Touring Harris Armstrong Homes

On May 2, 2010, The Sheldon Art Galleries sponsored a benefit tour of four homes designed by St. Louis modernist architect Harris Armstrong. All four homes are within walking distance of each other in the St. Louis County suburb of Sappington, and their ages range from 1937 – 1951. 3 of the 4 homes were actually inhabited by Mr. Armstrong. The home shown above – #2 Sappintong Spur – is the only one of the 4 on the tour that was a commission for a client, the McClure family.

This home dates back to 1937 and is about 75% original fabric. There has been a large and lavish family room and deck added to the rear of the home, which looks great. The rest of the home – including the basement – looks even better.

Click for a Flickr photo tour of #2 Sappington Spur.

Harris Armstrong obviously fell in love with this private street because he designed this home for his family, right next door! From 1938, this is a split level home, and the exterior combines naturalism with the aesthetic of the burgeoning international modernist movement that was emerging on the West Coast at the time.

This home is spectacular, unfolding like a rose! The abundant fenestration, wood built-ins and main level flowing floor plans are clearly modern, while the feel is pure comfort, security and serenity.  This place is currently for sale, with an $800k asking price. It is fairly priced, that’s for sure. It’s gorgeous in every way, and fingers crossed till circulation cuts off that it finds a buyer who loves it just as it is. Especially the tribute to Isamu Noguchi on the ceiling of the master bedroom!

Another great feature while touring this home was finding architect and Armstrong scholar Andrew Raimist at work on his laptop in the den that was once Harris’ home office. He looked so perfectly at home and natural in this setting that I simply took in the scene for several moments before saying hello.

Click for a Flickr photo tour of #3 Sappington Spur.

Harris moved a short walk down the hill from #3 Sappington Spur to this 1951 residence. By now, he was the foremost mid-century modern architect in St. Louis with residential and public commissions galore, so he had earned the right to go architecturally hog wild on his new home. The exterior looks like the perfect halfway point between where his work had been and where it was heading, with the rear elevation resembling an elaborate fort made by neighborhood boys, a childhood fantasy writ large.

The interior is where things go fantastically bizarre in the best way possible. It’s a series of changing levels and cut outs that is overwhelmingly awesome to look at but begs the question: did any of his kids or guests ever injure themselves?  Turns out Harris’ kids were either full-grown and gone or in their late teens when they moved in, so we can assume no children were hurt in the making of this home. As a home one can live comfortably and productively in, #3 Sappington was the clear winner to my mind. But when it comes to jaw-dropping impressiveness, this one wins big!

Click for a Flickr photo tour of 200 South Sappington Road.

While working on the Magic Chef building, Harris’ home office at #3 Sappington Spur was cramping productivity, so it was time for a stand-alone architectural office, proper. In 1948, he moved into his Asian-inspired design, and talk about impressing clients!

Here is the original floor plan of the small office. The dining room shown above was once his drafting studio. When Armstrong retired in 1969, this office was sold and remodeled into a private home. Several wings were added, essentially quadrupling the size of the structure, and for this tour most all of those areas were closed to the public, but as seen from the outside, they blend and/or coordinate nicely with the original office cube.

Click for a Flickr photo tour of 934 Singlepath Lane.

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Rock Star Architects
Harris Armstrong Halloween
Harris Armstrong, South Side
Harris Armstrong For Sale

Rock Star Architects

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I ran across this picture in a 1964 issue of LIFE magazine, and gasped with pleasure.  Click to enlarge it and see Harris Armstrong, George Kassabaum and Hari Van Hoefen floating above downtown St. Louis.  The swooning teenage-girl thrill I got from finding this photo reminded me of the first time I saw this:

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Here’s David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in a moment overloaded with rock power.  They have given the world some of its most awesome music.

The Rock Star Architects gave St. Louis some of its most awesome buildings.

A Hari Van Hoefen greatest hits package would include Northland Shopping Center.  The George Kassabaum best of  (on the HOK label) would include the Planetarium, and Harris Armstrong already has a box set highlighting his best known hits and B-side rarities.

The music of Bowie, Pop and Reed is treasured and re-mastered and re-released because it matters very much.  I hope that soon – very soon – St. Louis will learn to do the same with the works of Armstrong, Kassabaum and Van Hoefen.

Harris Armstrong Halloween

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True Story:
Today, I passed by two different Harris Armstrong houses and both were totally decked out for Halloween.

The one above is part of a Kirkwood cul-de-sac wherein every house is from the architectural office of Armstrong.  I got a peek inside this house when it was for sale, and you can take the tour here.

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And this one is in South St. Louis City.  Loves the skeleton climbing down the ladder on the 2nd-story chimney.  If you’d like to see the inside of this home, take the tour here.  And have a Happy Harris Halloween!

Something Nice About Bella Villa

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Bayless & Ruprecht Avenues in Bella Villa
South St. Louis County, MO

I love this house, though I don’t get to see it as much as I’d like because of where it’s located.

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The tiny,  St. Louis County inner-ring suburb of Bella Villa has a reputation much larger than its population of roughly 700 residents.  It’s a notorious speed trap, with 59% of its 2005 municipal budget coming from traffic tickets.  And though I don’t typically drive crazy fast while gawking at scenery, it does conjure abrupt stops and lane changes for the sake of a photo, and that’s enough to get pulled over and ticketed in Bella Villa.

On the afternoon I took these photos a cop seemed to magically appear from nowhere and pulled someone over.  I kept that business out of the left side of the frame in the photo above.  Even though I was relatively safe being on foot, all the horror stories heard over the years ran through the memory bank, and I slowly slinked away to my car parked around the corner.

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Ah yes, the house itself!  It was built in 1938, and the houses right around it on this end of the block all range from 1938-1940.  It’s vaguely art deco and reminds me of some of the places Harris Armstrong was designing around the same time – like this or maybe this.

I also love the Lego look and feel of the house, especially in the way the garage, front steps and entry are attached to the main house.  Also, the house is nicely situated atop a hill, so has the added drama of a stone wall on the side, and a nice high perch from which to watch the speed trap below.

Harris Armstrong For Sale

harris armstrong architecture photos by toby weiss
Harris Armstrong was St. Louis’ most famous modern architect. Some in-tact examples of his work include (above left) a residence in South St. Louis up behind the Donut Drive-In on Chippewa, and a commercial building (above right) on Brentwood, across from Brentwood Square. Some of his remuddled buildings include the U-Haul skyscraper at Kingshighway & Hwy 44, and the former Library Ltd./Borders building at Forsyth & Hanley in downtown Clayton. Should architect Andrew Raimist gets some free time, he will unleash a proper book on the work of Harris Armstrong, which would cover a prolific 4-decade career of residential and commerical Midwest Modernism.
harris armstrong homes in webster groves mo photo by toby weiss
A Harris Armstrong-designed house from 1951 is for sale in Kirkwood. My lovely friend Marla had previously waved her Modern Magic Wand and gave me my first true taste of Lustron; now she graciously allowed me and an interior designer pal to get a peek inside an Armstrong.
harris armstrong in webster groves mo photo by toby weiss
It’s the lead house of a cul-de-sac off Woodlawn Avenue, with 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, 2-car garage and an asking price of $249,000. From the front, its lines are very spare and the detail of the wood beams under the eave of the roof continuing uninterrupted through a large expanse of glass and into the living room is a nice touch.

The backside of the house severely lacks the subtle drama of the front, and that much brown becomes depressing. I refrained from scratching through some wood planks to find the original paint color, and while Armstrong favored natural colors for private residences, something tells me this brown was not it.
interior of harris armstrong home in webster groves mo photos by toby weiss
Inside, the entry foyer (above left) packs a bit of suburban ranch punch, though someone added a clumsy plywood guest closet at some point, breaking up the brick lines.
There’s plenty of light spilling into the living and dining room, and the stairs (above right) leading up to the bedroom level politely thrust at a jaunty little angle.

harris armstrong webster groves mo photos by toby weiss
2 original light fixtures remain; one in the living room (above left) and the other above the entrance to the tiny, galley kitchen (above right).
harris armstrong webster groves mo photos by toby weiss
The only true Armstrongian touches are the handsome, floating cabinetry (above left) and a built-in window seat (above right) in the living room. After that, everything about the house was utterly normal and somewhat bland because of years of familiarity with this house type. Even though it’s a good size for a family of three, our current American standards of acceptable square footage makes the house seem small.

The designer pal summed it up best when he said the house looked like Armstrong had made a quick sketch of an idea and then handed it off to a builder. That most of the other houses in this cul-de-sac are slight variations on the theme (see next door neighbor, below), shows the builder ran with the idea, even improved upon it.

So, is the house really worth $249K?
Marla said $210K is about right for the immediate area, so the pedigree jacks up the price.
With a different exterior paint color (or two) and some extensive cleaning,* it would be a sharp, split-level ranch house that Harris Armstrong paid a bit of attention to.

* When a realtor suggests improvements, it’s not to pass judgement, but to make the house attractive to buyers, which makes it sell faster, which then benefits everyone involved. If the realtor should mention taking a quick swipe to yards of cobwebs on the exterior, man, you really should. It’s the least you could do if you want to sell the house for anywhere near the asking price.