Architecture Churches Fire North St. Louis Old North

Beautiful Fourth Baptist Church

by Michael R. Allen

Here are photographs from December 2005 of beautiful Fourth Baptist Church at the northwest corner of 13th and Sullivan in Old North St. Louis. The church’s presence truly anchors the immediate area.

The interior was as wonderfully austere as the exterior, with the sanctuary auditorium a voluminous space lit by large southern windows. Here are images from October 2006.

No matter what the fate of the church, all who passed through or by its doors saw in it the incarnation of certain faith and a wonderful sense of architectural economy. The building served well and long, and was awaiting a new call to service when struck by fire on September 20, 2008.

Architecture Central West End

Where is the Pig Weather Vane?

by Michael R. Allen

Where in St. Louis is this quirky pig weather vane located? Perhaps the owner or builder had a “when pigs can fly” thought when building the house.

I know where it is, but do you? Post your answers in the comments section. (No prize.)

UPDATE: An anonymous reader correctly guessed the location — it’s the house at 3915 West Pine in the Central West End, just west of Vandeventer and just east of the building housing the new Cafe Ventana.

Architecture Mid-Century Modern St. Louis County

Albert Aloe Opticians

by Michael R. Allen

En route to another building, I passed the home of Albert Aloe Opticians at 138 West Adams Avenue in Kirkwood. What a stunning mid-century building, replete with its vintage yard sign! The simple geometry of red brick and native limestone provides a backdrop for colorful tile work. I read the colored rectangles like punched out sections of early punched paper data cards. The second floor window ribbon is even shaped like an early computer punch card, with the common tile color suggestive of old paper stock. (Surely some readers will recall the very floppy disks of old.)

It’s as if the architect saw patterns in a punch card and abstracted them into tile work patterns. Either that, or the architect embedded a message in secret geometric code.

Architecture Historic Preservation Housing South St. Louis

Lovely Row on Hickory Street

by Michael R. Allen

The so-called Gate District in south city is bounded roughly by I-44 on the south, Jefferson on the east, Compton on the west and Chouteau on the north. In that area, so much fabric was lost between 1970 and the present that whole blocks are devoid of a single historic building. For a number of years, the city planning agency was preoccupied by a concept called a “Town in Town” that consisted of wholesale clearance of town and construction of a new district with a lake, homes, warehouses and the like placed on new streets. This plan was way too unrealistic to come to fruition — didn’t anyone price the removal of every part of infrastructure in the area? — but it was distilled into the Gate District plan drafted by Duane-Plater Zyberk and implemented piecemeal since 1985.

The piecemeal implementation is the saving grace of the planning for this area. Written off as a wasteland by some urbanists, the Gate District actually retains some pockets of fabulous historic architecture. One of these is the north face of the 2800 block of Hickory Street, between California and Ewing. Although four of the eight houses remaining are vacant, and a ninth house was wrecked over the summer, the block face carries with it a distinct vernacular charm.

The inadvertent symmetry of the block is wonderful. The center group of five brick shaped-parapet shotgun houses is flanked on either side by two-story cousins. One other single-story house is located west of this group. The shotgun homes are a proud showcase of the variety of St. Louis masonry — each parapet has different treatment, and all variety comes through different installation of the same bricks. The homes also make use of the Roman arch, dating their construction to 1890 or later. The bookend two-story homes contrast with the others. Although larger, their masonry is more restrained, and they employ flat arches on their front elevations. Each has a front porch. These houses are probably at least a decade newer than their neighbors.

Altogether, the group is quite distinguished and worthy of preservation. To the east are sections of urban prairie that put St. Louis Place to shame, and to the north is the Chouteau industrial corridor that has been encroaching for over half of a century. Part of the Sixth Ward, this area lacks preservation review for demolition. The open land and shifting land use could portend the erasure of this group, or the creation of a new context that marries old and new architecture in urban harmony.

Architecture Historic Preservation South St. Louis Theaters

New Merry Widow Theater

by Michael R. Allen

Located at 1539 Chouteau Avenue, near the Truman Parkway, stands a somewhat-isolated relic of an urban commercial district that flourished on Chouteau in the LaSalle Park and Lafayette Square neighborhoods. The liveliness is hard to believe now, with the decrepit rear wall of St. Mary’s Infirmary looming behind it, the questionable premises of a grocery store next door, AmerenUE’s hulking campus to the west and the Truman Parkway walling vital Lafayette Square from this stretch. The building has been used for storage for decades, and is now owned by the utility giant across the street. Yet at the dawn of World War II, this neat little moderne building was the brand-new New Merry Widow Theatre, a neighborhood movie house replacing the old Merry Widow Theater one black east.

The theater was not lavish as local theaters were, but that barely mattered at a time when theater chains like Komm Theatres, which built and operated the New Merry Widow, gave even the smallest theater palatial terra cotta, winsome interior decoration and the right atmosphere for a dreamy night out. For a theater named after a motion picture itself (Von Stroheim’s 1925 Merry Widow, which preceded the original theater), style started with the name and worked itself into each detail.

The building permit for the New Merry Widow is dated November 12, 1941, with Stamm Construction Company listed as general contractor and a reported cost of $25,000. Now-obscure architect Jack Shawcross designed the building, making the most of a modest budget. Three portal windows dominate the front elevation like a mutated set of eyes, while four lines of dark brick rise at each side and another line defines the crown. Buff brick is punctuated by carefully-placed slightly-contrasting buff terra cotta. The city issued a second permit on December 23, 1941 for a $500 canopy and marquee; unfortunately, I have not located any photograph showing that feature. Overall, Shawcross manged to make a rather economical building as striking and dashing as anything Cedric Gibbons could concoct — not an uncommon feat in St. Louis.

Inside, a terrazzo-floored lobby led to the 920-seat auditorium, where chandeliers and draped walls added elegance. The theater opened in March 1942, and quickly became one of the mainstays of night life for residents of the city’s first public housing project, the Clinton-Peabody Homes located across Chouteau that also opened in 1942. However, the New Merry Widow’s life span was short. After a name change that dropped the “New” from the name in 1951, the theater was open for only five more years before closing. The new life of the building certainly would have none of the glamour of Hollywood.

Occupancy permits from 1958 show that the Underwriters Salvage Corps used the building for storage of salvaged materials. In 1960, Tom & Sons Truck Repair converted the building into a repair shop. This alteration gave the building the garage door on its western wall and the infill of the original center theater entrance on Chouteau. In 1973, Affton Delivery Service took over the building and by the 1980s the New Merry Widow entered a long stretch of ownership by Hibdon Hardwoods, a wholesale lumber dealer. Although its original use is long gone, and much of the historic appearance eroded, the fine lines of the New Merry Widow are still evident. We’re lucky that the old theater still stands to delight the curious passer-by, and give some sense of the urban culture that once thrived on Chouteau.

Readers might note a formal resemblance between the Merry Widow and the Massac Theater in Metropolis, Illinois. (See “Massac Theater Crumbles in Metropolis, Illinois”, November 13, 2007.)

Abandonment Architecture Forest Park Southeast Industrial Buildings North County St. Louis County

Industrial Inspiration?

by Michael R. Allen

There seems to be more than a passing resemblance between the Forest Park Southeast hotel designs that Drury Inn presented at a recent neighborhood meeting and the abandoned Lever Soap Plant in Pagedale. The three-dimensional renderings of two hotel buildings planned for a site at the southeast corner of the Kingshighway and I-64/40 interchange are in a conceptual phase, but their apparent industrial inspiration is somewhat encouraging.

Here is a close-up of one of the hotels:

Here is the Lever Plant, a lovely composition of industrial economy:
Just sayin’.

Architecture Housing North St. Louis Northside Regeneration St. Louis Place

Quirky Gem on University Street

by Michael R. Allen

The house at 2314 University Street in St. Louis Place is one of the strangest 19th century houses on the near north side. Built in 1878, the house’s central feature is a wide round turret rising the full height from the foundation to the pointed round roof.

The builder could not be trifled with convention on any point of the design — form, style, floor plan and ornamental detail. I love how the windows on the turret are dwarfed by its sheer volume and their exaggerated wide lug-sills, emphasizing the castle-like quality of the turret. The stepped up brick cornice and projecting window surrounds give the building a heavy feeling. However, the heaviness is at odds with the delicate wooden parts — the little trapezoidal bay window over the front door and the ornate side porch.

The later flat-roofed rear addition adds another interesting element with its slate siding, including multi-color lozenge patterns on each side of the lone second story window. All in all, this quirky home is gorgeous and another unique part of the unique St. Louis Place built environment. It is occupied and owned by an individual, so hopefully its future is secure. The house is located on the same block where we just lost a home owned by a McKee-related holding company, and lacks any landmark designation or demolition review protection, so nothing can be certain.

Architecture Churches Granite City, Illinois Illinois Metro East Mid-Century Modern

Exuberant First Assembly of God Church

by Michael R. Allen

Located at 2334 Grand Avenue in Granite City, Illinois, is the former First Assembly of God Church. While the congregation, which has roots dating back to 1909, has moved to a larger building on Madison Avenue, it still maintains the exuberant mid-century church building.

Basically, this church is the average center-aisle front-gabled church form that has persisted in America since the colonial period. Yet it is adapted to the formalism of its era. The gable is not symmetrical. The entrance is not centered on the gable end but placed to one side on a glass addition.

Most prominent, though, is the use of colored glass. This church comes from a period in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s when modernist architects were abuzz with large, loud color experiments. In 1961, Plaza Square Apartments opened in downtown St. Louis; architects Hellmuth Obata Kassebaum and Harris Armstrong gave each of the six multi-story apartment buildings vertical metal stripes in different vivid, bright colors. Googie designs in restaurants and bus depots abounded. Homes has bright garage doors in green, red, blue and yellow. Young John F. Kennedy was president, the Russian threat seemed diminished and all was well. Why not play with churches, homes, schools and office buildings?

The architect of this church sure did play. We have a beautiful asymmetrical tapestry of aluminum-framed colored panes on the front elevation and striped of color on the sides. Obviously, the colored panes also provided an economical alternative to stained glass, but in way no less stylish.

The church remains a festive point on a tidy, quiet street of well-kept houses. A steel city, Granite City welcomed modernism with open arms, as evidenced by the iconic Granite City Steel Building downtown. This church is one of the best-kept examples of the mid-century modern period in Granite City.

Architects Architecture Demolition Downtown Forest Park Southeast Historic Preservation LRA Missouri St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Odds and Ends

by Michael R. Allen

MCPHEETERS WAREHOUSES NEARLY GONE: The McPheeters Warehouses on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, subject of a Vital Voice column of mine published in June, are nearly gone. Demolition started two weeks ago, and now the one-story cold storage warehouse and most of the center building are gone.

SHANK SONS HONOR ISADORE: Peter and Stephen Shank have published Firbeams, a lovely website featuring the residential architecture of father Isadore Shank.

KIEL PROGRESS: In the St. Louis Beacon, Charlene Prost reports on progress in the plan by SCP Worldwide and McEagle Properties to re-open the Kiel Opera House.

VACANT BUILDING INITIATIVE: As featured in a story on KSDK TV this week, Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett (D-6th) has introduced Board Bill 174, which would require owners of vacant buildings to pay an annual registration fee, carry liability insurance and secure all openings, among other requirements. Church and nonprofit property is exempt, but Land Reutilization Authority property is not. More later.

STATEWIDE PRESERVATION CONFERENCE SEPTEMBER 10-13 IN ST. CHARLES: The 2008 Annual Statewide Preservation Conference begins on Wednesday, September 10 in St. Charles. I am co-presenting a workshop with Jan Cameron of the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office entitled “Vernacular Architecture from the Stone Age to the Space Age.” Details here.

DRURY WANTS TO DO WHAT?: At Vanishing STL, Paul Hohmann reports on a bizarre plan by Drury Hotels to demolish the northwest corner of the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood for a new hotel. The plan threatens the Lambskin Temple and many historic homes. Drury will present the plans tonight at the Gibson Heights Neighborhood Association meeting, 7:00 p.m. at 1034 S. Kingshighway.

Architecture Housing JeffVanderLou North St. Louis

Eclectic Italianate House in JeffVanderLou

by Michael R. Allen

Sometimes there is a house so exuberant and eccentric that even the most seasoned architectural historian can’t help but smile. This house at 3049 Sheridan Avenue in JeffVanderLou is one of those houses. The composition is strange in the best possible way. Here we could have a basic brick two-story Italianate town house with stone front. Yet we don’t have that, because the true mansard roof is somewhat low-pitched with a deep overhang. The trapezoidal front dormer with rounded roof belongs on another house. That dormer doesn’t quite match the dormers on the east side, which have roofs that mimic the roof form of the house itself.

The east side’s trapezoidal bow adds character, and the ornate wooden cornice is continuous on this side. On the west side, where the wall is blind, the wooden cornice makes a transition to some of the most unique brick corbels I’ve seen in St. Louis. This detail is remarkable considering that historically this side was obscured by another house and these details would scarcely have been seen.

The house is occupied and in fair condition. The bright blue paint of the front elevation seems appropriate to the eclectic Gilded Age style of the house. Make no mistake about it — architectural historians love to find such houses.