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  • 2012 Review of St. Louis Mid-Century Modern

    Posted on January 6th, 2013 Toby Weiss 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!

  • 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.

  • “The Law Enjoins Us To Become Stewards of Our Architectural History”

    Posted on July 22nd, 2009 Toby Weiss 2 comments

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    Friends of the San Luis Seek Demolition Halt,
    Right to Appeal Preservation Board Action

    On July 17, the Friends of the San Luis, Inc. filed a petition in Circuit Court to obtain a temporary injunction that would prohibit the Archdiocese of St. Louis from proceeding with any demolition work at the San Luis Apartments until our organization has exhausted its legal appeal of the approval of the demolition permit.  While we do not have a final judgment, Judge Robert Dierker, Jr. has denied our motion for a temporary restraining order.  The Building Division issued a demolition permit on Monday, July 20, and preliminary demolition work is now underway.

    Our mission is to preserve the San Luis Apartments, and at this eleventh hour we press onward with that basic mission but also a larger one.  After the Preservation Board granted preliminary approval to the demolition by a narrow vote, we intended to appeal that decision through our right under the city’s preservation ordinance.  We think that the Preservation Board’s action was made through incorrect application of the law.  Furthermore, we think that that the Cultural Resources Office report on the issue misled citizens and Preservation Board members through imprecise legal reasoning that made it unclear what laws were in play.  Since the Preservation Board acts only to enforce city ordinances, without clarity of which laws are being enforced there is no due process.

    Under the preservation ordinance, however, we have only the right to appeal an approved demolition permit.  We filed the injunction petition to ensure that we were still fighting for an actual building rather than a rubble pile.  Unfortunately, Judge Dierker is not stopping demolition as well as challenging our legal standing to bring forth an appeal of the Preservation Board decision.  Thus begins our larger cause.

    Our preservation ordinance allows an aggrieved party to bring forth an appeal.  The preservation ordinance was passed by the Board of Aldermen for the benefit of the entire city, and its stakeholders are all citizens who share the duty of protecting the city’s heritage.  The law enjoins us to become stewards of our architectural heritage, and the Friends of the San Luis gladly step forward to answer that call.

    We contend that citizen right to appeal the decision of the Preservation Board is a fundamental part of due process and essential to the enforcement of the preservation review ordinance.  Without the right to appeal, citizen participation has severely limited impact.  Citizens must have the right to act when they feel that the preservation review ordinance has been violated by its own custodians.  The right to appeal is a basic legal principle, and it must be part of St. Louis’ preservation law.

    While we hold out weary hope of preserving the San Luis, we must assert the right of the citizen to bring forth an appeal under preservation law.   We believe that future efforts will benefit from legal protection of that right, and that its fundamental sanctity is worth pursuing no matter what happens to the San Luis.

    No Parking Lot On Lindell

    UPDATE

    The San Luis is coming down.
    Read the 5-page court decision here.
    See photos of the demolition here.
    And here’s the summary of why the court battle will continue.

  • City of St. Louis Citizens vs. Their Politicians

    Posted on June 24th, 2009 Toby Weiss 1 comment

    cwe-parking-lot

    Even though the Preservation Board voted on June 22, 2009 to allow for demolition of the San Luis, the story has a few more chapters to be written.

    The 20 people who testified against the surface parking lot proposal (of which I was one) were armed with facts, figures and sound rationales to demonstrate why the proposal was unsound or should be reconsidered.  According to the by-laws of the Preservation Board, we had every reason to believe we were systematically following the rules that allowed for public discourse and debate so that the Board could make an informed decision based on the facts of the case as well as the greater good of the neighborhood and the City of St. Louis.

    We followed procedures even though Alderwoman Lyda Krewson had been graciously candid in telling some of us before the event that the outcome was a done deal.  Considering the difficult position she had been put in over this issue, it was considered one of two things:  a desire to be finished with this complicated topic or a poker player’s bluff.  Either way, we followed through according to the system set in place by our City.

    Ald. Krewson was granted the final testimony of the night, and she acknowledged the struggles she had (a parking lot is not the best and highest use of this property) with her ultimate decision to side with the property owners.  She said her final decision was based on these facts:  The property owners could not feasibly rehab the building, would not sell the property to someone else and needed the parking.

    Only 5 of the 9 Preservation Board members were in attendance.  Alderwoman Phyllis Young cited the same reasons as Krewson for her “yes” vote.  Board member David Richardson acknowledged the merits of all arguments, but wanted to fairly follow the “letter of the law” about an ordinance written in 1974 (while acknowledging that this ordinance needs to be revised to current standards) as his reason for a “yes” vote.   The tie-breaking vote came from Richard Callow, who contributed no explanation for his “yes.”

    My immediate thoughts were of aldermanic courtesy in play and that the property owner had been granted the right to do as they saw fit with their property.   On the surface, fair enough.  But this “property rights” decision did not jibe with previous decisions by the city.

    First to come to mind was the Loughborough Commons issue, wherein the majority of property owners on S. Grand Avenue  did NOT want to give up their property for a retail development, but were overruled by Eminent Domain.  I’m sure any of you can cite another fast dozen cases of property owner rights being overturned for a special interest.  And this line of thought was a contributing factor to the lingering feeling that “the fix was in.”

    In the hours and days after the decision, there is much investigation into any procedural and/or legal improprieties and inconsistencies that may exist around this issue, and we will continue to follow the letter of the law in appealing this case.  But there is no escaping the white elephant in the room:  the truism of St. Louis politics is that it’s all about WHO the property owner is and how they benefit the people in power.

    City of St. Louis Citizens vs. Their Politicians

    There is a distressing disconnect between the citizens of St. Louis City and their elected officials over what is best for renewing and revitalizing this city.

    (This irony must be noted: on the very same night as the San Luis issue, the citizens of Ballwin experienced the exact same disconnect with their elected officials over the Schnucks issue, so this problem is not exclusive to the City.)

    As we have been taught – and as state and federal laws clearly state – one must participate in the democratic process in order for it to work.  Or as it is plainly stated by the man on the street:  if you don’t vote then don’t complain.  But from the bubble-burst of the Nixon presidency on down, citizens are personally discouraged by political deviation from the stated will of the people.  Examples off the top of my head:  the voters of Missouri had twice voted down legalized gambling and concealed firearms, and how did these issues end?  So, when the people have spoke but the politicians are ignoring them, there’s no denying that other factors beyond democracy are in play.

    Nationally, this unease with political disconnect resulted in a majority vote for “change we can believe in.”  As with so many matters, the City of St. Louis is decades behind the curve, but this has not completely discouraged the 355,000+ people who purposely choose to live here because they know the advantages of living here and believe in its potential.

    To remain concentrated on the San Luis issue, I will set aside many other glaring examples of disconnect between our citizens and politicians.  When it comes to matters of city planning and development – two issues that ultimately affect every taxpaying citizen in tangible ways – there are thousands of citizens who actively work through multiple channels to contribute to the improvement and stewardship of St. Louis.  That the city needs improving has been absolutely acknowledged by both the citizens and City Hall, but how to do this creates continual discussion.

    Ideally, I should have been able to say “this creates continual DEBATE,” but that’s not how it actually plays out.  All too often, it’s a case of concerned citizens flapping their jaws into a vortex of silence.

    Come election time, our politicians want us to be engaged, and cite this engagement as one of the reasons they are so proud to represent and fight for this city.  But once we’ve voted them into office, the party line is disconnected.  Even though they take our calls and read our letters, they don’t seem to comprehend what we’re saying.

    When it comes to planning and development issues, St. Louis City advocates are very clear and concise about the What and Why.  We are overly detailed about documenting, educating and debating why we are for or against any given issue.  That so many people continually join in these discussions and take action through the proper channels underscores how important these issues are.  It is heartening and inspiring to know that St. Louisans care this deeply for their city.

    And in exchange for all this public discourse that is closely monitored by City Hall, we get… silence.  Or even more maddening, we get responses that tend towards “Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” or something to the effect that we just don’t understand what is needed to elevate the prospects and standing of this city.

    If our politicians truly believe we don’t get it, then respect us enough to EXPLAIN your decisions.  We taxpaying and voting citizens may not fully understand the stresses and complexities of the issues you deal with, so tell us.  We assume you do not make any of these decisions lightly, so share with us the processes that went into the final decisions.  We may not like the outcomes, but the truth is ultimately easier to deal with than confusion or collusion.

    And collusion is the natural conclusion we come to when you refuse to educate on or include us in the decisions that impact our lives and the prospects of this city.

    Do not dismiss this as emotional, knee-jerk reactions; the stereotype of “backroom St. Louis politics” persists because of documented history of its existence, and because of the continual reticence to change this way of doing business.   This is a “big small town” and everyone knows everyone’s business.  The tension comes from those who work within the shadow system vs. those who engage in an open and public manner as prescribed by the written laws.

    It is true that if one wishes to reform the system, they must work to change it from the ground up.  New generations of passionate, educated and informed citizens are already doing so, and you can safely bet on greater numbers of them relying on existing laws and engagement of the citizens as a means for steering the City of St. Louis into the realities and possibilities of the 21st century.

    When it comes to St. Louis City planning and development, of our politicians and representatives I ask these questions:

    • How often do the concerns and visions of your citizens influence your decisions?
    • How often do the concerns and visions of special interests influence your decisions?
    • Do you feel that there can be an agreeable compromise between citizens and special interests?
    • If you could change one thing about the St. Louis political system, what would it be?

    Of our St. Louis City residents I ask these questions:

    • How often do the concerns and visions of the politicians reflect your beliefs?
    • How often do the concerns and visions of special interests reflect your beliefs?
    • Do you feel that there can be an agreeable compromise between citizens and special interests?
    • If you could change one thing about the St. Louis political system, what would it be?

    To stay current on the San Luis issue, bookmark No Parking Lot On Lindell.

  • One Week to Stop a Parking Lot

    Posted on June 15th, 2009 Toby Weiss No comments

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    On Monday, June 22, a demolition permit for the San Luis goes up for review before the St. Louis Preservation Board.  The owners want to demolish the building at Lindell & Taylor in the Central West End for a surface parking lot.

    If this doesn’t sit right with you, we need you to speak up.
    Here’s your options:

    E-mail the Preservation Board now

    Attend the June 22nd meeting

    E-mail Lyda Krewson, the alderwoman of the ward the San Luis stands in

    E-mail the operations officer at the Archdiocese

    To assist you in speaking up on this matter, we have a form letter you can use to send to any of the people above. Cut and paste it verbatim, or use it as a starting point to express your own views.

    Click for the sample letter

    If you want the Preservation Board to deny a demolition permit, it is important to say so.  It is crucial that the Board and the owners of the building understand that this surface parking lot proposal negatively impacts the potential and the spirit of St. Louis City.

  • Walking Tour of CWE MCM, May 17th

    Posted on May 11th, 2009 Toby Weiss 8 comments

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    From Landmarks Association:

    Sunday, May 17, 2009:  Film and Walking Tour

    This was the Future: Mid-Century Modern Architecture on Lindell Blvd.
    10:00 a.m.

    Begin inside the Chase Park Plaza Cinema, 212 N. Kingshighway

    Have a mid-century modern morning in May! A screening of the new short documentary San Luis: This Was the Future tells the story of the threatened San Luis Apartments.  After the 10 minute film, Toby Weiss of beltstl.com and Michael Allen (ecology of absence) will lead a walking tour of the many mid-century treasurers along Lindell Boulevard, where modern design flourished between World War II and the 1970s.  The walk will run from the Chase Park Plaza Hotel to Vandeventer and back, so be prepared for serious walking.

    See a free movie, take a free tour, get a little exercise, get a lot of knowledge… there are worse ways to spend a Sunday morning!  Please do join us Sunday if you can.  Michael is the brains of the outfit, I’ll be the “little song, little dance, a little seltzer down the pants.”  It promises to be a good time.

  • San Luis on KSDK

    Posted on May 5th, 2009 Toby Weiss No comments

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    See video of Randy Vines romancing the San Luis on KSDK.

    Good job of hearing from both sides.  Now, what about actually having meaningful conversation face to face?

    The Archdiocese goal of more parking can be achieved in several different ways. The value of that land and its greater use can be achieved in several different ways.  More can be accomplished by joining together than by tearing apart, and the Friends of the San Luis are extending a hand to the Archdiocese.  Here’s hoping they return the sentiment.

    RELATED
    San Luis documentary “This Was The Future”

  • This Was The Future

    Posted on April 18th, 2009 Toby Weiss 7 comments

    save-the-san-luis

    Towards the effort to save the San Luis, a documentary was made in 48 hours over the first weekend in March 2009. I was honored to be asked to be a part of this adventure, and a big round of applause to everyone involved. You’re all brilliant.

    There are plans for a proper screening in May during Preservation Week (details forthcoming), but you can watch it now.  It’s less than 8 minutes long, so watch it a couple of times, and pass it around.  It’s an easy way to raise the profile of a building longing to be spiffed up and returned to its glamorous life.

  • Central West End "Progress"

    Posted on January 24th, 2009 Toby Weiss 1 comment

    A “Special Progress Section” was included in the May 7, 1961 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. These 3 examples shown boasted about the progress on Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End, like the Optimist building.

    They also touted the new building for the Engineer’s Club, which is by the same architecture firm as the Optimist building, Schwarz & Van Hoefen.

    And then there was the new chancery office for the Catholic Archdiocese, which was under construction at the time of publication. By clicking on the above photo to read the caption, one finds this quote:

    The Catholic Church has been a bulwark in the fight against decay, providing assistance for the Central West End Association and other neighborhood groups.

    Ironically, the same Catholic Church that championed progress on this block of Lindell now wants to tear down one of those progressive buildings they helped usher in.
    Learn more about the push to save the San Luis here.

    It was a sweet justification to find this “Special Progress Section,” because it supports what I’ve been trying to say about the Central West End and Lindell Boulevard, in particular: all chapters of its story are important and vital. And it is highly irresponsible and short- sighted to begin destroying buildings that were considered the desirable solution to older buildings they felt needed to be destroyed. The cycle has got to stop! We can no longer (literally) afford to squander our history and resources. There must be real understanding of past and present, and a practical plan and vision for the future based on the realities and aspirations of the entire community.

    You can see how these 3 buildings look today by clicking here.