Posted on February 7th, 2016 4 comments
700 Berkshire Blvd at Wood River Avenue
East Alton, IL
On February 4, 2016, word came from Alton Daily News that the former Citizens Savings & Loan was going down. Read the item.
This fanciful cylinder has long-delighted mid-century modern fans not simply because it’s a round building (and people love a round building, yes?) but that it also retains most of its swanky ornamentation and it has a “draw bridge.”
The Citizens Bank building, by architect Alvin K. Stolze, is a rare time capsule of 1964 that inspires retro lust and ideas of what it could be in the future. Learn more about the building here.
The only things missing from the current-day structure is the fountains under the suspension bridge and the yellow and red glass bricks (seen here in the original state) that gave the southern exposure a regimented Mondrian feel.
This detail shot shows the textured glass block and the vandal damage done to it over the years of vacancy. We can also see how the red and yellow blocks were spray painted over, giving the building a crossword puzzle update in the early 2000s. Remnants of yellow and red peek through the slivers when a projectile pierces the facade.
My father, Richard Weiss, installed the non-brick glass on this building (like the entrance shown below) in 1964 when he worked for Rainbow Glass. He explained that brick layers were responsible for the glass block curtain wall, and that, even then, his glazier brethren thought it a folly to use so much glass block for two reasons: there’s no insulation properties and glass block in reach of people will always be damaged, both unintentionally and intentionally.
After the “oh wow” of spotting this building as you drive by, the walk up the bridge to this entrance renders you speechless. This looks like a jet set bar with an under-the-sea theme!
How did the architect sell them on this idea? But bless their progressive hearts for going with it. And thank you to the decades of facilities managers who kept the dream alive.
This bank captured imaginations for over 50 years. Even while discussing why the building is coming down, East Alton mayor Joe Silkwood acknowledges how special it was in this brief podcast chat.
In the podcast, Silkwood says the building sat vacant for almost 7 years and that it became unusable for both market and structural reasons. What to do with a building like this in East Alton is a burden – there’s just no market for adaptive reuse of fanciful mid-century modern buildings. But the structural decay issues were preventable.
I say this because in November 2010 there were 3 of us who came across the building, and we were flipping out with wonder and glee. As we combed every inch of the exterior we found that a basement door was unlocked and slightly ajar, so of course we went inside. While in a state of MCM ecstasy, I found (but don’t remember) a moment of documentarian clarity and recorded this video of a journey through the 2nd floor:
In this video, you will hear the sound of a camera shutter going off. Sharks after chum are not as frenzied as we were in trying to capture as much evidence as possible.
Those are St. Charles metal cabinets, obviously original to the building, and following through on the yellow and red theme of the exterior.
I hope that during their request for demolition phase, East Alton city hall allows for those who know the value of what’s in the building to buy it and cart it off. These cabinets are just one of many treasures that deserve to be saved. A pre-demolition auction for the ornamentation and fixtures would be a sound funds generator while creating property marketing and general civic good will.
While on our adventure, we found a sign that read “Building Closed 1/25/10. Please call Todd Adamitis 618.xxx.xxxx.”
After we exited the building (empty-handed, it must be noted!), we worried about the havoc that could be reeked because of that unlocked door. So one of us made several calls to the phone number listed, letting him know about the situation and why it needed to be addressed. There was no response to those calls.
In November 2010, the building was in an understandably worn state, but completely salvageable. Even though it was unused and uncared for since at least January, there wasn’t even the mold and mildew smell so common in vacant buildings. Its relatively stable state is what fired our imaginations over what could be.
Six years of neglect can take any building past the point of ROI.
Mayor Silkwood mentions that attempts were made to find new owners for the building, but also says, “It wasn’t a practical or useful building.”
After listening to my father detail the problems with “that much glass block,” I agree with the practical part. Bringing it up to modern energy efficiency standards and replacing damaged glass bricks would be very pricey renovation budget item.
I disagree with the useful part. Several miles away, a 1960 MCM bank has been repurposed (stories here), so the local market can handle visionary developers with a love for the mid-century aesthetic. In the right hands, this building could easily live another useful life. It happens all the time.
But let’s look at context. While parts of next door Woodriver, IL are coming back to life, this particular part of town is not yet viable. And there is nothing nearby that would sustain such a bold and costly renovation. The aforementioned Alton Savings & Loan is in a higher density part of town that knows the value of historic renovation and financially benefits from such. But it would be a huge stretch to expect a developer to plunk down the benjamins on a risky round building in this locale. Timing and context make demolition a far sounder fiscal decision.
So now it’s just a matter of saying a proper goodbye to this unique and glamorous bank building. We have from now until late Spring 2016 to document and reminisce, and again, I hope the powers-that-be allow for parts of the structure to find new stewards. If that happens, please be sure to let me know.
Posted on May 30th, 2015 2 comments
May 30, 2005 was the very first B.E.L.T. entry. 10 years later, the title of the maiden post ironically sums up my current mindset about the state of my relationship with St. Louis:
As a person who trends to the positive because it has more power for meaningful change, I’m not comfortable with the cantankerous and curmudgeonly state of mind I’m currently in about my beloved hometown. Rather than prattle on in the negative, I prefer to say nothing at all. This is why new postings have been scarce throughout 2013 and most of 2014, and came to a complete halt after expressing my feelings about #Ferguson in September 2014.
But a 10-year anniversary of a blog is a special thing, especially in the ADD cyber world, so I want to acknowledge my relationships with this blog, this town and the people who have been a part of this journalistic journey. So to quote an overzealous 5th grade classmate who was picked to lead our physical education class for the day: “10 jumping jacks! Ready? BEGIN!”
An Outlet for an OCD Photo Habit
I wanted to be like Julius Shulman, and happily went down that path with several years of serious dark room lurking over black and white film of St. Louis architecture, grand and unassuming (like the example above, of the former Mark Twain Theater in Sunset Hills, MO). Then I got a digital camera. Film vs. digital is the equivalent of espresso vs. cocaine, and I went on an epic bender.
I believe there should be a purpose and/or outlet for creative expression, so felt a burning need to do something with this stockpile of images. This need coincided with blogging going mainstream. I started my first blog, M.E.L.T. in March 2005.
M.E.L.T. was the necessary blogging due diligence and learning curve to get to what really mattered – St. Louis buildings, grand and unassuming. I still clearly remember the joyous moments I discovered Ecology of Absence, Urban Review STL and Built St. Louis. These men and their output were inspiring, fascinating and entertaining. I felt I had something to offer about our town’s built environment that wasn’t covered by them, so it would not be a pale imitation of their work, nor step on their areas of expertise.
A Mid-Century Modern Cheerleader
The launch of B.E.L.T. created a place to share photos and stories of my travels around St. Louis, and beyond. It was also the opportunity to dig deep into the demise of Northland Shopping Center, in Jennings, MO, that had both deep personal meaning and important historical context about mid-century modern architecture coinciding with the development of St. Louis County.
While all eras of St. Louis architecture matter to me, it’s the architecture from roughly 1940 to 1970 that resonates strongest. Those are the photos and stories I shared the most, and the buildings I worried about the most. MCM architecture was too young to yet be properly appreciated by the preservationists and general public, while also being too old for developers and the general public to care about. In 2005, Northland Shopping Center and Busch Stadium were the biggest examples of MCM disregard leading to demolition.
I felt an urgent need on two fronts:
- To call attention to the last important era of American architecture, with the hopes that the preservation communities would catch on and get behind protecting the best examples.
- Photographically capture and share as many of our local examples as I could before they disappeared.
Much to my surprise and eternal gratitude, it wasn’t hard to sell. Turns out there were plenty of St. Louisans who understood and agreed with my agenda. They were generous with information – hipping me to things to check out, or filling in missing details – and enthusiasm.
B.E.L.T. sometimes helped to make it easier for us like-minded folk to protect or celebrate MCM architecture.
Protection-wise, a large group of us went up against an arm of the St. Louis Archdiocese to save the San Luis in 2009. We lost the fight (and the building), but learned valuable lessons about how to handle future threats.
In retrospect, it really didn’t take long for the City of St. Louis to get on board with saving worthy mid-century buildings. One great example: By Spring 2013, Missouri gave us an award in Jefferson City for helping to save the Grand Center Saucer (with the original architect, Richard Henmi, in tow!).
Celebration-wise, a Spring 2010 post about an Atomic Crash party in Indianapolis ended with a question about doing something similar here in St. Louis. The first 4 commenters on this post became founding board members of what became – and remains – Modern STL.
Because of B.E.L.T. I’ve been honored to be invited to take part in symposiums, seminars, lectures, exhibits and documentaries, tours and film screenings (hello Julius Shulman!). And most astoundingly of all, esteemed people who actually are architectural experts because they have the education, experience and encyclopedic minds have repeatedly referred me to as an “authority” on St. Louis mid-century modern architecture.
No disrespect to any of them when I say, “Man, you’re soooooo wrong!” I am not an authority, by any measure. I am only a storyteller who illustrates the tales with photos. I am only a cheerleader for an architectural style that needs proper respect. The beauty of the little big town of St. Louis (and the internet) is the ability to reach the key people who actually can, and do, make a positive difference. To quote Freddie Mercury, “I thank you all.”
But It’s Been No Bed of Roses
By 2013, there was many fine people, blogs and organizations covering St. Louis architecture – and MCM specifically – that my compulsion to cover it relaxed. My slacking blog entries wouldn’t cause any harm because others had the wheel. So I took the time to pursue another lifelong passion – music – and that is an ongoing staple of my free time (shameless plugs: The Remodels & The Jans Project).
Then there was August 9, 2014. On that Saturday, as Michael Brown was shot down in Ferguson, I was about 1.5 miles away in neighboring Jennings, showing someone a street where I once stayed. To an outsider, they were shocked at the state of decay and disrepair of the streets and homes. Seeing it through their eyes – rather than with my typical nostalgia and loyalty to North County – I was stunned and saddened. Later that night, I learned of what happened to Michael Brown, and I was heartbroken.
From that moment on, the events that transpired in Ferguson radically altered my perspective. What was the point of rallying to save a building (the Lewis & Clark Library in neighboring Moline Acres) when the people of North County were in turmoil? Many buildings in Ferguson and Dellwood were sacrificed to the anger. I was compelled to talk about in this post. But in the face of systemic injustice to some of our people, I lost the heart to talk about buildings.
Come November 24, 2014, with the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, I was sickened and in tears as Ferguson and Dellwood burned. It truly felt as if the Powers That Be were purposely letting it be destroyed to make a convoluted point.
Since then, 3 things are really pissing me off:
- Football Is More Important Than You: Governor Jay Nixon – who had to be dragged into inept action about Michael Brown’s death in North County – couldn’t move fast enough to potentially wipe out part of the North City riverfront to build a new football stadium. And telling us that we had no voting rights about partially funding a new stadium because we’re still paying for the current stadium. And this boondoggle trail is already muddied by crooked money. Why is it that every 20 years we have to pony up so a select group can make even more entertainment dollars?
- Special Rules for Millionaires: You are fine-tooth-combed for a car loan, but the City of St. Louis couldn’t be bothered to do a credit check on Paul McKee before giving him unprecedented land-massing allowances and tax breaks. McKee is defaulting on multi-million dollar loans on his North City properties. Ecology of Absence uncovered and reported the details of McKee’s disregard for North Side people and property several years before City Hall issued the free pass to supposedly redevelop it. Unfortunately, history and truth is never as important as continually forcing upon us underperforming Silver Bullet Solutions.
- Causing Destruction to Save You: The City of St. Louis is lobbying to demolish occupied North Side homes and businesses so the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency might remain in the city because, supposedly, the NGA’s tax money and employment is more important than that which is already there. Why not 2-bird-1-stone it and use the vacant Pruitt-Igoe site for this project? Or is that not owned by Paul McKee?
And Enough Already!
These are the St. Louis thoughts that lately occupy my mind. This is why it’s better I say nothing at all. Anger and criticism is easy to cave into, but it leaves me feeling inappropriate and rotting, a disillusioned Pollyanna.
There are St. Louis built environment happenings that are surprising and cool. For instance, the Northwest Plaza redevelopment is, so far, an interesting balance of original buildings with new construction and uses (above, under construction, April 2015). And all the modern in-fill housing and mixed-use buildings slated to go up around The Grove in South St. Louis is life affirming. Jennings called a quick halt to Family Dollar wanting to take down a Frederick Dunn church on West Florissant, and then found another tenant for the church.
But I can’t muster the energy to cover those things. I’m trying to muster up the courage to photographically cover the demolition of the Lewis & Clark Library (being dismantled, above, April 2015), and reeling from the irony of the failed effort winning an award. I don’t know if I have it in me to watch another beloved and worthy building go down needlessly, much less share the story with others. It’s probably best to just grieve in private, over this and all the other St. Louis people and places that trouble me. I count on this being a momentary phase, please.
Some Stats, Acknowledgements & Forecasting
In 10 year, there have been 437 B.E.L.T. entries (or 438, counting this one). Google Analytics reports these are the Top 10 most-read posts:
- A White Flight Tour Up West Florissant Ave. to #Ferguson and North St. Louis County
- Masters of Sex: St. Louis Reality vs. TV Depiction
- Urban vs. Rural
- Sneak Peek: Downtown St. Louis Sculpture Garden
- Top of the Towers
- Inside the Top of Tower Restaurant
- Mid-Century Modern For Sale in Old Town Florissant
- Overland, MO Mid-Century Modern
- Southern Funeral Home For Sale
- CWE Mid-Century Modern: Lindell Boulevard
Here are the Top 10 posts with the most comments from readers. Only 3 overlap with the most-read, so can we conclude these are of most interest to us locals? (Note: I disabled comments on the West Florissant White Flight post to avoid the hatred. People still found ways to get ‘em in, though.)
- Top of the Towers
- One More Walgreens Will Surely Complete Our City
- Overland, MO Mid-Century Modern
- Sunset Hills Teardown, Revised
- 2 More Gasometers Coming Down
- Northland Shopping Center Artifacts
- Tear Down Jamestown Mall
- Rossino’s Italian Restaurant
- Inside the Top of Tower Restaurant
- Barely There: St. Louis Hills Office Center Update
And this would be the only time I get to indulge as such, so off the top of my head – in no particular order – are 10 of my personal favorite posts:
1. Hampton Avenue Mid-Century Modern
2. North County MCM: Independent Congregational Church
3. Heavenly Mid-Century Modern: The Union Memorial United Methodist Church
4. Personal Architecture: Northland Day Nursery School
5. Shutters – Why?
6. The Doors of St. Louis Hills
7. Harris Armstrong, South Side
8. MILESTONE: Mid-Century Modern Subdivision on Missouri’s National Register of Historic Places
9. Unnerving Florissant Modern
10. The Dorsa, “The Ultimate in Mode Moderne”
St. Louisans are so heart-warmingly generous with information, and love to share their knowledge. Along with post comments, I have received so many wonderful emails from so many helpful people. To everyone who provided pieces of the puzzle, thank you a million times for caring and sharing.
B.E.L.T. also made it possible to meet so many amazing, enthusiastic people who care deeply about St. Louis, and I’m eternally grateful for those that became good friends and fellow adventurers. So many of these posts double as a personal scrapbook of good times I had with great people.
Thank you to any organization or publication that bestowed an award upon B.E.L.T. and/or its author. That’s way cool. And to all the journalists who asked for my thoughts or assistance, thanks for believing St. Louis buildings are newsworthy.
As for the future… I bet I post again. Like I said, I hope the “you kids get off my lawn!” phase is a temporary affliction. And I am exploring the world of podcasting. The St. Louis built environment would definitely be a reoccurring topic, providing a chance for you to hear from some of the St. Louisans who’ve enriched my blogging experiences.
And thank you for being a part of the past 10 years. It was pretty kick ass!
Posted on January 27th, 2013 4 comments
I want to extend a warm thank you with a sloppy bear hug to The Riverfront Times‘ judges who voted B.E.L.T. “Best Architecture Blog.” Here’s the kind words they said about this honor, if you scroll down to the last entry on the page.
I’m touched that they referred to me as a storyteller, because it reflects the personal nature of how I cover a building. Architectural academics can turn people off with dense technical talk about the importance of a building. But if you talk from the perspective of how architecture shapes and affects us, it’s more compelling. The people who created and used these buildings reveals why they are important.
And it’s that personal angle that has brought me the most pleasure from blogging (it’ll be 8 years this May). Arriving as comments and private emails, I get to hear personal stories and memories that were triggered by coverage of St. Louis buildings, great and small.
For instance, I’m having email conversation with a woman who grew up in a house in Jennings that was an important part of my childhood. She’s filling me in about the 3 houses shown above, and we’re sharing our memories of the middle house. I only know these new things because she read this post, and left a comment.
St. Louisans are supremely sentimental, which is great for blog comments. I still hear new old memories from people about the impact Northland Shopping Center had on their lives. 29 comments and counting. Possibly the most commented entry is about Top of the Towers, and along with recipes, their deeply personal memories are fabulous.
And lots of ex-pats Google Rossino’s Italian Restaurant, and I become the one who breaks the bad news that it no longer exists. But then they share a memory, and it’s alive again, for just a brief moment.
B.E.L.T. readers are a generous lot. They know what I like and feed my addiction. Along with memories, they sometimes send photos. Like David Aldrich, who is doing his own research about architecturally interesting J.C. Penney stores. He runs across this photo of the Wellston J.C. Penney, and sends it to me:
I hear from the children who grew up in homes that were demolished for a McMansion. Or for a brilliant change of pace, I hear from someone who saved a home from teardown.
But it’s the people who’ve been reading and sharing for all these years that make it a truly worthwhile pursuit. You have turned what is obsessively personal geekery into something that has historical merit. And that so many of you care so much about these buildings feels like a warm group hug. I am deeply grateful to all of you for taking the time to read along.
Posted on February 7th, 2011 1 comment
Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet or hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds, but it sure did mess with Tropicanniversary!
Snow and ice canceled our first date, and having to accommodate league bowlers who also got snowed out messed up the second date, so we’ve moved everything to a (hopefully) less snow-filled mid-March. March 15th to be exact.
Like our streets, everything remains iced so it stays fresh for you in March. The same great raffle prizes (like retro bowling shirts and kitchen accessories), the same reduced bowling rates (.95 cent shoe rental, for starters) and drink specials await us all. We’ll also announce a special Members-Only house party that takes place at the end of March. So plenty of reasons to sit tight until Mother Nature gets it right.
Official Modern StL T-shirts and decals also debut on March 15th. Keep track of the event on Facebook, and we’ll see you soon!
Posted on February 1st, 2011 No comments
Due to the continuing crappy weather
Tropicanniversary has been moved to Tuesday, February 8th, 2011.
It will still be a bowling Happy Hour from 6-9 PM. All the reduced bowling prices, drink specials and fabulous door prizes still apply as well. It’s just on a different day that allows for easier travel to and from (fingers crossed).
Until then, stay safe and warm, and protect that bowling arm from too much shoveling!
Posted on January 30th, 2011 1 comment
We continue mining the homemade mid-century modern treasures of the 1961 “Home Handyman” series by Popular Mechanics. Last week we covered how to build the sleekest chairs, sofas and boomerang tables (plus a space age dog house!). This week, we stick with indoor projects.
For loft dwellers, room dividers are a constant obsession. And who doesn’t have something in their house that needs to be screened off from view? But the prices of those things! All the tips you need to build your own are here, just double click to see full size.
“Instead of considering an old-fashioned brick fireplace a problem when remodeling and modernizing a home, make it an eye-catching center of attraction…”
They show you how to create a basement rec room, while I dream of my living room looking like this!
We should note that the houses that sprung up because of the Baby Boom were much smaller than what has been built since the mid-1980s. Whereas contemporary homes consider a refinished basement a way to get an optional level, back in the ’50s and ’60s, they had to finish the basements to make a place to stash the older kids.
Note the chairs that Marge and Olwen sit in for a game of Canasta in the basement. It’s interesting to note that today’s mid-century modern fascination is among the younger generations, while back in the day, all generations pretty much accepted modern design as a daily routine. Which is why those of us raised in an ugly post-modern world covet this time period – it was the last era when everything was supposed to be beautiful all the time.
Posted on January 23rd, 2011 2 comments
We’re trapped inside on snowy, winter weekends with regular plans canceled. What to do with this sudden spare time? Why, let’s fire up our wood shops and build some chairs! Who of us hasn’t longed for a serpentine mid-century modern chaise lounge? But have you seen the prices for a good vintage one? Well, the 1961 series of Popular Mechanics’ Home Handyman will let you have a brand new authentic chaise lounge. Click to see all photos at full size to get the details you need to start creating fabulous!
Tim Wahlig, a carpenter friend of mine, bought the entire series at an estate sale. Because it was the height of post-war modernism, the series makes sure you can update your tired old homes with the most current looks, complete with all the instructions you need to be atomic-age for cheap, with a sense of accomplishment as a bonus. And their designs are amazing. Like this captain’s chair!
Or take a stab at this dining room chair. Once you complete the first one, the other 3 will be a breeze!
Your sofa needs a coffee table, and here’s the secret to having the classic boomerang table. Compared to the chair construction, this can most likely be completed in one quick afternoon. And if you’re wondering about the proper finish for all this furniture you’ve built, Home handyman knows exactly the hip look:
Since it promises to be an endlessly snowy winter, there’s plenty of free time to take a stab at the coveted pole lamp:
And there’s even a nod to man’s best friend, who deserves a home to match your mid-century remodeling:
In the coming weeks, I’ll share more pages from this fascinating series. They were seriously trying to help homeowners banish the banality of pre-war design, and they had exquisite taste. Wait till you see the room dividers, backyard living and how to update the exterior of your embarrassing revival home!
Posted on January 16th, 2011 No comments
On February 2, 2011, from 6 – 9 PM, Modern StL celebrates the 50th anniversary of Tropicana Bowling Lanes. For us, the owner is reserving half the lanes at reduced prices. There will be amazing raffle items, a history of bowling slideshow and drink specials. You also have the chance to buy our first official swag:
Here’s the Facebook invite. We hope to see you there!
Posted on November 11th, 2010 No comments
If you love Mid-Century Modern architecture in general, and St. Louis’ stash of MCM specifically, then set your sites on this coming week. You have 2 opportunities to be with others like you.
Modern StL makes it social debut on Thursday, November 18th, from 5 – 8 PM at Atomic Cowboy. Our group has put together 25 atomic-minded gift bags which will go the first 25 people who join up. There will be a raffle for two Geneva Jelly Watches. Meet the people who want you to be a part of celebrating St. Louis MCM (that would be the Board Members), and mix and mingle with other folks who absolutely have the best taste in design and architecture because they came out to support Modern StL.
I am very honored to be invited by the Landmarks Association to be the closing act of their Mid-Century Modern Master Series. On Sunday, November 21st at 3 PM at Landmarks, I present St. Loves MCM: Embracing Recent Past Preservation. This venerable organization describes it best on their website:
From Mad Men to Design Within Reach, it seems as if America is embracing mid-century modern (MCM) with a passion. With the Arch as out global calling card, it’s time for St. louis to embrace and protect its MCM heritage. Join Toby Weiss as she showcases some of St. Louis’ best MCM buildings and looks at ways to ensure their preservation.
The lecture will begin at 3:00 PM in the classroom at Architecture St. Louis at 911 Washington Avenue, Suite 170. Seating is limited to 50 people. We strongly encourage reservations as we cannot guarantee seating without one. To reserve a seat, please call 314.421.6474 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is always a great pleasure to hear from and meet B.E.L.T. readers because we all have so much in common. Now in November, we have two chances to “Gabba gabba, we accept you, one of us!” I hope you can make it to one or (preferably!) both events.
Posted on September 3rd, 2010 1 comment
The Arch is the global icon of modernism, and it is the front door of St. Louis. We have a glorious collection of mid-century modern buildings and neighborhoods, and we’re overdue in celebrating and protecting these assets.
This is why we have formed a new non-profit group – Modern StL. We strive for the identification, education, preservation and celebration of St. Louis Modernism. We have plans for many different types of events (how would you like a walking tour of Ridgewood with some words by its architect Ralph Fournier?) and seminars, and swag, and on-line forums and… the possibilities are endless.
The group met for the first time in June, and we’ve only recently incorporated with the state of Missouri. So we have a lot of work ahead of us to make everything official – including levels of membership and our first major event – but in the mean time, we invite you to explore our website in progress: