Labor Day Musing: Lifestyle vs. Living

I assumed this inviting backyard would have at least one Labor Day Weekend gathering. It was lovingly designed for just such things. As of this writing on the afternoon of Labor Day 2017, proper, it remains untouched and in pristine catalog condition.

Whereas this bare bones backyard, about a block and a half away, has already grilled a few times this weekend.

Here’s another nearby backyard whose beauty I admire; an ideal spot for a Labor Day “goodbye to summer” send off. And….nothing. This weekend, or others.

Meanwhile, a few doors down, this spartan set-up has grilled quite a bit of meat this summer.

I walk a 2.5 mile radius of my South St. Louis neighborhood most every day, so I get to see the daily details of how my neighbors live. Real life minutia is fascinating, and it’s important to stay grounded in how we really live vs. the lifestyles conveyed in media onslaught.

One curious thing I’ve noticed is that those who meticulously assemble immaculately designed outdoor living spaces use them far less than those who simply go outside and live.

Case in point: here is a neighborhood front porch tableau that I love. Oh, just to slowly drink morning coffee in one of those chairs would be heavenly. They did such a good job of creating a picture-perfect stage.

But on Labor Day Monday morning, I still saw no signs of life on this porch while directly across the street, a family had pulled out folding chairs to sit on their front lawn. It was a young mother and father with their animated little boy, and grandfather. Father was hosing off a baby stroller, grandfather and mother were lounging in the chairs as the son cavorted. It was a spontaneous assemblage – keeping dad company as he did a chore. But it was alive and charming and real. While across the street, my favorite “outdoor installation” was silent.

This is when the dramatic difference between Lifestyle vs. Living hit me. My aesthetic eye loves the meticulously curated front porch, but my soul longed to be with the family who quickly created a makeshift living room in their front yard.

A Labor Day Dawning:
What is the point of an HGTV-worthy landscaped outdoor oasis if no one is drawn to use it? Is it more rewarding to live an actual life than to convey the life you think you should have?

Look, I don’t keep 24/7/365 eyes on my neighborhood; there are plenty of hours in a day when those who have gorgeous yards may be using them. But seeing them on a near-daily basis, it’s easy to pick up on the signs of use, or lack thereof.

Here is the most stark example of Lifestyle vs. Living in my neighborhood. On the left is a front porch I’ve shared previously on Instagram. This person’s commitment to every detail of a design scheme always makes my heart sing. I’d love to run into them on their front porch just to convey these sentiments. But there’s never a sign of them other than this display.

Whereas, I’ve seen the person on the right on their front porch a few times; we’ve exchanged “hellos” as I walked by while they were airing out a rug, or attending to some other chore. They get the benefits of a nice setting without the effort as they just keep living – win/win.

It is absolutely possible to live a designful life that is as fulfilling as it is beautiful; I am fortunate to know a few of them, and revel in their balanced splendor.

But in the end, isn’t it better to live a full life rather than a pretty one?

Woodchopper’s Ball

Fyler Ave., west of Hampton
South St. Louis, MO

Turning a tree stump into art is charming, as is. Decorate it for the holidays, and it’s off the charts.

Every time I see this, the Woody Herman Orchestra song “Woodchopper’s Ball” goes through my head. Released in 1939, it went on to sell a million copies. If it could be updated with a metal hip-hop arrangement, it would best fit THIS amazing sight….

The photos above and below were sent to me by loyal B.E.L.T. reader Larry Hoffman (thank you!). Homeowners in the Claverach Park subdivision in Clayton, MO cut down a dead oak tree. But rather than waste large chunks of dead tree waiting to be carted off, they had a chainsaw artist turn 25 feet  into this awe-inspiring giraffe! The e-mail says it took him one day to create this fabulous, unique sculpture.

Former Runaways’ singer Cherie Currie is now a chainsaw artist, which made me chuckle upon learning it. But after seeing our local turtle and giraffe, I realize she continues to remain cooler than we’ll ever be. As are these two homeowners!

“If I’m feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today…”

“…I’ll pack up my truck and make my get-away.”

Pedaling on a Sunday morning through that woozy boundary line of The Patch and Carondelet neighborhoods, when the sight above made me hit the brakes. It was the embodiment of an old river city, the poetry of mud and W.C. Handy blues.  The metal chair is now all 5 layers of colors, all decades at once; the past is the present and if you think it won’t see much future, they been sayin’ that since I Like Ike.

The CSB has reams of complaints on this ram-shack-le, plenty claim “Derelicts on Private Property.” In the Great Depression he’d have been out-of-working class – how dare the neighbors cast judgment! …Oh, they were vehicular in nature! Not gonna make a Sanford & Son crack, even though Redd Foxx is a St. Louis native.  Just a couple of Canon shots, hopin’ there’s no slingshot through the metal blinds aiming at my head, and slowly pedal away.

‘Bout Sums It Up

Bates & Ulena
South St. Louis, MO

Art imitates life on a storage shed in the parking lot of Mr. Yummy’s.

This is brand new graffiti that’s sprung up in my neighborhood. Typically, my neighbor’s deal with this in a quick manner by painting over it, so it probably won’t last long.

The Mr. Yummy’s proprietor has been on vacation for awhile, so this may be an editorial comment about the lack of his wares. Personally, it sums up how I was feeling while first laying eyes on it, which in turn made me smile… the transformative power of art.

It’s simple, expressive and uses no curse words. I give it an A!

Why Shutters? Update 1

Here’s a perfectly respectable former bank building in downtown Granite City, IL. It’s heartwarming to see it still in use. But let’s take a closer look at the great insult to its dignity.

The pawn shop put SHUTTERS ON ITS WINDOWS!  Extreme outrage and towering incredulity at such a moronic move makes me weep, and only because I was with a friend, did I refrain from going inside to ask the following questions:
Why, Jim?
Why not on the 2nd floor as well?
What was your inspiration?
What was the motivation for this expenditure?
How long did you contemplate buying the shutters before swinging into action?
What was so wrong with the building that you feel it required shutters?
Have these shutters benefited your business in a positive way?
In quiet moments, can you hear the building weeping?

Granite, limestone and cheap ass plastic shutters – breathtaking, really. The thought of how difficult it was to drill through all that solid rock to install forest green vinyl exclamation points just makes this a dubious achievement. I want to make a citizen’s arrest.

Meanwhile, over in Kirkwood, I was initially elated to see all the shutters removed from this house.

I’ve covered this house before, noting how scary it must be for them to have that bulbous, steroidal Victorian breathing down its neck. Click to see how it looked with shutters.

This street is Teardown Central of Kirkwood, so when this unassuming ranch went up for sale, I was deeply worried. Luckily, someone bought it and obviously intend to keep it, because a sign for the painting contractor is in the yard, and that’s a fresh coat of gray on the brick.

Considering that all of the shutters are resting neatly by their intended, I’m guessing the shutters are going back up. But I want to ask the new owners, “Seriously, does the house look all that bad without them? Maybe live without them for a month and see how you feel about mussing up the new paint job?”

I was overcome with the overwhelming urge to steal the shutters; throw them in the trunk of my car and speed off. But this is Kirkwood, so there’s lots of eyes on the street, and that would be a criminal activity that could land my butt in jail. And as much as I loathe shutters, I couldn’t face being permanently branded as an illogical lunatic. I realized my argument about most shutters being illogical just wouldn’t hold up in court, so I just drove away.

Shutters – Why?

Shutters – Why?

Here’s a typical scene in St. Louis Hills – a mid-century modern apartment building nicely appointed with various stone and brick textures to create a pleasing geometric palette.  I can imagine living here, with the generous fenestration that surely makes the rooms seem comfortably large. But then something horrible happened somewhere along the way.

Some misguided landlord decided that the windows on the ends of the building needed cheap-ass plastic shutters! There’s obviously no understanding or appreciation of architectural aesthetics, just some primal urge to bolt plastic where it should not be. This was the final straw of my long-time confusion about – and hatred of – shutters.

There is a specific and finite need for shutters: to control light and air, and/or protection against strong wind, rains and hurricanes. 20th century indoor climate control has taken care of the former, and a finite number of dwellings in coastal areas still need it for the latter. After that, shutters are, basically, the proverbial mustache on the Mona Lisa. And when one insists upon using them as a minor exterior accessory, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

A recent article on Retro Renovation addresses this very topic. “Improve Your Home’s Curb Appeal With Shutters” is much more polite about the topic. The closest author Ted Cleary comes to rolling his eyes is when he writes: “Cheap shutters, which are so common that many people don’t even question the look, can give a flat, pasted-on appearance; authentic ones can make all the difference.” He is then very thorough in relaying the “cardinal rules” rules of proper shutters:
• They must be exactly half the width of the window
• They must convey the believable appearance of actually being usable
• The length must match the window’s length rather than standard lengths available at big box home improvement stores

As shown above on an historic home in Webster Groves, authentic shutters have hinges, and when closed they would completely cover the window. Originally, these shutters would have controlled sunlight while keeping air flowing through in the summer or blocking drafts in the winter, and during a storm they protected the windows from breaking. These shutters are cool because they are authentic.

Same goes for these shutters on a Benton Park building. These even have the latches to hold the shutters against the building when not in use. Plus, they are real wood and painted a sumptuous shade of blue that contrasts nicely with the red brick. Well done.

These shutters are not operable, so they are purely cosmetic. But they are the correct size, made of wood with a cute pattern, and their soft cream color serves as a wonderful accent to the overall rustic look of the home, much like the right accessories can really pop an outfit.

I feel exceptions can be made when shutters are truly thought of as a visual element that adds to the dialog of the home’s design, like these shutters (above and below) on standard-issue ranch homes in Florissant, MO. They are the right length, but certainly not the right width. But these shutters originally attached by the builder in the 1960s have an endless array of jaunty motifs that don’t pretend to be anything other than earrings for the windows. This playfulness is charming, and it was a clever way to address that there was no longer a need for shutters unless they could contribute meaningfully to the glossy modern era of suburban living.

But after that, we have an endless chain of mindless shutter application. Somewhere along the way, shutter manufacturers devised a clever marketing campaign that has kept this product as a normal, accepted accoutrement for the average American home, and I’m guessing this campaign was waged during the post-WW2 building boom when it was becoming apparent they were no longer needed. But as millions of homes were being built across the land, the miracle of mass production created a landmine of financial opportunity for plastic shutter makers, and their marketplace savvy continues to this day. Shutters get slapped on new homes as mindlessly as we guzzle soft drinks, and we seldom stop to consider “why?”

Here’s a common sight: shutters only on the front of the home. Granted, this application in Kirkwood is the proper size with hinges, but it appears they blew the shutter budget on the front, leaving the rest of the windows naked. Meaning, if the big storm comes, only the front windows will survive, and woe onto the rest of the fenestration!

Or we have the mindless application of shutters for shutters’ sake.  Casing for electrical wires serves as a Mason-Dixon Line, though which is Union and which is Confederate is open to individual interpretation.  And this home also covers another common problem…

…fit. Proper shutters demand symmetry for operation, but the windows on modern homes don’t always allow for that. So the Pavlovian response of “must have shutters” creates all manner of remedial, lopsided configurations that we tend to accept as perfectly OK.

Sometimes the placement of a window on a modern home strictly forbids you to install shutters, like the left-hand window, above. To carry on the theme would require ordering custom shutters. Off-the-shelf vinyl shutters in standard sizes average $35-$50 a pair, so this homeowner was willing to spend, say, $90 to trim two windows, but they were not willing to spend custom dollars for that last window. This seems a wise decision when compared to…

…this house down the street in the same Shrewsbury neighborhood. They purchased off-the-rack shutters and installed them with gusto until the “uh oh” moment. I like to imagine the day of installation, where he started installing on the right side of the house, and that moment of dread when he came to the last shutter on the left – dang, it overhangs! “But I can’t stop now! Screw it! Up it goes.” And now a small section of the downspout is protected from the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. Everything works, if you let it.

But I am also intrigued by that primal urge to shutter. They have somehow been instinctively ingrained into the homeowner psyche as something that must be done. From observing some homes, it’s obvious that no thought beyond “must shutter” has been “thunk,” and they had to create an excuse to smooth over an awkward situation. But it’s this mindlessness that fascinates me.

Come the deadly Midwest hurricane, at least one side of this bay window will be spared. Clearly, there is no room or need for shutters on the front of this cute little home, but they were compelled to do so. Which reminds me of a good deed done by a friend who works for a corporate home improvement retailer. This employee once stopped a man from committing mindless shuttering.

The customer had just spent money to have new vinyl siding installed, and so “needed” to replace the old shutters that had been removed during the project. He wanted some help in selecting new vinyl shutters. My friend applied the Socratic Method:
How does your house look with the new siding?
Even with the old shutters gone?
So if it looks nice without them, why puncture your new siding by putting up new shutters?

One could practically see the light bulb go off above his head as he mulled it over. He then said he needed to think about this, and left the store, shutter-less. Bravo! Score one for aesthetic logic!

There is a series of ranch homes in the Affton area that have shutters enforced upon them. The original builder inset the windows in a way that created a need for shutters to complete the frame. One can only remove these shutters by investing in larger, custom-size windows to fill the void. Naturally, it’s cheaper to just buy new shutters. So the original financial agreement between the builder and the shutter vendor remains stronger than a homeowners free will to mold the house in their image.

This homeowner stumbled into the rigidity of this design feature when it was time for replacement windows. For whatever reason, they went with a window shorter in length than the original, so had to create new in-fill at the bottom, and it’s not all that bad. But the new shutters still echo the length of the original window; enthusiasm for jerry-rigging goes only so far?

My favorite category of shutter atrocities is epitomized in this glorious example, above: suspenders and a belt!  This one also evokes the feeling of socks worn with sandals.

Imagine if car manufacturers included mud flaps as a standard feature on all motor vehicles. Yes, mud flaps do serve an actual purpose on a specific type of vehicle, and mud flaps on a Mini Cooper would cause no harm. But it would ruin the line. And they would require some maintenance. And they would get mangy after awhile. While a large majority of new car buyers would motor on without a second thought about the mudflaps, it’s fair to say that maybe a Jaguar owner would step back one day and realize that the mud flaps muss the essence of their refined car, and yank them off, wondering why they left them on for so long. At that moment, mud flap emancipation would feel so sweet!

Shutters are mud flaps.  If they serve no true purpose, yank ’em off, and see if the house looks better without ’em.

Here’s my Number One With A Bullet favorite shutter catastrophe.  On the second level, much money was spent to create and install vertical versions of the John Waters mustache!

And here’s a good example of comically inappropriate shutters vs. no shutters. Are these homeowners purposely breaking free of the shutter shackles? I’d like to think so, but considering the ramshackle state of the rest of this Webster Groves modern ranch (shutters are hanging loose all over), it appears to be that the house itself is lancing the boils, yearning to return to its original shutterless state.

In the early 20s, I worked for a high-end design build firm who were remodeling a Ladue ranch home whose overt Frank Lloyd Wright design had been buried under several remuddles. The new owners wanted that Wright-ness returned. As I was taking before photos, the man told me about the debate he and his wife were having over the shutters: he wanted them removed because they weren’t original while she wanted to replace them with more appropriate versions. He asked for my opinion. I said, “Why pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore this home only to mar it with shutters that were never intended?”  It was silent for a few beats and he replied, “Yeah. Maybe if I agree to buying some Stickley antiques, she’ll back off on the shutters. It’s worth a shot.”

This man is my hero. We need more like him.

Rolling Down Memory Lane

Within a few days of each other, I ran into two different vehicles that overwhelmed my memory, creating a rush of intense appreciation for them. Which was a strange, new sensation, as vehicles of any kind usually mean nothing to me.

Almost cried when I was alongside this St. Louis County Public Library book mobile tooling down North Lindbergh. it’s been years since I’ve seen one, and decades since being inside one.

As a grade schooler, my Mother used the library as a free babysitter. She’d drop me off at least once a week and come back an hour later to pick me up. During that time, she shopped and ran errands in peace and productivity while I scoured the shelves and checked out stacks of books.

Once every 3 or 4 weeks, the Book Mobile would come to the apartment complex where we lived in Black Jack, MO. The Book Gods shined down upon me, as the Mobile parked directly in front of our building for 2 hours. This was the equivalent of a junkie getting a free hit or two; I could return and get more books autonomously! There were even a few times where I’d check out a book, run upstairs to the apartment to read it, and have it finished in time to run back down to the Mobile to return it and get another book to replace it.

Why am I shocked that there are still Book Mobiles? Why do they seem so old fashioned, all of a sudden? There’s an obvious old age joke to be made here, but is it more than that? Do they seem old fashioned to any of you?

Idling in a grocery store parking lot was this vintage Trailways bus.  My first thought upon spotting it was a record I checked out from the library filled with TV and radio bloopers. One of my favorites blunders was a live radio ad for Trailways, wherein the announcer jubilantly says, “This New Year’s Eve, take Trailways, and leave the drinking to us!”

Aren’t the lines of this thing gorgeous? Now I understand why they made metal toy versions of them, and why the grade school boys were always snapping over who got to play with it next. It just looks cool.

And in that parking lot, I saw 4 different men leave their cars to walk up to the bus and stare admiringly at it while chatting with the bus driver, who was just as jazzed as they were. It was like watching their inner 8-year olds peeking out for a minute or two, and it was a great thing to see.

Tower Grove’s Fountain Pond is So Shallow

Fountain Pond & Mock Ruins
Tower Grove Park
South St. Louis, MO

Great News Long Overdue
As reported from the park’s Facebook page,  the work “already underway includes: masonry repairs, plumbing upgrades, enhanced lighting, and improved landscaping of the area. The project is scheduled to be completed this summer.”

Good To Know
Look how shallow the water is in the pond!
The only thing that’s kept many of us from wading in that pond on a sweltering summer day is not knowing how deep it was. Now we know it’s not deep at all. In fact, it’s much like Paris Hilton – it’s very shallow.

So, now knowing exactly what’s under there + an improved sidewalk = I’m going in.
And I’m not the only one who’s seen this sight and had that thought. When the pond re-opens, the park rangers are gonna be busier than usual.

A Bank Sign Resurfaces

5701 Chippewa
South St. Louis, MO

The original bank sign buried under the Gospel Church sign has broke free and come up for air! Click the photo to enlarge it and check out the hand-lettered cursive.

Here’s the building the resurfaced sign belongs to.

And the building is now for sale. Did an interested buyer want to see what’s under there, or did Mother Nature’s recent fireworks send the panel airborne?

Either way, it’s nice to see the old Public Service Savings & Loan Association sign. Welcome back!

The Sinclair Dinosaur is Extinct in St. Louis

South Broadway & California
South St. Louis, MO

One of the most delightful sights in South St. Louis is the pristine green Sinclair dinosaur on South Broadway near Interstate 55. Or it was…

…until May 5, 2010. I drove by on that evening and its absence was glaringly obvious. Where did he go?

His disappearance was bothering me more than I felt comfortable with, so I drove to the station two nights later to get some answers.

A hastily erected canvas Conoco over the Sinclair sign revealed all. But I went inside, bought anything to stand in line and ask the guys behind the counter, “What happened to the dinosaur?”

They said some men came on the very day I noticed it gone, picked it up and carted it off on a flatbed truck, and that they were collecting all the dinosaurs because Conoco had bought out all St. Louis Sinclair stations.  Did they ask where the dinosaur was headed to? Their responses were “Probably someone’s back yard”  and “I heard one guy say something about an amusement park.”

A half hour of web research did not reveal any news about Conoco buying out Sinclair, but since the dinosaurs have been going extinct for quite some time, at least one site has been cataloging what remains and helping out those who want to buy or sell the green dinosaurs with the sardonic smile.

The Sinclair station (above) at Big Bend near Hwy 44 closed in the summer of 2007.  Its dinosaur disappeared a few days before the “Sorry, We’re Closed” sign hit the door. The building has since been re-purposed as a scooter and ATV retail outlet.

The reason for this Sinclair’s demise seemed obvious; QT is the Walmart of gas stations. But Sinclair has been dwindling in the Metro St. Louis area for the past 10 years, and I’ve been snapping the empty buildings across the region for several years. Because of the gas tanks underground, the sites tend to sit unused in perpetuity. Only mega-corporations like CVS have the cash to sniff around their vacant sites.

So, the few remaining Sinclairs in operation have a deep, nostalgic resonance in my soul, and when one so close to home still had a dinosaur, it was a point of privilege and pride.

Saint Louis Patina may have the last official photograph of our South Side dino. And I will call the Conoco media relations during normal business hours to see if they have an official process for retrieving and re-using the dinosaurs.  I can already feel their eyes rolling as I ask the question. I’m also picturing a Citizen Kane-like warehouse filled with hundreds of dinosaurs, their necks intertwined, a fine coat of dust dulling their luster…

In the scheme of things, the extinction of the Sinclair dinosaur in St. Louis is a pimple on the ass of the universe. But it’s the little things that tend to bring the most satisfaction, and I already miss that little jolt of happiness received every time I passed by Dino. Farewell my prehistoric fossil fuel friend!