Posted on February 16th, 2014 10 comments
The editor of St. Louis At Home asked me to dig into the real life locations depicted on the Showtime series Masters of Sex. See the Masters of Sex St Louis At Home article. Also available on-line without the photos.
Here we recap the article’s content with room to spread out, and add more engrossing details uncovered during the research process.
The series opens in December 1956 with the newly-divorced Virginia Johnson interviewing for her eventual position as Dr. William Masters’ assistant. Master’s office is in Maternity Hospital, shown as a handsome Art Deco hospital of white stucco. That was the first instance of TV separation from St. Louis reality, for the 1926 Maternity Hospital still stands today inside the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex.
Dr. Master’s office and practice was on the 3rd floor of this building, and other than the exterior facade and some molding and terrazzo flooring touches at the entrances, everything has been remodeled countless times since the 1950s. Very little about Master’s and his ground-breaking work remains within the record books of the hospital or Washington University. Local theory is that ultra-conservative St. Louis academia still finds it offensive to acknowledge his pioneering sex studies. Though his last name does make the list of blocks inside the circular wall of this outdoor smoking lounge in front of the building (below).
Still with the first episode, we see Dr. William Masters and his wife Libby living in an exquisite mid-century modern ranch home, which for 1956 would have put them on the cutting edge of St. Louis modern design, something a successful doctor could afford to indulge in. Meanwhile single-mother-of-two Virginia Johnson is shown living in one side of a 2-story, stucco duplex. Other than some more stucco (St. Louis just doesn’t have the climate for it), this type of living arrangement for Virginia is logical. So are these homes based on their real life domiciles, and if so, where are they?
Episode 2 of Masters of Sex really lit a fire when they gave an establishing exterior shot of a local brothel (above). But it was a bit disconcerting that this was the 3rd or 4th time that wood clapboard homes were shown as the norm. Even to the distracted eye, St. Louis is a brick city – we don’t see wood siding as a constant until the post-WW2 suburbs. And it’s a cinch that a whorehouse would have to be inside St. Louis City boundaries, where a home of this type would be very rare.
I was distracted with these type of architecture geek thoughts when the thoroughly engaging prostitute character Betty DiMello revealed that the sex study had moved “to a cathouse on Third & Sutter.” I waited for the episode to end before digging into maps of both St. Louis and East St. Louis, where there is no such intersection. So exactly where was this whorehouse?
It was now time to dig into the source material for the TV show, the 2009 book Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love by Thomas Maier. It’s a factually dense book that easily moves you forward with anticipation. And this book sent me into obsessive research mode, deciphering fact from TV fiction.
As the first season unfolded, it was addictive to figure out how the show’s creators and writers took the original and transformed it into an episodic drama. How a one-off sentence in the book becomes a story-arc, or how two different real life people are melded into one character with a completely fictitious yet fascinating backstory.
One of the most revelatory differences between fact and artistic license is the home of Dr. William and Libby Masters. The viewer gets a distinct Mad Men vibe from their clean-lined, suburban mid-century modern ranch home. Maier’s book describes their real-world house as a “brick two-story Colonial” in “Ladue, an affluent suburb of St. Louis.” And here is their former home, built in 1934:
The show’s producers made a conscious decision to place William & Libby in a new, atomic age home. They also added an infertility problem to their marriage, whereas in real life, they had two children by 1953. But one fact did remain intact: Libby & Bill did sleep in separate twin beds! (And here’s a gossipy fact: they installed an in-ground pool to this home in 1967, and the neighbors were scandalized to see Virginia Johnson lounging by it while Libby was out of town.)
Other deviations from fact to television fiction include:
• There’s no Provost Scully (as portrayed by Beau Bridges); he’s a combination of a few men at Washington University, including Chancellor Ethan Shepley.
• There’s no real-life prostitute Betty DiMello, which means it’s unlikely anyone ever called Dr. Masters the “alpha dog of coochie medicine.”
• Dr. Ethan Haas and Gene The Pretzel King are made up characters (so there is no Gus’ Pretzel connection to Masters & Johnson, sorry)
• St. Louis has yet to have a Rialto movie theater (so the entirely fictitious Dr. Austin Langham never banged the entirely fictitious Margaret Scully in a car parked in front of it)
• St. Louis never had a Gardell’s, described in the show as a “nightclub in Coontown” (though senior citizen St. Louisans can tell you the rough whereabouts of the part of town once referred to by that wince-inducing moniker).
• St. Louis never had a Commodore Hotel where gay male prostitutes set up shop. There were plenty of other gay haunts in the City during that time period (like the Grandel Square Hotel once at 3625 Grandel Square; the Golden Gate bar on Olive Street and Entres Nous on Pine Street), so the creators appear to have condensed that St. Louis scene into one convenient package.
According to Maier’s research, there was most definitely a cathouse where Dr. Masters conducted research. He writes about how St. Louis Chief of Police H. Sam Priest protected Masters (who delivered their second child) so he could conduct studies in local brothels. Chief Priest and his detectives found willing candidates among prostitutes and made sure they were not busted in the weeks before and after the testing.
Maier writes, “Between 1955 and late 1956, Masters expanded his study in such St. Louis neighborhoods as the Central West End to interviews with call girls in other American cities, such as Chicago, Minneapolis and New Orleans.”
Ah ha! We have a locale on the brothel!
But it’s not like old City Directories are going to list them as such, or old newspapers are going to report any fine details about raiding them. And since I had other questions needing clarification, I reached out to Thomas Maier, who was refreshingly friendly, helpful and prompt in his replies.
As learned from Maier, the Masters of Sex producers have yet to visit St. Louis, which explains the architectural discrepancies. While filming the pilot, the producers found a mid-century home in Huntington, NY that they liked, and later reproduced it on Sony’s Hollywood lot. An old wing of the Jamaica Hospital in Queens, NY stood in for Maternity Hospital. And even though the scenes set on the Washington University campus looked authentic, it’s actually the former Guggenheim estate in Long Island, NY.
He also only knows the general location of the whorehouse as Central West End. Dang it!
I am a life-long, ardent participant in the suspension of disbelief that is Hollywood. But the first season’s episodes aired while I was deeply consumed by Maier’s book and my research, and I found myself second-guessing and dismaying over the deviations from Masters & Johnson’s actual story. Which kinda killed my buzz – totally of my own doing. But it did not keep me from watching and thrilling to every episode, it only clarified that I need to apply more effort to maintain my Hollywood vs. Reality balance.
And the producers’ decision to put Dr. Masters in an MCM ranch did eventually pan out in real life:
Above is the home, built in 1951, that Bill & Gini (since we got this far, it’s OK to use their nicknames, right?) moved into after they were married in 1971. Oh please oh please let the series go on long enough to get to that soap opera plot twist!
Anyway, this home became a place for their more famous or notorious clients to stay for therapy, avoiding possible detection at the more public Reproductive Biology Research Foundation office at 4910 Forest Park Blvd. (long-since torn down). From the book:
The Ladue house on South Warson Road was more contemporary than most, sheltered by tasteful plantings that shielded activity from the street. Upon entering, guests walked into a vestibule and could follow one of two ramps – to a spacious dining room and kitchen on one side, and to several bedrooms on the other, including the master suite with two king-sized beds placed together. In the back of the house were a large terrace, a kidney-shaped inground pool, and a stable with enough surrounding acreage for Johnson’s daughter, Lisa, to ride her horse. When Cindy Todorovich later bought the South Warson house, she found a secret panel with a peephole. “I’m not saying there was anything kinky going on, but maybe it had something to do with their research,” she recalled.
The book also has some fun facts that seriously need to go into the series.
The apartment building shown above is where Dr. Masters’ mother, Estabrook, moved to after she was widowed. The child abuse and transformation of his mother’s personality as shown in the series is true. What also needs to be shared is that the staff of Masters & Johnson’s Repro Bio office often spent their lunch hours at Estabrook’s apartment on the 8th floor, because it was a nice walk to and from the office. And since she was now privy to the details of their work, she helped out by sewing silk masks for study volunteers to wear to protect their anonymity.
So Where’s the Brothel?
I made endless inquiries to pinpoint the locale of this place (or places). Librarian friends at both the St. Louis City and County libraries worked on it (along with providing assistance in digging up old phone book and directory information – thanks Adele!), and I followed all leads about anyone who knew a cop or a friend who had brothel info.
Elder St. Louisans mused that a brothel in St. Louis city couldn’t have existed for very long without being busted, and they certainly wouldn’t have been in such luxurious quarters as shown in the screen cap earlier in this post. And the 1952 book U.S.A. Confidential by Jack Lait & Lee Mortimer verified that there was an “overpopulated harlot population” in St. Louis, including “a lot of call-girls” moving “into the new Ford Apartments.”
It was the friend of a friend who verified that a city brothel just wouldn’t be all that glamorous. Roland Kulla is a St. Louis native now living in Chicago, and he shared the following memories and photos from when he lived in the eastern border of the Central West End:
“I lived at 3850 Olive St. near the Vandeventer Ave. intersection, from 1947-1954. The street was very busy then – lots of shops, and bars and a small department store across the street, the streetcar line ran down Olive. We lived in an apartment above my uncle’s bakery, Sausel’s (new-born Roland is shown with his family in front of that bakery, above) where my father worked. Stories about the brothel next door at 3848 came from my mother, as I was too young to know.
“The buildings on that corner formed a courtyard in the back. You came through a yard to get to the back door. Our back doors were right next to each other – although there was a wooden fence between them (photo below). Mom told the tale that sometimes the clients would knock on our door by mistake.
“(The brothel situation) had changed by 1954 when we moved, as there was a legit neighbor there that we were friendly with. The layout of the apartment, which would have been similar to the one next door, was a small bedroom in the front over the stairs. There was a double parlor – the front one with a fireplace – divided by sliding doors. We used both parlors as bedrooms, with the small one used the nursery since there was always a new baby. Beyond that was a hall bath, and then a big dining room that went the width of the building. And then a big kitchen in the rear with two walk-in pantries.”
Roland took the two photos above in the early 1990s. The buildings were completely demolished about 10 years ago, with only The Lighthouse of The Blind building (which formed the east flank of the rear courtyard) remaining on the block.
We are in no way implying or supposing this was the location of Dr. Masters’ laboratory, especially since it was cleaned up prior to beginning his local field studies in 1955-56. It does verify that such places existed, and for long stretches of time, and they were not opulent.
My hope is that I will eventually run across a retired St. Louis City cop who worked under Chief Priest, or had passed-down knowledge of assistance for Dr. Masters, and that so much time has passed they are willing to talk location details. If you’re as curious as I am about finding Bill’s cathouse, and know someone who knows these kinds of things, please let me know. The seedy underbelly of St. Louis was deep and vivid, and in this particular case, led to major scientific discoveries that permanently and positively altered the sexual landscape. If those brothel buildings still stand, they deserve an historic marker, don’t you think?
Posted on January 21st, 2014 7 comments
January 16, 2014 – It was a glorious moment in time for St. Louis mid-century modern architecture, the opening reception for Suburban Modernism: The Architecture and Interior Design of Ralph & Mary Jane Fournier. The Morton J. May Foundation Gallery at Maryville University was so crowded that people were gently perspiring on a cold night. Retired architect/full-time painter Ralph Fournier (below) was bombarded with well-wishers, though he had a more personal and private viewing of his legacy with close friends and family earlier in the week.
We’ll talk details of the exhibit that you must see before it closes on February 22nd. But, first, I want to trace the outlines of the story that made this moment in time so overwhelmingly glorious.
The Origin Story
Two residents of Ridgewood – the subdivision that straddles the boundaries of Webster Groves and Crestwood, MO – were inspired to track down and talk with the architect of the homes they lived in from this November 2007 St. Louis magazine article about Ralph Fournier. Nathan Wilber and architect Neil Chace (both officers on the board of ModernSTL) met Fournier, and that is their story to tell. Then they began this blog about Ridgewood.
One of our early dreams at ModernSTL was to celebrate Fournier’s work with walking tours of the many mid-century modern subdivisions he helped design with builder Burton Duenke, and – here was the big, wild dream – make a documentary of his work and his life. We toyed with the loose tooth of the idea, and on July 3, 2011, Neil, Nathan and myself did this:
That’s Neil (left) and Nathan at Ralph’s home going over piles of his archived materials that he kindly pulled out of deep storage for us to pour over. See that look on Nathan’s face? That’s how we felt for the entire 2.5 hours that Ralph let us ask him endless questions while trying not to gush over a man we consider a rock star of the highest magnitude.
Along with Ralph’s candor, patience and excellent memory for detail, I was overcome by the walls of his home. Everywhere are his paintings and drawings, they’re even stacked up in piles on the floor. You can trace the continual evolution of his style that began when he retired in 1989 and made a full-time commitment to painting, with stops at portraiture, landscape, spiritual and travel scenes. The only thing absent in his gallery is architectural paintings, because he’d done that for over 40 years – there is so much more he needs to express.
We told him of our idea to make a documentary of his life and work, and not only did this unassuming man agree to take the journey, but – wait for this – he let us walk out of his house with those large piles of his architectural history!
After we left his company, we stood dazed with disbelief on the sidewalk in front of his house. He had graciously shared his work and personal life with us, which made us realize that his life story perfectly summarized America’s mid-20th century: A young man who worked in an east coast factory, went to college, got drafted into World War 2, came home to finish school on the G.I. bill and started working as an architect right when America desperately needed new homes to handle the Baby Boom ( he and his wife, Mary, included). His story needed to be told.
We divvied up the pile amongst us, and spent the next few weeks scanning everything so we could safely return them to Ralph. Making a documentary is a giant task rendered gargantuan when those inspired to do so have no experience or skills with producing one. So the idea had a long germination period as we explored resources for making it happen. And we felt an urgency to do this because Ralph was 91 years old at the time. He had to remind us of this because we didn’t believe or comprehend it!
Near the end of 2012 a fairy godmother appeared to magically make the documentary happen. Jessica Senne, AIA, NCIDQ, is a professor of Interior Design at Maryville University. She had the desire and resources to not only make the documentary, but it would be just one part of a larger exhibition she would stage of Fournier’s work. She shared her vision, and we loved it. We turned over the scanned files of Ralph’s work and set the wheels in motion for Jessica to meet Ralph and help cement her exhibit ideas.
Jessica and her team of student volunteers and college faculty worked diligently throughout 2013 to procure funding for the exhibit, and to program and build all the pieces of the exhibit and documentary by the January 13, 2014 deadline. The effort and labor of love that went into that is her story to tell. What she and her crew accomplished is magnificent!
The exhibit Suburban Modernism is masterfully laid out to convey the width and depth of Fournier’s architectural contributions to St. Louis. The story is told through Ralph’s own drawings and photographs, plus sales brochures and magazine articles as the subdivisions unfolded onto the St. Louis County landscape.
It’s a multi-media gallery, which enlivens the 3-dimensional resonance of residential architecture. Above are drawings made of existing Fournier homes lived in by 3 separate ModernSTL board members. Jessica’s students did a measure and photo of these homes to create the plans, and even built a life-size replica of the wall partition panels used to construct these modular homes, as well as a scale model (below) to show how Fournier’s designs feel.
Along with beautifully framed color renderings on trace paper by Ralph, and modern day color photos of some of his custom designs, they filled the back wall of the exhibit space with replicas and actual copies of Ralph’s art work (below)! You walk away with a clearer understanding of the man who helped make hundreds of affordable, modern homes for St. Louis families, homes that still stand and serve beautifully today.
What makes this installation so exceptional is that it celebrates a residential architect. Modern architectural careers and legacies are primarily based on public buildings, like office towers, museums and government commissions. Architects long ago abandoned the residential design aesthetic championed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles & Ray Eames or Pierre Koenig, to name a few.
Just when America needed a lot of homes real fast is when the majority of talented architects turned their attention to big, visible projects with large budgets. And those are the projects and names usually cited in text books and popular opinion, even in St. Louis.
It’s important to shine a light on a dedicated residential practitioner like Ralph Fournier, someone who genuinely cared about how to make daily life beautiful, pleasing and affordable to young families, and who had the genuine talent to make mass production feel like your personal work of art, even to this very day.
All of these details are expertly and engagingly covered in the video documentary narrated by Ralph Fournier himself.
I walked away from Suburban Modernism with a booklet (available at the gallery), a T-shirt and a poster (available through ModernSTL). I haven’t had this much concentrated swag since mooning over David Cassidy! And I am profoundly grateful to everyone who stayed true to the vision of bringing this body of work to life, and paying respect to the man who generated it. And many a huge thank you to Jessica Senne for making this happen.
You have until February 22, 2014 to experience it firsthand. The Morton J. May Foundation gallery hours are generous, open until 11 pm Monday – Thursday, until 7pm on Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday from 11 am – 11 pm. It’s free, so there’s no excuse to miss it if you have even a passing curiosity about St. Louis’ mid-century modern residential history. If you read this blog, that’s you – so go!
Posted on October 20th, 2013 5 comments
The St. Louis County Public Library seems determined to demolish the Lewis & Clark branch for a new structure. We need them to reconsider this misguided goal. They can meet all their objectives without tearing down this building. We need to help them avoid making a huge mistake.
The importance of this building was recently covered on DOCOMOMO’s website, featuring killer historical photos of the branch. Next City placed it on the list of 10 endangered modern buildings. And I covered it here when the demolition idea was first touted. Modern-STL has been actively involved since that time in trying to engage the Library Board of Trustees about the importance of this building. Increasingly, it feels like talking to deaf ears.
Come to the Lewis & Clark branch on October 23rd to learn about this building, it’s architect and what we can do to make them reconsider tearing down this building. You can start with the Facebook page. And please join Modern-STL, Esley Hamilton and myself. Event details.
Since we can’t have a face-to-face with the Library Board of Trustees, I’m going public with what I would have shared with them privately - 6 Reasons to Save the Lewis & Clark Library:
1. Don’t Trash Your Legacy
The Lewis & Clark branch is the ONLY significant building left in the St. Louis County Public Libraries arsenal. Important public institutions deserve important buildings – and this is just such an animal. Needlessly trashing your only architectural asset sends the wrong message about learning from, and respecting, history – especially your own.
There will come a day when the County Library will want to celebrate its milestone anniversaries. Lewis & Clark is already a historical milestone at 50 years old. Then comes 75 and 100 years. Look to the St. Louis Public Library system for a template on how that kind of celebration benefits everyone. With this proposed demolition, The County would have no important buildings to celebrate their history because they trashed them.
2. Don’t Trash the History of North County
Lewis & Clark was the first branch built in North County. Great care was taken with making this 1963 building worthy of the burgeoning community it would serve. It was designed with a grace and beauty reflecting the power and aspirations of a new town in a far-flung locale. It was such a pioneering flag plant that the library didn’t erect another North County branch until 1975, letting Lewis & Clark service a rapidly growing community for 12 years.
It being the sole library in NoCo for so long is what makes it an emotional anchor for everyone who grew up there. This is why it’s the only library to make the pages of the popular nostalgia book Cruizin’ North County. New York master planners have no knowledge or interest in the history of St. Louis County (read the entire master plan). It is distressing that the St. Louis County library system also appears to be ignoring this history.
So many other touchstones of North County history have been unceremoniously trashed; the library is an institution that lends weight and importance to the history of the region. Let this one architecturally worthy building represent the history of community and education in North County. Come the 100th Anniversary, you’ll be glad you did.
3. Understand the Difference Between “Old” and Historical
The Library’s Facilities Master Plan document graphs the age of each of their buildings, and bases the needs for demolition for new buildings SOLELY on age (slide above from that Master Plan). They do acknowledge the level of maintenance on all their buildings has been good (and it is). The implication that a new building will solve their future maintenance issues is just absurd.
The Master Plan equates anything over 30 years old as bad. This is a 20th century, developer-driven, irresponsible line of thought that’s oblivious to the rapidly-growing importance of preserving mid-century modernism as the last great period of American architecture.
The Board of Trustees has been educated on the architectural pedigree of the Lewis & Clark building. The importance and benefits of preserving architectural history is a well-documented topic. To continue to willfully ignore that is to willingly court ignorance, which is the opposite goal of a library.
4. Acknowledge the Needs of a Modern Library
Libraries are research-driven environments, and the most shallow research into the needs of the modern library reveals articles in the New Republic and Wall Street Journal about what will keep libraries relevant in these technological times. It’s no longer about having more space to store physical books, but for the existing space to meet new needs. Libraries need to curate knowledge in an age of information overload, and to be a safe and welcoming place for the community to gather.
The Master Plan says Lewis & Clark needs 4,000 more square feet. If – in light of the modern needs of library science – this is still true, why not add it addition to the northeast side of the building? You have the space. An addition would be a way to have your legacy and thrive on it, too.
5. Erect Your New Building Elsewhere
We understand the politics of the voter-approved tax hike; when South County gets a brand new library building so must North County. Agreed. But why does it have to be the Lewis & Clark Branch?
The Flo Valley branch is only one year younger than Lewis & Clark. And more centrally located in NoCo. And is not architecturally significant. This would be a good candidate for an entirely new, state-of-the-art building. The Thornhill Branch (1975) has been pegged for demolition for a new building, as well.
There’s wiggle room in the master plan to meet all of library system’s needs without sacrificing your most prominent historical building.
6. Apply Emotional Intelligence to the Master Plan
The Master Plan that launched the system-wide need for renovations and demolitions repeatedly emphasize how important each library is to its community. But the Planners are from New York City so they fail to recognize the historic and sentimental touchstones of this building in this community. Clinging blindly to this document seems a stubborn stance for bolstering egos rather than community. A successful master plan considers the head and the heart, the numbers and the people who want to be more than statistics bolstering a bottom line.
The County library has only one building that perfectly represents its moment in history with a grace that still inspires the pursuit of knowledge and community. This building presents the County library with an opportunity to one day have their St. Louis City library headquarters moment: past, present and future knowledge all in one admirable package of civic architecture.
The County library has educated us for decades. The Lewis & Clark branch building is their chance for a poignant, teachable moment that inspires pride in the community it serves.
All they have to do is respect it by letting it stand.
Posted on January 6th, 2013 1 comment
It was the end of December 2012, and I was on the bitingly cold, snow-covered roof of the former State Bank of Wellston. We were there to explore the building in its final days, and discuss how they were going to salvage the neon tower to keep it safe for future use. It was sadness tinged with hope.
Standing atop the building as my feet turned numb from the cold, I thought of the heartbreaking months ahead documenting the Wellston bank’s demolition. But then a thought slapped me upside the head:
There were far more wins than losses when it came to mid-century modern architecture in St. Louis in 2012.
I didn’t yet know it, but the day after Christmas the website Curbed figured it out, citing two major St. Louis MCM wins in their article, Mapping the Biggest Preservation Wins and Losses in 2012. We’re #8 and #9 on the list of winners. We’re used to being on lists of shame for destroying buildings of all eras, and here we are getting a pat on the back for two major victories. And they are both mid-century modern buildings!
The Saucer, by architect Richard Henmi (shown above) is now bustling with caffeinated folks at Starbucks. The other side is still in renovation mode for a new tenant. The Triple A building (below) by architect Wenceslao Sarmiento stood up to a tear-down threat by CVS.
The efforts to save both of these buildings from extinction are beautifully detailed here, by our city’s own Michael Allen for Next City, another national organization keeping an eye on our preservation wins in 2012.
The fight to Save Our Saucer was, technically, a 2011 campaign that came to a conclusion in 2012. For both of our round Mid Town MCM buildings the amazing fact is that City Hall – specifically, the mayor and certain aldermen – spoke out quickly and emphatically against demolition of either of these buildings. This was a huge policy change from years previous with City Fathers who really didn’t want to deal with saving buildings built after World War 2.
What caused this miraculous and productive change of perspective? I consider the following a major turning point.
It was February 14, 2009 when a large group of St. Louisans came together for a Love In to publicize the threat against the former Hotel Deville, which became a vacant apartment called San Luis. The St. Louis Archdiocese wanted to take it down to make a surface parking lot. After a disastrous Preservation Board review in June 2009, we turned it into a court battle.
The building came down and we lost the court case. We staged multiple events to raise money for our lawyer fees, and it was heartwarming to see so many people support us in this failed battle. Personally, it also created some tense moments with my deeply Catholic family who only saw it as me being part of a group that was suing the Catholic Church. Yikes.
The San Luis Did Not Die In Vain
A battle lost in such a large and public way turned out to be the moment that was needed to make positive changes in the future of mid-century modern architecture preservation. The Save Our Saucer campaign was a successful refinement of the Friends of the San Luis campaign. And the inconsistencies in St. Louis City preservation law were addressed almost immediately after the San Luis came down. The first tangible change was creating the organization ModernSTL (several of the ModStL board members were there at the Valentine’s Day Love-In) so that we had a central location for the education, preservation and celebration of St. Louis modernism.
AUGST 2012 The MCM preservation efforts of ModernSTL made the news several times in 2012, which is recapped here.
DECEMBER 2012 The victory inspired by the demise of the San Luis is the new architecture standards in the Central West End (CWE) purposely put into place to include the protection of mid-century modern buildings. Again, let Michael Allen give you the important details of this new standard.
That residents and alderpersons in these CWE wards realized that post-World War 2 buildings are just as much a part of the area’s history as the original buildings made my heart break with happiness. That they stuck with it to turn it into legal business that prevents senseless destruction like The San Luis in the future is a miracle. This is a major rethink of what constitutes an historic building. I love these folks! Thank you.
March 2012 The City of St. Louis received a $24,600 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office to survey the City’s mid-century modern buildings. Mayor Francis Slay writes of this award: “This specific research will identify important mid-century modern buildings and should lead toward protection from thoughtless demolition and possible resources for their improvement. Our City is rich in beautiful and significant architecture – and this study will help it remain that way.”
Here’s more details about the survey. It is expected to be complete by the summer of 2013. I am deeply humbled (and a little teary eyed) to learn that many B.E.L.T. entries have been used as part of their research on the city’s MCM stock. My wish for 2013 is that downtown Clayton, MO will consider doing something similar.
SPRING 2012 Having an article published in Atomic Ranch magazine was a personal highlight. But even better was that it was about Ladue Estates, the first mid-century modern subdivision in Missouri to land on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents who made this MCM preservation milestone possible have become good friends of ModernSTL, and it was a pleasure to stage a second annual open house and tour of their neighborhood in May 2012.
2012 MCM Mind Shift
In general, I have felt, read and seen a huge shift in mid-century modernism appreciation. Both in the private and public realms, people of St. Louis just get it! They get that this era of architecture has significant meaning in our history, and that many of these buildings are flat out gorgeous and worthy of keeping in use.
Two great examples of re-using rather than demolishing MCM in 2012 include:
This Sunset Hills building started life as the Mark Twain Cinema in 1967, and then became the Two Hearts Banquet Center, which closed in 2012. A local labor union bought the building to turn into their new offices. And here’s the kicker – they love the building as is. The renovations they are making are only to make it usable for their needs, not to destroy its essence. Here’s more of the story.
At Spring Avenue and Delor Street in Dutchtown, the Southtowne Village apartment complex, built in 1962, stood vacant and vandalized. When chainlink went up around the bombed out site, I assumed they were being demolished. It was a great to be completely, utterly wrong!
Thank you to 25th Ward alderman Shane Cohn for filling me in. The Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance is redeveloping the site by modernizing most of the existing buildings, and supplementing them with some new buildings better sited in the spaces left after demolition of the back buildings. The aim is more curb appeal and more urban density.
As we can see from the mid-construction photo above, they’re adding some 21st century architectural bling to appeal to new tenants. The mid-century character of the buildings will be buried. But the major point is that instead of automatically tearing down these buildings, they are re-using them! And why not? We now live in a time of wasted resources and limited means – it makes perfect economic sense to save money and the environment by re-using as much as you can. Construction-wise, a building from 1962 is just as good as one from 1862 for renovation, and I applaud the RHCDA for this enlightened way of thinking.
A Short Journey to StL MCM Preservation
Urban Renewal of the 1960s is what created the preservation movement, as we know it today. It took well over 25 years to change the perspective of the public and developers so that they would think first of preserving a turn-of-the-20th-century building rather than demolishing it. St. Louis, specifically, has benefited greatly from Historic Tax Credits that put so many of our classic buildings in downtown St. Louis back into service. All of this is possible because of pioneering preservation efforts.
In May of 2005, I started B.E.L.T. primarily as an outlet for documenting and promoting St. Louis mid-century modern architecture. St. Louis was a major recipient of federal Urban Renewal subsidies, tearing down hundreds of acres of our history to create a better society. When they began systematically tearing down these replacement buildings in the early 2000s, I was grief-stricken. I literally stood on the rubble of Northland Shopping Center and bawled like a baby. Something had to be done to update the preservation mindset to include the buildings of the greatest period of modern American progress.
With the help and camaraderie of hundreds of forward-thinking St. Louisans, we have changed the preservation mindset to include mid-century modernism. And whereas it took decades to automatically save post-Victorian buildings, we understand the importance of saving post-WW2 buildings in less than 10 years!
2012 was the year that all of this new mindset became glaringly, lovingly apparent. It bears repeating: There have been more victories than losses. I’m even optimistic about the plight of Lewis and Clark branch of the St. Louis Count Library. In less than a year, their board has already acknowledged its merit; the story continues into 2013.
From St. Louis City Hall, to activists, to social networks, there are thousands of people who deserve a hearty round of applause for making all of this possible. It also needs to be noted how progressive St. Louis is when it comes to architectural preservation matters. No matter the year it was built, we now know our buildings matter because our history – past, present and future – matters. It takes great strength and confidence to protect and nurture the things that are worthwhile.
St. Louis, you kick ass!
Posted on January 4th, 2013 7 comments
B.E.L.T. reader George McNatt left a comment that this building at Brown and St. Charles Rock Road is going to be demolished. All of the buildings connected to it are coming down as well, starting this January 2013.
And why are these buildings coming down?
If I told you there was a Walgreens on the opposite corner, could you get the answer with one guess?
CVS was unsuccessful in Fergsuon (backstory here) and was shot down twice in the Central West End (both buildings spared from CVS demo are listed in this story). Guess they fared better in St. John, eh?
George also reports that they are tearing down the building on the southeast corner of this intersection (map here) to put up a McDonald’s. Considering they are reportedly going in on the site of the former State Bank of Wellston once it comes down, McDonald’s looks to have a strong first quarter of 2013.
Posted on October 28th, 2012 3 comments
This 1961 winged beauty started life as Flotken’s Market. The Flotken family has a website about the history of the store with lots of interior photos. There’s even a blog where you can contribute memorabilia of the place, which includes a copy of the original 1961 lease.
“In 1961, he opened a second store at 9643 Olive Boulevard in Olivette. Mr. Flotken designed a unique roof that descended from the sides to the middle, giving the appearance of wings.
Mike Flotken explained his father’s design concept in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Dad wanted as much natural light as possible. With a traditional roof, you only get light from the front, and the ‘flying wing’ design allowed light to come in from the sides as well.”
As of Fall 2012, a local construction company is in the middle of remodeling the building for jewelry store The Shane Co., who plan to move in early 2013. Compare this construction photo with the one above to see how much they have removed. Much of the brick from the demolished kneewall was still sitting in the dumpster the day I photographed this.
While investigating who was doing what to this building, it was shared by Esley Hamilton that there is a correction to who the architect is. From conversation with a former employee who remembers working on the building, Elsey learned this is the design of Sommerich & Wood, who also did the 1958 Red Bird Lanes.
1) A jeweler benefits just as much from natural light as a grocer did, right?
2) A peek behind the plywood walls shows a good amount of interior construction has already taken place, including metal framing of walls reaching up to the roof structure. Meaning, they can’t alter the basic structure too much more, only mess with the front facade.
Granted, a lot of damage can be done with a new facelift. But so far, they’ve left so much in tact that it feels like The Shane Co. knows the allure of their new mid-century modern building. Let’s all keep an eye on their progress, and speak up if you see any new developments, please.
Thank you to Andrew Weil of Landmarks for giving me a heads up that this remodel is taking place.
Posted on July 1st, 2012 3 comments
We covered the Clayton-Forsyth building in November of 2009. Here is the story and photos. That post was inspired by the old news that the owner of the building wanted it to come down to build a mixed-use development. But The Great Recession quieted that thought.
The June 29, 2012 issue of The St. Louis Business Journal brings the thought back as a cover article (above). Turns out the building’s owner – Tony Novelly – has been banking buildings along this stretch of Forsyth, including the Clayton-Forsyth building, which is also known as The Lawyer’s Title building.
With next door neighbor Tip Top Cleaners set to close, their building goes on the market for $1.7 million. Novelly had reportedly tried to buy them out before. The Business Journal has no hard facts about Novelly’s intentions, just strong implications. Even his son, Jared Novelly, says for the article that they have no immediate plans to redevelop all their properties on this block. “We’re always open to redevelopment, but it depends on what the market does. Nothing is going on right now.”
It’s starting to feel like the era of mothballed buildings is in the starting stages of ending. If the real estate market is truly starting to come back to life, the mid-century modern buildings in Clayton’s Central Business District (CBD) are easy targets. Maybe not so much the building above, by architect Harris Armstrong, as it sits on the outskirts of the CBD.
And maybe not this other Harris Armstrong building. It’s even on the National Register of Historic Places. Then again, Clayton has already torn down a much larger Armstrong building, shown here on the website of the Clayton History Society. National Register is not a guarantee of safety, just a distinctive title.
And the Pierre Laclede Center is pretty safe, as they’ve recently spent millions to refurbish both buildings while respecting its mid-century modernism.
After that, just about every other mid-century building in downtown Clayton, MO is ripe for teardown. Many have already been torn down to build new skyscrapers and/or parking. This is a business district, and there is supposedly more money to be made from skyscrapers, which give you density of inhabitants making money.
Novelly already owns two corporate skyscrapers right next to and across from the buildings cited on the front cover of The BJ. So he does have a history of investing in the teardown of old buildings for behemoth new business centers. And it is being implied that he might soon have all the old buildings on this block. And past news articles have stated that he intended to tear down the Clayton-Forsyth building for a much larger mixed-use building, so it’s easy to assume his development history on that block will repeat.
But let’s drop the supposedly inevitable for a moment, and put on our thinking caps. You know what would be brilliant? Embracing the unique mid-century modern heritage of the Clayton Business District, and making money off that.
The prosperity and might of the Clayton CBD happened immediately after the end of World War 2. The majority of its buildings went up between 1945 to 1972, making it a quintessential mid-century modern city. It’s a text book example of the power and optimism our country had after the war, and the architecture they used to reflect that.
To be a part of the New Frontier and The Great Society, elderly and established downtowns had to utilize federal Urban Renewal funds to demolish and make way for new, modern buildings. In the mid-1950s to late 1960s, the City of St. Louis went on a demolition spree, ridding itself of “ugly,” “unhealthy” and “dangerous” old buildings.
As Downtown St. Louis crushed buildings into dust on the government’s dime, downtown Clayton was a blank canvas of relatively open land with prosperous business-owner residents who had moved there before The Great Depression. Or as the City of Clayton website tells it:
By the late 1940s, Clayton was in the midst of a building and business boom that eventually changed the City from a quaint suburb to the hub of the St. Louis metropolitan area. In 1952, the City re-zoned the area that became the Central Business District, allowing larger commercial and retail businesses to expand.
(In 1957), the City abolished the height requirement on new buildings, and plans for Clayton’s first high rises were soon in the works. However, City planners established strict requirements to ensure Clayton streets would not become tunnels amidst corridors of skyscrapers.
So a boomtown had the foresight to require variety in its buildings. Low-rise and high-rise would co-mingle to create – literally overnight – a new and powerful metropolis that would soon overtake Downtown St. Louis as the business center of Metropolitan St. Louis. That’s the beauty of working with a blank canvas – you can build a city from the ground up in record time and have it architecturally reflect the powerful and expansive mindset of a forward-moving society.
And here’s the kind of buildings they willingly chose to reflect their power.
All of the buildings shown in this post are part of the mid-century modern quilt they weaved within 30 years. The largest percentage of them went up in a less-than 20 year period. This is why downtown Clayton has a certain aura about it. Because many of these original mid-century buildings are still in existence, sometimes tucked into the shadow of newer post-modern skyscrapers. And it’s the melange of tall and small, street-level and sky-level that give downtown Clayton it’s powerful charm.
America is still scrambling to understand how to live and prosper in this new Post 911 cyber world with a global economy. All of the old rules are crumbling around us, and that includes the rules of land development. The days of automatically clearing an old building for a new one are looking rather barbaric in hindsight. We simply can no longer afford to be a disposable society anymore.
But luckily, holding onto your existing building stock can be just as profitable as the old crush-and-build model was for awhile. Off the top of your head, how many historic sites can you think of across America that bring in busloads of tourists? Large chunks of New England figured out decades ago that there is money to be made in old buildings and towns, and that local, state and federal governments will even help you turn it into a profit-making destination. I think any developer of an “ancient” building in modern-day Downtown St. Louis knows what I’m talking about, here.
When it comes to the newer realm of mid-century modern architecture and towns, we can look to Palm Springs, California as a great example of preserving residential and commercial buildings. It is easily the hippest destination in the nation, a desert town drowning in tourists disposable income. And let’s also consider all the building-buff travelers to downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has lovingly kept all of its art deco institutions in tact.
Mid-century modernism is the last great American architectural style. People have been quicker to pick up on the benefits of preserving and using these buildings than past generations were to saving turn-of-the-20th century buildings. Both the building-huggers and developers are realizing that post-war Baby Boomer buildings and towns have several layers of worth and are worthy of keeping.
And you know what? The downtown Clayton Business District is an original, authentic mid-century modern city! It even has a very healthy percentage of its original buildings that prove this. If the money-makers in Clayton were to play their cards right, the CDB could become the Palm Springs of the Mid West.
Making money from existing historical building stock is a very real and attainable prospect. It is a compelling thought for Tony Novello while considering what to do with his Lawyer’s Title building. It’s a beloved building that has been allowed to go vacant, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Development is as much about marketing as it is capital expenditures and improvements. Maybe fly a mid-century modern flag up the pole and see who salutes the Mid West Palm Springs idea?
Posted on February 14th, 2012 6 comments
I just received the greatest Valentine in the mail, which begins with “You’re unmatched in my book,” and ends with two vintage matchbooks. One of them is above, for the Great Central Lumber Company in Rock Hill, MO. And look at the building drawing on the right!
The building still stands to this day, and Great Central Lumber remains, now as one of several tenants. I’ve always admired this building, and it seems the original owners did, as well, making the effort to put a line drawing of it on their promotional matches. Can you think of any recent new buildings that are matchbook-worthy? And will matchbooks one day be a thing of the past?
It first went up in 1966, and it’s shocking that it’s survived that stretch of Manchester Road for this long, in such unscathed condition. Because the other Valentine’s matchbook* is for a drive-in that no longer exists in either of its locations.
Tobey’s Drive-In, “Home of the Happy Hamburger” lists 2 locations inside the matchbook cover: 9600 Highway 66 in Crestwood, MO and 9315 Manchester Road in Rock Hill, MO.
The Rock Hill Tobey’s was basically across the street from Great Central Lumber, and since 1999 there has been a god-awful ugly apartment complex on the land where the drive-in once was. The Crestwood Tobey’s was at 9600 Watson, and Plastic Football has the scoop on the building St. Louis County records say is from 1973.
So this building nerd is having a good Valentine’s Day. And Happy Valentine’s to you, too!
* It was manufactured by the Universal Match Corporation, St. Louis, another mid-century modern building that was demolished in 2010. Aside from losing a handsome building, it was also the long-time employer of a relative-by-marriage, who used to give me complete sets of matchbook series he helped produce. I especially remember a choice Bicentennial collection that helped me with my history homework far more than the school books did!
The man who sent the Valentine matchbooks wrote the following after reading this post:
“The building that was Tobey’s still stands. It became Steak n Shake and is now Reid Vann (9331 Manchester). My dad and uncles built it many years ago (1980) and it originally had a zig zag type roof, very similar to the one on the walkway at McGrath Elementary, corner of Litzsinger and St. Clair. When Steak n Shake took over the Rock Hill store they remodeled extensively to fit the corporate image and removed the roof.
When the Rock Hill Tobey’s was built, the Crestwood one already existed. Mr Toberman planned to grow the franchise, but it never went above those two. He told my dad, “I’m going to put McDonald’s out of business.” The Crestwood store did not have the folded roof. “
Posted on October 11th, 2011 4 comments
9974 Old Olive Street Road
St. Louis County, MO
This building went up in 1964 as the headquarters for Theta XI Fraternity. They have since moved to a bigger and somewhat newer building on Craig Road. It has housed many companies over the decades, and is currently vacant, though realtor sites indicate it’s not currently available to purchase, so maybe someone has bought this 4,500 s.f. office building.
I spent the ’70s, ’80s and most of the ’90s deeply disliking this building. I also used to deeply dislike vegetables. But now I get concerned if I don’t have some every day, and I genuinely like them. And I now genuinely like this little building.
I like its compact cubism, which is only interrupted by the entry tail. If you’ve ever walked up to a post-modern office building wondering where the entrance is (and then thought “is that all there is?” once you spotted it), having an architect go out of the way to designate where to enter is a polite and delightful thing to not take for granted.
The repetition of only 4 materials – concrete, glass, metal and stone – gives it a sleek efficiency. But the one thing that makes it swanky is the type of stone. Surely there is a more correct name for it, but I’ve always referred to it as lava rock. And even though I now like this building, I still hate lava rock.
Lava rock was a cladding that became ubiquitous in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Picture 1970s-era Steak & Shakes; large chunks of matte black lava that stuck out from the building so far you could scrape an arm if you passed too close. Still not sure what was being conveyed by the use of lava rock – Rusticity? Neanderthal-ism? Flintstone-ism? Or maybe it wasn’t any message other than some quarries had tons of this rock for dirt cheap, so dig in and save some budget money on materials?
But this building is from 1964, a bit before the lava ubiquity curve, so they embedded the stone to create a flat surface. Overall, it has a giraffe pelt feel about it, and lends some whimsy to an otherwise strict geometric plan. So another reason I now like this building is because it created a loophole in my lava rock hatred. And carrying around a little less hate is always good for the soul.
What buildings had you always hated but now like? Please do share in the comments so we can put a little love in our hearts.
Posted on July 11th, 2011 1 comment
Marshall Ave. near Brentwood Ave.
Webster Groves, MO
How much do you dig this remodel of a 1941 house? From the asymmetrical porch roof leading to a carport to the wrap around window of the front room to the white piping against dark cedar shingles, I love it because it tweaks the standard perception of what a Webster Groves 2-story 4-square should look like.
I’m sure it originally looked much like the house next door. The home on the other side (not pictured) is pretty much the same, but has a front room addition and other re-dos, but still retains enough of “that Webster Groves look” to not draw attention. But our MCM remodel was for sale for a very long time in the early 2000s; it was a little too long during a prime housing market in a prime location, and we assumed it was because of its “oddness.” The people who finally bought it in 2003 have done nothing drastic to it, so they must have loved that atomic oddness, and bully for them.
St. Louis County records show the remodel was done in 1955, which makes total sense. And it’s a testament to the thoughtful work (and maintenance) done that it still looks crisp and fresh. And it’s not so odd that someone did this to their home, because homeowners have always felt the need to update.
In 1961 – six years after the Webster remodel – the Popular Mechanics Home Handyman series (see other MCM-inspired projects here & here) was helping homeowners make their houses “a lot easier to look at” by offering up all kinds of ideas on how to make a 2-story home appear more low-slung (remove those dormers – now!), “keeping in mind that on many old homes the removal of the wide cornice alone will materially change its appearance.” (Click on the pages for a more readable size).
In 1961, they considered a cute little home built in 1921 to be too old, that it “looks rather unpromising as it stands.” So Americans have always thought that homes “from 40 to 60 years ago” are tired or ugly or passe. The main difference between then and now is the American urge to automatically demolish rather than remodel – we’ve become a much more disposable society. And if you can figure out the benefit in that, do chime in.
But these remodeling ideas do underscore how desirable it was after World War 2 to be free of ornamentation, let in more light, be lower to the ground and remove those “ponderous porches.” “The change in appearance not only adds inestimably to the value of the property,” it kept one from enduring the embarrassment of living in a house that just 25 or 30 yeas later would once again become the desired style.
My Mother claims that she’s held onto so many of her dresses and shoes from the 1950s & 60s because they would eventually comeback in style. And there is now a portion of her downstairs closet that looks like the dress rack on the set of Mad Men. Because her Depression-era generation was on the cutting edge of post-war clothing and housing design, they were also not liking the old-fashioned homes of their parents. Zoom ahead to now, and the Baby Boomers that the new mid-century ranch houses were created for don’t like their parents old homes.
This cycle always repeats – a younger generation dislikes the hallmarks of the previous generation while tending to like the hallmarks of their grandparents’ generation. This is why the Baby Boomers fought to preserve the architecture of the turn of the 20th century, while Generation X and younger want to preserve mid-20th century architecture. The cycle always repeats – what can we learn from it?
Well, one key lesson is the carport instantly changes everything! Take another look at the Webster Groves house above – the new attitude is all about the “airiness” of the carport, the wind beneath its wing. And here’s another example of how the carport is the slap in the face that snaps a house out of it!
Lansdowne Ave near the Murdoch Cutoff
This 1929 bungalow went full-on Jetsons with a whole new roofline swooping down into a 2-vehicle carport worthy of a Chuck-A-Burger waitress on rollerskates. Peek around to the side and see they added an angled window frame and…
…they took that commitment all the way around to the back. Then check out the graceful lines leading to the “new” lighting in the front yard (below), and assume that they took this enthusiasm inside as well. I’m dying to see the inside. And because of the consistency of modern detail and broad scope of re-imagining, I’m assuming an architect drew up the plans, because this is way above the badge-level of Home Handyman.
Actually, this is the type of remodel that I’m sure the 1981 edition was helping you be rid of, because the cycle of what’s ugly till it’s not continually repeats. And both of these houses have been blessed with owners who held out long enough for the unhip remodel of the original unhip house to become hip again. Recycle, reuse, rinse and repeat.