Architecture Columbus Square Downtown Housing Mid-Century Modern

Cochran Gardens Replacement Complete

by Michael R. Allen

Looking northeast from the intersection of 9th and Carr streets, September 2009.

Sometimes, it seems like historic buildings have to be demolished wholesale before their replicas get praised. The site of the public housing project Cochran Gardens between 9th and 7th streets north of downtown illustrates the rise, fall and kinda-sorta-rise again of vernacular American architecture. The site’s mostly brick tenements were in a range of styles — Greek Revival, Italianate, Federal — typical of the 19th century. Some of these buildings were 100 years old when the site was cleared in 1950 and 1951.

The replacement was the unitary modern order of low-rise and mid-rise apartment housing. The crowded high-ceilinged large rooms were replaced by theoretically uncrowded low-ceilinged small rooms. People still lived in brick buildings. Rather than live within earshot of the community’s sidewalk life, many people lived far above. However, there was a lot more green space — something the tight-knit “slum” really didn’t have or need in such overabundance before — and the modern miracle of indoor plumbing.

Of course, the modernist vision for housing the poor fell apart, and all save one building at Cochran were wrecked two years ago under the federal HOPE VI program. What housing rises in the clearing? Well, that would be ersatz vernacular tenements! The two-story town-house style units now on the site return residents to the sidewalk realm, albeit in buildings that have shorter floor heights and thin platform-framed walls. Also, the residents are not living here on their own but through the determinations of federal housing subsidy — a major departure from the much-maligned “slums” of old St. Louis that were also places free from the ravages of government control.

Cochran Gardens after completion, 1952. From the collection of the St. Louis Housing Authority.

The details are suggestive of historic styles that were not really found in this part of the city in great abundance. There is an architectural ordering of the space through style that quintessentially does not differ from the modern order that George Hellmuth gave to Cochran Gardens.

Yet the new modern order embraces at least the symbolism of the neighborhood that the housing project replaced. Will this new neighborhood persist without another physical upheaval? Will these wood-wrought nostalgic houses withstand decay that the sturdy towers of Cochran could have fended off for another century? Time will tell, but I doubt that the buildings will last longer than 30 years. The residents will move on if they improve their lives. Most will move on regardless. (That’s not much different than how the neighborhood operated before, except that the choices were made as freely as possible without being tied to housing vouchers.) However, in the meantime the residents will have the semblance of urban life that Cochran Gardens obliterated. Hopefully that makes some difference in this world.

See also:

“Cochran Gardens Demolition Nearing Completion” (March 25, 2008)

“Historic Cochran Gardens” (August 8, 2007)

Architecture Events Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

A Weekend of Twentieth Century Architecture Ahead

First, Landmarks Association of St. Louis brings an exciting Architecture Weekend:

Architecture Weekend Lecture: Modern Religious Architecture in St. Louis
Date: Friday, July 24 at Noon
Location: Architecture St. Louis, 911 Washington Avenue #170

Esley Hamilton, Preservation Historian for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation, will provide an overview of the influence of the modern movement on religious architecture across the St. Louis region. Hamilton’s illustrated lecture will cover examples of modernist church design from the city and county in the 20th century. Places of worship designed by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassebaum, Nagel & Dunn, Joseph Murphy and other architects of St. Louis’ modern era will be included.

Architecture Weekend Tour: Two Modern Churches in Kirkwood
Date: Saturday, July 25 from 10:00 a.m. – noon.
Location: Start at First Presbyterian Church, 100 East Adams in Kirkwood

Suburban Kirkwood is blessed with several notable examples of mid-century modern religious architecture. On Saturday, two of Kirkwood’s most splendid modern churches will open their doors for us. We’ll start with a guided tour at First Presbyterian Church (1956-7, Fisher & Campbell), 100 East Adams. After that, make the short walk or drive to the Kirkwood United Methodist Church (1964, Schmidt, Perlsee & Black), which will be open for self-guided tours. On your way out of town, you may wish to pass by Grace Episcopal Church, 514 E. Argonne (1964, Frederick Dunn) or St. Peter’s Catholic Church, 237 W. Argonne (1955, Joseph Murphy), Kirkwood’s other modern churches.

Then, a new group has its first meeting:

St. Louis Arts and Crafts Society Open House
Sunday, July 26 from 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
700 Bellerive Boulevard in south St. Louis

Are you interested in St. Louis architecture from 1900 to 1940? Do you describe your home as Arts and Crafts, Craftsman, Mission, Bungalow or Prairie? Does your vocabulary include: exposed rafters, corbels, mortised & tenoned, pergola, Inglenook and thru-tenon-keyed? St. Louis has a rich stock of Arts and Crafts architecture that is often overlooked.

Please join us if you are interested in becoming a member of the St. Louis Arts and Crafts Society. Bring pictures of your home or furniture to discuss with other enthusiasts. FOR more information, call Patrice at 314-412-1382 OR e-mail at

Architecture North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Pruitt Igoe St. Louis Place

Corner Storefronts Are Important to Building Community

by Michael R. Allen

The corner storefront at the northeast corner of 25th and Howard streets dates to 1920.

What’s a neighborhood without a corner commercial storefront?

What’s a corner commercial storefront without a neighborhood?

These questions are pertinent to the fate of the building pictured above, located at the northeast corner of 25th and Howard streets in the southwest end of St. Louis Place. This lonely building is one of three remaining on its block, which is surrounded by blocks of similar low density.

Many do not realize that the forlorn appearance of this “urban prairie” is the result of city policy. In 1973, under Mayor John Poelker, the city identified this six-block area north of the Pruitt Igoe site bounded by Cass on the south, 22nd on the east, Madison on the north and 25th on the west as ripe for industrial expansion. In fact, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority began buying up land there, while the Planning Commission urged clearance of these blocks. Speculators moved in, arsons were common, and people were pushed out. With Pruitt-Igoe gone, city planners figured that large vacant site and these emptying blocks were a perfect area for a large-scale industrial park.

Looking north from Howard Street just east of 23rd Street

Yet, thankfully the industrial park project never happened. The city wasn’t able to push out all of the residents — nor were city government or the area’s alderman willing to invest in rebuilding the area. In 1996, Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. revived the idea of using this area for something big. Bosley’s administration created the ridiculous Gateway Village golf course subdivision plan, which was shelved by Mayor Clarence Harmon during his first week on the job.

The urban prairie was left behind, with residents, businesses and churches spread out across a quiet pocket of the neighborhood. Many people love living in that area and hope to stay for the rest of their lives. When developer Paul McKee Jr. began purchasing land, many speculated that his intention was to combine this area with Pruitt-Igoe for a massive commercial development. However, the plan that his representatives showed residents last week showed commercial development confined to the Pruitt-Igoe site and the six blocks platted with high-density residential development much like what was once there.

What that means for remaining buildings and residents is unclear. The plans unveiled last week are not detailed enough for further assumption. How the corner commercial building at 25th and Howard, built in 1920, managed to survive is pure luck — and solid construction. This building is in great condition, and was occupied by a tavern only a few years ago before McKee’s holding company Sheridan Place LC purchased it in 2006.

Sure, there might be retail at Pruitt Igoe, but great urban neighborhoods do not cluster retail into centers. Neighborhoods like St. Louis Place have always had their main streets and their corner bars and stores. The less concentrated commercial activity is located in a neighborhood, the more people will be able to walk to buy a carton of milk or meet friends for dinner.

Preservation is not simply a matter of saving pretty buildings (which this one is) or keeping buildings from the landfill (which is important if we want “green” to be more than a catch phrase). Preservation fundamentally is about maintenance of the relationships between people and place that foster a high quality of life. Having a corner storefront increases a neighborhood quality of life, provides a place for social interaction and gathering and encourages people to experience their neighborhood on foot — where they will meet more people doing the same.

Architecture is fundamental to building and sustaining community, although other factors are also fundamental — some more so. If McEagle is serious about building community in north St. Louis, its principals will do more than just calculate the future of a building like the corner storefront in dollars and sense. The project must build up from what is already in place — buildings and people. The intrinsic connection between architecture and community comes from daily human action. After all, the corner bar stayed open even after the loss of most of the rest of the block and the industrial park never got built!

If this storefront is lost in the development to come, that will be a shame. However, if the neighborhood mode of life is lost, that will be a tragedy. Architecture should never come at the expense of community.

Architecture Events Housing James Clemens House Missouri

Tonight: Lecture and Book Signing on the Houses of Missouri

This evening, learn about the houses of Missouri at one of Missouri’s most important historic homes:

Lecture and Book Signing: Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940
Monday, May 11, 2009
7:00-9:00 P.M.

Carol Grove and Cydney Millstein’s Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940 is the first comprehensive account of the development of residential architecture in the state. With nearly 300 archival photographs, drawings, and original floor plans, the book offers an intimate tour behind the facades of 45 purely American houses ranging from pastoral retreats to mid-century modern mansions. The authors will discuss the book project at the historic Chatillon-DeMenil House, with a reception and signing to follow. Copies of the book (retail price $65) will be on sale, but the reception is complimentary.

The Chatillon-Demenil House is located at 3352 DeMenil Place.

This event is part of Preservation Week, a whirlwind of exciting events offered by Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Come out this week to learn and celebrate our region’s great architecture!

Speaking of historic houses, my talk yesterday at Architecture St. Louis on the James Clemens, Jr. House drew a spirited crowd of people who learned about the history of the house, its namesake, and the current threat to the house and its attached buildings. This was a great kick-off to Preservation Week! Hopefully one year from now I can report back with good news about the Clemens House. Meantime, expect an update based on the talk here.

Architecture Media

St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians Unveils Website

by Michael R. Allen

Courtesy of Michelle Kodner, the St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians has a lovely new website. One of the best features of the site is that most chapter newsletters back to Fall 2004 are fully published in PDF format.

Those familiar with the plethora of online content on St. Louis architecture may not be familiar with the chapter’s outstanding newsletter of original research, edited by Esley Hamilton. Read through some of the newsletters and you’ll see why I look forward to seeing the newsletter in the mail every quarter. Chapter membership includes a newsletter subscription and is an astounding $10 a year!

Architecture Downtown

Roberts Tower Rising Higher

by Michael R. Allen

The Roberts Tower on Eighth Street downtown has reached the eleven-floor mark. The last downtown structure to reach eleven floors was the Ninth Street Garage in 2006. Before that, there was the convention hotel addition (completed in 2003) and the Federal Courthouse on Tenth Street (completed in 1999). To find the most recent office building downtown that is eleven floors or higher is One Metropolitan Square (completed in 1989). The last high-rise residential buildings to meet this size were the towers of the Mansion House Center (completed in 1967 — quite awhile).

How long will it be before the next new downtown building reaches eleven stories? Soon, according to developer Kevin McGowan.

Architecture Missouri

A Ramshackle Masterpiece

by Michael R. Allen

Welcome to the Family Thrift Store loacted on Fitzgerald Avenue in Gerald, Missouri. Gerald is a small town in Franklin County southwest of St. Louis. The Family Thrift Store building is a tour de force of homemade architecture. Literally, there may be no common American building material not used in the construction of this ramshackle masterpiece. This building has it all — brick, clay tile, concrete block, metal siding, wood, vinyl siding, polished granite, limestone and even a piece of terrazzo embedded in the wall.

The construction uses a lot of plausible leftover materials, but also some salvage parts. Many of these salvaged pieces appear to come from a Roman Catholic Church, with a stone bearing the name of Joseph Cardinal Ritter and a date in 1967. There is even a carved limestone cross — much earlier than 1967 — over the rear garage door.

While the colorful mess of materials is the piecemeal handiwork of a builder, there seems to be a unitary component on the east side, where a brick wall on the first floor uses the matching bricks laid conventionally across its run. This appears to be the remnant of either a destroyed, altered or unfinished building.

The wood-heated thrift store is open to the public, but its wares are not as exotic as the exterior would suggest. The origin of the thrift store building remains unknown to this writer, who would love to learn how the brick wall became an unfinished, gaudy and unique work of folk architecture. Does Missouri have anything else like this? This building is as idiosyncratic, hand-made and strangely alluring as the Watts Towers. All my notions of architectural propriety wither in the face of the Family Thrift Store. I dig it.

Architecture Central West End DeVille Motor Hotel Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern

The DeVille as the Holiday Inn

by Michael R. Allen

In 1966, the DeVille Motor Hotel became a Holiday Inn after the Vatterott family purchased the building. The modernist motel had opened in 1963 as part of the New Orleans-based DeVille chain, and was designed by renowned architect Charles Colbert. Although the motor hotel enjoyed a swanky reputation as the DeVille, its years as the Holiday Inn are its most famous among St. Louisans who recall dances and social events held in the public spaces. The postcard shown above dates to the time of the change in ownership.

The rear of the postcard shows the new name: The Holiday Inn Midtown. Midtown was St. Louis’ Uptown, where the high-rollers mixed with the young professionals at the new lounges and restaurants of reborn Central West End. The spirit of optimism was high, and distinctly urban place names like “Midtown” were embraced as strongly as the idea that the city would rebound. The new Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium were signs of downtown’s new life, and the DeVille was a sign that the Central West End was as posh as ever for social life.

The end of the era was abrupt; the Holiday Inn Midtown closed in 1977, and was purchased by the Archdiocese for conversion to the San Luis Apartments (senior housing). Still, by 1977, Lindell Boulevard had attracted many new modernist buildings from Grand west to Kingshighway and the Central West End’s renewal was in full force. The DeVille was as sleek as ever, even with its less glamorous new use. Now that the San Luis Apartments are closed and the neighborhood’s stability is a sure bet, what better time is there to return the DeVille to its earlier glory? The old Bel Air Motel to the west, the city’s first motel dating to 1958, is posed to become a Hotel Indigo. The optimism about the city and the Central West End embodied by these buildings has paid off, and these mid-century landmarks have much to offer the present age as reminders of the power of architecture to convey the hope of an era.

(Postcard courtesy of Sheila Findall’s family collection.)

Architects Architecture North St. Louis West End

Lost: St. Ann’s Orphan Asylum

by Michael R. Allen

St. Ann’s Orphan Asylum stood at the northwest corner of Page and Union from 1904 until the late 1970s, when it was demolished. Operated by the Roman Catholic Church, the asylum relocated to the city’s west end from a downtown location at 10th and O’Fallon streets. The building permit dates to June 22, 1904 and lists a construction cost of $200,000 and the architects as Barnett, Haynes and Barnett.

The high cost went for high quality. The 3 1/2 story asylum was large, and its Elizabethan Gothic architecture was elegant. The building featured an expansive lawn on four sides, affording the orphans with grounds for recreation surpassing the modest court at the downtown location. Here we see the late Victorian ideals — lovely architecture masking a function of social utility as well as a belief in the social and health benefits of planned open space. The asylum rose as the World’s Fair was taking place not far to the south in Forest Park. The fair reinforced the faith in planned open spaces and architectural grandeur found in the asylum. Coincidentally, the architects of the orphan’s asylum also designed the Palace of Liberal Arts at the fair.

In 1904, Barnett, Haynes and Barnett was one of the city’s best-known and most revered firms. The firm’s principals were George D. Barnett, John Haynes and Thomas P. Barnett, and together the men had already designed many homes and commercial buildings in the thriving west end. The firm also enjoyed a good relationship with the Archdiocese, an had designed the romantic Visitation Convent (1894, demolished) located at Belt and Cabanne in the West End, Sacred Heart Church (1898, demolished) at 25th and University in St. Louis Place, and the Scholastic Building at St. Louis University (1896). On Page Boulevard alone, the firm was responsible for designing St. Ann’s Church at Whittier and Page (1897) and St. Mark’s at Page and Academy (1901). The pinnacle of the working relationship would be the firm’s design of the great Cathedral Basilica on Lindell Boulevard. The firm’s institutional work shows a tendency toward the romantic, with picturesque buildings placed on landscaped lawns, and St. Ann’s Orphan Asylum fits in that range. Stylistically, however, the Elizabethan Gothic is unique for a large institutional building by the firm but parallel to the contenporary work of school architect William B. Ittner.

The asylum eventually became a retirement home before being demolished by the Archdiocese. The site today is occupied by the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center and the Peace Villa, which maintain to some extent the site’s devotion to social service. The eastern end of the site is used by a grocery store.

(Postcard courtesy of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation Library.)

Architecture Demolition Storefront Addition

Storefront Additions: Delmar Boulevard West of Vandeventer

by Michael R. Allen

My recent post on the demolished Delmar Foods storefront addition reminded me of the trove of storefront additions on Delmar Boulevard between Vandeventer and Whittier streets. Some were lost before my time, for sure, but the remaining examples are impressive.

Of course, I cannot attest to whether or not the storefront addition and house across the street from Delmar Foods was impressive. On June 10, 2006, I photographed the storefront addition at 4162 Delmar in the midst of demolition:

The remaining gems are one block east, all on the north side of the block. Two fancy additions stand adjacent to each other at 4033 (right) and 4035 (left) Delmar.

The vacant storefront at 4035 Delmar dates to the early 1930s, and its parent house is a Second Empire town house from 1884. The storefront at 4033 Delmar houses Tennessee’s Lounge, and is less obviously an addition. The original house also dated to around 1884, and the addition to 1925. However, this was not the usual attachment, because the developer severely altered the house, removing its original roof line and building the addition into the house to completely
obscure it. According to records, the house at 4033 Delmar was the home of Gus C. Meissonier, a member of the Merchant’s Exchange. The conversion of the house of a member of the civic elite into commercial space was quite a big change.

A similar storefront addition project happened at 3963 Delmar eastward on the block, and coincidentally the space is also occupied by a lounge, Waldorf’s.

These additions tell us about the rapid and abrupt changes of our city in the early days of the twentieth century. We were booming!