Posted on November 15th, 2009 11 comments
West Florissant Avenue between
Goodfellow Blvd. & Lucas and Hunt Rd.
The only place I’ve seen such exotic exterior cladding is in a finite section of North St. Louis County, inside the inner-ring suburbs of Flordell Hills and Jennings. Most of them are on – or not too far away from – West Florissant Avenue, were built in 1940, and range from 850 – 950 square feet, so it’s a safe guess that it’s the work of the same designer/construction company.
The year they were built is of special interest, as it was that brief time period after the Great Depression but before World War 2. Meaning, this part of the county was already experiencing westward migration a full 5-6 years before the official start of the post-war Baby Boom.
But as a toddler living in Ferguson in the late 1960s, the only thing that made these houses stick out in my mind is that they have giraffe skin!
I first made the connection after seeing an episode of Marlin Perkins‘ Wild Kingdom about giraffes, and then passing by these homes the next day. Did the original builder take inspiration from dreams of a wild safari in Africa? Or was it an idea cadged from someplace else? If anyone has any insight or information, please do share.
It’s especially exciting when parts of the giraffe skin survive an exterior remodel. Adds a bit of pizazz, don’t you think?
I encourage you to take a drive down this exact stretch of West Florissant and note the harmonious mingling of bungalow residential and mid-century modern commercial buildings. It’s a compelling and easy-to-read chapter of the post-war development of our Metro St. Louis area, and makes a good case for a return to mixed-use zoning, which always brings variety and energy to any area that still allows such an old-fashioned way of living.
Posted on November 9th, 2009 2 comments
Rather than gush on about how much I truly loved the 4 models they graciously opened up for us to romp around in, I’ll share the video. This way, you can decide for yourself.
Because it was nighttime, I was not able to properly film the exterior aspects of Nine North. Some of the balcony configurations create sublime spaces that I’m longing to see at different times of day and seasons. And the way all of the condos face onto a swanky pool/hot tub outdoor courtyard is very Melrose Place, in the best possible way.
Posted on November 6th, 2009 2 comments
As in the autumn season… or much of St. Louis mid-century modern residential architecture is in the autumn of its years.
Above is a post-Halloween autumnal tableau of a wonderful home at the corner of Berry Road and Big Bend, in Webster Groves, MO.
The rest of these low-slung beauties that seem to have been designed with this time of year in mind are in the Ridgewood subdivision in Crestwood, MO.
These technicolor marvels of Mother Nature and Modern Man were all photographed within 5 minutes time within a 2-mile span. No need to drool over MCM living in coffee table books and TV shows, just get in the car and drive around St. Louis. And soon the leaves will be gone, which will make it even easier to spot the ones usually hidden under lush mounds of forestry, so keep an eye out.
Posted on October 18th, 2009 6 comments
Where North Highway 67 ends
North St. Louis County, MO
This is a picture of the very last house on the south side of Hwy 67. It’s past Jamestown Mall, but several yards before the mighty street comes to a whimpering end before a forest. I always thought this little stone house – built in 1948 – was so charming and so intriguing. There’s no front yard, but a little over 2 acres of backyard. But the feature that always caught my imagination was the outdoor terrace created in the space between the house and tiny garage.
I was both fascinated and jealous when passing by and catching someone using that special spot; how lucky were they?
In 2007, it became apparent the place was empty, and considering how developers were angling to obliterate every inch of greenery for a slight variation on the same retail they had just 15 miles down the road, I figured this place was toast. But when driving by yesterday, I saw two men working on the house. They were installing the new fascia you see in these photos. And then I noticed it was a new roof, as well, and that the LLC who bought the place would only do something like that if they planned to sell it as a viable, 1,389 s.f. home that someone would be happy to live in.
Consider that homes even more substantial and younger than this get sold as teardowns, and understand why my heart burst with happiness over the sight of men fixing this house for its future. They think it’s perfectly natural to save and re-use this little stone house, those lovable, wacky kids!
Posted on September 20th, 2009 19 comments
Even with 20-odd years of living in North County, I never knew about this little gem of a subdivision, so thank you to Jeff and Randy Vines for running across it during a casual drive around our Greater St. Louis, which continually reveals delightful secrets like this.
The inner-ring suburb of Berkeley was incorporated in 1937, and most of the municipality’s western border is occupied by the Lambert Field airport, which built its first terminal in 1933. Around 1954, as architect Minoru Yamasaki’s main airport terminal was being built, so too was Frostwood.
The land Frostwood Subdivision is built on was originally part of Hazelwood Farm, an estate that had been passed from John Mullanphy to his daughter Catherine Graham to son-in-law General Daniel Frost to granddaughter Hattie Fordyce. Fordyce bequeathed it to St. Louis University who then sold it to new home developers Fischer & Frichtel, who platted and built homes on the land from June 1952 to January 1956.
When entering the subdivision from Frost Avenue via Adler Avenue, you see this bizarre scene of mid-century suburban living dwarfed by the mid-century power grid needed to keep Lambert running. Space-age living did require a few sacrifices now and again. But once you get deeper into the winding streets of Frostwood, the scene becomes more sylvan and less ominous.
There are roughly 600 homes in the subdivision, ranging from 1,288 – 1,500 square feet, and most are 3-bedroom and 2 bath that originally sold brand new for $16,000 – $19,000. The area has an informal and casual feel, which is partially due to the way the houses are sited on their lots, as seen in the bird’s eye map below.
The homes do not follow a uniform setback, and by placing each home at a different angle, each one gets a slightly different view, and different opportunities for private vs. public spaces.
A family friend from decades ago bought one of these houses on Red Fir Drive in 1955, and lived happily until about 1970, when he moved his family “because of the blacks,” which was then an all-too- common reason for white people to keep moving further north and west into new homes built by developers who knew how to capitalize on this St. Louis cultural weakness.
So on the day I was taking these photographs, it was karmic relief to be stopped by a 43-year old black woman who moved into this neighborhood in 1968, and whose mother still lives in the very same house to this day. She said Frostwood was a great place to grow up, with lots of friends across the entire subdivision and lots of activities. She also pointed out that the southern half of the subdivision houses have basements, while the northern half are built on concrete slabs with no basements.
Many of the homes, like the yellow version shown above, have a delicate way of handling car parking, running the carport parallel to the house so that the walls – rather than the entry – face the street.
This system worked well for the versions that have a garage, too. With both models, it creates the opportunity for a curving driveway that adds whimsy and informality to the site.
Since these houses are all now over 50 years old, there has, of course, been many alterations made to them. A common remodel, as shown above, is converting the garage into a room, which adds square footage to the living area, and when done correctly is actually very cool.
On this different model above, that has a formal, front-facing garage, I’m not sure if that end cap fascia is original or a modification, but either way, it’s a nice stylistic touch to an other-wise ordinary ranch design. A small handful of homeowners have opted to turn their mid-century ranch into Colonial knocks-offs that sit uncomfortably in context with their neighbors. But the vast majority of the neighborhood has – blessedly – retained the original exterior aesthetic.
Midwood Avenue is the only straight-forward thoroughfare in the Frostwood Subdivision, and it has a curious concrete ditch (above) running down the middle, taking up a lot of room. I assumed it was once a creek surrounded by grass, making for a nice place to walk and play. But turns out it has always been like this, a drainage ditch (so a “sometimes creek” during heavy rains, I suppose). It looks awful, but luckily the people who live along it have not transferred this dire scene to their homes.
Even the city of Berkeley has admitted how ugly this is, acknowledging in a September 2008 Planning Consideration that it “presents poor visual image,” and are proposing “common-themed residential streetscape design” along Frostwood and Midwood Avenues. If the money ever materializes for this project, I hope it remains true to the original design aesthetic.
The foreclosure tidal wave has hit Frostwood, with some houses now available for under $20,000, but this does not reflect the quality and beauty of this neighborhood, only the condoned irresponsibility of the American financial system. Rather, it’s a chance to get some nicely preserved mid-century modern at a great price.
Posted on July 6th, 2009 7 comments
2800 Block of Meadowlark Drive
The headline on July 4, 2009 read, “14-year old shot and killed in Jennings.” The second paragraph reported that it happened in the 2800 block of Meadowlark, and my heart sank. It’s too sad for comprehension when a young boy is riddled full of drive-by bullets. That I intimately know the street where he took his last steps kept haunting me.
So I had to take a drive to the old neighborhood; I needed to know where it happened. It was easy to spot the memorial at the bottom of the steep hill on Meadowlark. The stuffed animals underscored just how young he was. I saw ghost images of my kid-self walking past that spot hundreds of times, right past the house of the neighbor lady who ran out to administer CPR to the boy as he died. Tears welled up, and I got lost in remembering Meadowlark.
I was born one street south of Meadowlark, and when maternity leave was up, my mother had to find a babysitter. A neighbor said a woman on Meadowlark babysat in her home, and to give her a call. So my mother called Mildred Conine, who told her that she had recently stopped with full-time babysitting. My mother was desperate, and asked if Mildred could just watch me for a week while searching for another solution, and she agreed. After one week of taking care of me, she told my mother she would take the full time gig because I was such a quiet and sweet baby. Conine (I called her that because I couldn’t master the first name) and I were together for 12 years. She saw me take my first steps. She was my Other Mother.
The picture above is from May 1973. That’s me on the left, with Conine’s step-grandaughter, Debbie, on the front porch of her home at 2845 Meadowlark. The house was 600 square feet, built in 1939, with a full basement, a detahced garage that always smelled of the sawdust her husband Ray created, and a gloriously huge backyard for 2 dogs and a most wonderous vegetable garden.
I think about that house as much as I do Conine. After my parents divorced in 1973, she and the house were the only sense of normal I had left. It was a safe and happy place offering up endless adventure.
The last time I visited with her was Christmas 1978. Then puberty came and my life went selfishly beserk, as teenage girls usually go. Conine died in 1988, Ray a few years after that. Over the years, I kept regular tabs on the house, noticing when the asbestos shingles were covered with vinyl, and that the garage was starting to cave in on itself. But everything else about it – and the street – was still so much the same that it was always a special “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.” Always a treat until…
…the spring of 2005, when I found boards on the windows and a condemnation notice on the front door. I stood on the front porch and broke into hard, devastated tears.
The picture above is a view from Conine’s front porch. That large building in the distance is Northland Shopping Center. Conine (who never had a driver’s license) and I knew about 7 different routes to walk to Northland, and did so at least twice a week. We’d see $1 movies, get groceries at Schnucks and each trip usually included a stop in at Kresges, where the toy aisles babysat me while Conine shopped. Conine and Northland are forever linked in my sense memory.
And in the spring of 2005, crews had begun swinging the wrecking balls and dismantling Northland, which was already disturbing me. Then to swing by here and see Conine’s house vacated and condemned? It was too symbolic, too unfair and hurt deeply. So I just sat on the porch and cried for the past, the present and no future.
Northland disappeared, but Conine’s house got a reprieve. Someone bought it, fixed it up and sold it! It’s still occupied to this day. That was an optimistic turn of events for 2845 Meadowlark. But over the following years I’ve noticed something odd about this block.
On the map above, “A” marks the spot of the memorial, “B” is the Conine house and the blue outline highlights all the houses on the opposite side of the street that are now vacant and condemned. In 2006, only one house was empty, and since Conine’s place got a second chance, I figured so would the one across the street. But as of July 4, 2009, 8 houses in a row are dead.
While Conine’s side of the street (above) is intact and occupied, the other side is an overgrown, sad mess of decay. It’s the kind of mass decay that breeds trouble and makes uneasy neighbors. The news will probably not follow up on why the 14-year old was gunned down in a drive-by, but certain assumptions can be made when you see desolation row across the street. It happens all too often, and it will never not hurt for the people who once lived there, and the people who live there now.
I got back in my car and sadly, slowly drove up the street, seeing both the past and the present. And then why this death was bothering me so finally hit me: A young life was violently stamped out and he was the symbol of the present state of this block. He has no future. Does Meadowlark?
Posted on July 4th, 2009 8 comments
The July/August issue of St. Louis At Home lists an LV Home for sale in… South County? How odd, but very cool. Even cooler: it’s the only LV Home built in the St. Louis area and one of the few to be built atop a full basement (the majority are built atop concrete slab on grade), which doubles the size of this kit home to nearly 3,000 square feet. I exceeded all speed limits in a hurry to see an LV so close to home.
Summer 2004 is when I originally saw the LV display home in Perryville, MO, on assignment for a now-defunct design magazine to interview the LV creator and architect Rocio Romero. After a scenic drive through deep rural country, it was pleasantly jarring to see an ultra-modern metal box standing alone at the start of a farmer’s field. It appeared to be floating over a random, ironic site, and this urban/rural juxtaposition created a light tension.
Inside, the house felt spacious, sturdy and serene. The back wall of the house was a continuous series of floor-to-ceiling windows, which flooded the spaces with glorious amounts of natural light. The display home was the perfect size for two people, but the kits can be built to any custom size, so the possibilities for accommodating a family of any size was immediately apparent. The LV was sophisticated, casual and enchanting. The architect was passionate, industrious and detail-oriented. Altogether, it was a great concept cleverly executed and it was easy to understand why sales of the kits were on the upswing. Over the years, a cover feature in dwell helped spread the word, and it’s exciting to imagine this design dotting landscapes all over America.
Most everyone I know who has toured the LV display shares this observation: all the windows are great, and it makes total sense on an isolated lot, but could you insert it into a typical urban or suburban lot and keep a decent level of privacy? Would you wind up ruining the aesthetic by covering most of the windows with drapes to keep neighbors on 3 sides from knowing your business?
This is why I needed to see the South St. Louis County LV: how does it function in established suburbia?
It functions very well. Yes, it does immediately stand out from its surroundings, but within the context of the neighborhood it’s surprising rather than jarring. Plus, the homes along this stretch of Theiss Road come in a wide variety of architectural styles, so the LV is just another flavor. The galvanized aluminum can make it a bright flavor at certain times of day, but it’s not fussy or flashy. Initially, the immediate neighbors were skeptical as they watched it going up, but now they love and accept it as a normal part of the landscape, so the LV adapts very well to denser surroundings.
I learned this important piece of information because the homeowners – Joe and Jeanne Marie Spezia – were kind enough to give me a tour. They love their home and are rightfully proud of it, and are comfortable with the attention it brings. Their decision to build one was included in a cover feature about Romero in a 2007 issue of At Home, and in June 2009 was featured in both St. Louis Homes & Lifestyles and on the front page of South County Times newspaper.
Because the Spezia’s love living here, the home is not officially for sale, but if someone were to come along and pay the right price, they’d seriously consider it. Until then, the LV has become the unique template for expressing who they are and how they choose to live.
The place expresses an immediate and vibrant personality courtesy of the creative mind of Jeanne Marie, whose re-purposing aesthetic and mosaic art punctuates every room of the house. Her studio is in the basement, and you can see more of her work here, as well as in these pictures of their home.
The couple designed a unique back patio, whose half-wall is made of metal roofing straight off the Lowe’s shelves. Actually, many significant features of the home come from Lowe’s (like the foyer light fixture, below), which proves two things:
1. It’s not what you use, but how you use it
2. Limited budgets create imaginative solutions
And budget rapidly became a huge issue for the homeowners. Their house-building adventure wound up costing far more than anticipated because of an endless string of complications. But most everyone who has been through a custom home build has a similar list of complaints and complications without achieving such a spectacular end result.
Joe Spezia enthusiasticly pointed out every structural aspect of the house that makes it so exceptional: money-saving energy efficiency, 12″ thick vertical steel beams that make the place earthquake-proof (he jumped hard on the living room floor to illustrate that there is no vibrations, no movement), perfectly plumb surfaces and extra-thick walls and floors that effectively soundproof the house from the outside as well as create privacy inside.
For instance, Joe is a licensed massage therapist with a huge and relaxing studio space for his practice in the basement of this home. He recalls a time when, after clients had left, his wife asked if working in her studio next door with the TV on had bothered them. Joe replied that they heard nothing and he didn’t even realize she was down there. That’s how thick and insulated all the walls are.
The large master bedroom (above) has an equally large bathroom with the most gorgeous clear, green glass tile walls, a bathtub you could swim laps in and a walk-in closet bigger than most bathrooms!
The entire home is about natural flow of space creating instinctive comfort, and even more so than experiencing the original LV display home, it conjured within me the intense desire to live in this home, exactly as it is. But the mercurial mind of an artist like Jeanne Marie is constantly changing things up and she is seriously considering removing the metal siding on the exterior of the home and replacing it with cedar.
Initially, I was a bit shocked at this idea, but then I saw this photo of another LV Home that went with wood instead of metal, and it looks great. Which just goes to show two things:
1. Artists “see” things that the rest of us can’t
2. The very nature of the LV allows one to exactly create the home you see in your head.
Posted on June 8th, 2009 10 comments
Bayless & Ruprecht Avenues in Bella Villa
South St. Louis County, MO
I love this house, though I don’t get to see it as much as I’d like because of where it’s located.
The tiny, St. Louis County inner-ring suburb of Bella Villa has a reputation much larger than its population of roughly 700 residents. It’s a notorious speed trap, with 59% of its 2005 municipal budget coming from traffic tickets. And though I don’t typically drive crazy fast while gawking at scenery, it does conjure abrupt stops and lane changes for the sake of a photo, and that’s enough to get pulled over and ticketed in Bella Villa.
On the afternoon I took these photos a cop seemed to magically appear from nowhere and pulled someone over. I kept that business out of the left side of the frame in the photo above. Even though I was relatively safe being on foot, all the horror stories heard over the years ran through the memory bank, and I slowly slinked away to my car parked around the corner.
Ah yes, the house itself! It was built in 1938, and the houses right around it on this end of the block all range from 1938-1940. It’s vaguely art deco and reminds me of some of the places Harris Armstrong was designing around the same time – like this or maybe this.
I also love the Lego look and feel of the house, especially in the way the garage, front steps and entry are attached to the main house. Also, the house is nicely situated atop a hill, so has the added drama of a stone wall on the side, and a nice high perch from which to watch the speed trap below.
Posted on May 9th, 2009 2 comments
Skosky Family Dentistry’s display artist went for the flower theme to celebrate Mother’s Day. Good choice, because – in the spirit of of doing exactly what your mother desires on her day – my mother wants us to take her to a locally-owned nursery to pick out annuals as her gift.
She also loves an earth-toned ranch house teaming with blooms, and has done a wonderful job of transforming hers into exactly that. But she often wishes for just a little more square footage. In the “I Want To Go To There” world, this is what I’d give her on Mother’s Day…
This is my favorite house on the Ranch Side of St. Louis Hills, south of Francis Park. It faces the park, so when it was for sale a couple of years ago, I’d frequently walk around Francis Park just to gaze longingly at it and day dream. Happily, the folks who did buy it take immaculate care of it, but I keep hoping it will one day be mine, because dreaming is free.
Posted on March 22nd, 2009 14 comments
In Spring 2006, I documented the last days of a Ladue mid-century modern home that was tagged for teardown. It was built in 1950 for Louis and Mary Zorensky, and the undeniable beauty of this home, coupled with its sad fate, sparked a lot of posthumous anger and admiration.
Recently, one of the daughters of Louis Zorensky found the B.E.L.T. entry about her childhood home, wrote to say she was moved by the photos, and ask if it was possible to have copies of them.
I sent her a photo CD that included the published photos along with many unpublished extras. I consider it a duty to photographically preserve mid-century modern history, and an honor when some of those photos can preserve treasured family memories, as well.
Irene and her sister Doris were kind enough to share some of their memories of their life inside this dearly departed home, and I now share them with you. What touches me the most is that you can tear down a home, but love keeps it alive beyond the physical plain.
From Doris Zorensky Cheng
My brother, David, let me know about your website and its incredible pictures of our family home. When I pulled up the website, I was amazed at the photographs and how they captured the essence of its wonderful siting, daring 1950’s architecture, wall planes and roofing following the lay of the land and its modern detailing with lots of glass, overhangs and ins and outs.
Thank you so much for the wonderful comments on your website. My father would have hated to see the house demolished but he would have so appreciated those comments. He loved that house that he and Mom built and took such good care of. He also loved the old trees that had been part of a larger parcel of land that was an arboretum for a previous owner. He worked to preserve them. That some people so appreciated his house would have made him so happy.
I was 7 years old when we moved in. My schoolmates would tell me that they had seen our glass house on Warson Road and how different it was. One person actually told me that people living in glass houses should not throw stones.
Another memory is of my brothers, sisters and me playing pretend in the tall pine tree grove at the front of our house. We also had fun rolling down the hill in the back, especially when there was snow. And then there was the fun modern furniture and the quirky details like the circular planter in the entry hall, the wood cabinet bar area and the radiant heated terrazzo floors that we sometimes sat on to get warm.
But as a child, I did not appreciate the house itself as I can now. Your wonderful photographs helped me see it with a fresh eye. I just wish another family that loved 50’s modern architecture could have bought and preserved it. I am grateful for having your pictures. Thank you so much.
From Irene Zorensky Fowle
Growing up in the Mayview home was an interesting experience. My parents always had a great appreciation for modernism, which was reflected not only in their home but in a remarkable contemporary art collection which they were able to showcase in that home. The large walls and high ceilings, the lovely angles of natural light, the neutral colors, and the overall openness of the home allowed the art to breathe and help define the space; there were no ornate moldings and lots of color to detract from the art.
Obviously, the very open floor plan was quite distinctive. My parents gravitated towards very neutral colors and natural materials .They had unpainted cabinets, natural wood doors, cork floors in the back hallway, beautiful earth-colored terrazzo floors (with delicious radiant heat–especially a treat after playing in the snow)–all avant garde then. They had architecturally simple but very high quality matte chrome and nickel hardware – all of this in a time and geographic locale where shiny brass doorknobs and colonial design prevailed (and still does!!).
It looks like the subsequent owners painted one of the living room walls bright red, and obviously they painted the exterior gray-green covering up the natural brick, redwood trim, and rough limestone that my parents worked so hard to preserve.
My parents had window coverings and curtains that were frequently left wide open to allow the vistas of the trees and landscape to add color and definition to the home. The large, expansive windows also contributed to this openness – my Dad loved the outdoors, both working in his yard and enjoying the views from the house. The land had been an arboretum when my Dad bought it, so most of the large, incredible trees (many of them removed, sadly, for the new house) were there when he bought the land and throughout the 40-plus years my parents lived there . As one of five kids, the three acres were great growing up as we had lots of space to run and sled on the magnificent hill and have hideouts under the great trees.
It was interesting growing up in that house. I always felt different from my friends with their traditional cozier homes, but there was also an inherent pride in that differentness. My mother kept the house spotless and in magnificent condition, and you captured in your blog the found items that revealed my Dad’s habit of never throwing anything away. He kept so many of the original materials from the construction of the house. The archaeological finds you detail – bits of wallpaper, hardware, keys – was so characteristic of my dad. Also, he participated in the architectural design of the home; as a real estate developer, he was also a frustrated architect and a part-time artist. He had a real vision in a time when it was rare to approach home design with such inherent purity and a sense of symbiosis with the land. Your touching photos really capture this! It sounds like the original bathrooms and the kitchen with its meticulous metal cabinets were there to the end, even with the 50’s colors of ceramic tile, etc. in tact.
Also, very striking was the lovely proportion of the house, not only in scale with the lot and the sweep of the land, but also relative to the lovely house across from it–I hope that home does not have the same demise!
I am so grateful that you captured the house. I thought about going in before it was torn down, but I was worried about what the subsequent owners might have done to change the house that was my home, and also, afraid of how painful it might be. Your photo dialogue has really been a great gift to me and my siblings. I wish my mother were well enough to share it with her – she would be very honored and touched. You have made my late dad proud!!!