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  • Celebrating St. Louis Architect Ralph Fournier

    Posted on January 21st, 2014 Toby Weiss 5 comments

    Fournier-Postcard-Front

    January 16, 2014 – It was a glorious moment in time for St. Louis mid-century modern architecture, the opening reception for Suburban Modernism: The Architecture and Interior Design of Ralph & Mary Jane Fournier. The Morton J. May Foundation Gallery at Maryville University was so crowded that people were gently perspiring on a cold night. Retired architect/full-time painter Ralph Fournier (below) was bombarded with well-wishers, though he had a more personal and private viewing of his legacy with close friends and family earlier in the week.

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    We’ll talk details of the exhibit that you must see before it closes on February 22nd. But, first, I want to trace the outlines of the story that made this moment in time so overwhelmingly glorious.

    The Origin Story

    Two residents of Ridgewood  – the subdivision that straddles the boundaries of Webster Groves and Crestwood, MO – were inspired to track down and talk with the architect of the homes they lived in from this November 2007 St. Louis magazine article about Ralph Fournier. Nathan Wilber and architect Neil Chace (both officers on the board of ModernSTL) met Fournier, and that is their story to tell. Then they began this blog about Ridgewood.

    One of our early dreams at ModernSTL was to celebrate Fournier’s work with walking tours of the many mid-century modern subdivisions he helped design with builder Burton Duenke, and – here was the big, wild dream – make a documentary of his work and his life.  We toyed with the loose tooth of the idea, and on July 3, 2011, Neil, Nathan and myself did this:

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    That’s Neil (left) and Nathan at Ralph’s home going over piles of his archived materials that he kindly pulled out of deep storage for us to pour over. See that look on Nathan’s face? That’s how we felt for the entire 2.5 hours that Ralph let us ask him endless questions while trying not to gush over a man we consider a rock star of the highest magnitude.

    Along with Ralph’s candor, patience and excellent memory for detail, I was overcome by the walls of his home. Everywhere are his paintings and drawings, they’re even stacked up in piles on the floor. You can trace the continual evolution of his style that began when he retired in 1989 and made a full-time commitment to painting, with stops at portraiture, landscape, spiritual and travel scenes. The only thing absent in his gallery is architectural paintings, because he’d done that for over 40 years – there is so much more he needs to express.

    Nathan Wilber, Ralph Fournier & Neil Chace at Fournier's home, July 3, 2011.

    Nathan Wilber, Ralph Fournier & Neil Chace at Fournier’s home, July 3, 2011.

    We told him of our idea to make a documentary of his life and work, and not only did this unassuming man agree to take the journey, but – wait for this – he let us walk out of his house with those large piles of his architectural history!

    After we left his company, we stood dazed with disbelief on the sidewalk in front of his house. He had graciously shared his work and personal life with us, which made us realize that his life story perfectly summarized America’s mid-20th century: A young man who worked in an east coast factory, went to college, got drafted into World War 2, came home to finish school on the G.I. bill and started working as an architect right when America desperately needed new homes to handle the Baby Boom ( he and his wife, Mary, included). His story needed to be told.

    Ralph Fournier and Toby Weiss, July 3, 2011.

    Ralph Fournier and Toby Weiss, July 3, 2011.

    We divvied up the pile amongst us, and spent the next few weeks scanning everything so we could safely return them to Ralph. Making a documentary is a giant task rendered gargantuan when those inspired to do so have no experience or skills with producing one. So the idea had a long germination period as we explored resources for making it happen. And we felt an urgency to do this because Ralph was 91 years old at the time. He had to remind us of this because we didn’t believe or comprehend it!

    Near the end of 2012 a fairy godmother appeared to magically make the documentary happen. Jessica Senne, AIA, NCIDQ, is a professor of Interior Design at Maryville University. She had the desire and resources to not only make the documentary, but it would be just one part of a larger exhibition she would stage of Fournier’s work. She shared her vision, and we loved it. We turned over the scanned files of Ralph’s work and set the wheels in motion for Jessica to meet Ralph and help cement her exhibit ideas.

    Documentary filming day at (left) Ralph Fournier's home, February 2013. Jessica Senne is to the right of Fournier.

    Documentary filming day at (left) Ralph Fournier’s home, February 2013. Jessica Senne is to the right of Fournier.

    The Exhibit

    Jessica and her team of student volunteers and college faculty worked diligently throughout 2013 to procure funding for the exhibit, and to program and build all the pieces of the exhibit and documentary by the January 13, 2014 deadline. The effort and labor of love that went into that is her story to tell. What she and her crew accomplished is magnificent!

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    The exhibit Suburban Modernism is masterfully laid out to convey the width and depth of Fournier’s architectural contributions to St. Louis. The story is told through Ralph’s own drawings and photographs, plus sales brochures and magazine articles as the subdivisions unfolded onto the St. Louis County landscape.

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    It’s a multi-media gallery, which enlivens the 3-dimensional resonance of residential architecture. Above are drawings made of existing Fournier homes lived in by 3 separate ModernSTL board members. Jessica’s students did a measure and photo of these homes to create the plans, and even built a life-size replica of the wall partition panels used to construct these modular homes, as well as a scale model (below) to show how Fournier’s designs feel.

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    Along with beautifully framed color renderings on trace paper by Ralph, and modern day color photos of some of his custom designs, they filled the back wall of the exhibit space with replicas and actual copies of Ralph’s art work (below)! You walk away with a clearer understanding of the man who helped make hundreds of affordable, modern homes for St. Louis families, homes that still stand and serve beautifully today.

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    What makes this installation so exceptional is that it celebrates a residential architect. Modern architectural careers and legacies are primarily based on public buildings, like office towers, museums and government commissions. Architects long ago abandoned the residential design aesthetic championed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles & Ray Eames or Pierre Koenig, to name a few.

    Just when America needed a lot of homes real fast is when the majority of talented architects turned their attention to big, visible projects with large budgets. And those are the projects and names usually cited in text books and popular opinion, even in St. Louis.

    It’s important to shine a light on a dedicated residential practitioner like Ralph Fournier, someone who genuinely cared about how to make daily life beautiful, pleasing and affordable to young families, and who had the genuine talent to make mass production feel like your personal work of art, even to this very day.

    All of these details are expertly and engagingly covered in the video documentary narrated by Ralph Fournier himself. It is currently showing inside the exhibit, and will soon be available for larger consumption. When it’s ready, myself and many others will make sure you get a link to learn and see more about Fournier’s work, philosophies and life.

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    I walked away from Suburban Modernism with a booklet (available at the gallery), a T-shirt and a poster (available through ModernSTL). I haven’t had this much concentrated swag since mooning over David Cassidy! And I am profoundly grateful to everyone who stayed true to the vision of bringing this body of work to life, and paying respect to the man who generated it. And many a huge thank you to Jessica Senne for making this happen.

    You have until February 22, 2014 to experience it firsthand. The Morton J. May Foundation gallery hours are generous, open until 11 pm Monday – Thursday, until 7pm on Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday from 11 am – 11 pm. It’s free, so there’s no excuse to miss it if you have even a passing curiosity about St. Louis’ mid-century modern residential history. If you read this blog, that’s you – so go!

     

     

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  • Why Do Realtors List Mid-Century Modern Homes as Teardowns?

    Posted on September 3rd, 2012 Toby Weiss 6 comments

    4084 Meramec
    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.

    Shannon Howard highlights St. Louis Homes with Soul on her realtor website. She also gives in-depth heads-up on her NOCO site, like this amazing MCM in Ferguson.

    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.

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  • North County MCM: Halls Ferry Road

    Posted on March 11th, 2009 Toby Weiss 3 comments

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    Head north on Halls Ferry Road, and on the western side of the unincorporated portion between Jennings and Dellwood, Missouri you will find a large stash of choice mid-century modern homes tucked into the rolling hills.   But stay on Halls Ferry, and pay attention to three homes that straddle Hudson Road, like this one, above.

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    Built in 1958, the 1,607 s.f. home sits on nearly an acre of land. It is unabashedly modern with its multi-levels of flat roofs and large expanses of glass to peer down the steep hill in the front yard.  Every time I pass by with a camera, the newest owner is out on his riding mower, and I’m working up the courage to ask him if I can get closer, maybe take some pictures inside.

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    Two houses down, the original owners are still on the books for this place.  Built in 1953, it is the definition of sprawling, clocking in at 2,438 s.f.

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    The last time I happened by, there was a large dumpster in the driveway, lending the impression of kids clearing out decades of living, though no for sale sign has yet popped up.  Recent real estate transactions show that homes in this very immediate area go for insanely cheap rates of $90 – $115,000.

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    Right next door is a light blue ranch with a full butterfly roof.  It went up in 1955 with 1,924 s.f. of space, and again, it appears the original owners may still be in residence.

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    All of the homes along this stretch have gigantic yards, so many mature trees that I’d worry in a wind storm, and exteriors that show little remuddling damage.  While growing up in this part of town, we considered these to be the homes of “rich people.”  I’m thinking it was a psychological reaction to the houses sitting so far up from the street atop steep hills. But even today, they are rather luxurious examples of suburban mid-century modern architecture.

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