated this district through their own time and dedication. Their pride in their subdivision is evident and serves as a shining example of historic preservation efforts on the local level.

    Being invited to such a milestone moment in mid-century modern preservation was an honor. Even better, it was an absolute joy to meet, tour the homes of and talk with residents of this enclave. They are a friendly, vibrant and industrious group of people dedicated to the care and maintenance of a subdivision they recognized as special long before retro-modern became fashionable. For them, it’s about the quality of life from an abundance of natural light and green space, accessible single-level floor plans and Old World craftsmanship that makes these homes as solid as they are beautiful.

    Their conversations about 12-foot thick concrete foundations, window replacement, seamless room additions and architecturally compatible updates on their 54-year old homes have the same intensity of detail and passion as those working on their 102-year old home. And their glee in being able to show us one of the few remaining original ktichens was almost as great as our awe upon seeing this:

    An entire kitchen of original GE metal cabinets in teal blue (the other original color choices were pink and pastel yellow)! In the picture above, you see the open door of one of TWO refrigerators, with the freezer to the right. And TWO wall ovens. AND they all still WORK!

    To see more photos of this kitchen, other homes in Ladue Estates and the Dedication Ceremony, visit this Flickr photo page.

    Learn more about this historical milestone neighborhood at the Ladue Estates Subdivision website.

    And I want to express my deepest gratitude to Lee Ann Baker and every person who helped her undertake and complete such a gargantuan effort. The residents of Ladue Estates epitomize the intent of this very blog: the built environment in layman’s terms with special emphasis on the beauty and quality of mid-century modern architecture. So, they are my personal heroes, and as groups like Modern StL move forward with the preservation and celebration of St. Louis Modernism, we look to Lee Ann & Friends as a glorious example of worthwhile dedication and eternal inspiration. Thank you!!!!

  • Introducing Modern StL

    Posted on September 3rd, 2010 Toby Weiss 1 comment

    The Arch is the global icon of modernism, and it is the front door of St. Louis.  We have a glorious collection of mid-century modern buildings and neighborhoods, and we’re overdue in celebrating and protecting these assets.

    This is why we have formed a new non-profit group – Modern StL. We strive for the identification, education, preservation and celebration of St. Louis Modernism. We have plans for many different types of events (how would you like a walking tour of Ridgewood with some words by its architect Ralph Fournier?) and seminars, and swag, and on-line forums and… the possibilities are endless.

    The group met for the first time in June, and we’ve only recently incorporated with the state of Missouri. So we have a lot of work ahead of us to make everything official – including levels of membership and our first major event – but in the mean time, we invite you to explore our website in progress:

    www.modern-stl.com

    To stay in the loop, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And we look forward to connecting with all St. Louisans who love St. Louis’ fabulous mid-century modern treasures.

    Modern StL Founders (l-r): top row - Nathan Wilbur, Lynn Josse, Michael Allen, Neil Chace, Darren Snow, Jeff King & Dan Semar. Bottom row - Amy Burger, Toby Weiss & Michelle Kodner

  • Save 750 North Taylor in Kirkwood

    Posted on August 8th, 2010 Toby Weiss 5 comments

    750 North Taylor
    Kirkwood, MO

    The 1884 W.F. Warner home in the heart of historic Kirkwood is listening to the tick-tock of the demolition clock, with hopes of a save before the alarm rings.

    On the market since 2008, the price has reduced to $895,000, and a new home builder holds an option on it, pending approval of his plans to create 4 new homes on the almost-2 acres of land it has occupied for 126 years.

    Read the in-depth report of 750 North Taylor in The Webster-Kirkwood Times.

    The Kirkwood Landmarks Commission is trying to save it, and yard sings all over Kirkwood show solidarity. But the trouble with finding a new owner who won’t tear it down is the prohibitive cost of rehabbing and updating it for 21st century living.

    Even as the asking price comes down, the rough estimate of $200k for renovation would exceed the home’s value. This is according to the developer who wants to tear it down. He also believes it needs to be a gut rehab. And of course he’d think that, but it’s not necessarily accurate.

    Here’s a photo gallery of the interior of the home.

    The Warner mansion qualifies for historic tax credits.  Everything about it is an Old House Journal wet dream. And it feels as if Kirkwood residents are approaching the tipping point of tolerating teardowns – this is not their first rodeo.

    If the ideal private residence buyer cannot be found, can other options be explored? Off the top of the head: bed and breakfast, Kirkwood history museum, tea room and meeting space…

    Because of the surrounding neighborhood, I’m thinking of lower traffic, money-making ventures that would require a tweak to zoning, but would update and preserve the home to be shared with others in a way that could eventually recoup the costs. Maybe the Kirkwood Landmarks Commission could chip in to make this possible?

    There can be a Plan B, C or D for this beautiful home, and since Plan A is not working, let’s hope some inspirational wheels of thought are turning in the minds of those who can make a real difference for the past, present and future of Kirkwood.