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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.

     

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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, cure 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!

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  • 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 the intersection was completely built up by 1961, 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.

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  • 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
    Tear Down Jamestown Mall

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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.

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  • Northland Shopping Center Artifacts

    Posted on January 2nd, 2006 Toby Weiss 32 comments

    Let’s carry the story into 2006, by sharing what I saved from Northland Shopping Center.
    Reminder: Should you want it, the entire story is here, and enlarge any photo by clicking on it.

    Northland’s main sign (above, left) stood diagonal to the West Florissant and Lucas & Hunt intersection. For decades, it was the community’s bulletin board.
    When its demolition date arrived, they obviously didn’t bother to dismantle it; they just crushed and whisked (most of) it away. Broken pieces of the big plastic letters were partially buried in the dirt. The “R” (above, right) was the only letter that remained recognizable. In my backyard, it certainly does look like a haggard “P,” yes.

    The Northland Cinema (above, top) was built in 1967. I took the last pictures in Spring 2002, including the pool-side-fabulous lobby (above, bottom left). Darren Snow and I visited on July 2002, and the cinema had been thoroughly demolished, the last of its remains in a few large trash dumpsters nearby. To which D. pulled his pickup alongside so I could climb atop the roof and get into the trash dumpsters, desperate to get a recognizable souvenir. My only “save” was a single, baby blue ceramic tile (above, bottom right) that was once part of the ladies’ restroom sink backsplash. It’s only 1″ square, inconsequential at best, but simply holding it makes me feel way better than any new age crystals they sell.

    On that same day, we waded through the forest of fallen light poles (above, left) that once surrounded the Cinema. The metal parking-place reminders that hung around each pole turned out to be rather huge. Darren was the toolbox-wielding hero (above, middle) who patiently cracked decades of rust and snagged us some parking reminders. “A13” is somewhat heavy and bulky (above, right), but that’s what makes it the perfect sunroom muddy-shoe-holder.

    The former Baker’s Shoes storefront (above, top left) yielded a few treasures. The original door pulls (above, bottom left) were long-coveted, and once vandals broke a display window, I was able to get in and take the handles, which had been sitting on the vacant countertop (top red arrow in top left picture) for over 2 years. They are gorgeous.

    During a summer 2005 visit, Rob Powers was dead-set on having the Baker’s store address (above, bottom middle). Rightly so, because it’s in that smart Lever House font. I dragged a 6 ft. ladder down from the (now easily accessible) Former Kresge. Darren’s magic toolbox had the right size screwdriver. Rob spent a good 15-minutes of cursing under his breath, and finally dislodged (above, bottom right) the Dirty 30. Since he was so diligent, he deserved to keep it.

    I also had to take a brick from Baker’s (above, top right). Special Nerd Note about this photo: the Baker’s brick is sitting atop a limestone brick from the old Cross Keys Shopping Center. It was part of the former Kroger grocery store facade.

    Baker’s Shoes eventually became Kingsbury Shoes (above, left) and the hanging promenade sign (above, top right) eventually became mine (above, bottom right) after the wrecking ball smashed this section into dust.

    From the Former Famous-Barr (above, top left), I dragged off a stone brick (above, top right). A few days later, Brett Reagan (above, middle right) brought along his pickup truck to help me gather more FB stuff, like a chair (above, bottom right) that came from the FB Human Resources office. I figured out its provenance from there being so many of these desk chairs sitting nearby the Employment Office entrance. Plus, after 13.5 years as a Famous-Barr advertising employee, I was overly familiar with the furniture in the areas where folks filled out employment applications.

    The FB door pulls (above, middle left) were something I always longed for, and I now had clear access to removing them, but we had no frickin’ tools! While we stood talking inside the building, we kicked at piles of debris and up popped a solo door pull! The sucker (above, bottom left) easily weighs 10 pounds, and is dashing in its modern simplicity.

    More FB fixture finds include a fire alarm (above, left) and a tin placard that Michael Allen pulled from an AC unit (above, right) and was so kind as to let me keep.

    I waited a couple of weeks for the sign revealed in the FB window (above, left) to become available. So, it’s large but it’s old foam core, so it shouldn’t have been a problem, right? Oh man, it was brittle, large and awkward (above, right) and was the hardest thing to load into Brett’s truck.

    The begrudgingly optimistic sign (above, left) that sat inside the former candy store’s vacant display window was eventually scooped up by me as it fluttered by in a post-demolition wind.

    The sign died in the above, left windows, and later I got a patch of the ceramic tile (above, right) that covered the display facade.

    The exterior stairwells of the Northland Office Building (above, left) were wings of metal, concrete and Mondrian stained glass (above, top right). During demolition, the glass fell to become candy sprinkles on the sidewalk. I oh-so-carefully carried off some really sharp shards (above, bottom right), and they never fail to remind me of so many moments of sunlit abstract beauty in the stairwells.

    The ground floor lobby of the Office Building (above, top left & right) was straightforward linear, with its only organic texture being the tile walls. One had to stand right against it to notice how jet-age loopy the rock pattern was. I later learned a deep appreciation for those rock walls only after I got a chunk of it (above, bottom left). Those are halved pebbles of polished granite embedded in a sand base. My little piece has heft and presence, and the “Made In Italy” stamped on the side (above, bottom right) reveals a high price tag, even back in the mid-50s. Which just highlights how Northland developers and architects never skimped on materials. The construction and the finishes were for important permanent buildings, so they figured the cost was worth it. So, cost pro-rated by 50 years, they probably got their money’s worth…

    The former Kresges at Northland was my Xanadu, and while I got a few things, I never got the chance to thoroughly dig through the guts in search of authentic Kresge souvenirs. The wrecking ball and rain got to it before I got a final crack at. But I did get to tear off a piece (above, bottom right) of Kresge’s upper level facade (above, top). Those sheets of coral and red enameled metal were screwed on for eternity, and I even lost my best screwdriver in the fray, but I won the fight (above, bottom left) and took away a valid, solid chunk of S.S. Kresge & Co.

    On another day, I was happy to just get an original thermostat cover (above, left & right).

    But for me, the most-coveted item in the place was the original Coke-Cola clock (above, top left). Forever it hung on the back wall of the upper floor; when Conine said to meet her by the cash registers in 15 minutes, that clock kept me from losing solo toy browsing privileges. At some point, a cat lover permanently altered the clock face, but I still wanted it bad.

    Many times I tried to work up the nerve to walk inside as McCrory Furniture staff cleared out the store, and simply ask if I could have the clock. But if they knew it was important to me, they’d want to sell it for some absurd amount, I’d refuse and they’d keep the clock to spite me. That’s how revved up I was about snagging the clock – imaging fights with furniture storeowners.

    I kept a vigilant eye, and finally Powers, Snow and I had unrestricted access and a ladder. Despite repeated attempts, we couldn’t budge the giant, heavy clock from the wall, and my heart was breaking. I was so close, the clock is right here in my hands and I can’t have it! Just cruel.

    About a week later, Vince Mattina and I found the clock had been carefully removed from the wall, and sitting on the floor not too far from where it hung (above, middle left). It’s way too big to fit into my car, but what about just taking the clock face? The hands (above, middle right) had to be removed in order to free the face plate, and I failed miserably at it, almost snapping off the hands in anger. Vince was far less emotional about it, and methodically removed the hands (“Now, you have to save these, too. It’s the best part.”) without aid of tools. My hero, Vinceman, freed the clock hands and face, helped me cart out the bounty, and even took my picture (above, bottom) with the hard-won prize. It was a triumphant moment of relief and happiness, certainly the biggest mount in my trophy room (above, top right).

    The stairwells at Northland (above, right) were always a visual and physical delight. On one visit, one of the canister lights (above, left) had fallen down onto the stairs. The scale of Northland was so large that all ornament on it seemed normal-sized when seen from the sidewalk. But when finally right up on a piece, it was overwhelmingly large. This canister light was monstrous. So huge that I had to pass on carting it off, and I regret not having made the effort. It would have made a unique and durable trash can.


    And here’s the last piece of Northland I own (above). I have no idea exactly which store it came from; it peeked out from a pile of debris on the northern lower level, so I scooped it up. This one square foot ceramic glazed tile summarizes the Northland in my mind. That particular shade of blue is so mid-century modern, so cocktail lounge cool, so New Frontier. It’s the big brother to the little sister Northland Cinema tile. If all my Northland artifacts were in book form, this tile would be the cover.
    A warm “thank you” to all the people who helped me cart off “chapters” of the Northland story.

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  • Northland Demolition, Part 5

    Posted on December 20th, 2005 Toby Weiss 4 comments

    September 24, 2005
    The last visit was September 4th, 2005. The entire chronological saga is compiled here. Also, by clicking on them, all photos enlarge for better viewing.
    After a 3 week absence, I was shocked to see the tower (above) still standing. But the demolition crew had moved their Porta Potties, so they were ready to get serious about crushing the southern upper level.

    Circling around all sides of the tower (above left & right) was an odd sort of Maypole dance.

    In preparation for the final crush, the Walgreen’s sign was uncovered (above, left), and capturing this Mondrian-esque sight (above, right) made me nostalgic for when Walgreen’s had a killer liquor department. It was one of my favorite places for last-minute Christmas stocking stuffers. But in the late 1990s, the Mormons reportedly bought the corporation, and they banned the booze.
    7 doors north, all the glass was stripped from the former jewelry store, making it easy to take one last lap around the ravaged space (above, left). It also featured a hatchet edge (above, right) where I could stare straight down into the abyss that was once the Famous-Barr building and the entire north wing, upper & lower levels.

    Staring up from the lower level, the same jewlery store can be seen on the far left of the above, left picture. One normally only sees neat sections on building blueprints, but from this view, it was a section plan come to life. It’s a fascinating reveal of how the upper & lower levels worked, and how the wide array of facade materials formed a large, modern mosaic. Down at the West Florissant entrance to the Office Building (above, right), I got one of the last shots of the upper & lower level play of the south wing. With the plexiglass walls gone, it becomes a pure, unobstructed view of the basic, geometric building blocks that was the ingenious premise of Northland.
    The Rubble Mountain (above) was getting ever taller. Even though the concept of climbing the busted remains of Northland creeped me out, it was too unusual to let a self-timer photo opp pass.
    No, I don’t usually spelunk demo sites in a dress. I’d come straight from work. And in my left hand are pieces of the stained glass from the Office Building (far right in the photo) exterior stairwells that were now available. A Scavenger Sidewalk Sale, of sorts.

    Here’s a small collage of uncovered signage and tossed toilets. I finally got an unobstructed shot of the Staten Island Cleaners sign (above, top right). When the dry cleaners vacated, a chop suey joint took over the space. It looks as if when they installed their own sign, they simply knocked the Staten Island sign over onto the roof.

    October 9th, 2005

    2 weeks later, exactly half of the south wing has disappeared (above). And I zoom in on what the demo crew left behind when the closing bell sounded at Friday quitting time.

    As sad as it is, there’s also beauty and grace within demolition scenes. Goethe said “architecture is frozen music,” but when its busted pieces are crashing and fluttering about, it thaws to become a sorrowful, minor key symphony. In the case of the Foxmoor storefront (above, left & right), it also felt like an action sequence that came to a halt when the film reel jammed.
    Or a giant’s game of Pick-Up Stix (above). The light poles just barely missed falling into the pit. Also note the 4 round green planters near the top center of the photo.
    As the crews have methodically dismantled and cleared each space before crushing it, they carefully move these planters out of the way, rather than obliterating them.

    It’s so odd, for the crews have to physically move these planters from place to place. But it’s also comical, because the planters now resemble a Greek chorus traveling behind each new wound, pointing and contributing commentary. These planters have become bookmarks, or a perverse version of Where’s Waldo? as I crane to find them somewhere within each frame.

    A close-up view (above) reveals about 5 layers of paint over the years, with the original layer being the light blue that dominated the Northland color scheme. Also, I always assumed the planters were made of concrete, but it’s actually a fiberglass & plastic mixture. This makes them relatively light-weight, and easy for the demolition crew to move about like checkers.
    Hmmm…would I be able to move one from the site and into my backyard?
    The Northland Office Building was wide open and prepped for the big crush…
    …with machinery lined up to attack. So I figured I better get inside for some final detail shots before it was gone for good.
    Even more stained glass was missing from the external stairwells (above, left), which left beautiful confetti on the sidewalk below.
    Coming in through the south-facing main entrance, I’m surprised at how much of the original finishes remain. There’s the simplistic handles of the glass doors against the space-age shaped mosaic tile (above, left) , and the goblet-shaped metal canister lights (above, right) that were prevalent in many commercial spaces during the late 1950s.
    Exit the building from the north-facing side (above, left) and head over for the last look at what remains of the south wing’s lower level (above, right).
    I finally got to see what material had comprised the black rectangle (above, left), since they were now scattered on the ground. Each panel was metal covered in porcelain enamel (above, right), which surprised me. That material was recently out of favor for facades, with its heyday being the 1930s and ’40s. For the Northland architects to pick that material for use in a purely decorative manner was a nice touch.

    Of course I tried to salvage one of the panels, but like everything at Northland, the pieces wind up being much, much larger than they seem from ground level. This single panel was about 3′ x 2′, and way too heavy for me to carry over a long distance. Since the site was completely closed off and torn up, I had to park at the stand-alone Blockbuster up near the Lucas & Hunt/West Florissant intersection and walk a bit to get to the demolition. While it never seemed like a long walk previously, carrying a 35-pound enamel panel would make it feel like a mile. So, I had to leave it behind. I still regret that, but then, where would I have put it?
    Considering how fast the crew moves when they’re cleared for take off, I had a feeling this was my last moments with the tower (above). Actually, I was hoping it would be, because I was worn down by the anticipatory dread. But I was torn between wanting to capture parts of its demise, and just returning to see it completely cleared (like the grocery store) so I wouldn’t have to see such a grim sight.

    October 16th, 2005
    On this day, I turned 40, while Northland only made it a scootch past 50 years old. I hope there’s no symbolism involved here.
    And I caught the last gasping remains of the once-mighty-pretty tower (above). While the crew completely cleared everything immediately around it, they left just this last bit standing, almost as if leaving me a birthday present. Thank you…. I think?
    But the Office Building still stands in the background (above). Which made sense when I pondered it; the demo crew is very methodical. They won’t crush the Office Building until they’ve completely cleared the last bits of the mall, proper. Environmental Operations, Inc. have been fabulously meticulous throughout this long, hard process.
    The Greek chorus (above, left) moves to the southwest, to sing a final farewell to the tower, while trekking directly north of them, I find a sign (above, right) patiently narrating what all this rubble once was.
    Looking west at what was the stairwell to the lower level, the still-standing bank can be seen on the left side of the above, left photo.
    Once there was a multitude of stainless steel columns, but now we have the Last Mohican (above, right). I tried my best to salvage any piece of the still-vibrant stainless steel, but the sections were either too long or too large to handle by myself, or were jutting out of piles that could have turned into a massively scary game of Jenga if I pulled incorrectly.

    Since the bank will remain open for the duration of the demolition and new construction, I shot one of the drive-up ATM kiosks as a future reference point (above). Once everything is demolished, spatial relations change drastically, and it’s difficult to pin-point what was where. By picking something that will remain, it’s easier to find the phantom spot in the future, should I wish to engage in morbid memories. But so far, I just want this to be over with.
    Save for the main one, all identifying signs (above, left) still ring the perimeter of the property. I’d love to get my hands one of those Exit signs, but again, they are really huge. I could get someone to help me cart it off, but then where would I put it? Turn it into a coffee table, maybe?

    Above, right, standing in what was the lower level, and shooting through, and past, the iron framework. And it’s still a weird, creepy feeling to be standing on what was a solid building just days ago.
    This was the southern lower level shipping and receiving garage, which lead to an entire city’s worth of neighborhoods underground. I never realized just how massive this place was until they dismantled it. The dry cleaners/chop suey joint was to the immediate left in the (above) photo, the stairwell to the right. In the last years, one could always smell urine when walking past this spot. Now it has a brief chance to air out…
    Here’s the last of Northland’s 3 stairwells (above), which had been sealed off since at least 2002. And again, we see the plaster not so much falling off, but peeling off to hang like a curtain. It truly is an impressive sight. All that weight hung like that for another 2 weeks or so, which points out – yet again – how tightly and strongly this place was built. And which is why it’s taking so long to tear it down.
    Which makes me think about the place that will replace Northland. In about 25-30 years from the date it opens, it will be crushed for some other new development, but at that time, demolition will only take about a month or so. Meaning, the advantage to building cheap, flimsy new buildings is the built-in demolition savings in the future. Very clever, that.

    From the lower-level pit, I look up for one final goodbye to The Tower, and then had to split for some birthday merriment. But it felt good to spend a little time with a place that has meant so much to me over these 4 decades of life.

    October 24th, 2005
    At the very north-eastern of the Northland property (see star on map, above), there was an organic, pedestrian-made foot path that took you from the top of the hill down into Northland, just behind the cinema. Many of us walked to Northland back in the day (I know I walked to more than was ever driven to), and many still do; every time I’ve been at the site, easily 20% of the folks I encountered were on foot.
    The new developers have acknowledged that path, and made it official by paving it (above, left). Nice touch, truly, because it shows they’ve acknowledged how people in the community have – and will – use the place. Then I get to the top of new sidewalk, and….

    (Above, right). What the piss?! Some well intentioned but dunder-headed street department worker decided to cap off the metal guard rail! You can see how fresh it is, and how it violates the freshly laid concrete sidewalk! What were they thinking?!
    Oh, they weren’t thinking, obviously.
    Build an official pedestrian path, and then block it off…brilliant, just brilliant.

    OK, the young can easily hop over it, but what about the old? And even as I photographed this jerk move, 3 little kids were riding their bikes across the Northland lot. They pedaled up the new sidewalk, and confronted the new roadblock. The 2 boys quickly got off their bikes, picked them up and over onto the outer sidewalk. Then they pedaled off, leaving behind the little girl, who couldn’t pick up her bike as easily.
    Putting her bike on its side, she pushed it under the rail, then hopped over to pull it out the rest of the way. During the solid minute that she spent overcoming the obstacle, the boys had long-since disappeared, and she had to frantically pedal off to find them.
    Either Sansone (the developer) needs to get over there and remove that end cap, or someone in the neighborhood needs to take a chainsaw to it. Either way, fix it!
    Northland was a 65+ acre property, very hilly. My father tells of hunting rabbits on that forest-like property back in the 1940s. The original Northland architects worked with that landscape, creating a multi-level structure. The new development will obviously be one level, on flat ground. Looking north (above, left, and note the Greek Chorus in the distance), see that everything has been filled in. The demolition remains were packed down to form a foundation, and fresh dirt caps it off.

    Looking west towards the Office Building (above, right) better shows the line of demarcation. I’m standing on the fresh ground near the border of debris. Construction-wise, earth moving is a budget killer. It’s often wiser – both financially and ecologically – to build with the land then to rearrange it (as in the original 1950s construction). But when “recycling” this property, they recycled parts of the building as their in-fill, and only had to pay for enough new dirt to ice over it. That’s a large budget relief. Plus, it’s also cheaper to build single-level dry wall & brick boxes. So, this does highlight why developers are constantly looking to scoop up previously built-up land for their new enterprises: huge savings.OK, I admit that I was slightly annoyed to see the Office Building still standing. It just prolongs my agony, drags all this out far too long. But the medicine ball had been moved into place (above), so they’d be gettin’ busy on the Office any day now.
    Here’s a still-life (above) of newly-yanked Office debris. I call it “Mid-Century Electronica.”
    Knowing the ball would be swinging, I went back inside the Office Building to find a souvenir. The lobby (above, left) always had the crazy sophisticate marble mosaic tile, and the chunk that fell off the corner (above, right) was laying there for me to cart off.

    And as I gathered loot, a fellow scavenger walked in. Earlier in this visit, I’d noted a man (and his pick-up truck) moving about the large piles of building debris on (what remained of) the upper-level Actually, I’ve seen a lot of these types; they’re probably rooting for copper. Since no one has every truly guarded the site (I’ve stared right at Jennings’ cop cars as they drove past me, and just kept going), so why not retrieve anything of monetary value?

    On this day, as I photographed from the pit and he surveyed trash piles above, we visually acknowledged one another, and kept going. Later, as I sifted through the dislodged junk inside the Office Building, I heard him walk in, talking on a cell phone. Again, we made eye contact and casually went about our business, which was an oddly comforting form of corpse communion.
    And here’s what (finally) became the very final shot of the Northland Office Building.

    November 9th, 2005
    Almost 3 weeks later, the Office Building is now thoroughly gone (above).
    The bank building finally becomes a stand-alone “out lot.” It’s odd that this building survives; it was the last bit to be tacked onto Northland, and then the Last Mohican. But money talks, and this place remains defiantly open.
    From the upper-level (above, top), it’s shocking how much space the bank actually took up within the complex. But when viewed (above, bottom) from the northern-most end of the property (I’m standing on the train tracks for this shot), the bank just looks sad and misshapen when divorced of context.

    And my physical work at Northland is basically finished. I’m relieved.
    There’ll be 2 more posts about it: the memorabilia I carted off; friends old and new who joined me during this odyssey along with commentary and memories from those who loved the place just as much as me. Until that time…
    Miniature Memorial To The Northland Office Building
    As a kid, I mentally referred to the place as “The Marcus Welby, M.D. building,” and it always reminds me of Flipper.
    To keep me occupied while in the waiting room, Conine bought me a Flipper coloring book, which was purchased at Kresges, on our way to her doctor appointment. I colored in about 3 or 4 pages before asking the receptionist if I could have the key to the restroom. I took the coloring book with me (why?!) , and didn’t realize I’d obviously left it in the bathroom until many hours later.
    The Gasaway Pharmacy had been on the 1st floor from the very beginning to the very end, and never once remodeled. Their goodbye note is above (click on photo to read a larger version), and note that it was composed on an old-fashioned typewriter.

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  • Northland Shopping Center

    Posted on June 16th, 2005 Toby Weiss 13 comments


    Northland Shopping Center
    Lucas-Hunt Road & West Florissant, Jennings, MO
    Northland is a personal and architectural obsession of mine. If you want back story and photos, go here. An architect pal o’mine understands my obsession, and I thank him for publishing wreckage updates when I couldn’t bear to. In this space, I will visit various aspects of Northland’s demise, but for this moment, some hard news.


    Wednesday, June 15th was the Ambassador’s last night of business at Northland. They are still trying to find a new location, and are even contemplating building a new place from scratch since relocating has turned into more of a hassle than anticipated.

    As Northland dies and Buzz Westfall’s Plaza on the Boulevard rises from the ashes, Sansone is actively recruiting tenants to fill in the details of what Target and Schnucks will anchor. The Ambassador (and a subsidiary of Spruill’s International Catering) wanted to sign on with the Plaza, which seems like a win/win situation for all parties involved.

    But the Ambassador was given a “no thanks.”
    London’s Wing House – a successful outlot building nestled right into the West Florissant and Lucas-Hunt corner – must also leave (and this, after the owner dropped a big chunk of change on remodeling).

    The Ambassador, Spruill’s and London’s Wing House are privately owned minority businesses with a sizeable and loyal clientele. They kept Northland alive for the last several years. But they are not corporate chains, so they are not welcome at Buzz Westfall’s Plaza on the Boulevard.

    Even though this news doesn’t shock me, it still really pisses me off.

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