Everyone Loves the Granite City Steel Building Except Granite City

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Granite City Steel Building
State & 20th Streets, Granite City, IL

Head to the very heart of downtown Granite City, Illinois and you can’t miss this building. It’s impressive in its scale, massing, coloring and dominance in the downtown landscape.

I refer to it as The Arch of Granite City, in that it’s loaded with stainless steel, and because it’s the tallest object downtown, it’s always within eyesight and easy to get your directional bearings based on where you are in conjunction to it.  Going back to the stainless steel,  the main entrance on State Street is a riot of burnished silver metal, bordering on over-the-top.

Actually, the whole building flirts madly with kitsch, from the vibrant turquoise metal panels that define one wing and accent another…

…to the geometric grid overload of the window frames along the 20th Street side (they even tart up the promenade ceiling with the random grid pattern).  It gives one the feeling of walking through a monochromatic Mondrian painting, yet it’s never chaotic, just busy like a young middle-level executive eagerly working his way toward upper management.

Though we made need to rethink the “chaotic” part with the discovery of the original color of these metal panels. As we work our clockwise around the building, you will see these vibrant orange metal panels still intact elsewhere. But it is flabbergasting to realize the original designers of this building went for the unabashed, ultimate 1950s color combo of orange and turquoise writ large, and it’s even more astounding that an ultra-macho industry like steel said yes to the concept! It also makes sense that once the Earth Tone 1970s came along, they felt the need to tamp down the Howard Johnson’s exuberance, and I do admire the color choice they made.

Here’s the money shot for everyone who takes a picture of the Granite City Steel Building, and that’s because it’s irresistibly cool. Even people who are not fans of mid-century modern architecture instinctively understand the geometric allure of this view. All the themes of the building meet at the blond brick tower that uses its lone wolf status as an opportunity to interject another rectangular grid as a vertical bas relief.

Do a quick search on Google or Flickr and you’ll see this view several times. Actually, you’ll find a fair amount of photos of this wonderful building because it fascinates St. Louisans. But try to find any information about it – either historically or currently – and it feels like Granite City doesn’t remember that it exists.

When someone like Rob Powers of Built St. Louis (who has the first and definitive overview of the building) can’t find the build date on this building, something’s really off. Granite City has a good website, with a great timeline of the evolution of their city, and of course the Granite City Steel mill is a major plot point, but nary a mention of the huge-ass, vibrantly colored corporate headquarters it built in the heart of downtown. You do see a small glimpse of it on Slide 2 of a July 2006 “Rediscover Downtown” presentation (click the “Downtown Redevelopment Presentation” link at the very bottom of this web page), but even as they talk of turning the part of downtown where it resides into an Arts & Entertainment district, no mention of a building that was surely a big deal on every imaginable level when it was originally built.

(UPDATE: And here comes Michael Allen to the rescue yet again! The building is from 1958 by Sverdrup & Parcel!)

My guess is that the building dates to 1957. From the choice of materials, bold color combination, simple horizontals crashing into soaring verticals, and designed with the car in mind, it is most definitely a late 1950s concoction. Take a look at a Rob Powers photo of the lobby and try to debate otherwise. By the time the 1960s were underway, architectural design became more about unique massing and creating shapes with natural, sedate materials, whereas the 1950s was just giddy with joy. And even though this building does a good job of conveying strength and masculinity, it is also sexually secure enough to revel in some flaming fruitiness in the heart of an old, work-a-day manufacturing town.

I’m also going with 1957 based on the large expansion of the Granite City Steel mill in 1951, which brought more jobs and more citizens, respectively, thus requiring a large corporate office. Plus, the auto parts manufacturer A.O. Smith opened a new plant nearby in 1954, so there was plenty of positive, economic activity to make the expenditure to build a flashy show pony for Granite City Steel a safe bet.

Facing Edison Street is the main entrance to what has always been a bank (until now because it’s vacant). Here you see the untouched bright orange metal panels above the doors.

Because United States Steel bought the place in the early 20s (and renamed it Granite City Works), the rest of the building is still very much occupied. And they have done a fairly good job of keeping it in good condition (save for allowing deterioration on the bank wing). There are no signs of obvious remuddling, and if any building would have earned the wrath of a good ‘ole 1980s make-down, it would have been this place. So, for over 50 years, this building has survived intact because someone made sure that it did.

While large swaths of Granite City have been torn down or run down since its 1970s population peak, this building remains standing and occupied. As Granite City works on reviving their downtown with TIF districts, streetscape beautification, and even a brand-spanking new 3-screen movie theater nearby, this building casts its Atomic Googitude all over the revival.

Yet the city does not acknowledge it in any way that can be found by hours of internet searching. While it was still relatively new, they touted it in their 150 Year Celebration, but today it’s the 100 Ton Turquoise Elephant in the room?

This may well be a classic case of older generations not appreciating something they watched going up in their lifetime, that it has not yet earned historical merit because it’s still considered “new.” Also, the building is not in danger because it’s still serving its original functions, which is heartening. But it’s still curious as to how something so large, so tall, so beautiful, so dramatic and so productive can be so fully ignored by the fine folks of Granite City.

Mid-century modern architecture enthusiasts in St. Louis consider this a destination building, something to be celebrated and admired, especially since all the owners of the building have worked so hard to preserve its mid-century essence. Here’s hoping that Granite City will eventually start throwing some love and pride its way.

14 thoughts on “Everyone Loves the Granite City Steel Building Except Granite City

  1. Spent many hours working in the building starting in 1970 ending in 1979. First floor of the GCS part was just the lobby for the GCS offices. The 2nd floor was the sales departments and puchasing departments. The entire 3rd floor was the accounting department. The fourth floor was the cafeteria and executive dining room. (Good food)! The fifth floor housed only 7 or 8 top level executives, their secretaries and the Board room. It was a very pleasant working environment with all the natural light through the windows. The venturi effect of the wind blowing under the building in the winter was astounding when you first came out of the doors. Many of us would go down the street to Petri’s Cafe just to get a little exercise. Also Good Food.
    For me the outstanding feature of the building was the people who worked there. Just a wonderful group of skilled, dedicated individuals many of whom eventually rose to the top of National Steel after it bought Granite in 1971. In fact, Ron Doerr, the eventual President of National Steel worked in that building for years before being promoted to the Pittsburgh headquarter.

  2. The bank building could be a real asset in rebuilding downtown. The old bank lobby would make a wonderful venue for parties such as birthdays anniversaries rotary and any other special occasion . Plenty of parking large open area for tables possible dance floor. There is a balcony over the state street doors perfect for band or DJ. . The teller cages would make perfect bars. Why not put a little money into it spruce it up. And let it be a draw to the downtown area. Would be a cool place to stage a special event.

  3. I read your post with great interest. I was a Senior Banking Officer for First Granite City National Bank until my retirement in 1993. To add to your history, I thought I would let you know that we moved into bank building as original tenants on February 22, 1960. This was Washington’s Birthday in 1960. You may ask how I remember the date of 022260, we used it as the combination of the bank vaults.

  4. I noticed a mistake while reading your article.
    You stated that United States Steel bought the the plant in the early 20’s and named it the Granite City works. Untrue…….U.S. Steel bought the plant in June of 2002. It was owned by National Steel Prior to that.

    Garland Horn

  5. what great omments about such a cool building. personally it makes me want to pull up in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible push out my drunk and pregnant wife or 14 yo boyfriend (either one needs to be passed out on a combo of liquor and diet pills mind you) and skip town for greener pastures and always remember this building’s profile shrinking in the rearview mirror.

    I dunno, too Godard?

  6. I was born in Granite City and lived there until I was four. My father was an open-hearth man at Granite City Steel. He was in an accident from the open-hearth and badly burned, including his face but recovered without scarring. He had on all of his safety equipment which melted. They took good care of him and his burns. I remember him wearing a gel that protected the raw skin on his face while it healed. They put his safety equipment on display as a warning to others to wear theirs. They couldn’t believe that he survived the incident as well as he did. They thought it should have killed him. It was a dangerous job to have.

    This has nothing to do with the building but I was researching Granite City Steel and other Steel Co. there when I ran across the picture of this building.

  7. I live a couple blocks away and I see it from my windows, especially my attic window. I have one of if not the tallest home in downtown GC. It is a wonderful building and I was pleased to see them renovating the State St side recently. I am not originally from GC, but my wife is form here. The one thing I have noticed is folks take things for granted, such as this building, if they have lived in an area for a long time. The downtown area is attempting a revival and hopefully this building will be one of the things people notice along with the new theater and other projects in the works.

  8. Just ran into this post from another blog. Having grown up in Granite City in the 1960s and 70s, I guess some folks in Granite may take it for granted (pun not intended) because it’s always been there. At least that’s what I would think.

    The bank that used to operate on Edison Street was First Granite City National Bank when I was a kid. Had my first bank account there, in fact. First GC then got bought out by Magna Bank (now Regions Bank) and operated there until sometime in the 90s, IIRC.

    There are a lot of places that I remember growing up in Granite that aren’t there now – Emerson School, the Washington Theater, Woolworth’s downtown, the Leader Department Store, City Theater (later City Temple and then the Star Dollar Theater) downtown, P.N. Hirsch, Reese’s Drug Store, the old Granite City Press-Record building (now an athletic training center), Granite City Savings and Loan, Tri-City Grocery and the list goes on. Sad to see, believe me.

  9. toby, great post. Have you ever checked out the Kimberly building in Brentwood? I would be interested to see a study of that one.

  10. Wow, dalle de verre windows. An art glass form that’s not nearly as popular as stained glass and not widely practiced (any more.) Those are thick chunks of glass that are chiseled into shape, then set in a resin mixture. I’ve never seen dalle de verre in a business building, but I might be living a sheltered life. There are usually great examples in churches. Rob Powers links to a fantastic example of the medium in a church.

  11. Gorgeous building. Obviously a showcase for US Steels’ products: the stainless steel, of course, but all of the spandrel panels are all of steel, enameled would be my guess. Whether or not the Granite City works did rolled steel at the time or not, this is clearly an attempt by USS to highlight the various products from which the building was fabricated. This reminds me of the Magic Chef building: unabashedly modern, quite proud of itself and its’ era. Mr. Powers reports that one of his companions described it as a second-rate Magic Chef. I beg to disagree. I would rate it right up there with MC. Nice proportions, fenestration, materials, the brick choices, all of it of a very high quality. Shame the architect remains unknown. ‘Twould be no sin to be proud of this one.

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