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  • 2013 RFT Web Award Winner for Best Architecture Blog

    Posted on January 27th, 2013 Toby Weiss 4 comments

    I want to extend a warm thank you with a sloppy bear hug to The Riverfront Times‘ judges who voted B.E.L.T. “Best Architecture Blog.” Here’s the kind words they said about this honor, if you scroll down to the last entry on the page.

    I’m touched that they referred to me as a storyteller, because it reflects the personal nature of how I cover a building. Architectural academics can turn people off with dense technical talk about the importance of a building. But if you talk from the perspective of how architecture shapes and affects us, it’s more compelling. The people who created and used these buildings reveals why they are important.

    And it’s that personal angle that has brought me the most pleasure from blogging (it’ll be 8 years this May). Arriving as comments and private emails, I get to hear personal stories and memories that were triggered by coverage of St. Louis buildings, great and small.

    For instance, I’m having email conversation with a woman who grew up in a house in Jennings that was an important part of my childhood. She’s filling me in about the 3 houses shown above, and we’re sharing our memories of the middle house. I only know these new things because she read this post, and left a comment.

    St. Louisans are supremely sentimental, which is great for blog comments. I still hear new old memories from people about the impact Northland Shopping Center had on their lives. 29 comments and counting. Possibly the most commented entry is about Top of the Towers, and along with recipes, their deeply personal memories are fabulous.

    And lots of ex-pats Google Rossino’s Italian Restaurant, and I become the one who breaks the bad news that it no longer exists. But then they share a memory, and it’s alive again, for just a brief moment.

    B.E.L.T. readers are a generous lot. They know what I like and feed my addiction. Along with memories, they sometimes send photos. Like David Aldrich, who is doing his own research about architecturally interesting J.C. Penney stores. He runs across this photo of the Wellston J.C. Penney, and sends it to me:

    I hear from the children who grew up in homes that were demolished for a McMansion. Or for a brilliant change of pace, I hear from someone who saved a home from teardown.

    It’s pretty cool to have the RFT like on B.E.L.T. They were even kind enough to give it Best Local Website in 2010. So thank you, guys. Especially since it’s the very first trophy I’ve ever earned!

    But it’s the people who’ve been reading and sharing for all these years that make it a truly worthwhile pursuit. You have turned what is obsessively personal geekery into something that has historical merit. And that so many of you care so much about these buildings feels like a warm group hug. I am deeply grateful to all of you for taking the time to read along.

     

  • 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!

  • Atomic Ranches Tucked into Dellwood

    Posted on August 5th, 2012 Toby Weiss 2 comments

    Kappel Drive at West Florissant
    Dellwod, MO

    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.

  • Can Northwest Plaza Be Saved?

    Posted on January 23rd, 2010 Toby Weiss 20 comments

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    The news that Macy’s is closing its Northwest Plaza store marks the sound of the footsteps of a dead mall walking.  The fate of both the former Famous-Barr department store and Northwest Plaza makes me ultra sad, and even before this news I was always nostalgic for the Northwest Plaza of old.  It once had energy and personality, then someone decided to put a lid on it.  It’s been a slow suffocation ever since.

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    My deep fondness for the Famous-Barr at Northwest Plaza stems from one exact moment in time, and it radiates out from there forever more.

    November 1978, Olivia Newton-John releases the album Totally Hot.  It was a calculated move to capitalize on her “bad Sandy” from Grease.  The songs were the most rock she’d ever be, and it was matched with a look which was a modern-day continuation of the 1950s black leather look that had ended the movie my friend and I had seen 7 times in the movie theaters that summer.  Some of the songs on this record were more guitar driven, the vocals randy and tough, and to a long-time Livvy fan (Nerd Alert: I belonged to her fan club years before Grease) it was revolutionary.

    Just as important as the music (which still sounds just as great today, thanks to the brilliance of producer John Farrar) was the album cover art work.  I had just turned 13, and had been given the go-ahead to wear make-up to school, and this is exactly how I wanted to look!

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    A Friday night in December 1978, I was dropped off at Northwest Plaza, and I trudged through the snow to get to the very spot shown above: the Estee Lauder counter at this Famous-Barr.  Where else would a newborn teenage girl go to get that smokey-eyed Livvy look?  I stared down through the glass case at all the eye liner pencils, and my heart pounded with excitement at this whole new world of possibility before me.  Then a sales lady asked how she could help, and my head started pounding with fear because I had no clue what to say, what to do.  I was only used to using the products in my Mother’s make-up drawer, not buying my own!

    The sales lady was very kind, and after a swift transaction, I walked away with a fat Estee Lauder eye liner pencil of a deep blue-gray.  It was my first make-up purchase, my first adult thing, and I still remember the smell of the winter air as I walked out of the store, and turning to look back inside at the warm glow of a cosmetics department that had accepted me as one of their own.  Even then, I knew it was a milestone girl-to-woman moment.

    As most teenage girls tend to do at the start, I too often left the house looking like a hussy raccoon.  I abused that pencil something fierce, and still never came close to looking like Lovely Livvy.  I do believe that the stub of that inaugural eye pencil still exists in one of my junk piles, holding onto it because that time resonated so deeply.  And so does the place that it happened at.

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    Which is why I went there today, to take one last look around, take some photos, and see if the Ghosts of Shopping Past still float under that majestic, astro ceiling.  Today was also a gathering of the Facebook groups I Hung Out at the Northwest Plaza Fountain as a Teenager and Let’s Revitalize Northwest Plaza Now! As a person still grieving from the death of Northland Shopping Center, I had to join both groups and then get a look at the people who were foolhardy enough to try and save a dying mall.

    I was there around 1:30, so didn’t get to see what was eventually about 300 people, as reported by NOCO StL.  But Northwest Plaza is so scary dead that seeing the healthy handfuls of people already gathered at the spot where the fountain once lay was heart-warming.

    Putting a roof over this outdoor plaza was a bad idea from the start; back in the day, I don’t recall a single soul agreeing that this was just what the place needed.  But this is what the then-owners felt was necessary to keep up with the Retail Joneses, that shoppers want a hermetically sealed environment more than they want personality and ease of access that comes from open-air malls.  With millions of dollars of renovation, they erased the low-slung, mid-century midwest ease that changed with the seasons for a clinical, soulless, Any Town U.S.A. warehouse.

    I have a sharp, instinctual sense of direction, but once they put the roof over Northwest Plaza, I got lost (as in “will this be an anxiety attack?” lost) every time.  I’d try to use the anchor stores as place reminders of the old layout, but it was all so tall and bland and disconcerting, that I’d get discombobulated.  The jagged contrast between what it used to be and what it had become was so depressing that I haven’t stepped foot in the place for well over 10 years.  It had nothing to do with crime or location or the types of stores within.  It was about being creeped out about walking over the burial grounds of a once-beloved place.  Oh, how I long to see even the blurriest photo of those lighted deers that graced the Plaza at Christmas time… Northwest Plaza exists only in memories. This mall that has its name is just a tombstone.

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    I am so ecstatic to see a passionate group of people wanting to save this place that I can taste it, but there’s also a bitter aftertaste.  There is very little original fiber left to Northwest Plaza, so only a sense of the place we once loved can be revitalized.  Even if future plans do include removing the roof, it still won’t be the Northwest Plaza being honored today, it will just be a new “lifestyle center” hoping to coast off nostalgic momentum.

    Today also poked at the mental scab I have about the demolition of Northland Shopping Center, another beloved North St. Louis County place that could instantly transport you back to the golden days of yesteryear because it was still in its original state.  And because of the era in which it was built, Northland was more architecturally significant than Northwest Plaza.  But back in 2002-2003, when news of Northland’s demise was first reported, there was not yet Facebook groups to make people aware of what was happening and spur them into action. And trust that people feel just as passioantely about Northland as they do Northwest; even all these many years on, I still regularly get e-mails from people sharing their Northland memories after they’ve found my cyber memorial.  The St. Louisan sense of place is very strong, and we should be proud of that.

    But back in the pre-social network year of 2003, it was just me and a couple of other mourners who documented Northland’s last days.  Even then, I knew trying to save it was a losing game;  acceptance and love of mid-century modern architecture was barely stirring, and the idea of trying to save retail is a brand new concept brought about by the deaths of enclosed malls.

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    What was particularly galling was that as the last walls of Northland were being toppled, retail trends were swinging to (or actually, back to) open air plazas.  Wow, and they just killed a great opportunity for a retro open air plaza, which could have been the mack daddy of St. Louis lifestyle shopping destinations.  It was also right around this time that the first rumors of removing the roof swirled around Northwest Plaza.  This double dose of irony was more than I could withstand and I learned to just let go of any efforts or thoughts of preserving retail because it’s just about following the money which is about following the trends, and obviously, no one cares about retail buildings anyway.

    Until now.
    These hundreds of people who signed up cyberally and then, today, showed up in person are stirring hope in my heart.  Are we ready to embrace sense of place, and ready to expect people-friendly and attractive built environments?  Are we realizing how wasteful it is to keep destroying the places of our past for a future with a short shelf life?  Regardless of what becomes of Northwest Plaza, I’m just relieved to hear others joining this conversation, and am so proud of St. Louis for taking this stand.  You guys rock!

    RELATED
    Northland Shopping Center
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  • 14-Year Old Boy Murdered on Meadowlark

    Posted on July 6th, 2009 Toby Weiss 7 comments

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    2800 Block of Meadowlark Drive
    Jennings, MO

    The headline on July 4, 2009 read, “14-year old shot and killed in Jennings.” The second paragraph reported that it happened in the 2800 block of Meadowlark, and my heart sank. It’s too sad for comprehension when a young boy is riddled full of drive-by bullets. That I intimately know the street where he took his last steps kept haunting me.

    So I had to take a drive to the old neighborhood; I needed to know where it happened. It was easy to spot the memorial at the bottom of the steep hill on Meadowlark. The stuffed animals underscored just how young he was. I saw ghost images of my kid-self walking past that spot hundreds of times, right past the house of the neighbor lady who ran out to administer CPR to the boy as he died. Tears welled up, and I got lost in remembering Meadowlark.

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    I was born one street south of Meadowlark, and when maternity leave was up, my mother had to find a babysitter. A neighbor said a woman on Meadowlark babysat in her home, and to give her a call. So my mother called Mildred Conine, who told her that she had recently stopped with full-time babysitting. My mother was desperate, and asked if Mildred could just watch me for a week while searching for another solution, and she agreed. After one week of taking care of me, she told my mother she would take the full time gig because I was such a quiet and sweet baby. Conine (I called her that because I couldn’t master the first name) and I were together for 12 years. She saw me take my first steps. She was my Other Mother.

    The picture above is from May 1973. That’s me on the left, with Conine’s step-grandaughter, Debbie, on the front porch of her home at 2845 Meadowlark. The house was 600 square feet, built in 1939, with a full basement, a detahced garage that always smelled of the sawdust her husband Ray created, and a gloriously huge backyard for 2 dogs and a most wonderous vegetable garden.

    I think about that house as much as I do Conine. After my parents divorced in 1973, she and the house were the only sense of normal I had left. It was a safe and happy place offering up endless adventure.

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    The last time I visited with her was Christmas 1978. Then puberty came and my life went selfishly beserk, as teenage girls usually go. Conine died in 1988, Ray a few years after that. Over the years, I kept regular tabs on the house, noticing when the asbestos shingles were covered with vinyl, and that the garage was starting to cave in on itself. But everything else about it – and the street – was still so much the same that it was always a special “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.” Always a treat until…

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    …the spring of 2005, when I found boards on the windows and a condemnation notice on the front door. I stood on the front porch and broke into hard, devastated tears.

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    The picture above is a view from Conine’s front porch. That large building in the distance is Northland Shopping Center. Conine (who never had a driver’s license) and I knew about 7 different routes to walk to Northland, and did so at least twice a week. We’d see $1 movies, get groceries at Schnucks and each trip usually included a stop in at Kresges, where the toy aisles babysat me while Conine shopped. Conine and Northland are forever linked in my sense memory.

    And in the spring of 2005, crews had begun swinging the wrecking balls and dismantling Northland, which was already disturbing me. Then to swing by here and see Conine’s house vacated and condemned? It was too symbolic, too unfair and hurt deeply. So I just sat on the porch and cried for the past, the present and no future.

    Northland disappeared, but Conine’s house got a reprieve. Someone bought it, fixed it up and sold it! It’s still occupied to this day. That was an optimistic turn of events for 2845 Meadowlark. But over the following years I’ve noticed something odd about this block.

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    On the map above, “A” marks the spot of the memorial, “B” is the Conine house and the blue outline highlights all the houses on the opposite side of the street that are now vacant and condemned. In 2006, only one house was empty, and since Conine’s place got a second chance, I figured so would the one across the street. But as of July 4, 2009, 8 houses in a row are dead.

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    While Conine’s side of the street (above) is intact and occupied, the other side is an overgrown, sad mess of decay. It’s the kind of mass decay that breeds trouble and makes uneasy neighbors. The news will probably not follow up on why the 14-year old was gunned down in a drive-by, but certain assumptions can be made when you see desolation row across the street. It happens all too often, and it will never not hurt for the people who once lived there, and the people who live there now.

    I got back in my car and sadly, slowly drove up the street, seeing both the past and the present. And then why this death was bothering me so finally hit me: A young life was violently stamped out and he was the symbol of the present state of this block. He has no future. Does Meadowlark?

    UPDATE
    Follow-up information about the shooting.