A Wellston Bank

Kienlen Ave & Dr. Martin Luther King Dr.
Wellston, MO

Every few months I visit Wellston, just to keep track of what’s going on. There’s been a lot of activity in the area over the last few years, with a considerable amount of new home construction and a handful of new commercial buildings. While it’s heartening to see activity in the community, I worry about the conspicuous lack of rehab and preservation, and specifically, the fate of the former State Bank of Wellston.

Sited a mere 1.5 blocks northwest of the St. Louis City Limit, the State Bank of Wellston was a flashy focal point of Wellston’s welcome mat status in the post-WW2 suburban migration.

Erected in the late 1940s, the bank’s lighted advertising tower (above) was/is a notorious landmark. It looks like a cross between the old RKO Pictures Studio logo and a hipster alien spacecraft, which is also an apt description of the role Wellston played in the urban-to-suburban evolution of the St. Louis Metropolitan area.

The advertising tower touts Sky Bank, which is was until the early 1950s when a new granite facade lent the importance required of an upgrade to State Bank. The 1955 St. Louis Directory ad (above) reminds us that Easton Avenue was long the original name of Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. That moniker peters out less than a mile from this intersection, when it becomes St. Charles Rock Road.

When trying to recreate the 1955 directory shot, I couldn’t help but notice that liberties had been taken with the tower placement. But surprisingly, most everything else remains the same.

In the early 1960s, the bank expanded and embraced the supremacy of car culture by adding an aqua supreme drive-thru-banking addition. With the light fixtures that indicated open lanes long gone (above), I love that what remains looks like hubcaps. It’s both a sad and fitting commentary of what birthed and killed this now-abandoned drive-thru.

It is now a Regions Bank, and every time I photograph it, a security guard eventually comes out to kindly shoo me away. On this visit, the guard told me that the building had been sold in the late fall of 2005. Regions would build a new, larger structure across the street on Kienlen. I mused aloud to the security guard: While it’s nice that they decided to stay in this community, why do they need a bigger building when most banks are physically shrinking due to ATM- and on-line-banking? And who bought this building? And what will become of it? The security guard merely shrugged and made it clear I needed to stop taking pictures and just leave.

Mindful of all the new activity, Landmarks has made steps towards an historical survey of Wellston, in hopes of making its city hall and developers aware of Wellston’s varied historical fabric. My hope is that rather than concentrating on the earlier era of this municipality, all decades of its story will be represented, with this bank being a beautiful example of mid-century city-to-county aspirations.

Since it will no longer be a bank, it’s time to think about what else it could become: A bookstore or library (with drive-thru drop off book return!); a restaurant and bar (imagine the drive-thru area as the coolest outdoor dining area)? If Wellston were as sleepy as it once was, this soon-to-be-empty building could sit undisturbed for decades until a bright-minded person decided to bring it back to life. But Wellston’s on the move, and chances are this building will be demolished, because that’s what happens in St. Louis. Plus, people have yet to be alarmed about the cavalier destruction of our mid-century architectural heritage. This bank is a choice example of such.

RELATED To Wellston

To Wellston

wellston missouri mid-century modern architecture photos by toby weiss
Martin Luther King Dr. & North Kinshighway
St. Louis has racial divide in its DNA, and the history of St. Louis County is also the tale of White Flight. After WW2, the new world of tomorrow sprang up, and the architecture was as modern and adventurous as the future promised to be. On both sides of the city/county line, sleek samples of progress ushered folks into the suburban frontier, and all our inner-ring suburbs – especially on the north side – retain amazing examples of that promise because they were abandoned soon after they were built by Whites leapfrogging over Blacks on their way to deep county. Wellston is a perfect example of progress-to-stagnation Caucasian-Modern architecture.

Start with this excellent site, then motor west on Martin Luther King Dr. from downtown. In the mid-1950s, Sherman Park was given some future polish with googie pavillions for the sports field and the Wohl Community Center moved from across the street and into the park proper. The center still features an indoor pool wing, with sliding glass doors at ground level to let in fresh air, and massive expanses of glass block above that. In person, it’s an overwhelming sight.
wellston mo jc penneys photos by toby weiss
Martin Luther King Dr. between Hamilton & Hodiamont
Right before the county line at Hodiamont is the remains of the JC Penney’s, which closed around 1975. My father was a glazier, and remembers installing mirrors in the building in 1950, and at that time it was still an old-fashioned department store. So, the “Le Corbu” facade was tacked on sometime in the mid-1950s, at the height of the Wellston Shopping District’s popularity.

This building is still space-age triumphant in its decay, and while photographing it in 2003, I talked with a man who claimed to own it. He said the building was still in good condition, with only minor water damage on the top floor, and he’d like to turn it into a black history museum.
wellston mid-century modern photo by toby weiss
Evergreen & Martin Luther King Dr.
Another case of an old building getting a post-war face lift, in this case a streamlined deco in the late 1940s. This was the first Central Hardware in the county, just a block and a half past the city line. Its last incarnation was as Aalco Plumbing Supply.

state bank of wellston photos by toby weiss
Kienlen & Martin Luther King
Right as Skinker becomes Kienlen and city becomes county, banking becomes dramatic.
The advertising tower was there when it was tiny, old-fashioned Sky Bank. In the early 1950s, a brown and black granite facade was added to the (then) Easton side and it became State Bank. Automobiles strangled the street cars, so the glorious turquoise tile drive-thru addition was added in the early 1960s.

I was so smitten with the car-culture aqua-ness of it all, that I didn’t notice the sophisticated geometry of the addition until I shot it in black & white. I adore this building, and it’s at the point where the security guards (it’s now a Regions Bank) ignore me as I document every fine detail of the defunct drive-thru aisles.

And I document this because I know it will all come down. New buildings have been slowly going up around the Wellston Hub, and there is a grand plan. Historic preservation being what it currently is, if any saving gets done, it will be only of buildings retaining any of their pre-WW1 architecture. But this entire district was all about progress and commerce, and the old buildings sporting their mid-century makeovers say more about our former aspirations and dreams than any old wives tales a This Old House rehab would spin. I think it’s important to tell all of the story, and Wellston is a particularly juicy chapter.