Barely There: St. Louis Hills Office Center Update

6500 Chippewa
South St. Louis, MO

In July 2010, I was hopeful and optimistic about the construction that had started on the St. Louis Hills Office Center. Read the report here.  Shy of a year later, it’s not a rebirth but a high-profile remuddle.

The new bits on the back of the building are blandly modern, all EFIS and glass grid, nothing to be excited about in either direction. But when the iconic green letters  and green metal panels (seen above) disappeared from the building, it was time to find out if they were coming back (maybe they took them down for a cleaning?) and what is intended to occupy the building when it’s done?

I contacted the owner of the building, Dan Stevens, who had given us a tour of the building in 2007. He made it clear that he is no longer involved in the development of the building, and because they have destroyed all the vintage architecture of the building, does not approve of what has been done to it.

The St. Louis Hills Office Center has been owned by the Stevens family since 1974, and was put under Dan’s primary care.  But in the last couple of years, more of the family has become legally and actively involved in the redevelopment, which creates group decisions with majority group votes. Dan does have experience with renovating old buildings (see the Ozark Theater in Webster Groves), but with this building, he says all of his input was outvoted.  He divorced himself from the project and is deeply distressed that it has become “a huge, architecturally meaningless white elephant.”

Dan does not know what the intended use is for the completed building that’s gone way over budget. 16th Ward alderwoman Donna Barringer said the plan is to rent each floor to a company when the building is completed.

With the back wing of the building long gone, there is now a generous surface parking lot to take care of future tenants. Keep this in mind as we walk down Chippewa to see the rest of the buildings they also own on this block.

For several years now, this handsome deco brick building has been the only occupied property on the block. Even as they’ve been renovating the buildings around it, the comic store was still holding down the fort in the best looking building of the bunch.

And now it is gone, sacrificed for a surface parking lot. This is a complete tragedy and a complete waste when you view all the parking that will be available behind the office building. I realize it’s impossible to have on-street parking in front of this retail strip, which is why all these buildings have long had parking in the back, which seemed to work out for several decades.  Will they be granted a curb-cut off Chippewa for this new lot? Or will patrons still have to access the alley to use it? Either answer still makes the loss of this building a deep shame.

The interior of the Office Center has been completely gutted for the new development, and the fabulous front stairwell has been exposed to the elements for several weeks now, which is disturbing. Does that mean it’s going too? Dan Stevens is taking this all so hard that I couldn’t bear to ask him.

He did say that he rescued the medical medallion that used to hang above the side door when he learned it was slated to be scrapped for its aluminum value.  Learning that, chances are real good that the vintage green lettering is now landfill (and thank you to a friend for checking the dumpsters the day he discovered them missing from the building). And I’ve got a sinking feeling in my gut about the stairwell.

It is desirable to re-use a building, rather than demolish it, always. But having spent several years watching this building whittle away to a shadow of its former glory, I have to ask: Would it have been emotionally easier and developmentally cheaper to just demolish it? At least that would have been like yanking the bandage off real fast to get it over with. Instead, it has become an excruciatingly slow peel-off that takes the scab with it.

I feel bad for the building because from day one, it’s had nothing but trouble over being what it wanted to be. From neighbors in the 1950s forcing it to be redesigned, to owners in the 2010s erasing the last of its grace, the St. Louis Hills Office Center was a mid-century modern swan long gliding across the wrong lake.

See the building before demolition and remuddle

See photos from the start of demolition in 2007

See the 2007 tour of the building

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.  Catch up on the story and see pictures of how it once looked and demolition here.

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!