Posted on August 8th, 2013 11 comments
Since February 1993, I have lived in South St. Louis. In May 1999, I bought a house between the Bevo and Holly Hills neighborhood, where I remain. It’s a Mayberry kind of neighborhood with many residents who’ve lived here more than 40 years; a short, out-of-the-way, one way street, so it’s rather quiet.
Until I switched to paying for lawn mowing, I was the moron on the block with embarrassingly tall grass. I balanced that by being the alley sheriff, picking up never-ending trash that eschewed dumpsters, calling the non-emergency number when things I couldn’t fix went awry. A salvaging neighbor has caused me 2 flat tires from the screws he leaves in the alley between our garages. But it was easy to shake off because the joy far outweighed the annoying.
In Spring 2011, our block experienced a series of home break-ins and a front porch mugging at gun point. I could move or fight back. I bought a home alarm system and joined the Bevo Neighborhood Stabilization team that sprung up in the wake of similar problems all around us. It worked impressively well for pushing back the crime in our immediate area.
But the last two summers have been wearisome. July 4th fireworks go from mid-June to the end of July. The morning of July 5th is war torn, with bomb shards smeared on the streets and smoke hanging in the air. The rest of the time, it’s gun shots in the distance, or sometimes so close you feel a slight vibration. A bullet hole in my roof caused a drastic water leak. Some of those bullets recently killed the clerk at the 7-11 right down the street.
My end of the alley has become a pain in the ass. There’s constant dumpster issues, and people forget to mow/whack the patch of grass between their back fence and the paved alley. It looks like the cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur. I’m tired of alley sheriff duties; if they don’t care, why the hell should I?
This year, some family moved to South St. Louis County, so I’ve been slowly exploring the nooks and closed crannies of the place where Catholic South Siders fled to in the 1950s and 60s. It’s an odd place – they keep quiet, they keep clean and they spend all their time indoors. You seldom see anyone out on their perfect lawns or walking their peaceful streets. It looks like a movie set before the morning crew arrives.
It was heaven to spend a good portion of this 4th of July holiday swimming in a backyard pool in SoCo. The lack of rat-a-tat-tat firecrackers was soothing, the lack of trash a treat. But even before this Zen sabbatical, I had been feeling the stirrings of packing up and moving out of the South Side. Even though it felt like a betrayal, I couldn’t stop feeling it. Why is all this wearing me down now? We had been through much worse in previous years, but now I want to retreat?
June 2013, The Blind Eyes released an EP, which instantly became my summer soundtrack. They are consistently tight, joyous and impressive to my ears. “Armour” is the lead-off track, and after having rocked with it for several spins, I finally listened to the words. And it made me cry. The Blind Eyes had precisely diagnosed my broken South Side spirit. They’d felt it, too.
Here’s the song “Armor” – give it a listen. And here are the transcribed lyrics, some of which I know are wrong, but it hopefully won’t diminish the gist:
Not a second thought when you hear the sound
Of shots ringing out when the sun goes down
Took a little while but we finally learned
A way to fiddle on while the city burned
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
Used to shake it up nearly every day
With those who’ve figured out how to keep the beasts away
Building up a wall but it tumbled down
Never telling when it’s gonna come around
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
It’s hard to let it go
But let it go
The song conjures images of the arson in Benton Park and dead bodies across the entire city. And I cried some more. The Blind Eyes’ music gives the song a bittersweet optimism. Previously, they celebrated my fellow City Dwellers with 2011’s “Hold Down the Fort,” which felt like a rallying cry as we battled demolitions and burglars.
But the personal reveal from “Armour” is that my armor is rusting thin. Instead of bolstering my spirits, this song is like a tearful hug to try and keep me from bolting.
And then on August 3, 2013, the King of South St. Louis – Bob Reuter – died. He literally dropped off the planet, leaving a huge hole in the soul of the South Side. Reuter was a photographic mentor, schooling me about black & white printing and his life during late hours in the Forest Park Community College darkroom. He captured South Side people, I captured its buildings, so there was a common ground, a common passion for a specific place.
I keep picturing his camera, inadvertently abandoned and still, and can’t bring myself to even look at my camera bag, much less go out and continue documenting why this place has such a strong hold on so many of us. Reuter never let anything keep him from his quest to tell stories, to live free. He had the armor to protect his creative spirit. His passing is still too raw to inspire me past this current weakness of spirit.
It’s not like I have the financial means to move, or even a solid plan. It’s just a restlessness and uncertainty, like a wife wondering if there’s a more meaningful life to be had away from her husband, and she’s two steps away from an emotional affair with a co-worker. In this case, my “emotional affair” would be South St. Louis County.
Having these thoughts constantly looping through my heads fills me with guilt and regret, because I can’t help loving the South Side even when it’s callous toward me and brutal to those in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So tonight, I will once again turn on the bedroom fan for white noise to drown out the yelling, the souped-up cars roaring down the street, and the gun shots…
Pass it off so we can sleep when we lay down at night
Armored with the thoughts of everything will be alright
Posted on May 29th, 2013 2 comments
This building always reminded me of Matt Helm, the fictional government counter-agent, as portrayed by Dean Martin. Here’s a taste of The Silencers.
The first in a series of films released in 1966, it became a short-lived TV show in 1975, but the character debuted in book form in 1960. Come 1961, The Magnum Building was erected. Magnum, gun, Matt Helm, mid-century cool = conjuring Dean Martin. Often architecture makes you think random, fanciful thoughts.
The Magnum was surely once a sharp, sophisticated building. Underplayed so as not to call too much attention, but with details that warn of underestimating its lethalityl. By the time it was covered in this Hampton Avenue study, it had obviously seen better days.
Then it caught fire in the summer of 2012, with the kind of drama right out of the pages of a spy novel. It was condemned for occupancy by the fall.
It was sad and disrespectful to watch it deteriorate. Maybe in the last 20 years no one even noticed the building, gray and fading into the street traffic. Now it stuck out because of the bright board-up plywood, like a Sharpie-scrawled sticky paper name tag on a worn-out smoking jacket. It was doomed.
A demolition permit was granted in April 2013. I pass this way frequently and never saw signs of demolition, so it must have crumpled quickly, like Matt Helm retired with a bullet to the gut.
The end of May 2013, it’s a parking lot in the making. A parking lot for what, exactly? The sleek little MCM building to the right remains vacant; does the dry cleaners need more car space? Whatever, it’s weird to see open space in this section of Hampton, veering toward the curve. Farewell to The Magnum Building.
Posted on August 7th, 2011 11 comments
One of the most interesting chapters of how St. Louis City developed can be read with a drive along the entire stretch of Hampton Avenue. Starting at Interstate 64/Hwy 40 and heading south 4 miles to just past Loughborough Avenue, you will find an even balance of original buildings from both before and after World War 2.
The emphasis is on “original” because there was little need along Hampton to tear down old buildings to make room for bright, shiny New Frontier buildings because large chunks of Hampton remained vacant land awaiting development at the close of WWII.
I did not know this until I began researching the origin of Hampton’s mid-century modern buildings, and was stunned to learn from the 1940 City Directory that there was NOTHING on Hampton between today’s Highway 44 and Arsenal. In 1940! Or that they didn’t have to knock down a single building to develop the intersection of Hampton and Eichelberger (home of the fabulous Buder Library building) because even as late as 1948 there was still no Directory listing for anything on that stretch of road.
The St. Louis history of post-WW2 mid-century modern always focuses on the flight from City to County, or how old City buildings were demolished to make way for Urban Renewal. But along large swaths of Hampton Avenue, the mid-century modern buildings ARE the original buildings, and to think this happened within the City bounds at such a late date proves how the City of St. Louis is both so ancient and so young. This just adds to the schizophrenically endearing nature of our City, and highlights the importance of preserving and celebrating the historical and architectural uniqueness Hampton Mid-Century Modernism.
Hampton Avenue is close to the western city limits, and to a growing City that took from 1850 to 1900 to seriously expand west from Grand Boulevard to Kingshighway, Hampton would have been considered “out in the boonies.” According to the St. Louis Street Index, the name Hampton didn’t appear on a map until 1913, and only earned its top northern section between Manchester and Oakland avenues in 1921.
While there was continual residential development from the 1850s onward in the neighborhoods that surround Hampton Avenue (Oakland, Clifton, The Hill and Southwest neighborhoods), other than small pockets of commercial storefronts dating from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the bulk of Hampton Avenue appears to have been built up in earnest during and after World War 2. Meaning, once St. Louisans strengthened their commitment to the automobile, Hampton suddenly seemed much closer than before and worthy of commercial development.
This would also mean that the density of MCM buildings on Hampton were designed and sited with the idea that people would reach them by foot, bus, streetcar and automobile. So this wasn’t a case of slotting new modern buildings into a pre-established urban grid (as was the case with Lindell Boulevard modern in-fill), but rather a blank canvas to paint with both the old and new colors available to planners, developers and architects in the mid-century.
Since about 2002, I have been photographing the MCM on Hampton; some of the photos in this study are of a building in a younger or less-molested state. From the summers of 2010 to 2011, I purposely photographed 107 buildings, and spent way too much time pouring over physical City Directories at the St. Louis County Library headquarters, and on-line with Geo St. Louis. There are plenty of discrepancies between the two; I often had to rely on 1958 and 1971 aerial maps of Hampton to clear up confusion, or talking to an architect (Richard Hemi), a glazier (my father, Richard Weiss) who worked on a building in question, or asking older St. Louisans to dust off their memory caps and picture what used to be. So, I know there will be plenty of inaccuracies of info that will be discovered, but now is the time for everyone to join in and share what they know.
Of the 107 Hampton buildings that I photographed and researched, 46 were built between 1950 – 1959, and 29 were built from 1960 – 1969. Of the remaining 32 buildings, most were built between 1932 – 1949, with 5 of them going up between 1970 – 1976. Some of the older buildings were given a modern facelift to keep up with the Joneses, and if there was a building in the path of what would become an interstate they were demolished. One example is:
This grand palace at 2065 Hampton (at Wilson Avenue) opened in 1952 as Ollie Auto Top. Darren Snow found this photo as part of a display ad in the 1959 City Directory. The address was listed as vacant by 1969, and then Hwy 44 came through. A Steak ‘n Shake that sat at 2055 Hampton for about only 15 years also bit the 44 dust.
My research turned up a steady and over-abundant stream of liquor stores and bars all along Hampton, especially along the stretch running through St. Louis Hills. For instance, 5918 Hampton is today Area IV, and that storefront is carrying on a long tradition of housing only taverns, which began in 1936 with Robert Werges’ joint. Sometimes a retail block would begin and end with a liquor store; so no one ever had to walk too far for a brew? As the elders have said, all the smoking and drinking in Mad Men is not an exaggeration, and Hampton Avenue from 1936 – 1970 was the living proof!
After liquor, beauty and ice cream shops were the most popular along Hampton, followed closely by filling stations, which verifies how much more auto-centric Hampton was when compared to the other thoroughfares further east.
There were businesses that moved just blocks away to get into newer buildings (like Charles of Yorkshire beauty shop or Gassen’s Rexall Drug Store), and lots of realty companies opened shop for a short time, reflecting how the neighborhoods around Hampton were still building up in the 1950s-60s. But there was always another business ready to move into a vacated storefront, and that still happens today. No stretch of Hampton has yet experienced the kind of rot that affects other parts of the city and their main thoroughfares.
There are roughly 8 companies and institutions that still remain in the building first erected for them, including: Bayer’s Garden Shop whose building went up in 1948 as O.E. Bayer’s Garden, Furniture & Novelities; Porter Paints at 5400 Hampton, who set up shop in the new building in 1959; AB Dick Products still resides in their 1960 building at 2121 Hampton. Wise Speed Shop at 5819 Hampton moved into their new building in 1969, and only very recently did they close up shop and put the building up for sale.
There have been some demolitions for something new like a highway (as mentioned above), or taking down a small house or filling station to accommodate a larger building. For instance, Stein Brothers Bowling was on the northwest corner of the Hampton/Chippewa intersection in 1965, but it was torn down to make way for what became Lindell Bank & Trust (which looks MCM but really isn’t). But in general, buildings get remodeled rather than demolished, and even when they are remuddled unrecognizable, it’s preferable to demolition.
Two of the buildings in this survey are currently in the hot seat for demolition, which highlights why a study of the mid-century modern building stock on Hampton deserves a spotlight. This is a unique stretch of commerce in St. Louis City, an area that developed in tandem with St. Louis County, receiving the same kind of care and enthusiasm as shown to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson, Jennings, Affton or Lemay.
I invite you to
And then travel this great street with new eyes – maybe even find some new ones that I overlooked due to being overwhelmed with the treasure chest that is Hampton Avenue!
Posted on February 21st, 2009 1 comment
Wilmington & Leona Avenues
South St. Louis City, MO
This warms the cockles of my heart, it really does. In the middle of a depression, with people losing jobs and properties sitting vacant and anxiety growing every day, these people start a new business venture and have a grand opening!
Panache Plus soft-opened in my neighborhood last week. Their grand opening is this weekend. I do not know these people, and I won’t be able to shop here (though I certainly would if I could), so this isn’t an advertisement. It’s simply a big hug of happiness for these people denying the anxiety, ignoring the odds, and adding a bit of color and, well, panache to the neighborhood.
This charming little building was previously a day care, and it didn’t sit vacant for too long. I watched the place getting fixed up by new tenants, and prayed real hard for a coffeehouse. But plus size retail, resale and altering is just as good, and actually more unique and practical than a coffeehouse, especially the resale aspect in a crap economy. So, here’s wishing the best of luck to this small spot of optimism in our neighborhood!
Posted on January 31st, 2009 6 comments
South Kingshighway between Odell & Reber
South St. Louis, MO
The homes overlooking the west end of Tower Grove Park are distinctive and do a fine job of representing local residential architecture between the 1890s to early 1900s.
The two facades above stick out from the pack because they made an effort to represent the Art Deco and International styles of the 1930s and 40s. They are the only significant deviation within 4 – 5 blocks, and for sticking their necks out, I salute them.
Posted on January 16th, 2009 11 comments
Like a fly trapped in prehistoric amber, a house for sale in The Hill neighborhood of South St. Louis city is eerily preserved. You can buy the house and get the furnishings, or buy the furnishings and get a house. Either way, it’s a fascinating concept.
Posted on October 31st, 2008 3 comments
Southwest St. Louis City, MO
This sleek bit of mid-century cool is hiding in plain sight in southwest St. Louis city. Most probably miss it because it’s tucked into the hills and valleys of the city/county border, along the River Des Peres, a road we race down to get someplace else. Some people know the distinctive Geneva logo on the brick side of the building, a saucy and sexy script font made of stainless steel.
Or maybe it gets overlooked because it’s a fading beauty? The Geneva Apartments were built in 1958, and just imagine how audacious this place must have seemed at the time, all linear pink and white, hinting that if this apartment were in Los Angeles, Kim Novak would stay here, you just know it.
Today, the pink has faded to salmon, some inappropriate replacement patio doors mar the lines, some water-damaged plaster flaps in the breeze and ground floor doors and windows that were once transparent are now blocked off. But I love that renters are required to have white window coverings, which keeps the aesthetics in line and that no significant remuddling has been done. Sit tight, and in just a little while, the Geneva’s retro appearance will become its prime calling card. Well, that, and its ultra prime location by the Metrolink station.
I love the deft use of all the touchstone MCM building materials: metal, ceramic, stone and glass. I love that in the detail shot above, it could well be a picture from Southern California, but it’s St. Louis. I love this place lit up at night, the spotlights casting arches across the entrance. I don’t love the overgrown landscaping because it hides some of the building’s beauty.
Sneak around the corner and push through the trees and find this secret side courtyard. In the center is a former fountain or planter, to the left is a sliding patio door, so imagine the lucky soul who lives in that apartment.
If I had to give up home ownership and move into an apartment, the Geneva would be the place. Checking out their website, the rates are reasonable, the square footage of the floor plans is do-able and the building and the site are fantastically unique. The Geneva’s location is ideal, as it flirts with the county border; the city claims it as the western edge of the Lindenwood Park area. If you’re car-less, this is certainly the place to be, and probably explains why I see so many elderly living here.
The Geneva is a long apartment building with 2 distinct faces: its Mies-ian public front, and a main elevation that is all minimal brick geometry punctuated by the same white balcony “cubes” on the front elevation. The owners of the building obviously prefer this elevation, as it’s the side shown to potential renters in the photo tour at this site. It is an impressive view, as the building lazily crawls up a hill. With all the mature greenery, it looks and feels like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unsonian concept successfully transferred to multiple-family residential.
By the late 1950s, the city of St. Louis was pretty much filled up, and The Geneva found a way to wedge into the very last unbuilt acerage at the edge, and then stood alone as an oasis for modern renting for about 3 years until…
…the first building of the Park Val apartment complex went up in 1962, followed by 5 more separate buildings in 1964. Each one is clad in brick that is proudly pink, with taupe-colored brick used as accent around window wells and vertical punctuation on windowless elevations.
This complex had to be planned around some serious hills and valleys (which may be why this property sat undeveloped for so long?), creating all kinds of odd occurrences in siting and access. For instance, to reach the rental office near Weil Avenue, you have to cross a long foot bridge 1-story off the ground. Stand in certain spots and all the bridges and stairs can start to look like an M.C. Escher drawing!
As you can see from this photo tour, the place is nicely groomed and landscaped. They have the quintessential MCM kidney-shaped pool, and a charming bit of personality: each main entrance of each building has a name etched in limestone. The main office building is “Brian.” Walk around and see Terri, Kathy and Sandra. Do they refer to each building by name rather than address? I certainly do, because it’s much easier that way.
Walk just a little further up Weil Avenue and you come to Florinda’s Court apartments, built in 1961. This complex sits at the very edge of Shrewsbury (across from the Shrewsbury Bowl and Shop ‘n Save), and are a classic example of garden apartments. There are 3 distinct styles of buildings surrounding the interior courtyard: 2-story building with scroll-work balconies giving off a vauge seaside tourist vibe, the motor court two-family “flats” shown above, and the plain brick box shown to the left below. But in the case of the last two types, they added angular roof lines for a bit of jaunty hipness.
How the utterly useless plastic shutters got into the picture is a complete misery, er, mystery. The original designers would have had no aesthetic need for them, and if subsequent owners thought tacking those brown Bandaids alongside the windows would soften the modern look of the place, they were blind and wrong.
These 3 apartment complexes are a poignant snapshot of a unique time in the mid-century history of city to county living, of home ownership vs. renters, of cars vs. pedestrians. I love that all 3 places are still going strong and are now even better positioned to be viable and useful in this era of escalating gas and energy prices, and they look fabulous doing so.
Posted on October 9th, 2007 10 comments
Leona & Bowen Streets, South St. Louis, MO
In Holly Hills, across from Woerner Elementary, built in 1931, and among rows of houses built shortly thereafter is the church, seen above. Maybe because it looks like nothing else in the immediate area, people often point it out as queer looking, while others have come right out and said they hate the way it looks.
It is a bit mod for the neighborhood, and especially since it caps off a row of typical South Side gingerbreads, it has a red-headed stepchild feel about it. I admire it for all these reasons, and that it has silently persevered against a steady, calm stream of improprieties, beginning with its point of origin.
City property records claim it was built in 1953, lists the type as “cinema” and the building style as “restaurant/recreation.” The City Directory first lists it in 1963, which makes much more sense, architecturally. It was never a cinema (yeah, I got my hopes up about that); it started life as Bible Chapel and became the current Oak Hill Chapel (even though it’s not in the Oak Hill neighborhood) around 1985.
Esley Hamilton learned by happy happenstance that Erwin Carl Schmidt is the architect of this church. There is a May 4, 1951 listing for “church Southside Gospel, 6100 Leona,” when Schmidt was partnering with Walter Krueger.
I love what the architect was originally going for on the front facade and steeple. Minimal, asymmetrical geometry. Just because he was going for that doesn’t mean he did it successfully; the scale seems a bit wonky, especially the finial on the toppermost of the steeple. But the palette is spare, so it can’t go too awfully wrong.
Until seen from the angle above. Is that funky roof dormer original? And if so, was this intentional or the result of parishioner intervention during the design and budgeting phase?
The course of modern life has imposed some other changes upon the church. An educated guess says the arrowhead stairs shooting out from the entrance were sans banister, originally. Or if so, it wasn’t the one seen above, nor would the designer have put it smack dab in the middle of the dramatic point. Also, the above banister matches the ones flanking the handicap ramp that was required.
I do appreciate that the ramp follows the asymmetry of the front facade, but surely that was a divine accident. ADA issues aside, why the vertical mini-blinds in the transom glass above the entrance? Considering how the building is sited, those windows were meant to catch the afternoon sun. I’m guessing the alter would be square in the sun’s spotlight because of them. But at least the lines of the blinds kind of echo the lines of the soffit above them.
But the biggest imposition to the original design is in the sign seen above. LOVE the plaster sign frame, like half of the Van Halen logo, and all airliner kitsch, which has nothing to do with religion, or the building it identifies, really. I wish I could see a picture of what font was used on the original sign that went behind the glass.
The sign frame is still cool despite what it’s holding up. The wood placard inside was cut and made to fit the space, and obviously represents what the parish wishes their building was like: colonial and quaint. To their credit, they have not hacked away at the building’s exterior to make it match the placard, but it is the intense juxtaposition of the sign that keeps me from investigating the interior. There’s only so many architectural improprieties with one building that a girl can handle!
Posted on June 16th, 2007 6 comments
I was pedaling around a previously-unexplored section of South St. Louis, the very hilly part wedged in the area between Highway 55 and the St. Louis County line. A majority of the homes near the City/County border are the quickly-erected, simple tract homes necessitated by the baby boom. Sprinkled among them are 1920s & 30s brick bungalows, and a couple of much older homes in the “farm mansion” style.
I pedaled up Waddell, and on my right I saw a line of 5 houses that stuck out like a white rose in a red rose bouquet (see photo above). Simple, square homes with an abundance of glass and carports providing a sense of sweeping asymmetry. A glance down Comstock revealed an even longer line of the same houses. A pedal down the street revealed two courts full of variations on this theme!
As I stood at the entrance to Marla Court (map, above), memories of Darla Court rushed forth; Darla Court being a Jetsons duplex village I accidentally discovered in the bowels of Jennings, MO. Darla in the North… Marla in the South… freaking out, in a good way.
Above is a good example of a relatively untouched version of the homes in this little mid-century pocket. All of the homes in this style were built between 1957 and 1958. Each one was originally 952 square feet with one bathroom and central air. These small homes were given a bit of modern drama by treating the standard-height front rooms to 5 transom windows following the slope of the roof line. The steel tubes supporting the roof overhang and carport are placed at the jaunty angles which separated modern from traditional.
This being South St. Louis, tinkering with our homes is a pre-requisite, so of course there is some remodeling. “Stone” siding and shutters were an original cosmetic variation on the theme, while the boarding up of the transom windows and the curly-cue iron columns (above) feels like a form of beating back some of the peskier modern features.
Most of the homes have opted to cover the wood roof soffits with vinyl, which is a normal function of upkeep. But I was charmed by how most everyone kept the wide variety of colors when it came time to replace the siding (above).
All of the houses were the same, yet there is just enough original – and new – detail to make each one interesting in its own right. I was also pleased to see every home occupied and in pristine condition, with neighbors of all ages playing in the street and puttering around the yards. I wonder if being part of a slightly secluded neighborhood of similar houses contributes to the distinct community feel.
Check out the above drastic remodel. Not only did they change the orientation of the siding and the windows from horizontal to vertical, they also added a second story. I love that they went for such radical departures while still honoring the basic lines of the house, and thus the neighborhood. Also, it’s a bit shocking that they are the only house to add a 2nd story in order to gain some square footage.
In the court part of Comstock comes a variation on the basic architectural theme, what I refer to as the Flat Front Model. These homes went in later, from 1961 – 1965, and were slightly larger at 988 square feet and with 2 bathrooms. There was one of these models for sale at the time I took these pictures, and according to the realty listing, that house added a great room to the backside for more square footage, while leaving the front relatively untouched. It had a list price of $149,900.
The Flat Fronts are riper for renovation, with most of them converting carports into garages. Or in the case of the home directly above, the carport became a sunroom, and everything gets a rustic look with cedar siding. But in general, I am impressed with how much of the original stylistic intent remains among all the remodeling; it’s a testament to the flexibility of these homes that so much D.I.Y. can occur without altering the basic flavor of this one-off development.