Posted on August 8th, 2013 11 comments
Since February 1993, I have lived in South St. Louis. In May 1999, I bought a house between the Bevo and Holly Hills neighborhood, where I remain. It’s a Mayberry kind of neighborhood with many residents who’ve lived here more than 40 years; a short, out-of-the-way, one way street, so it’s rather quiet.
Until I switched to paying for lawn mowing, I was the moron on the block with embarrassingly tall grass. I balanced that by being the alley sheriff, picking up never-ending trash that eschewed dumpsters, calling the non-emergency number when things I couldn’t fix went awry. A salvaging neighbor has caused me 2 flat tires from the screws he leaves in the alley between our garages. But it was easy to shake off because the joy far outweighed the annoying.
In Spring 2011, our block experienced a series of home break-ins and a front porch mugging at gun point. I could move or fight back. I bought a home alarm system and joined the Bevo Neighborhood Stabilization team that sprung up in the wake of similar problems all around us. It worked impressively well for pushing back the crime in our immediate area.
But the last two summers have been wearisome. July 4th fireworks go from mid-June to the end of July. The morning of July 5th is war torn, with bomb shards smeared on the streets and smoke hanging in the air. The rest of the time, it’s gun shots in the distance, or sometimes so close you feel a slight vibration. A bullet hole in my roof caused a drastic water leak. Some of those bullets recently killed the clerk at the 7-11 right down the street.
My end of the alley has become a pain in the ass. There’s constant dumpster issues, and people forget to mow/whack the patch of grass between their back fence and the paved alley. It looks like the cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur. I’m tired of alley sheriff duties; if they don’t care, why the hell should I?
This year, some family moved to South St. Louis County, so I’ve been slowly exploring the nooks and closed crannies of the place where Catholic South Siders fled to in the 1950s and 60s. It’s an odd place – they keep quiet, they keep clean and they spend all their time indoors. You seldom see anyone out on their perfect lawns or walking their peaceful streets. It looks like a movie set before the morning crew arrives.
It was heaven to spend a good portion of this 4th of July holiday swimming in a backyard pool in SoCo. The lack of rat-a-tat-tat firecrackers was soothing, the lack of trash a treat. But even before this Zen sabbatical, I had been feeling the stirrings of packing up and moving out of the South Side. Even though it felt like a betrayal, I couldn’t stop feeling it. Why is all this wearing me down now? We had been through much worse in previous years, but now I want to retreat?
June 2013, The Blind Eyes released an EP, which instantly became my summer soundtrack. They are consistently tight, joyous and impressive to my ears. “Armour” is the lead-off track, and after having rocked with it for several spins, I finally listened to the words. And it made me cry. The Blind Eyes had precisely diagnosed my broken South Side spirit. They’d felt it, too.
Here’s the song “Armor” – give it a listen. And here are the transcribed lyrics, some of which I know are wrong, but it hopefully won’t diminish the gist:
Not a second thought when you hear the sound
Of shots ringing out when the sun goes down
Took a little while but we finally learned
A way to fiddle on while the city burned
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
Used to shake it up nearly every day
With those who’ve figured out how to keep the beasts away
Building up a wall but it tumbled down
Never telling when it’s gonna come around
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
It’s hard to let it go
But let it go
The song conjures images of the arson in Benton Park and dead bodies across the entire city. And I cried some more. The Blind Eyes’ music gives the song a bittersweet optimism. Previously, they celebrated my fellow City Dwellers with 2011’s “Hold Down the Fort,” which felt like a rallying cry as we battled demolitions and burglars.
But the personal reveal from “Armour” is that my armor is rusting thin. Instead of bolstering my spirits, this song is like a tearful hug to try and keep me from bolting.
And then on August 3, 2013, the King of South St. Louis – Bob Reuter – died. He literally dropped off the planet, leaving a huge hole in the soul of the South Side. Reuter was a photographic mentor, schooling me about black & white printing and his life during late hours in the Forest Park Community College darkroom. He captured South Side people, I captured its buildings, so there was a common ground, a common passion for a specific place.
I keep picturing his camera, inadvertently abandoned and still, and can’t bring myself to even look at my camera bag, much less go out and continue documenting why this place has such a strong hold on so many of us. Reuter never let anything keep him from his quest to tell stories, to live free. He had the armor to protect his creative spirit. His passing is still too raw to inspire me past this current weakness of spirit.
It’s not like I have the financial means to move, or even a solid plan. It’s just a restlessness and uncertainty, like a wife wondering if there’s a more meaningful life to be had away from her husband, and she’s two steps away from an emotional affair with a co-worker. In this case, my “emotional affair” would be South St. Louis County.
Having these thoughts constantly looping through my heads fills me with guilt and regret, because I can’t help loving the South Side even when it’s callous toward me and brutal to those in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So tonight, I will once again turn on the bedroom fan for white noise to drown out the yelling, the souped-up cars roaring down the street, and the gun shots…
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
Posted on June 27th, 2013 6 comments
Garavelli’s Cafeteria & Banquet Hall
6600 Chippewa, South St. Louis, MO
2013 has not been a good year for restaurant institutions in St. Louis. First Ponticello’s Pizza in Spanish Lake, then Duff’s in the Central West End, and now Garavelli’s.
Just short of 100 years in business, the current owners (of 23 years) have to close due to financial strain. Reportedly, their electric bill ran to $6,000 a month during the ultra hot summer of 2012. They simply can’t afford another summer like that. And their customer base is dwindling due to advanced age.
We’ll get back to the age factor in just a moment. Let’s look at the drive-thru menu (above) objectively. What other convenient drive-thru is going to offer you vegetables like that? Where else can you quickly grab a pork steak and two sides to go for under $10? As of June 28, 2013 the answer is “nowhere.”
Garavelli’s began in 1914, and eventually had multiple locations throughout St. Louis, including DeBalivere in the Central West End and Manchester Road in Rock Hill. This building in St. Louis Hills, on Route 66, went up in 1946, right before the dawn of mid-century modernism as personified by car culture. But in keeping with the rapid ascension of the Auto Age, they installed the drive-thru because they were in a prime motorcade location.
A dear friend (who is under the age of 60), who is beside himself for losing the best fast food ever, aptly describes the place as “very Mildred Pierce.” The 1945 Joan Crawford movie or the recent HBO remake? Take your pick – both apply. But a great description, especially for the pie!
Immediately after World War 2, the early-American, faux Colonial aesthetic still prevailed, and that Mildred Pierce-ness begins in the foyer of Garavelli’s.
There’s been much remodeling over the years, but its essence remains in tact. And whistle clean. The stairs (above) lead to the basement banquet hall. They added a stair lift to accommodate the disabled, along with an accessible ramp out front. It’s easy to make cracks about the age of their clientele – everyone does – but it also makes the place fully accessible to everyone.
And here’s the heart of the Garavelli’s experience – the food, the glorious food, served cafeteria-style!
OK, let’s talk about the aging issue.
Cafeteria-style dining has been fading from favor for the past 30 years, with Garavelli’s being one of the last hold outs. There are still a couple of Miss Sheri’s open, similarly located in parts of town with a large senior population. It’s a 20th century form of dining that has been usurped by car-centric fast food chains.
Modern Americans have overwhelmingly voted with their pocketbooks for fast, convenient cheap crap over sit-down, low-priced real food. The cafeteria is much like blacksmiths and phone booths – there’s just not a vast market for them anymore. And even as a child in the 1970s, my mother would make cracks about cafeterias (which we ate at frequently) being for the elderly because they served a wide variety of small portions. Which is another aspect that dooms cafeterias – we are now a Super Size Nation.
But Garavelli’s is known for their generous portions – almost too large – at ridiculously low prices. Younger folks who have done Garavelli’s tend to disparage the food; depends what you get. They are known for their fish, pork steaks and meatloaf. The sides are always delicious. With such an astoundingly large and ever-changing selection, you’re bound to have a wide scale of hit and miss.
But popular consensus is that they are consistently good. “Good” is an under appreciated quality in a Foodie world. And it’s real food- unfussy, untrendy. Which brings us to a major aspect of Garavelli’s downfall that could have been righted.
Restaurants are all about marketing – marketing your style, your vibe, your cuisine. How many times have we bought into crap because it was so expertly presented? But marketing can only take you so far, which is why the restaurant business is notoriously difficult to succeed in for the long haul. To last 99 years means you had to have the food part down pat.
But somewhere along the way, Garavelli’s lost the marketing instinct. I hear it’s because the current owners are just too darn busy churning out the meals to their loyal customers. The owner said he hasn’t had a vacation in 6 years – that’s exhausting. And facing financial difficulties with maintaining the expected standards, who has time – or money – to invest in marketing? All understandable.
The owner also said that it was impossible to make any changes to the menu, as even the slightest change created an uproar with the steady customers. But their fare is not what needed to change, it was simply a need for some marketing.
In today’s world, marketing can be next-to-free by investing some time in social media. Garavelli’s did start a Facebook page (it’s where they broke the sad news of their closing), but it was not utilized in a consistent or engaging manner, probably because of the age of their majority demographic. But social media is also an opportunity to create a new customer base.
With Garavelli’s heritage, history and reputation, they could have traded on the inherent sentimentality of St. Louis. Draw in those Baby Boomers! And with its authentic mid-century pedigree, draw in the young hipsters. Every demographic is into good food at a great price, especially when there’s a drive-thru in a convenient location. But you have to get the word out.
A good pal of mine (well under 60 years of age) who is a good arbitrator of great places to eat dines there on a regular basis. He is always the youngest man in the room. But he’s kept this culinary paradise a close secret because he didn’t want others catching on and crowding him out. He simply wanted a wide variety of consistently good food at a cheap price available to him without dealing with the PBR Crowd. I truly understand and respect that mindset, but it’s also part of the downfall of Garavelli’s. It needed younger blood to discover its many charms.
When the distress signal went up about Garavelli’s difficulties, ModernSTL was hoping to intervene by hosting events there. Let the large and adventurous St. Louis MCM audience be introduced to an authentic Route 66 experience, and they tell 2 friends, and so on and so on. A form of free marketing. But before the social wheels could be set in motion, the owners had to wave the white flag.
And within days of the news, American Eagle Credit Union bought the place. Reportedly, demolition of the building will happen fairly quick. So not only does St. Louis lose an historic restaurant, we also lose this view:
I’m going to miss this sight – a building that looked like a ship from some angles, a man wearing a fedora from other angles, a new vinyl sign each day tempting you with meals you’re too busy to make for yourself, and that wonderfully Googie sign.
The owners truly intend to carry the recipes to a new location. But let them have a well-deserved rest to recharge their batteries. Thank you for enthusiastically and loyally carrying on the Garavelli’s tradition. And a fond farewell to a St. Louis Hills landmark.
Posted on April 1st, 2013 8 comments
The Record Exchange at 5320 Hampton Avenue in South St. Louis has put their (nearly historic) building up for sale so they can move to a bigger place. Here’s the sales brochure:
Hilliker gives it only one page. Very dull way to sell an exciting building. I’ve covered this building a few times (including a b&w study from 2001 on this page). It has been covered on Built St. Louis. So the realtor could legitimately say it’s a “much-talked about, much-loved building.”
Another selling point: this building recently made it onto the Final 40 List of the City of St. Louis Mid-Century Modern Survey. The night we attended the public meeting, it got an awful lot of votes. It stands a very good chance of making it to the Top 20 that will receive full documentation of its worthiness.
The owner of the building and the record store, Jean Haffner, knows his 1961 building by architect Joseph H. Senne is pretty special. But he was pleasantly surprised it had made it onto an MCM survey.
It is true they need a bigger place, something “about the size of a grocery store” said Haffner. (Side Note: the FYE at Hampton & Chippewa was originally opened in 1958 as a National Food Store.) They now do the bulk of their business on-line (at this site) and need to be better able to access their inventory while adding to it. Thus, a bigger building.
Have there been any interested buyers?
Haffner says yes. Including a party that would like to turn it into an art gallery as inspired by the metal mobile in the lobby:
This piece is titled “Pomegranate” and was designed for the library by a nationally-recognized artist whose name I was told, but forget. The Record Exchange is an overly stimulating place, so it’s an accomplishment that I remember this much of our conversation.
UPDATE: Thank you to reader Hillary who leaves the name of the artist in the comment – Fred Dreher. And thanks to Sally for this article about Dreher.
According to Mr. Haffner, he made sure it stayed with the building when he bought it in 1999, and at this point, the mobile alone is worth more than the asking price of the building.
They do need to sell the Buder in order to buy a new place. Here’s hoping the perfect buyer who loves the building as is comes along so everyone wins.
P.S. Thank you to everyone who sent messages and photos about the For Sale sign in front of the Buder. It’s impressive to have all these eyes on the street who also have my back and share this kind of information. You’re awe-inspiring!
Posted on January 10th, 2012 3 comments
A bit over year ago, we were talking about the Southern Funeral Home being for sale. And there were rumors that it was to be torn down to build a Dollar General.
Turns out those rumors are actually true, and on January 18, 2012 at 1:30 PM in Room 208 of City Hall, they are meeting to consider Dollar General’s request to change zoning and add parking and a trash enclosure. Details of the meeting are on the top right side of page 3 of this pdf.
The latest news in the neighborhood is that – right across the street from Southern – the Foodland grocery store (above) at South Grand & Iron is closing by the end of January. The steep discounting of inventory has already begun, and those without a car who rely on this store are bumming out.
But the big, logical question is:
Why would Dollar General want to pay for demolition of an old building and construction a new building, when they could move into the Foodland building right across the street?
They would be in the same exact location they want. The parking they need is already in place. And it’s all the square footage they could ever need – maybe even too much, which brings up interesting rental potentials. And there is already a successful precedent for this idea in the general area.
At Morganford & River Des Peres, Dollar Tree moved into this old National Supermarket. Faced with a 15,010 s.f. building, they sublet the back half to a plumbing supply company.
In the South St. Louis County areas where Dollar General currently resides, they are renting space within strip malls. But if they are deciding to build a free-standing building in the City boundaries, than can we assume they want something roughly the size of the existing Southern Funeral Home building, which is 10,136 s.f.?
The Foodland building – which was previously a Schnucks supermarket – is 34,003 s.f. That leaves plenty of room to rent space to other tenants. Other Dollar Generals are used to sharing space in strip malls, but this way, they’d own the building and make some extra money. And they’d be able to begin making money right after they do some remodeling, which is definitely cheaper than demolition and new construction.
Dollar General rethinking their plans to move into the Foodland building would still put them right where they wish to be while saving some money. Plus, Foodland is already zoned the way they want it. This would also spare the Southern Funeral Home to find a more sympathetic owner who would use it for a greater good.
What would be the downside to this idea? And is there a chance that Dollar General could reconsider?
UPDATE: At the January 18, 2012 meeting, Dollar General withdrew their proposal to demolish from the Preservation Board’s monthly agenda.
Posted on August 7th, 2011 11 comments
One of the most interesting chapters of how St. Louis City developed can be read with a drive along the entire stretch of Hampton Avenue. Starting at Interstate 64/Hwy 40 and heading south 4 miles to just past Loughborough Avenue, you will find an even balance of original buildings from both before and after World War 2.
The emphasis is on “original” because there was little need along Hampton to tear down old buildings to make room for bright, shiny New Frontier buildings because large chunks of Hampton remained vacant land awaiting development at the close of WWII.
I did not know this until I began researching the origin of Hampton’s mid-century modern buildings, and was stunned to learn from the 1940 City Directory that there was NOTHING on Hampton between today’s Highway 44 and Arsenal. In 1940! Or that they didn’t have to knock down a single building to develop the intersection of Hampton and Eichelberger (home of the fabulous Buder Library building) because even as late as 1948 there was still no Directory listing for anything on that stretch of road.
The St. Louis history of post-WW2 mid-century modern always focuses on the flight from City to County, or how old City buildings were demolished to make way for Urban Renewal. But along large swaths of Hampton Avenue, the mid-century modern buildings ARE the original buildings, and to think this happened within the City bounds at such a late date proves how the City of St. Louis is both so ancient and so young. This just adds to the schizophrenically endearing nature of our City, and highlights the importance of preserving and celebrating the historical and architectural uniqueness Hampton Mid-Century Modernism.
Hampton Avenue is close to the western city limits, and to a growing City that took from 1850 to 1900 to seriously expand west from Grand Boulevard to Kingshighway, Hampton would have been considered “out in the boonies.” According to the St. Louis Street Index, the name Hampton didn’t appear on a map until 1913, and only earned its top northern section between Manchester and Oakland avenues in 1921.
While there was continual residential development from the 1850s onward in the neighborhoods that surround Hampton Avenue (Oakland, Clifton, The Hill and Southwest neighborhoods), other than small pockets of commercial storefronts dating from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the bulk of Hampton Avenue appears to have been built up in earnest during and after World War 2. Meaning, once St. Louisans strengthened their commitment to the automobile, Hampton suddenly seemed much closer than before and worthy of commercial development.
This would also mean that the density of MCM buildings on Hampton were designed and sited with the idea that people would reach them by foot, bus, streetcar and automobile. So this wasn’t a case of slotting new modern buildings into a pre-established urban grid (as was the case with Lindell Boulevard modern in-fill), but rather a blank canvas to paint with both the old and new colors available to planners, developers and architects in the mid-century.
Since about 2002, I have been photographing the MCM on Hampton; some of the photos in this study are of a building in a younger or less-molested state. From the summers of 2010 to 2011, I purposely photographed 107 buildings, and spent way too much time pouring over physical City Directories at the St. Louis County Library headquarters, and on-line with Geo St. Louis. There are plenty of discrepancies between the two; I often had to rely on 1958 and 1971 aerial maps of Hampton to clear up confusion, or talking to an architect (Richard Hemi), a glazier (my father, Richard Weiss) who worked on a building in question, or asking older St. Louisans to dust off their memory caps and picture what used to be. So, I know there will be plenty of inaccuracies of info that will be discovered, but now is the time for everyone to join in and share what they know.
Of the 107 Hampton buildings that I photographed and researched, 46 were built between 1950 – 1959, and 29 were built from 1960 – 1969. Of the remaining 32 buildings, most were built between 1932 – 1949, with 5 of them going up between 1970 – 1976. Some of the older buildings were given a modern facelift to keep up with the Joneses, and if there was a building in the path of what would become an interstate they were demolished. One example is:
This grand palace at 2065 Hampton (at Wilson Avenue) opened in 1952 as Ollie Auto Top. Darren Snow found this photo as part of a display ad in the 1959 City Directory. The address was listed as vacant by 1969, and then Hwy 44 came through. A Steak ‘n Shake that sat at 2055 Hampton for about only 15 years also bit the 44 dust.
My research turned up a steady and over-abundant stream of liquor stores and bars all along Hampton, especially along the stretch running through St. Louis Hills. For instance, 5918 Hampton is today Area IV, and that storefront is carrying on a long tradition of housing only taverns, which began in 1936 with Robert Werges’ joint. Sometimes a retail block would begin and end with a liquor store; so no one ever had to walk too far for a brew? As the elders have said, all the smoking and drinking in Mad Men is not an exaggeration, and Hampton Avenue from 1936 – 1970 was the living proof!
After liquor, beauty and ice cream shops were the most popular along Hampton, followed closely by filling stations, which verifies how much more auto-centric Hampton was when compared to the other thoroughfares further east.
There were businesses that moved just blocks away to get into newer buildings (like Charles of Yorkshire beauty shop or Gassen’s Rexall Drug Store), and lots of realty companies opened shop for a short time, reflecting how the neighborhoods around Hampton were still building up in the 1950s-60s. But there was always another business ready to move into a vacated storefront, and that still happens today. No stretch of Hampton has yet experienced the kind of rot that affects other parts of the city and their main thoroughfares.
There are roughly 8 companies and institutions that still remain in the building first erected for them, including: Bayer’s Garden Shop whose building went up in 1948 as O.E. Bayer’s Garden, Furniture & Novelities; Porter Paints at 5400 Hampton, who set up shop in the new building in 1959; AB Dick Products still resides in their 1960 building at 2121 Hampton. Wise Speed Shop at 5819 Hampton moved into their new building in 1969, and only very recently did they close up shop and put the building up for sale.
There have been some demolitions for something new like a highway (as mentioned above), or taking down a small house or filling station to accommodate a larger building. For instance, Stein Brothers Bowling was on the northwest corner of the Hampton/Chippewa intersection in 1965, but it was torn down to make way for what became Lindell Bank & Trust (which looks MCM but really isn’t). But in general, buildings get remodeled rather than demolished, and even when they are remuddled unrecognizable, it’s preferable to demolition.
Two of the buildings in this survey are currently in the hot seat for demolition, which highlights why a study of the mid-century modern building stock on Hampton deserves a spotlight. This is a unique stretch of commerce in St. Louis City, an area that developed in tandem with St. Louis County, receiving the same kind of care and enthusiasm as shown to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson, Jennings, Affton or Lemay.
I invite you to
And then travel this great street with new eyes – maybe even find some new ones that I overlooked due to being overwhelmed with the treasure chest that is Hampton Avenue!
Posted on July 4th, 2011 3 comments
This moment on this South Side front yard perfectly editorializes my feelings about our country: deflated hopes and nostalgia for democracy.
It’s full steam ahead into Coporatocracy, with both Republicans and Democrats serving only the 1% by flagrantly ignoring indisputable evidence of criminal actions in the financial sector that now runs America into the ground. It makes me feel angry, hopeless, scared and sad. Every firecracker that goes off sounds like the American Dream blowing up in our faces.
But then in the course of 24-hours during this Independence weekend, 3 glimmers of hope emerged from the ever-present fireworks smoke that blankets my South Side neighborhood.
Bates & Ulena
Mr. Yummy’s has been quietly for sale for quite a while. Read more about it here. Over the past couple of weeks, folks have been scraping and painting and cleaning the interior, which was a good sign. And then this weekend, the signs above appeared on the building. Mr. Yummy’s (and they’ve kept the sign!) has been re-purposed as a drive-thru laundry service!
I love that they took a look at the layout of this building on its lot at a busy corner and saw a new way to use it without altering the basic fabric. I love that its a rather unique type of business for this area. Personally, I love that I won’t be able to forget to pick up my dry cleaning because there will be a visual reminder twice a day, every day!
Kingshighway & Eichelberger
Less than a mile away, this old gas station that became an American Legion Post is now becoming something else: an ice cream parlor & deli!
The new owners have been remodeling the inside for a 1950s feel, plan to have both indoor and outdoor seating, and be open for pickles and ice cream by the end of July. And much like Yummy’s, they’re making do with re-purposing a small building, but on an even busier intersection. No need to demolish something – let’s recycle. And it feels like the return of modesty as a virtue.
Bates & Grand
The 2 storefronts that were El Burrito Loco are in the final stretches of opening as a Turkish restaurant, which adds a great new note to the international symphony that this immediate area has become. It’s great that those storefronts were vacant for such a short period of time.
Actually, it’s great that all 3 of these buildings in my immediate neighborhood were vacant for a short period of time – that they were deemed desirable and usable by 3 sets of brave entrepreneurs willing to take a chance during this Not So Great Depression. Statistically, the odds are stacked against them. Then again, our entire economy has shifted, and maybe you need to be real tiny so the mega-corporations that run the country don’t even notice you. It’s like the sneaky, backdoor way of upholding the American Dream, and I am grateful for the presence – and timing – of these 3 new businesses that fully represent Independence. Happy 4th of July!
Posted on June 17th, 2011 7 comments
On Nottingham in St. Louis Hills stands The Vedder apartment building. To some, it’s known as The Eddie Vedder, but to anyone who sees it, it’s magnificent.
And it just got even better. Take a look!
For the first time since I’ve known the building, the fountain is on! And with lights!
There is a For Sale sign in the front yard, which may explain the improvements. And what a seriously smart move – who can resist the Vedder with a working fountain?
Posted on June 6th, 2011 8 comments
Grouphug St. Louis celebrated the first round of some lovin’ for StL with a party to view all the submissions of fine folks hugging the things they love about our city. I was honored and jazzed to have the photo above make the Top 20, twenty photos we voted on to find the top 3 winners. And here’s all the photos!
The City of St. Louis is rightly and widely known for its massive collection of still-standing brick buildings from the mid-1800s onward. What gets overlooked in all the architectural appreciation is how many fine mid-20th century buildings we have, as well. The Gateway Arch gets all the attention (rightly so), but check out the Buder Building:
I chose this building for the Grouphug because it’s the perfect building for me. Early 1960s blonde brick and metal, graceful and stately because it was designed to be the Buder Branch of the St. Louis Public Library. Then it became a used record store. Mid-century modernism, books and records… that’s all I need to maintain a consistent level of satisfaction and the Buder has all 3. After this hug photo was snapped, I also gave it a big sloppy kiss. And that ain’t the first time I’ve done so!
An MCM Light Bulb Moment
Posted on May 23rd, 2011 27 comments
In July 2010, I was hopeful and optimistic about the construction that had started on the St. Louis Hills Office Center. Read the report here. Shy of a year later, it’s not a rebirth but a high-profile remuddle.
The new bits on the back of the building are blandly modern, all EFIS and glass grid, nothing to be excited about in either direction. But when the iconic green letters and green metal panels (seen above) disappeared from the building, it was time to find out if they were coming back (maybe they took them down for a cleaning?) and what is intended to occupy the building when it’s done?
I contacted the owner of the building, Dan Stevens, who had given us a tour of the building in 2007. He made it clear that he is no longer involved in the development of the building, and because they have destroyed all the vintage architecture of the building, does not approve of what has been done to it.
The St. Louis Hills Office Center has been owned by the Stevens family since 1974, and was put under Dan’s primary care. But in the last couple of years, more of the family has become legally and actively involved in the redevelopment, which creates group decisions with majority group votes. Dan does have experience with renovating old buildings (see the Ozark Theater in Webster Groves), but with this building, he says all of his input was outvoted. He divorced himself from the project and is deeply distressed that it has become “a huge, architecturally meaningless white elephant.”
Dan does not know what the intended use is for the completed building that’s gone way over budget. 16th Ward alderwoman Donna Barringer said the plan is to rent each floor to a company when the building is completed.
With the back wing of the building long gone, there is now a generous surface parking lot to take care of future tenants. Keep this in mind as we walk down Chippewa to see the rest of the buildings they also own on this block.
For several years now, this handsome deco brick building has been the only occupied property on the block. Even as they’ve been renovating the buildings around it, the comic store was still holding down the fort in the best looking building of the bunch.
And now it is gone, sacrificed for a surface parking lot. This is a complete tragedy and a complete waste when you view all the parking that will be available behind the office building. I realize it’s impossible to have on-street parking in front of this retail strip, which is why all these buildings have long had parking in the back, which seemed to work out for several decades. Will they be granted a curb-cut off Chippewa for this new lot? Or will patrons still have to access the alley to use it? Either answer still makes the loss of this building a deep shame.
The interior of the Office Center has been completely gutted for the new development, and the fabulous front stairwell has been exposed to the elements for several weeks now, which is disturbing. Does that mean it’s going too? Dan Stevens is taking this all so hard that I couldn’t bear to ask him.
He did say that he rescued the medical medallion that used to hang above the side door when he learned it was slated to be scrapped for its aluminum value. Learning that, chances are real good that the vintage green lettering is now landfill (and thank you to a friend for checking the dumpsters the day he discovered them missing from the building). And I’ve got a sinking feeling in my gut about the stairwell.
It is desirable to re-use a building, rather than demolish it, always. But having spent several years watching this building whittle away to a shadow of its former glory, I have to ask: Would it have been emotionally easier and developmentally cheaper to just demolish it? At least that would have been like yanking the bandage off real fast to get it over with. Instead, it has become an excruciatingly slow peel-off that takes the scab with it.
I feel bad for the building because from day one, it’s had nothing but trouble over being what it wanted to be. From neighbors in the 1950s forcing it to be redesigned, to owners in the 2010s erasing the last of its grace, the St. Louis Hills Office Center was a mid-century modern swan long gliding across the wrong lake.
Posted on March 6th, 2011 8 comments
South Kingshighway Blvd & Arsenal
South St. Louis, MO
Well, kind of.
The 1964 addition of the former Southwest High School (now the Central Visual/Performing Arts High School) once sported a notorious mural. A portion of its lush exoticism can be seen above. The mural was an identifier – of a neighborhood, of an area and a great marker when giving driving directions. Shortly after the public school became a magnet in the mid 2000s, they painted over the mural with a dull dark brown that attempted to mimic the brick. The irony of quashing vivid artistic expression on the wall of a creative arts institution was not lost on anyone.
Once the public art was gone, folks like myself who track the built environment started looking through our files to find any pictures we may have taken of the mural. I know I have a full-on shot of it from the mid-1990s because I used to live across the street from the place, and remember walking over to it, purposely to document the mural. For those of you who spent decades shooting film, you also know you have boxes upon boxes of photographs, and who has the time to sift through all that? But it’s been bugging me for far too many years: where’s that mural photo?
While looking for something else, I ran across this photograph. Because of the concert poster in the bus stop shelter (also known, briefly, as a Cher Chapel), the photo was taken in the early summer of 2002. This brief glimpse of the Southwest High School mural removes finding the better photo from my To Do list. Well, kind of.
If any of you know the origins of the mural and the decision to blot it out, please do share in the Comments.
Jim Wirt was one of the students who helped paint the mural, dating it back to 1983. And thanks to Michael Allen for passing along this post with black & white photos of the mural.