Some Mid-Century Modern Along Watson Road

Watson Road from Elm to Watson Industrial Park
Crestwood, MO

If you head west on Watson Road out to St. Louis County, and cross the Elm/Rock Hill intersection, look to the right for some relatively untouched mid-century goodness tucked in among the ever evolving retail in Crestwood. The building above may not catch the eye while speeding by, but take a closer look at what it reveals.

This building dates from 1961 and was built for Knoll Florist Shop. It’s undulating roof line and concrete walk always reminded me of a clam shell, but upon learning whom it was built for, it becomes clear that it may have been intended to represent the petals of a daisy. And check out how the iron railing follows the curves of the concrete; one of those kinds of details common back in the heady days of the Suburban Boom, and sadly missing now due to design and construction budgets, and the temporary nature of a revolving door of tenants.

Note how they directed customers to the curved, tiered steps, looking like a wedding cake.  This view makes one take in the scalloped roof line and the tiny, multi-aqua ceramic tiles, all intended to create a whimsical environment that puts one in the mood to browse flowers. Maximum (but subdued) glamor for what is, essentially, a cinderblock building. Love it!

Summer 2012 Update

Turns out this building was done by architect Erwin Knoesel & Associates. We learned this while visiting his son, Richard, who still lives in the house designed by his father in the 1930s. His father’s original drawing, above, is one of thousands of architectural documents that he retains.  Another Erwin Knoesel building that you may know is Tropicana Bowling Lanes.

A different floral shop moved out in 2006, and is now inhabited by some type of cash establishment, who has made no exterior changes, so bully for them. Now, take a look at the building in the right background in the photo above.

The back half of this building is a 1960 creation for Bond Cleaners. The steep chevron pattern along the side of the building makes me wonder if it had also originally been along the front, because they wouldn’t typically get this creative on the sides of a building alone when googie architecture was all about catching a motorists eye. Then again, it was next door to a Howard Johnson’s (on the spot where Steak n’ Shake is now), so providing eye candy for sherbert-saturated diners may not have been such a bad idea.

The above photo shows the beginning of construction of a new entry portico in 2006. I refer to this place as The Endless Build, because from this point till the summer of 2009, they went to town on this new section.

Month after month, year after year, they kept adding more plywood, more EFIS, and more goo-gaws. Just when I thought they had to be done, they’d add another layer of bric-a-brac. I have a whole series of progress shots of the gawdy from the spring and summer of 2009. I stopped this only when a man working on it got a tad hostile with me early in the morning, wondering why I was photographing it. He begrudgingly answered my question of what this was going to be: a restaurant. That encounter – and this photo – was from August of 2009. It still looks like this (so at least the embellishment has stopped) and it’s still vacant.
And now back to westward Watson…

Cross Grant Rd (home of the glorious Ridgewood subdivision just over the hill), dip down into the valley, and as you head up the hill toward Crestwood Plaza, you’ll see the 9109 Building. Built in 1965-66, it strives for executive seriousness with a dash of style. And those stainless steel address numbers on the elevator tower make good on the saying “Larger than life is just the right size.”

Original tenants included Bond Men Inc. insurance company, Glennon-Rogers Insurance Agency (why did businesses stop using such a great word as  “agency”?), John Tierny (an insurance agent), and Kummer Construction Co.

Why I find this building beautiful includes: the stark contrast between dark brown brick inside a (bet ya it was originally) white rib cage; how it appears like a giant block with geometric pieces cut out of it to create dynamics and visually call out the different uses of the building, from offices above to retail on the ground floor front. It’s both imposing and welcoming at the same time.

Because it’s built into a hill, there are stairs that run along the west side of the building. Note the minimalist detail of a stair rail that would see minimal use. Details mattered back then. Also note the view to the right.

It’s the Sappington Cemetery, established in 1811, when Crestwood was an agricultural paradise. Then Crestwood grew by 10,000 people between 1950 and 1960, with retail, business and homes rapidly carving up the land around the tiny cemetery. Because it was in a prime location, I can imagine the fights that took place to preserve it. And walking through it is quite an odd sensation, very bucolic despite the location. Keep walking through tombstones rendered unreadable with time and you come to an ungodly tall tie wall…

…with this building below it. One can catch a glimpse of this sleek puppy if you look right down the street Watson Industrial Park while on Watson. The first few times I saw it I thought I was seeing things; how could such a handsome building exist in such a “remote” location? These are the kind of buildings that more typically were put in prominent places so they could show off their post-war prosperity and progressive power.

But in 1960, they erected this building down in the valley, before a creek, for companies that weren’t seeking maximum traffic.  Some of the original occupants  were Peters Marketing Research, Thelma Williamson Mail Service, Lawson Power Products, Rawbach Casket Co. and a rubber goods manufacturer, Fabreeha Products Co. How wonderful it must have been to walk into this hidden jewel of a building 5 days a week.

Unlike the other few buildings in this Park, the current owners have not marred the exterior of the building (though they really need to trim those shrubs that are blocking the ultra cool window treatment), which is amazing in and of itself.

These are just 3 examples of some original atomic age buildings along Watson Road.  Stay alert and you’ll find many more that reveal how excited people once were about having buildings that reflected their burgeoning new society in a positive and artful way.

Mid-Century Modern Subdivision Crestwood Hills
Crestwood Remuddle: Creston Center
My Favorite Walgreens

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!

My Favorite Walgreens


My favorite Walgreens no longer exists, and this is a highly ironic story.


In South St. Louis City, we’re used to them tearing down bowling alleys so they can build a Walgreens. But in this case, in 2003, they tore down a Walgreens to build another Walgreens! It’s all true.


This mid-century fabulous Walgreens was on Watson, just a scootch east of the intersection of Rock Hill/Elm. This one stayed open while they built a brand new one right at the intersection proper. Once it opened, they tore this one down, and now a short strip mall with a Blockbuster Video stands in its place.


To this day, I still see a phantom image of it as I pass by. It’s roof reminded me of the Flying Nun’s head gear as she was airborn.  And it’s still a weird feeling to miss a Walgreens… know what I mean?

Crestwood Remuddle: Creston Center

Creston Center, Watson & Grant Intersection
Crestwood, MO
The Creston Center, Before. It was a simple and spare 2-level shopping plaza built in 1961. Note the snappy vertical sign to the left, in the auto-centric spirit of this stretch of Route 66. To its right is another 3-sided sign that spun around so 3 major tenants could have equal billing. And a tiny out-building sat close to the corner, making the most of every square foot of land.

The Creston Center, After. The ginchy Creston sign topples, as does the out building, and the remodel is a hot mess.

Now, I’m not saying the original was an important piece of design worth preserving intact. It was very appropriate and utilitarian retail design for the time, and the cantilevered balcony that created covered parking for the lower level is a nice mid-century modern touch. Its simplicity kept it under the radar in the 21st century, but in a bid to jazz up the place and get a full tenant load, the owners paid for a remodel that is just… a steaming hot mess.

In December 2002, when the above photo was taken, the place was about 65% rented. Today, the place is now about 50% rented, so remodeling to make it more attractive to tenants didn’t really play out as intended.

And “more attractive” is obviously in the eye of the beholder. Minimal lines and a flat roof are anathema to current day retailers; they want more “there” there to catch the eye of modern shoppers.

So they put bulky caps on the slender metal poles and went to town on the roof. They gave that roof a height and heft and flash which creates the feeling that the cantilevered balcony is just going to collpase under all that rigamorale.

Why the mixture of shingle mansard and pup-tent standing seam metal? I would have loved to hear the “designers” rationale for this absurd combination, especially because the addition of standing-seam boosted the budget for no good reason. Did they claim that this over-scaled mish-mash would create a dynamic energy so crucial for luring shoppers? Or that the mansards would indicate the prime locations in the building? Or was the rationale as mundane as the metal would ease the cost of re-shingling in the future?

Whatever the case may have been, the Creston Center was an overlooked and unassuming retail center that became a 3-ring circus of hubris and bad taste. I cringe every time I pass it and feel bad that their remuddle became a huge waste of money and intentions.