Posted on June 28th, 2009 13 comments
Intersection of Brown Road & St. Charles Rock Road
St. John, MO
The McCarty Studios building tells its story with one glance. The building originally went up in 1940, 5 years before St. John was incorporated as a village. The flashy new front facade – by my best guess – went on right around the time streetcars were losing ground to automobiles in the late 1950s.
Along with a house catty corner from it at this intersection, it is the only original building left. The Walgreens sits across the street from McCarty because they tore down the streetcar shed in 1961. The remaining corner has a commercial building that is classic early 1960s Institutional Modern (and now even houses the St. John City Hall).
The McCarty Studios made the architectural leap to be modern during a time when this inner-ring suburb of St. Louis County was booming with activity, they have stood pat ever since and have unwittingly become a retro curio of the recent past.
I love that when they renovated the facade to reflect the new glamor of car culture, they chose to keep their 1948 vintage neon sign. This decision was most likely based on economics: we’re paying a bundle for this remodel – why pay even more money when we have a perfectly good sign?
When working in camera retail several years ago, I used to wait on one of the McCarty sons, and just had to tell him how much I adored their building and sign, and how glad I was that they hadn’t remodeled it into the fake stucco box fast-food look so common in today’s retail upgrades.
He responded that they keep meaning to get a new sign but just haven’t got around to it. I probably spooked the poor man by passionately trying to convince him to not touch anything on that building because its retro distinctiveness was their very best form of 24-hour marketing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Here we are 5 years later, and all pieces remains in tact. Here’s hoping they continue to remain so busy that they don’t have time to think about remodeling!
Posted on May 26th, 2009 13 comments
Old Halls Ferry & Redman Roads
North St. Louis County, MO
The abstract modern mountain peaks that make up the roof of this church are an iconic North County sight. Those of us who grew up in the Black Jack/Florissant area thought of them as a normal part of the landscape that became especially cool during the Christmas season. That’s when the peaks were alternately colored red and green by flood lights, and for a few summers, they even did red, white and blue for the 4th of July. If anyone has photos of that 1970s-80s holiday phenomenon, please please pass me a copy.
So, this was a normal part of the suburban landscape of North St. Louis County, Missouri, and I never thought of them as special until I saw this photo by Ken Konchel in 2000. It took the eyes of a superb architectural photographer to make me see just how special that roof was, and how unique the entire building was, in general.
I’ve heard firsthand how many of us St. Louisans have had the same kind of awakening about The Arch; it’s always been there, yeah of course it’s cool, but then one day you see it in a detached, abstract manner and you realize what a glorious and unusual beauty it is. And so it was for me with the Independent Congregational Church.
The church began in 1856 in near North St. Louis, moving to the west side of Fairgrounds Park in 1917 and then moving to the ‘burbs in 1959 to this building by architect Walter Manske. The building blissfully retains most all (more on that in a minute) of its original pieces…
…like these slanting rectangle hand rails leading from the lower level parking lot on the south side of the building.
This is the 2-story rear of the building, as seen from the south parking lot. Upstairs is a small chapel and administrative offices with stained glass fenestration. Below are light-filled classrooms and a small auditorium.
It was in the summer of 2006 that I went inside the building for the first time. See more photos of that excursion here. Once inside, the magnificence of the roof turned into awe over how the exterior structure dictated the interior.
The holy, blinding white of the serrated exterior peaks transform into a wooden plank lining of unvarnished red wood, which lends this massive vertical space a reverent hush. The cables suspending the metal can lights are a reverse echo of the triangles reaching toward the heavens. The sheer, upward lift of the space truly does inspire one to think lofty, spiritual thoughts, which is the point of ecclesiastical architecture.
I have always been intrigued at how willing American religious parishes have always been to embrace the latest architectural styles and concepts. The other-worldy goals of religious enlightenment must make them more responsive to grand architectural gestures, and I’ve always loved how the spare lines and expansive geometry of modern architecture – rather than feeling alien to them – gave them a whole new vocabulary of expression. Quite often, it was a church that introduced modernism to a fledgling mid-century suburban community, setting a tone for the commercial and residential buildings around it. God bless ’em!
Blonde, Danish modern fixtures are carried throughout the lobby and auditorium of the church. The angles of this podium on the alter are gravity-defying and maddeningly cool.
Here is a configuration of pews behind the main alter. To have those filled with white robes must be a breathtaking sight.
In the lobby, above the original metal coat and hat racks, remains a pictorial history of parishioners (and their sports trophies). Above we see what looks the folks from the 1930s-40s, and below…
…we come to the end of the picture-taking line, somewhere in the 1990s. The pictures go from lily white to a mix of black and white folks, and it neatly tells the story of this church from inception to name change in 1998, when it became Christ The King Church.
From its various locations to the changing flesh tones of the photos, one gets the distinct impression that this parish may have followed the St. Louis pattern of White Flight. My mother and I moved into Black Jack at the point in time when race became an issue for this community. But it was also the town where I first lived, played and went to school with non-white kids, and it did much to debunk the myths of prejudice I heard all around me. The current congregation is African-American, and pastor Andre D’Arden is the gentleman who let us roam freely through a building they are rightly proud to be in.
I love that they have not changed much of the building, proving that a beautiful setting – no matter the vintage – allows the users to carry on their business with a sense of higher purpose.
But there are some troubling aspects with the upkeep of this building. Above is a photo from 2003 documenting the last of the globe lightstands in the upper north parking lot. As can be seen from this shot, people were taking pot shots at the glass.
The globe lightstands traded off with these “U.F.O. hat” lightstands. in 2009, all of them have finally bitten the dust, as well.
And then there’s that roof. During the time I lived in the area, it was always a blinding white, and I assumed it was made of cast concrete. By 2006, normal wear and tear revealed circular plugs in the roof. Simply placing a hand on the portion of the roof that swoops down to the sidewalk revealed it’s not concrete, but a textured, rubber membrane. And a rubber membrane in great need of a new coat of paint.
In the summer of 2006, I asked Pastor D’Arden about this. He noted the extensive construction work then going on to widen Old Halls Ferry Road, and that all of the dust and debris had really done a job on the roof. It wasn’t a good idea to tackle a re-paint of the roof until the construction was done, and that made complete sense.
Contrast the above photo from May 2009 with the first photo of this entry (from 2003), and you can see the onset of a deterioration that placed this church on the St. Louis County list of Mid-Century Modern Architecture Worthy of Preservation.
I can understand the garagantuan expense of materials and labor to prep and paint that roof being a deterrant. If you have limited funds, people would come before building. But maybe a special fundraiser and some volunteer painters? If they were to undertake such a project, I’d certainly donate money and would be first in line for a chance to scale that roof!
Our Lady of Good Counsel
Posted on May 19th, 2009 8 comments
New Halls Ferry Road & 270
I took this photo in the town of Dellwood in North St. Louis County in the early fall of 2003. As a kid, I mentally referred to it as The Flying Building. I chanced upon it right as they turned on the lights, which made it look even more so like it was launching into flight.
It was a quick moment, and I made mental note to come back and further explore this building with a camera. Upon returning for that purpose, it was clear the moment had passed. They had knocked down the original Buick sign and junked it up with a bunch more vinyl banners. But at least they haven’t torn down the building.
Yep, I probably just jinxed it.
Posted on April 23rd, 2009 9 comments
Jennings Station Road and Lewis & Clark Blvd.
Built in 1967, this building has always been a bank. It is located in a nebulous part of North St. Louis County, where you move a block it’s Jennings, move a few blocks over it’s Bellefontaine Neighbors, though a bit of Moline Acres sneaks into a crack. The bank that now occupies the building uses Jennings as their mailing address, so Jennings it is.
My paternal grandmother lived a few blocks away from here (with a Bellefontaine Neighbors mailing address), so I grew up with this bank as a normal part of daily life. Back in the day, the concrete roof and columns were bright white, but the new beige does not diminish the dramatic tension of a delicate band of clerestory trapped between heavy concrete and solid brick. Though the vertical blinds in the glass wall bump out do slightly mar the sense of floating.
But drive by at night to get a better sense of light vs. heavy. Do you notice something odd between night and day?
At night, the virile and industrial bank vault is left exposed, but during the day, those vertical blinds keep it hidden. Back in the day, it was always exposed. If anyone knows why the current inhabitants keep this curious blind parting schedule, please do share.
Posted on September 18th, 2008 10 comments
1160 St. Cyr Road, Bellefontaine Neighbors, MO
We were driving down Bellefontaine Road and we came to the intersection of Bellefontaine and St. Cyr. I say to Rob, “You know, I’ve never taken a left down this road. Let’s see what’s down there.”
As I turn, Rob says there’s this really great modern church at the top of the hill with a swooping concrete roof. He’s covered it on his website…and…I didn’t hear another word he said.
From the first glance of it, I was stunned. Pulling into the parking lot, I was overcome. I’d obviously been down this road before, many times, a long, long time ago. This was the church my Grandma Weiss went to and I’d been inside it many, many times.
You know those flashback scenes in movies? That’s exactly what happened to me standing in the parking lot, staring up at the church. A dozen old reels of mental film were unspooling concurrently at a rapid pace.
The First Reel:
Easter of 1973, and what turned out to be the last time I was in this church. My parents had recently divorced, but Dad picked me up to go to church with him and his mother. I was decked out in a white and brown smock dress and a pair of fake leather white clogs with dark brown wedge heels (come on, it was 1973!). Oh, how I loved those clogs, and the thick hollow sound they made as I dragged my heels.
As we walked up the sidewalk to the auditorium, Dad was getting annoyed with that sound.
“Toby, pick up your heels.”
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
“Toby, stop dragging your feet.”
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
By now we’re in the auditorium, heading for a pew, and the clogs made a whole new sound on the carpet: thwook, thwook, thwook.
“Toby, I told you to stop dragging your heels!”
Thwook, thwook – oops!
Dad abruptly pulls me up into the air by one hand, and swats my butt. I’m swaying back and forth with each swat, and the clogs fall off my feet and land with a loud “da-thunk thunk.” I look down at my clogs contrasted against the red carpet, and tears of embarrassment fill my eyes…. fade out.
Rob and I peer in through the doors, and I see small glimpses of the auditorium, just enough for more film reels to unwind. I had total recall of every single form, line and texture of the interior. Being too young to listen to what was being said at the alter, I spent every service visually scanning every detail of that room. I could feel the childhood sensation of tracing those concrete arches as they dived into the wooden trellis screens. I could recall my fantasies of swinging like a trapeze artist from the braided support cables.
These flashbacks were intense and vivid, and they came on with such force because they had been suppressed for so long. Not once over all these years had I thought of this building; it had long ago left conscious memory. But seeing one small piece of it from a distance unlocked that brain sector, and turns out I knew that building almost as well as the people who designed and built it. And then I forgot all about it, since I got out of going to this church – or any church – after that Easter Clog Debacle.
This part of North County was once a happening place, which is why my grandparents moved there. As the website of this municipality relays, “From the year 1950 to the year 1960, Bellefontaine Neighbors experienced a period of very rapid population growth, the 766 people in 1950 having increased to 13,650 people by 1960.” The Archdiocese website says this church was built in 1951, but a corner stone says 1965, so maybe they had to add on to accommodate the crowds. By the early 1980s, most of our family had moved away from the area, leaving Grandma – who never had a drivers license – hard pressed to get a regular ride to church, even though she lived a quarter of a mile away. This was a common story, a tale also known as White Flight, and was a contributing factor to it being shut down by The Church in 2005.
So anyway, that is the unique power of the built environment: physical proof of our pasts, depositories of memories our brains can’t hold because of all the dates, numbers and names we have to remember daily. Buildings are bookmarks in the story of our lives, and in the case of this building, it is the most interesting and compelling character in the short chapter of my church-going years.
Posted on July 24th, 2008 19 comments
Halls Ferry Medical Arts Building
As a kid, this building scared me. As an adult, it both repulses and attracts. It hovers and squats, begs you to look at it yet wants you to stay away. The complete lack of windows makes it seem unfriendly to those outside and inside.
Thanks to Live Search Maps, I now know that daylight does reach the inhabitants through a center light well. So I no longer need worry about the people inside. But the exterior impression is still unnerving in the same way as Donald Trump’s comb over: Yes, it’s grotesque but I can’t stop trying to dissect it.
It opened in 1973, so it’s in that muffled time period after mid-century modernism but before the carnival sideshow buildings of post-modernism. It sits directly north behind Interstate 270, near the intersection of New Halls Ferry and Dunn Road, tucked oddly into the site. You only see it from New Halls Ferry when driving toward the highway, so it feels like it’s in hiding, waiting to crush you if you happen to walk to close by (though this is deep suburbia, so there are no sidewalks).
When parts of the building are in full sun, it can be striking, like a graceful alien mothership. The stark minimalism of the base – punctured only by double glass doors in the front and back – is audacious in scale. The second story “hat” with bowtie-shaped corners is overblown like a 3-can Red Bull buzz. But again, at the right time of day, it feels jovial… as long as you stay back several yard.
The building was rather popular in the early days. I knew lots of people who had doctors within, and they all seemed to come and go without harm. In the early 1980s, I was scheduled to go there for a blood test and blew it off because I just couldn’t bring myself to walk in the joint.
Under the newest ownership, the Medical Arts building has deteriorated. As seen above in December 2006, a stone aggregate panel had slipped off the frieze. Being able to see what was behind there blew my theory that those panels were originally intended to be windows until the budget ran out. Another look at the first photo shows they did repair it as cheaply as possible.
Mold runs rampant along the north side of the building, as do water stains on all sides. There is no sign of regular building maintenance, though, strangely enough, the landscaping that runs down both sides is always trim and tidy.
When recently talking about this building, a relative who had a doctor there in the mid-1970s said, “Oh, it had the nicest fountain inside the center court.” Which highlighted that one never truly knows a building until you’ve experienced all of it. So, maybe it was time to peak inside.
But when contemplating the rear entry up close, it’s not so bad, right? I love the simplicity of the glazing, and the sleek door handles. A defunct phone booth is a quaint touch. Plus, those are vintage plastic office chairs, all 1973 olive green, of course. So, I summoned the courage and darted inside for a quick peek.
This place has got it going on, chair-wise!
I was struck (and relieved) by how much daylight there was, and all the greenery in the atrium. Look through the glass and you can see part of the fountain. I’m guessing it’s not running at this late date, since the pool is now filled with rocks. I wasn’t able to gather details…
Usually, I photographically prowl around inside a building until I get the stink eye. But in this case, I saw no human beings, which creeped me out and made this a 2-frame/30-second sprint.
The sign is intriguing. It wanted to mimic the shape of the building but gave up, so instead uses some of same materials. But that script-like type face is misleading because it’s way friendlier than the building.
While it instinctively unnerves, the building also attracts me because it elicits such strong emotion. Sure, they’re generally negative emotions, but when living in landscapes hellbent on homogeny, a little Boo Radley in a building is a good thing.
Posted on October 27th, 2007 57 comments
Chambers Road & Hwy 367
Moline Acres, MO
The Lewis & Clark Tower still stands as a slightly-raggedy reminder of the brief moment when North County was progressively modern and willing to create the image of glamorous new suburban frontiers. That’s the impression it still gives off to those of us who were stuck with a babysitter so our parents could party here, but childhood impressions are not always reality.
While reading the newspaper at the end of August, the picture of the man shown above caught my eye. He had a real Rat Pack “ring-a-ding-ding” air about him, so I read the obituary. Impression and reality heartily clinked martini glasses when revealed that this man, Bud Dallavis, was the developer of the Lewis & Clark Towers and its iconic, spinning Top of the Tower Restaurant.
Development is listed as beginning in 1963, county records put 1964 as the birth date of the complex, and in 1965 architect George J. Gaza is listed as the only full-time commercial resident. That he stayed until 1967 while the complex was completed begs the question: was he the Tower architect?
In 1966, the place was 100% jumping with at least 7 floors of wedge-shaped residential apartments (now condominiums,) each with two sliding doors out to the continuous balcony, with its own swimming pool and gym in the basement. Businesses on the first two floors of the Tower included Alpha Interior Designer, Donton & Sons Tile Co., Figure Trim Reducing, King’s Tower Pharmacy and a Missouri State License office.
Shooting off the Tower is a strip of retail facing Hwy 367, long-anchored by Stelmacki Supermarket, a rare, independent grocer still unaffected by the continuous grocery wars. The site slopes down to the West, creating a lower 2nd level building which held the Towers Bowling Lanes and the Lewis & Clark Theater (shown below). Occupancy for the complex was robust for 10 years, with an influx of dentists and doctors filling tower spots when others moved out. The Courtesy Sandwich Shop even had a storefront for a bit. The Tower didn’t show any longterm vacancies until the late 1970s.
The remaining claim to fame of the Tower is the long-closed restaurant at its top, Rizzo’s Top of the Tower Restaurant, “the revolving restaurant… a landmark for many years where diners could view the downtown St. Louis and Clayton skylines, as well as the Alton river bluffs.” Considering how popular it once was, and how its myth still lingers, there’s surprisingly little information to be found about it. Internet searches only turned up a fuzzy photo of someone’s matchbook collection which includes a Rizzo’s cover, and entertainer Tony Viviano, who seems a natural to have performed in the joint.
While visiting with my father, Rich and his wife, Ann, I asked if they ever ate at the Top of the Tower Restaurant, which became a rapid fire series of memories of the place, starting with Rich saying, “You know there were supposed to be 2 towers, right? Which is why it’s plural Towers.”
No, I didn’t know that, but that does explain why the building ends the way it does (shown above) and why the land closest to Chambers Road has remained vacant all these decades. So what happened to the other tower? Rich says that the company who originally owned it ran into some problems of partners stealing from each other, which left no money.
I tell him about the obituary for the developer whose name I couldn’t remember, and Rich asks, “Was it Bud Dallavis? He was the public face of the Towers, head of Quick Realty,” which the obit later confirmed as correct. I countered that the man pictured was really good looking, to which Rich says, “Yeah, that has to be him,” and to which Ann responds, “We were ALL really good looking at the time. We were a handsome group of people.”
She was not bragging, just stating fact. This was suburbia in the mid-1960s, post-JFK assassination, mid-Beatles revolution. Rich and Ann were a part of the World War 2 and Korean War vets who left North St. Louis city in the late 1950s for the greener (and whiter) lands of burgeoning North County. Watch Mad Men to know exactly how they dressed during the work day, how they gussied up for frequent evenings out.
And Rizzo’s Top of the Towers was a popular, happening spot for them. The restaurant was turned out in the finest china and table linens, the food good. Was it expensive? Indicative of the times, Ann responds, “I have no idea what the bill came to at the end of the night. Women never saw the bill because we never paid.”
To which Rich tells tales of the endless rounds of free cocktails courtesy of Dick Grace, the Towers bartender commonly called “Buttsey.” Buttsey had perfected a way to look like he was taking money and putting it in the cash register, but it usually went into his pockets, and lingering guilt led to lots of rounds of “on the house.” Mr. Grace was found dead in his bed in the Towers apartments in the mid-1980s, a fatal heart attack at the age of 49, all those cuisines, cocktails and cigarettes catching up to him. By that time, the Towers and surrounding area were pretty much ate up by neglect, with all the original pioneers heading ever-further away.
The rest of their memories just further cemented the vibe the building gives off to this day. Even though well-past its glory, it’s still in service. Most of the store fronts (shown above right) are occupied, and the Tower balconies are dotted with an endless series of satellite dishes, BBQ grills and plants. Heading out in any direction from the Tower reveals dozens of commercial buildings that followed its modern lead, now-shabby ghosts standing in the shadow of the Lewis & Clark Towers. May they all remain until the time they are brought back to life as proof that just once, for a short space in time, we had fabulous optimism for the future.
North County Modern
Posted on August 27th, 2007 2 comments
River Roads Mall, Jennings MO
River Roads is now, for all worthy detail, gone. A vertical ruin of what was the JC Penney building still stands, and the grocery store (which started life as a Krogers) is still open for business. Everything else is a mound of debris or a throbbing hole in the ground. This has been a leisurely demolition, lasting about 18 months with still more work ahead before any new construction can happen.
My anxiety over the River Road Ruins is officially over. The white, turquoise and aqua tiles littered all around and always just out of my reach (photo above) are now gone, there’s nothing left to save. So, that chapter of the River Roads story is done, but I’ve had a new chapter of the story writing itself in my backyard.
With several pieces of the former Stix, Baer & Fuller building piling up in my yard, the idea to use them as a garden border popped up. After cutting through backbreaking zoysia to create dirt beds, it was a strange thrill to layout the River Roads pieces into a whimsical, mid-century modern garden chain. By the middle of May, perennials and annuals had been planted, and it was just a matter of watching it grow.
A side bar to the River Roads Memorial Garden is shown above. The hexagon is part of the interlocking Stix wall that faced Jennings Station Road. To its left (in front of the hosta) is a piece of the original Cross Keys Shopping Center in Florissant MO (4th row, 3rd from left) that was demolished in 2003. What looks like a “P” to the untrained eye is actually the mangled “R” rescued from the main Northland Shopping Center sign in 2006. There are also various other pieces of Northland in this tableau, which underscores why I had to do something vaguely useful with all these pieces junking up my backyard.
This has been my first true flower garden, so it’s been an education. One thing I’ve learned: sunflowers are scary beasts. They are too tall for comfort, and too heavy for their own stems to support them. Once the flowers finally arrive, they offer about 5 days of gorgeousness before morphing into bedraggled UFOs that become dangerous projectiles in summer thunderstorm winds. This is the debut and finale of sunflowers in my yard.
A round of applause goes to Wendy Fischer for helping to dig the flower beds and providing much needed enthusiasm to make this project happen, and to Cyndi Woollard for adding pieces of her world class garden to my starter kit.
Posted on April 28th, 2007 7 comments
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.
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!
Posted on February 15th, 2007 61 comments
Lately, Overland is notorious as the township with the deluded, egoistic mayor who refuses to relinquish the burning castle. Aside from City Hall ineptitudes that have inspired so many of its citizens to blog, Overland is a nice town; completely suburban, yet old enough to have been formed to urban standards. There is a formal downtown nucleus that spreads out into little tract homes, and at Christmas the main drags are festooned with the exact same lighted decorations decade after decade. Overland retains so much of its original fabric that it often feels like touring a museum of post-World War 2 Baby Boom suburban expansion. Yet the place is alive, feisty and curious in a low-key manner, which keeps it off the hipsters and aggressive developers radars.
These photos are a fair sampling of the commercial buildings along Lackland Road, right in the immediate vicinity of Skeeter’s Frozen Custard. Generally, they were all built between the end of World War 2 and 1955.
This particular building has changed hands many times (it was an upholstery shop for the longest time), with each new owner never feeling the need to radically alter its appearance. And I’ve noticed that about this entire stretch of road: the commercial buildings don’t stay vacant for very long and they seldom get radically remodeled. Some may say that a lack of apparent progress is the sign of a stagnant city, but I see Overland’s constant, gentle ripples as a city finely balanced.
One of my favorite examples of Overland being satisfied with its resources is the above service station. Walking onto the parking lot is like swooshing back in time, with that time being kept by the very same clock that’s graced the building since it went up in 1954.
What year was this photo taken? The only thing that betrays 21st century is a package of blue M&Ms and Skittles in what is most likely the exact same vending machine the original owners plopped into that office 53 years ago.
Heading east on Lackland and crossing over Woodson Road (the city’s main drag), one can see the most curious of buildings. Some portion of the Knights of Columbus Hall was built in 1930, and dusty new additions have been plopped into the mix over the decades. The place is now massive, and appears dead to the world, but its ramshackle appearance always stays exactly the same (indicating regular upkeep), and its website shows a full roster of activities.
Just up the street, the YMCA sports the Deco Moderate look that was popular in new suburbs of the late 1940s. It gave new public buildings a sense of the modern urbanity but without all the drama. This style holds up well, as it never looks too dated (for those who require contemporary) or too radical (for those who like quaint). This YMCA building went up in 1948, is still in use, and still looks fabulous.
At the intersection of Lackland & Brown Road is this simple and handsome building, built in 1945. The curving corner, a ribbon of tiny windows and the dark brick pinstripes of the second floor give it a bit of a Steamliner Deco feel. There is always another business ready to take over any vacancies in this building, and it’s been this way since I first “met” the building in 1984. This intersection has businesses on 3 sides, but it’s a bit disconnected from the main commercial drags by houses. Meaning, it would have been a natural for this building – this intersection – to decay from natural suburban aging. But it hasn’t. What does Overland have going on that similar towns don’t?
Directly across the street is a building that always tickles me. I mentally refer to it as Googie Van Der Rohe because it looks like a Chicago Mies building accented with a Southern California roadside motel lobby. It was built in 1957 as a bank and remains so, and it looks like that!
The SoCal Googie looby was, obviously, the main entrance, meant to be accessed by foot, bus or car from the intersection. But in 1967 they moved the entrance to the opposite end of the building when they expanded that parking lot. The “new” entrance still has that afterthought look, and feels cramped because of the makeshift drive-through lanes crowding its scene.
I love that a bench was placed under the canopy, so that employees can lunch and smoke in Jetsons splendor, and that they have to walk quite a ways to get to it, as that door has a chain on it to make sure it stays shut.
So, the entrance is now useless as such, yet they’ve left it completely intact, with the “crazy man, crazy” light fixture hanging like it’s suspended in prehistoric amber. It’s such a queer thing to have so many different banks move in and out of this building, reconfiguring its guts and alley as banking needs change, yet they leave the essential Mod-ness of it alone. Is it a case of “out of sight, out of mind?” Or that no one bank is ever inside long enough to invest in remodeling the non-essential parts? Or does it cast some sort of 77 Sunset Strip spell over all inhabitants, rendering those who would vinyl side incapable of doing so?
By hanging a U-ey at Lackland & Brown, we drive back toward Woodson Road, hang a right and head straight into the thick of old fashioned Downtown Overland. And it really does seem to have gone out of its way to be old-fashioned from inception. County records show that most of this dense strip of buildings went up in the 10 years directly after WW2, so they built quickly during those last moments in time when pedestrian traffic still influenced how a commercial district was laid out.
The downtown strip has a few stalwart businesses, remainders from the old days. But, again, each time a storefront becomes available, it gets filled much quicker than these types of commercial districts usually do. And by quicker than usual, I mean that we can cruise the central commercial strips of, say, Normandy or Baden or Glasgow Village and see a chain of vacant storefronts. But not in Overland.
And they have never really had the room to renovate for expanded parking. Sure, they’ve taken down a building or 2 to squeeze in some blacktop spots, but overall, its street parking, and those spots are always filled and there’s always commerce taking place.
One of the liveliest spots in downtown is the diner, above. By keeping it tiny (572 square feet being a good definition of such) they were able to push the building up against the sidewalk and use the leftover space for parking, which was quickly becoming a bigger concern when the place was built in 1957.
Half of the building is decked out in Pseudo Deco, vaguely reminiscent of White Castles, while the other half is standard Corner Tavern Stone facade. That they were able to cram 2 distinct looks onto so little wall is most impressive.
And the interior has barely changed in 50 years.
What kills me is that one can easily walk from Paul Bros. service station (4th picture from the top of this entry) to this diner in about 10 minutes and somehow remain in a Leave It To Beaver world, untouched by the uglier aspects of modern time. And we’re not talking some retro homage; it’s the entire genuine article, unfussy and unconcerned that the diner reeks of decades worth of grease. It’s probably those ancient grease odors that makes the biscuits and gravey (spelled, my lord, with an “ey”) so damn great.
The Hacienda Mexican restaurant has long been a popular staple in the downtown strip, but it hasn’t always been this pink. It used to have a more traditional Northwest County Adobe look. I feel they updated the color to Flamingo Pink to better coordinate with the establishment behind it…
…which has spruced up its Lyndon B. Johnson congressional motel look with some hot sea foam green trim. Built in 1965, they were billed as “garden apartments,” for all doors faced into a central courtyard, much like in Southern California.
Every good downtown needs a dollop of seediness, so this place has become rather transient, in the most romantic sense of the word. The set-up is actually quite nice, but I couldn’t get in any closer for better shots, as the working girls crossing the tiny parking lot were real uptight about someone taking pictures of their place so early on a Saturday morning. I respect free enterprise, so I respectfully moved on.
Leaving downtown proper, we head back up Woodson Road, a couple of blocks south of Page Avenue, to one of my favorite buried MCM treasures. Overland is rather hilly, and note how this gem (above) plays with the topography by tapering a rectangle into the hillside. I love the feel of the windows melting into the ground, and the shades of blue springing out of green grass and blacktop.
This place was built in 1958, and it’s a perfect model of that year’s modern aesthetic. Tiny tiles of aquatic blues, the concrete block sun screen that throws polka dots amid the shadows, simple planes low to the ground, cool geometry in service to manufacturing prowess. If this building could have been erected next to the Googie Van Der Rohe bank, the story of 1950s American Progress would have been perfectly told in microcosm.
U.S Band & Orchestra Supplies now manufactures and wholesales instruments, and the building serves them well enough that they don’t think about it’s condition. This building needs some help. A good start would be to trim the hedges and kill the weeds, some waterproofing and paint on the faded surfaces.
Each time I pass this faded beauty, I have to fight the overwhelming urge to have at the tile with a bucket of Spic & Span and a water hose. Just imagine how those tiles gleam when clean, how this building must have impressed when it first came to the neighborhood. And it could do that once again, but the immediate commercial strip in which this building sits is heading toward the kind of decay that invites future developers to go for Big Box infiltration. Should this ever be the case, the one building that just might save the above gem is…
WOOFIE’S! Serving what has been called “the hot dog of the gods,” the building went up in 1955 and is only a dozen square feet bigger than the diner shown above. But this building was dedicated to the car from its inception, so the inside can now concentrate on being a tiny “shrine to the all-beef frankfurter.” It’s clean and bright, and on a brilliant sunny day, Woofie’s contrasted with my blue tile geo gem next door is a sight to break my heart. It speaks to me of all that’s good about America’s mid-century aspirations, and makes me proud that such a unique town like Overland is here for you and me.