Heavenly Mid-Century Modern: The Union Memorial United Methodist Church

1141 belt ave st louis mo photo by toby weiss

Union Memorial United Methodist Church
Belt & Bartmer Avenues
North St. Louis, MO

A carload of us architecture fanatics were heading east on Page Avenue after a long day of photo adventures brought short by the setting sun. I glanced out the window to the south and saw a stained glass beacon pointing straight toward me, then it disappeared. I wasn’t sure if I really saw it, but quickly asked for them to turn the car around, let’s investigate.

1141 belt ave st louis mo photo by toby weiss

At the peak point of a unique cul-de-sac of stately homes from the early 1900s (and some modern in-fill here and there), silhouetted against the sunset, the Union Memorial United Methodist Church spread out before us, like a swan taking flight. It was a breath-taking moment, with all of us exclaiming, “How did we not know about this?!” I vowed to come back as soon as possible in daylight.
And it was even more spectacular than the first time.

From the church website, we learn:

Bishop Clair, the resident bishop, officiated at the Ground Breaking Ceremonies held March 26, 1961. The Cornerstone Laying was March 7, 1963 followed by the formal opening in November, 1963.  The Union Memorial United Methodist Church edifice is said to be the second largest “thin shell parabolic structure” of its kind in the United States.

And that roof is in pristine condition, and absolutely awe-inspiring.

I told my father, Richard Weiss, about finding this church, and once again, he floored me by revealing he did the stained glass installation somewhere between 1961 – 1962. He was the foreman on the job done by PPG Industries.

Richard told me that the City of St. Louis helped find a new site for the church when they had to relocate due to the Mill Creek Valley being demolished. This is verified on the church’s website, wherein they write:

During Dr. John D. Hicks’ pastorate, the city dedicated a mammoth redevelopment program. Union Memorial was located in what was called “The Mill Creek Area”.  This area was to be cleared and rebuilt. The church did not have to move, but since many members had moved westward, the church decided to move west, also, and build a new church. A Building Committee of one hundred was appointed, which was empowered to negotiate with the Land Clearance Authority and to take all necessary steps to secure available land. The committee reported that the land and property at Belt and Bartmer was the best that they had found. Two architects were employed to draw up plans which were later accepted.

Here’s a 1958 aerial map of what was on the site before the church was built.

The original Union Memorial Church was dedicated in 1907 at a temple that was standing at the corner of Leffingwell Avenue and Pine Street. This is now part of the campus of what was the A.G. Edwards headquarters at Jefferson and Market in St. Louis City.

From my father I also learned some other important information:

• Cunliff Construction was the general contractor for the project, headed up by Nelson Cunliff. Nelson was the St. Louis Parks Commissioner who helped make The Muny possible in 1917. He and his brother, William, were responsible for several industrial, hotel and apartment buildings in St. Louis during the 20th century. Ray Schelmmer was the project superintendent.

• Inside the Cunliff Construction work trailer was a scale model of the building, made of sticks and plaster, which everyone had to constantly refer to understand the complexity of the structure.

1141 belt ave st louis mo photo by toby weiss

• All of the stained glass panels and aluminum framing had to be fabricated on the site, rather than in a shop, as is typical. The architects had drawn a general map of how the glass should be laid out, but they had to be in person to see how it would actually pan out. There are panes of clear glass in front of the stained glass to protect it.

Richard wanted to know if I got a shot of the tiny portions of glass close to the ground (they were a bear to install). And I did. You can see what he’s talking about here, along with additional exterior photos of the church.

My father also told me an interesting story about the integrity of the congregation.

At the time of construction, this neighborhood was experiencing some unrest, with lots of robbery and burglary. Pastor John Hicks noticed all the work crews packing up their equipment and tools every night, and told them it would be safe to leave them on the site. The crews, with their expensive gear, were hesitant to chance it. But the pastor assured them they’d keep a watchful eye out and could guarantee that no harm would come to their belongings. My father’s glaziers began leaving their gear behind each night, and it was always there the next day. The Pastor’s word was golden.

1141 belt ave st louis mo photo by toby weiss

And that spirit of community and integrity and pride lasts to this very day. They welcomed us into the church for a tour, and everyone we spoke with was eager and happy to talk about their church and the building that has served them well for 50 years. They even asked for copies of the photos to add to their historical archives.

Here’s an example of what they do for the community (and you can see their magnificent building in the background).

Inside, it is easily 95% original material that remains, including the angular benches with the cloth insert aisle caps. I can’t even keep my own furniture this clean, so I’m mightily impressed by all the effort they’ve made over the decades.

Note the material detail of the lobby, including the crosses as door handles.

When some benches needed to be removed to add sound and light equipment, they even re-purposed them as seating in the lobby. “Waste not want not” has served them well.

Note how the folded concrete roof moves from outside to inside. And these are the original doors (though upon seeing this photo, Richard noted that one door is no longer operable as it’s missing it’s jamb).

These floating, terrazzo stair treads lead up to the balcony that overlooks the nave of the church, but also gives you a heart-pumping view of the soaring tower of stained glass…

Make note of the stone home seen through this glass.  That’s 5501 Bartmer, built in 1907, and it serves as the residence of the acting pastor of Union Memorial (their current pastor is Rev. Kevin Kosh).  They tell the story best on their own website:

On November 20, 1977, the three John’s  – Rev. John Hicks, Rev. John Doggett and Rev. John Heyward  – officiated at the mortgage burning services.  This occurred approximately five years before the mortgage was to be paid.  During Dr. Heyward’s pastorate, additional property across the street from the church was purchased and used to house the pastor and his family.

These shafts of  stained glass follow the angle on both sides of the church, and the experience of watching them ascend as you walk into the main auditorium really does lift the spirits. The beauty of mid-century modern church architecture is that they did finally have the means to recreate the poetic movement of faith and ascension. Today’s brick box stadium churches really do a disservice to the spirits they worship.

The congregation were rehearsing on a Saturday afternoon for Easter worship. Their singing voices just added to the magic of the space that they were so gracious to share with us – every nook and cranny.

I have yet to see a building of this vintage in such perfect condition. They take meticulous care of it. And even when they needed to replace some light fixtures, they did such a good job of keeping the tone, that I had to ask if they were original or replacement. Their understanding and love of their building is truly inspirational.

They took us down into the basement, a white subway tile space so spic and span you could eat off the walls! There is also a large auditorium with a stage known as the Lewis Fellowship Hall. They were decorating the stage for an Easter pageant. It was heartwarming to be looking at a space that was depicted many times in celebration photos hanging upstairs in the lobby.

They even kept and framed the original architectural drawing done by the architects of the building: William E. Duncan, Charles Novak Jr., and Harry A. Osborn, who billed themselves as Associated Architects. I could only find a trail of information on Charles Novak, who did the Brentwood YMCA in 1957, the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson in 1955, and the Golde’s Department store that used to stand in Sappington, on Manchester Road.

As seen from Page Avenue, two tiny mid-century modern homes lead up to the Union Memorial, and the sight of this with the old stone mansion on the right is such a beautiful encapsulation of the evolving history of St. Louis architecture, and how faith creates some of the most beautiful spaces ever.

Thank you to everyone at Union Memorial United Methodist Church (here’s their Facebook page, with the building front and center!) for giving us such an enthusiastic welcome and tour of your magnificent church.

Click to see additional exterior and interior photos of the church.

Touring & Talking St. Mark’s Church

St. Mark’s Church
4714 Clifton Avenue, St. Louis Hills, MO

On July 9, 2010, the St. Louis Beacon presented a tour of St. Mark’s Church which began with Eugene J. Mackey, III, FAIA sharing his thoughts on the 1939 church designed by Frederick Dunn and Charles Nagel, and ended with his presentation “St. Louis Modernism in the 1950s.”

Here is a good history of the church building, wherein they note it is one of the first “uncompromisingly modern churches built anywhere in the world before World War 2.” Another interesting point, for me, is that unlike most churches which are built on corner lots (especially in St. Louis Hills, known for its four corner churches surrounding Francis Park), St. Mark’s rests in the middle of a residential street. Eventually, the entire campus would encompass the northern half of the block, but the affect of a white brick tower rising up from a sea of brick bungalows never fails to surprise and delight.

Gene Mackey III, of Mackey Mitchell Architects, is the son of  the Eugene Mackey, of Murphy & Mackey, who were among the royalty of St. Louis mid-century modern architecture, giving us The Climatron, the Washington University Olin Library and a host of exceptional modern churches, including Resurrection in South St. Louis.  So, our current Mackey has modernism in his blood, and he grew up absorbing all the work, colleagues and friends of his father. Luckily, he has a great memory, an engaging way of imparting important historical information about our city’s modern architecture and the learned anecdotes to bring it all to life.

This is why I’ll let him talk about St. Mark’s, as recorded that night:

“(St. Mark’s co-architect) Frederick Dunn went to Yale, and was in school with Eero Saarinen. People don’t necessarily make that connection. Eero Saarinen was a powerhouse, even as a student, a very dynamic, powerful individual. Frederick Dunn was a counterpoint in school, more of a classicist in his approach to things. Also at the same time at Yale was (St. Mark’s co-architect) Charles Nagel, the man that – as an architect – became the director of the St. Louis Art Museum… and was also on the jury for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.”

“(Dunn) had an amazing whimsy.  … Anyone who’s an architect certainly knows about St. Mark’s, which was done in the late 30s. And think about that – in the late 30s! When you walk around it, think of the elements, the details, the attention, the imagination that he’s bringing to every element.”

“Bill Bowersox is with us today. As we passed from the sacristy to the rear addition of the church, I think we were all struck by the respect and dignity and proportion of that addition (his firm designed). I think that Fred Dunn would be very pleased. I compliment you for that.”

William Bowersox, architect of the St. Mark’s rear addition, is seen on the right, walking toward the rear entry.

“Looking at the way Dunn used masonry, I bet you – and I might be wrong – but I bet his original intention was to do this church in stone. Because you don’t see many buildings in white brick, and I don’ know if it can be documented, but it’s an interesting thought about the use of materials.”

Mackey’s presentation of Modernism in the 1950s was a series of photos of St. Louis structures to which he shared facts and observations. His introduction also summarized why these buildings still captivate:

“When you think about something being modern, it’s of the moment, it is what is contemporary. It has to do with looking forward and often tied in with technology. In this (1950s) era, to me in terms of design, its reflected in dynamic forms, a new way of thinking, not necessarily relying on tried and true, but exploring new things. Line – the power of line – the power of form, the dynamics of movement of the eye.”

A highlight reel of what he covered includes:

• A belief that the loss of Sportsman’s Park was one of the major contributors of the rapid decline of North St. Louis

• “The loss of the streetcar lines in the 60s also contributed to decline in the neighborhoods. Because of the streetcars, the small businessman on the corner could rely on a certain number of shoppers to get off the streetcar everyday to buy flowers or ice cream. There was a consistency there that was very critical. Of course, we had to get rid of them because they were in the way (of the cars).”

Levittown: “What they bought here was being totally tied to your automobile. Remember that in St. Louis in the 1950s, you could walk out your door, and walk down the street, or get on a streetcar and get everything you needed. Maybe even walk to work. That was impossible in Levittown.”

• Harris Armstrong’s former Magic Chef building:  “I consider that it’s in mothballs, and someday someone is going to buy this building and restore it to what it should be.”

• Revealed that there is a Paul Rudolph-designed home in Warson Woods!

Rear of the Rectory built in 1950-51 from a design by Frederick Dunn.

After the slideshow, Mackey took some questions from the audience, and it was fascinating because it was chiefly a conversation among architect peers. Someone asked what the biggest losses have been, building-wise (his answer: losing the buildings around the Wainwright Building detracts from its greatness because it’s isolated), but generally, Mackey sees it differently than those of us lamenting the mid-century modern losses.

Indicating the presentation he said, “We’re looking back 60 years, and fortunately, so many of these buildings still exist, telling so many different stories, playing so much different kinds of music. If you think of architecture as frozen music, think about the different melodies that are played by the buildings you just saw. It’s fantastic. It was a great era.”

And it was true that 95% of the structures he had presented ARE still standing, which is amazing! And we need to find ways to insure that these historically and aesthetically important buildings remain standing.

Gene Mackey, III, FAIA after his talk on St. Louis Modernism in the 1950s, inside the St. Mark’s Parish House.

The last bit before everyone broke for refreshments was the one that riveted me the most. Jamie Cannon asked for Mackey’s statement on new residential architecture, namely the bloated McMansions that spring up after tear downs. His thoughts should be a separate presentation all on its own:

“A certain amount of modesty is very appropriate. Look at this beautiful church; this is an iconic building, and it’s a modest building. It sits in a modest residential neighborhood. I think modesty is a good thing. Look at the Kraus house – it’s a modest house. Look at the Shank house – it’s a dynamic, powerful piece of sculpture on the side of the hill and that’s always going to be relevant.

“Every time somebody builds one of those monster houses, it has to do with people’s ambitions. People come into Ladue with (plans for) these monster houses, and we try to talk them out of it. And most of the people who build those monster houses don’t live in them for very long, for whatever reason. And then the community is stuck with them. They tore down Buster May’s house in Ladue and they’re building Versailles, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It wasn’t against the law.”

It’s hard and foolhardy to mess with personal property rights, which is why I think grassroots appreciation and education, combined with an appeal to trendy hearts (think Mad Men), is what will calm a good portion of the MCM tear down madness in Mid-County.  Or with our Recession (also known as The Great American Reset), maybe shaming folks into “a certain amount of modesty” would be a path to follow?

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.

A Bank Sign Resurfaces

5701 Chippewa
South St. Louis, MO

The original bank sign buried under the Gospel Church sign has broke free and come up for air! Click the photo to enlarge it and check out the hand-lettered cursive.

Here’s the building the resurfaced sign belongs to.

And the building is now for sale. Did an interested buyer want to see what’s under there, or did Mother Nature’s recent fireworks send the panel airborne?

Either way, it’s nice to see the old Public Service Savings & Loan Association sign. Welcome back!

Abandoned Church in Creve Coeur

10362 Old Olive Street Road
Creve Coeur, MO

My Easter Sunday thoughts keep going back to this seemingly vacant church building. It’s located in a part of Creve Coeur that is off the beaten path, practically back alley, though the neighbor across the street, Kohn’s Kosher Meat & Deli, has constant traffic because it’s a desirable destination.

This simple, compact brick building with modest mid-century modern flourishes was, according to the corner stone blocked by aggressive shrubbery, erected in 1960 as Immanuel Baptist Church.  The St. Louis Metro Baptist Church Assoc. indicates that Pastor Benny J. King once led services at this address, but is vague about the present day situation.

The St. Louis Genealogical Society lists this congregation as having moved from 5859 Cates Avenue to Creve Coeur, and indicates that it’s still open. But there is no address or signage to identify the place from the road, no signs of life, and no regular lawn care…

…the landscaping is so overgrown one can barely see the church from the street,  and it was mostly impossible to use the set of stairs from the parking lot to the entry. So, is it vacant, or just unkempt? Recently abandoned or the groundskeeper is on hiatus?

St. Louisans are now used to gigantic Catholic Churches sitting vacant across the city and inner-ring suburbs, their presence still casting a heavy vibe in its neighborhood. But this little Baptist church has been camouflaged into limbo, which is a sad way to celebrate Easter.

SPRING 2012 Update

Someone has made a huge effort by clearing out the forest that had grown around it. And now that it’s clear, I could see the cornerstone and confirm the church was erected in 1964. Click to see new photos of the church cleaned up.

An MCM Light Bulb Moment


5230 Hampton Avenue, South St. Louis City, MO

While yet again photographing the former Buder branch of the St. Louis Public Library, I had a literal “light bulb went off over my head” cartoon moment of realization.  All of the original pole light fixtures of this 1961 building (which still work, courtesy of the great up-keep from the Record Exchange), look like the ones that are now missing from…


…this 1959 church in Black Jack which I covered here, previously.  Checking my photo archives verified that, yes, it is the exact same light fixtures.  Vandals killed off the light poles in the church parking lot, so it’s a relief to have some representation of them still in existence.

I love how the same light fixture was used on two different ultra-modern mid-century buildings, and how diverse the two locations are.  One is South St. Louis City and the other is deep North St. Louis County.  And I wonder if the Buder Building architect (still unknown to me) may have seen the light poles at the Independent Congregational Church and did a direct copycat?  Or was this just a popular lighting choice for MCM architects during this 3-year period, thanks to the hustle of some lighting vendor?

Oak Hill Chapel

Leona & Bowen Streets, South St. Louis, MO
In Holly Hills, across from Woerner Elementary, built in 1931, and among rows of houses built shortly thereafter is the church, seen above. Maybe because it looks like nothing else in the immediate area, people often point it out as queer looking, while others have come right out and said they hate the way it looks.

It is a bit mod for the neighborhood, and especially since it caps off a row of typical South Side gingerbreads, it has a red-headed stepchild feel about it. I admire it for all these reasons, and that it has silently persevered against a steady, calm stream of improprieties, beginning with its point of origin.

City property records claim it was built in 1953, lists the type as “cinema” and the building style as “restaurant/recreation.” The City Directory first lists it in 1963, which makes much more sense, architecturally. It was never a cinema (yeah, I got my hopes up about that); it started life as Bible Chapel and became the current Oak Hill Chapel (even though it’s not in the Oak Hill neighborhood) around 1985.

Esley Hamilton learned by happy happenstance that Erwin Carl Schmidt is the architect of this church. There is a May 4, 1951 listing for “church Southside Gospel, 6100 Leona,” when Schmidt was partnering with Walter Krueger.

I love what the architect was originally going for on the front facade and steeple. Minimal, asymmetrical geometry. Just because he was going for that doesn’t mean he did it successfully; the scale seems a bit wonky, especially the finial on the toppermost of the steeple. But the palette is spare, so it can’t go too awfully wrong.

Until seen from the angle above. Is that funky roof dormer original? And if so, was this intentional or the result of parishioner intervention during the design and budgeting phase?

The course of modern life has imposed some other changes upon the church. An educated guess says the arrowhead stairs shooting out from the entrance were sans banister, originally. Or if so, it wasn’t the one seen above, nor would the designer have put it smack dab in the middle of the dramatic point. Also, the above banister matches the ones flanking the handicap ramp that was required.

I do appreciate that the ramp follows the asymmetry of the front facade, but surely that was a divine accident. ADA issues aside, why the vertical mini-blinds in the transom glass above the entrance? Considering how the building is sited, those windows were meant to catch the afternoon sun. I’m guessing the alter would be square in the sun’s spotlight because of them. But at least the lines of the blinds kind of echo the lines of the soffit above them.

But the biggest imposition to the original design is in the sign seen above. LOVE the plaster sign frame, like half of the Van Halen logo, and all airliner kitsch, which has nothing to do with religion, or the building it identifies, really. I wish I could see a picture of what font was used on the original sign that went behind the glass.

The sign frame is still cool despite what it’s holding up. The wood placard inside was cut and made to fit the space, and obviously represents what the parish wishes their building was like: colonial and quaint. To their credit, they have not hacked away at the building’s exterior to make it match the placard, but it is the intense juxtaposition of the sign that keeps me from investigating the interior. There’s only so many architectural improprieties with one building that a girl can handle!

Chippewa Modern Church

Chippewa & January
South St. Louis MO

In comparison to its brick bungalow neighbors, it looks like Johnny Sokko’s Robot. Normally, that kind of contrast would be more than enough to make it noteworthy. But in the 15 years I’ve lived in South St. Louis, no one (even mid-century modern fans) has ever mentioned this little oddball.

Maybe that’s because it is rather understated about its modern precision? Or that even though it’s kept neat and trim, there never seems to be any activity to draw the eye? That last question puzzles me the most; it’s the Gospel Church, a non-denominational congregation, and even when I’ve purposely gone by the place on a Sunday morning, there’s the church, but there’s no steeple with no open door to see all the people.

City records omit any information about the building itself, but with all the brick houses directly around it dating from the mid-1930s, I’m assuming it is basically the same age. The newer, tacked on modern facade has a distinctly mid-to-late 1950s look and materials. The 1959 City Directory lists Public Service Savings & Loan as the front tenant, with Albers Construction occupying the rear of the building. When looking closely at the stainless-steel-under-grey-paint awning (shown above), you can make out the original message: Member -Federal Home Loan Bank System.

The sun shade made of vertical aluminum strips is like the brim of a hat pulled low over a face. Its limited and sedate color palette allows it to blend into the background. All of this contributes to the mystery of the modern cube hiding out in plain sight.

Cycling & Religion

At the southern-most start of the Riverfront bike trail stand these majestic piles of…what? Not sand…the white pile looks like finely ground rock. But the blue pile? I just don’t yet know what they are. Anyway, the sheer height and weight of the white mountain against a gorgeous azure and fluffy white sky was a spiritual moment, and reminded me of this:

Church roof at Old Halls Ferry & Redman Road
Black Jack, MO
The church has changed names and denominations many times over the years, so forgive me for not keeping track of proper names. This roof is a North County landmark, especially at Christmas time, when spotlights alternate green and red across the spires. To those of us who grew up in North County, we took this futuristic sight for granted. It was simply a natural part of the topography, much like the big white pile on the bike trail. Biking and religion made a connection in my heart, now a convert.

In that vein, the Urban Review has a fine series of what I call “The Bike Rack Rants.” I’ve assembled the results; it’s an entertaining must-read for urban bikers.