Must See: Birth of the Cool

Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design & Culture at Midcentury
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Washington University Campus until January 5, 2009
Birth of the Cool is an absolutely amazing exhibit about the heart of MCM. For fans and connoisseurs of the style, it is longings come to life, iconic images in books and magazines standing before you more breathtaking than imagined.

For the unknowing, it is a concise and compelling text book. For the unconvinced, it is casual persuasion of respect for the style. In keeping with the economy of shape and form that is MCM, the exhibit is not an overload of things but rather an economical gathering of precise items for maximum impact.

Within 6 galleries, music, design, art, culture, housing, furniture and politics mingle to create understanding of why the style evolved and why it endures as a romantic American ideal. I could gush on for paragraphs about the contents (like the above chair display, in the only photograph I took before being told to stop), but I’ll spare you the frenzied adjectives and cut right to the most extraordinary part.

Julius Shulman is a photographic god who still walks and shoots on this earth. Birth of the Cool has a heaping tablespoon of his black & white and color prints. The only reason this is not the personal highlight is because I have had the humble privilege of seeing most of these prints at exhibits in St. Louis and Palm Springs, California. But in the spirit of “it’s not what you got but how you use it”…

One gallery is all about Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22. In the middle of the room, encased in glass is a wooden architectural model of the home (gasp). Along the walls are Shulman’s omnipotent photos of such, images I’ve seen countless times. But when they are gathered in one place and put in context with a 3D replica, the effect is the most awe-inspiring feeling to have short of being invited into the actual house. The curator achieves maximum impact with a minimum of objects, exemplifying the aesthetic with two architectural artists who embodied it.

The ultimate moment of this exhibit will come on November 22nd, 2008 with a screening of the new documentary Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. Watching the trailer gets me misty eyed, so I’ll save this topic for a date closer to the event. But do mark it on your calendar.

From an interest level of passing curiosity through to full blown fanatic, Birth of the Cool is a must-see. The gallery is easily accessible (location and time-wise), and it is free. There are no excuses, only priceless results.

Updates: South Side St. Louis in bloom

Labor Day weekend – the psychological and emotional end of summer – is here, and the flower gardens are brown around the edges after working so hard for us this season. We’re stretching towards fall, but there’s still a few new blooms left.

About a year ago, I was worried about the building above going into board-up window phase, and today it’s occupied. A vehicle repair shop moves right in, repairs the damaged windows and leaves everything else as is. Good deal.

It was a long, leisurely project, but the above house is now done and ready for an owner.
For a progress report see it in March 2007.
And in July 2007.
The wrap-around porch makes sense of what once confused me about the addition. So many oddities at play on one building… an urban shack’s take on Webster Groves, maybe? I dig the personality it adds to the neighborhood and just so glad to finally see it done.

Overland MCM Buried in EIFS

Woodson Road & Ridge Avenue
Overland, MO
Next door to the venerable Woofie’s hot dog stand was a pale reminder of former MCM fabulousness. But after a recent remodel, it now looks like an elongated KFC.

I covered this building as part of a previous post on Overland mid-century modern (scroll down to the 60% mark), wherein I wished it could get a good scrubbing and some repair TLC. Instead, I feared it would eventually just get torn down.

I drove by about a month ago and saw the beginnings of some construction work, and hoped for the best but expected the worst. And sure enough, its Low Rent Palm Springs aspirations have been covered over with tan and bland EIFS.

Aside from the application errors of EIFS, I’m going to make a safe guess that they did not correct any of the water and decay damage before covering it up. Just like they cover up old dirty brick in need of tuckpointing with vinyl siding on the rationale that “what you don’t see can’t hurt you,” it only masks the damage that continues under the new facade.

U.S. Band & Orchestra spent some good money on this renovation, so I hope it was done properly, for investment sake. But they covered up a lot of windows and that new entrance bit is just plain awful, and a big company sign would help with that dull expanse of boredom. One compliment: the warehouse portion still retains most of its original material and actually looks better defined with two tones.

Look, I understand that these improvements are a favorable thing for the company and the immediate area. I also understand that slapping on EIFS and some replacement windows is more cost effective then rehabbing a light manufacturing building that only I thought was cool. Status quo rules for a reason, and the new facade is considered “pleasing” by retail big box standards. But I miss its raggedy ass, and with each drive by, I will ponder all that tiny blue and gray tile forever preserved under synthetic stucco, and smile.

Remembering Famous-Barr

Inside the September issue of Vanity Fair (whose cover asks “Carla Bruni: The New Jackie O?” to the sound of a million eyes rolling) is a special advertising section called St. Louis Luxury Living. Within this section is an ad for Ivey-Selkirk Auctioneers, featuring the photo shown above.

Gorgeous photo (wish there was a photo credit) of a gorgeous building that started life as the first Famous-Barr in St. Louis County, from 1948 to 1991. It’s heartening to see a good building continually appreciated by being continually occupied and loved by its occupants.

I worked in the downtown Famous-Barr advertising department from 1988 to 2001. The building and its history always enchanted me, from grade-school adventures to see the Christmas windows to my tenure inside as an employee. Famous-Barr sold to Macy’s and then Macy’s shut down the advertising department (along with the headquarters a few floors up), with the last advertising troopers turning off the lights as they left at the beginning of July 2008.

It saddens me to think of that advertising department – which was there since the 1920s – gone for good. But at least the building is still there.

This week, the Suburban Journals ran a piece recounting the day the Southtown Famous-Barr opened in 1951. Jim Merkel’s “This Week in South Side History” is a regular feature, and he deserves a large round of applause for his consistent coverage of the South Side built environment.

The only thing missing from the article is photos of the Southtown Famous. So I dug out some photos I took on Christmas Day 1994, during the demolition of the building (shown above and below). That massive lot sat vacant for so long that I lost sense memory of the building, but the photos brought it all back. It really gave the Kingshighway/Chippewa intersection a “here’s where it’s all happening” feeling one only experiences in densely packed and deeply loved urban neighborhoods.

One interesting thing in the Journal article is the sickening sense of deja vu.

“I believe this beautiful structure signifies the confidence held by business leaders throughout the nation in the people of St. Louis. Here we have an outstanding example of the company’s recognition of the economic possibilities to be developed in St. Louis.”
– Mayor Joseph Darst

These quotes are from 1951, a year after a peak population of 856,796 in St. Louis City. Yet it still reeks of the exact same low-self esteem statements made by our current Mayor & Co. to this very day. Meaning, even when this city was top of the heap it felt bottom of the barrel?

From where and why does this city have such chronic low self-esteem issues? It works like negative manifesting and is, frankly, unattractive and undeserved. Is there a clandestine and long-standing political plan to keep this city in a meek and groveling state of mind? Is it a certain generational mindset passed on down? Is it an unforeseen backfiring of St. Louis humility and gentility?

If anyone has any plausible theories on St. Louis Self Esteem origins, I’d love to hear them.

The Coca-Cola Syrup Plant

Michigan & Davis intersection, Carondelet Neighborhood
South St. Louis, MO
They applied for a National Register listing for this industrial complex, and it was added to the list in April 2008. Two months later, plans were announced to convert the former Coca-Cola syrup plant into 78 apartments and commercial space. Bravo!

As arresting and evocative as the 1920’s portion of the plant is, I also love the down-scale, no-nonsense metal sheeting updates on the north side of the complex. This portion appears to belong to International Foods’ Dairy House, so naturally, it still requires high fructose and oil receiving receptacles. Note the “rust” stains down the left side of the left-hand depository, and think about what that stuff does to your innards.

If this portion of the complex is indeed part of the renovation plans, I look forward to seeing what’s under all the metal, though I will miss its minimalist cubism glory as reflected on a perfect summer morning.

StL Hills Remodel: The Retirement Center


6543 Chippewa
St. Louis, MO
The St. Louis Hills Retirement Center got new owners last year and is now deep into the projected $5.5 million renovation (story here). An addition goes up on the east side (looks like the size of an elevator) while they replace all the windows, floor by floor.

This is one of several mid-century buildings in the immediate Chippewa/Watson section of St. Louis Hills; the St. Louis Hills Office Center is a close pal. Built in 1964, the former retirement center is only 6 years younger than the office center.

I am thrilled by the emerging new face. It’s one of those buildings that never offended nor commanded my attention. But now that the owner’s have applied some sharp aesthetic thought to the revamp, I think it looks as cool and lovely as Jean Shrimpton.


The black window frames with green tinted glass (so Lever House, don’t you think?) provides the backbone of contrast for the white concrete window wells and dark brown brick verticals to properly pop. I’d love to see them erect a more appropriate front entrance canopy, maybe taking a cue from the back balcony of the fabulous house right behind this building, to the east (Rob Powers photo). But it is a senior living community, so hip is probably not the goal, though those replacement windows belie otherwise.

A slightly younger building of the same vintage being remodeled nearby should be good news for the St. Louis Hills Office Center, still standing in a truncated state, awaiting its own revamp. But there’s motion from 3 sides that communications have wilted and that St. Louis Hills residents may have soured on any renovation for the entire plot of land surrounding the Office Center.

Can we safely assume the Retirement Center renovation was approved because it’s a smart idea? As one of the co-owners said in a press release: “We are excited to be part of the history and re-investment in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.” To outsiders, exploring something similar for the Office Center seems plausible, yet there’s another snag. So, Provision Living setting a nearby example of appropriate remodeling (remember, the greenest building is the one already built) is the stylish poster child for possibility, and underscores St. Louis Hills’ mid-century heritage, which is something to be proud of.

South City Remodel & Reuse

7800 Morgan Ford, South St Louis, MO
It’s been fun to watch a perfectly good building in a prime location prepare for its newest incarnation. The building has been internally split in two, with Dollar Tree in front and Dependable Construction in back.

This building at the intersection of Morgan Ford and River Des Peres started life in 1954 as a National supermarket. Then a Goodwill retail outlet took over the space for many years. Earlier this year they moved into Affton proper, leaving this building vacant. There were some worries as to what would become of it, but it was useless fretting. The lot was bought rather quickly and the renovations are well done and eye-catching without being gaudy.

This summer’s morning commute has been about watching the remodeling progress, with lots of quick, crappy shots taken from a cell phone at a god-awful early hour of the day. It was a tad unsettling when they started painting the blonde brick, and the new owners have done a bit of back and forth finalizing the multi-color bands of paint, but now that it’s done, I like it. Especially the ascending colors on the vertical tower.

The Dollar Tree signage is now up, and it looks good, too. It’s a nice remodel with a little scootch of fun thrown in. But the best part of this story is how a good building in a great location can continually attract many different owners without the aid of TIF or other City Hall incentives. Buildings do not have to be knocked down and neighborhoods disrupted to keep our city’s tax base cooking; a simple remodel will do. It’s just refreshing to see city real estate and commerce move effortlessly and logically through marketplace dictates without a lot of bureaucratic bungling. It helps to keep one optimistic about our progress and future.

B.E.L.T. gets an Honorary College Degree

The other morning, generic I was greeted with an e-mail about this blog placing on the 50 Must Read Blogs and Resources for Architecture Majors. They ranked me at #28.

Last year, ailment I made a global list of Architecture blogs, ampoule and that was cool, especially since I found out on my birthday. But this one gives me a bigger kick for 2 reasons.

1. I lost steam on obtaining my Architectural Technology degree, so this is a cyber-casual version of one of those celebrity honorary doctorates. Now Engelbert Humperdinck and I kind of have something in common.

2. I hear from a lot of college students asking to use my photos or information for term papers. I always help when I can because it’s the younger generation’s understanding of mid-century modern architecture that will preserve it. So, this feels like a collective “thank you” from all the students who tore pages out of my text book, so to speak.

Your Very Own Alexander Home

Would you like to live in a newly-constructed version of this home? A butterfly house by architects William Krisel and Dan Palmer?

Well, you can!

Maxx Livingstone are building brand new versions of these homes from the original Krisel & Palmer plans, as executed by Alexander Construction, which gave these quintessential Palm Springs homes their name. Krisel – now 83 – worked with the developers, making modifications to the original designs so they better serve 21st century needs.

So far, 4 have been finished in Palm Springs. But the developers are flexible. They’ll work up a version to fit your lot in St. Louis. They even created a pre-fab version.

Best of all for the land and your energy bills, they are retaining the original 1,625 s.f. floor plan. I love that they’ve resurrected a proven mid-century modern design, and that the people who buy into this will also buy into living responsibly in high style. It’s a small step toward breaking the outrageous square footage addiction; like hiding the horse pill in a spoonful of peanut butter, so to speak.

Gravois Store Front Addition

5613 Gravois, near Bates
South St. Louis, MO
In the category of storefront additions, this one is my favorite in both aesthetics and neatness. It’s also a queer building in that not only did they add the compact MCM to the front, but tacked on two additions to the back.

City records are real confused about this site, maybe because there’s so much going on. Yet nothing happens at all, except meticulous upkeep of the appendages to the main building. The 2-family flat easily fits into the time period of the buildings directly around it: 1900 – 1920.

The storefront addition popped up in 1958 and has a distinct beauty shop feel to it. City directories confirm that hunch; Boris Beauty Salon worked the spot until the late 1980s, when Juls Gifts and Flowers took over. Since becoming aware of it in the mid-1990s, I have never seen it open and active, only well-groomed and resting.

I’m intrigued by how it’s attached to the 2-family flat; all the stair stepping, window insertions and roofing options. The hand of an architect is apparent because everything is so precise, which makes this addition a rarity in the category. Part of the charm of the others is the ramshackle vibe, while Boris Beauty is in a class of its own.