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  • Can Northwest Plaza Be Saved?

    Posted on January 23rd, 2010 Toby Weiss 20 comments

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    The news that Macy’s is closing its Northwest Plaza store marks the sound of the footsteps of a dead mall walking.  The fate of both the former Famous-Barr department store and Northwest Plaza makes me ultra sad, and even before this news I was always nostalgic for the Northwest Plaza of old.  It once had energy and personality, then someone decided to put a lid on it.  It’s been a slow suffocation ever since.

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    My deep fondness for the Famous-Barr at Northwest Plaza stems from one exact moment in time, and it radiates out from there forever more.

    November 1978, Olivia Newton-John releases the album Totally Hot.  It was a calculated move to capitalize on her “bad Sandy” from Grease.  The songs were the most rock she’d ever be, and it was matched with a look which was a modern-day continuation of the 1950s black leather look that had ended the movie my friend and I had seen 7 times in the movie theaters that summer.  Some of the songs on this record were more guitar driven, the vocals randy and tough, and to a long-time Livvy fan (Nerd Alert: I belonged to her fan club years before Grease) it was revolutionary.

    Just as important as the music (which still sounds just as great today, thanks to the brilliance of producer John Farrar) was the album cover art work.  I had just turned 13, and had been given the go-ahead to wear make-up to school, and this is exactly how I wanted to look!

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    A Friday night in December 1978, I was dropped off at Northwest Plaza, and I trudged through the snow to get to the very spot shown above: the Estee Lauder counter at this Famous-Barr.  Where else would a newborn teenage girl go to get that smokey-eyed Livvy look?  I stared down through the glass case at all the eye liner pencils, and my heart pounded with excitement at this whole new world of possibility before me.  Then a sales lady asked how she could help, and my head started pounding with fear because I had no clue what to say, what to do.  I was only used to using the products in my Mother’s make-up drawer, not buying my own!

    The sales lady was very kind, and after a swift transaction, I walked away with a fat Estee Lauder eye liner pencil of a deep blue-gray.  It was my first make-up purchase, my first adult thing, and I still remember the smell of the winter air as I walked out of the store, and turning to look back inside at the warm glow of a cosmetics department that had accepted me as one of their own.  Even then, I knew it was a milestone girl-to-woman moment.

    As most teenage girls tend to do at the start, I too often left the house looking like a hussy raccoon.  I abused that pencil something fierce, and still never came close to looking like Lovely Livvy.  I do believe that the stub of that inaugural eye pencil still exists in one of my junk piles, holding onto it because that time resonated so deeply.  And so does the place that it happened at.

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    Which is why I went there today, to take one last look around, take some photos, and see if the Ghosts of Shopping Past still float under that majestic, astro ceiling.  Today was also a gathering of the Facebook groups I Hung Out at the Northwest Plaza Fountain as a Teenager and Let’s Revitalize Northwest Plaza Now! As a person still grieving from the death of Northland Shopping Center, I had to join both groups and then get a look at the people who were foolhardy enough to try and save a dying mall.

    I was there around 1:30, so didn’t get to see what was eventually about 300 people, as reported by NOCO StL.  But Northwest Plaza is so scary dead that seeing the healthy handfuls of people already gathered at the spot where the fountain once lay was heart-warming.

    Putting a roof over this outdoor plaza was a bad idea from the start; back in the day, I don’t recall a single soul agreeing that this was just what the place needed.  But this is what the then-owners felt was necessary to keep up with the Retail Joneses, that shoppers want a hermetically sealed environment more than they want personality and ease of access that comes from open-air malls.  With millions of dollars of renovation, they erased the low-slung, mid-century midwest ease that changed with the seasons for a clinical, soulless, Any Town U.S.A. warehouse.

    I have a sharp, instinctual sense of direction, but once they put the roof over Northwest Plaza, I got lost (as in “will this be an anxiety attack?” lost) every time.  I’d try to use the anchor stores as place reminders of the old layout, but it was all so tall and bland and disconcerting, that I’d get discombobulated.  The jagged contrast between what it used to be and what it had become was so depressing that I haven’t stepped foot in the place for well over 10 years.  It had nothing to do with crime or location or the types of stores within.  It was about being creeped out about walking over the burial grounds of a once-beloved place.  Oh, how I long to see even the blurriest photo of those lighted deers that graced the Plaza at Christmas time… Northwest Plaza exists only in memories. This mall that has its name is just a tombstone.

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    I am so ecstatic to see a passionate group of people wanting to save this place that I can taste it, but there’s also a bitter aftertaste.  There is very little original fiber left to Northwest Plaza, so only a sense of the place we once loved can be revitalized.  Even if future plans do include removing the roof, it still won’t be the Northwest Plaza being honored today, it will just be a new “lifestyle center” hoping to coast off nostalgic momentum.

    Today also poked at the mental scab I have about the demolition of Northland Shopping Center, another beloved North St. Louis County place that could instantly transport you back to the golden days of yesteryear because it was still in its original state.  And because of the era in which it was built, Northland was more architecturally significant than Northwest Plaza.  But back in 2002-2003, when news of Northland’s demise was first reported, there was not yet Facebook groups to make people aware of what was happening and spur them into action. And trust that people feel just as passioantely about Northland as they do Northwest; even all these many years on, I still regularly get e-mails from people sharing their Northland memories after they’ve found my cyber memorial.  The St. Louisan sense of place is very strong, and we should be proud of that.

    But back in the pre-social network year of 2003, it was just me and a couple of other mourners who documented Northland’s last days.  Even then, I knew trying to save it was a losing game;  acceptance and love of mid-century modern architecture was barely stirring, and the idea of trying to save retail is a brand new concept brought about by the deaths of enclosed malls.

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    What was particularly galling was that as the last walls of Northland were being toppled, retail trends were swinging to (or actually, back to) open air plazas.  Wow, and they just killed a great opportunity for a retro open air plaza, which could have been the mack daddy of St. Louis lifestyle shopping destinations.  It was also right around this time that the first rumors of removing the roof swirled around Northwest Plaza.  This double dose of irony was more than I could withstand and I learned to just let go of any efforts or thoughts of preserving retail because it’s just about following the money which is about following the trends, and obviously, no one cares about retail buildings anyway.

    Until now.
    These hundreds of people who signed up cyberally and then, today, showed up in person are stirring hope in my heart.  Are we ready to embrace sense of place, and ready to expect people-friendly and attractive built environments?  Are we realizing how wasteful it is to keep destroying the places of our past for a future with a short shelf life?  Regardless of what becomes of Northwest Plaza, I’m just relieved to hear others joining this conversation, and am so proud of St. Louis for taking this stand.  You guys rock!

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  • Anti-Wrecking Ball Thanks

    Posted on December 12th, 2009 Toby Weiss 2 comments

    The Anti-Wrecking Ball Holiday Kegger was a qualified success.  Success is measured by how many kegs were emptied (2) and how much of our lawyer fees were paid down (most of it!).

    Thank you to every single person who came out to the inaugural event at the Old North St. Louis Community Gallery (gorgeous space in the most optimistic part of town) and for each person who contributed time, talent, booze and money to our adventures in preservation law.

    You can see a goodly number of these lovely people in these event photos.

    And here’s a brief video of the evening.

    And as our adventure continues, you can donate at any time through the Friends of San Luis Pay Pal account.

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  • Touring Nine North

    Posted on November 9th, 2009 Toby Weiss 2 comments

    On November 5th, 2009,  City Affair took a tour of Nine North, the modern new condos on Euclid Avenue in the Central West End.

    Rather than gush on about how much I truly loved the 4 models they graciously opened up for us to romp around in, I’ll share the video. This way, you can decide for yourself.

    Because it was nighttime, I was not able to properly film the exterior aspects of Nine North.  Some of the balcony configurations create sublime spaces that I’m longing to see at different times of day and seasons.  And the way all of the condos face onto a swanky pool/hot tub outdoor courtyard is very Melrose Place, in the best possible way.

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  • 2 More Gasometers Coming Down

    Posted on September 27th, 2009 Toby Weiss 33 comments

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    Interstate 44 near Shrewsbury Exit
    St. Louis, MO

    As reported by the Webster-Kirkwood Times, the two gasometers that mark the boundary between St. Louis City and County are currently being demolished.

    The natural gas storage tanks owned by Laclede Gas were erected in 1925 and 1941, and have been inactive since 1995.  They sit on just under 6-acres of land, which was purchased by a development firm that plans to grade and seed the soon-to-be-vacant property so it looks “nice” while trying to attract a new owner to build on the site.

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    I’d like to know if the property developers even considered selling the property as-is, just in case there’s an entity out there that would like to re-use these iconic and impressive structures for other purposes.   Considering the current commercial real estate market, they may be sitting on this property for a bit, so they have some time play with, and could possibly save themselves demolition fees if a buyer wanted the gasometers to remain.

    Are there other uses for such unusual structures?  Vanishing STL covered the demolition of another gasometer in St. Louis City, and in another post about its history, he shares information about how Vienna, Austria re-purposed four of theirs.

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    Granted, the highway has locked these gasometers into a remote location surrounded by industrial, so that could limit the scope of new use, but limitations are what inspire some of the most compelling ideas.   It’s depressing that, yet again, there is a willful lack of imagination and possibility about high-profile structures that are part of the Greater St. Louis history.  And there is one more opportunity to squander our last remaining gasometer near Goodfellow, in North St. Louis City.

    I wanted to document how most of us experience these twin towers: sturdy yet delicate-looking guide posts along the highway that change size, color and texture with the distance, time of day or weather.  Their absence will matter, and they will be missed.

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  • The South Grand Driving Test

    Posted on September 18th, 2009 Toby Weiss 8 comments

    I usually avoid driving through Grand Boulevard between Arsenal and Chippewa because it’s sluggish and congested.  News of the Great Streets Initiative taking it down to 2 lanes with a center turn lane from Arsenal to Utah caused instinctive cringe and a double-down on “must to avoid.”

    Steve Patterson’s thoughts on the Grand Test made sense; why do it for only 6 blocks?  I only use South Grand south of Chippewa, which is 2 lanes all the way with no center turn lane. Then again, it’s an even mix of residential and commercial, so not the same kind of traffic nightmares as in Grand Loop, proper.

    But what’s the point of conjecture when I could just test drive the test lanes?  And so I did on Thursday afternoon, at 4:30-ish.  I exited Hwy 44 at Grand, headed south towards home, and began filming at 4-lane Magnolia Avenue, ending just past Chippewa Street, where it remains 2-lanes until it ends at Carondelet Park:

    I like it! It took only 3:58 minutes (or 1.5 Beatles tunes) to get from Magnolia to Chippewa during the start of rush hour traffic.  The center turn lane in the heart of the South Grand Loop eliminated the obstacles that stop traffic or have us swinging fast, erratic lane changes to avoid stopping.  Other than the one red light I ran, it was my smoothest and most care-free tool down this stretch that I have ever experienced.

    It was actually rather distracting when it resumed 4-lanes past Utah, especially since I knew the wonky change back to 2 lanes at Chippewa was imminent.  If they’re serious about enacting real change, I want them to commit to 2-lanes all the way from Arsenal to where Grand ends at Carondelet Park.

    I took their survey, which has interesting questions, but sometimes seems manipulative to a forgone conclusion.  And they do not allow for comments like, “commit to 2-lanes all the way from Arsenal to where Grand ends at Carondelet Park.”  But I applaud their effort, look forward to the results, and urge you to experiment with it while it lasts.

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  • Underpass Picnic

    Posted on June 7th, 2009 Toby Weiss No comments

    On a beautiful spring day, the St. Louis Riverfront was crowded with folks renting bicycles, taking helicopter rides, watching a high school bandplay under a tent overlooking the river, and climbing up and down the Arch steps.

    In Downtown St. Louis, a neighborhood loft tour was underway, the restaurants and hotels were hopping and tourists were walking around with cameras.

    These two areas are severely divided by the Interstate 70 overpass, which creates a dark, dirty, noisy and imposing barrier people have to navigate through to get from, say, the Convention Center to Laclede’s Landing.

    In this concrete, steel and pigeon poop void is where Kara and Steve Holland hosted a Picnic Under the Highway. That’s the video above. And you can see photos of the event here.

    Turns out it’s people who make a place vibrant and alive. Huh. Would be nice if this simple concept could become a part of city development and planning. Maybe start with how people would use a space and work out from there. There’s been some official recommendations passed onto the powers-that-be about this very thing.  Let’s hope all the pieces come together to create a win/win for everyone.

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  • American Look 1958

    Posted on January 28th, 2009 Toby Weiss No comments

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    This clip is billed as “The definitive Populuxe film on 1950s automotive, industrial, interior and architectural design.”

    Highlights
    At the 4:05 mark is a setting that looks like every 1960s Elvis Presley movie.
    5:27 – bowling!!
    5:54 begins the parade of residential and public architecture.

    This clip is billed as “The definitive Populuxe film on 1950s automotive, industrial, interior and architectural design.”

    Highlights
    At the 4:05 mark is a setting that looks like every 1960s Elvis Presley movie.
    5:27 – bowling!!
    5:54 begins the parade of residential and public architecture.

    Click to see the clip.

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  • St. Louis County Foreclosure Facts

    Posted on January 10th, 2009 Toby Weiss 1 comment

    Below is a Living St. Louis piece about Pagedale, one of many inner-ring suburbs in St. Louis. Within, we learn that if you follow the subprime loans, you find the most foreclosures.

    Of great interest is the profile average of the typical 2007 subprime/foreclosed home:
    Built in 1954
    1,260 square feet
    Appraised value of $116,000

    Also of great interest is the racial make-up of the municipalities hardest hit by subprime foreclosure (see this interactive map). Circumstantial evidence indicates that redlining is still standard practice in St. Louis. It’s very disturbing and very sad.

    On the inspirational side, the ever-mounting number of empty homes in our inner-ring suburbs is a great opportunity for forward-thinking developers interested in the financial and societal advantage of re-using and improving our existing housing stock. As we hit rock bottom, this idea is not as much of a fantasy as previously believed.

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