A Last-Minute Christmas Gift Suggestion

The former State Bank of Wellston is currently under interior demolition.  Exterior demolition is set to begin January 2nd, 2013. Word is it’s coming down to make way for a McDonalds.

Here’s an overview of the Wellston Bank.
And there will be a future post memorializing the loss of this mid-century modern bank that was both stately and cruisin’ cool at the same time.

In the meantime, the neon fabulous Sky Bank light tower (above) is for sale.

This light tower has been a sign post, a marker, a marvel for almost 60 years. Sometimes, it’s the only thing about Wellston that people know or recognize. It is absolutely worthy of saving.

The demolition crew is looking for a buyer. There is some urgency because of the start date of exterior demolition.
Do you know of anyone who can help?
We could use a Christmas miracle, here.

If you’re interested, please contact me via blog comment or directly, and you’ll be put in touch with those with the details.

It IS a Christmas miracle. Here’s a note from Larry Giles:

I am in the final phase of securing the Wellston Bank sign and have managed to raise 6K thru donations and have the trucking lined up, 5K for the purchase price. We still need another 5K for the crane, crew and misc.

More details as they emerge.

Goodbye to Strike ‘N Spare Bowling Lanes

strike n spare lanes north lindbergh st louis mo photo by toby weiss

Strike ‘N Spare Lanes
Schuetz Road & North Lindbergh
St. Louis County, MO

I awoke Thanksgiving morning to an email that the Strike ‘N Spare Lanes building and land was up for lease. Here’s a copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story.  I didn’t even know it had closed, reportedly on this past Labor Day weekend.

The property is – and always has been – owned by the Jewish Community Center, which is located right behind this property. AMF has been leasing the building for the past 10 years or so, though it has operated as Strike ‘N Spare since the building opened in late 1961/early 1962.

strike n spare bowling lanes north lindbergh st louis mo photo by toby weiss

The article states that the 5.3 acres of land and 49,887 s.f. building is being offered at $19,166 a month rent, and that it’s also “being marketed as a site for a new bowling alley or a site of multiple uses, including a bank, convenience store or gas station.”

From a real estate point of view, this intersection in an unincorporated bit of northwest St. Louis County – nestled between Overland and Creve Coeur – would be a prime property. But topographically, it’s far from ideal for something as traffic-dependent as a convenience store or gas station.

Take a look at the photo above; I am only half way down the hill this bowling alley sits atop of. It’s a very steep incline, a feature the original designers of this building took advantage of. Because as you whizz by down below on Lindbergh, your eye is caught by a bright loop-dee-loop seemingly floating atop a mountain.  I think we all understand the psychology of drivers, and if you are at all familiar with this stretch of road, can you imagine the average driver making the trek up the hill from Lindbergh to get some gas and Beef Jerky? Would they consider that truly convenient?

strike n spare bowling lanes north lindbergh st louis mo photo by toby weiss

Because of the lay of the land, whatever goes in the existing building or new structures that may appear must be a distinct destination.  A commenter in an August 21st post of Berger’s Beat types confident that apartments or condos will be on that property within a year. That makes complete sense, as everything in the immediate area behind this property is either apartments, commercial or industrial.

But it would be so much better for someone to re-use this building, don’t you think?  Another bowling alley would be excellent, but what about a church? Today’s modern congregations seem to favor more s.f. for socializing and entertainment than they do a chapel. I’d also like to see it be an Ikea….. just had to throw that in there.

strike n spare bowling lanes north lindbergh st louis mo photo by toby weiss

When I took these photos in the summer of 2006, I was worried then that something bad was happening to the place because of the yellow “do not cross” tape. But it turns out they were pouring new sidewalks, and doing some exterior repairs and upkeep. AMF took good care of this building, and it’s only been vacant for a few months, so it’s safe to say it’s still sound.

And it sure is, um, striking, with classic mid-century modern lines and materials. And let’s not overlook the glamor of that Googie roof line. And it’s those very features that give it a 50/50 chance for survival. That means the glass is half full, and let’s hope for the best.

Inside the Top of Tower Restaurant

Chambers Road & Hwy 367
Moline Acres, MO

This post about Top of the Tower Restaurant from October 2007 is by far the most-commented entry I’ve ever done. Within the comments, we hear from the granddaughter of Tower’s developer Bud Dallavis, as well as several people who worked there over the years. We learn that it did NOT spin (people confuse it with the former Stouffer’s restaurant in Downtown St. Louis), and a few people share the recipe for Rizzo’s famous Spinning Salad.

A post comment from the end of July 2011 set off alarm bells:  Michael Collins went on an adventure inside the Top of the Tower building, and made it all the way to the top and inside the long-vacant Rizzo’s Top of the Tower. He even took pictures!  I pounced on him like a puppy to a chew toy, and he gladly consented to share his photos on Facebook so they could be shared on B.E.L.T. All of the photos you will see here were taken by Michael with his cell phone.

The elevator in the Tower lobby no longer goes up to the top floor, but the stairs do. When Michael got to the top, the door to the restaurant was wide open, “and there were no signs stating no trespassing, although I’m sure they don’t really want anyone up there. I don’t really recommend going up there for your own safety.” He told of some strange encounters with questionable people (and dogs) during his time in the building, so I’m heeding his advice, and very grateful that he chanced it, took these photos and shares them to add to the history of a beloved North County restaurant that continues to be held warmly in the hearts of all who went there.

After the adrenalin high of sifting through his photos, I was feeling like Peggy Lee asking “Is that all there is?” This is what the mythical place actually looked like? Really.

My overall impression of Rizzo’s interior is what I call Spanish Bachelor. It’s a term I use to describe a late 60s/early 70s design plague in swingin’ suburbia. It was a hearty embrace of EZ Brick, Chianti bottles with candles stuck in ’em, blackened wrought iron (real or fake), dark distressed wood, masculine-colored velvets, corduroy pillows and macrame plant holders. It was a look favored by heterosexual single men, and we’d have to ask one of the survivors of this faux-rustic 16th Century Spanish matador design decision what it was meant to convey.

I never imagined that the penthouse showcase of the magnificent mid-century modern tower – all pink metal tubular sleekness – would look like this. In the photo above, the wood paneling on the window columns feels right for a place that opened in 1964.

I’m assuming the ceiling was originally white so that the coffers radiating out from circle center met up with the paneled columns to create a starburst effect.

But the rest of this….?
OK, the place has been vacant for a long time, but we can overlook the neglect to get a sense of what was. And I’m getting the impression that lots of remodeling went on over the years. Or that there was one major sweep of a re-do in 1975…

…because this wallpaper IS 1975 personified. And it has held up rather well, don’t you think?

There is the fantasies that those of us who weren’t alive/participating in that era have, and then there’s reality. My fantasy for Top of the Tower might look a bit more like this series of photos. And maybe it did back in the day.  Remodeling and updates happen organically over time, and restaurants – particularly – have to stay somewhat current and fresh to remain open. So we see a wide hodge podge of design fads piled atop one another.

Obviously, the restaurant conveyed differently with furniture and lighting. Have you ever seen your favorite bar during the day, exposed to natural and overhead light? Then you know there’s a real magic to low lighting at night. Cocktails help everything along, of course.

But in all the memories that have been shared about Rizzo’s Top of the Tower, it was never about the decor (though the views were a major treat). It was the people who worked there, the excellent customer service, the superior quality of the food, and the sense of specialness all of these things combined created for everyone who went there.  We’re now looking at what remains of a place long separated from its magic.

A major batch of thank you goes to Michael Collins for making these photos available to us.

And for all of you who once worked there or ate there on a regular basis, could you please tell us about how the place looked over the years? What did it look like when it opened? What kind of changes were made over the years?

Maybe seeing these photos will spark you memories and you’ll share in the comments as copiously as you did previously. If you have photos to share, that would be excellent, too.

MCM Library: The Lewis & Clark Branch

9909 Lewis-Clark Blvd (aka Hwy 367)
Moline Acres, MO

Having recently visited 2 different libraries within 30 minutes in South St. Louis City, I got to reminiscing about the importance of libraries to our communities and to my personal history.  Which reminded me that the St. Louis County Public Library system has a written plan to eventually demolish the Lewis & Clark Branch in North County.  NOCO did a brilliant job of reporting this last year.

I am all for modernizing libraries to serve a new century; in St. Louis City, they have spent (and continue to spend) millions refurbishing existing libraries, and have done a brilliant job helping historic buildings remain vital and indispensable. St. Louis County is now in the middle of appraising their stock, and it’s troubling that their first thoughts are to demolish rather than refurbish.

Especially when they have a branch like Lewis & Clark, designed by renowned architect Frederick Dunn.  His works are so important that Esley Hamilton will be speaking about it on October 17, 2010 as part of the Landmarks lecture series. And his groundbreaking church in St. Louis Hills was covered here this past summer. So, from the perspective of historic preservation, the Lewis & Clark Branch is clearly a contender on the name of Dunn, alone. Enlarge the aperture to include the context of its place in a developing North County of the 1950s-60s, this library gains even more reasons to be celebrated and elevated with a sympathetic update and remodel.

After WW2, North St. Louisans drove out Broadway to the Halls Ferry Circle into North County, which found Hwy 367 building up rapidly with businesses and homes.  In the tiny inner-ring suburb of Moline Acres, they built this library in 1963, and right next door in 1964 they built Top of the Towers, which became the hub of everything that was cool, sophisticated and modern. Read more about Top of the Towers here.

This nucleus of activity allowed ranch home subdivisions and churches to spring up around them, and an exploding population contributed to the spread and dominance of far North St. Louis County. These are important chapters in the evolution of Metro St. Louis, especially because high design and skilled craftsmanship were still a standard part of our progress.

On a personal level, this building means a lot to me. By the mid-1970s, my divorced mother and I were living in nearby Black Jack, and money was tight, leaving no babysitter budget. My mother came up with the brilliant idea of using this library as a free babysitter for her grade school child. At least once a week, she dropped me off at the front door and let me know “you have only one hour to pick out books for the week.”  This turned out to be an hour of productive freedom for both of us.

An hour never seemed like enough time, so I had to stay focused on researching and procuring before time was up, constantly looking over my shoulder at the clocks on the wall to make sure I got to the check-out counter before my mom arrived. This kept me well-behaved and quiet while stockpiling books and records that fueled curiosity and expanded knowledge. It also bolstered my sense of responsibility, independence and love for a building that felt like my personal playground.

The historical importance of a building comes from its design and its contributions to the community it served. All of the National Register buildings in Metro St. Louis made it onto the list because of these factors, and all of them required additional updates and remodeling to keep them viable for the present and the future. The Lewis & Clark Library falls into this category, and as we wade into the historical importance of mid-century architecture, it deserves much deeper thought than the wasteful decision to demolish.

Making a Scary Building Friendly?

I swear I don’t like this building anywhere near as much as it would seem from as much as I write about it. The building actually unnerves me and lots of other folks who grew up in Florissant. Read the original BELT entry about the Halls Ferry Medical Building.

In Summer 2008,  water damage was causing the hat band cornice to crumble and get all gray and yucky, which just added to the building’s macabre allure. Then a tad over a year later, new owners were correcting the problems. Read how the monster building rose from the grave.

Another tad over a year later, and they’ve painted the raised cornice panels a shade of biscuit? Beige? Tan?

Are they thinking this will make the building seem warmer, more friendly? And does it? This is not a rhetorical question; I have yet to form an opinion other than “paint it all white, maybe?”

They are doing work to the bedraggled parking lot, and had to re-do the original sign to flaunt all their new tenants:

This is nowhere near as cool as the original signage, which was the only friendly thing about the building…

…but I’d rather see a full building than a cool sign on a dead building.

I remain mystified by, and grateful to the new owners who are putting (curious color) thought and money into making this building useful once again. Every new tenant is tax money for Florissant, and I love that they are re-using an existing building (no matter how unnerving) rather than demolishing and building new.  And let’s be frank: to have left this building sitting vacant and rotting would have traumatized a new generation of children in ways far worse than it did us.  So, a round of applause to the new owners, and if they want to take it up a friendlier notch or two and paint the place pink and aqua, I’m on board with it!

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?

Berkeley MCM: Frostwood Subdivision


Frostwood Subdivision
Berkeley, Missouri

Even with 20-odd years of living in North County, I never knew about this little gem of a subdivision, so thank you to Jeff and Randy Vines for running across it during a casual drive around our Greater St. Louis, which continually reveals delightful secrets like this.


The inner-ring suburb of Berkeley was incorporated in 1937, and most of the municipality’s western border is occupied by the Lambert Field airport, which built its first terminal in 1933.  Around 1954, as architect Minoru Yamasaki’s main airport terminal was being built, so too was Frostwood.

The land Frostwood Subdivision is built on was originally part of Hazelwood Farm, an estate that had been passed from John Mullanphy to his daughter Catherine Graham to son-in-law General Daniel Frost to granddaughter Hattie Fordyce.  Fordyce bequeathed it to St. Louis University who then sold it to new home developers Fischer & Frichtel, who platted and built homes on the land from June 1952 to January 1956.


When entering the subdivision from Frost Avenue via Adler Avenue, you see this bizarre scene of mid-century suburban living dwarfed by the mid-century power grid needed to keep Lambert running.  Space-age living  did require a few sacrifices now and again. But once you get deeper into the winding streets of Frostwood, the scene becomes more sylvan and less ominous.


There are roughly 600 homes in the subdivision, ranging from 1,288 – 1,500 square feet, and most are 3-bedroom and 2 bath that originally sold brand new for $16,000 – $19,000.  The area has an informal and casual feel, which is partially due to the way the houses are sited on their lots, as seen in the bird’s eye map below.


The homes do not follow a uniform setback, and by placing each home at a different angle, each one gets a slightly different view, and different opportunities for private vs. public spaces.

A family friend from decades ago bought one of these houses on Red Fir Drive in 1955, and lived happily until about 1970, when he moved his family “because of the blacks,” which was then an all-too- common reason for white people to keep moving further north and west into new homes built by developers who knew how to capitalize on this St. Louis cultural weakness.


So on the day I was taking these photographs, it was karmic relief to be stopped by a 43-year old black woman who moved into this neighborhood in 1968, and whose mother still lives in the very same house to this day.  She said Frostwood was a great place to grow up, with lots of friends across the entire subdivision and lots of activities.  She also pointed out that the southern half of the subdivision houses have basements, while the northern  half are built on concrete slabs with no basements.

Many of the homes, like the yellow version shown above, have a delicate way of handling car parking, running the carport parallel to the house so that the walls – rather than the entry – face the street.


This system worked well for the versions that have a garage, too. With both models,  it creates the opportunity for a curving driveway that adds whimsy and informality to the site.


Since these houses are all now over 50 years old, there has, of course, been many alterations made to them.  A common remodel, as shown above, is converting the garage into a room, which adds square footage to the living area, and when done correctly is actually very cool.


On this different model above, that has a formal, front-facing garage, I’m not sure if that end cap fascia is original or a modification, but either way, it’s a nice stylistic touch to an other-wise ordinary ranch design.   A small handful of homeowners have opted to turn their mid-century ranch into Colonial knocks-offs that sit uncomfortably in context with their neighbors.  But the vast majority of the neighborhood has – blessedly – retained the original exterior aesthetic.


Midwood Avenue is the only straight-forward thoroughfare in the Frostwood Subdivision, and it has a curious concrete ditch (above) running down the middle, taking up a lot of room.  I assumed it was once a creek surrounded by grass, making for a nice place to walk and play.  But turns out it has always been like this, a drainage ditch (so a “sometimes creek” during heavy rains, I suppose).   It looks awful, but luckily the people who live along it have not transferred this dire scene to their homes.

Even the city of Berkeley has admitted how ugly this is, acknowledging in a September 2008 Planning Consideration that it “presents poor visual image,”  and are proposing “common-themed residential streetscape design” along Frostwood  and Midwood Avenues.   If the money ever materializes for this project, I hope it remains true to the original design aesthetic.


The foreclosure tidal wave has hit Frostwood, with some houses now available for under $20,000, but this does not reflect the quality and beauty of this neighborhood, only the condoned irresponsibility of the American financial system.  Rather, it’s a chance to get some nicely preserved mid-century modern at a great price.

Recycling MCM: St. Louis City vs. County


We covered this building in an earlier post. It’s a mid-century modern building in Florissant that – according to the comments – unnerved just about everyone who had to use it.

At the time of the post, the building was for sale and the cornice was ratty and rotting from water damage, like in the photo above.  But come August 2009, the For Sale signs are gone and the entire cornice is being properly repaired and painted, as evidenced below.


A property owner in deep North County sees the merit of recycling a late mid-century modern building that strikes some as unattractive.  At the exact same moment in St. Louis City, the San Luis is coming down for a parking lot.  My world view goes wonky when Florissant is smarter than the Central West End.

Mid-Century Modern For Sale in Old Town Florissant


Rue St. Catherine at Jefferson St.
Old Town Florissant, MO

Old Town Florissant, established in 1786, is a small, charming patch of old-fashioned in North St. Louis County.  Everything is picturesquely quaint and refreshing, and a stroll down the streets makes one instantly crave hand-squeezed lemonade sipped on a porch swing.  So walking upon the sight shown above was pleasantly surprising.


It’s surprising, but not unprecedented to see a quintessential mid-century modern domicile in this neighborhood.  The several blocks that are authentically historic are ringed on all four sides by every hallmark of 1950-1960s suburban-boom architecture, and if not for Historic Florissant, Inc. forming in 1969, the whole area would most likely have been covered in ranch houses.

So how did this thoroughly modern place, built in 1955, wind up in the middle of the Currier & Ives print that is Old Town?


It’s Florissant Valley Fire House No. 1! According to the lieutenant who came out to chat, they move into their brand new firehouse on St. Ferdinand Street  in about two weeks, and this place goes up for sale.  He even said it would convert into a real nice home for someone… someone who’d really, really dig a lot of garage!  That, and 6,155 square feet.

From the street, it’s of an unassuming scale that’s respectful of its surroundings.  From the air, you get a startling idea of how large this 3-building complex really is, which just makes the ease with which it fits into the site even more artful.


The fireman gave a sales price for this building that was shockingly low, and reacted to my surprise with “Don’t quote me.  The realtor knows better.”  But just hearing a price that was in the realm of obtainable sets the imagination spinning… a perfect home/work space for someone who restores vintage cars, or an artist who needs a giant studio?  A highly flexible home/business space?  The possibilities are endless, the location is perfect, and the building is beautiful and in great shape.  Here’s hoping it finds another loving owner, soon.

An LV Home in St. Louis County


The July/August issue of St. Louis At Home lists an LV Home for sale in… South County? How odd, but very cool. Even cooler: it’s the only LV Home built in the St. Louis area and one of the few to be built atop a full basement (the majority are built atop concrete slab on grade), which doubles the size of this kit home to nearly 3,000 square feet. I exceeded all speed limits in a hurry to see an LV so close to home.


Summer 2004 is when I originally saw the LV display home in Perryville, MO, on assignment for a now-defunct design magazine to interview the LV creator and architect Rocio Romero. After a scenic drive through deep rural country, it was pleasantly jarring to see an ultra-modern metal box standing alone at the start of a farmer’s field. It appeared to be floating over a random, ironic site, and this urban/rural juxtaposition created a light tension.

Inside, the house felt spacious, sturdy and serene. The back wall of the house was a continuous series of floor-to-ceiling windows, which flooded the spaces with glorious amounts of natural light. The display home was the perfect size for two people, but the kits can be built to any custom size, so the possibilities for accommodating a family of any size was immediately apparent. The LV was sophisticated, casual and enchanting. The architect was passionate, industrious and detail-oriented. Altogether, it was a great concept cleverly executed and it was easy to understand why sales of the kits were on the upswing. Over the years, a cover feature in dwell helped spread the word, and it’s exciting to imagine this design dotting landscapes all over America.


Most everyone I know who has toured the LV display shares this observation: all the windows are great, and it makes total sense on an isolated lot, but could you insert it into a typical urban or suburban lot and keep a decent level of privacy? Would you wind up ruining the aesthetic by covering most of the windows with drapes to keep neighbors on 3 sides from knowing your business?

This is why I needed to see the South St. Louis County LV: how does it function in established suburbia?

It functions very well. Yes, it does immediately stand out from its surroundings, but within the context of the neighborhood it’s surprising rather than jarring. Plus, the homes along this stretch of Theiss Road come in a wide variety of architectural styles, so the LV is just another flavor. The galvanized aluminum can make it a bright flavor at certain times of day, but it’s not fussy or flashy. Initially, the immediate neighbors were skeptical as they watched it going up, but now they love and accept it as a normal part of the landscape, so the LV adapts very well to denser surroundings.


I learned this important piece of information because the homeowners – Joe and Jeanne Marie Spezia – were kind enough to give me a tour. They love their home and are rightfully proud of it, and are comfortable with the attention it brings. Their decision to build one was included in a cover feature about Romero in a 2007 issue of At Home, and in June 2009 was featured in both St. Louis Homes & Lifestyles and on the front page of South County Times newspaper.


Because the Spezia’s love living here, the home is not officially for sale, but if someone were to come along and pay the right price, they’d seriously consider it. Until then, the LV has become the unique template for expressing who they are and how they choose to live.

The place expresses an immediate and vibrant personality courtesy of the creative mind of Jeanne Marie, whose re-purposing aesthetic and mosaic art punctuates every room of the house. Her studio is in the basement, and you can see more of her work here, as well as in these pictures of their home.


The couple designed a unique back patio, whose half-wall is made of metal roofing straight off the Lowe’s shelves. Actually, many significant features of the home come from Lowe’s (like the foyer light fixture, below), which proves two things:
1. It’s not what you use, but how you use it
2. Limited budgets create imaginative solutions


And budget rapidly became a huge issue for the homeowners. Their house-building adventure wound up costing far more than anticipated because of an endless string of complications. But most everyone who has been through a custom home build has a similar list of complaints and complications without achieving such a spectacular end result.


Joe Spezia enthusiasticly pointed out every structural aspect of the house that makes it so exceptional: money-saving energy efficiency, 12″ thick vertical steel beams that make the place earthquake-proof (he jumped hard on the living room floor to illustrate that there is no vibrations, no movement), perfectly plumb surfaces and extra-thick walls and floors that effectively soundproof the house from the outside as well as create privacy inside.

For instance, Joe is a licensed massage therapist with a huge and relaxing studio space for his practice in the basement of this home. He recalls a time when, after clients had left, his wife asked if working in her studio next door with the TV on had bothered them. Joe replied that they heard nothing and he didn’t even realize she was down there. That’s how thick and insulated all the walls are.


The large master bedroom (above) has an equally large bathroom with the most gorgeous clear, green glass tile walls, a bathtub you could swim laps in and a walk-in closet bigger than most bathrooms!

The entire home is about natural flow of space creating instinctive comfort, and even more so than experiencing the original LV display home, it conjured within me the intense desire to live in this home, exactly as it is. But the mercurial mind of an artist like Jeanne Marie is constantly changing things up and she is seriously considering removing the metal siding on the exterior of the home and replacing it with cedar.


Initially, I was a bit shocked at this idea, but then I saw this photo of another LV Home that went with wood instead of metal, and it looks great. Which just goes to show two things:
1. Artists “see” things that the rest of us can’t
2. The very nature of the LV allows one to exactly create the home you see in your head.

See more photos of the Spezia’s LV Home here.