Introducing Modern StL

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:

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

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.

Ecology of Absence Has a New Home

The venerable and vital blog Ecology Of Absence has moved to new digs inside the Preservation Research Office, which is Michael Allen’s business and website.

We still have everything we love about EOA as long as we change our bookmarks and RSS feeds to:

And I’m sneaking one other bit of website news onto the tail end of the PRO news…

Defining Downtown at Mid-Century: The Architecture of the Bank Building & Equipment Corporation of America is a thorough catalog of this design-build firm’s work across our nation.

I’ll give you the shortcut straight to the Missouri/St. Louis bits, and you’ll instantly see why this site is so fabulous:
St. Louis MCM by Bank Building & Equip Corp.

Bright Future for a Mid-Century Modern Church

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss
3900 Meramec St.
South St. Louis, MO

Resurrection Church is a 1952 mid-century modern beauty that survived abandonment by the Catholic church to become a thriving Vietnamese church in the Dutchtown neighborhood. Let Rob Powers take you on an extensive tour of this gorgeous building.

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss

Notice anything shiny and new in this photograph of the side of the church, snapped just the other day?

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss

And you can see it on the rear of the church, above.
Crews are just about done capping all parapet walls of the church (and there’s a lot of them) with brand new copper. Some of it is replacing old, green patina copper original to the building, and some of it is going over original concrete parapets, which will protect them from further water erosion.

There are a couple of reasons why this is a significantly great bit of news. This maintenance project is really, really expensive. They could have saved quite a chunk of change by using any other metal but copper, but they stayed with the original material for this repair and maintenance.

And when you estimate how much they’re spending on copper and other roof repairs, consider how that money could have been applied to some serious renovating/remodeling/remuddling. But instead, they made a conscious decision to use appropriate, high quality materials to preserve the look of their church.

3900 Meramec St. resurrection church photo by toby weiss

Their commitment to,  and understanding of, the beauty and value of their building is heartbreakingly noble and life-affirming. Especially in light of Dotage St. Louis’ recent report on some seriously heinous remuddling of an art moderne building about 2 miles away from Resurrection.

While I am sickened and saddened by what they’ve done to the face of the building, I’m also pragmatic: these are business owners who have made a commitment to stay in their building in this city, and in tight financial times, put their money toward improving their property. Taste is debatable and subjective, but there’s no arguing the fact that they have contributed to the sustainability of this community by staying put in an old, mid-century modern building. I’d rather see it tarted up like a misguided prosti-tot than be torn down for no good reason.

So, the current owners of the Resurrection building seem to have a refreshing appreciation of the worth and beauty of their building, and their financial commitment to its upkeep is also like an insurance policy that this is one St. Louis City modern classic that can be removed off the Demolition Worry list. I hope their example can resonate with others who own buildings of this vintage, and that it inspires them to reconsider rash moves that can compromise the architectural integrity of this important chapter of our built environment legacy.

Beer, Bands, Bricks & Kitsch

New Additions to the Soulard Stable Hootenanny…


Bill Streeter will show am exclusive sneak preview of footage from his documentary Brick By Chance & Fortune: A St. Louis Story.
He’ll also air some of his favorite Lo-Fi Saint Louis clips.
Details straight from Streeter’s fingertips.


Galen Gondolfi of Fort Gondo is donating a choice pile of kitsch bric-a-brac as $1 a ticket raffle prizes.  Items will be on display and small enough to cart of while drunk, if you win one.

Michael Allen has a beautiful summary of why we’re fighting and celebrating.

What Anti-Wrecking Ball: Soulard Stable Hootenanny
Where Stahl Stable, 2412 Menard Street, 63104
When 8:00 p.m. this Saturday, May 22
Cost $10 benefits the Friends of the San Luis and the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation
Bands Union Electric, Leadville & Pretty Little Empire
Beer 2 Schlafly kegs

Soulard Stable Hootenanny, see ya there!

Come to the Soulard Stable Hootenanny, May 22

Our journey through St. Louis City Preservation Rights is coming to an end, and with the final attorneys’ bill in hand, we’re throwing a party to pay that down and celebrate a small victory.

The story began with trying to save the San Luis from demolition. It came down.

The reasons it came down seemed in violation of laws already on the books, so we took it to court. The judge said we had no standing to protest this.

Because this was a gross misunderstanding of the laws already on the books, and because this ruling put future buildings in the same jeopardy, we took the case to the next highest court.

Here’s a news report of what went down in court the first week of May.
We’re waiting for the final written judgment, but our group who filed the suit – and our attorneys – are pleased with the tone of argument in court on that day, so we’re closing up shop on this particular preservation adventure. And we’re feeling good about the safety of the rights of St. Louisans to protect worthy buildings from bad decisions.

The Anti-Wrecking Ball crew would love for you to join us on Saturday, May 22, 2010 from 8 p.m. – 1 a.m. at the historic Stahl Stables in Soulard for some music, mirth, raffle prizes and beer!

$10 at the door gets you a beer and 3 kick ass St. Louis bands:
The Union Electric
Pretty Little Empire

There will be cash kegs of Schlafly to drink from after you finish the complimentary brew, along with some raffle prizes and special features that are still being firmed up as we type.

All proceeds go to our noble and benevolent lawyers and the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation. So we can all get tipsy and rock out knowing we’ve all done our small part to protect our rights and the next building threatened by a wrecking ball.

If you’re on Facebook, here’s the official invite.
And click here for even more information.

Indy Atomic Crash Party

In April 2010, a friend and I were invited to Indianapolis for an Atomic Crash PartyDarren Snow had been following Atomic Indy, authored by Baz Mcm, who is the muscle behind the Atomic Crash Parties.

On a sunny and crisp Saturday, we traveled northeast from the heart of downtown Indy to what appears to be a classic mid-American inner ring suburb, and down a street lined with mostly mid-century ranches in various states of decline or renewal. The 3 shown in the photos above are renewing!

The scene for Atomic Crash Party #5 is one of exuberant renewal, a vibrant work-in-progress by architect Wil Marquez.

Wil designed and fabricated the plastic panels that make this unique fencing that provides partial privacy for a front patio seating area with a fire pit. He traced the shadows of the leaves from these very trees as the sun shown through them to create the pattern.

There are 3 distinct outdoor lounging areas around the house: the front yard, private patio by the side door off the living room and the grilling area show above outside the back garage door. I love the bent wood posts; adds some subtle curves to a rigorous pattern of straight lines.

We enter from the one-car garage directly into the kitchen…

…and the kitchen is open to the dining and living rooms. There were easily a minimum of 30 people milling about indoors and out, but it did no feel crowded. Natural light and open floor plans always make a space feel bigger.

I was particularly charmed by the wood panels that open up to let in air, a clever way to get ventilation when you have fixed picture windows.  Also note the burnt orange wall with the raised, wooden appliques.  The wall is in-progress, and I noticed a small stack of them out in the garage, waiting to be affixed to the wall. It gave the charming impression of making ones own puzzle pieces and casually putting the puzzle together in ones spare time.

It also made me realize that rehabbing and renovating a mid-century ranch house is just like rehabbing an early 1900s home: it’s a long, continual journey toward an ever-elusive finale, and the shop talk about the process is pretty much the same no matter the era your home was originally built.

One of the bedrooms has been converted into a TV/rumpus room. Again, note that a room that would now be considered small feels perfectly fine from an abundance of natural light and the proper editing of items within the space. Also of note is that several guests at the 3-hour open house wore era-appropriate clothing, including the gentleman in the middle (above) who wore a blue & white seersucker suit that was to die for!

Each of the bedrooms has extra storage above the sliding door closets, and these cabinet doors match the ones under the dining room window. Just love how these doors match the slope of the ceiling. It’s these tiny details that add character while solving the problems of where to stash our stuff.

Being an architect, Wil has designed and built several new built-in pieces – like this table in the bedroom – that serves all needs while freeing up square footage.

He did the same in his office, completing the installation of this built-in desk the day before the Crash Party.

This chair in his office was designed and built by a friend of his. As he promised, it is a surprisingly comfortable piece of fine art.

The powder room, above, is a space that appears to have all new fixtures, but it’s become much easier to find laminates and fixtures that mimic the original vintage of the home.  Again, rehabbing an atomic ranch is just like rehabbing older homes: restore what you can, or replace with new items that replicate history.

Realtors have long told me about a peculiar mindset of some people wanting to own an MCM ranch house: they want one in mint condition that requires no work, and become crestfallen and disillusioned upon learning it will require additional remodeling expense and a lot of work to have their space age dream. With so many of these ranch homes heading toward and past the 50-years of age mark, these are now historic homes that have seen a lot of living, renovating and remuddling in their lifetime.  Just as with a 1922 3-story mansion in Compton Heights, if you want to live in the splendor of a specific period of a home’s life, you have to put in the money and labor to make it happen.

Now, the materials you deal with to rehab/restore a mid-century ranch can be a bit easier to come by and work with. Properly repairing or replacing drywall is something any handy person born after 1945 can do, whereas working with plaster is an ancient art.  Upgrading an existing central air system from 1960 is much less of a hassle than putting in central air where none originally existed. But regardless of the home’s age, flooring, roofing, windows, electrical and kitchens and bathrooms are going to need extensive work.  And that work will go on forever, or so it seems.

Wil’s garage looks pretty much the same as any other rehabber’s – a laboratory of tools and items waiting to be brought back to life.  I love that he – and all the other Indy homeowners who’ve opened up their homes for the Atmoic Crash Party series – let people in to see their works in-progress, because the process is just as fascinating as the end result. And seeing possibility in action is true inspiration.

I know that St. Louis is ready for their own version of an Atomic Crash Party. Baz knows that hundreds of American cities are poised for the same, and is working on taking this concept nationwide, which is exciting because it’s this kind of grassroots movement that pushes mid-century modern preservation toward mainstream reality.

So, all you StLers who’ve been quietly labor-of-loving over your ranch houses, how about an open house? It doesn’t matter that you’re “not quite done,” because – realistically – when will that day ever come? Is any house ever really done? All you MCM Rehab Pioneers in Ridgewood, Craigwoods, Frostwood, Harwood Hills, the south side of St. Louis Hills… would you be interested in opening your doors for a few cocktail hours? If the idea is intriguing, there’s a group of us that can help you coordinate such a worthy endeavor. Just speak up!

And thank you to Baz and all his jet set pals for letting us be a part of such a wonderful party and concept. You inspire possibility!

Lindell MCM Walking Tour, May 1st

Saturday, May 1st, 2010 at 10 a.m

Join Michael Allen (Ecology of Absence) and myself for a walking tour of mid-century modern buildings on Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End, St. Louis, MO.

This second edition of our tour is part of the Open Streets 2010 event, and is co-sponsored by the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation.  This tour is free, while the knowledge and appreciation of Lindell’s thick and rich stock of MCM buildings is priceless.

Here’s an overview of some of the buildings you will see up close and narrated.

Meet us at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 1st, at the Pope statue in front of St. Louis University’s Pius XII Library, 3650 Lindell Boulevard (the Pius XII is a breathtaking MCM beauty – check it out here).

The official leg of the tour is from Pius XII to the former Housing Authority building (recently saved from the CVS wrecking ball) at Sarah & Lindell. We will take a short break stop, and continue with the unofficial portion of the tour from Sarah to Kingshighway.

Join us at 10 a.m., or catch up with us at any point on the walk. Look for a large group of people completely smitten with the mid-century modern treasures of the Central West End.  We look forward to sharing the riches with you!

Mid-Century Fetish: Ocean’s 11


Previously, we covered why Frank Sinatra is the Godfather of Mid-Century Modern, and now we check in on him in 1960 and see that he continued to personify the MCM lifestyle some 13 years after moving into Twin Palms.

Ocean’s 11 released in August 1960, but began 2 weeks of filming on January 11, 1960.  According to the exhaustively detailed commentary by Frank Sinatra, Jr. on the DVD re-issue, we learn that the vast majority of the movie was filmed on location in Vegas and inside the 5 casinos that were “being robbed.”   This makes Ocean’s 11 a valuable snapshot of what Las Vegas once looked like, a celluloid form of historical preservation for a town that has no use for such things.


Most of the movie’s action takes place in or around Las Vegas casinos, so there are only a small handful of Hollywood stage sets, like the one above.  For the sake of brevity, I left out screen grabs that were solely dedicated to the lighting that was chosen for residential sets.  Actually, for mid-century modern lighting and chair enthusiasts, this movie is highly recommended.


Coral orange and salmon pink are the popular accent color of the movie.  Another popular accessory in the movie is cigarettes; both the Rat Pack and Mad Men had a 3-pack a day habit, I swear!

Her Royal Highness, Miss Angie Dickinson (shown seated, above) also contributes to the DVD commentary, and when it comes to her first scene with Dean Martin, and they both get ready to light up, Angie says, “I can’t believe they’re going to pull out cigarettes!  To see myself smoking in movies is shocking.  It seems so wrong, but as everyone knows, in the 40s, 50s, 60, everybody smoked.  Back then, nobody hesitated – drinking and smoking and living it up.”


Sinatra’s character Danny Ocean masterminds a plot to rip off 5 casinos at one time on New Year’s Eve, and brings together his 10 best men to pull it off.  They gather at this stunning mid-century home.


Like most of the movie, it is an actual location rather than a set, in this case, it’s a home in Beverly Hills that was then owned by Hollywood theatrical agent Kurt Frings.  According to Sinatra, Jr., Frings’ was surprised they wanted to use it for the film, but was more than happy to let them do so.  This tidbit proves a conscious decision on someone’s part – maybe Sinatra? – as to what style of house these thoroughly modern rapscallions should gather in.


The downstairs rumpus room in the Frings’ house covers just about every decorating trend of the late 1950s, including Tiki, Asian and African.  There’s quite a bit of furniture (I lost track trying to count all the different types of chairs) and knick-knacks in this large room, yet it doesn’t look busy or fussy.  This is one of the hallmarks of mid-century modern residential design:  how to have a lot of stuff without looking like you do!


From the film we see the entrance to the original Flamingo Hotel, which was built in 1946 by gangster Bugsy Siegel.  By 1967, new owners began remodeling, renovating and removing, and by 1994 all pieces of the original hotel were demolished.  Only the name survives from the old days, but Ocean’s 11 preserves some important aspects of the place…


…like the multiple showrooms in each of the hotels. Sinatra, Jr. was most impassioned when discussing how the casinos used to operate, “when they were owned by individuals, not corporations.”  He explained that these intimate music lounges existed to “feed live music into the casino,” and give gamblers a place to eat and revive themselves for some more gambling.


Each music lounge (like the Flamingo Room, above) took great care to book quality music and comedy acts, regarding them as being as big a draw as the gambling.  Music or gambling, either way, they’d get your money.

The reason the production got the actual hotels as sets in the movie was because the Rat Pack was actually performing in the Copa Room at the Sands for the 1959-60 holiday season.  Once their shows were done for the night, filming began at 2:15 a.m. and they shot until it became too light.   The production made a deal with the participating 5 casinos to leave up their regular Christmas decorations for a couple of weeks longer so it could play into the New Year’s Eve plot line.


And here is the legendary Sands Hotel.  It opened in 1952, was the zenith of Vegas entertainment by the time of Ocean’s 11, and closed in 1996, followed by an infamous implosion a few months later.  Unlike some of the other lost hotels, the Sands named died with it.


Here’s a diner from the original Sands casino, and a distinction must be made about the building types.  As Sinatra, Jr. points out in the DVD commentary, the casino, showrooms and lounges were in a separate building from the hotel, and the hotels were no higher than 3-stories tall and situated behind the main building.


Right next door to the Sands was the Desert Inn (and both places would be owned by Howard Huges by the mid-60s), which operated from 1950 to 2000. And like the Sands, once it was demolished, the name went with it.


By the mid-1960s, the city of Las Vegas made a concerted effort to draw in more people by building a convention center, and more people required more rooms.  This is the time period when high-rise hotels were erected, and so required massive renovations to the existing casino hotels.


This is the gambling room of the Desert Inn as it was in January 1960. While not posh, it’s certainly more civilized than the lights-flashing-sirens-honking casinos we have now.


The Riviera (shown above), which opened in 1955, foreshadowed the super hotel concept by being the first high-rise hotel erected on The Strip, and it remains to this day in the same location with the same name.  But the building shown here is long gone.

The new corporate owners that took over in the late 1960s figured – according to Sinatra, Jr. – “that people should only have to walk as far as the elevator to spend their money,” which is when the concept of separate buildings was jettisoned in favor of a a gargantuan hotel that could allow you to never set foot outside of it.


The Sahara Hotel is the only other of the Ocean’s 11 5 that remain in the same place with the same name, but by 1963 they had begun serious renovations to the 1952 structure.  By the late 1970s, Vegas switched over to the “mega-resort” concept, which was a way to make Vegas family-friendly which meant more money from different types of people flowing in.  From the DVD commentary, both Sinatra, Jr. and Miss Dickinson are emphatic that luring kids to Vegas was the death knell for a once-great city, with Dickinson lamenting the disappearance of the last safe place for adults to be adults.


Here’s footage from the film of Dean Martin performing in the Congo Lounge of the Sahara.  Sinatra, Jr. was also very detailed about the death of quality entertainment in Vegas, explaining that the number of private lounges were reduced by new corporate owners who felt they were wasting their money with duplications of musicians throughout a casino.  The disappearance of the small music lounges that were free-of-charge to gamblers did not seem to affect the flow of people coming through the doors, so the rest of the lounges were torn out, replaced by grand concert halls with high-dollar tickets that could lure in even the non-gamblers.


After the robberies are completed, there are a few stage set scenes, with this office interior being one of them. I love the masculine drama of this room.


But for the most part, 1960 Las Vegas is the star of Ocean’s 11, with cameo appearances by the Rat Pack and friends.  And Vegas has always been about flash and money, so has constantly been changing to keep up with the cash, so any type of serious preservation of the Vega Strip was laughed off the street decades ago.  Though there is The Neon Museum, the graveyard for so many of the wonderful neon sings that are the landscape of Vegas.  They even turned the LaConcha Motel (which I covered in 2005) into their visitor’s center!

But for the most part, photographs and memories are the historical preservation of Las Vegas, and the Rat Pack era is the one that seems to ignite the romantic imagination the most.  Luckily, Frank Sinatra – the Godfather of Mid-Century Modern – left behind the most potent and complete snapshot of a time and a town.


La Concha Motel, Las Vegas
Frank Sinatra: Mid-Century Modern Godfather


Anti-Wrecking Ball Thanks

The Anti-Wrecking Ball Holiday Kegger was a qualified success.  Success is measured by how many kegs were emptied (2) and how much of our lawyer fees were paid down (most of it!).

Thank you to every single person who came out to the inaugural event at the Old North St. Louis Community Gallery (gorgeous space in the most optimistic part of town) and for each person who contributed time, talent, booze and money to our adventures in preservation law.

You can see a goodly number of these lovely people in these event photos.

And here’s a brief video of the evening.

And as our adventure continues, you can donate at any time through the Friends of San Luis Pay Pal account.