When Old Houses Went Mid-Century Modern

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
Shrewsbury, MO

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.

Time Capsule: Lustron Photos & Memories from the 1950s

2529 Louis Avenue
Brentwood, MO

My friend Tim Wahlig (he of the Popular Mechanics Home Handyman encyclopedias) once mentioned that his parents’ first home was a Lustron in Brentwood. I begged to see photos. And now his mother, Pat, has yanked out the old photo album to share with all of us her photos and memories of living in – and remodeling – a Lustron.

The home shown above was built in 1949. It is gray Lustron #1067, according to the Lustron Registry. Pat and her late husband Bob were married in July 1957 and moved into this home over Labor Day Weekend, a month after their wedding.

They bought it for $15,000 from two spinster ladies, one who was an interior decorator, and both of them gardeners who had a prize-winning garden along the driveway. At the time of the sale, Pat and Bob asked if the flowers would remain, and they said “yes.” Come moving day, they noticed that everything had been dug up!

Pat says they “knew absolutely nothing about Lustron” when they saw it, nor were they looking for a house with no basement. But at 1,093 square feet “that house just fit us. The inside storage was good – the closets ran to the ceilings. Being newly married, we hadn’t accumulated anything, and we had no furniture so the built-ins were just perfect.”

Bob Wahlig was a very handy man, and almost immediately he set about personalizing, rearranging and adding to the Lustron. Like the screen-porch he built on the rear.

Bob also pulled out the wrenches and moved some exterior walls to change it from a recessed side entry to a flat front facade with the door facing the street. Pat provided this link, and scroll half way down you will see the original floorplan of their home. She added that the photo under the floorplan drawing is exactly how their home looked before the remodel, and that it “was simple to square off the porch; everything simply screwed together.”

Moving the front door left room on the side for Bob (on the ladder) to build a chimney and add a fireplace inside.

Bob had a bunch of sample bricks in different colors, so made the patterns you see above. The firebox was a Heatlator “that was very efficient as it blew heat right into the room, even without an interior fan.”

The fireplace left them without porcelain panels for the sides and the ceiling, and they looked into getting panels by contacting gas station builders. They were told none were available, but they could be custom made, but the cost was prohibitive, and color matching couldn’t be guaranteed.  Bob wound up using wood panels for the ceiling, and these matched the new panel he would build for the dining room pass-though (more on that in a bit).

Pat & Bob’s first child, Daniel, was born early in 1962. There he is with his Dad in the recliner by the fireplace. With the leftover bricks from the project, Bob built a planter under the living room bay window and put his aquarium in it!

And that fireplace became the focal point for all official family photos, like Dan with his godparents (above) who look fabulous!

Lustrons came with a floor-to-ceiling, built-in buffet that divided the living and dining rooms. Tons of storage and a handy pass-through space. They needed that storage space, but also needed a bigger living room and space to expand their dining room table. So Bob unscrewed the buffet and moved it against the wall of the service and storage area. In it’s place he built the wood panel wall (shown above), which added 22″ to the kitchen, which was enough room to add this small table and chairs.  Also of note is that rather than the customary ceramic tile floor in most Lustron kitchens, theirs was a dark brown asphalt tile.

This wood panel also gave them the rare opportunity to hang something on a wall! With all the built-ins, there wasn’t much space to hang pictures, so Pat didn’t have to confront hanging things with magnets or screwing them into the steel panels.

They absolutely loved living in the Lustron; “It simply worked perfectly for us. Ours was the party house for all our friends.”
And what did their parents think of them moving into a steel house?

“Mom just loved it! Dad did, too.  He enjoyed the first time Bob’s dad, Tony – who was a trim carpenter – came over to see the place. ‘Tony! Just look at this house. No carpenter needed!’ Tony laughed as he’d come in the back door and had his hand on the kitchen counter. He looked down at it, tapped it and said, ‘Well, this must have taken a carpenter!’ ”

Being an all-steel home, did it have special upkeep issues?
“Absolutely none! Every spring I was up on the roof scrubbing it while Bob worked on the awnings. I washed all the walls and ceilings every year, too. I remember the first year that I washed them, they had a yellow film, but the two old ladies didn’t smoke. Bob concluded it was because the furnace had no filter.”

And was it comfortable in the summer and winter?
“The heating system was just AWFUL!!! The furnace was up in the utility room ceiling, behind the Lustron panels, and hot air just blew through the ceiling – no vents! While the concrete floors were freezing, so we carpeted them.”

“Bob did cut a hole in the front bedroom wall, under the window, for an air conditioning unit. Back then it was rare to have A/C.

“A couple years after moving in, we bought a washer and dryer. The utility room had built-in hooks for a clothes line to dry laundry.  But since there was no way to vent the dryer outside, the moist air blew right into the house. My windows seemed dirty all the time! But the humidity didn’t bother us. We were young, so it was all OK.”

They sold the Lustron in early 1963 for around $17,000 to a young couple with two toddlers. “We were really surprised they’d be interested in a two bedroom home. But we were glad they were. It wasn’t an easy house to sell!”

The Louis Avenue Lustron still stands today, but it now looks like this. When I shared this photo with Pat, she replied, “UGH!!! That’s like putting plastic on a brick house!”

Nice to see that Bob Wahlig’s chimney remains, as does the original roof. Pat remembers that some owners after them turned their screen-porch into a proper bedroom that runs the entire width of the back of the house. County records show that the addition brings the total square footage up to 1,489. They also list its style as “Ranch.”  Eye roll.

Ultra big tons of thanks to Pat Wahlig for sharing her photos and memories with me, and to her son Tim for continually reminding her to dig out these photos and bringing them in for me to scan.

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May 7, 2011: Ladue Estates Open House & Tour

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Modern StL is teaming with the Trustees of Ladue Estates to present the first ever Open House and Walking Tour of the first-ever Missouri mid-century modern neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places!

Saturday, page May 7, 2011
10 am – 2 pm
Ladue Estates, Creve Coeur MO 63141
$10 admission – $5 for Modern StL members

Facebook Invite

5 Homes Open To You

#1, 2, 3, 11 and 14 West Ladue Estates Drive are opening their doors.  See an original teal GE metal kitchen.  See how excited we are to be able to share these 5 gorgeous homes with you!

Guided Walking Tour

At 11am, noon and 1 pm, two Ladue Estates residents (Lea Ann Baker – who did the Historic Registry application – and architect David Connally) give a guided tour of the homes on West Ladue Estates Drive.

Self-Guided Walking Tour

The other 2 streets that make up this historic neighborhood are open for you to swoon through. With a paid fee, you will receive a brochure with neighborhood highlights.

Parking

This is a thriving, private neighborhood, so please respect their homes and park only on the East Sides of the 2 streets shown on the map above.

Ticket Table

The tour begins at #2 West Ladue Estates (shown as X on the map above), which is also one of 5 homes open to you. Pay the fee here and begin your journey into an atomic-age wonderland! $10 fee the day of the event – $5 for Modern StL members. Rain or shine.

Read more about this groundbreaking St. Louis mid-century modern neighborhood.

Some Mid-Century Modern Along Watson Road

Watson Road from Elm to Watson Industrial Park
Crestwood, MO

If you head west on Watson Road out to St. Louis County, and cross the Elm/Rock Hill intersection, look to the right for some relatively untouched mid-century goodness tucked in among the ever evolving retail in Crestwood. The building above may not catch the eye while speeding by, but take a closer look at what it reveals.

This building dates from 1961 and was built for Knoll Florist Shop. It’s undulating roof line and concrete walk always reminded me of a clam shell, but upon learning whom it was built for, it becomes clear that it may have been intended to represent the petals of a daisy. And check out how the iron railing follows the curves of the concrete; one of those kinds of details common back in the heady days of the Suburban Boom, and sadly missing now due to design and construction budgets, and the temporary nature of a revolving door of tenants.

Note how they directed customers to the curved, tiered steps, looking like a wedding cake.  This view makes one take in the scalloped roof line and the tiny, multi-aqua ceramic tiles, all intended to create a whimsical environment that puts one in the mood to browse flowers. Maximum (but subdued) glamor for what is, essentially, a cinderblock building. Love it!

Summer 2012 Update

Turns out this building was done by architect Erwin Knoesel & Associates. We learned this while visiting his son, Richard, who still lives in the house designed by his father in the 1930s. His father’s original drawing, above, is one of thousands of architectural documents that he retains.  Another Erwin Knoesel building that you may know is Tropicana Bowling Lanes.

A different floral shop moved out in 2006, and is now inhabited by some type of cash establishment, who has made no exterior changes, so bully for them. Now, take a look at the building in the right background in the photo above.

The back half of this building is a 1960 creation for Bond Cleaners. The steep chevron pattern along the side of the building makes me wonder if it had also originally been along the front, because they wouldn’t typically get this creative on the sides of a building alone when googie architecture was all about catching a motorists eye. Then again, it was next door to a Howard Johnson’s (on the spot where Steak n’ Shake is now), so providing eye candy for sherbert-saturated diners may not have been such a bad idea.

The above photo shows the beginning of construction of a new entry portico in 2006. I refer to this place as The Endless Build, because from this point till the summer of 2009, they went to town on this new section.

Month after month, year after year, they kept adding more plywood, more EFIS, and more goo-gaws. Just when I thought they had to be done, they’d add another layer of bric-a-brac. I have a whole series of progress shots of the gawdy from the spring and summer of 2009. I stopped this only when a man working on it got a tad hostile with me early in the morning, wondering why I was photographing it. He begrudgingly answered my question of what this was going to be: a restaurant. That encounter – and this photo – was from August of 2009. It still looks like this (so at least the embellishment has stopped) and it’s still vacant.
And now back to westward Watson…

Cross Grant Rd (home of the glorious Ridgewood subdivision just over the hill), dip down into the valley, and as you head up the hill toward Crestwood Plaza, you’ll see the 9109 Building. Built in 1965-66, it strives for executive seriousness with a dash of style. And those stainless steel address numbers on the elevator tower make good on the saying “Larger than life is just the right size.”

Original tenants included Bond Men Inc. insurance company, Glennon-Rogers Insurance Agency (why did businesses stop using such a great word as  “agency”?), John Tierny (an insurance agent), and Kummer Construction Co.

Why I find this building beautiful includes: the stark contrast between dark brown brick inside a (bet ya it was originally) white rib cage; how it appears like a giant block with geometric pieces cut out of it to create dynamics and visually call out the different uses of the building, from offices above to retail on the ground floor front. It’s both imposing and welcoming at the same time.

Because it’s built into a hill, there are stairs that run along the west side of the building. Note the minimalist detail of a stair rail that would see minimal use. Details mattered back then. Also note the view to the right.

It’s the Sappington Cemetery, established in 1811, when Crestwood was an agricultural paradise. Then Crestwood grew by 10,000 people between 1950 and 1960, with retail, business and homes rapidly carving up the land around the tiny cemetery. Because it was in a prime location, I can imagine the fights that took place to preserve it. And walking through it is quite an odd sensation, very bucolic despite the location. Keep walking through tombstones rendered unreadable with time and you come to an ungodly tall tie wall…

…with this building below it. One can catch a glimpse of this sleek puppy if you look right down the street Watson Industrial Park while on Watson. The first few times I saw it I thought I was seeing things; how could such a handsome building exist in such a “remote” location? These are the kind of buildings that more typically were put in prominent places so they could show off their post-war prosperity and progressive power.

But in 1960, they erected this building down in the valley, before a creek, for companies that weren’t seeking maximum traffic.  Some of the original occupants  were Peters Marketing Research, Thelma Williamson Mail Service, Lawson Power Products, Rawbach Casket Co. and a rubber goods manufacturer, Fabreeha Products Co. How wonderful it must have been to walk into this hidden jewel of a building 5 days a week.

Unlike the other few buildings in this Park, the current owners have not marred the exterior of the building (though they really need to trim those shrubs that are blocking the ultra cool window treatment), which is amazing in and of itself.

These are just 3 examples of some original atomic age buildings along Watson Road.  Stay alert and you’ll find many more that reveal how excited people once were about having buildings that reflected their burgeoning new society in a positive and artful way.

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What Did It Look Like Before?

Norton Place
Kirkwood, MO

The first story – with its handsome brick work and rounded corner – was built in 1940. The second story was added in 1985, neatly doubling the space of this modest home to almost 1,100 s.f.

What’s unusual about this vinyl siding topper is that it faithfully follows the curve of the building while matching its ground floor fenestration. Meaning, some real thought was put into this 2nd story addition, which is all too often not the case, especially when it comes to round corners.  Here’s an example of what not to do.

Wish that Way Back Machine was invented already so I could cycle back several decades and see what the original roof looked like. Considering the care that was taken with this remodel, wondering if it was much like the new one?

From a 1953 Issue of Better Homes & Gardens to Kirkwood

719 Craigwoods
Kirkwood, MO

Inside the mid-century modern subdivision of Craigwoods (previously covered here) is a home that tends to get overlooked. Compared to some of the flashier beauties around it, this home demurely hides behind a fence of mature trees, vegetation and shadow gray paint. So it may be a bit surprising to learn that…

… it’s Five Star Home No. 2309, “the house you asked for.” Click any of these photos to read the magazine article at a larger size.

The September 1953 issue of Better Homes & Gardens (courtesy of Nathan Wilber) devoted about 13 pages unveiling this model after spending the better part of a year quizzing families about what they wanted in a new home. The findings were worked into a plan by architects Brooks Buderus and Gerald Siegwart, and 40 builders across the country erected the homes as part of the National Home Month. In Kirkwood in 1953, Burton Deunke builders had just begun the Craigwoods subdivision, and added the BHG Five Star Home into the mix.

This home at 719 Craigwoods is 1601 square feet with no basement, just like the original plans. Comparing it to the front view of the version built in California shown in the magazine article, modifications have been made to it over the decades. It looks like they replaced the picture window with much smaller windows, and carried the grey siding from the garage end all across the front. It’s not as exciting to look at from the street as it was when originally built. But while walking past it, it’s easy to see that most of the action goes on beyond this now-sedate front facade.

The floorplan as provided by St. Louis County does not begin to convey just how amazing the layout is. Compare the above with the colorful layout below, and see that all owners have not altered the basic footprint.

Now you begin to see why this plan was picked to fulfill their panels’ wishes for “the simple desire to live better.”  According to the article, one thing all panelists were clear about was that the house should look the way it lives. They also wanted to live on a single level, with one respondent saying she would “not miss running the stairs 20 times a day.”

The U-shaped kitchen (above left) was considered the ideal format for efficiency, and they all agreed that there was no need for a formal dining room because “formal entertaining at home just isn’t done as often as it once was.”  This may be because America was embracing a blend of indoor/outdoor living, and this Five Star Home provided 2 paved outdoor areas tucked into the H-shaped plan.

One respondent requested that these areas be paved because they didn’t want to deal with cutting a lot of lawn. Looking at the existing Kirkwood model, these homeowners really took that to heart, turning the front yard into a sea of ivy. And jolly for them – lawn mowing is the pits because it’s a useless crop requiring harvesting week after week for months on end!

Considering the pedigree of this Craigwood’s home and what lies beyond the front elevation, we’re reminded that one should not judge a book by its cover.

A Kirkwood Teardown Courtesy of Nuns?

328 N. Fillmore
Kirkwood, MO

Here’s the construction site of another new home in Kirkwood. Here’s what it will look like:

Yawn.
Here’s what was torn down:

Those familiar with it always remarked how Harris Armstrong it seemed at first glance. Look a little longer and you realize it’s a modernizing remodel.

The home that is now demolished was from 1917.  Somewhere along the way, it was given the ultra-spare modern update, maybe during the late ’50s-early ’60s when anything with even a whiff of Victorian or Traditional to it was considered gauche.

Also of interest is who sold this house to Lewis Homes. The previous owner is listed as Sister of Mercy of the Union. Check out this link and learn this group disbanded in 1991 to instead become Sisters of Mercy of America. Assumption can be made that if they were still using the old title for real estate transactions (for which they pay no property tax, according to St. Louis County records), they have owned this place since at least 1991.

Good thing the Sisters of Mercy don’t own this beauty:

This is a neighbor across the intersection of N. Fillmore and E. Washington. This home and the demolished one are what added spice to this immediate block, because so many eras of architecture are covered. High variety in a bucolic, high-density setting is invigorating. Regardless of time period built, not a one of these homes are immune to teardowns. There’s been plenty of outrage over some of the victims of this trend, but no real solutions… yet.

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St. Louis Holiday Shopping? Buy Local

Today is Black Friday, the kick-off to the holiday shopping season. As we work on lists of gifts to buy for family and friends, let’s consider the importance of buying local: it keeps much-needed money in our community. This is so crucial, that StL is extending the concept one more day to Small Business Saturday.  But imagine taking this Buy Local concept one step further, and buy something made by an actual St. Louisan – you help them pay the bills that helps them contribute to our community, and you give a highly unique gift that makes, say, the Kindle purchased on-line at Amazon seem lazy by comparison.

I took a look at the walls of my dining and living rooms and realized I have a catalog of just some of the hundreds of options we have for buying local art. I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that I have only St. Louis-made art on my walls. Trust that this was not a conscious decision; I’ve only acquired things that move me deeply, and it just so happens that the people of the city I love also make art that enriches my life every single day.

Take a look at the vignette above in one corner of my dining room. On the right is “Venus de Milo” by Tony Renner. It’s part of his Birth of the Cool series, 12 paintings inspired by the Miles Davis ( a St. Louisan!) album of the same name.

To the left of the painting is a 1958 photograph by the late Orville D. Joyner, “Man standing at bar during office Christmas party.” I got it at a July 2006 exhibit of his decade’s worth of work, and even got it signed by Joyner himself! And to the left of that is a piece by my friend Gina Dill-Thebeau, a gifted interior designer whose endless creativity needs multiple outlets .  It is a miniature study of what became a giant 3-piece triptych.

Sweeping across an entire wall is a photo series by Croatian-born Biljana Erdeg, a.k.a BiBi. Not only is she an evocative portrait photographer, but one of the most artful printers in a darkroom. This series of photos are from a New Year’s Eve 2004 Gypsy celebration we went to. The Romani immigrants are a very closed society, but BiBi had been working on a portrait series with some of them, so was invited to their New Year’s party, and brought along a camera. An entire night of wonderful, musical people made for gorgeous images, and being able to see these memories every day is an endless gift.

Dominic Finocchio is, seriously, one of the most talented men walking the face of this earth. All who have heard his work with The Love Experts knows he is a moving and accomplished musician, and his art is even, possibly, more moving. This painting, “Roman Statuary,” has so many layers of meaning. After decades of longing, Dominic finally made it to the Vatican museum in Rome, and as he stood overwhelmed by beauty in the Antiquities room, he snapped a photo with a crappy disposable camera before a guard stepped up to stop him. That photo became this painting.

And BiBi and Gina appear yet again in my dining room. On the left is a photo from a portrait session BiBi did with me. On the right is an oil pastel by Gina from an abstract series she did about motherhood.

This Marilyn Monroe painting by Demetrie Kabbaz was the culmination of a mysterious and magical relationship with the artist himself. It began with spotting a series of Marilyn (and other icons) paintings in a deserted store front on South Kingshighway (chronicled here), which sparked a friendship (Kabbaz himself hung this painting on my wall!) and a St. Louis magazine article that brought him a tiny portion of the recognition he deserves for his decades of idol worship.

This is the very first painting I bought, in May 2002. I was stunned immobile when spotting it across the large loft space on Washington Avenue where an art exhibit was staged. I couldn’t stop staring at it… it called up deep, seldom-recalled childhood memories that – now recalled – made me feel warm and secure. I guess from spending so much time staring at it, a lady came up to ask. She took me to the artist, William M. Reznick (is this him, now deceased?), an abstract artist and furniture maker.

Turns out the painting is titled “Memory Mark,” like a bookmark for memories. It was his interpretation of lying on his back as a child and staring up through the glass-top dining room table at the chandelier hanging above. It was his personal memory, yet had made me do the very same thing – remember abstracts of the past!

Because he had just finished the painting earlier that day, and because it was his first shot at what he considered realism (so he was a bit nervous about showing it), and my emotionally overwhelmed response to it, he sold me this painting for far less than his other work sold. At the time, it broke my bank to get it, and every day that I see it, I am grateful to have gone without food for a bit to have this in my life.

And this is the power of art, and the magical connection of St. Louis art. This is my argument for buying local St. Louis art this holiday shopping season. If Santa is reading, I’m missing some St. Louis Smiths on my walls… I need a Brian David Smith and a Dana Smith. And we all need to support St. Louis financially and creatively.

If you need a kick start into StL Gift Giving, head over to Cherokee street for STL Style and the St. Louis Curio Shoppe. They can set you up with gifts far more valuable than anything at a mall, and also point you in other StL-centric directions. And may your holidays be merry & bright!

MILESTONE: Mid-Century Modern Subdivision on Missouri’s National Register of Historic Places

Ladue Estates Subdivision
Creve Coeur, MO

For St. Louis fans, connoisseurs and scholars of mid-century modern architecture, know that a milestone moment has happened: Missouri has its very first post-war subdivision on the National Register of Historic Places.

St. Louis County is worrisome for Atomic Ranch lovers because it feels as if they’re being demolished the very moment after they are appreciated for their historical grace. The original post-World War 2 owners who embraced this architectural style and made these neighborhoods possible are leaving behind significant homes that become vulnerable to the tear down developers.  Here’s the tragic tale of an exceptional Ladue home that was demolished for a McMansion.

But in the face of fears that a lack of architectural appreciation and zoning laws will tear down important chapters of St. Louis history comes the first ray of hope: Ladue Estates was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May of 2010. And on October 1, 2010, St. Louis preservation luminaries such as Esley Hamilton and MiMi Stiritz were at the intersection of Ladue Road & West Ladue Estates Drive for the dedication ceremony.

But what makes this particular moment particularly sweet is that it was NOT brought about by architectural scholars, well-meaning activists or public servants. Ladue Estates was granted ground-breaking historic status because its RESIDENTS recognized its beauty and significance, and worked to make it official. And talk with any resident to learn that the hero of this triumphant tale is Lee Ann Baker (above left), while Lee Ann is quick to point out all the help she received over the 3 years it took to complete the National Registration form.

Take a moment to look through the fascinating history of Ladue Estates in this pdf of the winning application.  Note that it is 76 pages long because it extensively covers all 80 homes in the post-war subdivision, as well as the original builder and architect, and the Jewish heritage of 3/4 of the original owners. Then note that there are architectural historian professionals who are paid good money to research and fill out National Register applications for projects  a quarter of this size. Which is what makes Lee Ann’s accomplishment all the more amazing; it was truly a 3-year labor of love for a neighborhood they adore and want to see protected in perpetuity.

For the dedication ceremony, MiMi Stiritz read aloud this letter from the Missouri office of Historic Preservation:

…(Ladue Estates) represents a collection of high-style ranch houses that are nearly pristine in their historic appearance and setting. As one of the first luxury subdivisions in the area, it additionally reflects St. Louis County’s westward growth into what was primarily rural land. Its wide lots, expansive lawns, attached garages and sprawling floor plans epitomized the suburban dream of the post-war years.  In fact, Ladue Estates is such a good illustration of the suburban boom, it has been used as an example by staff of the National Parks Services National Register of Historic Places program in training classes.

The significance of Ladue Estates for its architecture and role in the development of Creve Coeur is easily apparent. What is not as obvious is its significance for cultural heritage. Over ¾ of the original owners were Jewish. At the time of Ladue Estate’s construction, there were still prejudices that resulted in restrictions as to where members of the Jewish community could re-locate. Built by Ben Goldberg, the Jewish owner of Goldberg & Co., Ladue Estates proved to be a welcome location for Jewish families who wanted a piece of the suburban life.

Shortly after the Ladue Estates development, the surrounding area became the home of several Jewish establishments including synagogues, educational facilities, and social and community services. While it would have been easy to nominate Ladue Estates for architecture and community planning alone, the citizens of Ladue Estates went the extra mile to bring this valuable information to life.

Finally, the state historic preservation office applauds the efforts of the citizens of Ladue Estates. They nominated this district through their own time and dedication. Their pride in their subdivision is evident and serves as a shining example of historic preservation efforts on the local level.

Being invited to such a milestone moment in mid-century modern preservation was an honor. Even better, it was an absolute joy to meet, tour the homes of and talk with residents of this enclave. They are a friendly, vibrant and industrious group of people dedicated to the care and maintenance of a subdivision they recognized as special long before retro-modern became fashionable. For them, it’s about the quality of life from an abundance of natural light and green space, accessible single-level floor plans and Old World craftsmanship that makes these homes as solid as they are beautiful.

Their conversations about 12-foot thick concrete foundations, window replacement, seamless room additions and architecturally compatible updates on their 54-year old homes have the same intensity of detail and passion as those working on their 102-year old home. And their glee in being able to show us one of the few remaining original ktichens was almost as great as our awe upon seeing this:

An entire kitchen of original GE metal cabinets in teal blue (the other original color choices were pink and pastel yellow)! In the picture above, you see the open door of one of TWO refrigerators, with the freezer to the right. And TWO wall ovens. AND they all still WORK!

To see more photos of this kitchen, other homes in Ladue Estates and the Dedication Ceremony, visit this Flickr photo page.

Learn more about this historical milestone neighborhood at the Ladue Estates Subdivision website.

And I want to express my deepest gratitude to Lee Ann Baker and every person who helped her undertake and complete such a gargantuan effort. The residents of Ladue Estates epitomize the intent of this very blog: the built environment in layman’s terms with special emphasis on the beauty and quality of mid-century modern architecture. So, they are my personal heroes, and as groups like Modern StL move forward with the preservation and celebration of St. Louis Modernism, we look to Lee Ann & Friends as a glorious example of worthwhile dedication and eternal inspiration. Thank you!!!!

Mid-Century Modern Subdivision Crestwood Hills

Crestwood Hills Subdivision
Crestwood, MO

On Watson Road at Sturdy Dr. – between Sappington and Lindbergh – is this crazy pair of mirrored buildings (Dental Centers North & South) from 1974. They’re festooned with every 1960s commercial architecture trick – even lava rocks! – as if they picked up all the litter after the mid-century party was over and fashioned it into a house dress. One day I got curious about the neighborhood behind these wacky buildings, so headed down Sturdy Drive and landed in a small subdivision dotted with houses like the one above.

Crestwood Hills lays out in, roughly, the shape of a pitchfork, with the spikes ending at East Watson Rd (aka, Hwy 66), encompassing only 6 short streets. County property records show that all of them were built between 1955 – 1957, but the wide and unending variety of styles gives it the look of unfolding over a longer period of time.

It’s apparent that a goodly number of the homes still house the people who originally bought them in the mid-50s. Then there’s an encouraging handful of homes (like the one above) that have been bought in the last few years by younger generations who know what they have, were happy to get it for under $175,000 in desirable Crestwood, and are lovingly reviving its mid-century modern ranch beauty.

Drive through this neighborhood and you’ll get whiplash from trying to take in all the different types of homes. So it’s better for your neck if you walk it, but there are no sidewalks. That’s one hallmark of a classic mid-century suburban neighborhood – they more often than not did away with sidewalks. Was that a budgetary decision? Or was the love affair with how the automobile could transform every fiber of daily life raging so hard that they imagined no one would need never walk again?

But I do love how the automobile figured into the layout of these homes. Even a fairly typical traditional ranch home like this got the carport. And it’s not just a place to park the car, but also sports a utility shed under the sloping roof and a flower planter, with both anchoring the open end of the house. I also love how this carport lends transparency, as you’re able to peer straight into the backyard.

And in the spirit of no two Crestwood Hills houses being exactly the same, the developers used the same basic floor plan for this home, but changed out several details and finishes to make it wholly unique. I’m guessing that screening in the carport was a later remodel by the owners, which is cool. Several of the homes have turned the carport into a garage, which is a standard renovation. But it’s astounding how many of the original carports remain in tact.

And we pause from all this atomic age fabulosity for the Smith Sturdy Cemetery. On East Watson, between  Gayle Avenue and Fox Park Drive, this tiny little burial ground with, maybe, 50 tombstones, just pops out of nowhere. It’s both disconcerting and intriguing, and because I can find no solid background information, it remains a mystery.

There’s a sub-species of homes in this neighborhood that fascinate me because they have no traditional front door. The designers and/or developers just dispensed with such a quaint notion, and planted a chimney where a front door should be.

And here’s another example of how the main entrance to the home is under the carport. Which underscores the new informality that was middle America in the middle of the 20th century; it was perfectly OK for your guests to squeeze between the cars and the house to knock on the door. Think about how many times you’ve been to someone’s house where they leave the overhead garage door open so you can come through the door that leads into the kitchen, rather than the formal front door. Well, with a house like this, you don’t even have to go through the trouble of opening a garage door and exposing all your junk to the world. It just is!

And because of this odd entrance situation, this may be why so many of the homes similar to this one leave the carport intact, because how else would you get in without going into the backyard?

This home highlights what happens if you decide to mess with the basic floorplan and close up that carport. Follow the fascia line to the right of the chimney and you can tell they added on this covered porch around a new front (well, side entrance, actually) entrance. But the driveway still leads up to what was the carport… so how do they get into their house when they get out of the car?

Every other house in Crestwood Hills is a fairly standard sturdy brick ranch home, which was rather clever of the developers; might as well appeal to the traditional as well as the pioneering and recoup the building money as quickly as possible.  But even with a ranch as traditional as this one, above, they throw in a few modern details that lets it blend nicely with the more adventurous homes around it.

Crestwood was once a boom town, increasing its population from 1,645 to more than 11,000 people between 1950 and 1960. They couldn’t build ’em faster than the folks were moving in, but they tried. This neighborhood went up in 2 years, and I admire the richness of variety and detail that went into such a hasty project.

Of interest is that the more traditional homes tend to have basements (above), while the decidedly modern homes are slab on grade. Though sometimes an unassuming brick and vinyl will also be slab on grade. What made them decide to change it up like that? This makes me think they’re may have been more than one developer/builder mining this neighborhood.  If anyone has any background information on Crestwood Hills, please please fill us in!

Remember the house above that walled in its carport and created a porch on the other side? This is what it most likely looked like before the extensive remodel. And I love how they created a semi-circular drive in the front lawn, an ingenious way to get more cars onto the property while also adding a nice new bit of geometry to the overall look.

Look at the generous screened porch on this one! And how the semi-open porch and the completely open car port are embraced by the sweeping roofline. This 1957 home is 1,344 square feet, but it looks so much larger because of the fine balance of indoors and out.

The square footage of all these homes range from roughly 1,200 to 1,500. Back then, for a family moving from the city, it was a step up in elbow room. Somewhere in the 80s and 90s, it was considered too small. But a little over 50 years later, living in under 2,000 s.f. makes all kinds of sense if you want to pay your utility bills and eat. We’re struggling through a Great Recession, but I call it The Great Reset; we were living too large on money we didn’t really have, but the meter’s been reset and, out of necessity, we’re cycling back down into a more modest and humane way of living. And that’s why homes like these – when they’ve managed to survive unscathed by teardowns – become a great asset: we can afford to live in them and they’re beautiful and well-built. Try getting all 3 things like that in a just-add-water cul-de-sac village in the exurbs!

At 1,924 s.f., this appears to be the largest home in Crestwood Hills, and also the most dramatically modern.  Look at those Neutra-esque bent columns holding up the carport! So cool that it (almost) distracts one from the hideous shutters someone slapped onto the home in later years.

The homes in this neighborhood remain so basically intact 50+ years on that it melts my heart. How did they mange this? Is it because of the wide range of styles? Or that it remained such a stable neighborhood for so many decades? I really need to know! So, again, if any of you grew up in this neighborhood or know anything about it, please share some details.