Architecture Historic Preservation Illinois Monroe County Southern Illinois

The Metal Roofs of Waterloo

by Michael R. Allen

I spent twelve pivotal years of my childhood living in Monroe, County Illinois, just southeast of the city of St. Louis. There I spent time taking in the historic architecture. Due to a mix of circumstances ranging from Germanic thrift to rural poverty, much of the remaining historic stock of the county retains a high level of integrity. Wooden window sashes, doors and porches remain. Barns have original siding. Walkways are often paved in brick. The county seat, Waterloo, offers a spectacular array of well-preserved brick and frame vernacular buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of the most noticeable aspects of Waterloo’s architecture is that many of the gabled and hipped roofs retain historic standing-seam metal roofs, maintained with silver paint. Some people even opt for new metal roofing when they replace a roof. There is no reason these roofs can’t last forever as long as the diligent owners keep them maintained.

Here is a sampling of metal roofs, all from just one side of one street: the north street face of Mill Street.

Architecture Collinsville, Illinois Metro East Mid-Century Modern

Mid-Century Modernism in Collinsville

by Michael R. Allen

Across the street from each other on Main Street in Collinsville, Illinois are two delightful one-story mid-century modern office buildings dating to the 1950s. These buildings aren’t exceptional modern masterpieces, but simply nice examples of vernacular modernism: derived from the International Style and other sources by local architects or builders, highly functional and strongly stylized. These buildings are the modern equivalents of the nineteenth and early twentieth century vernacular storefronts lining other blocks on Main Street.

To the east is a later modernist pharmacy and medical office building — there was a clear and exciting architectural conflation between the clean lines of modernism and the promise of postwar medicine. However, the modern purity erodes here through stylized cursive lettering that softens the severity of the purpose houses inside.

In Collinsville as elsewhere, attemprts to make downtown more modern weren’t satisfactory enough for some businesses. One of those was the Collinsville Building and Loan Association, which in 1969 moved from Main Street to the sprawl of Belt Line Road. The Association still occupies that building, and its New Brutalist body hasn’t changed much.

Architecture Historic Preservation South St. Louis Storefront Addition Urbanism

A Side-Style Storefront Addition

by Michael R. Allen

As I navigate the city, I am always on the lookout for storefront additions to historic homes. Regular readers will recall some recent posts of mine celebrating the sometimes-ungainly but always-intriguing vestiges of a city teeming with commercial life. The example above is located on the 2800 block of Lafayette Avenue just east of one that I chronicled seven months ago (Just Another Vacant Building?, December 21, 2007). That example was one of the prevalent types that stand in front of the parent house.

This one here, located at 2819 Lafayette Avenue, is of the gentler type. Built on the side lot of a stately single-family residence, the one-story flat-roofed addition creates more square feet of space on one level than the sort placed directly in front. I’m sure the builder’s concern was with the economy of the structure, but the end result led to an addition that left alone the lovely front elevation of the Romanesque Revival house next door, built in 1893. That move proved fortuitous, as the front elevation retains original its limestone porch, granite details and wooden windows. The addition itself, probably built in the 1930s, is complementary without being dull. Spaced courses of pale brick, a continuous soldier course over the storefront opening and a framed frieze of angled brick offer simple but forceful masonry expression. We still have dozens of these additions left, and each one is a unique compromise between cost and ambition, change and history, old and new. These additions remind us that cities are creatures built for growth, and “historic” architecture is a tangle of buildings — including historic buildings that block other, prettier historic buildings buildings.

Architecture Demolition Downtown

Your Building Here?

by Michael R. Allen

When the two old stucco-covered buildings at the southwest corner of Washington Avenue and 14th Street fell late last fall, few would have guessed that the site created would be an empty, open pit this summer. The buildings fell for the proposed SkyHouse project (see “SkyHouse Raising Issues,” April 29, 2007). That project seemed like a sure thing. Now, the project is dead in the water, and the site is the subject of rumors of foreclosure. We may not see a new proposal for a 22-story building on the site, but hopefully this site doesn’t become the Bottle District of Washington Avenue — just the Ballpark Village.

Architecture St. Louis Place Urbanism

God and Man in St. Louis Place

by Michael R. Allen

This striking urban view in St. Louis Place includes four one-story, shaped-parapet houses on Sullivan Avenue and the imposing Gothic roof line of St. Augustine’s Church. This is the sort of view that doesn’t happen overnight, and benefits from inherent architectural differences between forms, styles, heights and uses. The church, designed by noted ecclesiastical architect Louis Wessbecher, came first in 1896. Wessbecher also designed the majestic Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Salisbury Avenue in Hyde Park. The church served a largely working-class German parish, and its style is very influenced by North German Gothic architecture. Clearly, the church expresses the highest aspirations of the neighborhood at the turn of the last century. That aspiration has been recognized through both City Landmark and National Register of Historic Places designations.

The houses — part of a longer row between Parnell and Lismore — arrived in the first decade of the twentieth century. In contrast to the church, the houses were designed with great modesty by local builders. The one-story homes are mainly decorated with the shapes of the front parapets and simple tin cornices (some removed). Yet the buildings were sturdy and practical for their residents, offering a single-family home rather than a space in a tenement. The houses are not part of any historic district, locally or nationally. In this view, three of the four houses shown are owned by holding companies controlled by Paul J. McKee, Jr.

Here we have high style and vernacular, a spire reaching upward to the maker and the houses laid out low to the earth of the workaday world. While the contrast is strong, the image tells a very coherent story about the origin of this part of the neighborhood. The tale told about the future is less clear. The long-suppressed parish church has found new use as the home of a mission, but its repair needs seem extensive. The houses sit largely empty and in limbo as part of a development project with no clear parameters or timeline.

The narrative of our past that is embodied in these buildings built itself over time. All it takes is a moment for us to decide that their preservation is a worthy goal.

Architecture Historic Preservation Housing Old North

A Dying House on Clinton Street

The poor old house at 1219 Clinton Street in Old North St. Louis may be headed toward the end of a long death cycle. The beautiful side-gabled brick house is one of those Federal or Greek Revival-inspired row houses that lines streets in Old North in the middle 19th century. Prior to the popularity of the Italianate and Second Empire styles in the 1870s, and with materials like tin not widely available for ornamental cornices, builders tended toward a restrained, elegant form. These houses had segmental arches or flat (sometimes arched) stone lintels over doors and windows. They were two stories with an attic in the roof. Cornices were usually simple dentillated rows or wooden boards with beading or other patterns. Mostly tenements, these houses had gallery porches in back with staircases leading to second floor flats. Amid dense blocks, with buildings attached, mouse holes opening to gangways were necessary to allow for the passage of residents to and from the streets.

Later, as the Italianate style hit the neighborhood, some builders built transitional buildings like this one. Here we have the restraint of the mid-19th century with Italianate touches like the rusticated limestone foundation and the Roman arches over the mouse hole and front door entrances. This house may date to the late 1870s or early 1880s, but it shares tendencies with homes built in the 1850s and 1890s. Furtermore, Old North has few buildings with intact mouse holes; the number may be around ten. This orphaned house tells us a lot about the stylistic evolution of vernacular architecture in Old North. Yet as the last surviving house on its block, its existence has been precious in recent years.

Battered by a major freak storm in July 2006, the house nonetheless improbably survived the next two years without further loss of walls. Sure, the house roof structure was essentially unsupported, and shifting gradually every month, but there was enough building material left to envision rebuilding. Definitely became maybe this June, when two storms led to devastating wall collapses, including all of the remaining east wall. Settling is fairly advanced with as much rain weight as has passed through the neighborhood this year.

Yet this advancd state of decay is a long time coming. The city Building Division listed the house as “vacant” since 1991. Sheila Bass, currently listed as owner of a house in the Academy neighborhood, owned the house for years before defaulting on real estate taxes; in 2005, the Land Reutilization Authority took title after there were no bids at a sheriff’s sale. (Oddly, none of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s agents bid on the house.) At that point, much damage had already been done. For many years, the house was accessible through the first floor windows, left unboarded and without both sashes. A peek inside in 2004 revealed partial joist failure in the front parlor.

Many factors take a proud old house to death, but none are as powerful as water and negligence. Any one of these factors over a long enough period of time is a death sentence for an old building.

Architecture Downtown Historic Preservation

Gill Building Gets Its Due

The fate of the diminutive Gill Building at the southeast corner of Seventh and Olive streets downtown has been in question in the past few years. Originally built in 1910 and designed by St. Louis architect and builder Moritz Eyssell (but previously attributed to Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss, whose Boley Block is almost certainly the inspiration for this design), the building was part of a grouping of white Winkle terra cotta-faced building on the 600 block of Olive Street. Across the street remains the massive Railway Exchange Building, but gone are the Tower Building, the Erker’s Building and one other commercial building that comprised the district. In 1978, these buildings were included in the National register of Historic Places as the Olive Street Terra Cotta Historic District. At that point, the massive Famous-Barr parking garage already dwarfed the Gill Building.

Jack Randall owned the Gill Building for years, maintaining an apartment on the upper floors. In 2002, May Department Stores abruptly closed Randall’s access to the fire escape in the parking garage (the only fire escape for the building, since the footprint doesn’t allow for an internal one) and started a protracted legal battle. Randall abandoned the building and put it up for sale. When May sold its assets to Federated Department Stores, I expected a new deal for the building — and that’s what came.

Mark Pitliangas, who has developed a specialty in rehabbing the narrow buildings of Olive Street (including the Eastman-Kodak Building), purchased the Gill Building earlier this year and has just completed a full exterior renovation. The white terra cotta glistens, the window sash and casements are painted and the first two floors (long since altered) are attractive. Interior work continues, with the lower floors slated for retail and the upper floors for offices. (Office and retail projects seem stable downtown amid fluctuating financing.)

The end result will be a consolation to those who have admired the graceful building. Delicate modernism — the curtain wall, the abstract ornament that avoids classicism — and the striking color create a building whose architectural power is greatly out of proportion with its small size. The Railway Exchange Building holds the eye, surely, but when you some upon this block the Gill Building gets the first glance.

Architecture Events Green Media

Greening the Heartland Documented

The 2008 Greening the Heartland conference is over. Yesterday marked the end of the three-day conference on sustainable practices in Midwestern architecture and urban design, held at America’s Center in St. Louis.

Yet the conference still exists, at least online. A crack team of local bloggers documented the conference experience through videos, interviews with conference organizers, photographs of events, posts about green success stories and so forth. Thanks to their efforts, those who couldn’t fly across the country or pay the registration fee can immerse themselves in the conference online. (No gasoline for travel or paper for printing required!)

Read the blog here.

Architecture Housing North St. Louis Old North

Strange and Cool in Old North

by Michael R. Allen

One of the most unique buildings in Old North St. Louis is the house at the northeast corner of Florissant Avenue and Dodier Street (numbered 1917 Dodier). Florissant runs diagonally across Dodier, which conforms to the street grid laid out in the 1850 East Union Addition. Of course, the house shows us that Florissant is diagonal with its chamfered corner parallel to that street.

So many details make this house unlike any other. Obviously, the corner and its treatment — a stepped parapet against a side-gabled roof — is singular. There is the concealed side entrance. Then there is the pleasant fact that the dentillated cornice continues across the chamfered corner, a move that provides wide, commercial Florissant with the same decorum as quite, residential Dodier. The formal elevations of the house are faced with a firm pressed brick that was not available until the 1880s, but the windows are topped with flat limestone lintels in a much earlier fashion. This house is strange in the coolest way!

Architecture Historic Preservation Illinois Southern Illinois

A Mesker Storefront in Crossville

by Michael R. Allen

En route to the Storefronts of America: The Mesker Story exhibit at the Evansville Museum in Indiana, I happened upon a fine example of a Mesker front in Crossville, Illinois. Actually, this was no real happenstance. I pretty much figure I’ll see at least one Mesker in any small town I encounter in southern or central Illinois.

Now famous due to the efforts of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Got Mesker? project, the Mesker storefronts are the work of two foundries within one family. George L. Mesker & Company operated in Evansville, Indiana while Mesker Brothers Iron Works operated in St. Louis. Both companies produced mass-manufactured iron building parts ranging from cast iron columns to sheet metal facades from the 1870s through the 1920s. Builders ordered parts or whole facades (easiest to identify) from catalogs to economically beautify commercial fronts in small towns and big cities alike.

This particular storefront is the work of George L. Mesker & Company. Acanthus-topped solid cast iron columns support a brick front wall hidden under sheet metal. The sheet metal is cored to resemble concrete blocks, and is adorned with continuous foliage-inspired elements at the window surrounds, above the storefront, above the second floor windows and at the cornice line.

Akin to the ornament of Louis Sullivan, the Mesker work references prairie nature. Classical details are minimal, while abstract and direct natural patterns dominate the composition. The belts of vines emphasize the horizontal nature of the wide front, echoing the rugged flat land of southeastern Illinois. Yet the metal front is obviously a modern thing — at least, it was distinctly modern for its time. The design draws together the eager commercial of spirit mass manufacturing (sheet metal ordered by mail, near-uniform concrete blocks) with romantic tinges of natural beauty (conjuring infinite variety and difference).

These fine lines remain a testament to the once-promising outlook of the small towns of the Midwest. The Mesker front in Crossville isn’t a Waiwright Building or a Rookery, but it somehow seems as much a true expression of time, place and modernity as those progressive urban buildings. The storefront building seemed vacant, and the sheet metal was peeling back on one end to reveal backing lath over the plain brick body of the building.

Yet the front is essentially good repair, retaining almost every original piece — the end columns on the storefront probably weren’t originally bare brick — and even its original window sash. There’s only a bit of rust. The building offers itself as a worthy part of the future of Crossville, whatever that may be.