Happy Ending for the St. Louis Hills Office Center

6500 Chippewa
South St. Louis, MO

There’s construction activity at the St. Louis Hills Office Center, that magnificent multi-story mid-century modern building at the merge of Watson and Chippewa in St. Louis Hills.

I am sooo happy to have been dead wrong about the fate of this building when I first began reporting on it in June 2007.  See pictures of how it once looked.

After the demolition of the parking garage ell of the building was completed in early 2008, this building sat ignored and forlorn. But considering all the controversy between the St. Louis Hills Neighborhood Association and the owner, it was feeling like no news was bad news. So when construction work began anew by ripping things off the building, I assumed the fat lady was powdering her nose in the green room in preparation for heading to the stage to begin singing.

But by taking a moment to inspect the building permits posted inside the front entrance, it was a moment of pure joy to read that roughly $1.5 million is being spent to build an “addition to existing bldg & Ext. & Int per plans.”  So all the brick down in the pit (above) is to clear openings to the new addition.

Will the addition follow the footprint of the original wing? And will the medical emblem above the side door be returned once construction is done? Oh, I want to see the drawings! Oh, I’m so happy that there’s new life ahead for this gorgeous building.  It’s such an important intersection in South St. Louis, and the entire complex of buildings that strings off of the Office Center is such a fine example of mid-century development of this prestigious neighborhood.  This new work would not be taking place without consent of the alderwoman, so I’m appreciative of the seeming miracles she pulled off to make this finally happen.

In fact, the entire complex of buildings has gotten a facelift. The one-story building next door (to the right, above) recently got new windows and a new face. The material of the new cladding is not appropriate, but they tried to make it look appropriate, so there is some design-awareness being applied. But I hate quibbling about such a minor thing when the major news is that this entire complex is coming back to life. It’s entirely possible that in 2011, this block will once again be bustling like it did back in the day. Congratulations to our City for another happy ending!

StL Hills Remodel: The Retirement Center

6543 Chippewa
St. Louis, MO
The St. Louis Hills Retirement Center got new owners last year and is now deep into the projected $5.5 million renovation (story here). An addition goes up on the east side (looks like the size of an elevator) while they replace all the windows, floor by floor.

This is one of several mid-century buildings in the immediate Chippewa/Watson section of St. Louis Hills; the St. Louis Hills Office Center is a close pal. Built in 1964, the former retirement center is only 6 years younger than the office center.

I am thrilled by the emerging new face. It’s one of those buildings that never offended nor commanded my attention. But now that the owner’s have applied some sharp aesthetic thought to the revamp, I think it looks as cool and lovely as Jean Shrimpton.

The black window frames with green tinted glass (so Lever House, don’t you think?) provides the backbone of contrast for the white concrete window wells and dark brown brick verticals to properly pop. I’d love to see them erect a more appropriate front entrance canopy, maybe taking a cue from the back balcony of the fabulous house right behind this building, to the east (Rob Powers photo). But it is a senior living community, so hip is probably not the goal, though those replacement windows belie otherwise.

A slightly younger building of the same vintage being remodeled nearby should be good news for the St. Louis Hills Office Center, still standing in a truncated state, awaiting its own revamp. But there’s motion from 3 sides that communications have wilted and that St. Louis Hills residents may have soured on any renovation for the entire plot of land surrounding the Office Center.

Can we safely assume the Retirement Center renovation was approved because it’s a smart idea? As one of the co-owners said in a press release: “We are excited to be part of the history and re-investment in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.” To outsiders, exploring something similar for the Office Center seems plausible, yet there’s another snag. So, Provision Living setting a nearby example of appropriate remodeling (remember, the greenest building is the one already built) is the stylish poster child for possibility, and underscores St. Louis Hills’ mid-century heritage, which is something to be proud of.

The St. Louis Hills Office Center Stands Alone

Here’s Part One of the story.
And this is Part Two.
The Suburban Journals took my cue and bridged a gap here.
The nutshell version: This condemned building was going to seed in a desirable neighborhood. The neighbors were upset with the vandalism, and the alderwoman worked with the owners to find a new use for it until communications broke down. Then the backside of the building started to come down. From neighbors to passers-by, everyone wants to know: What’s Going On?

We got messages from one of the building’s owners, Dan Stevens, inviting us to take a tour of what remains and to talk about how to assure the building’s future.
Above, on October 17, 2007, the parking garage is melting away.

By November 10th, the garage is gone, the last bits of debris are clearing out, and the St. Louis Hills Office Center is now a stand alone building. On this particular day, we got into conversation with a neighbor across the alley from the site. He said they were all jazzed about suddenly having a view with the parking garage gone, but their distrust of the owner is still strong. They are aware that the owner’s are redeveloping the Ozark Theater in Webster Groves, but are worried about their historically glacial pace. As is always the case, silence equals anger, and with the neighbors kept in the dark about what the owners’ intend, they uneasily await the next move.

Dan Stevens hosted a private tour of the building that has belonged to his family since 1974, and is now under his primary control, which is a good indicator of why there is now movement on two long-dormant buildings.

The parking garage is the epicenter of the St. Louis Office Center tale. According to Stevens, the garage was originally designed to be fully enclosed, but the 1958-era neighbors across the alley complained that 4 stories of brick would be dark and depressing, so the design was changed to accommodate them. This revise to the design was the fatal error that immediately doomed the building. All the steel used to support the wing was constantly exposed to water, and it started rusting a few minutes after the first original tenants moved in. The photo above shows just how grotesquely deteriorated all the steel beams were, for decades. The structural problems were not about owner neglect, but design defect.

The garage wing was built as a separate piece from the main building that faces Chippewa, so its 2 buildings joined at an angle. This made it easier to remove the defective part without harming the tower, which emerged from its amputation unscathed. They were diligent about resourcing the salvage and carefully saved the good bits from the demolished section. Stevens took us inside the front lobby to see the piles of what they saved (above).

Stevens is holding one of aqua ceramic tiles that punctuated the ribbon of windows of the demolished wing. They can be seen in this photo under a layer of brown paint, and that paint unfortunately ate through quite a lot of the aqua facing.

We got to see the cafeteria (above) and learn how there were actually 2 lobbies to the building; one facing Chippewa for pedestrian traffic (seen in the background above right), and the other off the parking garage, which is how most people entered the building.

The banks of elevators are in the side lobby, which is why the “front” entrance holds only the stairs (above). I waited a long time to take those stairs, and the views from it are even cooler than imagined. The lighting, the flooring, the banister, all of it is original and in good shape.

The big surprise about the front facade was revealed when inspecting the blue metal panels under each window (above) and seeing daylight where the flooring should meet the metal. It’s a curtain wall! Because of the materials and the transparency of the facade, it was assumed the wall was structural, but nope, it’s a cosmetic wall for your viewing pleasure.

With flashlights and camera flashes, we took a trip down the corridors of the 2nd floor, and stopped in at what was the elaborate office of the building’s original owner. While his building was ultra mod, his office was very traditional and fascinating and featured the mural shown above. Esley Hamilton recognized it as a scene of the Philadelphia skyline, and proceeded to name every single historic building depicted.

Dentists and doctors made up the primary tenants, and here are some remnants of those days (above). Note that the wall phone is the exact same shade of yellow as the rest of the equipment.

Cruising through all the offices and corridors, we got a distinctly residential feel. As in, tear down the partition walls between tiny offices and make loft spaces. Or, leave the walls and turn it into a boutique hotel. Both ideas are intriguing and ripe with moneymaking potential.

The nearest competing hotels are at Hampton and Hwy 44, and a boutique hotel in this part of town is a brilliant idea, as it’s next to everything out-of-towners want, and they can do some of it on foot, if they like. Just saying “loft living in St. Louis Hills” is enough to make certain people tingle with anticipation. Be they rental or condo, this building in this location would be a no-brainer for the lucky listing agent.

(Shown above: with the parking garage gone, the basement now becomes just the ground level.)
Dan Stevens and his partners are adamant about preserving and re-using the remaining portion of the building. Their affection and earnestness about the place feels genuine, and it’s in such good shape that any future work would be more renovation than rehab. He shared some very appealing ideas for the west facade of the building that reveals he truly understands the style and era of the building. He’s made the Ozark project move at a steady pace. I feel relieved that this building is in good hands, someone sympathetic to the built environment. The only negative is ignoring people for love of the building.

I asked Stevens about the development offers that Alderwoman Barringer had brought to them previously. He felt that those interested parties weren’t completely serious or were seriously low-balling the worth of the project, or just wanted the land. He knew the unique problems of the building, and that a proper solution required more time and care.

I asked why conversation with the alderwoman had come to a halt, and Stevens doesn’t perceive it that way. I’m getting the impression that he and his partners are so fixated on the mechanics of renovating their two properties that they don’t think to make time for people not directly involved.

But the work being done to the medical center is blatantly public, which is why Stevens is now acutely aware of the anger and suspicion of the St. Louis Hills residents. Stevens contacting us seems to be about starting a dialog to see what can be done with the building and how to calm the boiling waters around the property.

As is so often the case in these situations, commercial developers don’t think about the residents who live around their properties until they pop up as angry voices. The Blairmont Situation is a good example of how a developer’s plans created in private scares the people who will be affected by these plans. Silence equals anger.

Seen from the developer’s side, it is their property and their business, and they are not required by law to share information. Seen from the neighbor’s perspective, a developer’s secret plans pose a very serious threat to quality of life and property values. What developer’s repeatedly fail to understand is that if they were eager to engage the people of the community they are affecting, the community would be eager to be a part of any reasonable plan.

Dan Stevens wants to know how to get cooperation for his plans, and that’s simple: Let them in on your thoughts. I recommended that he get Alderwoman Barringer back in the information loop and have her talk with the neighborhood association about the project progress. The alley neighbor I spoke with a couple of weeks later made it even more simple: “If the owners could just show up at a neighborhood meeting and talk to us, it would cut down on some paranoia.”

The residents of St. Louis Hills have no idea how committed Stevens is about this building and its surroundings. Stevens doesn’t understand that his silence has created angry mistrust. The situation is growing needlessly complex. It’s a simple solution: Transparency.

All sides need to talk with one another, right now. Lack of communication is what has created the current ill will, so the antidote is communication. Someone involved, please take the ball and run with invitations to a public forum on the St. Louis Hills Office Center. Make sure there’s time for all sides to share their thoughts. Make sure there’s plenty of snacks, and make sure to invite me when it happens!

St. Louis Hills Office Center: Tried To Save It, But Couldn’t

The top of the front facade in a black & white film photo from 2001.

The St. Louis Hills Office Center is also commonly known as the St. Louis Hills medical center, since the majority of its tenants throughout the decades were of that bent. City records show 1958 as its inaugural year, but the 1959 City Directory still lists only Joseph Petralia at 6500 Chippewa. That he was later listed as a dentist in room 318 of the Office Center may suggest he had a small dental office on the corner portion of the property that soon became a medical complex.

In 1963, the Directory lists Southtown Professional Pharmacy, Ostertag Optical Service and Miss Pernies Cafeteria on the 1st floor, while doctors and dentists filled the rest of the 3-story building, save for Eloise Hair Stylists and Young Hair Fashions.

The northeast elevation as seen from across Bancroft.

The immediate area around the building is rather unique, thus the unique shape of the building itself. The limestone, marble and glass front of the building (with the blue-green lettering that screams 1950s) faces northwest, presiding over the convergence of Watson into Chippewa. This intersection also has Bancroft shooting off it to the east, which makes the building bend to a 45 degree angle so that the bulk of it runs parallel to Bancroft.

This 3-story brick bulk with limestone-framed ribbon windows sits atop steel piles and concrete columns, creating covered parking. The building was inserted into a gentle hill, so the downward slope allowed for an underground parking garage entered from the eastern end of the building. Stairs at both ends of the parking garage got you into the place.

Note the dark red brick wall of the upper and lower parking lots angling toward the building. Take special note of the dark brown section in the low left corner, above.

It was an ingenious use of an oddly shaped space, especially how it created a narrow, ornamental face for the high traffic area, and wrapping around to embrace the still-young car culture while providing urban density. It can be seen from multiple vantage points, and presents a different face each time without being chaotic as a whole.

All dark brown patches on this wall and the building itself are a paint job over -what else? – vivid light blue ceramic tiles. Main building brick has a pinkish hue, so imagine the brand new pink brick contrasted with the white limestone and the blue tile, and know quintessential 1950s style.

As late as 1999, new businesses were still moving in to replace retiring doctors and relocating dentists, but it still retained a retro vibe. In 2000, a dental hygienist who used to work in the building told me of one doctor who remained from the early days, and both he and his grey-haired receptionist still smoked in front of the patients.

For the last few years, the place has stood empty. Its mid-century modern aesthetic could still be seen under all the dirt and inappropriate canvas awnings covering the stainless steel walkway roof.

This shows the orientation of the upper Bancroft entrance. It also shows a private taxi that later carried off items from inside. The driver didn’t respond to my greetings, so I didn’t get to ask if the owners had hired him, and if so, what’s their name?

As covered in this post, the silent but dramatic building inspired in me all kinds of adaptive re-use daydreams, and I have since heard from others long-harboring similar thoughts. It was a building with potential to spare in a brilliant location; a rebirth had to be imminent. So, when the jaw-dropping realization of demolition became apparent, my bewilderment turned into a series of questions that needed answers.

View back toward Bancroft and Chippewa. This is the main entrance off the parking lot, and the smallest window still has the sign (turned inside out) from when it was the pharmacy’s walk-up window.

After a brief session of rumors, half-stories and neighborhood opinions, 16th ward Alderwoman Donna Baringer told me the entire saga. According to her, the building has been owned by the same family (who remain unverified) since the 1960s. They also own addresses 6506 – 6514, the 3 single-story buildings between the office Center and the service station at the corner of Chippewa and Donovan. The Office Center exterior received a few changes over the years (awnings, paint and signage), but they never updated the interior, and with the turn of the century, they basically gave up on building maintenance altogether.

This neglect resulted in severe structural problems to the underground garage, which has been closed off from use for several years. Come 2004, it could no longer pass fire code and even though the building was 60% occupied, the owners opted to evict all tenants rather than make the required repairs. By September 2005, the building was officially condemned.

Detail of the ornament above the main entrance door.

Alderwoman Barringer came into the picture during the eviction process, working with the displaced business to find them new locations in the same area. For instance, Curves left 6506 Chippewa to move, ironically, into the medical center at Chippewa and Landsdowne. Oddly enough, the flagstone and stainless steel space next door has been occupied by All-American Collectibles since early 1999, and has yet to be evicted.

View under the main level covered parking. Views of the houses ringing the back of the structure can be seen, to which I’ll return in a moment.

Barringer made contact with the owners, and when the family said they were interested in finding the best use for the now-vacant Office Center, she went to work finding people willing to redevelop the space. There were several developers interested in mixed-use renovations of the building. Because of its location and potential, these developers were willing to do so without the use of tax incentives and credits, as the 16th ward’s income levels disqualify it for financial aid.

In the eastern stairwell, looking down into the ravished underground parking garage. Following the stairs up to the top leads to piles of party trash and grade-schoolish graffiti on all 3 landings. At each landing, one is looking right onto (and into) the home butted up against this building, which means they would pretty much hear every “party” happening.

The family would not sell, but claimed to still be interested in co-development ideas. All formal presentations and plans brought to them were ignored. At one point, they assured Barringer that they wanted to do something that was in the best interest of the neighborhood – which could include demolition and building anew – but eventually they stopped returning her calls.

Looking west toward the front of the building, you get a sense of how the building both hugs and shelters the site.

During three years of negotiations, the vacant building was becoming a real problem for the homeowners directly surrounding, with rowdy kids, vandals and trash dumpers drawn to it like a magnet. Neighbors continually filed complaints with the Citizen Service Bureau, with public records confirming 16 complaints filed between May 2004 and May 2007, but it did no good. St. Louis Hills was stuck with something they’d never experienced: a dangerous, abandoned building.

The backside of the building, along the Sutherland alley, with the rear entrance/exit to the parking lot near the middle of the photo.

Both the St. Louis Hills Neighborhood Association and Alderwoman Barringer preferred that the building be brought back to code so it could find a new use, but with owners refusing to cooperate in any manner, the arrival of a demolition company preparing for wreckage came as a relief.

Before serious demolition kicks in, the demo company (who, oddly, has no signs up on the site) covered the exposure to the alley neighbors. And here you see how half of an entire block is just alley-width away. Surely the neighbors were used to this office building in their neighborhood, but once it was vacant, you can also understand how it quickly becomes a problem right up the nose. Currently, the neighbors’ homes must get rather bright when the sun hits those white sheets.

On June 18th, I nearly crashed my car over the totally surreal sight of a homeless man sprawled out fast asleep under the stainless steel letters spelling “café.” As my brain melted over the absurdity of a bum in St. Louis Hills, I was somehow able to note the signs of demo prep. In response to my June 20th post, Donna Barringer was able to tell the sad tale of this tragic building.

The demo company is rather conscientious about the neighbors, deciding that reflective white sheets are a better sight than the giant beer and soda ads on the flip side. This photo also shows how quickly they carved away the entrance to the underground garage.

Because of the owners’ silence, she has no idea if they plan on demolishing all of their properties or just the Office Center. Time will reveal that. In an ironic twist, whatever is proposed for the newly vacant space will have to come across Barringer’s desk for neighborhood support and approval. Despite their efforts to work autonomously, the family cannot avoid dealing with a large group of people keenly interested in protecting their investments and their neighborhood.

Brushed steel banister lining the stairwell inside the Chippewa entrance.

A crane is currently chopping away at the parking lots, and it breaks my heart to see such a handsome modern building, so ripe with potential, being destroyed due to willful neglect. Bitterly, we’ve become used to such a thing happening in distressed neighborhoods, but when it happens in the heart of a thriving, desirable area that tried to save it, this type of disregard is inexcusable. But as we are forced to watch the building come down (and with its location, you can barely avoid it if you try), there is some comfort in knowing that no one – besides the owners – wanted it to end this way.

St. Louis Hills Office Center: Hammer To Fall?

Vedder of St. Louis Hills

Nottingham & Locke in St. Louis Hills
South St. Louis, MO
It’s the Sybill of apartment buildings.

The St. Louis Hills website says of it:
On Nottingham Avenue, closer to Francis Park, is one of the Hills’ architectural landmarks, the Vedder apartment building. Rich in art deco details it boasts curved corners, casement and circular windows, and complicated brick works. What makes it particularly special is that all six units have penthouses.

What’s also special is that everyone who lives there appears to be creative and/or artistic (as witnessed by what shows in their windows), and the place is in immaculate shape (save for the front yard fountain remaining dry).

From this view, it’s a ship.

From this view it’s a castle.
The fountain gives it a public park feel.
Depending which angle it’s viewed from, it’s 1930’s Streamline Deco or Middle Ages German fortress.
And because I’m merely a human of a certain age, I always think of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder when I see the terra cotta nameplate. That part is against my will – I’m not a fan. But this place is certainly the most unique building in St. Louis Hills.