Sylvan Springs Park

Sylvan Springs Park, South St. Louis County
Whenever Rob Powers is in town, we usually find something new and wonderful. This time, by simply turning down a street I’d never been on before, we saw the above sight.

My first impression was a quintessential drive-in concession stand plopped into a bucolic setting. Sylvan Springs Park is across from a back entrance to the Jefferson Barracks cemetery on Sappington Barracks Road. The reason Ordnance Shelter resembles drive-in architecture is because it was built in 1955.

The concession stand at the rear of the building is boarded up, but the rest of the shelter is business as usual, with a family (who were very cool about us taking tons of pictures) picnic taking place while we were there.

Ordnance Shelter looks out on a courtyard with short stone walls and small stage, lending the entire setting a quaint Jellystone Park vibe. While I circled the building in blissful disbelief, Powers – who is a working architect – was able to note that the building was in need of some serious repairs. This immediately brings up the fear that rather than repair it, the parks system will simply tear it down. This fear is compounded by the jinx I carry with me: if it’s a great example of mid-century modern still in use and I love it and photograph it, it will come down.

Some quick internet research shows that a skateboard park is planned for a spot north of Ordnance Shelter. I’m asking for the same thing at Carondelet Park, so it’s thrilling to know someone else had – and acted on – the idea. A 2003 Master Plan shows several suggestions for revamping the park, with most plans leaving this shelter standing. But one of slides shows it, too, being revamped slightly. So, fingers are crossed that its essential spirit remains unbroken.

Marla Court

I was pedaling around a previously-unexplored section of South St. Louis, the very hilly part wedged in the area between Highway 55 and the St. Louis County line. A majority of the homes near the City/County border are the quickly-erected, simple tract homes necessitated by the baby boom. Sprinkled among them are 1920s & 30s brick bungalows, and a couple of much older homes in the “farm mansion” style.

I pedaled up Waddell, and on my right I saw a line of 5 houses that stuck out like a white rose in a red rose bouquet (see photo above). Simple, square homes with an abundance of glass and carports providing a sense of sweeping asymmetry. A glance down Comstock revealed an even longer line of the same houses. A pedal down the street revealed two courts full of variations on this theme!

As I stood at the entrance to Marla Court (map, above), memories of Darla Court rushed forth; Darla Court being a Jetsons duplex village I accidentally discovered in the bowels of Jennings, MO. Darla in the North… Marla in the South… freaking out, in a good way.

Above is a good example of a relatively untouched version of the homes in this little mid-century pocket. All of the homes in this style were built between 1957 and 1958. Each one was originally 952 square feet with one bathroom and central air. These small homes were given a bit of modern drama by treating the standard-height front rooms to 5 transom windows following the slope of the roof line. The steel tubes supporting the roof overhang and carport are placed at the jaunty angles which separated modern from traditional.

This being South St. Louis, tinkering with our homes is a pre-requisite, so of course there is some remodeling. “Stone” siding and shutters were an original cosmetic variation on the theme, while the boarding up of the transom windows and the curly-cue iron columns (above) feels like a form of beating back some of the peskier modern features.

Most of the homes have opted to cover the wood roof soffits with vinyl, which is a normal function of upkeep. But I was charmed by how most everyone kept the wide variety of colors when it came time to replace the siding (above).

All of the houses were the same, yet there is just enough original – and new – detail to make each one interesting in its own right. I was also pleased to see every home occupied and in pristine condition, with neighbors of all ages playing in the street and puttering around the yards. I wonder if being part of a slightly secluded neighborhood of similar houses contributes to the distinct community feel.

Check out the above drastic remodel. Not only did they change the orientation of the siding and the windows from horizontal to vertical, they also added a second story. I love that they went for such radical departures while still honoring the basic lines of the house, and thus the neighborhood. Also, it’s a bit shocking that they are the only house to add a 2nd story in order to gain some square footage.

In the court part of Comstock comes a variation on the basic architectural theme, what I refer to as the Flat Front Model. These homes went in later, from 1961 – 1965, and were slightly larger at 988 square feet and with 2 bathrooms. There was one of these models for sale at the time I took these pictures, and according to the realty listing, that house added a great room to the backside for more square footage, while leaving the front relatively untouched. It had a list price of $149,900.

The Flat Fronts are riper for renovation, with most of them converting carports into garages. Or in the case of the home directly above, the carport became a sunroom, and everything gets a rustic look with cedar siding. But in general, I am impressed with how much of the original stylistic intent remains among all the remodeling; it’s a testament to the flexibility of these homes that so much D.I.Y. can occur without altering the basic flavor of this one-off development.

Streamline Moderne in North St. Louis County

11851 Benham Road
Unincorporated North St. Louis County, MO
I’ve admired this house for decades because of its simplistic deco beauty, and that it’s such a rare creature in this part of far North County. Near to where highways 367 and 270 meet, if the architecture is not commercial or Christian Northeast Hospital, it’s the standard ranch issue of suburban towns developed in earnest during the mid-1960s and on. But this little gem went up in 1935 or 1938 (depending on which records consulted), when the area was decidedly rural and Dunn Road was the highway system.

The St. Louis County Parks inventory of historic buildings reveals it was originally known as the Everett D. Fry House. The home is 2 stories, 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, central air and 1964 s.f., with an ingenious carport/terrace double-duty spot on the south elevation. During the time I’ve been acquainted with it, the place has always been pristine, and modest about being a white rose among carnations. But in the 21st century, it got a little raggedy, and for over a year the home has been vacant.

On my last visit, I found the above signs in the window. A search for available FannieMae properties does not list this place, and after a number of owner changes in the past several years, it now belongs to an LLC, who bought it for $93,000.

Highway 367 is just about finished with a major (and much-appreciated) overhaul. Benham is a 2-lane road that parallels the highway. As the highway revamps, many of the ranch homes on Benham – north of this site, – have been bought and torn down. I’m assuming new homes will rise up in their place, but it could just as easily swing into commercial use; this part of town is transforming rapidly after a long period of stagnation.

This house would be a dream achievement for certain types of residential art deco aficionados. But there are now so many physical and market-driven barriers piling up around it that the prognosis is bleak. Another “that’s a damn shame” may be added to the list.

2010 UPDATE
This home has been bought and is now fully occupied, with vehicles parked in the carport and a tidy yard. Thank you to whomever saw the beauty of this home!

Darla Court


Darla Court, Jennings, MO
As if Northland being demolished wasn’t hard enough, I found my childhood home behind Northland (on Meadowlark) now boarded up and condemned. A tangible piece of my personal past is being wiped off the map, and the timing of it borders on overkill.

The neighborhood itself is a classic hodgepodge, with homes ranging from the early 1900s to the late 1960s, and while half of the houses are as crisp as I remember them, the other half are abandoned and rotting.

We always traversed this neighborhood on foot, so I knew it intimately…or so I thought until I took a turn down a street I’d never been down before. This small area couldn’t be more tucked away and ignored, and thus has no compulsion towards suburban civility, feeling more like a bayou swamp settlement. In the midst of Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil I discovered a portal into The Modern WayBack Machine.
By taking a curious right and heading down a steep hill, I rolled back in time to a Jet Set Duplex Park. A paisley-shaped street is ringed with pristine examples of optimistic car culture multi-family dwellings, all butterfly winged carports and picture windows.

There were a few variations on the theme (above), but all are low-slung duplexes lovingly tended to.

I was numb as I stood gawking in the middle of the court, feeling as if I’d stepped into a 1960s postcard. The intense heat of the day made my head woozy, so I assumed I was imagining this clean and precise oasis of residential modern in the midst of a forgotten swamp land. But it was true! On this island, martini shakers still rattled at hibachi BBQs while alligators and scorpions surely lurked in the overgrown lawns of the homes outside this bubble.

How did I miss this place all these years?
I asked my parents about it, and they, too, had no idea it existed because they didn’t even realize you could go east of Huiskamp Ave in that neighborhood. So I didn’t feel like such a dunce for overlooking it. Plus, it’s tucked into the valley of a large dead end.

St. Louis County property tax records show that my Mid-Century Model Train Neighborhood was built in 1968 as Glenview Court. Meaning, it was built while we lived in the area, but sailed under the radar.

Most every duplex still retains its original and unique metal medallion on the front facade (note tikki stone faces, above middle), and the owners sit in lawnchairs under their carports wondering why this chick is casing their court. I keep returning because it’s like the Demolition Gods threw me a bone, allowing a new chapter within the doomed pages of my architectural biography.

North County Modern

The Beverly Hills, Mo city hall and pharmacy as photographed in 2001 by toby weiss
Beverly Hills, MO
Natural Bridge Rd. just east of Lucas-Hunt Rd.
It barely exists as a municipality, and the scene above promises to change. Remodeling has begun because the pharmacy (which shares space with the City Hall) needs to expand. With a population under 700, it’s heartening that something is expanding here…

the glasgow village shopping center as photographed in 2003 by toby weiss
Glasgow Village, MO
Just a scootch past the city/county line, in the bluffs above Riverview Blvd., behind Chain of Rocks Park, which actually mattered much when the amusement park was in play. The shopping center is now really nothing more than this liquor store.

(This piece was originally posted in June 2005. Since then, Glasgow Village Shopping Center is gone.)

top of the tower and stelmacki's in moline acres missouri as photographed by toby weiss in 2001
Moline Acres, MO
Hwy 367 & Chambers Rd.
Top of the Tower Restaurant was a sophisticated destination in the late 1960/early 1970s, and to live in the apartments below was pretty hip. The movie theater on the lower level became many a defunct nightclub, but Stelmacki’s is still in place, and keeps the geometric marvel alive.

belle park plaza in spanish lake, missouri as photographed by toby weiss in 2001 and 2005
Spanish Lake, MO
Bellefontaine Rd. & Parker Rd.
My father’s wife ran a beauty shop in this plaza for almost 20 years. I’d seen it a thousand times over the years, but never noticed the subtle chevron theme until a couple of years ago. It was the city’s one and only attempt at jazzing up for the motor age, and they may have kept it subtle because it was just a few yards from the blacksmith’s shop.

Lustron Life

Webster Groves Lustron photo by Toby Weiss
Ridge Ave., Webster Groves, MO
The neighborhood is lousy with ’em, and an architect pal discovered a couple of them were for sale. My friend Marla waved her magic wand and gave us an insiders tour.

While I’ve always admired (and stalked) the Lustron, I’d never been inside. Now that I have, I adore the Lustron.
Interior of Webster Groves Lustron by Toby Weiss
Just a tad over 1000 s.f., the place feels expansive because there’s no wasted space. All is in logical order for efficient living. To the touch, all surfaces have a velvety lustre.
Kitchen cabinets in Webster Groves Lustron by Toby Weiss
Cabinets are the primary kitchen concern. This Lustron has cabinet space to spare, a kitchen both traditional and ultra-modern in the same breath. Laundry and utilities are tucked so discreetly off to the side that you have to purposely search to find them.
Master bedroom metal cabinetry in Webster Groves Lustron by Toby Weiss
The streamline economy of the public spaces is sweet, but the “master” bedroom is decadent luxury. Two built-in closests, a cornice of overhead cabinets and an 8-drawer vanity with picture-window mirror are molded into one piece that fills an entire wall. It’s sophisticated and functional!

I’ve spent the last few years trying to whittle down my possessions, working on achieving a minimalist life. With this bedroom, all I’d need is my bed and the nightstand. Everything else would tuck neatly into the wall!

I want this house real bad like. It fits my aesthetic, but not my pocketbook. When listed, it was a bit overpriced, and even if they were talked down to $110K, still can’t afford it. And now Lustron is the house that got away…
Detail of Webster Groves MO Lustron photo by Toby Weiss