Posted on January 6th, 2013 1 comment
It was the end of December 2012, and I was on the bitingly cold, snow-covered roof of the former State Bank of Wellston. We were there to explore the building in its final days, and discuss how they were going to salvage the neon tower to keep it safe for future use. It was sadness tinged with hope.
Standing atop the building as my feet turned numb from the cold, I thought of the heartbreaking months ahead documenting the Wellston bank’s demolition. But then a thought slapped me upside the head:
There were far more wins than losses when it came to mid-century modern architecture in St. Louis in 2012.
I didn’t yet know it, but the day after Christmas the website Curbed figured it out, citing two major St. Louis MCM wins in their article, Mapping the Biggest Preservation Wins and Losses in 2012. We’re #8 and #9 on the list of winners. We’re used to being on lists of shame for destroying buildings of all eras, and here we are getting a pat on the back for two major victories. And they are both mid-century modern buildings!
The Saucer, by architect Richard Henmi (shown above) is now bustling with caffeinated folks at Starbucks. The other side is still in renovation mode for a new tenant. The Triple A building (below) by architect Wenceslao Sarmiento stood up to a tear-down threat by CVS.
The efforts to save both of these buildings from extinction are beautifully detailed here, by our city’s own Michael Allen for Next City, another national organization keeping an eye on our preservation wins in 2012.
The fight to Save Our Saucer was, technically, a 2011 campaign that came to a conclusion in 2012. For both of our round Mid Town MCM buildings the amazing fact is that City Hall – specifically, the mayor and certain aldermen – spoke out quickly and emphatically against demolition of either of these buildings. This was a huge policy change from years previous with City Fathers who really didn’t want to deal with saving buildings built after World War 2.
What caused this miraculous and productive change of perspective? I consider the following a major turning point.
It was February 14, 2009 when a large group of St. Louisans came together for a Love In to publicize the threat against the former Hotel Deville, which became a vacant apartment called San Luis. The St. Louis Archdiocese wanted to take it down to make a surface parking lot. After a disastrous Preservation Board review in June 2009, we turned it into a court battle.
The building came down and we lost the court case. We staged multiple events to raise money for our lawyer fees, and it was heartwarming to see so many people support us in this failed battle. Personally, it also created some tense moments with my deeply Catholic family who only saw it as me being part of a group that was suing the Catholic Church. Yikes.
The San Luis Did Not Die In Vain
A battle lost in such a large and public way turned out to be the moment that was needed to make positive changes in the future of mid-century modern architecture preservation. The Save Our Saucer campaign was a successful refinement of the Friends of the San Luis campaign. And the inconsistencies in St. Louis City preservation law were addressed almost immediately after the San Luis came down. The first tangible change was creating the organization ModernSTL (several of the ModStL board members were there at the Valentine’s Day Love-In) so that we had a central location for the education, preservation and celebration of St. Louis modernism.
AUGST 2012 The MCM preservation efforts of ModernSTL made the news several times in 2012, which is recapped here.
DECEMBER 2012 The victory inspired by the demise of the San Luis is the new architecture standards in the Central West End (CWE) purposely put into place to include the protection of mid-century modern buildings. Again, let Michael Allen give you the important details of this new standard.
That residents and alderpersons in these CWE wards realized that post-World War 2 buildings are just as much a part of the area’s history as the original buildings made my heart break with happiness. That they stuck with it to turn it into legal business that prevents senseless destruction like The San Luis in the future is a miracle. This is a major rethink of what constitutes an historic building. I love these folks! Thank you.
March 2012 The City of St. Louis received a $24,600 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office to survey the City’s mid-century modern buildings. Mayor Francis Slay writes of this award: “This specific research will identify important mid-century modern buildings and should lead toward protection from thoughtless demolition and possible resources for their improvement. Our City is rich in beautiful and significant architecture – and this study will help it remain that way.”
Here’s more details about the survey. It is expected to be complete by the summer of 2013. I am deeply humbled (and a little teary eyed) to learn that many B.E.L.T. entries have been used as part of their research on the city’s MCM stock. My wish for 2013 is that downtown Clayton, MO will consider doing something similar.
SPRING 2012 Having an article published in Atomic Ranch magazine was a personal highlight. But even better was that it was about Ladue Estates, the first mid-century modern subdivision in Missouri to land on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents who made this MCM preservation milestone possible have become good friends of ModernSTL, and it was a pleasure to stage a second annual open house and tour of their neighborhood in May 2012.
2012 MCM Mind Shift
In general, I have felt, read and seen a huge shift in mid-century modernism appreciation. Both in the private and public realms, people of St. Louis just get it! They get that this era of architecture has significant meaning in our history, and that many of these buildings are flat out gorgeous and worthy of keeping in use.
Two great examples of re-using rather than demolishing MCM in 2012 include:
This Sunset Hills building started life as the Mark Twain Cinema in 1967, and then became the Two Hearts Banquet Center, which closed in 2012. A local labor union bought the building to turn into their new offices. And here’s the kicker – they love the building as is. The renovations they are making are only to make it usable for their needs, not to destroy its essence. Here’s more of the story.
At Spring Avenue and Delor Street in Dutchtown, the Southtowne Village apartment complex, built in 1962, stood vacant and vandalized. When chainlink went up around the bombed out site, I assumed they were being demolished. It was a great to be completely, utterly wrong!
Thank you to 25th Ward alderman Shane Cohn for filling me in. The Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance is redeveloping the site by modernizing most of the existing buildings, and supplementing them with some new buildings better sited in the spaces left after demolition of the back buildings. The aim is more curb appeal and more urban density.
As we can see from the mid-construction photo above, they’re adding some 21st century architectural bling to appeal to new tenants. The mid-century character of the buildings will be buried. But the major point is that instead of automatically tearing down these buildings, they are re-using them! And why not? We now live in a time of wasted resources and limited means – it makes perfect economic sense to save money and the environment by re-using as much as you can. Construction-wise, a building from 1962 is just as good as one from 1862 for renovation, and I applaud the RHCDA for this enlightened way of thinking.
A Short Journey to StL MCM Preservation
Urban Renewal of the 1960s is what created the preservation movement, as we know it today. It took well over 25 years to change the perspective of the public and developers so that they would think first of preserving a turn-of-the-20th-century building rather than demolishing it. St. Louis, specifically, has benefited greatly from Historic Tax Credits that put so many of our classic buildings in downtown St. Louis back into service. All of this is possible because of pioneering preservation efforts.
In May of 2005, I started B.E.L.T. primarily as an outlet for documenting and promoting St. Louis mid-century modern architecture. St. Louis was a major recipient of federal Urban Renewal subsidies, tearing down hundreds of acres of our history to create a better society. When they began systematically tearing down these replacement buildings in the early 2000s, I was grief-stricken. I literally stood on the rubble of Northland Shopping Center and bawled like a baby. Something had to be done to update the preservation mindset to include the buildings of the greatest period of modern American progress.
With the help and camaraderie of hundreds of forward-thinking St. Louisans, we have changed the preservation mindset to include mid-century modernism. And whereas it took decades to automatically save post-Victorian buildings, we understand the importance of saving post-WW2 buildings in less than 10 years!
2012 was the year that all of this new mindset became glaringly, lovingly apparent. It bears repeating: There have been more victories than losses. I’m even optimistic about the plight of Lewis and Clark branch of the St. Louis Count Library. In less than a year, their board has already acknowledged its merit; the story continues into 2013.
From St. Louis City Hall, to activists, to social networks, there are thousands of people who deserve a hearty round of applause for making all of this possible. It also needs to be noted how progressive St. Louis is when it comes to architectural preservation matters. No matter the year it was built, we now know our buildings matter because our history – past, present and future – matters. It takes great strength and confidence to protect and nurture the things that are worthwhile.
St. Louis, you kick ass!city of st. louis, historic preservation, mid-century modern commercial, mid-century modern institutional, mid-century modern residential, st. louis county central west end, central west end preservation ordinance, friends of the san luis, mark twain cinema, mayor francis slay, michael allen, mid0-century modern preservation, modernstl, northland shopping center, shane cohn, southtowne village apartments, st louis kicks ass, st. louis mid-century modern preservation, sunset hills, the hotel deville, the saucer, triple a, two hearts banquet
Posted on January 4th, 2013 5 comments
B.E.L.T. reader George McNatt left a comment that this building at Brown and St. Charles Rock Road is going to be demolished. All of the buildings connected to it are coming down as well, starting this January 2013.
And why are these buildings coming down?
If I told you there was a Walgreens on the opposite corner, could you get the answer with one guess?
CVS was unsuccessful in Fergsuon (backstory here) and was shot down twice in the Central West End (both buildings spared from CVS demo are listed in this story). Guess they fared better in St. John, eh?
George also reports that they are tearing down the building on the southeast corner of this intersection (map here) to put up a McDonald’s. Considering they are reportedly going in on the site of the former State Bank of Wellston once it comes down, McDonald’s looks to have a strong first quarter of 2013.
Posted on December 23rd, 2012 No comments
The former State Bank of Wellston is currently under interior demolition. Exterior demolition is set to begin January 2nd, 2013. Word is it’s coming down to make way for a McDonalds.
Here’s an overview of the Wellston Bank.
And there will be a future post memorializing the loss of this mid-century modern bank that was both stately and cruisin’ cool at the same time.
In the meantime, the neon fabulous Sky Bank light tower (above) is for sale.
This light tower has been a sign post, a marker, a marvel for almost 60 years. Sometimes, it’s the only thing about Wellston that people know or recognize. It is absolutely worthy of saving.
The demolition crew is looking for a buyer. There is some urgency because of the start date of exterior demolition.
Do you know of anyone who can help?
We could use a Christmas miracle, here.
If you’re interested, please contact me via blog comment or directly, and you’ll be put in touch with those with the details.
It IS a Christmas miracle. Here’s a note from Larry Giles:
I am in the final phase of securing the Wellston Bank sign and have managed to raise 6K thru donations and have the trucking lined up, 5K for the purchase price. We still need another 5K for the crane, crew and misc.
More details as they emerge.
Posted on November 25th, 2012 No comments
The Lewis & Clark Tower was supposed to be Towers, and it was supposed to look like this. Gorgeous, right? Even looks a bit like a mid-century U.S. Embassy.
This drawing comes courtesy of John Lumea, who ran across an advertisement for it in a 1964 issue of Architectural Record. He was gracious enough to send it along, and point out that the ad does confirm who the architect is – George J. Gaza & Associates. We now even know who built it: United States Construction Co.
John, major thank you for sending the ad! Click to see it larger so you can take in all the words about “Missouri’s first cylindrical apartment.”
For all the backstory on Top of the Towers and Rizzo’s restaurant that sat at the very top, you can read this BELT entry.
The comments section is where the real action is, as we hear from the grandson of the developers of the complex, the granddaughters of both the developer and architect, plus fabulous memories of people who ate and worked there. Readers even share the exact spinning salad recipe, or Bruce Kunz shares a replica that seems so much simpler:
For those of you wanting to experience the Spinning Salad, I’ve come close to replicating it. Start with shredded lettuce, add a sprinkle of shreded carrots. Stir in your choice of a good blue cheese dressing and a bit of ranch to go with it. Top with chopped hard boiled eggs, ‘cracked’ (not coarse ground) pepper. Easier, just as flavorful and more consistent in texture.
And last but not least, sprinkle liberally with real bacon bits or pieces.
Thank you to everyone who has been contributing to the memories of Top of the Towers since October 2007. Every comment verifies just how important this place is in the history of North St. Louis County.
In response to the BELT entry sharing rare interior photos of the vacant restaurant courtesy of Michael Collins, a few readers sent me links to the postcard images above. It’s both intriguing and sad to see what was cross-referenced with what remains behind.
It’s also cool to see the back of the postcard, with the line drawing of the complex. Big hugs to everyone who sent links to these postcards; it’s thrilling to know your curiosity sent you Googling, and then you took the time to share.
Posted on October 28th, 2012 3 comments
This 1961 winged beauty started life as Flotken’s Market. The Flotken family has a website about the history of the store with lots of interior photos. There’s even a blog where you can contribute memorabilia of the place, which includes a copy of the original 1961 lease.
“In 1961, he opened a second store at 9643 Olive Boulevard in Olivette. Mr. Flotken designed a unique roof that descended from the sides to the middle, giving the appearance of wings.
Mike Flotken explained his father’s design concept in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Dad wanted as much natural light as possible. With a traditional roof, you only get light from the front, and the ‘flying wing’ design allowed light to come in from the sides as well.”
As of Fall 2012, a local construction company is in the middle of remodeling the building for jewelry store The Shane Co., who plan to move in early 2013. Compare this construction photo with the one above to see how much they have removed. Much of the brick from the demolished kneewall was still sitting in the dumpster the day I photographed this.
While investigating who was doing what to this building, it was shared by Esley Hamilton that there is a correction to who the architect is. From conversation with a former employee who remembers working on the building, Elsey learned this is the design of Sommerich & Wood, who also did the 1958 Red Bird Lanes.
1) A jeweler benefits just as much from natural light as a grocer did, right?
2) A peek behind the plywood walls shows a good amount of interior construction has already taken place, including metal framing of walls reaching up to the roof structure. Meaning, they can’t alter the basic structure too much more, only mess with the front facade.
Granted, a lot of damage can be done with a new facelift. But so far, they’ve left so much in tact that it feels like The Shane Co. knows the allure of their new mid-century modern building. Let’s all keep an eye on their progress, and speak up if you see any new developments, please.
Thank you to Andrew Weil of Landmarks for giving me a heads up that this remodel is taking place.
Posted on September 9th, 2012 8 comments
The October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair shares results that 46% of the 1,027 adults polled nationwide find The Gateway Arch the least impressive national landmark.
What an odd question to ask people. But since they asked, Americans are good with natural occurrences like falls or canyons, they’re even good with carving presidents into the side of a mountain. But wholly man-made landmarks are ripe for a shrug.
After an initial wave of irritation that anyone slam on our Arch, I remember that I used to take it for granted. It’s always been there, and once you go up inside of it and catch the view, what’s left?
If I – as a proud St. Louisan – have treated it as the most boring ride at an amusement park, then the views of 1,027 people who may or may not have seen it in person are acceptable. I don’t see the point of The Alamo, because anything to do with war or battles bores and confuses me. But I’ve also never seen it, so it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.
Beauty for Beauty’s Sake
Americans tend to be practical people who want things to serve a purpose. Admirable form like the Chrysler Building also has a function as an office building, so it’s acceptable. Even the Seattle Space Needle (which is only a couple of years older than the Arch), goes a bit beyond being a symbol of its city with a restaurant at the top so it has some function beyond the views.
But the Gateway Arch is basically a modern sculpture with an elevator. Take the elevator up to see views to the east and to the west in a narrow curved space that’s not conducive to hanging out. And back down you go.
It’s truly a symbolic, minimalist art piece. An understanding of geometry, architecture and modern construction makes it impressive. But all those concepts may be too subtle for the room, naturally leading to the theoretical question, “What is the point?”
What is the point of a flower? We understand its benefits for bees, butterflies and the environment, but they are not crucial to human existence. But their beauty and fragrance can move our souls, and many are willing to cultivate them for just that purpose – beauty for beauty’s sake. And that’s The Arch, as well.
The Arch has other purposes beyond the beauty of its facade as the changing light and dark of day dances around it.
It is the symbol of a time in America when power and progress could be poetic.
It is a beacon that guides you without a compass, and takes you to the river.
It is the impossible made real.
It is the strength inherent in grace.
It is eternally modern, but with the erosion of American dignity, it has become nostalgic.
I didn’t realize all these things about The Arch until an early 21st century sunset ride as a passenger in car gave me the opportunity to simply gaze at it. And these realizations hit me fast and forcefully. Suddenly, I “got it.” And I was proud of our City for once having the towering vision to persevere for decades to build something that was only and simply beautiful and symbolic. It’s as simple as a flower, which is a complicated thing.
Taking The Arch for granted is not just a Vanity Fair poll result. How many decades did it take for St. Louis to light it at night? And how many of you in St. Louis have never been near it, touched it, or been up inside of it? None of these things are crucial, but it does stir the soul, and you don’t know how powerful and empowering that can be until it overtakes you.
My absolute favorite summary of the power of the Gateway Arch comes from Joe Thebeau, in the Finn’s Motel song “Eero Saarinen“:
Eero, arching, westward over my city
Stainless and brilliant
Eero, arching, skyward into the universe
Expanding, expansive possibility.
Posted on September 3rd, 2012 6 comments
South St. Louis City
This 1956 mid-century modern home plunked down in the middle of pre-WW2 homes in deep South St. Louis has been covered before. Scroll down half way at this link.
It is now for sale. Here’s the info.
The home is a $19,900 As Is foreclosure that needs a lot of work. Neglect has led to much water damage and remuddling. The extra photos that the realtor includes work hard to avoid revealing its raggedy shape, though the price is a dead giveaway. Here’s one photo that was not included:
Sorry it’s such a crappy photo. It was taken through an encrusted window. But it does show that some of the original mid-century fabric remains. This is exactly the type of information that someone interested in rehabbing an MCM home would want to know: is there something there that’s worth my money and effort?
One highly unusual (thus admirable) aspect of this listing is that the realtor does NOT ever use the phrase – or even imply – “tear down.” Homes of this vintage are regularly classified as tear downs, especially when they are in desirable zip codes on land that is, on paper, more valuable than the house.
But if a home is in good condition, isn’t it a bit manipulative to call something a “tear down?” It’s a bit of judgement casting, an assumption that everyone who runs across the listing will think that a mid-century modern home is horrid.
I completely understand the financially-motivated aspects of labeling a home a tear down. Everyone involved in the sale wants to get paid. But marketing has a very powerful influence everywhere, including real estate. How many under-performing stick-and-tissue new build homes in the deep exurbs have been purchased based on painting a pretty picture? And rechristening condos as villas has brought new life to a traditional form of high-density, low maintenance living. So words matter, and some aspects of pegging mid-century homes for demolition is absolutely suggestive selling.
It is a fact that any home that you’re not the first owner of is going to need some remodeling. The cost of changes you intend to make are typically factored into what you’re willing to pay for a home. And there are millions of buyers who want to rehab a home, either to their liking or back to its historical authenticity. We all understand this as a selling feature for pre-WW2 homes. But in the world of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), they are quick to label homes from after WW2 to the 1970s as tear downs.
Actually, the MLS has yet to upgrade their descriptions so a realtor can choose phrases like “mid-century modern” or “modern ranch” as a choice for the style of home. It is a fact that sympathetic realtors and MCM-motivated buyers have to comb through mountains of homes by age to zero in on what is wanted. Why is an easily-identifiable group of willing buyers left to work so hard to find their home? Is it that difficult to add some new style categories to the MLS?
It always boils down to education. And in the case of real estate, realtors who can identify and serve this new subset of mid-century modern buyers will emerge financially victorious. Wouldn’t other realtors, logically, like to benefit from this as well? So that’s the argument for updating the MLS: do you wanna get paid? MCM lovers are willing to pay.
MCM Realtors in St. Louis
In St. Louis, we do have some enlightened realtors that know their MCM and the audience who wants to buy them.
• Ted Wight knows a good MCM home when he sees one, and shares sales info and amazing photos of such on his blog, St. Louis Style. He also walks the talk, having just recently purchased a William Bernoudy home, making him a realtor who is also saving mid-century homes in desirable locations from being torn down.
• Ginger Fawcett knows a good MCM when she finds it. Here’s her LiveLocal. And her frustration at MLS listings making it difficult to ID mid-century homes motivated her ModernSTL board membership. Ginger’s desire is to educate fellow realtors about the MCM market, which then advocates changes in how these homes are listed. Her educational activities include a Parade of Homes, where multiple realtors put their MCM homes on an open house tour so MCM buyers can see multiple, desirable properties in one day.
If you’re in the market for a Metro St. Louis mid-century modern home, these are the three realtors that I know who fully understand what you’re looking for, and can ease the burden of what is, typically, a time-consuming MLS search.
Posted on August 19th, 2012 8 comments
This sign became…
…this sign. And that fact was consigned to the memory of a select few until it was brought to light by Dean Wieneke. Read his story here.
The beauty of the world wide web is that anyone can find anything, and the family of the men who were Dickerson Motors found the story of Dean finding their family’s sign. They got in touch with me both in comments on the blog entry and personal emails. Which lead to them graciously scanning old photos, which are shared with you now.
Julie Dickerson Chung and Carolyn Dickerson Zerman are the daughters of William E. Dickerson, who started Dickerson Motors, Inc. in 1951 with his brother Thomas E. Dickerson (whose son Don Dickerson provided some of these photos). It was a Lincoln Mercury dealership located at 6116 Natural Bridge Avenue. It was in the shadow of the only remaining gasometer in St. Louis.
Here is that spot today. Note that the building appears to have been sitting on the dividing line between St. Louis City and County.
Dickerson by day…
…and by night. These photos were taken shortly after the dealership opened.
A big day for Dickerson Motors was when actress and icon Debbie Reynolds stopped by the dealership in 1955 to buy a car. She was on her way back to California to marry singer and actor Eddie Fisher.
Above, Bill Dickerson hands Debbie Reynolds the keys to the car she chose. To put it in historical context, Miss Reynolds had just completed filming of the movie The Tender Trap, with Frank Sinatra. It would release in November of 1955.
And Debbie gets inside her new ride to zoom off and marry Eddie Fisher. The marriage would produce actress/author Carrie Fisher, and end tragically when Eddie left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor in 1959. This is just how her history played out and in no way infers her car from Dickerson Motors played any part in future marital dramas.
Don Dickerson (son of co-owner Tom Dickerson) shared the photo above, depicting the “Hot Rod Lincoln” that was part of the dealership’s racing team. In conjunction with the racing team, Don recalls:
”Before a race, my Dad was out zooming around Missouri to see what the Lincoln could do. He came over a hill at a very high speed and found that at the bottom of the hill was a buckboard with two horses pulling it. He slammed on the brakes but was going too fast to stop, killing two horses and totaling the car.”
To the best of Carolyn Dickerson Zerman’s memory, the car dealership closed around 1957-58. “I know my sister Julie was born around that time and was a “saving grace” to my Dad (above left), who hated to see the dealership close.”
The family does not know what became of the sign after Dickerson closed. In this entry about Ackerman Buick, former employee Tim Von Cloedt said Jerry Ackerman bought out Kuhs Buick on North Grand Avenue and moved the whole shebang out to Dellwood in the early 1960s. The first building on the lot went up in 1964 – so did the sign, now recycled as Ackerman Buick.
Where was the sign from 1958 to 1964? Considering how much information we’ve received so far, there just may be someone out there who knows the answer.
And this whole saga came to light when Dean and his family bought and dismantled the sign (above) to put it in storage at his father’s farm. As of this writing, Dean sold the sign to Fast Lane Classic Cars in St. Charles, MO, who plan to hang it on the side of one of their buildings.
So St. Charles is the newest chapter for one of the busiest, most recycled signs in St. Louis history. And thank you to all of the Dickerson family for being so generous with their photos and information.
Posted on August 5th, 2012 2 comments
Kappel Drive at West Florissant
On the west side of West Florissant is a short stretch of Kappel Drive, more like a termination of the road from the east side of West Florissant than a full block. All of the other homes in this immediate area are slight variations on the middle-of-the-road brick ranch built in the first half of the 1950s. But this little tiny block went more atomic.
A front wall of windows and a carport differentiate these from the rest of the homes. Seemingly tiny differences, but it catches the eye if you glance up the street from West Florissant.
A check of St. Louis County records shows all of these more atomic homes in Westwood Acres were built between 1956 & 1957, 1064 square feet of 3 bedrooms, one bathroom, and a full basement.
The dividing line between Dellwood and Ferguson may run through the backyard of these homes on the south side of Kappel. The rest of this neighborhood to the south is called Northland Hills, with homes starting at 1012 s.f. and having an attached garage. Records show the entire area was built up between 1955 – 1957.
Be it Dellwood or Ferguson, all of these subdivisions along West Florissant, north of Ferguson Avenue, were built in response to the construction of Northland Shopping Center, and the promise it fulfilled of turning farmland into modern neighborhoods.
When my father, Richard, came home from the Korean War in 1954, his father, Arthur, drove him up West Florissant to Chambers Road. At that time, only a few small, new businesses were popping up south of Chambers. This intersection was still widely known as the crossroads where farmers brought their produce to sell, and where you could buy horse and livestock equipment.
Standing at the intersection, Arthur points to the horse field at the northeast corner of Chambers and West Florissant and tells his son, “If you’re smart, you’d buy up property over there.”
Richard looks at his father as if he were insane.
Arthur points back toward Northland under construction, and all the land around it being plotted for housing and says, “We’re all moving north at a rapid clip. This field’s days are numbered. You might as well make some money from it.”
Of course Richard did not buy any of that land. And of course it was completely built up by 1957, and development spread further north every month.
During those boom years, it looks as if one contractor was responsible for most of the ranch homes around the Dellwood/Ferguson dividing line. But somehow, these airy little numbers snuck into a short stretch of Kappel Drive. Everyone of them is still well under $100,000, in good condition and relatively remuddle-free.
Posted on July 22nd, 2012 3 comments
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
Kansas City, MO
Over Memorial Day weekend 2012, I was part of a Kansas City, Missouri architecture adventure. The most towering experience was interacting with the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which is the work of legendary architect Moshe Safdie.
It’s obviously a “wow” building. I was struck by how the shape of the building conjured the images of how sound waves ripple out. And all of the materials feel as good to the touch as they look to the eye. Then we got to go inside, which was a whole other experience. There was a hostess who gave us the informational spiel, which had fascinating details about construction and methodology.
As she was sharing this information, I drifted away to something more personal: how author Witold Rybczynski writing about a building of Moshe Safdie’s changed my life. If you are a regular or semi-regular reader of B.E.L.T., you are a recipient of how that sea change manifested itself. Everything I’ve done in the realm of architectural documentation is a direct and continual result of how inspiring Witold is. To stand in the building of a man who inspired (and hired) Witold was the convergence of so many layers of meaning as to be overwhelming. The meaning rippled out in waves much like the shape of the Kauffman Center.
In the very late 1990s, the first Witold Rybczynski I read was his book The Most Beautiful House in the World, a detailed chronicle of designing and building his very own home. Seeing Jackie O. read this book was a revelation! That led to his book Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture, which was a compilation of previously published architectural critiques.
Everything else I was reading at this time (Architectural Record and Architect magazines plus the treatise of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, etc. along with text books assigned in various architecture classes) was built on dense theories and opinions aimed at a select group of learned practitioners. I felt talked-down to, and even when deciphering what they possibly meant, I often disagreed with their views that felt dislocated from the real world where these buildings stood.
Rybczynski was like bumping into the only English-speaking person on a backpack tour of Romania. He spoke plainly and clearly with the engaged passion of a person who loves everything about every type of building, long after the architects and scholars have moved on to the next big thing.
He was clearly “one of them,” but intent on communicating with the people who didn’t have architectural degrees or command of theoretical jibber jab. A dialogue with people who actually used these buildings was more important to him than burnishing relations with architectural academia and press. Reading about the built environment in layman’s terms removed any insecurities about my reaction to and interpretation of the buildings I encountered. Witold was like a mind-expanding drug - he was liberation.
The most profound chapter, for me, of Looking Around was “Habitat Revisited.” Habitat is a Montreal, Canada apartment building by Moshe Safdie from 1967. Here’s what it looks like. About 25 years after its groundbreaking debut, Witold went back to see how it was holding up. He made the point that when an important building is first introduced, it is photographed in its fresh, pristine state, but that what matters most is how it ages, and how it serves the function it was built for.
Spend any time studying architecture and you run across this landmark building. At the point I was at in my architectural journey, Habitat was instantly categorized as concrete Brutalism, and I just didn’t care. But Witold was discussing not only the patina of time on its facade and landscape, but how the people who live there made it their own, and how living there elevates the residents’ daily lives.
Suddenly, a building I dismissed as freaky and cold sprang to life in a language I understood: how it affects the people who use it. By that criteria, this was a successful building. The human element changed how I perceived Habitat’s aesthetic, and I quickly realized that Safdie’s intentions were not merely academic drivel, but rather his achieved goal.
And suddenly, the tenets of modernism made sense. But it only matters if it works for the people who have to use it. Which is where I part with accepted architectural theory, practice and preservation. But I was no longer alone in this enlightenment, for I had Witold Rybczynski holding aloft his guiding lantern.
I won’t go on about all his wonderful work (except to say his book about staying in Palladio villas to figure out why they’ve worked for centuries – The Perfect House: A Journey with the Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio – is a swooning Must Read) because you can decide for yourself. Witold has a blog, he’s on Twitter, and you can learn about him and his books here. If you love architecture, and don’t know Witold, this could be a major discovery for you.
So this is the back-story on why standing in a building of an architect who was the inspiration of a mind-expanding chapter in a Rybczynski book over-stimulated by mind and nostalgia.
Another thing I learned from Witold was that you will never truly understand a building until you’ve seen it, experienced it. Reading about it and looking at pictures of it is only an introduction. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the resources or connections to experience all the great buildings. But it’s OK to start with the buildings around you everyday, and expand from there.
In the case of the Kauffman Center, I only experienced part of it. It exists to house its theaters, and I didn’t even see those, much less experience how they work for an audience member. But the sections I saw are breathtaking, the ladies’ room was striking and efficient, and the building and its campus are as inviting as they are awe-inspiring.
Certainly those who have sat in the auditoriums or attended an event in the atrium would be a better judge of its worth as a performing arts center. It has captured the attention of KCers, who have lovingly documented every stage of its being. And I’d love to hear the thoughts of the crews who maintain the building (does winter-time ice come crashing down off those curves?). But in lieu of all that, I still loved being in and around the Kauffman Center. There was no denying it was a magnificent piece of architecture.
The ripples of that day have lingered on, compelling me to pull out my Rybczynski books and re-visit what makes them so essential. I’m even reading his latest book, which is an engrossing story of client and architect creating an art museum. And another new shot of adrenalin was finding this video from April 2012 of Witold and Moshe reunited for a good chat about Safdie’s work. And here’s a Safdie quote from the video that perfectly sums up why Witold means so much to me:
“I’ve always admired how Witold brings architecture down to earth. No pretentions, clear thinking, just the ability to focus on what architecture does to our lives. And to write about it in a way that relates to both architects and laymen.”