Posted on February 12th, 2013 No comments
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.
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:
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.)
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!
Posted on January 6th, 2013 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!
Posted on September 9th, 2012 8 comments
The October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair shares results that 46% of the 1,027 adults polled nationwide find The Gateway Arch the least impressive national landmark.
What an odd question to ask people. But since they asked, Americans are good with natural occurrences like falls or canyons, they’re even good with carving presidents into the side of a mountain. But wholly man-made landmarks are ripe for a shrug.
After an initial wave of irritation that anyone slam on our Arch, I remember that I used to take it for granted. It’s always been there, and once you go up inside of it and catch the view, what’s left?
If I – as a proud St. Louisan – have treated it as the most boring ride at an amusement park, then the views of 1,027 people who may or may not have seen it in person are acceptable. I don’t see the point of The Alamo, because anything to do with war or battles bores and confuses me. But I’ve also never seen it, so it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.
Beauty for Beauty’s Sake
Americans tend to be practical people who want things to serve a purpose. Admirable form like the Chrysler Building also has a function as an office building, so it’s acceptable. Even the Seattle Space Needle (which is only a couple of years older than the Arch), goes a bit beyond being a symbol of its city with a restaurant at the top so it has some function beyond the views.
But the Gateway Arch is basically a modern sculpture with an elevator. Take the elevator up to see views to the east and to the west in a narrow curved space that’s not conducive to hanging out. And back down you go.
It’s truly a symbolic, minimalist art piece. An understanding of geometry, architecture and modern construction makes it impressive. But all those concepts may be too subtle for the room, naturally leading to the theoretical question, “What is the point?”
What is the point of a flower? We understand its benefits for bees, butterflies and the environment, but they are not crucial to human existence. But their beauty and fragrance can move our souls, and many are willing to cultivate them for just that purpose – beauty for beauty’s sake. And that’s The Arch, as well.
The Arch has other purposes beyond the beauty of its facade as the changing light and dark of day dances around it.
It is the symbol of a time in America when power and progress could be poetic.
It is a beacon that guides you without a compass, and takes you to the river.
It is the impossible made real.
It is the strength inherent in grace.
It is eternally modern, but with the erosion of American dignity, it has become nostalgic.
I didn’t realize all these things about The Arch until an early 21st century sunset ride as a passenger in car gave me the opportunity to simply gaze at it. And these realizations hit me fast and forcefully. Suddenly, I “got it.” And I was proud of our City for once having the towering vision to persevere for decades to build something that was only and simply beautiful and symbolic. It’s as simple as a flower, which is a complicated thing.
Taking The Arch for granted is not just a Vanity Fair poll result. How many decades did it take for St. Louis to light it at night? And how many of you in St. Louis have never been near it, touched it, or been up inside of it? None of these things are crucial, but it does stir the soul, and you don’t know how powerful and empowering that can be until it overtakes you.
My absolute favorite summary of the power of the Gateway Arch comes from Joe Thebeau, in the Finn’s Motel song “Eero Saarinen“:
Eero, arching, westward over my city
Stainless and brilliant
Eero, arching, skyward into the universe
Expanding, expansive possibility.
Posted on April 19th, 2012 2 comments
Intersection of Gravois & Heege
South St. Louis County, MO
In 2008, I wrote a piece about this intersection, and the bits about the former Gravois Bank have generated comments and updates ever since.
And here is that post, printed out and hanging in the lobby of the very same bank! Look how long it is when printed out. And I am touched that someone took all that time to cut it down and tack it up.
But they’re pretty cool about the pride in their building. Not only does this lobby retain easily 90% of the original fabric from the mid-1950s remodel, they also have this tacked up on the bulletin board:
It’s a capsule photographic history of their building! They’re only 4 years away from their centennial – how cool is that?
I learned about the bank posting my blog post from my friend Rob Powers, who stopped by to get photos of its Emil Frei stained glass panel. The panel can be seen just to the right of the motorcyclist in the photo below.
I had no idea it had Frei glass until Rob stated his mission. This is why he is such an architectural treasure. And this bank building just gets cooler by the minute, right?
Since I was alreadyin the lobby, I walked into the bank to take a quick snap of that stained glass. Only when they stopped me did I realize that we just can’t do things like taking pictures in a bank anymore. We’re a security-crazed society now, like it or not.
But when I told the bank manager about how great it was to see a post I wrote about their bank in the lobby, he immediately put 2-and-2 together, figured out I knew Rob, and he allowed me to walk up and take this photo of the Frei glass:
It was wonderful of him to allow another building geek to take photos of this art glass, and he does so while completely protecting the security of the bank. Proving once again how much these people love and respect their building, and that they know some things are just as important as money.
Posted on March 25th, 2012 5 comments
Notre Dame High School Campus
320 East Ripa Ave, South St. Louis County, MO
Just a tad north of Jefferson Barracks Historical Park in South St. Louis County, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, is the campus of Notre Dame High School. This all-girl Catholic school is also a fascinating flip book of architectural styles.
Here’s a shot that distills the essence of the Notre Dame aesthetic experience: to the right is the original School Sisters of Notre Dame house opened in 1897 and a sampling of its expansion in the mid-20th century. Previous to this moment, I knew nothing about the Notre Dame school, but the story of its endurance and might was easy to read in the buildings on its campus.
Courtesy of Bing, we get a bird’s eye breakdown of the Notre Dame campus, to which I’ve mapped out the years of its expansion.
As it is approached from its main entrance on East Ripa, you first see the L-shaped high school erected in 1955. It presents a staid appearance with its brick and glass block, even evoking a 1940s institutional feel.
The building finally cuts loose at the main entrance, opening up and soaring for a bit. It feels like a conscious concession to the more overtly modern geometry of the gymnasium it connects to.
A quick peek inside the entrance reveals terrazzo flooring and quintessential MCM metal stair railings, and overall has the lightness of the building it connects to.
The gymnasium was built 2 years before the high school, and it’s interesting that sports came before a high school, proper. The gym itself has a rounded roof resting on concrete pillars, which are filled in with glass block. The entrance has the light, overtly modern airiness of the early 1950s. See the very first photo above to see the whimsical font on the building’s corner stone – it feels like the opening credits to a Doris Day movie. Considering the spiritual and educational gravity of the place, it seems a bit cheeky. But I love it.
And this is also where you get the first juxtaposition of post-war modernism abutted to 19th century classicism. I love how the canopy lightly abuts the stone of the Sister School, and how a different bond and color of brick coordinates but refuses to imitate. It was a new era, and they embraced it, but in a respectful way.
But come the dawn of the 1960s, the surge of high school-age Baby Boomers swelling the attendance, the school needed even more room, and it was time to make a big, bold architectural statement. Aqua metal panels, steel and glass zoom out of the past and into the future, literally creating a bridge to…
…the thoroughly modern quadrant of the campus.
It’s now 1961, and the performing/ fine arts, administrative and pre-school needs of Notre Dame are downright giddy with color, form and materials. If not for that gorgeous, minimalist cross (above), you’d think this was any mighty corporate campus flush with post-war money and optimism.
But the religious intent of the campus is expertly applied in small details throughout, like this glass tile mosaic above an entrance.
A peak inside this entrance shows that, like the high school, the original fabric is still fully intact. And look at that chair! Are there more of these original chairs throughout the building? I am so impressed with how well-preserved and still-functional everything is, like the know what they have and love it!
Though there is one slightly disturbing thing happening right now. The originally-aqua metal panels are currently being painted white on this end of the campus.
Here’s another juxtaposition of old and “new,” and you can see how the white-coating is removing the joyousness from the MCM portions personality. The metal panels all appear to be in near-mint condition, so is this a purely cosmetic decision on the administration’s part?
I would like to know why they’ve decided to now go bland after 50 years of aqua. White-washing seems like something they’d have done in the late ’80s/early ’90s, when everyone was trying to stamp out a dated look. Yet Notre Dame let it be, and as you can see…
… it’s truly a thing of beauty. It should also be noted that blue and white are their sports colors, so that aqua was chosen for a good reason back in 1960.
Imagine this vista once the aqua is gone; it will no longer sing, just merely hum. Much like those window AC units. Which may be why so much original fabric remains – they’ve yet to renovate for central air.
At Romana Hall, on the northern-most edge of the campus, the metal panels are a different color (and I love how the canvas awning was made to match perfectly), so does this mean this was painted over at some point, as well?
I would love to know the story of the Notre Dame campus expansion. Who were the architects and administrators who worked together to create all these wonderful new buildings? Who has had the long-range vision over all the following decades to lovingly curate and maintain a century’s worth of architecture? And does this glorious patchwork quilt of a campus inspire its students to be as curious about Notre Dame’s past as those of us who chance upon it?