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.

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

Rock Star Architects


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:


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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, South Side

Because of this report, viagra I got to tour this house!

After posting photos and a review of an Armstrong house for sale in Kirkwood, the current owner of the above house simultaneously contacted BELT and architect Andrew Raimist. She invited us over for a delightful afternoon of architectural euphoria and info sharing.

Before processing any of my surroundings, I immediately ran up to the second floor and out onto the deck (below, left & right. Click on all photos for a larger view).

I’ve spent years gazing up at this house on the hill, imagining myself on that terrace, calmly gazing out at the city below me… And here I finally stood.
And it was good.
And I threw up my arms in victory, squealed, “Yessss!” and waved to any of the people driving down Chippewa who just might have glanced up and noticed a deliriously happy gal dancing atop the house.

(Above, left & right) The backyard of the former Deffaa Residence (where the tombstone of their beloved pet Nuki still resides) is surprisingly large and lush, with the newest owner adding copious greenery accented with whimsical details throughout. There’s even a secret gate at the end of the yard that lets you walk down to the public sidewalk below.

Most all of its original details remain in place (above, right).
While the house is wildly different in style than its neighbors (above left), it gracefully fits in, serving as an exclamation point for the immediate neighborhood.

And one of those neighbors was the gal who now lives inside. Living down the street, she had long coveted the house, and the minute a For Sale sign went up, she knocked on the door to ask for a tour. The owner let her inside, and as she stood in the entry quickly surveying the first floor, she said, “I want to make an offer.”
The owner said, “Uh, don’t you want to see the rest of the place, first?”
Of course, she did, but she already knew she wanted it.
Before financial common sense could kick in, she turned in contracts to the realtor. Immediately after that, major panic set in. But her architectural destiny was this house, and she’s deliriously happy as the Lady Of The House (LOTH).

The top level of the house is the master and 2nd bedroom (above, left & right, respectively), and both have doors that lead onto the outdoor terrace. There is a generous amount of light pouring in because of all the windows, and trees frame every view from the house. The view from the upstairs bathroom window is especially sweet, as it peeks down into the riot of green in the backyard. Note, also, that the master bedroom windows will be mirrored in the exact position on the first floor (coming up, below).

By today’s standards, the bedrooms would be considered small. But, respectfully, I disagree with today’s square footage standards. How big does a bedroom really need to be? If a bedroom also serves as a home gym, office and closet wing, then I suppose it needs to be huge. But if you merely wish to store your clothing and sleep, then a bedroom doesn’t require excessive s.f. The Deffaa House bedrooms are filled with LOTH’s essentials without any sense of clutter or cramp; both rooms feel comfortable and airy, due to all the windows, the wood floors and access to the deck. In the end, how a room feels and functions is much more important than s.f. stats.

The stairwell (above) leading down to ground level is simply breathtaking. So much drama and light in a transitory space.
Every facet of the 68 year old house is in exceptional condition because LOTH has taken great pains to restore and improve as needed. The stairs are a delicious golden honey shade, and a work of fine sculpture in and of themselves.

The front entry (above) summarizes the theme of yards of glass welcoming in the daylight. We arrived in the late afternoon of a cloudy day, and without a single light on, the entire first floor was bathed in light from all sides.

The living room (above) features a gas fireplace recently installed into a space that was formerly a recessed bookcase. Upon reviewing Armstrong’s original floor plans, Raimist discovered that a fireplace was always intended to go in that spot. Meaning, LOTH has an intuitive sense of what’s right for the space!

When experiencing modern homes, it goes one of 3 ways:
#1: The owners stay so authentic to the original aesthetic that the place becomes a sterile museum.
#2: Their inappropriate furnishings have nothing to do with the surroundings and it becomes a tragic waste of space.
#3: They find a way to balance appropriate aesthetics and their lifestyle without breaking the bank or their comfort.
LOTH has achieved #3 in a large way. She told of her previous home’s gothic furnishing not working in the new place, and of her adventures in whittling down, trading over and incorporating old favorites into a new mix. She has the utmost respect and understanding of the lines and feel of the home, but she has not compromised her comfort or personality. The raw physicality of the house has geometric grace and light built in, but the owner – through color, texture and intelligence – has transformed it into a wholly inviting home. Everything about the place feels exactly right.

The stairwell leading up to the 2nd story (above, left) and the dining room as viewed from the entry (above, right). I was pleasantly surprised to find my original portrait of the house on the dining room window sill. Much like sending a fan letter to your favorite star, I mailed a letter with an extra print to the previous owners, just because. They had sent me a thank you card and invited me over for a tour, but it never came about.

Turns out that person had started a scrapbook on the house, which was passed on to LOTH. My original fan letter and photo are part of the contents, which includes a 1986 Suburban Journal article, brief histories of the architect and snapshots of the house throughout the decades and seasons (the house is locally renowned for the simplicity of a lit tree on its balcony at Christmas time). Raimist – who is working on a book about Armstrong – gave LOTH a poster-size print of the house at the time it was built, as well as mountains of detailed information to add to the evolving history of the house.

The galley kitchen (above) is pristine and highly efficient, with another gorgeous view to the backyard. Across from the sink is an entry that leads to the garage and basement. The finished basement contains a laundry, bath and guest bedroom, as well as a small office space. So, in effect, it’s a 3-story house, working efficient square footage in a gorgeous, modern package.
For years, I yearned to see this house, and it was more awesome and inspiring than imagined. Both the owner and the house are a South Side jewel.

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.